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.

She’s 77 – and nearly blind! That’s a good one.

Aug 20th, 2008 2:34 pm | By

Well that’s nice – not just suppression and punishment of protest, not just breaking promises to citizens and the rest of the world alike, but a sadistic bait and switch into the bargain. ‘We’re having the Olympics; we’re in a cheerful and generous mood, so you can protest; here, we’ve even allocated three parks for the purpose, where you can protest. Have fun. We love you.’

At least a half dozen people have been detained by the authorities after they responded to a government announcement late last month designating venues in three city parks as “protest zones” during the Olympics. So far, no demonstrations have taken place.

Ah. Three parks. The Olympics almost two weeks old now. Half a dozen people or more ‘detained’ for taking the bait – and so far no demonstrations at all. Hmmm. Why that almost begins to sound as if the authorities don’t actually mean to allow any demonstrations to take place after all. It even begins to sound just a little bit as if all they ever intended was to lure people into applying for permission to demonstrate so that they could then exclaim ‘We didn’t mean you!’ and arrest them while laughing themselves into fits.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that 77 people had submitted protest applications, none of which had been approved. Xinhua, quoting a Public Security spokesperson, said all but three applicants had dropped their requests after their complaints had been “properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations.” The last three applications were rejected as incomplete or violating Chinese law.

Ah. 77 applications – and not one approved. Violating Chinese law – the one against protesting, no doubt. That announcement about the protest zones seems to have forgotten to mention that the law against protests is still in effect. Hahahahahahahaha – they’re a funny bunch, those Public Security jokers.

Gao Chuancai, a farmer from northeast China who was hoping to publicize government corruption, was forcibly escorted back to his hometown last week and remains in custody. Relatives of Zhang Wei, a Beijing resident who was also seeking to protest the demolition of her home, were told she would be kept at a detention center for a month. Two rights advocates from southern China have not been heard from since they were seized at the Public Security Bureau’s protest application office last week.

Suckers! Hahahahahahahahaha.

Two women in their late 70s have been sentenced to a year of “re-education through labor” after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate in one of the official Olympic protest areas, according to family members and human rights advocates. The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to obtain permission to protest what they contended was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing. During their final visit, on Monday, Public Security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for “disturbing the public order,” according to Li Xuehui, Wu’s son. Li said his mother and Wang, a former neighbor who is nearly blind, were allowed to return home but were told they could be sent to a detention center at any moment. “Can you imagine two old ladies in their 70s being re-educated through labor?” he asked.

No, I can’t! Stop with the jokes, you’re slaying me.

Catholic church decides sluts deserve cancer

Aug 20th, 2008 11:53 am | By

Religion is outdoing itself this week. The good old Catholic Church for instance, always vigilant for the well-being of humanity.

A vaccine against cervical cancer will be given to schoolgirls without them receiving any safe sex advice as a result of a controversial deal struck between the Catholic Church and health officials [in Scotland]…The Catholic Church originally raised objections to the jab on the grounds it could encourage promiscuity, but has made a U-turn after reaching an agreement with health and education bosses. The deal means girls getting the HPV jab will not receive any accompanying advice on the need to use condoms to protect themselves from other sexually transmitted diseases.

Typical. A bogus worry about a bogus guessed-at possibility of a non-problem motivates the church to object to a measure that would protect women against a fatal disease. Healthy sense of priorities they have; sensible view of what matters and what doesn’t. What is ‘promiscuity’ anyway? And what business is it of theirs? What if the vaccine did ‘encourage’ women to have sex with more than one person – so what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter enough to warrant risking their lives by preventing them from getting a vaccination? And why is it up to the Catholic church to intervene? Why do health officials in Scotland have to bargain with the Catholic church at all? Why do they have to ‘strike a deal’?

Health campaigners and parents’ groups last night reacted angrily to the deal, warning that the sexual health of thousands of young Scottish women was being put at risk to avoid a moral backlash from the Catholic Church. Many sexual health experts believe it is essential to give out safe sex advice alongside the jab to make it clear they will remain at risk from other STIs including HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. More than half of the 5,000 female chlamydia patients in Scotland last year were under the age of 20.

Well it serves them right you see. The Catholic church wouldn’t want them to just get away with it.

The Catholic Church has now decided it will back the programme, with the jabs being available in its own schools. Spokesman Ronnie Convery revealed: “We have been in fruitful discussion with the health and education authorities, and we are satisfied that the programme to be rolled out across the country now is a responsible and ethically appropriate one.”

That’s disgusting. Immoral, presumptuous, intrusive, reckless, and disgusting. Having sex is not of itself irresponsible (unintended conception is irresponsible, but that’s a different matter); obstructing measures to prevent diseases is grotesquely irresponsible. The smugness of this kind of thing becomes unendurable…’we are satsfied’ indeed! Who cares whether they are satisfied or not! It’s not about them, it’s about the girls. Ronnie Convery isn’t going to get cervical cancer, is he, because he doesn’t have a cervix, and neither do any of the other bastards who decide this stuff.

La vie en rose

Aug 18th, 2008 3:55 pm | By

Life in Afghanistan.

Asked why she was serving seven years in jail alongside hardened insurgents and criminals, the 15-year-old giggled and buried her head in her friend’s shoulder. “She is shy,” apologised fellow inmate Zirdana, explaining that the teenager had been married at a young age to an abusive husband and ran away with a boy from her neighbourhood…Ostracised from her family and village, Saliha was convicted of escaping from home and illegal sexual relations. The first carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, the second 20.

‘Escaping’ from home. Escaping from ‘home.’ It was a home she was put into as if she were a parcel, or a prisoner; and in sane parts of the world, people are allowed to ‘escape’ from home if they’re miserable there. But in Afghanistan, you get up to ten years in the slammer for it. And of course twenty years for having sex with someone other than the man you were given to in childhood as if you were a parcel. Women in Afghanistan are treated like livestock.

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah’s medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man…Colonel Ghulam Ali, a high-ranking regional security officer, explained sternly that he supported the authorities’ right to convict victims of rape. “In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is,” he claimed. “I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today’s world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations.”

Yes indeed, and punishing women for being raped is just the way to put a stop to that. Because that of course will discourage men from raping women, because – because – because if they keep doing it eventually all the women will be in prison and there will be no one left to rape? Yeah that must be it. Anyway, note the stupidity of ‘whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is.’

Pushing her five-year-old son’s arm forward imploringly, Zirdana, 25, pointed to the festering wound buzzing with flies. The little boy was just two months old when his mother was convicted of murdering her husband, his father. Zirdana had been handed over to him at the age of seven, as part payment in a financial dispute. She gave birth to the first of her children when she was 11 and was pregnant with her fourth when her husband disappeared and she was accused of killing him. Her three older children were taken from her by her brother-in-law. “When I first came to jail I cried so much blood was coming out of my mouth. My husband’s brother told me he would give my children back when I came out of jail but he has become a Talib.”

She was married to a guy who tooks her as a form of currency, and who fucked her when she was ten if not sooner.

Earlier this year a report by Womankind, Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, revealed that violent attacks against women, usually in a domestic setting, are at epidemic proportions – 87 per cent of women complain of such abuse, and half of it is sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced and, despite laws banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under 16. Many of these girls are offered as restitution for a crime or as debt settlement.

So for women Afghanistan is pretty much one big prison, run by sadistic rapist guards. How nice.

Innocent times

Aug 15th, 2008 5:53 pm | By

Simon Blackburn makes an interesting point (several actually, but this one in particular got my attention) in discussing Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.

Relativism can certainly go along with complacency, and I think it is fair to say that even philosophers more serious than Rorty were tainted by that…[C]onsider in this connection also “political liberalism,” the heading under which John Rawls could imagine the peoples of the world willingly leaving their ideological and cultural differences at the door and coming into the political arena carrying only that which they hold in common. What they had in common turned out to be a birthright of reason sufficient all by itself to enchant them with a nice liberal democratic constitution, amazingly like that of the United States, or perhaps western Europe. Conflict could be talked through and violence abated. When the philosophers explained the right way to live, everyone would fall happily into line. Innocent times.

Precisely. This was my complaint about Martha Nussbaum last April when she said to Bill Moyers in an interview -

[W]hat our whole history has shown is…that people can get along together and respect one another, even though they have differences about religion, because they can recognize a common moral ground to stand on. They can recognize values like honesty, social justice, and so on.

And I said that’s too easy, and why I thought so, and Nussbaum replied (to Moyers, but I pretended she was replying to me) –

George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers saying, “I assure you that the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness.” And what he meant is you’re not going to have to serve in the military. And I respect that. And unless there’s a public emergency, we’re just not going to do that kind of violence to your conscience. So, I think we have understood that lesson.

And I said Not so fast; that’s still too easy, much too easy; that’s a cheat, because that example won’t do because it’s an easy one, and the problems come in not with the easy ones, but the hard ones.

The problem is, the Quaker scruple is much too easy to ‘respect.’ Most people do understand and respect and sympathize with conscientious scruples about killing people, even if they don’t agree with particular instantiations of them. But that is not the case with all religious ‘scruples’, to put it mildly.

I take that to be exactly what Simon Blackburn has in mind there. Innocent times, indeed.

Ignorance as a basis for policy

Aug 14th, 2008 12:31 pm | By

Good; let’s everybody pile on Charles. He needs to be told his status doesn’t substitute for scientific training.

The heir to the throne may wish to use his privileged position to promote his organic produce while denigrating those of us who wish to use science to help feed the world. But he should at least do so from a position of scientific evidence rather than ideological dogma. He shows a common misunderstanding of how agricultural science works. What’s worse, though, is that his comments risk reinforcing the mistrust felt by much of the public about how their food is produced.

Because of who he is – which is exactly why he should be more cautious about mouthing off instead of less so. His irresponsibility is shocking to behold.

I am reminded of the suggestion made some time ago by Professor Steve Jones of University College London that the best thing the prince could do would be to take an A-level in biology: it would help him to understand the irrationality of his position.

Yes but that would be so plebeian. One isn’t just anyone, after all.

He also blames various ills on modern agriculture more generally – yet fails to see that GM technology could be the solution. He is worried, for instance, about the huge salination problems faced by farmers in many parts of the world. Soil becoming too salty is indeed a problem in places – but GM technology offers us the chance to develop crop varieties that will not just survive but thrive in such conditions.

Yes but you see – hem hem hem, excuse me I’m due at polo just now.

Not so fast Sir.

The Prince is as entitled to his views as anyone. What he is not entitled to do is share them with us. This has nothing to do with whatever merit they might or might not have. It has everything to do with the fact that one day he will be King…The attacks on further GM experiments – which, by definition, are designed to further our knowledge – expose the ignorance behind Prince Charles’s remarks. There is not a shred of evidence – not a jot, not a hint, not a fraction – that there is any risk from GM crops.

Yet his privileged position as next king means that his ignorant views get more exposure than those of people who know something about the subject. That’s bad, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to grasp this makes it worse. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind at all that he could be genuinely harming millions of people (could if his views are ever acted on, at least) and that he therefore ought to…shut up.

I’ve yet to hear Prince Charles decry the use of insulin for diabetics as a “real disaster”. But if he rejects, on principle, the idea of GM crops, he should, because the insulin used is genetically engineered – the human gene that codes for insulin has been transferred into bacteria and yeast, a process that involves crossing the species barrier. But then ignorance need not be consistent and when the Prince opens his mouth he serves only to advance the cause of an unthinking, irrational, ignorance as a basis for policy.

And that cause carries the risk of harming millions of people.

Charles and Bush should form a tiny little book group or something; they have a lot in common.

Let them eat profiteroles

Aug 13th, 2008 2:01 pm | By

Charles is misusing his wealth and status again, taking advantage of his privileged position to lay down the law on subjects he knows nothing about.

Des Turner, a Labour MP and member of the Commons science committee, said: “Prince Charles has got a way of getting things absolutely wrong.
It’s an entirely Luddite attitude to simply reject them out of hand. In some developing countries where for instance there is a problem with drought or salinity, if you can develop salt or drought-resistant crops there are great benefits.”

Oh well you see that would require thinking about specifics, and Charles doesn’t want to do that, he just wants to use his unearned unmerited authority to make sweeping unsupported evidence-free Grand Statements. He should subscribe to the WMST list, he’d feel right at home.

In a statement setting the Prince against politicians who believe GM foods will be crucial to feeding under-nourished populations in the developing world, he said: “What we should be talking about is food security, not food production – that is what matters and that is what people will not understand.”

Horrible man. ‘What people will not understand’ indeed – spoken like a true royal. He has no expertise in this subject, he’s not a trained agronomist or economist or biologist, he’s not a scientist of any kind, yet he thinks he’s perfectly qualified to tell the world what ‘people’ obstinately ‘will not understand’ no matter how many times he orders them to. What we should be talking about is not food production – no matter how many people starve while Charles cuddles his fantasies about small farms and bijou apples.

Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP and the chairman of the Commons science committee, said the Prince’s “lack of scientific understanding” would “condemn millions of people to starvation in areas like sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is that without the development of science in farming, we would not be able to feed a tenth of the world population, which will exceed nine billion by 2050.”

Yes but you see that’s specifics again and Charles is your grand generalization man. He wears expensive suits, he must be right.

Ian Gibson, a Labour MP and former lecturer in Biology, said: “Prince Charles should stick to his royal role rather than spout off about something which he has clearly got wrong.”

Trouble is, Charles thinks he’s a powerful thinker, and he acts on that mistaken view.

Mark Henderson does a good job of saying how Charles gets it all wrong.

A wealth of implication

Aug 12th, 2008 6:10 pm | By

Not exactly.

Of course, the novel will be published sooner or later. Writing about Muhammad has become the shortest cut to media attention in the west. And of course semi-employed young men and women from religious Muslim backgrounds will be out on the streets, shouting.

Women? No they won’t. You don’t see them out there much – which is not surprising, since in ‘religious Muslim’ countries they’re not always encouraged to join in, if you get my drift. But they also, quite possibly, have better sense. It tends to be the young men who work themselves into stupid frenzies about this kind of thing. Rage boy, remember? Rage girl not so much.

[E]ven very religious Muslims cannot ignore the west any more, and – unfortunately – the west, it appears, cannot ignore them either.

Well there are those tugs on the sleeve every now and then, you know. The exploding bus, the exploding airplane, the exploding building – they’re hard to ignore.

European newspapers compared the deferred novel on Aisha to two recent, and very sad, events: the protests that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Danish Muhammad cartoons, in which – wrote the Guardian objectively – “more than 100 people died”. The implication – unintended by the Guardian – is that about 100 people were killed by Islamic fundamentalists or protesters…But the fact remains that on both the occasions at least 80% of the people who died were Muslims protesting against Rushdie’s novel or the Danish cartoons. They were often shot by the police, sometimes in Muslim countries, when the protests got out of hand or were inconvenient.

I don’t think that is the implication. On the contrary. I think the intended implication is that the 100 people died because Rushdie’s novel and the Danish cartoons ‘sparked outrage’. The implication is not that Islamic fundamentalists killed each other, but that offended people were upset and then tragically got killed in the resulting violence, which was ultimately the fault not of the offended people or of the police but of the authors of the works that offended them. The BBC and the Guardian generally (though not this time) say that the novel or the cartoons ‘triggered’ or ’caused’ or ‘set off’ protests and riots – which is not true, and does imply that the novelist and the cartoonists did it on purpose or at least should have known better. So…Tabish Khair and I see the matter differently.

Sisters unite and fight development

Aug 11th, 2008 5:53 pm | By

You know every now and then if you’re very good I give you a jolt from the Women’s Studies mailing list. I have one now, fresh in this morning. Someone wanting material for a course she’s going to teach.

course is a straight-up political science one on “democracy and
development,” but I’m looking to inject some feminism into it. I
think I’ve got some good stuff on the democracy side, but I’m looking

1) articles on women’s/feminist engagement with “development” as a
discourse, or resistance to development projects
2) a film about the conflict between democracy and development–that
is, struggles against state-sponsored development projects that come
from democratic autonomous movements. Off the top of my head, I’m
thinking of action against dams in India, though I’m certain there
are good examples from elsewhere. I also know that women are at the
forefront of many of these struggles, so I’m hoping folks on this
list have some good ideas about where to turn for films on the subject.

I didn’t know resistance to development was feminist, did you? Funny, I thought underdevelopment was not all that good for women. I thought that when there are no schools and no roads and no plumbing that women don’t really thrive all that well. I thought that when there is poverty and resources are scarce, that most of the resources went to men and boys and women and girls got a lot less. I thought schools and books and transport and tools and technology and prosperity were better for women than poverty and backbreaking work and no education. But no – of course – that’s just silly. Development means malls and consumerism and parking lots and consumerism; has to be bad, and imperialist; the feminist thing is to live in a mud wallow and eat fleas for breakfast.

The Guardian lends a hand

Aug 9th, 2008 6:02 pm | By

The Guardian also has a piece on the story, a subtly, covertly snotty one – snotty about Jones, not Spellberg. ‘The Jewel of the Medina, a first book by Sherry Jones, 46, was to have been released on August 12′ – what’s with that ’46′? It doesn’t say how old Spellberg is. The point seems to be that Jones is old for a first novel – which has to be just covert sneering, sneering that’s embarrassed to be overt about it. ‘She claims to have spent two years researching the novel’ – there it is again – she claims? Couldn’t that have been she said? Yes, but apparently that wouldn’t have been snide enough. For some reason, the Guardian had to frame this story as a veiled attack on Jones. Odd. Maybe they think she’s a horrible Islamophobe but they don’t have any evidence for that so they just thought they’d sneer at her in the meantime?

Spellberg told the Guardian yesterday that she had been receiving hate mail accusing her of acting as a censor for Muslim jihadis after the piece in the WSJ, which cast her as the sole academic critic of the novel.

Gee, now why would anyone accuse Spellberg as acting as a censor? I can’t imagine, can you?

Spellberg, however, was horrified by the end product. “It is not just that there were issues with historical accuracy. This was quite deliberately provocative. She objectified the wife of the prophet as a sex object and made her violent as well,” she told the Guardian. The book’s marketing blurb and the prologue, both online, suggest Spellberg had cause for her fears. The novel is a luridly written amalgam of bodice-ripper and historical fiction centred on Aisha, the favourite wife of the prophet Muhammad.

Has Suzanne Goldenberg read the novel? That seems unlikely, since it’s been pulled, and she doesn’t say she has, and she refers to the blurb and the prologue. But then why does she say the novel is luridly written? Is she just taking Spellberg’s word for it? If so, she should have said so. If she’s read the novel, she should have made that clear. At any rate, what does she mean ‘suggest Spellberg had cause for her fears’? So it’s a luridly written historical bodice-ripper, why would that suggest that Spellberg ‘had cause for her fears’ that ‘there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence…it is ”a declaration of war…explosive stuff…a national security issue.”…it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons’? It is not obvious why such a novel would cause ‘major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence’ or be ‘far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons’ – so why is the Guardian agreeing with Spellberg? Because she’s fighting the good fight against Islamophobia? Who knows. It’s all sickening stuff.

Spellberg explains

Aug 9th, 2008 5:56 pm | By

Denise Spellberg clears things up. She didn’t ‘single-handedly stop the book’s publication’ – ah that’s good to know; she had help. She says.

Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.

Ah yes! Quite! Those bastards – those capitalist bastards – they have corporate interests – so really it’s Random House that is the guilty party here, not a ‘scholar’ who sees fit to tell someone to ‘warn Muslims’ about a novel and to tell Random House that said novel is ”a declaration of war…a national security issue’. Well certainly Random House acted like chickenshits, but deploying the right-on anticorporate jargon won’t quite deflect attention from the excited intervention of Spellberg. It’s too late for that, pal.

As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket.

Fine – and you could have said that – in the usual way. That’s not the issue.

The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.

But you didn’t just warn the press, did you. You also told Shahed Amanullah ‘to warn Muslims’ – was it ‘in that same professional capacity’ that you tried to arouse the very anger you warned Random House about? What was your goal in urging Amanullah to ‘warn Muslims’ if it wasn’t to stir up anger? And what, precisely, is professional about that?

There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings.

So what? Is ‘anti-Islamic polemic’ illegal or self-evidently illegitimate in some way? Is it your professional duty to determine that? (If so, why?) If you think that’s unfortunate, you could have just said that in your comment, but that’s not the same thing as setting off alarms all over the place.

The novel provides no new reading of Aisha’s life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad’s wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses,” which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

Bullshit. You’re all over the place. So the novel expands on provocative themes via Rushdie – again, so what? Novelists do that; novelists are influenced by other novelists (I rather think Rushdie himself is influenced by other novelists, and would say as much if you asked him); novelists expand on themes; so what? And so you teach The Satanic Verses; big whoop; are we supposed to be impressed, after all this? And as for that last bit of self-serving crap – of course you espouse censorship of any kind! You’ve just been doing exactly that, so you can’t just say you don’t when everyone can see you do. And – you didn’t just critique the Jones book, did you. You know you didn’t. Come on – ‘professional’ bullshit isn’t going to salvage your reputation now.

If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to “move civilization forward,” then they should read a novel that gets history right.

No doubt, but again, that is not the issue. You didn’t write a review, or a critique, or a comment for the publishers; you did much more than that; so it’s no good pretending you were merely proffering some healthful literary advice.


Aug 8th, 2008 4:03 pm | By

From the Dakar Declaration of the 2008 OIC summit.

Our faith in such a strategic option for the quest for peace in that part of the world [Basra? No. Kashmir? No. Darfur? No.]…illustrates our strict adherence to the values of Islam, a religion of peace that forbids all forms of exclusivity and extremism and that warrants the following quotation “You have been made a Prophet only to restore peace in the world”, which is based on a verse from the Holy Quran.

From the report on Saudi textbooks.

A Muslim is forbidden to love and aid the unbelieving enemies of God…They are the people of the Sabbath, whose young people God turned into apes, and whose old people God turned into swine to punish them…Narrated by Abu Hurayrah: The Prophet said, The hour [of judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. [It will not come] until the Jew hides behind rocks and trees. [It will not come] until the rocks or the trees say, ‘O Muslim! O servant of God! There is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.’ Except for the gharqad, which is a tree of the Jews.”

A religion of peace that forbids all forms of exclusivity! As we see every day. You bet.


Aug 8th, 2008 11:41 am | By

And another thing. Thomas Perry of Random House said, we are told, that Random House received ‘cautionary advice’ that the publication of the Aisha novel ‘might be offensive to some in the Muslim community’ – he said this in partial explanation of Random House’s decision not to publish it. But that’s imbecilic. It’s beyond imbecilic – it’s deranged – it’s surreal – it’s self-nullifying. It is not possible to write anything that ‘might’ not be offensive to ‘some’ in the X ‘community.’ In fact it’s all but certain that anything anyone writes will be offensive to ‘some’ in some ‘community.’ The condition of writing and publication is not and cannot be and must not be not being potentially offensive to ‘some’ – because that condition would rule out everything. Every single thing. There would be nothing left. Life would be a desert. The only alternative to the risk of offending ‘some’ is complete nullity. That’s too high a price to pay. If we want to be able to think and talk and write at all – and we do – we have to take the risk of offending ‘some.’

Foul your own nest why don’t you

Aug 6th, 2008 5:04 pm | By

This one is so disgusting my teeth are chattering with rage – not quite literally, but it’s close. I feel as if my teeth were chattering with rage. What? A historian named Denise Spellberg was sent a novel about Aisha, the little girl Mo married when she was nine years old, and Spellberg decided she needed to get busy warning and threatening and silencing. And it worked.

Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Especially if conscientious determined people worked hard enough to get the incitement of violence started, which it looks as though they would have. We have seen this before. (And then been told the ensuing riots were the fault of the people who had the temerity to draw the cartoons, rather than the fault of the people who put in a lot of effort to get people worked up. I hope we never have to hear that kind of thing again.) (The reporter is a Muslim, by the way, and she is upset by this revolting mess.)

This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.” But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg’s classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. “She was upset,” Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history,” and asked him to warn Muslims.

To warn them? To warn them of what? A threat on their lives? An approaching hurricane? A tsunami? The melting Arctic? Hungry polar bears? Homeland Security? No, of course not. To warn them of a book – a novel – a novel that Spellberg didn’t like. Knowing the impressive history that ‘warned’ Muslims have of respecting the freedom of the press and the value of open discussion and debate, Spellberg asked her friend to ‘warn Muslims’ about a novel. This makes me very, very, very angry. This causes me to have dark thoughts about wishing the University of Texas at Austin would summarily fire Spellberg for her failure to understand the most basic principles of intellectual life. What business does someone like that have at a university? What business does she have writing books and teaching? What right does she have to set herself up as a censor of other people’s work?

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: “the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life*.” Says Ms. Spellberg…”I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

Who says you can’t? Under what jurisdiction can’t you? And who the hell assigned Denise Spellberg to decide? What on earth makes her think she has the right to shut down someone else’s book? Who (to be obvious about it) does she think she is?

Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.”) “She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence,” Ms. Garrett wrote. “Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war…explosive stuff…a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.”

She thinks there is a very real possibility because she herself has been busy trying to foment the possibility. That takes some brass-plated nerve.

I’d like to see her summarily fired, and I’d like to see Knopf withdraw that contract. I’d like to see her disgraced, shamed, an outcast. I’d like to see her have to get a job at a chicken-rendering plant in Odessa. At the very least I’d like to see her name become mud, which, judging by Google blog search, it’s well on the way to doing.

Denise Spellberg, self-appointed censor and destroyer of books: you should be embarrassed at yourself. You should go into a very different line of work, right away – you should not be allowed anywhere near students, and you should never get another book or article published.

*As mediwatchwatch said, all nine years of it.

P.S. Note that the last bit is a pious hope. I’m not telephoning people to urge them to fire Spellberg (much as I’d like to) or to decide not to publish her book (even more as I’d like to). I’m merely expressing a cherished dream. I’m a fantasist, not a censor. Unlike some people I could mention.

Adios freedom of speech

Aug 5th, 2008 3:02 pm | By

Well at least someone is paying attention.

Pakistan and the other nations that have banded together in the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been leading a remarkably successful campaign through the United Nations to enshrine in international law prohibitions against “defamation of religions,” particularly Islam. Their aim is to empower governments around the world to punish anyone who commits the “heinous act” of defaming Islam. Critics say it is an attempt to globalize laws against blasphemy that exist in some Muslim countries — and that the movement has already succeeded in suppressing open discussion in international forums of issues such as female genital mutilation, honour killings and gay rights.

Quite. David Littman is one of those critics. He tells me that no one is talking about this, because it’s taboo. I knew hardly anyone was talking about it, from trying to find people talking about it. People should be talking about this, if they want to go on talking about other things without having to ask the OIC for permission. People should be talking about this and shouting their heads off about it so that nothing will come of it.

The trend has rights advocates worried for numerous reasons, beginning with the language used. If the notion of “defaming” a religion sounds a little unfamiliar, that’s because it is a major departure from the traditional understanding of what defamation means. Defamation laws traditionally protect individual people from being materially harmed by the dissemination of falsehoods. But “defamation of religions” is not about protecting individual believers from damage to their reputations caused by false statements — but rather about protecting a religion, or some interpretation of it, or the feelings of the followers. While a traditional defence in a defamation lawsuit is that the accused was merely telling the truth, religions by definition present competing claims on the truth, and one person’s religious truth is easily another’s apostasy. “Truth” is no defence in such cases. The subjective perception of insult is what matters, and what puts the whole approach on a collision course with the human rights regime — especially in countries with an official state religion.

If the right to free speech can be trumped by a subjective perception of insult, then there is no right to free speech. That’s it. All over. (Just ask Taslima Nasreen, to name only one.)

Susan Bunn Livingstone, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in human rights issues and also spoke to the July 18 congressional gathering, said the developments at the UN are worrisome. “They are trying to internationalize the concept of blasphemy,” said Livingstone at the panel. She contrasted “the concept of injuring feelings versus what is actually happening on the ground — torture, imprisonment, abuse.” And, she added, “They are using this discourse of ‘defamation’ to carve out any attention we would bring to a country. Abstractions like states and ideologies and religions are seen as more important than individuals. This is a moral failure.”

A moral failure and also a gutting of the whole concept of human rights. Rights are for individuals, who can experience and suffer and feel and think; they’re not for states and ideologies and religions, which cannot suffer or feel anything at all. The whole idea is an absolute nightmare.

The fact that the resolutions keep passing, and that UN officials now monitor countries’ compliance, could help the concept of “defamation of religions” become an international legal norm, said Livingstone, noting that when the International Court of Justice at The Hague decides what rises to the level of an “international customary law,” it looks not to unanimity among countries but to “general adherence.” “That’s why these UN resolutions are so troubling,” she said. “They’ve been passed for 10 years.”

Well – that scares the hell out of me.

In March, the [OIC] held a summit in Dakar, Senegal. Their final communiqué ran 52 pages and included a comprehensive strategy on human rights that featured a plan to shield Islamic states from being pressured to change their more contentious practices through international human rights laws and organizations. The conference expressed “deep concern over attempts to exploit the issue of human rights to discredit the principles and provisions of Islamic sharia and to interfere in the affairs of Muslim states.” It also called for “abstaining from using the universality of human rights as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of states and undermining their national sovereignty.” The states also resolved to coordinate and co-operate “in the field of human rights particularly in the relevant international fora to face any attempt to use human rights as a means of political pressure on any member state.”

Oh did it. How impressive.

They meant no harm, they’re just a little highspirited

Aug 4th, 2008 5:48 pm | By

‘Animal rights activists’ apparently firebombed a house where a biologist lives with his family at dawn on Saturday.

Feldheim, whose townhouse was firebombed just after 5:30 a.m., uses mice in laboratory research on brain formation. He told The Chronicle that he and his wife, along with their 7-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, had to drop a ladder from the window of a second-floor bedroom to escape after smoke filled the home’s first floor.

So…they could easily have been killed or seriously injured. Rather a rough form of ‘activism’ then.

In January, a Molotov cocktail exploded on a UCLA researcher’s porch. A month later, six people in masks tried to force their way into the home of a UC Santa Cruz researcher and hit her husband on the head, police said. And at UC Berkeley, officials said 24 animal researchers and seven staffers have been harassed in recent months, with some homes and cars vandalized.

But don’t fret – they’re just trying to send a message. Jerry Vlasak says so.

A different view was expressed today by Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which often posts on its Web site communiques from activists taking credit for attacks. He said the benefit of animal research does not justify its expense or the exploitation of animals. Vlasak said the bombers likely were not trying to hurt Feldheim, but were instead “trying to send a message to this guy, who won’t listen to reason, that if he doesn’t stop hurting animals, more drastic measures will be taken … it’s certainly not an initial tactic, but a tactic of last resort.”

‘The bombers likely were not trying to hurt Feldheim’ – when they firebombed his house at 5:30 in the morning when everyone would be asleep in bed? They likely were not trying to hurt him? They were trying to send a message? Jeezis. If you’re going to support bombers, then be honest about it – don’t support them and pretend to think they’re not trying to hurt anyone when they fling firebombs around the neighbourhood. Your pals are not merely trying to send a message, Mr Vlasak.

Don’t let us interrupt you

Aug 3rd, 2008 10:53 am | By

I keep saying the Free Exercise clause is like an unexploded bomb.

Laura Schubert Pearson’s lawsuit accusing members of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church of subjecting her to a two-day exorcism ordeal in 1996 that left her so distressed she attempted suicide was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court last month. The judges overturned a lower court’s decision awarding her damages and ruled that because Mrs Schubert Pearson’s claims of injury amounted to a religious dispute over church doctrine it would be “unconstitutional” for the court to get involved.

Interesting. So if you’re tortured within the walls of a church it’s all copacetic because that there’s your free exercise of religion? And that’s the case even if you’re not even an adult at the time? Well, splendid.

So ‘Rev’ Anthony Hopkins (no not the Welsh actor) should just say he was exorcising demons and that’s how his wife ended up dead in the freezer after she discovered he’d been raping some of their children: that way he’ll be able to leave prison and go back to part-time preaching. Amen.

Shocking win for Stephen Green

Aug 2nd, 2008 5:16 pm | By

Do we want ‘Christian Voice’ telling newspapers what they can publish? No, we damn well don’t. We don’t trust ‘Christian Voice’ to choose wisely; we prefer to take our chances with competent newspaper editors rather than with puffed-up publicity-seeking tiny-minded religious zealots.

See the South Wales Echo grovel:

It has come to our attention that in an article on Wednesday, July 16, headlined ‘If God considers gays and abomination why did he create them?’, our columnist Dan O’Neill offended a number of Christians. We would like to apologise for any offence caused to those people who believe the article insulted the Christian faith, Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible.

Well how sickening. Why would they like to apologize? Any columnist is bound to offend a certain percentage of readers. One who is determinedly bland and boring in order not to offend anyone simply offends all the people who don’t like bland boring writing. It’s no good trying to put out a newspaper that won’t offend anyone! 1. it can’t be done, and 2. it damn well shouldn’t be done. And it certainly shouldn’t be done when what is supposed to have been ‘insulted’ is ‘the Christian faith, Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible.’ They can all take care of themselves, one way or another.

Andy Armitage provides the offending passage at Pink Triangle. The columnist was musing on what Stephen Green (Mr ‘Christian Voice’ himself, the dweeb) would have made of that weird Jesus guy:

This Jesus feller swans around all day with a dozen other blokes. No women. Mark that, no women. And he wanders off into the mountains now and again to spend quality time with his, uh, favourites (Mark.9:2). He picks up small boys and girls and puts his hands upon them (Mark 10:16) And he was seen in a garden when one of his mates came up and kissed him (Matthew,26:48). Suspicious, eh?

The point is that Green is a tool, not that Jesus is a child-groper, so what does Green do but act like a tool again. But the Echo simply jumped when Green said jump. We should all get together and go stand around the Echo’s offices complaining about how offended we are. You too, Mediawatchwatch.

The Freethinker set up a petition. I posted it on Facebook as well as in News, but there are only ten more signatures so far. Go on, fill it up, do us proud – and do the Echo embarrassed.

Oh no, not that

Aug 1st, 2008 5:59 pm | By

You spotted the irony, I trust?

Once again, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice misses its goals…The latest action from the commission is to ban the sale of cats and dogs in Riyadh. According to Al-Hayat newspaper, the reason behind the ban is a fatwa and the reason behind the fatwa is that some young men take dogs out into the street and use them to annoy families; the fatwa also points out that the ban aims to preserve public morals.

Because dogs like to shove their noses unceremoniously into people’s crotches, and cats probably would if they were tall enough. But no, that’s not the irony.

A person can in fact use anything to harass people — mobile phones, the lights of his car, or loud music coming from his car. So are we going to ban the use of mobile phones in public? Or will we wake tomorrow to the news that young men are no longer allowed to drive in public areas? All I am asking for is some logic and reasonable thinking.

That’s the irony. Shock-horror, will we wake tomorrow to the news that young men are no longer allowed to drive in public areas? Good heavens no, but you’ve already woken up to the news that all women are not allowed to drive in public areas. The reductio ad absurdum has already happened, so it seems a little…unobservant to balk at a hypothetical restraint on young men when the same restraint is already in place on all women. But then living in Saudi Arabia probably does make it quite difficult to Spot the Absurdity.

Teach the children well

Aug 1st, 2008 1:14 am | By

Did you have a look at the report on Saudi textbooks? It’s horrible, horrible stuff. It’s sickening to read. You feel despair that there are people in the world going about things in this way, ‘teaching’ children in this way. You feel disgusted with human beings.

A 2005-2006 Fourth Grade textbook on Monotheism and Jurisprudence instructs students to “hate (tubghida) the polytheists and the infidels” as a requirement of “true faith.” Incongruously, the same sentence instructs that they are not to treat the infidels “unjustly,” but does not provide any clarification of what this meant.

“ Is belief true in the following instances?

a. A man prays but hates those who are virtuous.
b. A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the infidels.
c. A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the infidels.”

The only right answer is ‘c’ – you have to hate the infidels.

“A Muslim is forbidden to love and aid the unbelieving enemies of God…They are the people of the Sabbath, whose young people God turned into apes, and whose old people God turned into swine to punish them. As cited in Ibn Abbas: The apes are Jews, the keepers of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christian infidels of the communion of Jesus…They are the Jews, whom God has cursed and with whom He is so angry that He will never again be satisfied [with them].

That’s 8th grade. Then in 9th grade -

“Narrated by Abu Hurayrah: The Prophet said, The hour [of judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. [It will not come] until the Jew hides behind rocks and trees. [It will not come] until the rocks or the trees say, ‘O Muslim! O servant of God! There is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.’ Except for the gharqad, which is a tree of the Jews.”

This is Saudi Arabia – our ‘ally’ – with whom we are told we ‘share values.’ It’s enough to make you sick.

The Catholic constitution

Jul 30th, 2008 12:04 pm | By

‘The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy’ attempts to throw its weight around.

The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (a national association of 600 priests & deacons) respond to the sacrilegious and blasphemous desecration of the Holy Eucharist by asking for public reparation…We find the actions of University of Minnesota (Morris) Professor Paul Myers reprehensible, inexcusable, and unconstitutional. His flagrant display of irreverence by profaning a consecrated Host from a Catholic church goes beyond the limit of academic freedom and free speech.

Unconstitutional? How’s that?

The same Bill of Rights which protect freedom of speech also protect freedom of religion. The Founding Fathers did not envision a freedom FROM religion, rather a freedom OF religion.

Clever; we’ve never heard that before. But however fresh and original, it’s still stupid and wrong. Freedom of religion of course does include freedom from religion. Freedom of religion necessarily includes the freedom to say No to all the choices on offer; it even includes the freedom to say No to any possible choices. If it doesn’t it isn’t freedom of religion, it’s freedom among religions, which is a much smaller and pettier freedom.

In other words, our nation’s constitution protects the rights of ALL religions, not one and not just a few. Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper.

No; wrong again. Our nation’s constitution does not protect the rights of religions. Religions don’t have rights; rights are not things ascribed to abstractions or institutions, they are ascribed to people or people and other sentient beings (animals). Rights are connected to the ability to experience something. Religions don’t have rights. Individual believers have rights; religions do not. And as for the second sentence – that’s just a flat-out absurdity. It’s simply obviously not true. Clearly the priests would like it to be true, but it isn’t true, because the US is not a Catholic dictatorship.

[P]ublicly burning copies of the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, especially by a faculty member of a public university, are just as heinous and just as unconstitutional.

No. These guys just can’t get their facts right. Burning copies of the Bible or the Koran is not unconstitutional. It just isn’t.

Individual freedoms are limited by the boundaries created by the inalienable rights of others. The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance.

Oh, godalmighty…These poor schmucks are so delusional. No, no, no, you saps, the freedom of religion does not mean that no one has the right to ‘malign or grossly offend a faith tradition’ unless they belong to it. Jeezis. I, for one, have the right to malign your horrible faith tradition, that does its best to prevent women from being able to limit how many children they have, that does its best to prevent men from wearing condoms during a raging pandemic of a lethal STD. We all have that right. And people like you telling us we don’t just motivates us to exercise that right all the more. If you stopped trying to force everyone to genuflect to your particular piety, we wouldn’t take the time to play with crackers. But as it is – well gee, bring out the Cheez-whiz.