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.


Mar 22nd, 2010 12:17 pm | By

You have to wonder sometimes, you know?

95,000 descendants of the prophet Muhammad are planning to bring a libel action in Britain over “blasphemous” cartoons of the founder of Islam, even though they were published in the Danish press. The defamation case is being prepared by Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer acting for the descendants, who live in the Middle East, north Africa and as far afield as Australia.

They’re teasing us, right? They’re not serious. I mean, they’re serious about doing it, sure, but they’re not serious about the ‘descendants of the prophet Muhammad’ bit. They’re being ‘ironic,’ they’re playing to our expectations, they’re parodying their own reputation for believing silly things. Right? They don’t really think it means anything to talk about ‘descendants’ of someone who lived 14 centuries ago, right? Because they realize that over that many generations, any one ‘ancestor’ is lost in the crowd. Any 1400 years ago ‘ancestor’ is just some tiny tiny fraction of your total ancestry, so it’s just stupid to talk about being a ‘descendant.’ They know that – they’re just playing ‘dumb believer’ for the benefit of the audience, or something. They don’t really expect anybody to be impressed that they’re ‘descendants’ of Mo…

[A British lawyer] said the descendants could argue that the cartoons — which first appeared in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005, sparking violent protests around the world — were a direct slur on them. “Direct descendants of the prophet have a particular place within Muslim society…By effectively criticising and making fun of the prophet you are, by implication, holding them up to scandal, contempt and public ridicule,” he said. “So it may be that they will suffer some kind of damage among their own community.”

Well then why don’t we all get together and sue Hanna-Barbera for doing ‘The Flintstones’? That’s got to be a nice little earner.

Particular attention should be given to Eucharistic adoration

Mar 20th, 2010 1:41 pm | By

The pope’s letter has been delivered.

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ…In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.

Oh. It was secularism what did it. Who knew?

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country…Particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration, and in every diocese there should be churches or chapels specifically devoted to this purpose. I ask parishes, seminaries, religious houses and monasteries to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration, so that all have an opportunity to take part. Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm…

No you can’t. No you can’t. ‘Intense prayer’ is beside the point. ‘The Lord’ is not there. The presence is not real. Magic, and ceremonies, and fiddling about with people who aren’t there, are not any kind of way to make reparations to real people who have suffered real harm. Forget the sodding Eucharistic adoration, and pay attention to this here, the real world, where you and your colleagues fucked up thousands of children. Skip the cant.

Oh noes, it’s the new atheists

Mar 19th, 2010 5:35 pm | By

Oh look, a new Chris Mooney, just what the world needs. He’s here to tell us the ‘problems’ he has with ‘the radical atheists.’ You’re excited already, aren’t you! And rightly so. He tells a thrilling tale.

Starting in 2005, American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought openly criticizing organized religion and religious faith…Many have called these authors and their followers the “New Atheists” – practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong (though it should be added it is not like these men broke into homes; they sold books and wrote blog posts). But this new, bold assault on religion did bring many secularists out of the woodwork – and what made wave perhaps unique was a call by men such as Dawkins and Myers to organize around atheism and sharp rhetoric.

That’s not the most elegant writing we’ve ever seen, but never mind, it’s easy to spot the Mooneyisms – the accusation of ‘openly criticizing religious faith’; the sneer behind ‘brash’ and ‘assault,’ the bizarre notion of organizing around sharp rhetoric. We have been here before.

[I]t is generally agreed that some good did come from these books in that they pushed important issues to the public. However, an issue that received less focus was a more strategic one: the fact that many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism.

No they don’t. And what makes Michael De Dora think he knows they do? He doesn’t say. He perhaps means that many atheists give a lot of time and attention to critique of theism – but he said more than that.

Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.

That’s an argument? For what? That doesn’t look like an argument to me; it looks like a free-standing assertion which doesn’t say much of anything.

This brings us to the second argument: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.

Oy. Who thinks anything else? No one, that I know of. That is some heavy-duty strawman.

The third argument against the march of organized atheism is it’s tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief…However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief…Yet the problem isn’t necessarily the arguments, but the tone. There is not enough room or time here for an exhaustive sampling, and a quick visit to Myers’ blog, or YouTube to watch some clips from Hitchens or Dawkins would give you a better insight…

And we’re off, into a long and screamingly familiar laundry list of things Michael De Dora doesn’t like about MyersDawkinsHitchens…including, of course, ‘Myers has publicly desecrated a communion wafer and called the WWII Pope Pius XII a “sniveling rat bastard”’ – which, also of course, does not bother to say why Myers did that.

This brings us to the fourth argument: this view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together.

As does all disagreement, which is why in the New Dispensation disagreement will be forbidden and we will all be Brought Together. Disagreement shall die and from the ashes shall arise a brand-new Buick furnished with a beaming nuclear family and their dog Spot, driving off into the sunset of togetherness.

Anyway. There’s a fair bit more, but you get the idea. I dislike it. I dislike the rhetoric, I dislike the sly tattle-tale manner, I dislike the coercive conformism, I dislike the anti-intellectualism. It gives me the creeps. And this is the Center for Inquiry.

The buck stops where?

Mar 19th, 2010 12:53 pm | By

Damian Thompson is again upset that people think Ratzinger is implicated in the church’s cover-up of generations of child-rape and other abuse. He ought to read what Hans Kung has to say.

Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility, instead of whining about a campaign against his person? No other person in the Church has had to deal with so many cases of abuse crossing his desk…

In his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from around the world, all cases of grave sexual offences by clerics had to be reported, under strictest secrecy (“secretum pontificum”), to his curial office, which was exclusively responsible for dealing with them. Ratzinger himself, in a letter on “grave sexual crimes” addressed to all the bishops under the date of 18 May, 2001, warned the bishops, under threat of ecclesiastical punishment, to observe “papal secrecy” in such cases.

In his five years as Pope, Benedict XVI has done nothing to change this practice with all its fateful consequences.

I have nothing to add.

I knew I was not a cow, a chattel

Mar 18th, 2010 6:08 pm | By

In Ethiopia, men grab little girls, rape them and then marry them. The little girls don’t like it.

even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life. “That was the culture,” she says. But it wasn’t her culture: like all the other little girls, she didn’t want it. “I started screaming and tried to run out of the hut,” she says…She was taken back to his home, held down in front of his family, raped, and taken to be married the next morning. Dazed, she signed the papers, and waited for a moment when she could flee.

After three days she had a chance to escape, and she ran miles back home; she was crying with joy when she got there – but her parents told her she had to ‘go back to him and be a good wife.’ So she did.

Nurame has a distant sense of another life, one she will never lead now. “If it hadn’t happened to me … I would have been educated and got my own work and lived my own life. I wish to God that had happened.”

There’s a rebellion now, started by Boge Gebre.

When Boge was 12, she was pinned down and had her genitals cut out with a knife…This happened to all Boge’s sisters too – and it killed one of them…Men came to abduct Boge twice – but both times she ran away before they could rape her. “So – here I am!” she says.

When she was told this was her culture and she had to accept it, she found the argument ridiculous. “I thought – how can this be my culture, if it kills me?” she says, leaning forward. “What is culture? It is something that is constantly changing. In Europe, you burned witches. That culture changed. Every woman has a sense of her own dignity. I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture. Culture is not stagnant – it is transient.”

That is what ‘culture’ is. That. culture. changed. The victim’s culture is not the same as the perp’s. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. Amen.

That was then, this is now

Mar 18th, 2010 12:20 pm | By

The pope is not a modernist, nor is he any kind of pluralist. He is not one to think that morality improves over time.

When he was crowned Pope nearly five years ago, Benedict promised to clean up the Church. He would not be a showman Pope like John Paul II, he would not flog himself around the world addressing huge stadiums. The Church under his guidance would not have expansiveness as its goal, but purification.

He had a reformist phase in his youth, but he got over it.

…around 1968, he rejected all that and became a counter-revolutionary warrior, dedicated to liberating the Church from trendy nonsense and restoring the purity which he saw the reform movement as having polluted. As such, his ardour has never flagged.

But then…What is Sean Brady’s explanation for the actions he is now apologizing for?

Delivering his St Patrick’s Day mass on Wednesday, Cardinal Brady said: “This week a painful episode from my own past has come before me. I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago. I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. I also apologise to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”

He’s cagy, he does a classic guy apology (I’m sorry you were offended), but he does in the end admit that he did bad things. Well why did he do them? Because he wanted to? Or because at the time he didn’t get how bad they were?

The latter seems to be the view of the people who still turn up at Armagh cathedral.

The applause that rippled through Armagh’s vast St Patrick’s Cathedral as Dr Séan Brady entered this morning stated in the clearest terms exactly what his parishioners think of their cardinal…Marie Ryan said to condemn him for failing to alert the authorities about notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth 35 years ago was to judge him using today’s standards. “It was a different era back then and a lot of things happened that shouldn’t,” she said.

Ah. It was a different era back then. Times change, people change, views on morality change.

But then – if times change, and views on morality change, and people can look back on their pasts and feel ashamed of things they did many years ago, then -

Then why is the Catholic church so god damn confident that it is right to go on discriminating against gays?

Why does it not occur to the Catholic church that views on the morality of discriminating against people for bad stupid empty reasons have changed, and that it is entirely possible that they have changed for the better, and that the Catholic church ought not to preen itself on insisting on ‘church teachings’ when to other people those teachings are not just wrong but evil?

The church needs to get it. The church needs to realize that it has no moral high ground and no monopoly on moral wisdom; that it is in fact worse than many secular institutions, not better; that it has every reason to be very very humble, and to err on the side of generosity rather than purity. It’s not going to, of course, but it needs to.

Polluting Australia

Mar 17th, 2010 5:49 pm | By

The usual – the Australian media are united in their scorn and loathing for atheists – at least for atheists who actually collect in one spot to talk about atheism. I don’t suppose the united Australian media pour scorn on people who collect in one spot to talk about theism – in, you know, churches and mosques and similar – but atheists doing that are an affront to all decent people.

Honestly, I must be clueless; I keep being surprised by the level of unreasonable hostility, distortion and plain rage people allow themselves to express about something that ought to be as ordinary as milk. Clearly it really isn’t permissible, except purely formally, to be overtly and explicitly atheist even in what look like liberal and largely secular countries. Yes it’s legal, no they won’t come and haul you off to prison, but by golly they will throw everything else in the arsenal at you, they will buckle down and do their level best to make everyone think you’re stupid, conceited, aggressive, wrong, evil, and ugly. No, since you ask, they don’t believe in lively public debate; no, as a matter of fact, they don’t believe that the majority should let the minority have room to breathe; yes, actually, they do believe that the majority opinion should be the only opinion. At least when it comes to important stuff like belief in the mysterious God who loves us all to bits but never drops by to say hello.

Oh and by the way new atheists are evil yeah?

Mar 16th, 2010 4:17 pm | By

Michael Ruse did a piece on God and morality for Comment is Free Belief and talked sense for nine paragraphs, then in the tenth and last went completely random and gratuitous and childish.

God is dead. The new atheists think that that is a significant finding. In this, as in just about everything else, they are completely mistaken. God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality. Thank goodness!

Stupid, isn’t it. Frightful man – always spoiling for a fight. Everyone says he’s like that in real life, too.

Robes and furr’d gowns hide all

Mar 16th, 2010 3:46 pm | By

Hitchens doesn’t altogether see things the way Damian Thompson does.

On March 10, the chief exorcist of the Vatican, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth (who has held this demanding post for 25 years), was quoted as saying that “the Devil is at work inside the Vatican,” and that “when one speaks of ‘the smoke of Satan’ in the holy rooms, it is all true—including these latest stories of violence and pedophilia.” This can perhaps be taken as confirmation that something horrible has indeed been going on in the holy precincts, though most inquiries show it to have a perfectly good material explanation.

I had the same thought when I saw the exorcist piece. The Devil is at work inside the Vatican; yes isn’t he just.

Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture.

Yet now that the Murphy Report has been published that same Ratzinger has told us that he ‘shares the outrage, betrayal and shame felt by the Irish people.’ He never shared it before; he didn’t share it when he issued that confidential letter to all the bishops; he shares it only now, when he and the Vatican can no longer hide the truth. There’s devilish for you – the flaming gall to pretend to share feelings that you ignored for year after year.

Go on, kick us again

Mar 16th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Damian Thompson, a Catholic, is in a frothing rage – not at the pope or the all-male hierarchy of his authoritarian church, but at the Times for reporting on it.

There is international outrage in Catholic circles over a headline in The Times this morning that many people regard as utterly misleading and part of the newspaper’s reliably biased coverage (reinforced by vicious cartoons) of anything to do with Pope Benedict XVI…A universally admired Catholic journalist contacted me this morning and accused The Times of (and I am toning this down for legal reasons) an extremely serious error of judgment.

A universally admired Catholic journalist? There is no such thing. There’s no universally admired anything, and certainly not a Catholic journalist. Thompson is clearly very keen to give the impression that the outrage he is describing and attributing is widespread. It may be, but his heated rhetoric doesn’t convince me of that.

Another respected commentator, the American journalist Phil Lawler, takes the headline to pieces on

There it is again. He’s citing Catholics as authorities for the unfairness of coverage of a Catholic issue, without so much as acknowledging the potential for bias, but instead simply announcing that his chosen Catholics are admired and respected. Admired and respected by whom? Other Catholics? Other loyalist Catholics? Other Catholics so loyal that for them the church can do no wrong? Other Catholics so loyal that they are more worried about the coverage than they are about the reality of what the church has been doing all this time? That’s the appearance he gives, at least.

Thompson quotes the ‘respected’ Lawler (ironically named, he turns out to be):

Here’s what we know: While the Pope was Archbishop of Munich, a priest there was accused of sexual abuse. He was pulled out of ministry and sent off for counseling. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in the decision to remove the priest from his parish assignment – got that? remove him.

Yes, got that. But what he wasn’t, was ‘pulled out of ministry and sent off’ to the police. Got that? The police. What he was accused of was a crime, and not no victimless crime, neither, but a peculiarly nasty crime against people. Ratzinger was involved in this failure to report a crime to the police. Got that? To report a crime.

Several years later, long after Cardinal Ratzinger had moved to a new assignment at the Vatican, the priest was again accused of sexual abuse. A grievous mistake was made in this case; that much is clear now, and the vicar general has sorrowfully taken responsibility for the error. Could you say that the future Pontiff should have been more vigilant? Perhaps. But to suggest that he made the decision to put a pedophile back in circulation is an outrageous distortion of the facts.

Is it? Really? In particular, is it really an outrageous distortion? In a sense it’s more of a distortion not to put it that way. Lawler is an American, so he should be aware of the crime of reckless endangerment. He’s right that we don’t know, and it’s not likely, that Ratzinger said ‘let’s not report this priest to the cops so that he can go back into circulation as a pedophile later on.’ But the fact is that that’s what happened, and the not reporting the priest to the cops wasn’t the best way to prevent its happening.

Thompson finishes up by shouting at Ruth Gledhill for saying, ‘The Pope is pretty unassailable. He is not elected…’ Thompson points out, acidly, that there is such a thing as a conclave. Well yes, but ‘elected’ is commonly used to mean ‘democratically elected’ – elected by the people as a whole, not elected by a tiny powerful exclusive secretive body of celibate men. The pope is not ‘elected’ by Catholics, he is ‘elected’ by some cardinals. That makes a difference.

Thompson continues the theme later.

Fr Tim Finigan, one of the most respected traditionalist priests in England and certainly its most influential priest-blogger, described it as a “Disgraceful attack on the Holy Father in The Times”…There is a wider perception that The Times’s entire coverage of the scandals in the Catholic Church, including Peter Brookes’s revolting cartoons, has the flavour of an anti-Catholic crusade…Let me quote my colleague Cristina Odone, former editor of The Catholic Herald: “I have been shocked by the Times’s anti-Catholic coverage.”

Same stuff, see? Loose references to respected and influential and wider perception, and citation of Catholics without mention of the possibility of pro-church bias.

What I’d like to do is put The Times’s elder statesman, Lord Rees-Mogg, on the spot. How can he, as a former editor of the paper and a devout and distinguished Catholic, stand by as the paper he loves traduces the Holy Father?

And there you have theist slavishness at its most revolting.

Who cares

Mar 16th, 2010 11:11 am | By

Too bad for you if you’re Irish and you want to leave the Catholic church – the church is so dominant in public life that you can’t leave without making life difficult for yourself. Sor-reeeeee.

[T]he church is so deeply woven into the fabric of Irish life, it is difficult for many ordinary Irish people to distance themselves from it. The church is involved in education and health care, and its imprint on the Irish national identity is deep…Ninety-two percent of primary schools are still run by the Catholic Church and most of the best schools are Catholic.

So parents who want to leave are screwed. But hey, the remaining fans of the church are having a hard time too.

“It’s a very difficult time to be a committed Roman Catholic in Ireland,” says Breda O’Brien, who teaches religious education at a Roman Catholic school in central Dublin, and also writes a column for The Irish Times on religion. “There has been scandal after scandal, compounded by mismanagement within the church,” O’Brien says. “The church has not covered itself in glory…No one can deny the problems the church has had, but that does not make everything the church does wrong,” she says.

No, it doesn’t (though that certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that everything the church does is wrong), but what it does do is drive a hole the size of a tank through the church’s claim to moral superiority and insight and scrupulosity. What it does do is make a laughing stock of the idea that Catholic clergy have some sort of extra-highly-developed moral awareness. What it does do is make a mockery of the church’s ostentatious concern for foetuses and for suffering people who want to escape their suffering in the only way left to them, given that the church has made it so blindingly obvious that it does not care in the slightest about the minimal well-being and safety of actual living conscious feeling children in their care who have been raped or enslaved or savagely punished or systematically deprived or all those, for year after year, decade after decade. What it does do is show up the Catholic clergy as a benighted self-protecting insular pack of men with all the moral sensitivity of a rock. Given what the church claims to be, that showing up is fatal to its pretensions. This isn’t Wal-Mart, or a bank, or an accounting firm, or a hamburger chain. This is a different kind of enterprise altogether, and now that it has become abundantly, lavishly clear that its first concern is always for itself and never for helpless victims in its power, how can it possibly continue to pretend to be better than everyone else?

I don’t think there’s a good answer to that, but I also expect that it will nevertheless go on pretending. Fewer people will buy the pretense, but some still will.

Thermal pope

Mar 14th, 2010 4:41 pm | By

Things are getting hot for the Catholic church.

The pope, meanwhile, continues to be under fire for a 2001 Vatican letter he sent to all bishops advising them that all cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were to be subject to pontifical secret…But canon lawyers insisted Friday that there was nothing in the document that would preclude bishops from fulfilling their moral and civic duties of going to police when confronted with a case of child abuse. They stressed that the document merely concerned procedures for handling the church trial of an accused priest, and that the secrecy required by Rome for that hearing by no means extended to a ban on reporting such crimes to civil authorities.

Right…that’s the issue we discussed last month – concluding that it was so damn ambiguous and woolly and evasive we couldn’t be sure what it was saying.

Well guess what.

Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore in Northern Ireland, told a news conference this week that Irish bishops “widely misinterpreted” the directive and couldn’t get a clear reading from Rome on how to proceed. “One of the difficulties that bishops expressed was the fact that at times it wasn’t always possible to get clear guidance from the Holy See and there wasn’t always a consistent approach within the different Vatican departments,” he said. “Obviously, Rome is aware of this misinterpretation and the harm that this has done, or could potentially do, to the trust that the people have in how the church deals with these matters,” he said.

Interesting, isn’t it. They knew perfectly well that the document was hard to interpret, and they gave no help.

An Irish government-authorized investigation into the scandal and cover up harshly criticized the Vatican for its mixed messages and insistence on secrecy in the 2001 directive and previous Vatican documents on the topic. “An obligation to secrecy/confidentialtiy on the part of participants in a canonical process could undoubtedly constitute an inhibition on reporting child sexual abuse to the civil authorities or others,” it concluded.

In the United States, Dan Shea, an attorney for several victims, has introduced the Ratzinger letter in court as evidence that the church was trying to obstruct justice. He has argued that the church impeded civil reporting by keeping the cases secret and “reserving” them for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “This is an international criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice,” Shea told The Associated Press.

Hotter and hotter…but still never hot enough. Yet.

Aquinas, Calvin and Buckminster T Fuller

Mar 13th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Oh, Texas, Texas, Texas.

The Texas school board has been fixing up the standards for the curriculum.

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present…9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.”

That’s wonderful, isn’t it? From a list that makes sense to one that’s just a demented ragbag. But they got that horrid Enlightenment thing out, and that’s the main thing.

You have got to be kidding

Mar 12th, 2010 5:42 pm | By

Oh Jesus – I give up. Taner’s taken leave of his senses. He’s not ambivalent about liberalism, he’s ditched it entirely.

I don’t know if the institutional forms that constrain communities have to have to take the shape of an external arbiter, a Bureau of Individual Rights in Communities or something. Quite possibly, given our governmental habits. Say it’s so. But then, I would also expect such a Bureau to be sensitive to political negotiations between particular communities concerning what kind of exit procedures will be realized. It wouldn’t just be imposition of a liberal individualist superstructure.

Fucking hell. The human rights body has to be ‘sensitive’ about whether or not the communities will let people leave…

It’s crazy. It’s crazy and it’s scary. People like this would let me be locked up for life if they could! They would demand ‘senstivity’ and ‘negotiation’ before I could be allowed to escape – and maybe they would reluctantly say that the community simply wouldn’t have it, and I couldn’t be permitted to leave. This is madness!

And it gets even worse.

Presumably a multicultural regime in modern times would try to negotiate a balance between (partial, permeable) community autonomy, and (nonabsolute, constrained) individual autonomy. That is, short of life and limb, a community would still be able to impose significant costs on members violating internal norms. (Again, the extent of these costs would presumably be up to particular political negotiations.)

I should stop commenting, because I’m really disgusted, and I’ll get myself in trouble.

Taner – here’s a thought. Just read Shirley Jackson’s famous story ‘The Lottery.’ You need it.

The fresh air of the explicit

Mar 12th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

And another thing. I replied to Taner’s “We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…” with “But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time.” Taner replied with “I find it perfectly sensible to talk about the interests of a corporation, the affairs of a university, or the internal rules of a bridge club. And so with communities.”

Ah yes – but there is a difference. It’s not ‘and so with communities,’ because ‘communities’ are different from corporations and universities and even bridge clubs. The difference is part of what makes them so risky, so difficult to deal with, so potentially and sometimes actually oppressive. The difference (the one I’m thinking of anyway) is that corporations and universities are specifiable, and precise, and explicit; they have rules and contracts, in writing; you know where you are with them. ‘Communities’ are not any of those things, they don’t have any of those things, you don’t know where you are with them. Communities are all about the tacit, the implicit, the understood, the unwritten – which means they are opaque to outsiders and unaccountable to insiders. This means that if you decide that ‘communities’ should be free to make and enforce their own rules, you’re left with no real way to call them to account, and you’ve left their members helpless.

And ‘communities’ are different from corporations and universities in having no real borders or definitions, too. ‘Communities’ are notional, and it’s really anybody’s guess who belongs and who doesn’t. Who decides who belongs to what community? Who decides who doesn’t belong? Is everyone allowed to decline to belong to any particular community?

The answer to that last question, at least, seems pretty obviously to be ‘no’ – especially in the case of ‘the Muslim community,’ which does not encourage leaving Islam. Some people are going to be considered to belong to some communities whether they consent or not – and they will be treated accordingly. Corporations and universities don’t operate that way. The ‘communities’ Taner has in mind are non-liberal and non-secular ones, since liberal secularism is exactly what he is departing from in this series of posts. But in that case, he is arguing that non-liberal non-secular ‘communities’ should have power over people who might very well have no desire whatsoever to belong to said ‘communities.’ This isn’t a contrived worry, either, to put it mildly – secular Muslims decidedly are subject to social pressure from ‘the Muslim community.’ If they don’t have the liberal state to turn to – they’re sunk. This ain’t no game of bridge.

Three times more than you-oo

Mar 12th, 2010 11:23 am | By

Good old Beeb – make sure not to be too polite to atheism, won’t you. Yes of course you will.

Headline: ‘Atheists meet in Melbourne to celebrate lack of faith.’ Subhead: ‘More than 2,000 atheists from around the world are gathering in Melbourne, Australia, to celebrate their lack of religious belief.’ They couldn’t be there to talk about it, to explore issues related to it, to meet people who are interested in it; no, they’re there to celebrate it, and the thing they are celebrating is a lack, which makes them doubly stupid and pathetic.

All 2,500 tickets were sold out earlier this year, but a religious gathering at the same venue in December attracted three times as many delegates.

So there! Everybody hates you, you poxy whiny lacking stupid celebrating unpopular faithless losers! Neener neener neener. The Beeb had space to mention that, but not to mention that the ‘religious gathering’ got state funding while the atheist gathering did not.

There is a determination to avoid what one session calls Atheistic Fundamentalism, says our correspondent. Participants will be urged to avoid “missionary zeal” in their determination to promote their non-religious message to the world.

Same old atheism, the Beeb says with a sneer. Only people who don’t ‘lack faith’ are allowed to show missionary zeal, one gathers.

No more than elements of ‘bourgeois’ ideology

Mar 11th, 2010 5:39 pm | By

And also – Danny Postel on the role the Iranian Left played in its own immolation:

An account of this self-defeat can be found in Maziar Behrooz’s book, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, a salutary and, indeed, definitive reconsideration of the history of the pre-revolutionary Iranian Left.

As Maziar explains, the Iranian Left, or at least certain key fractions of it, helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with. According to Behrooz, the Khomeinites were able to do this in large part because the Tudeh party, the Fadaiyan Majority, and many other Iranian Marxist parties, whatever their differences with the Islamists, shared with them a profound hostility toward liberalism. Like [Ruhollah al-Musavi] Khomeini’s followers, dominant trends on the Iranian Left viewed democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights as no more than elements of what they described interchangeably as “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology.

Oh did they – well how familiar, and how reckless, and how insane. Do democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights seem like no more than elements of “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology now? There’s nothing like seeing democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights yanked violently away to make one realize what nice things they are to have. Of course the first two, at least, weren’t abundant under the shah, but that’s a different story.

For the genuinely leftist project of internationalism and human emancipation, the profoundly authoritarian, repressive, reactionary, and proto-fascist regime that emerged out of the Revolution and has ruled Iran ever since is certainly tragic but also, and more accurately, catastrophic

Khomeini’s gang may have disdained professedly secular, rational socialists, but on the Left the argument went that, because they were anti-American and anti-imperialist, the Khomeinites were “objectively progressive.”
We now know that the Left’s was a demented, disfigured, ultimately catastrophic argument, one that had lethal consequences for those who propounded it. There was nothing progressive about Khomeini’s anti-imperialism. It was authoritarian and regressive, as is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s anti-imperialism today. Whether Khomeini’s rhetoric was truly anti-imperialist is open to debate—but to the extent it was, it amounted to no more than an anti-imperialism of fools.

Quite. Let us have no messing around – no anti-imperialism of fools, no anti-secularism of fools, no anti-liberalism of fools, no multiculturalism of fools. There is nothing progressive about authoritarian regressive theocratic communalism. The hell with it.

Via Norm.

Too few questions were asked

Mar 11th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Further to the discussion of multiculturalism and autonomy for ‘communities’ and family law – Martha Nussbaum’s ‘The Feminist Critique of Liberalism’ is relevant throughout, and particularly relevant in this bit (Sex and Social Justice, pp 63-4):

[A]s many feminists have long pointed out, where women and the family are concerned, liberal political thought has not been nearly individualist enough. Liberal thinkers tended to segment the private from the public sphere, considering the public sphere to be the sphere of individual rights and contractual arrangements, the family to be a private sphere of love and comfort into which the state should not meddle. This tendency grew, no doubt, out of a legitimate concern for the protection of choice – but too few questions were asked about whose choices were thereby protected. This means that liberals too often failed to notice the extent to which laws and institutions shape the family and determine the privileges and rights of its members.

Compare that to, again, Taner’s

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because families, especially in ‘communities’ that feel that the ability to communally follow sharia or ‘Catholic teachings’ or other religious ‘law’ is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, can have differences in power and hence in rights, freedom, ability to choose, and all such liberal shibboleths.

Furthermore, family law, which is what Taner specifies, is not a private sphere of love and comfort; it’s what people resort to when there is disagreement. If all is well, family law is not needed, and it’s beside the point. Family law is there to adjudicate who gets what. It’s there for when the members of the family can no longer agree – so it is no longer an area of voluntary agreement or commitment or choice – it’s an area of coercion. People have a cognitive bias to be over-optimistic; people can be blithe about agreements and commitments when starting out to establish a family, but that doesn’t mean they stay blithe forever. A liberal state will attempt to treat all members fairly; religious law is a different kind of thing. That’s ‘why interfere.’

Remember that story on ‘Islamic marriage contracts’?

Why do Pakistani women agree to marriage contracts without scrutinizing them first and making sure they won’t be sorry later?…My soon-to-be husband had been briefed by the religious scholar presiding. He had also read the marriage-contract papers in detail, making the additions and cancellations he wanted. But I hadn’t seen the document. When I had asked to, my mother had rebuffed my request, saying there was no need, since she had already gone through it. When I told my fiance I wanted to discuss the contract with him, he wondered why I didn’t trust him to do what was best for us.

Nussbaum goes on (p 65):

Liberal reluctance to interfere with the family has run very deep; dispiritingly, many liberal thinkers have failed to notice that the family is not always characterized by a harmony of interests. No model of the family can be adequate to reality if it fails to take into account competition for scarce resources, divergent interests, and differences of power…

But notice that, as Mill already argued, what we see here is not a failure intrinsic to liberalism itself. It is, in fact, a failure of liberal thinkers to follow their own thought through to its socially radical conclusion. What is wrong with the views of the family endorsed by [Gary] Becker, Rawls, and others is not that they are too individualistic but that they are not individualistic enough…[T]hey fail to ask rigorously their own question, namely, how is each and every individual doing?

Taner is making the same mistake.

They shape their traditions in turn

Mar 10th, 2010 1:12 pm | By

The latest from Taner Edis on multiculturalism.

Liberal language about “choice” and “force” is very misleading here. No one chooses who they are. Our choices take place in a context of unchosen circumstances, and unchosen but organically acquired loyalties. Particularly conservative religious people (a pretty large chunk of the human species) are very much embedded in unchosen traditions and communities. It’s not so much that they are forced into anything as that belonging to a community is an integral part of who they are.

Yes, but again, they don’t all simply accept everything that results, and they don’t all want simply to accept everything that results. We’re not obliged to just assume that everyone is happy with whatever slot she was born to. On the contrary, it’s better, more humane, more progressive, more just, more reasonable to assume that other people are like me and are capable of wanting more, or less, or better, or different. This applies doubly or triply to people who are ‘embedded in unchosen traditions and communities’ that consider them underlings. That is, obviously, not to say we should kidnap all such people and force them to be more like us, but it is to say that we should be concerned about their ability to choose what to be.

A good number of secularists seem to have a model of religion as an authoritarian, top-down imposition. Devout religious people who perceive themselves as freely living their faith do not see things the same way. Not because they are brainwashed, but because they routinely experience their community as a place full of negotiation and give-and-take. Religious people are agents. They are shaped by their traditions, but they shape their traditions in turn.

Some are; some do; but not all. Some can’t, because they’re not allowed to. Some don’t, because they’ve never had the opportunity even to develop the thought. Not all religious people get the chance to ‘shape their traditions in turn.’

[G]iven the much fuzzier boundaries between communities than persons, I would expect any sane communitarian view should make plenty of allowances for interference. Slavery, for example, may well be a point where enough is enough.

‘May well be’??

Here is some nice community life for you.

A woman Muslim councillor says death threats and sexual harassment calls have made her change the way she dresses and reconsider being in politics…The mother of four said: “It’s really horrible. A male voice said ‘We are going to get your parents out of their grave and put you there’ and ‘We know where you and your kids live and we are going to show you!’…One talked about how he liked my western clothes, my tight jeans, my body parts and sexual acts he would like to do to me.”…Last year Rania Khan, another of Tower Hamlets’ women Muslim councillors, received hate mail after photos were taken of her without headscarf at an Eid party.

Well? So? The councillors and their tormentors are all ‘in a context of unchosen circumstances, and unchosen but organically acquired loyalties’; they ‘routinely experience their community as a place full of negotiation and give-and-take’; they are agents; they are shaped by their traditions, but they shape their traditions in turn; so there is no problem, right? They live in a community, and living in a community is good, so if women who have the gall to be councillors and dress as they see fit are subject to sexist sexual threatening phone calls, that’s just part of community life.

I don’t actually think Taner thinks that – yet it is what he’s saying. What can I tell you?

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood

Mar 9th, 2010 11:20 am | By

No, I don’t agree with Taner Edis, and I agree even less as he clarifies. This is all the odder in that he doesn’t even agree with himself – he prefers secular liberalism himself, but says he can’t defend it. Yes you can, Taner! Try harder! It can be done. It can’t be done absolutely, or permanently, or in such a way that no one anywhere will disagree – but it can still be done.


My political preference is very much the opposite. I would, personally, consider a multicultural regime a dystopia…My reasons for all of this, however, have almost everything to do with my particular interests and aspirations, and next to nothing to do with any claim that these are universal considerations applicable to all reasonable people.

Well you can fix that. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights again. Read Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ Read the first few articles in Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice. Read some Amartya Sen. Re-read Mill.

How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…

But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time. The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn’t safe to assume that ‘communities’ as such treat all their members equally. We know that some ‘communities’ don’t treat all their members equally, and that that’s why it’s dangerous to give communities certain kinds of autonomy.

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because ‘devout Muslims’ aren’t identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative ‘Muslim communities’ contain only ‘devout Muslims,’ and because even devout Muslims don’t necessarily agree about what it means to ‘communally follow sharia law.’ Isn’t this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community’s autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest! Consider a married woman who wants to work or go to school; consider an adult daughter who is seeing a man from some other ‘community,’ against the wishes of her parents; consider any girl or woman who has had or is having non-marital sex; consider any girl or woman who doesn’t want to wear hijab; consider anyone at all who wants to leave Islam. Autonomy for their ‘community’ is slavery or death for them. Sorry but it’s just callous to say ‘why not?’ and ‘why interfere?’.

This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities.

No they can’t. That must mean something much more limited than the actual words say, because the actual words are just wrong. There are a very few religious exceptions in US law, for instance (most of which should be repealed), but there’s certainly no blanket right for people to ‘live according to their own law’ even within their darling communities.

Groups are real, they shape and serve their members’ interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality.

Sure, groups are real in some sense (though not in all senses – they are after all an abstraction in many senses), but they do not necessarily or automatically serve the interests of all their members. This is the thing that is absolutely crucial to remember about groups and communities and even families – they are made up of individuals and it is not safe or fair to assume that all those individuals have the same interests all the time. That is precisely why the state should not treat communities as homogeneous and putative community ‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ as genuinely representing everyone in the notional community.

Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order. Still, especially since massive oppression itself can threaten the peace, we would need institutional arrangements to help ease such problems.

Oh, god, Taner – there you go right off the rails. That’s a horrible thing to say! Shrug? I’ll be god damned if I will! There’s plenty of that as it is, we don’t need more of it. And do you really mean to minimize the inherent badness of oppression itself, even if it doesn’t ‘threaten the peace’? If so, why on earth? Oppression is bad – humans treating other humans like crap is the curse of our species – it’s the nightmare from which we can’t awake, to adopt Joyce’s phrase – it’s our horrible dreadful heritage, from the Armenian genocide to the corpses in Jos to the misery of generations of children in Irish industrial schools to the tens of thousands of girls kept out of school in Afghanistan. It’s not something to shrug at.