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.


Get over it

Jul 16th, 2008 10:58 am | By

This is a very stupid observation, presumably by a dull-witted sub-editor who didn’t read the article with attention:

The fruits of the feminist revolution? Sisterhood, empowerment, and eight hours a day in a cubicle.

That’s right. Why? Because lots of jobs involve eight hours a day in a cubicle. Such is life. But the point of the feminist revolution is that women ought not to be debarred from life in the larger world merely because they are women. Women ought to be seen as and treated as people just as men are people, and both sexes ought to have the ability to take their chances in the world as it is. That’s all. ‘The feminist revolution’ did not think or suggest that all women would or should have the ideal perfect paradisal job. Who thought it did? The idea was just that women should be equal, and treated as equal, so neither sheltered nor banished. That’s all. That doesn’t bring with it some kind of gilded promise of Thrilling Jobs Only, does it – all it brings is the ability to try on reasonably equal terms. Life is life, work is work, jobs are jobs; most jobs suck; big news flash. How could ‘the feminist revolution’ have meant anything else? How would it have gone about guaranteeing Wonderful Jobs for all women who wanted jobs? What is the complaint here? That ‘the feminist revolution’ promised all women would be monarchs or globally-famous poets or archaeologist/adventurers? Please. The feminist revolution was never that stupid.



Expertise not required for entry

Jul 15th, 2008 5:56 pm | By

Not believing there is a god should be enough (enough for atheism, enough for being an atheist). We shouldn’t have to sign up to more. We don’t have time to figure out all the things that we think don’t exist. We can just not think they exist, and let it go at that – or we can not think they exist and then go on to think they don’t exist, if we want to and have time, but that’s extra. Just not thinking so is the minimum needed for entry, or at least it should be.

There’s no sense in believing things exist for no reason – so we don’t (if we have sense) – and for atheists ‘god’ is one of those things. That’s important. The negative matters more than the affirmative.

The minimal definition matters because it has to do with reasons. We don’t believe because we see no good reason to believe – we know of no evidence that god exists. Believing that god doesn’t exist requires some as it were expertise – and like theism, atheism is a public, non-expert view. You can have more detailed or engaged or ‘expert’ atheism, but that shouldn’t be the main definition, because everyone should be able to Just Say No as easily as everyone is able to say yes.



Defining atheism

Jul 14th, 2008 12:13 pm | By

There’s a discussion at Talking Philosophy of how to define atheism. It’s basically about the difference between saying atheism is not believing that there is a god and saying that it is belief there there is no god. Me, I would define it the first way first and then add the second as a more affirmative or energetic version – but what I wouldn’t do is leave out the first. I think the first is 1) an important part of atheism and 2) a version of atheism that is more useful to a lot of people than the more affirmative version is. It has to be possible to be definitely non-theist without having to be affirmative about it.

It does seem fair to say that atheism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really apply to people who’ve never thought about the matter at all – atheism does seem to be more affirmative than that. So the definition should include that. I suggested ‘Atheism is, at a minimum, explicit nonbelief in a god.’ ‘Explicit’ means that the question has been considered, and that belief has been at the very least declined, and perhaps refused or rejected. But that still doesn’t entail affirmative belief that there is no god – but it also doesn’t entail the ‘oh gee I just don’t know, I have no idea’ popularly attributed to agnosticism these days. It’s just a No. No means No.



The triumph of dogmatism

Jul 13th, 2008 11:29 am | By

Dogmatism is on a roll.

Westminster Theological Seminary suspended Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament after he ‘wrote a book urging wobbly believers to embrace [humans'] role in shaping the Bible’ and is going to hold a hearing to decide if he should be fired.

Some of his supporters are condemning the hearing, due to begin Aug. 25, as a “heresy trial.” They say the trustees want to harden the school’s national reputation as a fortress of ultra-orthodox Calvinism, and purge perceived “liberals” from the faculty…The real issue, administrators say, is whether Enns violated the oath he took when he joined the faculty 14 years ago. The oath requires all faculty members to pledge they will not “inculcate, teach or insinuate anything” contrary to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, the core creed of the Presbyterian faith. That lengthy creed begins by proclaiming the “infallible truth” and “entire perfection” of Holy Scripture, whose sole author is God.

Which means, of course, that Westminster Theological Seminary is not engaged in education (much less research or inquiry) at all. Any putative educational outfit that requires faculty to sign an oath that they will not deviate from any particular given, much less a ‘Confession of Faith’ dated 1646 which in turn declares a much older book infallible and entirely perfect, is not doing anything related to actual education. It’s doing indoctrination, which is a different enterprise.

And the tribunal’s ruling in the case of the Christian registrar who refused to perform same-sex marriages is a blow against the ability of secular government institutions to ask people to perform their assigned jobs.

Lillian Ladele, who said the civil partnership ceremonies went against her Christian faith, hailed the decision as a “victory for religious liberty”. The tribunal ruled that Miss Ladele was discriminated against on grounds of religious beliefs and was harassed…”Gay rights should not be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their religious beliefs,” she said.

But ‘religious beliefs’ should be used as an excuse to exclude and deny services to people over their sexual orientation? Because why?

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said…”Lillian Ladele claims she has won a victory for religious liberty. No, she has not. She has won a victory for the right to discriminate,” he said. “Public servants like registrars have a duty to serve all members of the public without fear or favour. Once society lets some people opt out of upholding the law, where will it end?” Condemning the “catastrophic judgement” the National Secular Society said: “This decision appears to show that religious rights trump gay rights…”

Ladele already had ‘religious liberty,’ of course; what she didn’t have was liberty to discriminate on the job. Now she does. Some triumph.



Get out of the cesspool, Bill

Jul 12th, 2008 5:28 pm | By

Eric pointed out in commenting on Hard to think of anything more vile that ‘desecrating the Host’ was an old accusation against ‘the Jews.’ Sure enough.

Throughout history, a number of groups have been accused of desecrating hosts; because of the religious importance of the consecrated wafer, the accusation is one of metaphysical evil and hostility towards God. Accusations against Jews were a common pretext for massacres and expulsions throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Similar accusations were made in witchcraft trials; the witch-hunter’s guide Malleus Maleficarum mentions the desecration of hosts by witches a number of times.

Well that’s good to know. Bill Donohue is rooting around in some very foul old garbage. Tell all your friends.



Hard to think of anything more vile

Jul 12th, 2008 12:28 pm | By

Clearly I haven’t been paying enough attention to Bill Donohue, another impressive candidate in the Bullying and Intimidation by Believers of People Who Fail to Respect and Defer to Their Particular Beliefs sweepstakes.

To protest student fees for religious services at the University of Central Florida (UCF), a student walked out of a campus Mass on June 29 with the Eucharist.

When he says ‘with the Eucharist’ he of course means with a communion wafer, that is to say, with one cracker of many many crackers. The student didn’t walk out with ‘the Eucharist’ such that nobody else could have any, he just walked out with one of a large number of mass-produced crackers. (Suddenly I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which George obsesses over whether the actor auditioning for the part of Kramer took the box of raisins that everyone had been snacking on.) The student walked out with something of an inherent value too small to calculate.

Now, that’s not the point, the point is that the cracker is supposed to have been transubstantiated into the body of Jesus. (Is it into the body? Or into a bit of the body? If it’s a bit, which bit? If it’s the whole thing – how does that work? You’re supposed to be eating all of Jesus each time? You and all the others? But if it’s a bit, which bit? Just some, like, flesh off the arm or a buttock or something? A small bit that wouldn’t be missed? These are deep theological waters, which I should not get into.) Okay, so the believers believe the cracker is [part of?] the body of Jesus. But so what? They also believe the whole thing is infinitely renewable, presumably – so what’s the problem? Really – that’s not entirely facetious. What is the problem? What do they think will happen? What do they think has happened? What kind of difference do they think it makes?

Do they think Jesus minds? Do they think the student will damage Jesus in some way by carrying off [a piece of?] his body? Surely not. Jesus is God, and God is omnipotent and invulnerable, so…what does it matter? God created the universe, so why would God be bothered that some erring human walked away with a cracker that is also [part of] an infinite god?

Who knows. But that’s probably not the issue, is it – the issue is much more likely to be the joy of having an occasion to Take Offense and then milk it. Better yet, there is the bliss of having an occasion to tell people what to do and tell them to hurry up about it besides.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue offered the following remarks today: “For a student to disrupt Mass by taking the Body of Christ hostage—regardless of the alleged nature of his grievance—is beyond hate speech.”

The Body of Christ – so the cracker is supposed to be the whole thing then? (I know, it’s such a crude question, but I never have understood this, despite some efforts.) And it makes sense to say the removal of one cracker is taking it hostage? So this student was holding the Body of Christ hostage in just the same way that the Farc was holding Ingrid Betancourt hostage? But Bill Donohue doesn’t actually think Jesus was missing during the period the student still had the cracker, does he? Does he think God was missing too? (I don’t understand the Trinity either, I must admit.) If so why doesn’t he mention it? It’s all Christ Christ Christ with these people.

“That is why the UCF administration needs to act swiftly and decisively in seeing that justice is done. All options should be on the table, including expulsion.”

Don’t be shy, Bill. Do your best to get some kid that you don’t know expelled from a university for doing something that you dislike. Don’t hesitate, don’t have any qualms, don’t worry about consequences or proportion, just get right in there and demand.

And then do your best to get PZ Myers fired too. PZ reacted to Donohue’s bullying of the Florida student by pointing out that the cracker was a cracker and then offering to desecrate some, and Donohue carried his Khomeini-imitation a few more steps farther:

[W]e are contacting the President and the Board of Regents to see what they are going to do about this matter. Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature. It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.

Oh, I can think of lots of things more vile than to intentionally desecrate a cracker that is rather arbitrarily claimed to be ‘the Body of Christ’ – lots and lots and lots. Tormenting children in industrial schools for instance; telling people not to use condoms in the midst of an HIV pandemic; trying to get people expelled or fired for petty reasons.



John Gray gives the Enlightenment a damn good thrashing

Jul 9th, 2008 8:02 pm | By

John Gray has a burr up his ass about the Enlightenment.

Central and Eastern Europe was a morass of ethnic enmities, and in Germany the Nazis were implementing their poisonous mix of nationalism and racism. Was this just a detour in the onward march to a brave new world where everyone will be treated equally? Or did it – as Roth suspected – reveal a darker side of modernity? There can be no doubt about Kenan Malik’s view. A pious disciple of the Enlightenment, though not untroubled by the doubts that can afflict any believer, he cannot tolerate the thought that some of the last century’s worst atrocities were by-products of modern Enlightenment thinking…Nazism – though it drew on some strands of Counter-Enlightenment thought and mobilised the prejudices of Christian anti-Semitism – was able to make use of a tradition of “scientific racism” that belongs squarely within the Enlightenment. The darkness that settled on Europe between the wars was not a reversion to medievalism. In crucial respects, it was peculiarly modern.

Well of course it was, but was it a necessary product of the Enlightenment? No. The darkness that settled on Europe between the wars was a very contingent sort of darkness; a lot of factors caused it and it wasn’t inevitable.

A belief in science and progress is part of the Enlightenment creed. So why does Malik resist the conclusion that these racists were, despite the ersatz character of their so-called science, Enlightenment thinkers?

Because belief in science and progress is only part of the Enlightenment ‘creed’? Because ersatz science doesn’t make anyone an Enlightenment thinker? Those would be a couple of my reasons, anyway.

When Roth mourned the demise of the Habsburgs, communists and liberals ridiculed his attachment to a pre-modern imperial structure. Yet it was Roth, not the progressive thinkers of the day, who foresaw the horrors that would come from its collapse. There is a lesson here, but it is not one that Malik – for whom progress and modernity are articles of secular faith – can be expected to learn.

Pious, doubts, believer, belief, creed, faith – he got quite a few variations on that – very stale by now – joke about secular religion. Me, I prefer people who prefer progress and modernity to those who prefer the other thing.



Rage boy

Jul 8th, 2008 12:15 pm | By

What a lot of people like to dress up a love of bullying and violence and cruelty as some kind of quest for social justice – the FARC, Islamists, ZANU-PF – and the Animal Liberation Front. Good old Jerry Vlasak is still at it, only more so.

One scrawled “killer” in chalk on the scientist’s doorstep, while another hurled insults through a bullhorn and announced, “Your neighbor kills animals!” Someone shattered a window. Borrowing the kind of tactics used by anti-abortion demonstrators, animal rights activists are increasingly taking their rage straight to scientists’ front doors. Over the past couple of years, more and more researchers who experiment on animals have been harassed and terrorized in their own homes, with weapons that include firebombs, flooding and acid…Accompanying the attacks is increasingly tough talk from activists such as Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front press office. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said he is not encouraging anyone to commit murder, but “if you had to hurt somebody or intimidate them or kill them, it would be morally justifiable.”

Glad you got that straight, Jerry. As long as you think it’s morally justifiable, there’s nothing more to be said. Meanwhile if you get bored with mere researchers, there are always teachers in Afghanistan you could behead.



Annoying is it

Jul 7th, 2008 11:42 am | By

And one more thing. She says something quite rude about Daniel Dennett, and what she says is not accurate. Pp. 9-10.

It is certainly supremely annoying when intellectuals talk down to religious people, speaking as if all smart people are atheists. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is particularly guilty of this. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, he coined the term ‘brights’ for nonbelievers, suggesting very clearly that the right name for believers was ‘dummies.’

He did not coin the term, as he clearly states in the op-ed piece, right at the top of the second paragraph.

The term ”bright” is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group — which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before — could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help.

And he doesn’t ‘suggest very clearly’ that the right name for believers is ‘dummies.’ It’s true that he doesn’t disavow that, so Nussbaum could perfectly well have said that the word seems to imply that its antonym would be ‘dulls’ or similar and that if that’s not what Dennett meant he should have said so. That would be fair. But the piece in fact does not suggest (much less ‘very clearly’) that the right name for believers is ‘dummies’; that’s not the point the piece makes. I dislike the term ‘brights’ myself, in fact I dislike it in much the same way I dislike ‘precious’ and ‘deep’ and ‘respect’ especially when repeated multiple times on page after page, but however much I dislike the word, it doesn’t follow that Dennett was ‘talking down to religious people’ in that piece, and in fact he wasn’t. He was saying that atheists exist, that they’re not weird, and that they get elbowed aside by theists because they are too quiet so they should speak up more.

Most brights don’t play the ”aggressive atheist” role. We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage the ”godless” among us.

Nussbaum would have done well to re-read the piece before she wrote what she did.



Preciousssss

Jul 7th, 2008 11:09 am | By

As you read further in Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience (or at least, as I do), it gets worse. It gets unendurable in places. Parts of it (yes like the curate’s egg) are good, and readable without too much irritation, but there are patches where it becomes simply maddening. I started counting words. On page 52 she uses the word ‘precious’ four times, and both ‘respect’ and ‘dignity’ more than that, along with ‘deep’ or ‘profound’. All five occur much too often, again, on 53-4. Look…even apart from the philosophical aspect, that’s just not a good way to write. If I’d been her editor I would have called her on it very early in the book. It’s not a good idea to repeat certain words in an obsessive way (apart from work horse words that one can’t help repeating, of course), and it’s doubly or triply not good when the words in question are highly emotive and manipulative and value-laden. The book becomes unendurable at those points because one feels nagged, bullied, yammered at. It’s too insistent. And since that which is being insisted on is so sentimental and saccharine and nursey, it’s all the more so.

And the thing is, she’s just wrong. She’s just flat wrong, and all this damp pious insistence doesn’t make her less wrong. The farther she gets into the book the clearer it becomes that her central claim that religion equals conscience equals the search for the ultimate meaning of life is just a pretty dream of hers that applies to some religious people but nowhere near all of them. Apart from anything else it simply ignores the fact that most people don’t choose a religion after or during a search, they have it handed to them in early childhood when they are maximally credulous. For most believers, religion is not a search at all, it’s a given. And it’s a particular kind of given: a special given, a sensitive given, a given that is easily offended – and Nussbaum herself is doing her best to enhance and justify that specialness. But the specialness works to prevent searching, not to encourage or foster it. She must know that – but she certainly avoids mentioning it. There’s something ‘deeply’ (to use one of her most ‘precious’ words) ironic in Nussbaum’s impassioned insistence on the importance and preciousness of this search while she is engaged in glorifying the very institutions and habits of mind that do most to block genuine searching. The result is that I’m becoming more and more deeply suspicious with every page.



Nussbaum as Freudian

Jul 7th, 2008 10:37 am | By

In comments on ‘Reading Nussbaum’ Tea mentioned that Nussbaum ‘is not only delusional about religious believers (and dogmatic about respecting religious beliefs), she is also a Freudian.’ True. I’d remembered the Freudian claims in Hiding From Humanity, but when I found that chapter again I realized I’d forgotten that they’re also heavily present in Upheavals of Thought. She introduces the subject in a very interesting way in the latter book (p. 181):

It has become fashionable in the United States to sneer at psychoanalysis. In part this dismissive attitude results from the fact that Americans are generally impatient with complexity and sadness, and tend to want a quick chemical fix for deep human problems. People who have that view of life will not have reached Chapter 4 of this book anyway…

Fashionable? Really? And ‘sneer’? Really? No, I don’t think so. There are people, in the US and elsewhere, who take a critical view of Freud, but do they amount to a fashion? I think it’s more reasonable to say that it used to be highly fashionable among intellectuals, especially of the humanist variety (as opposed to scientific), to view Freud as almost infallible, and that there has now been a rational and well-informed reaction against that fashion, thanks to people like Fred Crews and Allen Esterson who have carefully investigated Freud’s claims and found them wanting. It’s not a matter of sneering, it’s a matter of rational judgment – which is not something Nussbaum should be sneering at.

She goes on to say that there are people who admire humanistic approaches in literary or philosophical form (Proust and Plato) but ‘react with suspicion’ to any mention of the names Klein and Winnicott, because, she thinks, they consider such figures pretend scientists who don’t measure up to ‘a model of science set by the natural sciences.’

To them I simply want to say that I myself treat these figures as humanistic interpretive thinkers, very closely related to Plato and Proust, whose work gains texture and depth through having a clinical dimension.

Yes well that’s a very ‘fashionable’ ploy with die-hard fans of Freud, and it’s not at all how Freud thought of himself or how his ardent fans thought of him until the feebleness of his ‘science’ became too obvious to ignore, so it tends to look more like a protective dodge than like a considered view of what Freud was really attempting to do. But okay; think of Freud as a kind of poet who occasionally saw patients, if you like, but then don’t be so damn rude about skeptics. For someone who is so insistent on respect, Nussbaum can be remarkably sneery herself when it’s her ox that is being gored.



Reading Nussbaum

Jul 5th, 2008 6:14 pm | By

The library produced Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience for me yesterday so I’ve read some of it and I must say, I was surprised – it’s way worse than I expected. I think it’s terrible – and it’s also extremely irritating. Tooth-grindingly irritating.

We talked about an interview in which she discussed the book with Bill Moyers last April and then we discussed it some more a couple of days later. I was critical of what she’d said then but I also gave her the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things. My mistake. She does mean what I said I thought she didn’t mean. (I see that H E Baber commented on the second post, which is interesting because I was just reading The Enlightenment Project (Baber’s blog) to see if she had commented on Nussbaum’s book, having forgotten that she’d commented here. Baber is not a fan of Nussbaum’s work. I’m feeling pretty inclined to give up on Nussbaum myself now.

The wheels come off on the very first page, where she tells us about the Pilgrims in Massachusetts who faced all those dangers ‘in order to be able to worship God freely in their own way,’ and then says we rarely reflect on the ‘real meaning’ of that story: ‘that religious liberty is very important to people.’

Very pretty, but who says that is the real meaning of that story? I don’t think it is. I think what is very important to people is their own religious liberty, not religious liberty in general. But that’s not what Nussbaum wants us to think, so it’s not what she says, even though she does say on the very next page that the lesson of the pilgrims is easily forgotten and that ‘the early settlers themselves soon forgot it, establishing their own repressive orthodoxy which others fled in turn.’ Nonsense; they didn’t forget it; it was never what they meant; or at least there’s damn little reason to think it is what they meant and a lot of reason to think they meant what I said – their own religious liberty, but not everyone’s. How does Nussbaum know that’s not what they wanted all along? She doesn’t say. Maybe she learned the ‘religious liberty’ thing in the fourth grade and has never noticed how unlikely it is and how badly it fits the known facts.

And the whole damn book is like that, so far as I’ve read (and I’ve sampled as well as reading from the beginning). Pious, sentimental, evasive, and woefully incomplete – and that’s putting it politely. Nussbaum uses the word ‘deeply’ about once on every page, along with words like ‘precious’ and ‘profound’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘noble’ and other slushy emotive words, and she makes claims that are ‘deeply’ unconvincing. Her overall claim is that religious liberty is important because people value religion because it is how they ‘search for meaning.’ But is that why? It seems to be why for some people, but is it for all of them? Not as far as I know. I think lots of people value religion for other reasons. I also think the ‘search’ idea is terribly sentimental and incomplete and manipulative. Not all religious people are engaged in any ‘search,’ to put it mildly: a lot of them are quite convinced that there’s no need to search because they’ve already found, and they’re quite certain about what it is they’ve found, too. This ‘search for meaning’ gives a pretty picture of a lot of inquiring curious open-minded people rummaging around looking for meaning, but that simply ignores the importance of dogma and authority and orthodoxy and literalism and Absolute Truth.

Nussbaum keeps insisting on how respectful she is and how important it is to be respectful (that’s another word that crops up on just about every page), but she oozes condescension.



Mail colmnist gets off at the wrong stop

Jul 4th, 2008 1:40 pm | By

Not again.

The systematic demonisation of Muslims has become an important part of the central narrative of the British political and media class; it is so entrenched, so much part of normal discussion, that almost nobody notices. Protests go unheard and unnoticed.

No it hasn’t; no it isn’t; no they don’t.

As a community, British Muslims are relatively powerless. There are few Muslim MPs, there has never been a Muslim cabinet minister, no mainstream newspaper is owned by a Muslim and, as far as we are aware, only one national newspaper has a regular Muslim columnist on its comment pages, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent.

What does it mean to be powerless as a community? What is a community? Who decides? What is not a community? Who decides that? How many dentist MPs are there? Has there ever been an engineer cabinet minister? Is any mainstream newspaper owned by a computer programmer? Or what about chess players? Fans of Herodotus? Bird watchers?

Why are people supposed to be powerful as a community and what does that mean and who decides and what are the criteria? Is it possible that this way of thinking is stupid and parochial and ill-advised? Swap ‘Christian’ for ‘Muslim’ and it can look downright insane. So why is it any saner when used of a different religion? Why is it considered right-on to conflate one religion with a ‘community’ when it’s not at all right-on to conflate a different religion with a ‘community’? Or, in short, why don’t people think about what they’re saying?

Islamophobia – defined in 1997 by the landmark report from the Runnymede Trust as “an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination” – can be encountered in the best circles: among our most famous novelists, among newspaper columnists, and in the Church of England.

That’s the key move, of course, but it’s also the stupidest. The landmark report from the Runnymede Trust can define any old thing any old way it wants to; that doesn’t make it a valid definition; and people have been pointing out and pointing out and pointing out that that’s a bad and deceitful and misleading definition. If you want a word for ‘an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims’ then it would have to be Muslimophobia, not Islamophobia; Islamophobia means – this is too obvious even to say, but there’s the Mail columnist (eh?) getting it wrong – dread and dislike of Islam.

Its appeal is wide-ranging. “I am an Islamophobe,” the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in The Independent nearly 10 years ago. “Islamophobia?” the Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle asks rhetorically in the title of a recent speech, “Count me in”. Imagine Liddle declaring: “Anti-Semitism? Count me in”, or Toynbee claiming she was “an anti-Semite and proud of it”.

No, no, no, no, no, no. Bad Peter Oborne. No. It’s not the same thing, it’s not comparable, it’s not parallel. Surely you understand that. Islam is a religion, with particular ideas and rules; we are all allowed to dislike it. Semitism is not a religion. Don’t. be. silly.

Its practitioners say Islamophobia cannot be regarded as the same as anti-Semitism because the former is hatred of an ideology or a religion, not Muslims themselves. This means there is no social, political or cultural protection for Muslims: as far as the British political, media and literary establishment is concerned the normal rules of engagement are suspended.

No it doesn’t. It’s quite common to distinguish between Muslims and Islam. Go play war games with your Martin Amis and Ian McEwan dolls.



Two, three, many epistemologies

Jul 3rd, 2008 10:12 am | By

There was a call for papers on the Women’s Studies List yesterday, for a Women’s and Gender Studies conference in March 2009 in conjunction with an Association I hadn’t heard of before, called the Association of Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies. That’s a lot of things to be in one Association, especially when they’re all plural. Out in the conventional world of course there’s just epistemology, but this Association gets to have lots of them (of the Feminist variety). One wonders how that works. One also wonders what this Association is like.

FEMMSS (Feminist Epistemologies, Metaphysics, Methodology and Science Studies) continues to be concerned about the importance and difficulty of
translating knowledge into action and practice. Ours is a highly interdisciplinary group of feminist scholars who pursue knowledge questions at the interstices of
epistemology, methodology, metaphysics, ontology, and science and technology studies.

Ah, that’s what it’s like. Wordy, jargony, self-admiring, and – clueless. It apparently doesn’t even know what ‘interstices’ means – it seems to think it’s a more elegant version of ‘intersections.’ Anyway, what the hell would an intersection or an interstice ‘of epistemology, methodology, metaphysics, ontology, and science and technology studies’ be? What on earth is that absurd formula supposed to mean? Anything? Does this highly interdisciplinary group of feminist scholars know anything about all those subjects, or is it just deploying vocabulary?

FEMMSS 3 seeks to deepen the understanding of the politics of knowledge in light of the increasing pressures of globalization, neoliberal
restructuring, and militarization. Calling an array of theoretical frameworks including transnational feminism, post-colonial theory, cultural studies, epistemologies of ignorance, feminist epistemologies, and feminist science studies, this conference works to understand the ways in which knowledge is politically constituted and its material affects on people’s lives. The politics of knowledge can be discerned through the allocation and the appropriation of intellectual and natural resources, through the allocation of research funding, the control and commodification of the health sciences and health care by multinational corporations, and the
dominance of Western knowledge over that of the Two-Thirds world. Furthermore, the politics of knowledge can be seen in the way groups and
communities actively resist troubling affects (sic) of knowledge production through grass-roots organizations such as the Third World Network, community
action groups, the citizens’ science movement, environmental justice groups, and the various women’s health movements.

Why do I get the feeling that one can figure out in advance what the ‘array of theoretical frameworks’ will end up understanding? I guess because that paragraph pretty much says it will. Why does that paragraph make me feel slightly ill? I guess because I think every single one of the cited ‘theoretical frameworks’ is tendentious bullshit rather than any kind of scholarship or inquiry – that’s why. (What the fuck is ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ you wonder? Google it. I can’t bring myself to go into it. It’s a phrase some guy used in a paper once [no, excuse me, he 'introduced' it] that people latched onto with squawks of glee as if it were the key to all mythologies, the way they always do, the sheep.) Because if I really wanted to know something about the politics of knowledge and globalization I wouldn’t go to someone in postcolonial theory or cultural studies to find out.

Whose Knowledge Matters?
How do class, gender, race and ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and other formations of difference shape what counts as expertise, what questions are
considered relevant, and which outcomes emerge from clashes and negotiations between different forms of expertise?
How have epistemologies of ignorance emerged as important conceptual and political approaches to not only reveal patterns of active unknowing, but
also to point to strategies for resistance?

And so on. Do you feel a keen curiosity to know the answer to those questions? I’m guessing you don’t. I know I don’t. I’m confident they’ll be all too familiar, and written in a style all too similar to the style of the questions themselves, and above all predetermined by the questions themselves.

‘Feminist Epistemologies’ is a genyoowine academic subject though, don’t you think it isn’t.

Mainstream epistemology seeks to found universal theories of Truth, to develop the means to achieving objectivity, and to discover a deep structure of human language and an intelligible reality. Feminist epistemologists, on the other hand, argue that knowledge is always partial, situated, and embodied. In this course, we will study several themes and theories of knowledge developed by feminists working out of analytic, pragmatist, continental, queer and postcolonial contexts: standpoint theories, situated knowledges, the matrix of power/knowledge, the workings of epistemic privilege, the pragmatist link between knowledge and action, and the role of emotions, embodiment, and desire in knowledge.

There’s mainstream epistemology, and then there’s Feminist Epistemology (except when there are Feminist Epistemologies). To put it another way, there’s rational and then there’s raving bat-loony. There’s even a course in Feminist Theory: Epistemologies of Ignorance. It’s about reading memoirs. They use the word ‘Epistemologies’ in the title so that it will sound more academic-like. Or something.



Mike Tyson is pissed, man

Jul 2nd, 2008 8:26 pm | By

You did enjoy the ‘American Family Association’ story I hope. I know I did.

AFA apparently has implemented a policy of substituting “homosexual” whenever the word “gay” appears in wire stories that appear on its website. That resulted in a fantastic write-up of this weekend’s Olympic track and field trials, which were dominated by sprinter Tyson Gay.

Like so:

Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has…Homosexual qualified for his first Summer Games team and served notice he’s certainly someone to watch in Beijing. “It means a lot to me,” the 25-year-old Homosexual said. “I’m glad my body could do it, because now I know I have it in me.”…Wearing a royal blue uniform with red and white diagonal stripes across the front, along with matching shoes, all in a tribute to 1936 Olympic star Jesse Owens, Homosexual dominated the competition.

Heeheeheeheeheeheeheeheehee gasp heeheeheeheeheeheeheehee gasp gigglegigglegiggle choke.

God bless the ‘American Family Association’ and God bless America.



Once a year

Jul 2nd, 2008 8:19 pm | By

I’m a sucker for sudden releases from captivity. Well who isn’t. I feel sheepish, because it’s so obvious, but what the hell. I’m a sucker for reunions, too. You get your release from captivity and your reunion together – well there you go. I’m glad Bettancourt is free, I’m glad she looks so much healthier than she did last November.

Funny, it was almost exactly a year ago – a year ago tomorrow – that Alan Johnston was suddenly released, and I was a sucker then too.

There are other captives though.



A rift

Jul 1st, 2008 11:25 am | By

Just in case there was any doubt, Obama assures us that religion is indeed mandatory in the US. Just in case we had any hope that the relentless ‘faith’-mongering would go away when Bush went away, Obama tells us it won’t. Just in case people who don’t consider ‘faith’ a cognitive virtue were feeling at all optimistic, Obama goes after the godbothering vote in a hail of ‘faith’ language.

“Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square,” Mr. Obama intends to say. “But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.”

Thanks; that’s a big help. So all those people who think – who claim to know – that God wants them to murder their daughters or persecute gays or bomb abortion clinics – how do you plan to tell them their ‘faith’ is wrong? Once you make ‘faith’ a virtue how do you plan to talk about anything in a rational way? Compartmentalization? But that’s just arbitrary, so it’s vulnerable to everyone else’s different brand of compartmentalization. You don’t want to justify X on the basis of ‘faith’, but if someone else does, what can you say, once you’ve made ‘faith’ a central principle?

Mr. Obama is proposing $500 million per year to provide summer learning for 1 million poor children to help close achievement gaps for students. He proposes elevating the program to the “moral center” of his administration, calling it the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Thus implying that ‘faith’ and morality are necessarily linked. Thanks a lot.

Joshua DuBois, director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign, said that the campaign expected resistance from a large part of the evangelical community, but that millions of faith voters were persuadable. “We’re not going to convince everybody,” said Mr. DuBois, 25, a former associate pastor of a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church in Massachusetts…”But others will be open to him because they see he’s a man of integrity, a person of faith who listens to and understands people of all religious backgrounds.”

Thus, again, implying that ‘faith’ and integrity are more or less the same thing. Thanks.

In a brief video shown at the beginning of meetings with religious voters, Mr. Obama says he is “blessed” to help lead a conversation about the role of religious people in changing the world.

Now, see, that I have no problem with (apart from ‘blessed,’ of course). Just welcoming religious people into projects to change the world (for the better, one hopes, and then one has to decide what that means) is sensible, inclusive, and compatible with the separation of church and state. But giving government money to religious institutions is quite another thing, and so is making a virtue of faith. It’s perfectly possible to include and welcome religious people without even discussing ‘faith,’ much less making a totem of it. Apparently that’s too much to expect; that’s a pity.



Whose inquisition?

Jun 30th, 2008 12:31 pm | By

I took a dislike to Cristina Odone years ago, some time when B&W was very young. She hadn’t commissioned a hatchet profile on me as she did to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, she’d merely said something narrow-mindedly faithy, perhaps even overtly Catholic, which got up my nose. (Why ‘even’? Because she doesn’t always admit [to put it mildly] that that’s where her narrow-minded views are coming from, and I suspect that she prefers to leave that out of the picture when she can get away with it.) I can’t remember what it was, or when, but no matter, her unpleasantness now gives us more than enough to scowl over.

Ed Balls began his witch-hunt against faith schools last spring, unleashing informants to trawl the country, knock on doors, note down names and infractions…Many see this inquisition as the latest twist in Labour’s internal politics.

That’s a good example of the not admitting habit right there – she accuses Ed Balls of doing things that the Catholic church used to do (and that Ed Balls of course is not doing) and delicately doesn’t mention her own loyalty to Catholicism. It’s a bit rich to see a bigoted Catholic charging non-Catholics with witch-hunting inquistions when no such thing is going on. A bit rich and more than a bit disgusting.

And then there’s the breezy way she says ‘Ball’s charges against faith schools can be dismissed one by one’ as if mere dismissal were the same thing as actually rebutting. Of course the Ball’s charges against ‘faith’ schools can be dismissed one by one, any charges can be dismissed one by one; it’s dead easy just to say ‘no’ repeatedly, and by gum that’s all Odone does. But that doesn’t tell us anything except that Odone doesn’t like the charges against ‘faith’ schools. The BHA gives some details on why Odone’s dismissal won’t cut it.

The BHA points out that the state funded faith schools which the report seeks to promote differ from state funded community schools in that, for example:

They are allowed by law to discriminate in their admissions policies;

They are allowed by law to discriminate in their employment policies;

They teach their own syllabus of Religious Education without the regulated syllabuses that apply to community schools.

Strident stuff, eh?



BHL looks with both eyes

Jun 29th, 2008 3:48 pm | By

Bernard-Henri Lévy spells out the perverse and tragic effect of three great ideas.

[W]e are here facing a sort of perverse effect of three great modern ideas. A sort of paradoxical and counter-effect of three great ideas, which are: anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and the fight against imperialism, three great ideas—among the best which have been produced in the 20th century…[Y]ou have a huge part of the population in America and in Europe, who believe, as a sort of Pavlovian reflex, that these sort of murders, these sort of genocides, can only be committed by ugly, stupid, white men…[W]hen a country of the third world which was colonized (as was Sudan), commits such bloodbaths, commits such crimes, to stop this, to try to prevent this, to intervene in order to make it stop, could be an act of colonialism. And in America and in France, you have a lot of people [of] the Left, to which I belong, [who believe that] we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of Sudan. Let’s be careful not to impose under the flag of human rights the old rule of Western superiority.

Let’s be careful not to say or do anything under the flag of human rights, or women’s rights either, especially when they seem to be in tension with that one religion whose name it is Forbidden to Utter unless something conciliatory or affectionate or admiring follows immediately. Let’s be so careful that we find ourselves with nothing left except our exquisite caution.



Oh dear, what seems to be the problem?

Jun 28th, 2008 4:51 pm | By

If four courts tell you No, then try a fifth. Don’t worry about boring people or being a nuisance or making a fool of yourself.

Danish Muslims are planning to take Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten daily to Europe’s highest human rights court over the publication of satirical drawings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him)…The move comes a day after a Danish court rejected a suit by seven Muslim groups against newspaper editors for publishing the offensive cartoons…”It is a known fact that acts of terror have been carried out in the name of Islam and it is not illegal to make satire out of this relationship,” the court said.

Well that’s the problem, isn’t it: it is not illegal to make satire out of this relationship. That’s what we’re saying. It should be illegal. It should be illegal to say things we don’t want to hear. The law should say ‘Nobody may write or say or sing anything that these seven Muslim groups don’t want to hear. Never you mind how you’re supposed to know what that is; use your common sense.’ The law would say that, if Denmark weren’t such a poxy secular infidel decadent feeble degenerate impure shithole of a place. Why did we ever come here? Well apart from the jobs and the prosperity and the freedoms and the drink and the infrastructure and the peace and the good governance and crap like that.

Thursday’s ruling was the fourth by Danish courts to reject legal charges against the daily….The drawings, considered blasphemous under Islam, have triggered massive and sometimes violent demonstrations across the Muslim world and strained the Muslim-West ties.

And rightly so. Because the drawings are considered blasphemous under Islam and therefore no one in the world ought to be allowed to draw such drawings because what is considered blasphemous under Islam ought to be considered blasphemous by everyone everywhere because Islam is – well because Islam is Islam and so everyone ought to obey it. Not everyone is under Islam, but everyone ought to be, so people can’t just ignore what’s considered blasphemous under Islam, because if they were doing the right thing they would be under Islam. Because Islam ought to be in charge of everything and everyone and telling everyone without exception what to do. And if they won’t do it we’ll just sue and sue and sue and sue until finally they’ll get so bored they’ll give in.

Bilal Assaad, Chairman of the Islamic Faith Society, one of several plaintiffs, also lamented the court ruling…”We had hoped that we could put this unfortunate matter behind us and that the High Court would draw the line that establishes the limits of freedom of expression in religious matters.”

You see we want the High Court – of Denmark – to draw the line that establishes the limits of freedom of expression in religious matters in a place where we want it to be drawn rather than where the High Court or the people of Denmark or both want it to be drawn. We get to decide these things you see because we are Religious Leaders and in particular we are Muslim Religious Leaders so courts ought to be drawing lines where we say they should be drawn and not anywhere else. Because what we say goes. Can’t say fairer than that, can you.

Following the cartoons crisis, Muslims in Denmark and worldwide took many initiatives to remove widely circulated stereotypes about Islam in the West. Danish Muslims established the European Committee for Honoring the Prophet, a grouping of 27 Danish Muslim organizations, to raise awareness about the merits and characteristics of the Prophet.

Ah, did you? I’ll tell you something, guys: it’s not working. To tell you the truth it’s doing the opposite of working. It’s marching smartly backwards. The more you try to force me to admire and love the prophet, the more I hate the very word. You might be better off if you could grasp that. A lot of people don’t like being told what to think about this or that long-dead religious figure. We even more don’t like it when people try to force us to think something in particular about this or that long-dead religious figure. We find it an imposition, and an impertinence, and a species of bullying, and we do not like it. If I were you I would give it up. You’re teaching people to hate your religion, not to admire it.