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.

Holy misogyny

Dec 25th, 2011 3:45 pm | By

More festive jollity, this time in Jerusalem Israel.

Residents of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Beit Shemesh called Israel police officers “Nazis” on Sunday, after they removed a sign ordering the separation of men and women in a street in that neighborhood.

In response to the removal of the sign by police officers and city inspectors from Beit Shemesh, a crowd of local ultra-Orthodox residents gathered around them, shouting and cursing at them. One man hurled rocks at the police officers, but managed to flee the scene. No one was hurt and no arrests were made.

Several hours after the police removed the sign, residents of the neighborhood reinstated it.

Earlier on Sunday, a Channel 2 news team was attacked and beaten by 200 ultra-Orthodox men at the same location on the street where the sign that was removed had been hanging.

Nice guys.

Update: forgot to thank Stewart for the link.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Dec 25th, 2011 10:46 am | By

The pope really makes it too easy. Candy from a baby is arduous in comparison.

In his homily [at Christmas eve mass the pope] said: “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem.”

Oh yes? See through the superficial glitter is it?


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Well merry xmas to you too

Dec 25th, 2011 10:08 am | By

Says Boko Haram, setting off bombs in churches and elsewhere that kill 32 people and injure many more. God is love, Allah is merciful, compassion is at the heart of every great religion, boom boom boom. Screams, agony, blood, death, sorrow, loss. What a nice present.

Businessman Munir Nasidi was in a hotel opposite the church when the blast occurred.

He told the BBC: “When I came out of the hotel, people were running around. Everyone was crying. They were bringing out casualties. Nobody was getting near the building as there was a fire.”

Bomb blast victim is in Suleja, Nigeria, 25 Dec

Peace, love, good will.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

In a spirit of rational inquiry

Dec 24th, 2011 5:52 pm | By

A question is posed:

Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.

If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?

Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.

How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).

This question was posed after I posted The dancer from the dance. Perhaps that’s a coincidence.

Be that as it may, I’ll say how I answer the question. How should one react? It depends. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on who is asking or demanding, and what that who has said in the past, and whether that who has or seems to have an agenda other than the stated one. It depends on the situation, and the reasons given, and one’s own understanding of all those.

In a sense, of course one should ask all those questions. Of course, if the demand has any merit, one should take it into consideration. That’s almost tautological. If someone has good reasons, then one should pay attention to the reasons. You bet.

But it’s also true that sometimes one already knows the request or demand has no merit. Sometimes one has already seen and discussed the request or demand; one has asked for merit; one has examined the concerns; one has considered their legitimacy; and one has determined, to the best of one’s ability, that they have little or no merit. One is in such cases not assuming that the requests or demands are without merit, one is concluding that they are, based on reasons.

And the burden is not only on the person being told to shut up. That part got left out of the questions. It’s a very intrusive request or demand, telling other people what and how to write. There’s a large presumption against it, because we value free expression and free inquiry. The people being told to shut up or tone it down are not the only ones who have to do some careful thinking and question-asking.

We (the two authors of Does God Hate Women?) have experience of this ourselves. There was a time when it looked as though the publisher might decide to shut up by not publishing it after all. That didn’t happen, and the publisher behaved beautifully, but it was an issue for a few days, and I can tell you, we did not think the request or demand had any merit.

So, in short, I don’t agree with the conclusion. I think that sometimes, even often, one does get to think – not assume, but think – that people who are telling you to shut up or tone it down are indeed doing a wrong thing (to translate “beyond the moral pale” into terms I recognize).

And now I have to go make the plum pudding. Happy Saturnalia.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The only one willing to take on Big Peer Review

Dec 24th, 2011 1:09 pm | By

Ken at Popehat has a Marc Stephens version of the Hitler rant. It’s very funny.

“You think we can get a NORMAL person to pose as a lawyer and threaten 17-year-olds?”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Jesus or death

Dec 23rd, 2011 5:08 pm | By

The Telegraph blurbs Dr Tim Stanley:

Dr Tim Stanley is a historian of the United States. He is working on a biography of Pat Buchanan.

Well, if you say so, but reading his post, I find it hard to believe he’s a Real Historian™.

Anti-social displays of bad taste are becoming common in the United States of America. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue reports the following outrages: “In a South Carolina cancer center, a 67-year-old volunteer Santa was evicted because of the “different cultures and beliefs of the patients we care for” … In an elementary school in Stockton, California, poinsettias were banned but somehow snowmen were permitted; they justified their censorship by saying there was a Sikh temple in the city … A skeleton St. Nick was found hanging from a cross on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg, Virginia.”

Wouldn’t you think a  Real Historian™ would have the nous to find out that “The Catholic League” is just Bill Donohue himself? A League of one?

But it gets worse.

More worrying is the insidious conversion of the religious festival of Christmas into a purely cultural phenomenon. Christians on both sides of the Atlantic have noticed with dismay that the commercial aspects of the season have been elevated (I saw crackers on sale in September) while its spiritual dimension has been squeezed out of the public sphere.

This from a historian? He seems to think it just happened. This “insidious conversion” has been going on just about as long as “Christmas” has meant anything (which isn’t all that long).

But it gets much worse.

I’ve said it before and I’ll write it again: the Founding Fathers never intended for faith to be excluded from public or political life. America might lack England’s established church or continental Europe’s pervasive Catholicism, but it was founded by Christians along Christian principles with the express intention of building a more Christian commonwealth. It is, at risk of sounding pedantic, a Christian nation in all but its absence of national church.

Uh……….that’s not history, it’s an agenda. It’s bullshit. It’s not true. Real Historians™ don’t say or write that. That’s David Barton history – for which see my esteemed blog-neighbor Chris Rodda at This Week in Christian Nationalism.

The real war on Christmas is not the effort to deprive it of a place in the public sphere, which is more like a set of small, localised skirmishes. No, the real war is the effort to strip the festival of its meaning. Christmas isn’t about brandy eggnog and mince pies, generous presents and bad TV. It’s about the birth of Jesus Christ. Take away that central truth and you are left with a holiday that lacks a message. Take away that message, and the system of morals that flows naturally from it, and you risk stripping America of its ethical foundation. There is no better example than the decision of the dean of Washington and Jefferson College to approve the display of a Christmas tree covered in condoms. This is the future: the joyless abuse of the hollow remnants of Western civilisation. It is a future that, like the rubber covered tree, points to sterility and death.

That’s our choice: the message of Jesus Christ, or sterility and death. Yessir, Dr Tim.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

You did ask

Dec 23rd, 2011 11:32 am | By

I was asked what I think of the quotes from the NO God Blog and Al Stefanelli quoted in Chris Stedman’s most recent Letter to the Atheists. Ok; what I think.

The first one is from a post titled “A Point was missed” on what appears to be a blog on the website of American Atheists. It’s not signed. It’s short. It’s dated April 29, 2010. It seems about as random, as an “example” of anything, as one could get. The bit quoted is very badly and stupidly worded; no disagreement there; but so what? I don’t even know who wrote it. I certainly don’t take it as representative of anything. It’s nearly two years old. What on earth is the point of dredging up an old obscure anonymous blog post as part of what is called a “sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims”? Yes of course you can find people of any point of view or faction or party or any other category, saying stupid things, but what of it?

The second is from Al Stefanelli here at FTB ten days ago – so much better on the recent, and representative, and non-anonymous score; but when you read it you find it’s much worse on the making the case score. In context the quoted bit is not shocking or (to use Stedman’s term) “hateful.” Al doesn’t just say “Islam sucks booya”; he makes a case. You’d never know it from Stedman’s article.

So that’s what I think. The first was a crappy comment but it’s obscure and far from recent so why bring it up, and the second was a forcefully argued comment and not “hateful.”

And for dessert I will say a little more about what I think.

As someone who is regularly targeted with false critiques by fellow atheist activists — most frequently that I believe that religious beliefs should be immune from criticism, a claim I countered in this post, or that I am an apologist for religion, for which no evidence has ever been provided — I can attest firsthand that the debate over how atheists should approach religion is perhaps the most contentious conversation in the atheist movement. It is a frequent cause of disagreement, and the disagreements it inspires are very often vitriolic and personal.

This is what I think. Stedman isn’t “targeted” by atheists. Atheists reply to things Stedman says about them (us) or publishes other people saying about them/us or both. That’s not “targeting.” To reply is not to target. Atheists don’t just hide behind trees and pounce on Stedman for no reason; atheists react when Stedman does some shit-stirring about them, as he does with dreary regularity, including in this very post.

Stedman gets quite a lot of attention and praise for this shit-stirring – this “targeting,” one might almost call it. I think that’s probably a major reason he keeps doing it – from his point of view it works. It’s self-pitying and disingenuous to complain about people responding to his endless accusations. I suspect that he actually wants the responses, and that that’s why he keeps stirring the shit. He gets attention and praise for stirring the shit, and then he gets attention and sympathy when we disagree with him; win-win.

Oh and one more thing – I don’t consider him a “fellow atheist.”

Update: and one more one more thing: more about this at


Almost Diamonds

En Tequila es Verdad

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Irony in the north

Dec 23rd, 2011 10:20 am | By

Minnesota has more than its share of wits and piss-takers. There’s its whole entire gay community for instance.

The gay and lesbian community of Minnesota has issued a letter of apology to recently resigned Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch for ruining the institution of marriage and causing her to stray from her husband and engage in an “inappropriate relationship.”

“On behalf of all gays and lesbians living in Minnesota, I would like to  wholeheartedly apologize for our community’s successful efforts to  threaten your traditional marriage,” reads the letter from John Medeiros. “We apologize that our selfish requests to marry those we love has cheapened and degraded traditional marriage so much that we caused you  to stray from your own holy union for something more cheap and tawdry.”


The letter comes on the heels of Koch’s own apology, released yesterday, in which she expressed her deep regret for  “engaging in a relationship with a Senate staffer.” Although the letter did not specify the identity of the other participant in the  “inappropriate relationship,” it is widely rumored to be former communications chief Michael Brodkorb, who lost several positions with the GOP in the wake of the scandal.

Koch, Brodkorb, and their fellow Republicans campaigned this year to put a constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot to  define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, thus forbidding gay marriage. Sadly, the amendment comes too late to prevent Koch from straying from her own marriage.

Dear good Minnesota. Happy hols.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The dancer from the dance

Dec 22nd, 2011 5:09 pm | By

It’s accommodationism day in the neighborhood…I guess it’s a Christmas thing. Baby Jesus is born, Tim Minchin got his (requested) song dropped from a tv show, Julian tries to square a circle, and to make it all complete, Chris Stedman writes yet another “mean atheists are doing it wrong and I am doing it right” article for the Huffington Post. I had been ignoring Stedman for months, but he does make it difficult.

…effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.

Well some people do actually believe the most extreme forms; often a lot of people. It’s not the case that most religious believers are thoroughly liberal and unextreme.

But some of the most vocal atheist activists understand religious criticism differently. Take, for example, this sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims:

Ah ah ah – not so fast – those two items shouldn’t be mashed together. Talking about Islam is not the same as talking about Muslims and they can’t usefully be talked about under a single heading.

PZ Myers: “Come on, Islam… It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

Yes, and? Stedman fails to say what is wrong with that, and he also fails to say what the post was about. It was about the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris whose life was trashed because she had to go into hiding after drawing a benign cartoon of Mohammed for Draw Mohammed day. I hope Stedman doesn’t deny that Islam takes Mohammed very very seriously.

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

But they don’t, and it’s unfortunately typical of Chris Stedman to pretend that they do.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Make sure that no one ever sees it

Dec 22nd, 2011 3:29 pm | By

Omigod omigod omigod Tim Minchin wrote a song about Jesus and it has jokes in it – jokes about Jesus! Would you believe it? He wrote it because some tv people asked him to for their pre-Christmas show.

It was the worst possible time to be writing a new song – I’ve been overworked and ill, was on tour, and was really feeling the stress. But I wasn’t going to say no… it’s Jonathan Ross!

It’s certainly not very contentious, but even so, compliance people and producers and lawyers all checked my lyrics long before the cameras rolled. As always with these bespoke writing jobs, I was really stressed for about 3 days, and almost chucked it in the bin 5 times, and freaked out that it wasn’t funny and all that boring shit that people like me go through when we’re lucky enough to have with a big audience with high expectations.

I did my song and everyone laughed and Tom said it was great and when it was done I ran off set onto the back of a waiting motorbike, got from South Bank to the Hammersmith Apollo in 13 minutes, walked into the building, straight on to stage to sing White Wine in the Sun with Professor Brian Cox. Rock n roll.

And after all that, someone sent it to ITV’s boss of tv Peter Fincham, who axed it.

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

And Tim Minchin wrote the blog post about it, and the BBC reported that Minchin had written a blog post about it. No really. It did. The headline is “Tim Minchin fumes over song cut from Jonathan Ross show” and then it summarizes his blog post. Just as I am, now, but I’m not the BBC!

And the Telegraph did a sniffy censorious shock-horror piece.

A song by comedian Tim Minchin that describes Jesus Christ as a “zombie” and compares the Virgin Mary to a “lizard” has been cut from Jonathan Ross’ Christmas broadcast by ITV executives for fear of offending Christians.

That’s just the subhead. It goes on to quote chunks of the song, so that the readers will understand exactly what was so fraffly shocking.

Minchin asked the Telegraph reporter, Matthew Holehouse, some very cogent questions on Twitter, which was amusing. (And Holehouse answered, also amusing, though in a different way.)

Another Streisand effect, pretty much. Uh oh, drop that blasphemous song. Blasphemous song gets reported and quoted all over the place. GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Are we making progress yet?

Dec 22nd, 2011 11:43 am | By

Julian has a new installment of Heathen’s Progress out, in which he sums up the progress so far, by repeating what he’s said in the previous installments, with links, then in the last couple of paragraphs asks if that’s progress, and tells the reader to tell him. It’s all rather stately and solemn, as if he were a government commission, but let’s do our best to help.

Since this series is called Heathen’s progress, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the festive break to see if I’d actually made any.

Back at the beginning, I explained that my purpose was to move the God debate on from the stalemate it seemed to be stuck in, to see what could come after the new atheism. When I said that “the battle lines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought”, I was quickly and rightly told that I should start by ditching the military, confrontational metaphors. Lesson one: how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter.

Well this is part of what makes it seem so stately and as-if-a-government-commission. It seems odd for one person to think he can move the God debate on, and to say that that’s what his purpose is. It seems…official, and powerful, and more than one person can usually do. It seems a little peremptory to look for what could come after the new atheism when it’s not at all clear that “the new atheism” is over yet. I think most gnu atheists, if you asked them, would laugh at the idea and say fuck no, we’re in the thick of it.

And then there’s the needing to be told that military confrontational metaphors are just that, and needing to learn that how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter. Actually I know perfectly well he didn’t need to be told or to learn; I know that because he’s been writing about both for years, so obviously he’s perfectly well aware of both. I suppose he means he needed to be reminded. (Then one wonders why. Is it because there’s so much pugnacious anti-gnu rhetoric around, and some of it has infected him without his noticing until readers pointed it out? Could be.)

Toward the end of his recapitulation of the entries so far, I come in for a tiny rap on the knuckles.

The clamour to sign up the articles from religious leaders and thinkers was notable by its absence. Many of the people I wrote to did not even reply. When it comes to the crunch, it seems that very few genuinely embrace, or are prepared to admit they embrace, a form of religion that doesn’t make supernatural claims. This finding was backed up by two surveys I conducted, which while far from authoritative strongly suggest that churchgoers do, indeed, hold traditional beliefs about such things as Christ’s resurrection and the need to worship God. (Oddly, many people have claimed I was surprised by these results, when, as I explained in a reply, I have never expressed any amazement at all.)

The penultimate link is to my “Surprised, surprised,” in which I quoted several people who were bemused “at Julian’s effortful discovery and announcement of what everyone already knew.” He says it’s odd that people claim he was surprised when he never said he was, and yet, in the very next paragraph he says

I think the real movement has come from grappling with the question of how important literal belief is to religion. From an agnostic position, I have become convinced that it plays a very important part…

Quite, and that’s all I meant, and that’s all the others meant. (Nobody said anything about amazement.) He laboriously discovered what a lot of people had been saying all along. It’s not particularly odd to point that out.

At the end the summing up is summed up.

Taken together, some in the blogosphere have suggested that in this series I have moved closer to the new atheists. I’m not sure this is true. For a variety of reasons (including unfortunate headlines others gave to some of my pieces) the extent to which I have disagreed with the new atheists has probably been overstated because it is the disagreements that I have found more interesting to write about. I agree with them that literal belief is not a straw man, strongly expressed belief is not aggressive dogmatism, we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and that science does pose difficult questions for many religious people. But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful and that in order to make progress we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst, and find common ground with more liberal believers in order to counter the more pernicious forms of belief.

The last sentence seems to contradict the next to last – or if not flatly contradict it, at least to take back the ground it had just seemed to yield. If we “have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst,” then we are not (and indeed should not be) “as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism.” It just doesn’t make sense to say that we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and then in the next breath say we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst (emphasis added). It looks like having it both ways, or trying to – throwing a sop to “the new atheists” but then going on to say but all the same, do it this way and not that way; focus on the good not the bad; find common ground. Well you can’t have it both ways. If we really should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, then none of that “you must meet them halfway” malarkey applies, because it certainly doesn’t apply to the way people have been criticizing atheism.

Let me try harder to be fair. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what he means by “free” – maybe he means legally free. Except that wouldn’t make sense, because we already are legally free – so he has to mean what I mean, which is socially free, rhetorically free – i.e. not constantly subject to silly social pressure to be nicer to religion. But then maybe he thinks that that kind of freedom is not in tension with practical advice to “find common ground” for the sake of…some larger goal, in this case countering “the more pernicious forms of belief.” Maybe he does. In that case the last sentence doesn’t contradict the previous one…but I still think he’s mistaken, because I think that putative practical advice is very often just a disguised version of the silly social pressure. I think at this point it’s damn near impossible to distinguish the one from the other, and I think people who give that kind of putative practical advice should be sharply aware of that.

Is that progress? You tell me.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Now that’s what I call Public Relations

Dec 21st, 2011 4:59 pm | By

The Twenty-First Floor gives us a video by someone called SKEPTICSExposed, titled Rhys Morgan Harassing Burzynski Clinic. It is deeply absurd.

The video then goes on to try and link Rhys to the identity fraud of James Randis longtime partner in exactly the same way that Marc Stephens did in emails to Popehat and even using the same images. Which does make me wonder if SKEPTICSExposed might be down to the infamous Marc Stephens. Particularly as, like the red arrow letter before, these videos don’t attempt to address any of the arguments made by Rhys  and others.

Oh surely not. Surely Marc Stephens wouldn’t be so silly as to continue trying to bully Rhys Morgan even now that the Burzynski Clinic has issued a press release saying it has severed its relationship with Marc Stephens. I mean he wouldn’t go around trying to bully skeptics as some kind of wack hobby would he?

Mind you he is still deeply involved with Ken White aka Popehat – still corresponding with him with near-amorous intensity, still trying to tell Ken what to do on the basis of not a damn thing.

Skeptics have all the fun, wouldn’t you agree?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Compassion in action

Dec 21st, 2011 11:13 am | By

The Irish government again notes that the Catholic church failed to prevent child abuse by its own employees, failed to follow its own rules, failed to call the cops, failed to protect children, failed to act like decent human beings, failed failed failed. It succeeded at protecting itself and its own people, and that’s it.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has highlighted the failure of the Catholic Church to bring child abuse allegations to the attention of gardaí, following the publication of previously redacted portions of the Cloyne report.

“The publication of the redacted portions of the Cloyne report yet again details the failure of the church to comply with its own child abuse guidelines and its failure to ensure that allegations of abuse when first received were brought to the notice of An Garda Síochána,” Mr Shatter said.

So children were screwed, literally as well as figuratively, and priests were protected. The safe and prosperous were shielded, and the weak went to the wall.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald…said it was clear that the priority of the church authorities in Cloyne was the protection of the institution of the church and not the protection of children in the diocese or the protection of other children.

Themselves and their friends and their institutions, in short, at the expense of other people, and those other people very vulnerable both physically and intellectually. An arrant abuse of power and privilege, and a hardened display of selfishness. And these people claim to be better than non-theists!

“I want to make it very clear – it is absolutely unacceptable that child abuse allegations were not reported to the Gardaí and the HSE in a timely way by the church authorities. The handling of child abuse allegations is not discretionary; there is no choice, no exception.

“All allegations must be reported so that the allegation itself is investigated and any potential risk to other children is assessed.” Ms Fitzgerald said the most shocking aspect of the report, in her view, was the fact that the incidents it dealt with took place so recently.

“It is not dealing with terrible wrongs committed in the distant past but how the Diocese of Cloyne dealt with complaints made from 1996, the year in which the Catholic Church put in place detailed procedures for dealing with child sexual abuse.”

They’re just like anyone else, and worse than most.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Comparative memorialization

Dec 20th, 2011 4:13 pm | By

Neal Pollack knew Christopher Hitchens better than you.

Christopher Hitchens and I were friends for 40 years, plus another five when we were enemies. He took ideas so seriously that if he disagreed with you on a matter that he deemed important, he’d literally throw you in a ditch. It was 1972, the height of our mutual virility. He and I went to a pub to celebrate his most recent intellectual victory over the establishment press. I intimated that sometimes women could be funny on purpose. Even back then, the thought enraged him. Hitchens threw a drink in my face, pressed a lit cigarette into my neck, and hit me over the head with a barstool.

Compare Dave Zirin, not being satirical, in The Nation on Friday:

I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer…I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.

With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth…

He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”

I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”

Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud.

A little more Pollack -

Many was the time we passed the bottle until dawn, bemoaning Thatcher’s England, Reagan’s America, and also some stuff about the Middle East. Sometimes Hitchens would bring over a dissident writer who was fleeing oppression in his native country, and we’d all make fun of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, then remove our pants to compare our manhoods. We were so middle-aged and foolish then, so committed to the struggle.

For months, he’d wander the streets at night, looking to drunkenly berate someone who disagreed with him about the evils of Islamofascism. Occasionally he’d attempt to strangle young journalists, who admired him unquestioningly, with their own neckties.

Now that’s an elegy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Christopher didn’t wait his turn

Dec 20th, 2011 12:36 pm | By

Yesterday I expressed (via Katha Pollitt) reservations about a certain kind of combative anger that Hitchens sometimes deployed. Daniel Dennett talks about when rudeness is necessary.

He starts with an example.

We were both appearing in a debate as part of the program of Ciudad de las Ideas, an excellent gathering held annually in Puebla, Mexico. (It’s modeled on TED-I call it TED Mex. Go. It’s well worth the visit.) One of the speakers for the other side, the God side, was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and after our short set pieces, the rebuttals started with the rabbi. We each were allotted four minutes only for rebuttal, and the rabbi launched into a series of outrageous claims trying to besmirch Darwin and evolutionary biology by claiming that Hitler was inspired by Darwin to organize slaughters to ensure the survival of his race. I sat there, dumfounded and appalled, and tried to figure out how best to rebut this obscene misrepresentation when my turn came.

Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me–and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak–is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock. Of course I knew that as a general principle, but I needed to be reminded, to be awakened from my diplomatic slumbers by his example.

Definitely. (And for what it’s worth, I think Katha would agree too – she’s definitely not opposed to all blunt anger, and she expresses plenty of it herself. Her examples were of people with much less standing than Shmuley Boteach, as was mine – the guy in Kensington Gardens was just a random bystander.)

We have all heard, endlessly, about how angry and rude the new atheists are. Take a good hard look at their work, at the books and talks by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and you will find that they are more civil, less sneering, less given to name-calling than such religious apologists as Terry Eagleton or Alvin Plantinga or Leon Wieseltier. It is just that many people are shocked to see religious institutions, ideas, and spokespeople challenged as intensely as we expect banks, big pharma, and the oil industry to be challenged.

Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved–which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.

Don’t. they. just.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

One rule for thee and another for me

Dec 20th, 2011 11:49 am | By

Religious privilege in action.

Some guy from something called The Christian Institute (why do I suspect its membership consists of the guy in question?) is saying he’s going to boycott Tesco, because some other guy who works for Tesco in some capacity said something on Flickr. Yes really. Mind you it’s in the Telegraph, which seems to specialize in this kind of non-story, but it’s still worth a tiny smile of disdain (because after all, how much trouble is a tiny smile of disdain).

Nick Lansley, Tesco’s head of research and development, said he was actively taking a stand “against evil Christians” who opposed the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In a message on his profile page on, he said: “I’m…campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”

I suppose some intern at the Telegraph spotted that and alerted an unoccupied reporter who phoned Xian Institute guy and asked him what he thought about that, and  Xian Institute guy obligingly took the bait. It’s hard to imagine it happening any other way.

What actually caught my eye was something the Telegraph said farther down the page.

The row comes a month after Tesco provoked controversy by reducing its support for the charity Cancer Research’s Race for Life while deciding to sponsor Pride London, Britain’s largest gay festival.

See it? Tesco “provoked controversy” by doing something (something benign, in my view). Typical. Typical manipulationg-by-wording. Anything you do that I don’t like is “provoking” me.

Second item: a Methodist church in Cornwall tried to get around an employment tribunal by claiming its ministers are employed by God rather than by the church.

Appeal Court judges have ruled the Reverend Haley Preston, of Cornwall, is employed by the Church rather than God.

The Methodist Church had claimed that ministers were not ordinary employees but “stewards in the house of God”.

The Appeal Court ruling opens the way for Mrs Preston, 50, of Redruth, to pursue an unfair dismissal claim against the Church.

I suppose that one is an example of ex-privilege or attempted privilege, since it didn’t work, but still, there’s something so brazen about the attempt that it seems to earn the word. The Methodist Church was feeling very Special that day.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Miscellaneous, or, feel free to be OT, since there is no T

Dec 19th, 2011 5:01 pm | By

I said maybe I should do one of these, because sometimes people do go OT and that can be tiresome if you want to talk about the T, but it’s fine if there’s no T to begin with. If the particular set of people who bump into each other here want to talk about everything in general, I might as well make that possible.

I have a cold. I asked Facebook to sing “Soft Kitty” for me, and it did.

Newt Gingrich plans, if elected president, to arrest judges who don’t do their judging according to the bible.

Kim Jong-un is not sure he’s crazy enough to run North Korea.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Science blogger 1, SLAPP suit 0

Dec 19th, 2011 4:44 pm | By

Popehat has a great post on a pro bono victory (his) in a junk science SLAPP suit against a science blogger.

The pro bono client is Michael Hawkins of For the Sake of Science, and the adversary is Dr. Christopher Maloney, a licensed naturopath in Maine.

Dr. and Ms. Maloney’s central legal theory was expressed in the cover letter: “As should be clear to you, you can say anything you want against naturopathic doctors, but you cannot attack and bully a single person.” This is not, to put it mildly, a correct statement of law. The First Amendment protects Mr. Hawkins’ right to call naturopaths in general quacks, and to call Dr. Maloney in particular a quack for promoting naturopathy. Dr. and Ms. Maloney’s theme seizes upon the increasingly fashionable — and utterly insipid and unprincipled — trend of invoking the word “bullying” as if it is some talisman that wards off the First Amendment and the rule of law. I’ve talked about parallel arguments by censors here and here.

I find that particularly interesting, because I see a lot of loose accusations of bullying that seem to me to be bogus, while at the same time I also see a lot of what I take to be bullying that seems to other people to be quite reasonable discourse or behavior. It’s a fraught word, and a fraught concept. At any rate, calling a naturopath a quack doesn’t fit my definition of bullying, at least not if the naturopath claims to treat people.

Note that any Google search like “Christopher Maloney quack” tends to yield more results for prominent bloggers like PZ Myers than results from Mr. Hawkins. PZ Myers’ rhetoric about Dr. Maloney has been far more forceful and vivid. But PZ Myers is a well-established large-scale national blogger with resources and a professor position and wide support. Mr. Hawkins is a student in Maine of modest means. He has the talent to be a nationally known blogger, but isn’t yet. Censors are by their nature cowardly thugs: they go after the easy targets. They go after the people they think will roll over easily. That, ultimately, was the point that made me decide that I wanted to do whatever was necessary to help Mr. Hawkins, and do so pro bono. Game on.

Fine; let’s lavish attention on Mr Hawkins and help make him a popular blogger that quacks will be afraid to threaten.

Read the whole post. It’ll make your day.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not another one

Dec 19th, 2011 12:59 pm | By

Hey guess what the war is over!

This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now old (or departed). And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.

Has it all, doesn’t it. The air of easy omniscience, the disdain for atheists, the gloating at the death of one particular atheist, the false dichotomy, the warm uncritical affection for the middle ground, the stupid assumption that it’s “extreme” (not to mention old, or dead) to think science and religion are not in every way compatible.

Indeed, many folks have been hard at it, doing a new kind of peace work. Some have done it intentionally, some have not. Outliers, both atheist and religious hardliners, continue to wage battle but they look increasingly irrelevant.

Yup, there it is again: marginalize those atheists, lump those atheists in with religious fundamentalists, declare the enemy irrelevant.

Here are ten who, in small ways and large, have helped to spread seeds of peace on the blasted-out battleground of science and religion.

10. Karl Giberson, science & religion writer and former physicist, for reminding evangelicals that science is not the enemy

And who took a lot of grief from evangelicals as a result – but Paul Wallace omits to mention that.

6. Jack Templeton, surgeon, president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, for bringing science into the church

And the church into science, but Paul Wallace omits to mention that.

5. Chris Stedman, interfaith activist and super-swell atheist guy, for decoupling atheism from science, and for being the face of a kinder, gentler atheism

This year saw the softening of the atheist universe. Perhaps the Four Horsemen came out hard because they had to, but in their wake have emerged atheists who are more interested in dialogue and shared values than in pounding the snot out of other people’s notions of God.

Kinder, gentler than what? Well, than those Other atheists, of course, the one who pound the snot out of everything. That seems to be almost the whole point of this super-swell interfaith atheism: to carve atheism into two pieces and claim the Good, Kind, Gentle, Non-snot-pounding piece for oneself while implying (in a super-swell deniable sort of way, of course) that the people in the other part are mean belligerent shits.

Maybe the war isn’t over after all.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Katha Pollitt on Hitchens

Dec 19th, 2011 12:12 pm | By

I’ve been hoping Katha would write something, because I knew she would have informed reservations. I remember her exchange with Hitchens when he left The Nation. I’ve been a fan of both of them for a long time, so their differences interest me.

Katha suggests that “he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth” and that he didn’t wonder enough how he got from one position to another, radically different one. I think that’s a fair point, and yet…well I’m ambivalent, as I am about so many things, which is why, unlike Hitchens, I spend so much time staring blankly into space instead of being productive.

So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).

That, on the other hand, gives me genuine pause. I don’t admire that quality, and I do know he had it. The CBC’s The National showed him doing it in its obit on Friday. He was talking to a reporter in Kensington Gardens, saying something disobliging about a memorial to Diana Spencer, and an off-camera male voice interrupted to protest, saying indignantly “you shouldn’t be in this garden.” Hitchens responded fast and ferociously, all but shouting, “Who the hell are you?” and then adding, “I’m sure you’re as stupid as you look.” That’s no good. Yes what the guy said was both silly and bossy (and servile underneath), but the response was overkill.

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan…

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.

Yes. That certainly was not one of my favorite things about him. I said so in December 2006 in two posts on the Vanity Fair “women aren’t funny” article, Depends who’s asking and On closer reading.

But, Katha sums up,

as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Firm but fair, I think.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)