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.

Orellana to the infirmary

Jun 15th, 2011 10:20 am | By

Update: I got this partly wrong, because the Guardian article is at least misleading. I didn’t know about this.

Marta Orellana says she was playing with friends at the orphanage when the summons sounded: “Orellana to the infirmary. Orellana to the infirmary.”

Waiting for her were several doctors she had never seen before. Tall men with fair complexions who spoke what she guessed was English, plus a Guatemalan doctor. They had syringes and little bottles.

They ordered her to lie down and open her legs. Embarrassed, she locked her knees together and shook her head. The Guatemalan medic slapped her cheek and she began to cry. “I did what I was told,” she recalls.

And they infected her with syphilis.

It was 1946 and orphans in Guatemala City, along with prisoners, military conscripts and prostitutes, had been selected for a medical experiment which would torment many, and remain secret, for more than six decades.

The US, worried about GIs returning home with sexual diseases, infected an estimated 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to test an early antibiotic, penicillin.


What is there to say?

Well thinking

Jun 14th, 2011 3:51 pm | By

Oh honestly. Not good enough.

Ten years ago, the BBC was always telling us how bloody marvellous the euro was. Now – for reasons I can’t quite fathom – it’s assisted suicide.

Really? Can’t fathom? Well try harder.

It’s really not that difficult. Something is going to kill us – you, me, all of us. We don’t know what it will be. We do know it could be slow and horrible. We’re afraid of that. Some of us would like to know we (and others who want it) have the option of cutting it short; knowing that would relieve one of the fears.

Now can you fathom it? I’ll tell you what I can’t fathom: I can’t fathom why that’s so difficult to fathom. I also can’t fathom being flippant about it. This isn’t some joke or some bit of trivia; it’s something that threatens everyone.

When the Beeb is really keen on something, it enlists the support of a soft-Left celebrity to make its case – the most popular candidates being Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard, neither of whom can resist hauling themselves on to a bien pensant hobby horse.

What is bien pensant about it? What a ridiculous, callous, frivolous thing to say. I don’t see anything remotely bien pensant about it. Assisted suicide, trendy? I don’t think so. That’s about as convincing as Terry Eagleton (of all people!) calling Anthony Grayling “identikit Islington man.”

Damian Thompson ought to try thinking a bit more bien, if you ask me.

The impartial Christian Institute

Jun 14th, 2011 12:02 pm | By

Oh I love it when people with an agenda accuse other people of bias.

A BBC film on assisted suicide was “biased”, critics have said.

Care Not Killing campaigners said Choosing to Die, which shows a British man with motor neurone disease dying, was “pro-assisted suicide propaganda loosely dressed up as a documentary”.

And the ex-Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali, said it “glorified

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said he wanted to see “much more emphasis put on supporting people in living, than assisting them in dying”.

Oh well then – ! If Care Not Killing campaigners and a bishop say it’s propaganda, well, they certainly are unimpeachable authorities on how to be free of bias, right? As of course is the Christian Institute.

The BBC is facing a storm of controversy after it aired Sir Terry Pratchett’s “very unbalanced” documentary on assisted suicide last night.

The Corporation has received hundreds of complaints about the programme, Choosing to Die, which went out on BBC2 at 9pm.

And critics, including the Bishop of Exeter, spoke out against the programme amid an accusation that it was “one-sided”.

Said the multi-sided Christian institute.

Reviewing the programme in The Guardian newspaper, Sam Wollaston described the clinic, which is operated by Dignitas, as: “Not a lovely chalet in the mountains, with meadows and edelweiss and the sound of cowbells, as you might hope for; but a strange blue prefab on a Zurich industrial site.”

Oh good point. Just what ill disabled people need: a long expensive taxi ride up to a mountain chalet as opposed to a comparatively short affordable trip to an urban building. Plus of course that’s so obviously a telling example of bias and propaganda, the fact that the BBC didn’t pretend Dignitas was in a pretty meadow.

Sunshine and oranges

Jun 13th, 2011 5:27 pm | By

Remember: religion makes people nicer.

On treacherous building sites little boys were flogged if they slowed down,  carrying loads of bricks up the scaffolding, lime burns lacerating their legs,  hands blistered and cut. This was not Dickensian England; this was Australia and  it was happening until 1970.

In 1946, at the age of 10, Hennessey was sent from an orphanage in England to  the brutal Bindoon Boys Town in Western Australia….

”The brothers and sisters were all together,” he says. ”And then they  started grabbing the girls away from their brothers. I can still hear the  screams of these kids being separated. Some of them never saw their sisters  again. I still have nightmares.”

Life at Bindoon, run by the Catholic Church’s Christian Brothers, was a  catalogue of cruelty, where beatings and sexual assaults were daily events.

”Bindoon was nothing more than a paedophile ring,” Hennessey says. ”Most  of the brothers were into raping and molesting little boys, sometimes sharing  their favourites with each other.”

The boys were put to work building the series of grand buildings that Bindoon  became. ”It was slave labour,” says Hennessey. Many of them are now deaf or  partially deaf because they were constantly bashed around the head.

He recalls children resorting to stealing food from the pigs they tended -  because the pigs were better fed.  Brother Francis Keaney, the head of Bindoon,  would eat bacon and eggs in front of boys who were fed porridge mixed with bran  from the chicken feed. The boys would raid the  bins for his scraps.

And so on.

Define “mainstream”

Jun 13th, 2011 12:19 pm | By

They’re still doing it…

The Independent’s first paragraph:

Britain’s largest mainstream Muslim organisation will today call for “robust action” to combat Islamophobic attacks amid fears of growing violence and under-reporting of hate crimes.

You already know what that organization is, right? And it is: it’s the MCB. But what is “mainstream” about the MCB? It is, notoriously, reactionary and male-dominated. More genuinely “mainstream” Muslims don’t consider it mainstream at all, and fume at the media habit of calling it mainstream and treating it as mainstream.

Taji Mustafa, spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, said: “Xenophobic attacks on Muslims have increased under successive governments. In a manipulative alliance with some sections of the media, they have demonised Islam as part of their foreign policy propaganda.”

Ah well if someone from Hizb ut-Tahrir says so, it must be true.

Ruse offers to help

Jun 12th, 2011 4:02 pm | By

It takes more than one person to argue with Michael Ruse. Jerry has, Russell has, but I still found new stuff that irritates me, so here it is.

…science tells us that Adam and Eve are fictions. That Saint Paul or Uncle Tom Cobley and all thought otherwise is irrelevant. They were wrong. This is not to say that they were stupid or careless. Two thousand years ago, for a Jew to believe in Adam and Eve was perfectly sensible. But time moves on and with it our understanding of the world around us, and old beliefs have to give way to new ones. Aristotle thought that some people were born to be slaves. He was wrong. St. Paul thought we are descended from Adam and Eve. He was wrong.

But wrong in different ways, for different reasons. Science tells us that Adam and Eve are fictions, but (Sam Harris notwithstanding) it doesn’t tell us that some people are not born to be slaves. On the contrary – science could well tell us that some people are born to be slaves, provided it started from some stupid (but not particularly unscientific) assumptions, such as that people with (or without) certain Xs are born to be slaves. Science could pick out which people have (or lack) the certain Xs, and the job would be done. Saying why that’s wrong is not the same kind of thing as demonstrating that Eve and Adam are fictions.

What should be the attitude of the Christian faced with clear evidence that some part of the Bible cannot be taken literally and that this must have consequences for hitherto-accepted theology? Clearly, some alternative theology must be sought. This is not giving up or mere ad hoc responding. The great British theologian John Henry Newman saw clearly that the essential truths of the Christian faith remain unchanged, but that, given new knowledge in each age, they need constant reinterpretation and updating.

An, naughty Michael Ruse – note that “saw.” Note that “saw clearly.” Ruse claims that Newman saw clearly something which is in fact contestable and contested; by wording it that way Ruse of course loads the dice. What, exactly, are “the essential truths” of the “Christian faith” and how on earth does Ruse know they remain unchanged? And if they remain unchanged, what does it mean to say they need constant reinterpretation and updating? How is that not just having it all ways, by merely saying so? The essential truth remains unchanged but it needs constant reinterpretation and updating but nevertheless it remains unchanged…apart from the constant reinterpretation and updating. A “truth” that is constantly reinterpreted and updated can’t be said to remain unchanged, can it.

Well he goes on to explain – but it’s still just saying; it’s nonsense.

God is creator, Jesus is his son who died on the cross for our sake, this act of sacrifice made possible our eternal salvation — these claims are unchanged. But what exactly this all might mean is another matter.

If what it all might mean is another matter, then the claims are not unchanged! You can’t do both, dammit – you can’t say they’re unchanged apart from being changed. Just keeping the husks of words but completely changing the meaning does not equal unchanged claims.

Oh it’s so tiresome all this special pleading.


Quel horrible surprise

Jun 11th, 2011 4:28 pm | By

I just accidentally learned, via a post of Eric’s, that George Pitcher last autumn got a job as public relations flack for the archbishop of Canterbury. I’m amazed. I’m shaken to my core. My Weltanschauung is all anyhow. I have to rethink everything I thought I knew.

One thing I thought I knew was that Rowan Williams is a scholarly, gentlemanly sort of fella, however mistaken about everything. But he can’t be, since he hired or consented to the hiring of a vulgar abusive hack like George Pitcher.

Remember him? Remember him in May of last year, when Evan Harris lost his seat?

A stranger to principle, Harris has coat-tailed some of the most vulnerable and weak people available to him to further his dogged, secularist campaign to have people of faith – any faith – swept from the public sphere…For a doctor, he supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves…

Now he’s gone to spend more time with his NSS pamphlets and the House of Commons is better for his passing. 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. But now Dr Death cannot bring a malign influence to bear on the legislature any longer. Bye bye, Evan.

That is the kind of writer and thinker that the archbishop is pleased to have handling public relations for him.

Identikit MarxoCatholic man

Jun 10th, 2011 4:49 pm | By

Anthony Grayling explains some things about the New College of the Humanities.

The cast of professors is stunning but will they actually spend much time on the new campus? “They won’t give tutorials, but they will be partners, bringing advice and expertise. I want to recreate the experience I had at Oxford. I was very intensively tutored in my college but could also go and hear some amazing and extraordinary lectures.”

That’s what I thought it was about. I thought that because it was one of the many things we talked about over tea a few weeks ago. We talked about the one-on-one tutorial – I from the point of view of one who had never experienced such a thing but only envied it, he from the point of view of one who had. I thought of that as soon as I read about the NCH on Sunday…unlike Terry Eagleton.

The master of the college will be public sage and identikit Islington Man, AC Grayling. …Anyway, why should anyone be surprised at the prospect of academics signing on for a cushy job at 25% more than the average university salary, with shares in the enterprise to boot?

What would prevent most of us from doing so is the nausea which wells to the throat at the thought of this disgustingly elitist outfit. British universities, plundered of resources by the bankers and financiers they educated, are not best served by a bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded. It is as though a group of medics in a hard-pressed public hospital were to down scalpels and slink off to start a lucrative private clinic. Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students.

Oh are they; are they really. Simon Jenkins raises an eyebrow.

[Eagleton] omits to mention his own Grayling-ite credentials, as “excellence in English distinguished visitor” to America’s private Notre Dame Catholic university. There he gives three weeks’ teaching per semester for an undisclosed sum.

Downing scalpels and going off to a private (and Catholic, at that) university (that charges £27,000 a year) instead of staying home to fight the cuts. What a steaming self-righteous hypocrite Terry Eagleton is, and a bullying toady of the church into the bargain. He sneers at NCH for being unlikely to have a theology department. Yes really!

None of the monotheistic religions treat men and women equally

Jun 9th, 2011 5:07 pm | By

On a far more intelligent note, there’s Katha Pollitt’s conversation with Wajeha al-Huwaider. 

Katha asked

Some Muslim feminists are trying to reinterpret—they would say, correctly interpret—the Koran in a gender-egalitarian way. For instance, they point out the Koran says only that women should dress modestly, not that they need to be swathed from head to toe, or even cover their hair. Do you think there can be a feminist Islam?

The answer is definite:

There is a feminist Islam, mainly led by Muslim women in the West. But they tend to forget that none of the monotheistic religions treat men and women equally, and there’s a limit to what scholarship can do to change that. For example, daughters inherit half what sons inherit. Men are allowed to marry up to four wives. Two female witnesses equal one male. Secular society is a better bet for women—and men too.

There you have it.

Read the whole thing.

Surely now they will shut him up

Jun 9th, 2011 4:43 pm | By

Oh lordy, it’s Cathy Lynn Grossman again. Again? Yes, there was once before. She’s a Templeton “Fellow,” too, class of 2005. Her schtick is to point in horror at some gnu atheist or other and say how shocking and evil it all is. This time it’s PZ. She’s hoping there’s going to be a Great Cracking of the Whip.

Now that online provocateur PZ Myers, the biologist whose popular Pharyngula blog features profane attacks on religion, is part of the ScienceBlogs lineup coming under National Geographic’s editorial control, will Myers have to evolve to new standards?

Ah the voice of censorious respectability and majority opinion – will someone at last be able to make PZ Myers stop saying things that Cathy Lynn Grossman doesn’t like? No. Grossman doesn’t get a veto, and she’ll just have to put up with that.

Just in case you’re wondering about whether Myers, who once outraged Catholics by calling the Eucharist just another cracker, frets over being offensive, here’s what he said in 2008 at Skepticon One, an event organized by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

“There’s no constitutional right that says you may not be offended.”

That’s right – there’s not. Grossman seems to think there is, or there should be. That’s silly.

Anyone who’s hurting, marginalized, ignored because of their lack of religion

Jun 8th, 2011 2:44 pm | By

Hemant Mehta interviewed Damon and Jerrett Fowler a few days ago. Jerrett wants people not to forget about it and move on to the next thing.

My biggest fear is that, since this is the Internet, people will find other places to focus their attention. This is going to be a long and drawn out battle and there is little we can do to make it go faster.

The support so far is amazing, more than I could have ever imagined, however, I hope that the support doesn’t go away. We need the community behind us so that we have the strength to follow this through. This isn’t just for us, this is for everyone out there as well. Anyone who’s hurting, marginalized, ignored because of their lack of religion or religious preference. My dream is to see this through and to have full support all the way.

That’s probably a lot of people.

Right here in River City

Jun 8th, 2011 11:24 am | By

Well here is something I would love to know more about – the early history of the Home of the Good Shepherd in Wallingford, in Seattle. I’ve been familiar with the building that housed it for years, indeed decades. It belongs to the city now, and houses various organizations; the grounds around it are a city park. I think I always vaguely knew it had been some kind of “homeforunmarriedmothers”…but I’ve been learning to treat that archaic term with more suspicion, plus “Good Shepherd” is one of the four orders that ran those houses of horror the Magdalene laundries, so…

So I finally got around to looking it up, and sure enough.

The Home of the Good Shepherd, located at 4649 Sunnyside Avenue in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, opened in 1907 to provide shelter, education, and guidance to young girls. The Home generated revenue by operating a commercial laundry, as did many other Good Shepherd institutions. Girls were referred by the courts or brought in by their families from throughout Washington and sometimes Alaska.

Check. Check. Check.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd believed that by providing the benefits of a stable and loving home, the girls could become responsible, moral, and caring women.

Bad syntax there, but you can tell what it’s trying to say. You can also read on and see that the sisters’ idea of a stable and loving home is rather…Catholic.

The south wing of the building housed the “penitent” girls, those whom society considered “wayward” and rooms for those nuns who worked with them…

The nuns frequently led the girls in religious song as they walked to and from meals and Mass. Spiritual quotations were posted on classroom walls and devotional statues of saints were found throughout the Home’s stairways, hallways, and grounds. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd demonstrated to the girls a pious and moral lifestyle.

Not altogether homey…plus it was a prison.

For the first half of the institution’s history, residents rarely were allowed to leave the grounds or hear news of the outside world. Thus, the residents’ most coveted privilege was “parlor” — receiving approved visitors every other Sunday…The girls could not be trusted and neither could the outside world. To prevent residents from seeing the outside world and leaving the Home, locked doors and opaque glass were used in the earlier years. A little later, barred windows, barbed wire fences, then window alarms were installed. Though these measures appeared harsh for some; for others, it offered protection and safety and enabled to them concentrate on rehabilitating and healing.

You bet.

If the account is accurate (and that’s a big if), it was overall less harsh than the Irish versions, but it was still a theocratic prison. The big difference seems to be that the sentence wasn’t for life. Other than that, it’s a nasty business.

Romanticizing the spiritual foundations

Jun 7th, 2011 4:38 pm | By

I’m reading Sikivu Hutchinson’s wonderful new book Moral Combat. There’s an apposite passage about Jim Wallis in the first chapter:

Wallis argues that America is suffering from a crisis of values. Progressive religious belief is the antidote to this crisis because “history is most changed by social movements with a spiritual foundation.” [Wallis, God’s Politics, p 24] This view fails to consider the extent to which American social movements – from the white supremacist imperialist spiritual foundations of the Revolutionary War to the patriarchal and heterosexist spiritual foundations of the modern civil rights movement – have been hindered by their “spiritual” foundations. By romanticizing the spiritual foundations of social movements, Wallis demonstrates that he is unwilling to interrogate how Judeo-Christian dogma undermines women’s rights and gay rights. Hence Wallis’ prophetic politics is based on cherry picking scripture to articulate a social justice agenda fundamentally incompatible with the patriarchal, imperialist, sexist, homophobic, inhumane thrust of the Bible. [pp 15-6]

Italics mine. And just so: as we saw just a couple of weeks ago when Sojourners rejected that mild “let’s welcome everyone” ad because um er ah well it was about welcoming a lesbian couple and their little boy omigod.

A simple story

Jun 7th, 2011 1:03 pm | By

Entirely familiar, nothing new, but heartbreaking all the same. Multiply by X million every year.

“I wanted to get an education but my parents were determined to marry me off,” says Himanot Yehewala, an Ethiopian girl who was married five years ago at the age of 13.

“I tried to run away but my mother said she would kill herself if I did not marry him.”

That’s all – just that. She wanted to get an education, but she couldn’t; she had to stop getting an education and be a premature adult, instead. Her chance of a more interesting and useful life was over, at age 13. Multiply by X million every year.

Gender aesthetics

Jun 6th, 2011 6:32 pm | By

Someone posted a shoe-fetish shoe (picture of) at Facebook, which naturally triggered a lively discussion of the semiotics of catch me-fuck me shoes. I pondered the agony to the calf muscles that would be caused by attempting to stand on the damn things – the heels look taller than the foot is long, so how is that even possible?

Anyway, some fella came along to straighten it all out with an aphoristic insight into the nature of women.

Great shoes, fancy clothing, cosmetic surgery, lipstick, waxings, hairdos, jewelry, makeup, and perfume are all unnecessary. However, if they were eliminated, I think the gay male population would increase rapidly and the women of the world would all look like the babushka ladies in Russia …uggggh!!!

Such a sweet compliment, isn’t it?

Just for fun

Jun 6th, 2011 5:38 pm | By
Just for fun

A puppy of my acquaintance.

Cooper MB2

Douthat’s victims

Jun 6th, 2011 11:40 am | By

Eric got to Ross Douthat ahead of me, but I’ll duplicate his effort anyway just because Douthat’s piece irritated me so intensely.

He says

the moral case for assisted suicide depends much more on our respect for people’s own desire to die than on our sympathy for their devastating medical conditions.

I don’t think he demonstrates that, and I don’t think it does – I think it depends on both. For one thing, if people don’t have devastating medical conditions, then they don’t need assistance with suicide. Part of what people fear is losing the physical ability to exit; that’s where the “assisted” comes in.

Fortunately, the revolution Kevorkian envisioned hasn’t yet succeeded. Despite decades of agitation, only three states allow some form of physician-assisted suicide. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 1997 decision, declined to invent a constitutional right to die. There is no American equivalent of the kind of suicide clinics that have sprung up in Switzerland, providing painless poisons to a steady flow of people from around the globe.

That’s the bit that makes me so angry. That smug gloating pleasure in the knowledge that people who are suffering and desperate to die cannot do so. That smug certainty that he knows best and that what he thinks he knows gets to trump what other people want for themselves.

Douthat is, of course, a theist.

Oh is that so

Jun 5th, 2011 11:06 am | By

Texas governor Rick Perry called a court ruling that banned school prayers at a public high school graduation


“The First Amendment prohibits governments from interfering with Americans’ rights to freely express their religious beliefs, and accordingly the U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that Congress may convene every day with a prayer,” Perry said in a statement.

Oh yeah? But then governments are interfering with Americans’ rights to freely express their beliefs that there is no god, aren’t they. My religious belief is that god is a non-existent imaginary agent. I don’t get to say that at public school graduation ceremonies or Congress’s morning prayer. Since other people do get to say that god is a real, non-imaginary agent, the state is interfering with my rights to express my religious beliefs.

It is also, of course, interfering with the religious beliefs of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Wiccans, Scientologists, Crefto Dollarians, and so on.

I look forward to your letter, Governor Perry.

Obey moar

Jun 4th, 2011 11:22 am | By

Oh good – there are some women in Malaysia who have figured out how to make the world all better. How, you ask, all aflame. By telling wives to be more obedient.

“We just want to ask all the wives to be obedient wives so that there will be fewer problems in our society,” such as infidelity, divorce and domestic violence, she told AFP.

“Obedient wife means they are trying to entertain their husbands, not only taking care of their food and clothes,” Maznah said. “They have to obey their husbands. That’s the way Islam also asks.”

Right. We know. That’s why we hates it, precious.

Maznah is already involved in another controversial venture — the Ikhwan Polygamy Club, which was launched in 2009 to promote polygamy. Muslim men in Malaysia can take up to four wives.

She is herself in a polygamous marriage, as the second of her husband’s two wives.

In 2010, a study by a Muslim activist group found men in polygamous relationships find it difficult to meet the needs of all their wives and children, and that the result is often unhappy and cash-strapped families.

Golly, what can one say? She sounds like a real tool. In every sense.

Spam spam spam bacon flattery and spam

Jun 3rd, 2011 3:15 pm | By

I’m getting a hilarious new type of spam which consists of a single sentence complimenting me for all-cognitive reasons - basically “oooh you’re so clever.” One said “sbutle [sic] must be your middle name.” Hahahahahahahahahaha.

Seriously, what do they do, have bots that scan websites and figure out what kind of flattery will go down best?