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.

Surly, slapdash and dreadful, and that’s on a good day

Jan 12th, 2011 5:18 pm | By

I’m relieved to see that somebody in the UK is aware of the…….erm……..the lack of warmth in the ahem service professionals there. I wondered if it was just me.

No I didn’t really; instead I wondered if everybody there is crazy.

Surly, slapdash and dreadful. That’s how chef Michel Roux Jr sums up customer service in the UK.

“It’s not just in restaurants, you get bad service anywhere,” he says. “Even buying a newspaper you can find that you’re not even acknowledged. There’s no eye contact, no greeting or anything. Bad service is unforgivable and it’s everywhere in the UK.”

It’s true you know. It’s the surliness I can’t stand. Dignity would be all right; a polite reserve would be acceptable; but the surliness is truly awful. Buying a few harmless groceries at Waitrose leaves one feeling depressed and vaguely ashamed – as if one were an aristocrat walking on the faces of the poor merely because one wanted to buy some pasta sauce and the pasta to go underneath it.

Apparently they don’t even know they’re doing it – apparently they think that’s just how one acts.

One of the things that has shocked him most about making the show is how little some of the young people he has been working with know about basic courtesy.

“Just saying please and thank you, I was aghast that some of these kids found it very difficult even to utter those words,” he says. “There’s not much more basic in life than that, it’s simple upbringing. Whatever your background, courtesy matters.”

What a dreary picture that conjures up of their daily lives – with none of the tiny civilities that make social interaction pleasant instead of like an ugly highway to nowhere.

In Seattle it’s customary to say thanks to the bus driver when you get off. I love that.


Jan 12th, 2011 4:55 pm | By

Two of the ACLU attorneys who signed the letter to the feds did a blog post on it. The ACLU website has a whole section on Reproductive Freedom. Useful stuff.

To uphold the dignity of human life

Jan 12th, 2011 1:16 pm | By

I’ve been reading the bishop of Phoenix again. (I have my reasons. I’m doing a talk at CFI Vancouver in a couple of weeks, and I intend to draw on the bish.) I’ve been doing a close reading, as one might with a poem or a PR release. I noticed some things. Here’s one of them.

The decisions regarding life and death, morality and immorality as they relate to medical ethics are at the forefront of the Church’s mission today. As a result, the Church and her bishops have a heightened moral responsibility to remain actively engaged in these discussions and debates.

Look at what he’s saying there. He’s saying that decisions regarding life and death are at the forefront of the church’s mission, meaning, decisions that women should die are at the forefront of the church’s mission. He’s saying it’s a central and urgent matter that the church should see to it that women who could be saved should instead be made to die. He’s saying that the church and her bishops have a heightened moral responsibility to remain actively engaged in medical matters so that women who could be medically rescued will not be medically rescued. He’s saying his outfit and its hired guns have a moral responsibility to interfere with hospitals and doctors in order to force them to let women die when they could be rescued. He’s saying that decisions about life and death are his business and that he gets to decide them against pregnant women.

He never says that in so many words, of course, but that is exactly what he’s saying.

I have attempted to do my part in calling CHW and your hospitals to uphold the dignity of human life, and to embrace the fullness of what the Catholic Church teaches on the immorality of those actions that are an affront to the gift of human life and its inherent goodness from God.

He has done that by trying hard to coerce CHW and its hospitals to promise in writing to let all women die if an abortion is the only way to save them, even if the fetus can’t survive anyway. He calls that “calling hospitals to uphold the dignity of human life.” He calls refusing to save a woman’s life “upholding the dignity of human life.”

He pushes very hard on the noble-sounding bullshit about moral responsibility and the dignity of human life, in aid of a concerted effort to force hospitals to stop saving women’s lives.

He repays study.

Welcome to Sunnybrook Funny Farm

Jan 11th, 2011 6:22 pm | By


I was browsing, via a post on Eric’s blog, and what did I find but a fetid little abomination called “the stay-at-home-daughters movement.” As in “stay at home because you are inferior and subordinate and your Duty in life is to be a conduit for child production and a domestic servant.”

The stay-at-home-daughters movement, which is promoted by Vision Forum, encourages young girls and single women to forgo college and outside employment in favor of training as “keepers at home” until they marry. Young women pursuing their own ambitions and goals are viewed as selfish and antifamily; marriage is not a choice or one piece of a larger life plan, but the ultimate goal. Stay-at-home daughters spend their days learning “advanced homemaking” skills, such as cooking and sewing, and other skills that at one time were a necessity—knitting, crocheting, soap- and candle-making. A father is considered his daughter’s authority until he transfers control to her husband.

So women (and girls) are viewed as a kind of livestock – all women and girls. They’re all too weak and stupid to learn anything or do anything more than soap-making and child-rearing.

Vision Forum, for its part, is fully dedicated to turning back the clock on gender equality. Its website offers a cornucopia of sex-segregated books and products designed to conform children to rigid gender 
stereotypes starting from an early age. The All-American Boy’s Adventure Catalog shills an extensive selection of toy weapons (bow-and-arrow sets, guns, swords, and tomahawks), survival gear, and books and DVDs on war, the outdoors, and science. The Beautiful Girlhood Collection features dolls, cooking and sewing play sets, and costumes. There’s no room for doubt about the intended roles these girls will play later on in life.

Excellent. If the trend spreads, we have a pretty good chance of catching up to Pakistan in a decade or two.

No such bill of grievances

Jan 11th, 2011 11:56 am | By

Hitchens notes a difference between Mumtaz Qadri, and Paul Foot and Nelson Mandela.

A decision to resort to violence was not something to be undertaken without great care—and stated in terms that were addressed to reasonable people. From his prison cell, Nelson Mandela had joined the great tradition of the French philosophes, of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, of Marx and Engels in 1848, and of Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1930s—of men and women who felt the historic obligation to make a stand and to define it.

In other words, to give reasons.

Now look at the grinning face of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who last week destroyed a great human being. He did not explain. He boasted. As “a slave of the Prophet,” he had the natural right to murder Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, not even for committing “blasphemy” but for criticizing a law that forbade it for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And this sweeping new extension of the divine right to murder not only was not condemned by the country’s spiritual authorities; it was largely approved by them. No argument, no arraignment, no appeal—permission to kill anybody can merely be assumed by anybody, provided only that they mouth the correct incantations.

The incantations create the permission – it’s the ultimate speech act.

This is only one of the many things that go to make up the hideousness of Islamic jihadism, but I believe that it has received insufficient attention. Amid all our loose talk about Muslim “grievances,” have we even noticed that no such bill of grievances has ever been published, let alone argued and defended?

Well I’ve been paying attention to this. I paid attention to it in the aftermath of the London bombings, when there was indeed a good deal of vacant talk of “grievances.” I pointed out that a grievance is only as good as it is. Qadri had a “grievance,” and it was an absolutely shitty grievance. It was beneath contempt. He was aggrieved that Taseer would offer compassion to Aasia Bibi, and that he would urge reform of the blasphemy law. He was aggrieved that Taseer was less eager than he was to persecute or kill people for the crime of not being Muslim. His grievance was not legitimate.

The barometer is falling

Jan 10th, 2011 10:39 am | By

Oh god…it’s the usual problem, the problem I’ve been having so often lately, especially in the last week. It’s the problem of reading about something that’s so disgusting it’s hard to keep reading. It’s the surge of fear and loathing at the malevolence and brute stupidity and more malevolence in fellow human beings. Like this:

is in jail, desperately praying that she won’t be executed. Her neighbours are hoping she will be.”Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” said Maafia Bibi , a 20-year-old woman standing at the gate of the house next door. Her eyes glitter behind a scarf that covered her face. “You journalists keep coming here asking questions but the issue is resolved. Why has she not been hanged?”

Maafia was one of a group of about four women who accused Bibi, also known as Aasia Noreen, who is Christian, of insulting the prophet Muhammad during a row in a field 18 months ago. But she will not specify what Bibi actually said, because to repeat the words would itself be blasphemy. And so Bibi was sentenced to hang on mere hearsay – a Kafkaesque twist that seems to bother few in Itanwali, a village 30 miles outside Lahore.

So I feel sick, and can hardly stand to read more (but there is more, and it’s even uglier). And there’s so much of that kind of thing.

And for refreshment I can come home and catch up on the news from Tucson, and Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party, and Glenn Beck.

Listen to the banned

Jan 9th, 2011 4:59 pm | By

You know Deeyah? She’s doing a great thing.

Now a project to recognise the contribution of some of the world’s most important protest singers has been pulled together by a woman who was forced to give up performing on stage because of threats made on her life. Listen To The Banned is an album including the work of 14 international artists, all of whom have experienced imprisonment, censorship, harassment or violence because of their music.

Deeyah, a classically trained singer born in Norway, of Pakistani and Afghan parents, had a burgeoning career in pop music when she had to leave Norway because of harassment and disapproval from hardline Islamic groups. She moved to the US and then the UK, but gave up the limelight when the threats and antagonism proved just as strong wherever she went.

She emailed me a few days ago to ask me to get the word out. Seriously! I’m all hero-worshippy.

Tiken Jah Fakoly, a singer from Ivory Coast who has been forced into exile, said: “Normally people get trophies for selling most records, but this CD highlights artists who fight for justice.”

Abazar Hamid, a Sudanese songwriter now living in exile in Egypt, said: “Listen To The Banned has empowered me to face censorship and let me trust on my music and feel I am not alone.”

Mahsa Vahdat of Iran said that she was encouraged by being part of the project. “I am honoured to be part of this, we are invisible and hidden voices that can impress the world and can elevate the feeling of life,” she said.

Pass it on.

Update: Links to purchase sites in different countries here.

You can’t do both, chapter 297

Jan 9th, 2011 11:54 am | By

I think Ahmed Rashid, much as I value his work, is over-optimistic about what is possible.

Taseer’s death has unleashed the mad dogs of hell, inspiring the minority of fanatics to go to any lengths to destroy the democratic, secular and moderate Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

How can there be such a thing as a secular Islamic Republic of anything? Or a secular Christian or Hindu one either?

I don’t think there can. That’s where Jinnah went wrong, and it’s where the whole idea falls apart before it takes its first breath. People who think there can be such a thing don’t grasp what “secular” means. An Islamic Republic is, obviously, an officially religious state, and that is the very thing that a secular state can’t be.

The idea must be that you can do both…but how could you? If it’s Islamic it’s Islamic, and then it’s not secular. You can’t do both. And that’s exactly why Pakistan is so fucked up, and getting more so every day.

A street named Qadir

Jan 8th, 2011 5:24 pm | By

Sadly, poignantly, indeed tragically, Aatish Taseer sees things more clearly than his father did.

Pakistan was part of his faith, and one of the reasons for the differences that arose between us in the last years of his life–and there were many–was that this faith never allowed him to accept what had become of the country his forefathers had fought for.

And where my father and I would have parted ways in the past was that I believe Pakistan and its founding in faith, that first throb of a nation made for religion by people who thought naively that they would restrict its role exclusively to the country’s founding, was responsible for producing my father’s killer.

For if it is science and rationality whose fruit you wish to see appear in your country, then it is those things that you must enshrine at its heart; otherwise, for as long as it is faith, the men who say that Pakistan was made for Islam, and that more Islam is the solution, will always have the force of an ugly logic on their side. And better men, men like my father, will be reduced to picking their way around the bearded men, the men with one vision that can admit no other, the men who look to the sanctities of only one Book.

Exactly. Better men and women will be wiped out by the bearded men, until there is nothing left but bearded men and their terrorized slaves.

Already, even before his body is cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan have banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals.

I should say too that on Friday every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the Chief Minister of Punjab, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.

And so, though I believe, as deeply as I have ever believed anything, that my father joins that sad procession of martyrs – every day a thinner line – standing between him and his country’s descent into fear and nihilism, I also know that unless Pakistan finds a way to turn its back on Islam in the public sphere, the memory of the late governor of Punjab will fade.

And where one day there might have been a street named after him, there will be one named after Malik Mumtaz Qadir, my father’s boy-assassin.

As Salman Rushdie said a couple of days ago – RIP Pakistan.

Who is responsible for the murder?

Jan 8th, 2011 3:30 pm | By

Mohammed Hanif asks who is responsible for the murder of Salman Taseer? (And who is responsible for the multiple deaths and critical injuries in Arizona? Who is responsible for the attempted assassination of a Congressional representative and the successful assassination of a federal judge outside a Safeway in Tucson? The questions are related. It’s not just a single assassin in either case – it’s also a society, a culture, a discourse, a world view, a rhetoric, a climate, a mindset, and the people who help to create them.)

When Pakistan’s television anchors and newspaper columnists describe Salman Taseer’s assassination [as] a tragedy, they are not telling us the whole truth.

Because many of these very anchors and columnists have stated, in no uncertain terms, that by expressing his reservations about the blasphemy law, Salman Taseer had crossed a line on the other side of which is certain death.

This kind of thing isn’t harmless, nor is it without any effect.

The same Islamabad where Salman Taseer bled to death in the middle of a pretty neighbourhood played host just a couple of weeks ago to a Namoos-e Risalat (Dignity of the Prophet) conference which was attended by individuals whose party manifestos include the death by murder of Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus and Jews.

Were some of our prominent politicians not in attendance?

Do these same people not inhabit our government corridors, media organisations and security agencies? Do we not break bread with them at weddings and funerals?

The same thing, mutatis mutandis, is true here.

Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang

Jan 8th, 2011 12:18 pm | By

Oh jesus god now it’s our turn – a Democratic representative and a federal judge and a bunch of aids shot at an outdoor meeting.

I’ve been to meetings with my representative, often. They’re wide open. You can chat with him up close and personal as well as during the meeting.

Salman Taseer refused to hide, Gabrielle Giffords held a public streetcorner meeting…and look what it got them.

We’re all doomed. I feel sick.

Taseer had been abandoned by his own party

Jan 6th, 2011 12:53 pm | By

Back in Pakistan…Salman Taseer is buried.

Taseer’s three sons, men with black shirts and red eyes, flung rose petals into the grave. A bugle sounded; graveyard workers shovelled sticky winter clay on to the fearless politician’s coffin. And across Pakistan, people wondered what was disappearing into the grave with him.

Liberals have long been a minority force in Pakistan, reviled for importing “western” ideas and culture; now they are virtually an endangered species.

As Taseer was laid to rest in Lahore, his assassin, 26-year-old policeman Mumtaz Qadri, was also being showered with rose petals, in Islamabad. Cheering supporters clapped Qadri as he was bundled into court.

Oh dear god…it’s such a nightmare. That people like that exist and are happy with the way they think and feel and act. That Pakistan is full of them. That savage mindless cruelty and bullying are the norm there. That neighbors can first refuse to drink water from a glass offered them by a woman of the “wrong” religion and hence caste, and can then accuse her of the capital crime of “insulting” a guy who’s been dead for 14 centuries. And then rejoice at the murder of a man who tried to protect and support her.

It’s a nightmare.

Taseer had been abandoned by his own party.After Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws on 8 November, Taseer visited her in jail with his wife and daughter to show his support. Shortly after, an Islamic mob rioted outside the governor’s house in Lahore, burning his effigy and calling for his death. On television, prominent media commentators joined the chorus of criticism.

Senior figures in his own party turned tail. Awan, the law minister, said there was no question of reforming the blasphemy law.

A nightmare.

Recursively political

Jan 6th, 2011 12:39 pm | By

Furthermore, Rosenau’s misreading is itself political, in the sense that I dislike. It’s what one might call a little too convenient. It frames me (as I just told him in a comment on his post) as dogmatic and unreasonable and nuance-free and kind of stupid. Well that’s how accommodationists like to frame gnu atheists, isn’t it – so how helpful it is that his foot slipped just as he was reading what I’d written so that he got it backward.

It’s the usual, usual, usual thing. Claim that new atheists say what they don’t say. Claim that new atheists in general say what one new atheist once said in a bilious moment. Paste in what one new atheist said and still claim that she said something much more simple-minded and doctrinaire.

That is what it is to be “self-consciously political.”

In which Josh Rosenau does not read carefully

Jan 6th, 2011 12:13 pm | By

To say the least. To say it more politely than he deserves.

He did a post a couple of days ago on my post about Ben’s post. None of that now; I know you can follow along. It’s a pig’s life in the British army. Pull your socks up.

First he quotes Ben:

[Mooney's] stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

Then he quotes me:

I think that’s right, and it is the self-consciously political aspect that I have always found somewhat alien. I say “somewhat” because I can’t possibly reject all politics. I realize one has to weigh consequences (as we were just discussing with reference to the Vatican and a life-saving abortion) and consider priorities. But I think when serious discussion becomes too entangled with politics, then it simply stops being serious discussion and turns into some form of campaigning.

Then he responds:

But this is exactly what I find so strange – the ambivalence and even aversion to politics. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know why she, and many others in the gnu camp, seem to equate politics with “campaigning” with some sort of sleaze or dishonesty, and think that this is totally distinct from the bullshit that bloggers do on blogs (including gnu atheist bloggers on gnu atheist blogs).

And so on, for the rest of the post.

Do you see? Do you see where his reading skills deserted him? It’s in the part where he responds to me. He ignores what I said. He ignores what I said, and responds to what I didn’t say. I specifically said “I can’t possibly reject all politics” and then said why, yet he responds to me as rejecting all politics.

Bad blogger. No cookie.

A little comic relief

Jan 5th, 2011 11:58 am | By

Mooney in Playboy is funny, you must admit. The tasteful illustration is funny, given Kirshenbaum’s (laudable) concerns about sexism. The title is funny. The post is funny. The comment is funny. It’s all funny, except for the article itself, which is more goofy than funny.

It could be a good piece, if it were re-done, by someone with a different agenda. It could be about the charge of discovery without the baggage of “reconciling religion and science.” It could be about the wonder of nature without the axe-grinding of

Doherty is among a growing number of nonreligious researchers who view scientific inquiry itself as a spiritual quest—a trend that has the potential to dramatically upend the idea that science and religion must be in conflict.

As Jerry Coyne puts it,

There is absolutely no doubt, unless you’re obtuse, that the purpose of Mooney’s piece is to show the commonality of scientists and religious people—as both are “spiritual”—and thereby make common cause of the two magisteria.

And the next thing you know you’re trying to explain how Adam and Eve can be both metaphorical and real, or whatever the latest dodge is.

PZ is also not convinced.

…trying to coopt an honest scientific appreciation of the wonders of the universe as support for religion is a dishonest attempt to prop up bogus superstitions with an appeal to emotions — any emotions.

It contaminates the emotions, too. Do I have to look over my shoulder every time I gaze slack-jawed at a sunset now? I hope not.

Huge pressure 2 cow down

Jan 4th, 2011 12:47 pm | By

The murder of Salman Taseer just fills me with rage and disgust. I don’t have anything more intelligent to say about it.

Just a month ago we were reading about him:

Hundreds of Islamist hardliners took to the streets of Pakistan’s main cities yesterday in support of the country’s prejudicial blasphemy laws and against two leading politicians they have threatened for speaking out against the persecution of a Christian woman. At rallies in Karachi, Lahore and other cities, the crowds of protestors warned the political class against any attempt to amend or repeal the laws. They also chanted slogans denouncing Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, a liberal parliamentarian. 

Mr Taseer and Ms Rehman were singled out for speaking out against the treatment of Aasia Bibi…

But Mr Taseer refused to give in, as I noted at the time:

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me…Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

Brave and funny, and the malevolent reeking bastards who hated him for saying a woman shouldn’t be killed for belonging to an outsider religion have shut him up. It makes me sick.

Salman Rushdie told me on Facebook that Taseer’s last Twitter post 4 days ago said

“I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

Which makes me want to scream.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant?

Jan 3rd, 2011 3:57 pm | By

So to return to the core of the issue that Ben was talking about - the utility of atheism for atheists, science communication, conflict as a way into discussion rather than an impediment to it, passion as a motivator. I talked to him about it at Facebook, and tried (not for the first time) to take a hard look at why I feel so strongly about the subject.

I said that I have a visceral reaction to advice about framing. I do. Why do I?

First of all, I’ve had it for a long time; maybe as long as I’ve been thinking about anything. I dislike all the manipulative “professions” – advertising, PR, political operative stuff. I dislike trickery and pandering. I dislike them in an objective sense; I think they’re harmful. I can see their utility for some purposes, but I think they do some harm in the process even so. For some jobs and vocations, they’re simply disastrous – they’re the exact opposite of what people should be doing. Scholarship, teaching, and journalism are among those vocations.

And that perhaps explains why I dislike them even more in a subjective sense – why that’s not what I want to do. I want to spend my time trying to tell the truth about things, to the best of my ability, as I see it, and all the other qualifications. I want to do that, I don’t want to coddle or manage or mollify. I also don’t want to be coddled or managed or mollified.

And I think that’s a reasonable commitment. I think the opposite commitment is more dubious, because it’s more apt to damage people’s cognitive abilities. I think in general clarity and honesty are better than tactful arrangement when it comes to public discourse.


Jan 3rd, 2011 12:22 pm | By

Tony Blair preaches the gospel according to Armstrong.

Common to all great religions is love of neighbors and human equality before God.

That’s a falsehood. I won’t even bother to elaborate, because it’s too obvious. It’s just a pious, smarmy, conventional, wishful falsehood.

Blair admits as much himself in the very next paragraph.

Unfortunately, compassion is not the only context in which religion motivates people. It can also promote extremism, even terrorism. This is where faith becomes a badge of identity in opposition to those who do not share it, a kind of spiritual nationalism that regards those who do not agree – even those within a faith who live a different view of it – as unbelievers, infidels, and thus enemies.

Which rules out both love of neighbors and equality (before “God” or otherwise). So why the bromide? Because…I don’t know, because it sounds good, I suppose.

…for those for whom religion matters, globalization can sometimes be accompanied by an aggressive secularism or hedonism that makes many uneasy.

Nice. He pairs secularism with hedonism, and labels it “aggressive” for good measure. Passive-aggressive theocracy meets “aggressive” secularism. I’ll take the latter.

Aggressive secularists and extremists feed off each other. Together, they do constitute a real challenge to people of faith.

Even nicer. He pairs secularists with Islamists and other theocratic thugs.

Happy new year to you too, Mr Blair.

Atheism and utility

Jan 2nd, 2011 2:15 pm | By

Benjamin Nelson has a very interesting post on science communication and atheism and passion at Talking Philosophy. Much of it transcribes a conversation he had with Chris Mooney in 2009, in which both of them agreed on some common ground.

…the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that [Mooney's] stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

I think that’s right, and it is the self-consciously political aspect that I have always found somewhat alien. I say “somewhat” because I can’t possibly reject all politics. I realize one has to weigh consequences (as we were just discussing with reference to the Vatican and a life-saving abortion) and consider priorities. But I think when serious discussion becomes too entangled with politics, then it simply stops being serious discussion and turns into some form of campaigning.

I would have liked to discuss Ben’s post in situ, but I’m banned from commenting there so I can’t, so I’ll do it here.

The post was barely posted, though, before the subject was changed to “why the new atheist crowd can’t just disagree with Mooney instead of despising him.” That wasn’t what Ben was talking about, but that became part of the discussion. I’d have thought the reasons would be well known, since they were certainly discussed a lot.

Here’s one reason. The fans of Mooney argue that he is passionately concerned about climate change and other, similar issues, and that’s why his priority is better science communication right now so that voters will make better, more informed decisions. But if that is true, I don’t understand why he has refused to engage with critics and answer genuine questions. The thing is: I couldn’t do what Mooney thinks I should do even if I wanted to, because I don’t know what it is. I really don’t. That’s why I asked him, from the outset – I really didn’t know. He said Jerry Coyne’s “Seeing is Believing” was bad strategy. I thought and still think Coyne’s review is an exemplary bit of reasoned discussion. These two facts together mean that I cannot figure out what is wanted. I’m not bullshitting when I say that; I really cannot figure it out.

And that’s a puzzle. If Mooney’s thinking really were political and strategic…then he would have engaged with questions. He didn’t. That’s a puzzle.

I know this is old old news, but it’s being discussed again, and a book I co-wrote is being cited, and Ben’s post is interesting and enlightening, so here it is anyway.

What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties

Jan 1st, 2011 6:13 pm | By

I mentioned in a comment yesterday that the way bishops and theologians pride themselves on not letting compassion or empathy trump their mindless Absolute Rules reminded me of something Hannah Arendt said in Eichmann in Jerusalem -

The Nazis prided themselves on exactly that – to the point that they got maudlin about it. “Nobody knows how difficult it is for us” sort of thing. Seriously. They did a lot of quiet boasting about their ability to rise above their sympathies.

I found the passage I was thinking of – pp 105-6 in the Penguin edition.

The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German army…Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler – who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself – was very simple and probably very effective: it consisted in turning these reactions around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!

Ronald Conte, with his “no matter the cost, no matter the cost, no matter the cost,” reminds me of that kind of thinking.