Notes and Comment Blog

“Send this genius an invitation to the White House”

Sep 21st, 2015 10:40 am | By

It’s still going on, and getting worse – Dawkins calling Ahmed Mohamed, age 14, a “fraud” on Twitter, and complaining that he was invited to the White House and MIT, and defending the use of Breitbart as a source. He’s trending on Facebook. Multiple news outlets are reporting on his Twitter bullying.

One example of that bullying:

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins 3 hours ago
Cool invention.
Send this genius an invitation to the White House.
Brilliant short film, says it all.

This is a senior scientist, a best-selling author, famous and loaded with awards – being sarcastic about the genius of a boy of 14, a brown immigrant boy in Texas.

It’s not a good look.

An hour later:

Huge numbers, including me, + the White House, were taken for gullible fools & police were fooled in a nastier way.

How were we taken for gullible fools? I don’t recall anyone claiming Ahmed had made some sort of extraordinary invention. I assumed it was tinkering, of the kind that boys of 14 do, that’s a sign of interest in tinkering and maybe the principles that guide it. I didn’t assume he was doing real engineering at his age. The fuss wasn’t because he was taken to be a genius, it was because his school treated him badly.

Dawkins is energetically setting fire to his own reputation today.

Possibly wanted to be arrested?

Sep 20th, 2015 5:10 pm | By

Dawkins’s display of irritation with Ahmed Mohamed was even worse than I realized, because I missed one tweet. (Or maybe more than one.) I find this one really horrible.

Someone asked what he thought Ahmed’s motives were.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins
@HarryStopes I don’t know. Possibly wanted to be arrested? Police played into his hands? Anyway, now invited to White House, crowdfunded etc

That’s so hateful. It’s reminiscent of the way a bunch of obnoxious people claimed Rebecca Watson said “guys, don’t do that” as part of a cunning plan to become famous and harassed on the internet…only it’s even more so because Ahmed is fourteen years old.

It’s Paul Vale at the Huffington Post who reported on that tweet.

Maureen tells me there are stories in tomorrow’s Guardian and Independent, too.

Which is true?

Sep 20th, 2015 1:54 pm | By

Oh honestly.

I saw this on Twitter but didn’t feel like doing another seen-on-Twitter post, so I’m grateful to the Evening Harold for doing a parody.

Eminent scientist turned huffy, proselytizing sideshow, Richard Dawkins, has had his motives for taking to Twitter to heap shit on a fourteen year old boy questioned, with many believing that he knew exactly what he was doing and that it was a pre-meditated attack carried out purely for attention.

“Assembling a Twitter rant is fine. Making it look like it was done as part of some great crusade for truth, and isn’t a famous 74 year old man picking on a boy is not fine. Which is true?” said the first villager we found in the Squirrel Lickers, Phil Evans.

Wait, what, you’re thinking – he didn’t, did he? Yes, he did. He did it repeatedly. He defended it.

What’s his objection? That Ahmed Mohamed called his clock an invention when he may have simply disassembled and reassembled an existing clock.

Yes really.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins 12 hours ago
Assembling clock from bought components is fine. Taking clock out of its case to make it look as if he built it is not fine. Which is true?

Why do you ask?

All there is to it

Sep 20th, 2015 12:50 pm | By

Nick Cohen has extensive and complicated experience of the purity-sniffing Left. He’s done with it.

The one prophesy I can make with certainty amid today’s chaos is that many on the left will head for the right. When they arrive, they will be greeted with bogus explanations for their ‘betrayal’.

Conservatives will talk as if there is a right-wing gene which, like male-pattern baldness, manifests itself with age. The US leftist-turned-neocon Irving Kristol set the pattern for the pattern-baldness theory of politics when he opined that a conservative is a liberal who has been ‘mugged by reality’. He did not understand that the effects of reality’s many muggings are never predictable, or that facts of life are not always, as Margaret Thatcher claimed, conservative. If they were, we would still have feudalism.

The standard explanation from left-wingers is equally self-serving. Turncoats are like prostitutes, they say, who sell their virtue for money. They are pure; those who disagree with them are corrupt; and that is all there is to it.

Let me emphasize that last point.

They are pure; those who disagree with them are corrupt; and that is all there is to it.

Just a bit of fun

Sep 19th, 2015 5:45 pm | By

Charlotte Proudman reports on the harassment she’s getting, and why she’s not apologizing.

Why all the fuss? Should women not be grateful that they’re being complimented on their looks by strangers, particularly by powerful, senior men? Let me be clear: the compliments I receive from friends or family, and those I choose to give, are a private matter. I do not welcome unsolicited remarks about my body from someone I don’t know and who, in a professional context, is in a position of authority over me. Sexist comments are part of the process that seals and cements women’s subordinate position to men in the workplace.

Yet many professional women believe that because of their relative disempowerment they simply have to tolerate such intrusive and oppressive behaviour. After all, it is just casual, everyday sexism – just a bit of “fun”. Properly understood, however, it constitutes social policing, gender control, and – in its darker manifestations – a hidden form of social violence. We have to fully recognise this fact and take it seriously before we can change it.

The right wing media trashed her, and inspired extra levels of harassment and abuse.

But it’s necessary to fight back.

A woman messaged me to say that a man in a senior position at her work made sexist comments about her physical appearance. When she informed her boss, she was told not to take it seriously. Other women are contacting me to ask how they can call out sexism without fear of recrimination.

I can’t sugar-coat this. I would never want any woman to face what I have endured in challenging sexism. But if we genuinely want to eradicate everyday sexism at work, we need a zero-tolerance policy. And I encourage women and men to support one another in identifying and challenging sexism in all professional contexts. We will only get the equality we fight for. It will not come easily, and it will not be painless. But if we are to value and respect women in the workplace, that fight is ahead of us.

We’ve only been trying for fifty years or so.

What are you trying to say, Lassie?

Sep 19th, 2015 4:44 pm | By

Ok, time for a soppy happy ending story with dogs and a happy ending and soppyness. Did I mention there’s a happy ending?

This happened on Vashon Island, a large island in Puget Sound off the southern end of Seattle. Vashon Island Pet Protectors tells the story:

We are overjoyed to report that after being missing for a week, Tillie and Phoebe are now safe after being found deep in a ravine off Monument Road – with Phoebe being stuck in an old cistern. VIPP volunteers have been helping search for the dogs and today we received a call from a community member reporting that for the past few days a “reddish” dog had been coming up to them when they were out on their property and then promptly heading back into a ravine. So with a needle in the haystack hope we made our way into the ravine and after a bit of searching, finally heard that sweet sound we have been waiting for all week. A small one-woof response when we called out “Tillie.” A few minutes later we found her laying beside an old cistern with her head resting on the concrete wall. Heart sinking…we knew that meant Phoebe was inside the cistern and every breath was held and every doggie prayer offered that the peek over the rim would somehow find her safe.


And gratefully… this time we have a happy ending with dear Phoebe found perched on some concrete rubble that held her out of the water. For nearly a week Tillie stayed by her side with the exception of the few minutes of each day when she went for help. A huge thanks to Joe Curiel for realizing something was up and a round of applause to the awesome and amazing Miss Tillie. A true friend and a humbling example of the power of love.

I told you it was soppy.

Updating to add a post from Vashon Island Pet Protectors before the dogs were found.

DOGS STILL MISSING. Phoebe and Tillie have now been missing for 5 days and we need your help. PLEASE CROSSPOST this message to your own page to help get the word out. WE NEED SIGHTINGS REPORTED. Last seen near 216th and 111th in Paradise Valley but could be anywhere – and it is very likely they are stuck in a building or over a slope. Please call VIPP at 755-3981 or owner at 206-992-8384 if you have seen them anytime. And please – check your outbuildings and property.

Good dog, Tilly. Really good dog. Not actually Tilly, a stock photo instead, but a good dog anyway.

Updating again to add that the owner of the cistern broke it up with a jackhammer, so no other dog with short legs will get stuck in it again. And a photo of the reunion with their human.



Describing the births of grandchildren

Sep 19th, 2015 4:01 pm | By

Yesterday the hatred of women reached a new peak in Congress.

House Republicans vented their rage against Planned Parenthood on Friday, voting to block all federal financing for the organization, which they accused of profiting from the sale of aborted fetuses for medical research. It was unclear, however, if the vote would mollify conservative lawmakers who have threatened to force a government shutdown over the abortion issue.

Neither the Planned Parenthood bill, which passed 241 to 187, nor a second anti-abortion measure approved on Friday has any chance of becoming law because of opposition from Senate Democrats and President Obama. But the deep emotion expressed by Republican lawmakers during debate underscored the challenge facing party leaders in the days ahead.

And the name of that deep emotion is: hatred of women.

Democrats said Planned Parenthood provided crucial health care services to women and men and accused Republicans of engaging in baseless attacks on the organization, with the larger aim of trying to limit a woman’s reproductive choice. Republicans in Congress and in several states have begun investigations into Planned Parenthood.

Women must be kept helpless slaves of their own reproductive organs.

Many Republicans tried to put the debate in starkly emotive terms — describing the births of grandchildren, the planned adoptions of orphans and ultrasound images of fetuses in the womb.


Mr. Boehner said Democrats were not acting in good conscience. “Those who would deny the weakest among us the right to life are on the wrong side of history,” he said in a statement.

But they’re not among us; that’s the point. They’re inside women’s bodies, and if the women don’t want them, that’s up to them. It’s not up to Congress.

332 people on board

Sep 19th, 2015 12:19 pm | By

Another dispatch from Alison Criado-Perez of MSF, from a search and rescue boat in the Mediterranean run jointly by @MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station and @MSF. She joined a few days ago.

The call has come in from the MRCC, the organisation in Rome that coordinates the rescues: we’re being directed to help two wooden boats with about 700 people on board. So it’s happening. Our adrenalin starts pumping. What are we going to find? What kind of a state will the refugees be in?

The MOAS crew – Igor, Antoine, Mimmo – lower the rescue boat (RHIB) into the water and set off with Simon, our Canadian doctor, to assess the situation. The rest of us, the small MSF team, stay on board the Phoenix to help prepare for the embarkation. I check the clinic to make sure everything is in order: the drugs, the oxygen concentrator, the monitors – we have no idea what we’ll need.

“Ali, Ali!” I hear someone call. I rush to the embarkation gate at the side of the boat – and Mimmo hands a tiny child up to me from the RHIB, his big brown eyes wide open in stunned amazement. (I later learn that at about the time I am holding this little boy in my arms, the world is being shocked by the photo of little Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a beach in Turkey.) The small boy is quickly followed by a seemingly endless stream of exhausted, bedraggled women and children. We welcome them on board: life-jackets off, hands filled with a rescue package containing water, nutritional biscuits, a protective onesie, towel and a pair of thick socks.

The rescue boat goes back and forth, the lower deck fills up, they start placing people on the upper deck.

Soon we have 332 people on board, nearly all Eritrean, 28 of them young children. They trickle into the clinic for medical attention: dehydration, general exhaustion, headaches, insulin for a diabetic who hasn’t had any for too long. They are escaping from a country with political repression and arbitrary arrests, of enforced national service that lasts a lifetime. To get onto that leaky boat on the shores of Libya, they have already travelled thousands of miles, and many of them will have suffered in detention centres in Libya as they wait for their last chance saloon, an unseaworthy boat in which they will risk their lives in the hopes of a better future.

The next day the clinic is busy from 6 a.m. on.

One young girl stays in my mind. She is sixteen, and she is travelling alone. I will call her Miriam. She has a high fever due to pneumonia, but we can treat that with antibiotics. It’s not too severe. What is worse, what worries me more, is that she can hardly walk. She is limping, dragging her right leg. She speaks little English, but manages to convey to me where it hurts, and why: “I was beaten, here and here and here,” pointing to the back of her calf, her thigh, the bottom of her foot, “In Libya.” I am told that this happens in the detention centres, where the smugglers are attempting to extort more money from these already poverty-stricken and oppressed people.

Yes, maybe if you hit them enough, they will start bleeding money.

The next day they approach Italy.

Will, our emergency coordinator, is giving a talk to the crowded group: information on what happens on arrival, and some indications of what the process for them will be. The decks begin to buzz with excitement.

And then something happens that takes my breath away. A young woman, her head swathed in a bright pink scarf, stands up in the centre of a group and starts a rhythmic chanting as she sways and moves in time to the tune. She is joined by another woman, and another; soon the whole deck seems to be clapping and singing this repetitive tune. Their faces are wreathed with smiles; they are singing of hope, of relief, of joyful expectation. I can control the lump in my throat no longer, and tears pour down my cheeks.

Later, when everyone has safely disembarked, I go to the upper deck and stand in the stern, looking out to sea. And suddenly spot a small padlock, locked onto the protective netting. This is the deck where the refugees have been. One of them has put it there. Like the padlocks lovers lock onto bridges in Paris, in Stockholm, it glistens there in the evening light as a symbol of hope, of hope that a new and better life is beginning.

Good luck to them.

The decision to cancel

Sep 19th, 2015 11:11 am | By

The Auckland University Students’ Association’s Womenfest started today.

They have this note on their Facebook page for the event:

★ ★ ★ NOTE ★ ★ ★

Following the recent comments on the Womensfest schedule, and consultation with members of the trans community at the University of Auckland, we have made the decision to cancel the ‘Vagina Cupcakes’ and will not be continuing with ‘Pussytails’ at our ‘Reclaim Shadows’ Closing Party. We have also decided to disable posts on this event, after the invasion of the previous event by people seeking to make it unsafe for the trans and queer community. Anyone who wishes to engage with AUSA constructively on Womensfest are welcome to contact us at

So there you go. Feminist women aren’t allowed to talk frankly about their bodies at the Womensfest event.

We never all agreed

Sep 18th, 2015 4:19 pm | By

Salman Rushdie on the Je Reste Charlie project.

It is important that we take a stand. That we stand firm. That we say: This is the world in which we want to live. And in order to live in this world, it must be all right for these cartoons to exist. We must not try to apologize for them. We must also not try to excuse the attack on Charlie Hebdo, by showing understanding for the attackers. Stand firm! If we want to live in an open society, then the acceptance of such cartoons is part of this. What would a respectful cartoon look like? The form as such doesn’t exist. The form of a cartoon demands disrespect. Satire requires us to make fun of people, to laugh at them. Whoever they may be. The more powerful they are, the better. Stand firm! This is what it’s all about. It is important that we say today: This is the boundary line. It may not be erased.

However, there is a combination between a mood of appeasement and political correctness in the air currently, especially on the left. This was demonstrated recently, when the writers’ association PEN wanted to honor the Charlie Hebdo magazine for its courage in fighting for freedom of expression – and a number of writers protested. Many of them found the assassination in Paris terrible, but honoring the survivors they found to be self-righteous, moreover it would hurt the feelings of Muslims. There it was again – this but. I found it strange that this attitude had now been articulated by left-wing writers. I knew many of them, I was friends with some of them – Peter Carey or Michael Ondaatje for example. Following the publication of my novel “The Satanic Verses” and everything that followed, I had to listen to similar accusations to those which are today being expressed towards Charlie Hebdo. “Rushdie knew exactly what he was doing”, it was often suggested, “he was provoking deliberately.” Or: “He only did it to become rich and famous.” The bulk of these accusations at that time came from people who were politically on the right. Today, it is the left-wingers who are making almost the same allegations about the satirists at Charlie Hebdo. I think that this is a strange development.

The people at Charlie Hebdo didn’t and don’t like every single cartoon. They dislike some of them. Imagine that!  Jean-Baptiste Thoret told Salman that at the PEN gala.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret told me something very significant that evening: “If people don’t like our cartoons, this is something we can discuss. Perhaps I don’t even like them myself. In our editorial office we were and are constantly arguing about what we should publish and what we shouldn’t. We never all agreed. Every one of us always disliked the half of what we published. It is not a question of whether or not you like the cartoons. If you don’t like them, then come here and tell us. On that one specific detail that you don’t like, perhaps I’m on your side. Or perhaps not.”

Every one of us always disliked the half of what we published. But they didn’t shun each other for liking or disliking half of what they published.

Deeyah Khan, artist and champion of women’s rights

Sep 18th, 2015 3:34 pm | By

Deeyah Khan has a human rights award from the University of Oslo.

Deeyah Khan has shed an important light on women’s rights and freedom of speech. Her own story serves as a powerful example. As a young Norwegian-Pakistani musician in Norway she experienced being threatened to silence by conservative forces in the Pakistani environment and had to leave Norway at the age of 17.

– Giving Deeyah Khan this award will shed light on the situation of women and women’s rights, but also on a highly acute situation concerning young Muslims’ affiliation with radical Islam and extremism, says Inga Bostad, head of the award committee.

In 2012, Khan received the prestigious Emmy award for best documentary for her film Banaz – a love story about the British-Kurdish woman Banaz who was killed by her own family in a honor killing. Khan has recently released the documentary, Jihad: a story about the others, about young British Muslim men who join violent and extreme jihadism. In this film, Khan sets out to find out why the jihadi message has such an alluring hold on these young Westerners.

In January this year, she organized the World Woman conference, which focused on women, art and freedom of expression. Among the participants were Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. In 2007, Khan contributed in founding the Sisterhood institution, which assists young Muslim women in finding their own creative and artistic language.

– There is a distinct feminist trace in Khans work on freedom of expression. She has taken the initiative to found a number of organizations and institutions that aim to create awareness about women’s situation and their rights, says Bostad.

Khan is currently living and working in London.

The award ceremony is on Tuesday, 17 November 2015, at 1800 in the Old Festive Hall in Karl Johans gate, with subsequent reception for the Laureate.

Congratulations Deeyah!


Four years of unrelenting assaults on reproductive rights

Sep 18th, 2015 3:19 pm | By

Abortion rights? What are they?

[Renee] Chelian is now 64 and has two grown daughters. She’s the founder and CEO of Northland Family Planning Center, a group of three clinics that perform abortions in the Detroit suburbs. A petite woman with a blunt haircut and a round face, Chelian is matter-of-fact and seemingly unflappable. But when we talk about her clinics, her tone intensifies. Her business is under constant threat of closure from the conservative Michigan Legislature, which has spent the past four years churning out a string of arbitrary new abortion restrictions designed to shut clinics like Northland down. One proposal required Northland to have one bathroom for every six patients.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’ve gone back 40-some years,” she says. “And I can hardly believe that.” Women trek hundreds of miles north from Dayton, Ohio, or east from South Bend, Indiana, for an abortion at one of her centers. Some are already miscarrying—probably after taking pills or herbal concoctions they got from the internet. A few have tried to open their cervix by digging into it with a sharp object.

Why? Because an abortion is harder and harder to get. The war on women, Molly Redden and Donna Ferrato write in Mother Jones, has essentially been lost in many places.

Most abortions today involve some combination of endless wait, interminable journey, military-level coordination, and lots of money. Roe v. Wade was supposed to put an end to women crossing state lines for their abortions. But while reporting this story, I learned of women who drove from Kentucky to New Jersey, or flew from Texas to Washington, DC, because it was the only way they could have the procedure. Even where laws can’t quite make it impossible for abortion clinics to stay open—they are closing down at a rate of 1.5 every single week—they can make it exhausting to operate one. In every corner of America, four years of unrelenting assaults on reproductive rights have transformed all facets of giving an abortion or getting one—possibly for good.

They tell a long detailed story, with graphics, of the places and ways abortion is being whittled away.

The struggle just to stay open is all-consuming. In Texas, the rules, protocols, and requirements for Miller’s entire staff change every two years, she says. Administrative workers must record the same data in twice as many logs. They prepare multiple records fearing still more inspectors.

“We dance faster, and we bend over, and we comply, comply, comply, until we pick up our head and say, ‘What are we doing here?'” Miller said. “I’m trying so hard to keep the doors open, but for who?” The rules change so frequently that even if her lawsuit against the Texas law succeeds, Miller is not sure if she would ever open a new clinic in Texas.

But she acknowledges that the need is desperate. One of the women I met in the Las Cruces waiting room, Suhey, an 18-year-old from El Paso, said she had already tried to give herself an abortion with Mifeprex a friend bought in Ciudad Juárez. (It didn’t work.) Suhey already has a daughter—the lock screen on her phone shows the two of them snuggling—and is caring for her 16-year-old sister. She can’t afford another child.

Researchers are investigating whether self-abortion attempts are on the rise. Chelian doesn’t need convincing. Recently, a woman came to her clinic who tried to pierce her cervix with a drinking straw.

It frightens Chelian that with every passing year there are fewer women like her who can recall what abortion was like before it was legal. “What they don’t know anymore, what’s gotten lost in the history, is how many women died trying to give themselves abortions,” Chelian said. Some time ago, Chelian asked a class of college freshmen what they would do if restrictions kept them from getting abortions. “We’d use a coat hanger,” one young woman replied. “Like our grandmothers did.”

Oh well, it’s only women.

The maternal instinct of the church

Sep 18th, 2015 2:30 pm | By

Pope Fluffy had a few kind words for the women yesterday. He reminded them that they’re the strawberries on the cake source of tenderness and motheryness.

Calling himself “a bit feminist,” Pope Francis praised women religious for always heading to the “front lines” to bring the church’s tenderness and motherly love to those most in need.

“The church thanks you for this, it is a beautiful witness. This is being close. Be close! Close to people’s problems, real problems,” he said during an audience Sept. 17 with young consecrated women and men from around the world, including Iraq and Syria.

So feminist. So a bit feminist. He didn’t tell them to stay home and knit, he praised them for being on the front lines to pretend the church is all tenderness and motherly love despite the fact that the church bars them from all the jobs that actually matter.

It was a big event for 5000 young people who all crowded into one hall for the papal audience.

When talking about how successful evangelizers have a heart filled with fire and are driven to warm other people’s lives with Christ, the pope said he wanted to add something to that.

“Here I would like to — forgive me if I’m a bit feminist — give thanks to the witness of consecrated women. Not all of them though, some are a bit frantic!” he said to laughter and applause.

Hahahahaha yay clap clap clap clap. Those crazy feminists are so frantic that they think an officially all-male church is not friendly to women. How frantic can you get?!

Women religious “have this desire to always go to the front lines. Why? Because you’re mothers, you have the maternal instinct of the church, which makes you be near” people in need, he said.

He told a story of three South Korean sisters who went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to help staff a Catholic hospital in the archdiocese he once led, but “they knew as much Spanish as I know Chinese — nothing!”

Nonetheless, the three sisters immediately went to the wards, helping patients, holding them, giving them a smile, and the patients kept praising how wonderful the sisters were even though they never said a word.

“It was the witness of a heart on fire. It is the motherhood of nuns,” he said.

“You truly have this function in the church, to be the icon of the church, the icon of Mary, icon of the church’s tenderness, the church’s love, the motherhood of church and the motherhood of Our Lady. Do not forget this. Always on the front lines, but like this.”

Know your place, laydeez. Be mothery, get out there and be mothery for the church, but don’t try to be anything besides that. Don’t try to be fathery. Fathery=priest, and that’s not for you. Hands off! Hahaha, don’t get too frantic now, stay sweet.

When Hume lived in La Flèche

Sep 18th, 2015 10:24 am | By

Alison Gopnik has a terrific article in The Atlantic. Drop everything and read it, as I just did.

She starts with her personal crisis in which a lot of things fell apart and triggered other things falling apart, and she couldn’t work. (She’s a philosopher and a psychologist. I think I’ve quoted her in the past.)

My doctors prescribed Prozac, yoga, and meditation. I hated Prozac. I was terrible at yoga. But meditation seemed to help, and it was interesting, at least. In fact, researching meditation seemed to help as much as actually doing it. Where did it come from? Why did it work?

So she began to read Buddhist philosophy.

Then there’s David Hume. He had a crisis himself, at age 23; he too couldn’t work, although he had ideas he badly wanted to write up.

Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”

Contemporary cognitive science confirms this. There is no unitary self, it’s an illusion that makes a bunch of disparate things seem to cohere.

Hume had always been one of my heroes. I had known and loved his work since I was an undergraduate. In my own scientific papers I’d argued, like Hume, that the coherent self is an illusion. My research had convinced me that our selves are something we construct, not something we discover. I had found that when we are children, we don’t connect the “I” of the present to the “I” of the past and the future. We learn to be who we are.

This is one reason I find the way a lot of people talk about their “identity” and take it terribly seriously quite frustrating.

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. Descartes at least had said you always know that you yourself exist (“I think, therefore I am”), but Hume rejected even that premise.

Hume articulates a thoroughgoing, vertiginous, existential kind of doubt. In theTreatise, he reports that when he first confronted those doubts himself he was terrified—“affrighted and confounded.” They made him feel like “some strange uncouth monster.” No wonder he turned to the doctors.

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

And does that remind you of anything? Yes, of course: of Buddhism.

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he?

The rest of the article is about the scholarly detective work Gopnik did to find out, and – spoiler alert – she discovered that he could have. It’s not for sure that he did, but he could have. He knew some Jesuits who knew the one guy in Europe who could have informed him about Buddhist philosophy. He knew the Jesuits well, and the one guy in Europe knew Buddhist philosophy well. It’s a great story.

I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

But! Desideri paid a visit to a little French town called La Flèche, home to the Jesuit Royal College. Eight years later, Hume lived in La Flèche while writing the Treatise. He socialized with the Jesuits, who were keen intellectuals. One of them in particular had talked to Desideri a lot. So. It’s possible.

A network of forced-labor camps and slaughterhouses

Sep 18th, 2015 9:22 am | By

Speaking of pope Fluffy – Richard Kreitner asks why the hell he’s canonizing Junípero Serra.

Born in Spain, Serra arrived in Spanish-held Mexico in 1749 and quickly set about working for the Inquisition, citing by name several natives who refused to convert to Christianity; they were guilty, he wrote, of “the most detestable and horrible crimes of sorcery, witchcraft and devil worship.” Serra soon gained control of the missions of Baja California, but he found that the native population had already been nearly extinguished by contact with the Spanish. Looking for fresh converts, he led expeditions up the coast into the present-day state of California, where he settled at Monterey and set up ten new missions to spread the gospel through the new land.

To “spread the gospel,” meaning, to coerce the colonized population into adopting the colonizers’ religion.

From their establishment in the late 1760s until Mexico declared independence and secularized them in the 1820s, the California missions formed a network of forced-labor camps and, in effect, slaughterhouses, where the once-vibrant native peoples of California were systematically reduced to mere shadows of their former selves: Under the mission system, the overall indigenous population of Southern California declined by nearly 1,000 every single year.

If they were lucky enough not to be killed by European diseases spread largely through sexual violence on the part of the Spanish, many natives at the missions sought to run away, not terribly unlike African slaves on the East Coast in the United States.

So what is the point of canonizing that?

The summer that is ending saw the beginning of what many of us only a few months ago thought impossible: a serious and fairly intelligent national debate about the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. The proposed canonization of Serra has gained some attention on the West Coast, but almost none in the East. That is because in their grade-school history classes the students of California learn something the rest of us do not: There was not one form of slavery in the territory that is now the United States. There were at least two.

But of course from the point of view of the church, forcing Catholicism on a colonized population is a good and saintly thing to do.

Vote for more childhood disease

Sep 18th, 2015 8:38 am | By

Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, wishes people would not talk about vaccines at presidential “debates.”

Questions about vaccines and autism were asked not only of Donald Trump, but also of the two physicians taking part: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, and Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist. The doctors, at least, should know better.

Here are the facts:

Vaccines aren’t linked to autism.

The number of vaccines children receive is not more concerning than it used to be.

Delaying their administration provides no benefit, while leaving children at risk.

All the childhood vaccines are important.

Then he provides evidence for all four claims. On the second claim –

It’s also not correct to call autism an “epidemic,” as Mr. Trump often seems to do. Autism is more prevalent as a diagnosis than it used to be. But much of that in recent years is because we’ve changed the definition of what it means to have “autism spectrum disorder.” For instance, 10 years ago, two-thirds of children diagnosed with autism had below-average intelligence. But today only about a third of those diagnosed with A.S.D. do. The fastest-growing group of children with autism have average or above average intelligence. We’re being more inclusive in the diagnosis.

It’s not that it’s happening more, it’s that it’s being diagnosed more. Donald Trump please note…but he won’t, of course.

And no, none of them are “optional.”

All of the shots recommended by the Centers for Disease Control have been judged to be important. I know of some people who think that the varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine is one of the “less important” ones. Tell that to my father, who contracted the illness as an adult when my siblings and I did, and almost needed to be hospitalized. Or tell that to the many babies who might catch the disease before they can get the shot and become severely ill.

In one of my favorite studies on this topic, researchers looked at how many children died of varicella before and after the introduction of the vaccine in 1995. Between 1990 and 1994, more than 45 children died with varicella as the underlying cause. From 2003 to 2007, only 10 did. Even more significantly, in that latter period only one child younger than 1 died with varicella as the underlying cause, and none after 2004. Remember that not one of those infants was vaccinated. That result came about only from herd immunity: when enough people are vaccinated to protect those who can’t be.

This shouldn’t be politicized in the first place.

They’re the strawberries on the cake

Sep 17th, 2015 1:45 pm | By

Yesterday on Fresh Air a conversation with Paul Vallely, who has written a book about the pope. Vallely puts a lot of emphasis on the pope as “the pope of the poor”:

The Pope is visiting, and he’s addressing many audiences. He’s addressing the Congress and the political elite. He’s seeing the president. He’s seeing the United Nations – world leaders to talk about sustainable development. But he’s also talking to the U.S. bishops. Most importantly, he’s talking to the ordinary people of America. And he’s mindful of a fifth audience, which is that although he’s here in the richest country in the world, he is the pope for the poor. And he’s very aware that the eyes and ears of the poor world are on everything he does and says.

But of course he’s still the pope, so when he’s the pope of the poor, he’s not so much the pope of the poor women.

GROSS: I’m a little confused about his position on women in the Church. He said he wants a profound new theology of women. But at the same time, he’s ruled out women becoming priests.

VALLELY: Well, you’re not the only one who’s a little confused on that. And he really – he knows that there’s an issue. He knows there’s a problem. But he’s got no idea what the solution is. I mean, he’s a man of a certain age from a culture in Latin America which is quite macho. And he has very high regard for women, but in a sense of, you know, aren’t they lovely. I think about my own mother, I think about my grandmother and what wonderful examples they were. He’s not very up on the role of women in the professional world. He has worked for a woman boss. He’s had a good friend who was a female lawyer during the military regime in Argentina. And they worked closely together. And he’s spoken, for instance, about how equal pay is an imperative and it’s a scandal that women aren’t paid well. But when it comes to theology, he doesn’t want women priests. He was asked, why not have woman cardinals because cardinals don’t have to be priests? Oh no, we’ve got enough clerics in the Church. We don’t want anymore. Well, what about women heading departments in the Vatican? Well, you’ve got to be a cardinal to head a department in the Vatican. So no real action in the areas which are open to him. He could, perhaps, make some movement on women becoming deacons, which is the – you know, the step before you become a priest. But he betrays his background, even when he’s doing the right thing. He brought five women onto the International Theological Commission. And then having announced them and said oh we need more of these women because they’re the strawberries on the cake…

GROSS: (Laughter) No.

VALLELY: …And one of the leading women theologians says yeah, well, if we’re the strawberries, the men are the nuts. But you get the idea that even when he’s trying to do the right thing, he’s still steeped in this kind of background which makes it difficult for him to know how – he’s kind of paralyzed and conflicted about it, really. He wants a profound new theology for women, but he’s got no idea what that means.

Here’s a thought. It means taking an equal role in making the rules, for one thing. It means ending the all-male rule.

GROSS: …we were talking about how the pope is reshaping the Vatican. He’s appointed 39 new people to the College of Cardinals, the body which elects the pope. Most of the new members appointed by Francis are from poor, developing countries. This is the first time European cardinals are not in the majority in the college. I’m wondering if you think that that shift in the cardinals will have cultural implications that take the church in the opposite direction than Pope Francis has been heading – ’cause I know in some churches, it’s the developing countries that are culturally very conservative in terms of women and in terms of homosexuality.

VALLELY: That could be the case. But I think the pope wants the different parts of the church to have their voice in the way decisions are made. He thinks the Vatican has been too much the master of the church. And he wants to turn it into the servant. And the voices of people in different places should be heard. And it’s true that they may be conservative on issues like homosexuality. But they’ll be very radical on issues of international economics. So you’ll see, this pope, he looks at the world from the bottom up.

In terms of rich versus poor, maybe so. But in other terms? Not so much. He doesn’t look at the world from the bottom up in the sense that women do. There’s more than one lowest level to be on, and women occupy one such level. The pope is still firmly keeping Catholic women there.

Still suspended

Sep 17th, 2015 11:27 am | By

Here is Ahmed Mohamed talking to Chris Hayes yesterday.

He’s still suspended from school though, and his parents are looking for a new and less ridiculous educational facility for him.

Ahmed was still suspended by school officials. He said Wednesday that his family is looking for a new school for him after he was placed in handcuffs.

“I built the clock to impress my teacher, but when I showed it to her, she thought it was a threat to her. So it was really sad she took the wrong impression of it,” Ahmed said at the press conference.

School district spokeswoman Lesley Weaver declined to confirm the suspension, citing privacy laws. Weaver insisted school officials were concerned with student safety and not the boy’s faith.

You can’t blame them, really…The clock contained a circuit board. You never see those except in bombs.

Image result for ahmed's clock

Any minute now

Sep 17th, 2015 10:22 am | By

Oh, so the photo of the all-male group of Famous Late Night TV Hosts was in Vanity Fair. Christina Cauterucci at Slate talks about the reaction and the reaction to the reaction.

The reaction to Monday’s Vanity Fair comedy dudefest was swift and unified. Moments after the magazine published a photo of 10 men to illustrate its article on why late-night TV is “better than ever,” Twitter erupted the way only Twitter knows how.

Good. That photo is a slap in the face.

Whether or not Vanity Fair intended the photo as a jarring critique of the endemic sexism in contemporary comedy and television—let’s go with “not”—it is an effective visual signifier of a bleak reality that can’t be explained away as coincidental or merit-based. For anyone who thinks about issues of diversity and gender equity, looking at the overwhelming maleness of this bourbon-nursing pack is like looking into the sun.

Cauterucci quotes Trevor Noah – one of the guys in the infamous photo – talking to Newsweek about women-in-comedy.

I guess what we need to look at is how is that evolving? The first step in that is you go, OK, there’s two men of color. That’s a big jump. Pretty soon there will be a woman that’ll be added to that. And there will probably be more women, which is gonna be fantastic. And over time, that’ll happen; it’s a conversation that we need to continue having.

Pretty soon? What does he mean pretty soon? Starting from when? Pretty soon might sound ok if you thought history started a couple of years ago, but why would you think that? It’s not as if nobody had noticed that women are scarce in jobs like hosting late night tv shows until yesterday. We noticed that a long time ago. Decades ago. We noticed the way even in a world where women have equal rights on paper, that does not mean women do not routinely get passed over for desirable jobs. We noticed that such a long time ago. So what can “pretty soon” possibly mean in that context? It hasn’t happened yet, so why would it happen “pretty soon”? And why would that be good enough anyway?

Notwithstanding Noah’s history of problems with women, his complacent, tepid hope for incremental gains is a major part of the entertainment industry’s gender problem. There’s a prevailing attitude that gender and race equity are inevitable—that if we wait long enough and stop griping over quotas and diversity initiatives, they’ll happen on their own.

And how long is long enough anyway? And if they’re so damn inevitable why haven’t they happened yet?

But TV lineups aren’t chosen by an algorithm that spits out a steadily rising number of female hosts each fall. There are human decision-makers behind these TV networks: producers, investors, and executives who usually hold more power than the (sometimes female) stars themselves—and who sometimes have some bizarre ideas about when diversity is and isn’t appropriate, as was the case with Matt Damon on Project Greenlight. While the harsh reaction to Vanity Fair’s photo should be read as an indictment of barriers to women in comedy, Vanity Fair editors, too, make deliberate choices that affect the gendered landscape of TV. Noah won’t start at his post until Sept. 28, but he made it into the boys’ club; Samantha Bee and Chelsea Handler, both of whom have forthcoming late-night shows in the works, did not. The next time a magazine pulls a move like this, Noah would find better footing lampooning his own industry from The Daily Show pulpit than defending it.

Damn right.

It is mocking us for what we miss every single day

Sep 16th, 2015 5:38 pm | By

Maajid Nawaz defends Charlie Hebdo at the Daily Beast.

The outrage began when Arab and Turkish newspapers decided that Hebdomust be mocking little Aylan.

But soon, non-Arab media also joined the fray and eventually certain race-equality activists, such as barrister Peter Herbert—chair of the U.K.’s Society of Black Lawyers and former vice chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority—were threatening legal action, stating that ‘Charlie Hebdo is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France. The Society of Black Lawyers will consider reporting this as incitement to hate crime and persecution before the International Criminal Court.’

Wow. I did not know that. That’s disgusting.

But never in living memory has a magazine been as misunderstood as Charlie Hebdo. For the truth is, Charlie Hebdo is not a racist magazine. Rather, it is a campaigning anti-racist left-wing magazine. And its cartoons, which are so often misunderstood to be promoting racism, are in fact lampooning racism.

That isn’t always obvious just by looking, in fact it often isn’t. But given all the circumstances – including the murders – people really ought to make the effort to do more than just look.

And this brings us to satire. Satire is, by definition, offensive. It is meant to make us feel uncomfortable. It is meant to make us scratch or heads, think, do a double-take and then think again. It is supposed to take our prejudices, turn them upside down, reapply them, and make us think we’re seeing something we’re not, until we stop to question ourselves.

Yes taste is always in the eye of the beholder. But that’s the whole point of goodsatire. It is not meant to be to our tastes. It is meant to challenge our tastes. Having our fundamental assumptions about life challenged is never a comfortable thing.

That reminds me of something Tony Pinn said during that panel we were both on at CFI in June – “if social justice doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

Not to our taste? OK. Make us cringe? Fair enough. Don’t like them? Fine. But whatever we do, let us not misrepresent these images. Juxtaposing images of a dead child next to offers of cheap food “meal deals” is not mocking little Aylan, it is mocking us. It is mocking us for what we miss every single day, hidden in plain sight, and we do not see it because this is how desensitized we have become to human suffering. No, those besieged, brave satirists at Hebdo are not mocking Aylan. They are mocking newspaper covers like this from the UK right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail in which an image of Aylan was—in a national newspaper— placed below an actual food deal. And how many of us noticed that on the day this Daily Mail cover went to print?

We have met the callous bystanders, and they are us.