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.

In Geneva

Sep 22nd, 2008 5:26 pm | By

Austin Dacey has been in Geneva all this month on assignment from the Center for Inquiry to defend human rights against attacks from people who prefer religious rights. Hillel Neuer of UN Watch got down to work the next day.

For several years, states from the Organization of the Islamic Conference have advanced resolutions to combat “the defamation of religion,” which have passed handily. In March, the OIC, aided by Russia, China, Cuba, and the so-called non-aligned states, succeeded in altering the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to include monitoring and reporting on “abuses” of expression on matters of religion. In late August, an Abuja, Nigeria regional meeting (in preparation for the Durban II conference on racism) issued a Declaration that calls on states to “avoid clinging inflexibly to free speech…with absolute disregard to religious feeling.”

No, not going to do that; going to go on clinging inflexibly to free speech with absolute disregard to religious feeling. Religious feeling going to have to take care of itself. (I know, I’m not a state, but once states avoid clinging inflexibly, they will expect their citizens to do likewise, won’t they.)

One would have thought that the UN would be a citadel for freedom expression, but it has now become home to blasphemy prohibitions. As I mentioned during the panel discussion today, this taboo is now in effect in the chambers of the HRC itself. Late in the eighth session of the HRC, an NGO representative attempted to raise questions about OIC-backed statements of “Islamic human rights,” and he was interrupted by the Pakistani delegation, which claimed that even to discuss such matters was an insult to his faith.

That was our friend David Littman. Austin teams up with David Littman later in the month. Read all of September, he tells about it.

And those of you who have blogs or websites or newspaper columns or radio chat shows – I don’t usually hit you up this way, but I’m going to now – please spread the word about CFI’s report on all this, written by Austin and by Colin Koproske. Lure people in with a teaser if you like, but anyway spread the word. This stuff is way too little reported. Let’s swiftboat it, only without the lying.

Having secular people on the buses is a problem

Sep 21st, 2008 11:43 am | By

And then there is increasingly-Haredi Jerusalem.

Yoel Kreus…describes himself as a ‘shmira’, a Hebrew word that translates as ‘watcher of Israel’. ‘I make sure the rabbis’ decisions happen … I help you to be a moral person,’ he said…Signs warning women not to enter if they are wearing trousers, short sleeves or a skirt above the knees, hang in the neighbourhood. One is affixed outside Kreus’s two-room house…Extraordinarily, he admitted to slashing the tyres of women who have driven into the neighbourhood who, he said, were indecently dressed…’Now I’m trying new creative methods, not using violence. Now I make a small hole in their tyres and the air deflates slowly. I’m not destroying their car.’

He’s not destroying their car, he’s helping them to be a more moral person. Wearing trousers, of course, is self-evidently immoral.

He maintained that separation was necessary beyond the boundaries of the neighbourhood. ‘Having secular people on the buses is a problem. They go like animals, without clothes. Non-religious girls don’t dress properly. They encourage me to sin,’ he said…The transport ministry, which regulates and funds bus transport through private companies, has allowed operators to provide ‘kosher’ or ‘pure’ routes, where women are required to sit at the back and cannot board unless appropriately dressed. More than a dozen women have filed complaints after being verbally or physically attacked on the buses.

Just the other day we were arguing about how secular Israel is. More secular than Iran or Saudi Arabia, certainly, but not as secular as it could be. Not secular enough to prevent women being physically attacked on city buses because religious zealots don’t like the way they’re dressed. Not secular enough.

As easy as science

Sep 21st, 2008 11:24 am | By

And speaking of ignorance and silliness, there’s always Theo Hobson.

[A] creationist is not someone who subscribes to the idea of divine creation; it is a believer who refuses to admit the difficulty entailed in Christian faith, who wants it to be as easy as science…[W]hen I say that I believe that God created me, and the whole world, I am making a difficult statement of faith. It is the most difficult statement of faith that can be made: it is saying that I trust God will right all wrongs, cure all pain. For Christians do not just believe that God created the world, but that he created it good, and that this fundamental goodness will ultimately triumph.

A couple of points. One, it’s not just difficult (and for most people it’s not even difficult, it’s dead easy), it’s wicked. Possibly that’s what Hobson means by ‘difficult,’ but if it is it must be cowardice that prevents him from saying so (because why else wouldn’t he say so?). It’s wicked to say all that because it means that all the suffering the world is so full of is ‘good’ and intended by a conscious agent; that’s a bad thing to say. At that rate one could just take Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot to be incarnations of God; at that rate we are trained to embrace cruelty instead of rejecting and reviling it.

The second point is that it’s typical of Hobson’s particular kind of conceit, to say that ‘faith’ is difficult while science is easy. Bullshit. It’s faith that is easy, because it’s an act of will, with no skill or knowledge required; science is difficult because you have to know lots of stuff to do it. It’s just conceited self-flattering rhetoric to reverse the terms that way.

A mad love of mediocrity

Sep 21st, 2008 11:04 am | By

Sam Harris is not entirely impressed by Sarah Palin, or by the fact of her candidacy.

However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride…and, above all, upon the “liberal elites” with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.

This is what always infuriates me. Whence comes this conviction that ignorance is a terrific quality for a president to have? Nobody wants a plumber who can’t find the sink, or a pilot who never learned to fly, or a doctor with a fake diploma, or an amateur engineer. Why is the presidency considered a job for ignorant and dim-witted people? I get that ‘likability’ is a huge factor, but I don’t get why people don’t insist that it at least be paired with above-average brains and education.

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington…The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation…The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin’s lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. “They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary. We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.”

Several women in the US know what it’s like to be a ‘mom’; that by itself is not a reason to elect any one of them to the presidency. Yet apparently people think it is. Is it too late to return to aristocratic government?

A moral imbecile

Sep 20th, 2008 4:59 pm | By

Stanley Fish is a smug bastard. This is not news, but he’s smugger than usual in his New York Times blog post on Rushdie and Spellberg and Jones. The first sentence is a staggerer.

Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again.

That just irritates the bejesus out of me. Self-appointed? Poster boy? At it again? Excuse me? He could hardly have been less self-appointed – it was the Ayatollah and his murderous illegal bloodthirsty ‘fatwa’ that appointed Rushdie a supporter of free speech, not Rushdie. And Rushdie defends free speech in general, not the First Amendment in particular; how parochial of smug sneery Fish to conflate the two. And ‘poster boy’; that’s just stupid as well as insultingly patronizing: Rushdie doesn’t swan around with a crutch, he makes arguments in support of free speech. And ‘at’ what again? ‘At’ saying that publishers shouldn’t give in to threats either from Islamists or from academics speaking for notional Islamists or ‘offended’ Muslims who in some distant subjunctive world might be ‘offended’ by a novel about Mohammed’s child ‘bride’? Now that’s ‘self-appointed’ – Denise Spellberg did a lot more self-appointing than Rushdie did.

Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Of course Random House is free to publish or not publish, but what happened is not quite that simple; Random House decided to publish and then at almost the last minute decided not to, for a very stupid and craven reason that then became public. That’s not illegal – Random House is ‘free’ to do that (depending on what it says in the contract, that is), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t point out how stupid and craven Random House is.

Rushdie and the pious pundits think otherwise because they don’t quite understand what censorship is. Or, rather, they conflate the colloquial sense of the word with the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts. In the colloquial sense, censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)

Oh do you; do you really. Someone decides not to write something because (for instance) she fears being killed by enraged Islamists – and you call that ‘civilized behavior’?

I don’t believe a word of it; I don’t believe that even of Stanley Fish; I think he must have lost track of what he’d just said by the time he wrote the bit about civilized behavior. But that was stupid of him, and smug, and sloppy. If he does believe that, then he’s a moral imbecile.

But censorship is not the proper name; a better one would be judgment. We go through life adjusting our behavior to the protocols and imperatives of different situations, and often the adjustments involve deciding to refrain from saying something. It’s a calculation, a judgment call. It might be wise or unwise, prudent or overly cautious, but it has nothing to with freedom of expression.

Oh yes it does. When the ‘imperative’ of a particular ‘situation’ is that our judgment tells us not to write a novel or play or cartoon because of threats of violence then that has a great deal to do with freedom of expression. If we can’t safely write X Y or Z because furious religious zealots might kill us if we do, then we don’t have freedom of expression. It’s been taken away from us by criminal extortionists. Stanley Fish ought not to be so complacent about this.

BHL’s wager

Sep 20th, 2008 1:46 pm | By

Hitchens reads Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book.

He can take a long time to show how agonized he is by leftist compromises with every disgraced regime and ideology from Slobodan Milosevic to Islamic jihadism, but the effort expended is worthwhile and shows some of the scars of political warfare from Bangladesh to Bosnia. He is much readier to defend Israel as a democratic cause than are most leftists and many Jews, but he was early in saying that a Palestinian state was a good idea, not because it would appease Arab and Muslim grievances but for its own sake. (This distinction strikes me as both morally and politically important.)

Well yes – very important indeed. Grievances (as I have pointed out more than once) are only as good as they are, and no one should appease them if they stink. It is a grievance to many people that women should be able to go outside without permission; it is a grievance to many people that gays should no longer be ostracized or persecuted; it is a grievance to many people that the pope has limited powers; it is a grievance to many (other) people that sharia is not the law of the world. Grievances, like so many things, have to be judged on their merits.

One could actually have gone further and argued that the totalitarian temptation now extends to an endorsement of Islam­ism as the last, best hope of humanity against the American empire. I could without difficulty name some prominent leftists, from George Galloway to Michael Moore, who have used the same glowing terms to describe “resistance” in, say, Iraq as they would once have employed for the Red Army or the Vietcong. Trawling the intellectual history of Europe, as he is able to do with some skill, Lévy comes across an ancestor of this sinister convergence in a yearning remark confided to his journal by the fascist writer Paul Claudel on May 21, 1935: “Hitler’s speech; a kind of Islamism is being created at the center of Europe.”

That’s the totalitarian temptation all right – no part of life left to the discretion of the owner; everything supervised and controlled and specified (left foot first on entering the toilet); no idling, wandering, dreaming, inventing. Totalism in all directions, as far as the eye can see.

In conclusion, Lévy repudiates radical sympathy with theocracy, and indeed theology, by inverting Pascal and saying that “we have to make an antiwager that we can win not by betting on the existence but on the nonexistence of God. That’s the price of democracy. And the alternative, the only one, is the devil and his legions of murderous angels.”

The die is cast.

The wisdom of Bellarmine

Sep 19th, 2008 12:24 pm | By

Anthony Grayling quotes Cardinal Bellarmine in 1615, in his reply to Steve Fuller’s reply to his review of Fuller’s Dissent Over Descent. Grayling quotes Bellarmine because ‘Fuller’s endeavour turns in important part on trying to show that science is the child of religion, that its styles of thought are religion’s styles, and that the very coherence of the scientific enterprise owes itself to the grand narrative of the religious world-view,’ and the Cardinal does quite a good job of showing why that is a ridiculous notion.

As you are aware, the Council of Trent forbids the interpretation of the Scriptures in a way contrary to the common opinion of the holy Fathers. Now if you will read, not merely the Fathers, but modern commentators on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will discover that all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the Sun is in the heavens and revolves round the Earth with immense speed, and that the Earth is very distant from the heavens, at the centre of the universe, and motionless. Consider then, in your prudence, whether the Church can tolerate that the Scriptures should be interpreted in a manner contrary to that of the holy Fathers and of all modern commentators, both Latin and Greek.

If science is the child of that, then a rhinoceros can be the child of a fruit fly, a hummingbird can be the child of a grey whale, a snow leopard can be the child of a star fish. A way of thinking that ‘forbids’ something, and in particular that forbids anything ‘contrary to the common opinion’ of some guys called ‘the holy Fathers’ is not a scientific way of thinking. A way of thinking that points out what commentators on certain chapters of a particular very old book ‘agree in interpreting them literally as teaching’ what the sun is and does (and gets it dead wrong) and then points out (in a threatening manner) that ‘the Church’ isn’t going to tolerate contradiction of agreed interpretation by commentators on parts of a very old book – is also not a scientific way of thinking; it is of course not only the opposite of a scientific way of thinking, it is its deadly, violent, murderous enemy.

Like some others, Fuller wants to see religion…as giving us our idea of the odyssey, the quest, for truth and understanding (“salvation” secularised), a plumbing of mysteries and a searching out of hidden meanings, our errors and stumblings on the way justified by the faith that we can get there in the end. Thus one sees the trick: the infection of the argument by religious terminology to sacralise what is essentially so different from the static metaphysics, the unchanging and marmoreal already-revealed Truth of the faith, which requires not investigation and questioning – for that you die at the stake – but submission, acceptance, obedience, worship.

Just so, and as we’ve seen, more than once, that’s also what Martha Nussbaum does in her book on freedom of ‘conscience’ and religion: she talks repeatedly about a ‘quest for meaning’ when in fact what most religion delivers is not a quest at all but a settled dogma which reqires, indeed, not investigation and questioning but submission, acceptance, obedience, worship. There’s something really annoying about fans of religion pretending that religion is the source of quests for truth and understanding when for the most part it is the opposite and enemy of any such thing.

Not freedom of opinion but freedom of thought

Sep 17th, 2008 6:43 pm | By

Alan Wolfe reads BHL on speaking truth to power.

It is frequently said that we ought to tolerate religious differences; whatever we might think of Islam, we should respect the rights of adherents to believe what they want. No, Levy responds, what the Muslim world needs is not tolerance but secularism.

‘No’? What do you mean ‘no’? That’s not a ‘no’. That is in fact a yes. We ought to tolerate religious differences; whatever we might think of Islam, we should respect the rights of adherents to believe what they want, and secularism is by far the best way to create such a state of affairs, because secularism puts religion aside for purposes of government, thus making it unnecessary to meddle with or even take note of what people believe (about religion, which has to be what Wolfe means here). It is theocracy that cannot respect people’s right to believe what they want, not secularism. Secularism does not (and should not) undertake to respect people’s right to do what they want (without qualification), but that’s a different matter. My guess would be (not having read the book) that that’s what BHL meant by ‘not tolerance but secularism’ – my guess would be that if he did say tolerance is not what’s needed (if that’s not just Wolfe’s careless paraphrase) then he meant blanket tolerance for religiously-inspired actions is not what ‘the Muslim world’ needs.

It is not freedom of opinion that we ought to seek but freedom of thought. Only by applying to Islamic societies the same standards of free inquiry that we apply to our own do we treat Muslims as our equals. If Muslims say that cartoons caricaturing their prophet are offensive and should not be published, we should ignore their calls for sympathy and in the name of freedom of thought be willing to stand charged with blasphemy.

Yes, that’s right – especially when ‘calls for sympathy’ take the form of arson and riots and murder, or lawsuits, or threats. It is indeed the case that applying the same standards of free inquiry everywhere is the only way to treat people with respect; the alternative is a pitying kind of condescension.

The problem with this way of thinking is not just that secularism taken to such an extreme is itself illiberal; knowing what is right, it tramples on the sensitivities of others with little regard for how they may understand the world.

No, because secularism doesn’t take any understanding of the world away from people, it just creates neutrality about world-understandings in the public sphere.

On the other hand, I can’t disagree with Wolfe’s next point. I wish I could.

But Israel is not a secular society; it is a Jewish state. If we are to tell Muslims that they ought to open up their societies to outside influences, shouldn’t we be putting pressure on Israel to reform its incredibly strict marriage laws?


Be more wholistic

Sep 15th, 2008 12:17 pm | By

The Women’s studies list is on a roll at the moment – I’m going to have to regale you a little more. All this sagacity must not blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air, wouldn’t you agree?

This seems to have something to do with the discussion of dimorphism, though it’s hard to be sure, because the chain of reasoning is a little…well, missing some links in places. But it starts off with biology, via Wikipedia. Then it gets into critical thinking…

The questionable variable here is what these guys considered ‘fundamental’ and the mindset that created the idea of biology as ‘socially acceptable’ at the time when life was first described by biological scientists – especially in the terms and roots that are still being used some 200 years later – unchanged since their creation. Biology is a socially constructed concept too – dated. It categorizes and defines ‘organisms’ a certain way – not wholistically – and not the
only way possible, I might add. I am no science major, but I know Einstein’s theories and Physics has already proven most of the fundamentals of biology to be faulty.


I admit, I am a science heretic. It is a belief system and I’ve confronted it’s limitations – quite soundly and concretely – for my own understandings…Frankly, I am tired of seeing ‘respected’ scientific studies that continually study an environment that they deny exists in the first place. It is not logical thought. What we were taught as logic is simply what we were taught and thus not logical, but you have to question it before you can see it as ‘not logical’. My views can be perceived as not ‘logical’ because they are deviating from taught beliefs. Logic doesn’t mean it makes sense. It means it follows a certain line of thinking. It is the certain line of thinking women have attempted to confront.

Ah yes – logic is a ‘certain’ (male, patriarchal, phallic, linear, hierarchical, situated, constructed, stupid, wrong, smelly) line of thinking, and women have attempted to confront it, because women have something different, and better, than mere ‘logic.’ Women have – uh – holistic (or do I mean wholistic) different better womanier stuff. Women have holistic critical thinking, which beats logic any day.

The archbishop gets his wish

Sep 15th, 2008 11:43 am | By

Bad news.

The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence. Rulings issued by a network of five sharia courts are enforceable with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court. Previously, the rulings of sharia courts in Britain could not be enforced, and depended on voluntary compliance among Muslims. It has now emerged that sharia courts with these powers have been set up in London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester with the network’s headquarters in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Two more courts are being planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The government did this quietly? Why, exactly? And how? And what are they thinking?

There are concerns that women who agree to go to tribunal courts are getting worse deals because Islamic law favours men. Siddiqi said that in a recent inheritance dispute handled by the court in Nuneaton, the estate of a Midlands man was divided between three daughters and two sons. The judges on the panel gave the sons twice as much as the daughters, in accordance with sharia. Had the family gone to a normal British court, the daughters would have got equal amounts.

Well, exactly. This is why this kind of shit is not a good idea and should not be done, not noisily and certainly not ‘quietly.’

In the six cases of domestic violence, Siddiqi said the judges ordered the husbands to take anger management classes and mentoring from community elders. There was no further punishment. In each case, the women subsequently withdrew the complaints they had lodged with the police and the police stopped their investigations. Siddiqi said that in the domestic violence cases, the advantage was that marriages were saved and couples given a second chance.

No – that’s dead wrong. The men were given a second chance, and the women were denied the chance to escape violence. ‘The marriage’ should not be ‘saved’ at the expense of the woman’s safety and freedom, and it’s not ‘couples’ who need chances, it’s people who do, one at a time. This business of valuing marriages and couples more than the women who are trapped inside them is a terrible cheat.

Imposing human-type gender normativity

Sep 14th, 2008 12:47 pm | By

More hilarity on the Women’s Studies list. My friend Daphne Patai responded to a message that referred to ‘some mythically uniform
biologically based concept of “women”‘:

Unfortunately, the “biologically-based concept” IS what unites all women. It
is far from “mythical.” There is such a thing as biological sexual
dimorphism, period. The social/historical construction of what it means to be
a woman is a separate issue, but the biology is very real.

Hard to believe one wants to teach one’s students from a starting point that
is patently false. As I’ve commented many times before on this list, the
existence of biological anomalies does not change the fundamental facts, and
I don’t see it as a service to our students to attempt to deny those facts.

The next day there was a reply, quoting ‘There is such a thing as biological sexual
dimorphism, period.’ – let’s call this one Helen, because that is not her name:

She’s right, of course, but only insofar as “dimorphism” is a sign, a construct, with the same relationship between signifier and signified that any sign possesses. Does “dimorphism” exist “in nature”? Well, sure, but so do “anomalies,” themselves “natural” and only defined as a “violation of the law” (a-nomos) if one constructs them so culturally. No culture, no dimorphism. Period.

I’ve been keeping my head down, having stirred up enough hornet’s nests for awhile, but I had to reply to that:

Well, not quite. No culture, no concept of dimorphism, of course, but the phenomena that dimorphism names go on existing with or without the concept. That thing that’s happening on the area we call ‘the Gulf Coast’ right now would still be happening even if no one called it Ike, or a hurricane, or lots of wind and rain.

Helen came back today:

Actually the appropriate analogue here would be between whether Ike is an “anomalous” weather pattern or simply weather. Folks who insist on dimorphism do so to reinforce a notion of stability and absolutes in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Call it a hurricane, or call it Central Park, but it’s still no less real than a clear day and only defined by a binary if we insist on defining everything with a binary. Students benefit from having the ability to think critically about these matters. I am happy to be someone that comprehends the concepts and is able to help them do so.

I love that – she is happy to be someone that comprehends the concepts. Only she doesn’t! It’s not quite so amusing that she ‘helps’ the students to do likewise. I answered again (might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb) -

Really? So a zoologist who (for instance) points out that gorillas are more sexually dimorphic than chimpanzees does so to reinforce a notion of stability and absolutes in spite of all evidence to the contrary? I can’t get any intelligible meaning out of that.

A new respondent came back with something so funny that it looks like a hoax, but I don’t suppose it is.

I’m not too familiar with why zoologists do what they do :) But I
would suggest that just by invoking the term “dimorphism” on both
gorillas and chimpanzees, the zoologist would be imposing human-type
heterosexual & gender normativity on them. I believe that’s called
anthropomorphism, which I think (I’m not sure) received a lot of
criticism for imposing human myths onto the animal world and hence
reproducing and reinforcing the views of such normativity (for her
audience) as naturalness by way of science (claims of objectivity and
neutrality). In addition, especially if the zoologist is from the US
or Europe (or especially if she -generic she- received her zoology
education there), I’d imagine, it would be quite hard for her to think
about gorillas and chimpanzees without unconsciously invoking in
herself some remnants of scientific racism in the background (i.e. can
the zoologist think about material realities in the absence of
history, language, and ideology?).

I replied, but then sadly the manager closed the thread, so that’s the end. Makes you think, don’t it.


Sep 14th, 2008 11:32 am | By

I’m not a huge fan of our future president.

[A] Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said. “You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!” Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of “good old boy” politics and a champion of ethics reform…But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image. Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance…

We’re supposed to think she’s just a real nice gal, and that a real nice gal like that is just who should be the next president as soon as that pesky John McCain gets out of the way. But why we are supposed to think that is mystifying to me. I never do quite get why people don’t want someone better than they are to be in a job like that. I certainly want someone better than I am to be in a job like that. I can’t even keep my bookshelves tidy, so how could I not want someone better? But other people apparently cry with one voice ‘She’s just like us!’ and swoon with bliss. I don’t get it.

Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

Oh, good, that’s just what we need – after eight years of an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy, another one that does the same thing.

I particularly dislike what she said in that interview -

“Can you look the country in the eye and say, ‘I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president, but perhaps president of the United States of America?’” When Palin said she [didn't] hesitate in saying “yes,” Gibson asked her if that didn’t perhaps show some “hubris.” Palin countered that it shows “confidence” and and “being so committed to the mission.”

Yes it shows confidence, but confidence is not a good thing when it’s unwarranted (except in very rare circumstances, when you have to jump or die). Bush showed great ‘confidence’ when he went after the presidency, too, but he shouldn’t have, because he has none of the qualities required to do the job well. Neither does Palin, and Palin hasn’t even gone through the primary process (flawed as it is), yet we’re very likely to be stuck with her as president. It’s a bad joke, and a nightmare.

Global silencing

Sep 13th, 2008 6:37 pm | By

So we need to get permission from Jordan to say things now.

[A] Jordanian court is prosecuting 12 Europeans in an extraterritorial attempt to silence the debate on radical Islam. The prosecutor general in Amman charged the 12 with blasphemy, demeaning Islam and Muslim feelings, and slandering and insulting the prophet Muhammad in violation of the Jordanian Penal Code. The charges are especially unusual because the alleged violations were not committed on Jordanian soil.

Yeah and because the ‘crimes’ are not crimes in places that are not, you know, insane. We’re not used to thinking of ‘insulting the prophet Muhammad’ as something that is covered by a Penal Code. We don’t want to get used to it, either.

Jordan’s attempt at criminalizing free speech beyond its own borders wouldn’t be so serious if it were an isolated case. Unfortunately, it is part of a larger campaign to use the law and international forums to intimidate critics of militant Islam…[T]he U.N. Human Rights Council in June said it would refrain from condemning human-rights abuses related to “a particular religion.” The ban applies to all religions, but it was prompted by Muslim countries that complained about linking Islamic law, Shariah, to such outrages as female genital mutilation and death by stoning for adulterers. This kind of self-censorship could prove dangerous for people suffering abuse.

Well I guess no one will be reading Does God Hate Women? aloud at the UN HRC then. Too bad.

Amman has already requested that Interpol apprehend Mr. Wilders and the Danes and bring them to stand before its court for an act that is not a crime in their home countries…Neither Denmark nor the Netherlands will turn over its citizens to Interpol, as the premise of Jordan’s extradition request is an affront to the very principles that define democracies. It is thus unlikely that any Western country would do so, either. But there is no guarantee for the defendants’ protection if they travel to countries that are more sympathetic to the Jordanian court.

So the noose tightens – a little more all the time.


Sep 12th, 2008 12:06 pm | By

Michael Reiss, a priest, a biologist and the Royal Society’s director of eduation, says he ‘feels’ that ‘creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.’

But a world view can be a misconception, and often is. The two are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. That is in fact a problem with a lot of world views: they are based on misconceptions.

Other scientists, fortunately, disagree with Reiss.

Professor Reiss, a biologist, was speaking at the British Association’s Festival of Science in Liverpool. Other scientists were vociferous in their response, saying that creationism should remain entirely within the sphere of religious education. Professor Lewis Wolpert, of University College Medical School, said: “Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes. It is based on religious beliefs and any discussion should be in religious studies.” Dr John Fry, a physicist at the University of Liverpool, said: “Science lessons are not the appropriate place to discuss creationism, which is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence. Creationism doesn’t challenge science: it denies it!”

The Independent takes a ‘this side that side’ view, as if it were running for office.

Proponents of evolution believe species change by a process of random genetic mutations. They believe the world is 13-14 billion years old. Creationists, in contrast, believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that its existence is the result of one of the processes described in religious texts like the Bible.

It’s not a matter of each side ‘believing’ things in exactly the same sense, and shouldn’t be presented as such. One side has grounds for the ‘belief’ and the other side doesn’t, so it’s misleading to use the same word for both unless that is pointed out.

Freedom of humour in Italy

Sep 11th, 2008 5:18 pm | By

Sabina Guzzanti could get five years in prison for ‘offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person’ of Benedict XVI. Who knew? Who knew the pope’s person was ‘sacred and inviolable’ as a matter of law in Italy? I suppose I might have guessed it was if anyone had asked me directly – ‘Excuse me, do you think the person of the pope is sacred and inviolable as a matter of law in Italy?’ – but no one had asked me directly, or indirectly either – ‘Excuse me, how do you think Italian law treats the person of the pope? Any guesses?’, and I didn’t know. I can’t be everywhere at once you know – I only have two hands.

But now I do know, and I think it’s an outrage.

Giovanni Ferrara, the Rome prosecutor, is invoking the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, which stipulates that an insult to the Pope carries the same penalty as an insult to the Italian President.

Oh – so an insult to the Italian President carries a penalty of five years in prison? Who knew? That one I wouldn’t even have guessed, even if someone had asked me directly. I would have said oh don’t be so silly, of course there’s no such law in Italy. Shows what I know.

The July rally [at which Guzzanti committed her crime] was called to protest against alleged interference by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italian affairs, from abortion to gay rights, but also to attack the Prime Minister for passing “ad personam” laws to protect his own interests and avoid prosecution on corruption allegations.

Gee, I can’t see why anyone would object to laws like that, can you? ‘I, the president, rule that it shall be against the law to attempt to charge with with any crimes I may happen to have committed while in office.’ What’s wrong with that? Guy’s got to be able to concentrate, after all.

The move to prosecute her over her anti-papal remarks was praised by some on the centre Right, including Luca Volonte, a Christian Democrat, who said that “gratuitous insults must be punished”.

By a prison sentence. Of five years. What an interesting way to think about the matter.

Pink News points out that this is all a tad fascist, literally.

The Minister of Justice in Italy has given prosecutors permission to use a Fascist-era law to punish a comedian for mocking the Pope…Now the Rome prosecutor has been given permission to proceed against her under the 1929 Lateran Treaty. The treaty, between the Vatican and the Italian government, was signed when fascist leader Benito Mussolini was in power.

Gone but not forgotten, apparently.


Sep 9th, 2008 6:14 pm | By

In case you’re wondering why posting has been a tad intermittent of late, it’s just that I’m working on revisions of the book and I have other calls on my time at the moment. But I’ll be back to normal garrulity and belligerence soon.

How broadly?

Sep 9th, 2008 6:09 pm | By

Something Madeleine Bunting said in her piece on ‘faith’ schools yesterday.

[O]ver 70% of people in this country still describe themselves as Christian; that may not mean going to church but it may mean wanting children to grow up with broadly Christian values.

But what are broadly Christian values? They’re probably not really Christian values at all, that is, not values that depend on believing that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and was bodily resurrected and hauled up into heaven. (It’s a little hard to know what values would depend on believing that, really. Atonement? But is the Christian version of that really a value? If it is is it a broadly Christian value? It’s well known that the Christian atonement can seem like a very dubious bit of morality indeed to outsiders.) Bunting probably means simply values that are mistakenly attributed to Christianity but are in fact in no way exclusive to Christianity or dependent on it – values like compassion, mercy, universal love, a kind of irrational generosity. Those are admirable values (whatever the worries about the potential of extravagant compassion to encourage cruel people to go on being cruel), but they are not theistic values. It’s also not entirely clear that they’re Christian values even in the sense of ‘Christian’ being a shorthand for the abovementioned values like compassion and the rest – because to many people Christian values apparently means not turning the other cheek but various things to do with sex and alcohol. It is, frankly, not really a useful phrase, being flawed from more than one direction.

A duty to promote ‘community cohesion’

Sep 6th, 2008 5:51 pm | By

Polly Toynbee is not a fan of ‘faith’ schools.

Years of Labour handwringing over community cohesion hardly squares with dividing children by religion. Ask why and here’s the doublethink answer: religious academies now have a “duty to promote community cohesion”.

Is that what the faith school cheering section says? So…they just don’t have a clue? No idea that religion does promote ‘community cohesion’ but at the price of promoting ‘community hostility’ at the same time? They haven’t read the report on Saudi textbooks perhaps – the one that teaches children that ‘A Muslim is forbidden to love and aid the unbelieving enemies of God…They are the people of the Sabbath, whose young people God turned into apes, and whose old people God turned into swine to punish them.’ That’s ‘faith’ school for you.

What is right is contested

Sep 5th, 2008 6:06 pm | By

Ah, Norm took issue with Julian’s piece too.

By his choice of example Julian makes life too easy for himself. Mockery of the weak is an egregious practice of course. But what if someone makes a criticism of Islam – or any religion – in perfectly measured terms and some take offence, perceiving this criticism as mockery? What if the satirical treatment of a sacred figure in a work of fiction arouses anger, pleas for censorship, death threats? What if it is disputed between different parties whether certain images or statements are offensive or not? In such cases, the right to say what you think – within the usual limits concerning incitement to violence and defamation – trumps what any of us might believe is the right way to behave.

That’s the complaint I make about Nussbaum and about other people who claim that we can all agree on certain basic principles: that by their choice of example they make life too easy for themselves. It’s no good using people who don’t want to fight in wars as an example, because that’s easy; you have to pick people who want to murder their daughters for marrying without permission, because that’s not easy. It’s so not easy that it seems to demonstrate that in fact we can’t all agree on certain basic principles. We can all agree that we want justice or peace or an end to violence, but aha aha, it always turns out that other people mean something different by justice or peace or an end to violence from what we meant, and it turns out we can’t agree at all. (If we could, why would Saddam have done what he did for so long? Why would genocides have happened? Why would Jack Abramoff have pocketed so much money for keeping US labour laws out of the Marianas while workers there lived such horrible lives?) It’s tragic that we can’t all agree, but it’s true.

Think twice before mocking

Sep 4th, 2008 6:03 pm | By

I don’t entirely agree with Julian here. (Maybe all the commenters have said what I’m going to say; I don’t read comments at Comment is Free any more and haven’t read these. If they’ve already said this just go watch Sarah Palin re-runs or something.)

The piece is about religion and mockery and free speech and the predictability of what people say about them.

But isn’t mockery good, and any belief system incapable of putting up with it deficient in some way? That’s true, but you can’t just ignore the background against which lampooning takes place. Christians, for example, are not oppressed, despite what some wannabe martyrs would have us believe. British Muslims, in contrast, are a somewhat beleaguered minority. We should think twice before mocking them because, while comedy speaking truth to power is funny, the powerful laughing at the weak is not.

Of course, but that is to conflate two issues: mockery of Christians and Muslims, and mockery of Christianity and Islam. I don’t think I’ve spent much time and energy, if any, saying we shouldn’t be told not to mock Muslims. I have spent a lot of time and energy saying we shouldn’t be told not to mock Islam, or any other religion or any other set of ideas. I think there’s a big difference. I don’t much want to mock beleaguered minorities, but I also don’t want to extend that to holding the beliefs or the ideas of beleaguered minorities sacrosanct. That’s especially true given the fact that within any beleaguered minority there are of course people with more power and people with less power, and the people with more power may well use beliefs and ideas to justify their own power. That is in many ways true of people in the beleaguered minority known as Muslims.

There can of course be cases in which mockery of a religion or set of ideas is a way to mock the people who hold them. But even so, I think it’s important to make the distinction, and to keep it in mind.