Notes and Comment Blog


Sep 11th, 2004 11:38 pm | By

I’ve been updating the Dictionary a little – for the first time in more than a year. We decided a long time ago to stop adding to it because of the book, and it was almost a year ago that we decided it was time to get serious about the book – but we may have stopped adding to it many months before that, even, because we thought of the book long before we decided to get serious about it. I don’t remember. I don’t remember if we went on adding to the Dictionary for several months, or if we stopped only a couple of months after we started. Probably the latter.

So anyway. We had a lot of leftovers. I’ve been cleaning out my email, and there’s this immense bulge in March, when we were doing the book and generating definitions like mad. I didn’t just delete them all with one blow of my fist because of the leftovers – I knew I had to go through each one in order to salvage the ones we didn’t use. So I’ve been doing that. Salvaging. Now, before you smite your brows and exclaim ‘Oh thank you so much, just what we want, a lot of rejected jokes!’, that’s not it! I’m not salvaging boring unfunny ones. No. There weren’t any of those, as it happens. No, there were other reasons for not including some, especially since we ended up with more than we needed so could afford to be nice. Some we didn’t include because they were obscure or cryptic; they’re extremely funny, it’s just that you have to know what the reference is to see that. Others we didn’t include because they were too similar to others, which of course is not a problem for the site version, which doesn’t include those others. And others again I really don’t know why we didn’t include – perhaps we forgot. One of us is incredibly forgetful and is always losing things. I forget which one.


Sep 11th, 2004 8:24 pm | By

Terrible about Samira Bellil. A difficult life and then an early and very nasty death – thanks a lot. What godawful luck some people have. I know; no kidding; but it’s worth pointing out anyway. It’s worth registering these futile protests that don’t go anywhere. Worth shaking our puny fists at the sky.

I happened on this article in Dar al Hayat, and it seems relevant, to the issues that Bellil raised and those we’ve been discussing lately. They’re all the same issues at bottom.

In this framework, there are two forms of enmity against Islamists. The first is the annoyance of the wide spreading Islamic thought in comparison with other trends, to the extent that people wish to wake up one day and see no single woman wearing a headscarf on earth!

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I do wish that. Though I suppose I could imagine other utopian scenarios in which the hijab had shed every last trace of connotation of subordination, inferiority, blame for male sexual attention, coercion and control and ownership, and had become simply a piece of clothing like any other. I can imagine such a scenario, but that’s not the same thing as thinking it’s going to happen, so until and unless that does happen, yes, I would be delighted to wake up one day and find every last woman on earth free of the requirement to wear it. And that is indeed one reason I am not pleased about wide spreading Islamic thought, why in fact I think it’s a bad thing.

There is an excellent article by Irfan Khawaja on this larger subject on Ibn Warraq’s Secular Islam site. Khawaja discusses the way nonsense about ‘essentialist’ claims works to deflect critical discussion of Islam.

What Staerk is telling us is that it’s easier to generalize rigorously about the behavior of 1.25 billion existing Muslims plus all the Muslims who have ever existed in the 1400 years of the existence of Islam—than it is to generalize about the claims of a handful of Islamic texts! That is the unavoidable implication of his claim that those who use the Qur’an as the basis for claims about the essence of Islam generalize “sloppily,” while those who rely on Gallup polls for information about “the” behavior of “Muslims” generalize with rigor.

Just so. This is why I keep pointing out that religion is not the same thing as race. Religions do have texts and/or rules, laws, truth claims. Religions are systems of ideas, and thus both can be and must be criticized, disagreed with, analyzed. To pretend that it’s a kind of racism to disagree with Islam or any other religion is an absurd category mistake, a confusion of terms, and a pretext for allowing a supernatural belief system to run people’s lives on the basis of unfounded claims.

…when it comes to the fundamental clash between Islam and its rivals, our half-hearted secularists almost always find an excuse to beg off. Does God exist? “Let’s not look.” Does faith supersede reason? “Let’s change the subject.” Do the demands of the afterlife supersede the requirements of this one? “It’s a matter of perspective.” Are the claims of the Qur’an true? “Depends on how you define ‘truth’.” Does Islam provide a basis for a viable political order? “Sorry, that question is too divisive.” Is there a connection between the precepts of Islam and Islamic terrorism? “Sorry, that question is too essentialist.” At the end of the day, according to this crowd, the only claims you’re allowed to make about Islam are the recycled pieties of PC toleration, followed by claims so “nuanced” that they cease to mean or imply anything of significance. But I don’t see Muslims constrained by the same imperatives…

Great stuff. Read the whole thing.

Recipe for Realism

Sep 11th, 2004 1:54 am | By

Multiple intelligences. Why has the idea always made me want to laugh? Because I’m a mean rotten swine, that’s why. Obviously. Yes but also because it is quite funny. It’s so easy to think of more of those alternative intelligences. Watching tv intelligence, eating intelligence, using the potty intelligence.

Now, one aspect of the general idea seems perfectly unexceptionable.

Gardner’s ideas appealed to many traditional teachers who extolled hard work but also had some students who did better on tests if multiplication tables were set to music or works of literature were acted out in class.

Well, obviously – if it works, do it. (That is, do it if you can, which seems unlikely when most teachers have classes of 30 to 35 students, five times a day. When are they going to get the time to teach everyone differently?) But that’s a different thing from drawing large conclusions about multiple intelligences.

This summer, two university professors accused Gardner, 61, of encouraging elementary school teaching methods, such as singing new words or writing them out with twigs and leaves, for which there is no scholarly evidence of success. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in the journal Education Next that Gardner’s theory “is an inaccurate description of the mind” and that “the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective.”

And Gardner says one thing that’s slightly alarming.

He added that “the standard psychologist’s view of intelligence is a recipe for despair. It holds that there is but one intelligence and that intelligence is highly heritable.”

Yes but…the fact that something is a recipe for despair is a separate question from whether there is good evidence for it or not. Sad to say, there are a lot of accurate descriptions of the world that are indeed recipes for despair, as well as hopeful ones that are not accurate. Gardner’s benevolence is a good thing, but benevolence-driven research can get things badly wrong.

Happy Birthday to Us Again

Sep 10th, 2004 1:36 am | By

Well it’s that time again. Yup, it is – I know that’s hard to believe, but it is. September 10. It’s our birthday. We’re two. Two!! Would you believe it! Well of course you would, why not – but still it does seem very respectable and elderly and established. They haven’t driven us away yet! They haven’t shut us down, they haven’t silenced us, they haven’t sent a plague of locusts. We’re still here! (Who’s they? Oh you know, just the paranoid’s fantasy army. All those faceless Darth Vader types in black plastic outfits who were going to better I mean butter I mean batter down the doors and throw our computers out the window and trample on us until we whimpered and promised to go to Business School.)

And we’re not only still here, we have a book coming out in a few weeks. B&W’s first book. Awww. Don’t websites grow up quickly these days. One minute it just has a logo and nothing else, and the next thing you know it has a book slung over its shoulder and another on the way. (Has nobody heard of birth control these days? I blame the Pope.)

You would probably like to look at last year’s celebration. It was very rowdy. You wouldn’t think it to talk to me, but I am one hell of a rowdy partyer. I get drunk the instant I cross the threshold, I turn the music up until the plaster starts falling off the walls, I aim food in the general direction of my mouth and usually miss, I grope everyone that breathes including the hamster, I smash glasses in the fireplace, and I dance the tarantella. I am fun, man. A few days in the slammer are a small price to pay.


Sep 9th, 2004 7:34 pm | By

I don’t know if you ever have a look at our Letters page, but if you don’t, you might want to. There are some very interesting letters in there – some of them are brief articles in themselves. I’ve just seen one of that kind, the one at the top of the page (at the moment), a short essay on the Whig interpretation of history and moral relativism (taking issue with an article of ours on the subject), by one Michael Davis. If I had the faintest idea who he was or how to email him, I would ask him if he would like to write an article for us. I wonder if he is the same MD as the MD who wrote some previous letters and quite a few comments here. Anyway, his letter is well worth a read.


Sep 7th, 2004 10:44 pm | By

Okay, I give up, you win.

For months (months? weeks? years? I forget) I’ve been kind of defending CT to my colleague. Kind of – which means admitting they have a tendency to groupthink, to call people trolls just because they disagree with them, but still thinking they (CT, that is) have their good points. But I give it up.

Everyone knows that comments can get out of hand. A lot of blogs don’t have them; a lot have them only for some threads; a lot have them intermittently, disabling them when things get tiresome. It is also sometimes possible to keep things civil by asking people to be civil, and/or by deleting comments when they’re not. I’ve only deleted comments here once – but then that’s not surprising: the people who read B&W are a civil, polite, rational crowd.

So that’s one way to keep things civil. Another way is just to tell people to go fuck themselves – which seems like a fairly oxymoronic method, frankly. Seems to defeat the purpose. Also it seems ill-advised to resort to it just because you disagree with what a commenter has said, as opposed to because the commenter has gotten out of hand. Well – you know what I’m going to say. No, you don’t, quite, because I didn’t actually get sworn at – I got threatened with being sworn at. But I’m afraid I just don’t find that kind of thing conducive to interesting or rewarding discussion. I can get plenty of that kind of thing in my own living room, thank you very much, I don’t need to go elsewhere for it.

But more to the point, I find it too symptomatic of what Jerry S is talking about – too indicative of what he’s been saying all along. Too groupthinky, too orthodoxy-enforcing. So. I’ll just do my talking here, where men are men and the beer is flat.

More Than Two

Sep 5th, 2004 8:11 pm | By

There are several sites that have linked to us in the past couple of days on an interestingly wide variety of subjects. I wouldn’t have thought we were all that various. I’d have thought we were focused rather than wide-ranging; narrow rather than broad. But maybe not. Maybe our subject covers more ground than I had quite realized. That’s good, if so. I like a judicious blend of breadth and depth – with just a pinch of coriander.

It was thanks to one such link that I found the articles on the assault on Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo and his wife Mary Njeeri, which Robin Varghese of 3 Quarks Daily connects to Martha Nussbaum on Gujarat and the threats to historian James Laine, and to B&W on that whole large subject. One could also mention Salman Rushdie, and Naguib Mahfouz, and Rushdie’s Japanese translator. So…yes, of course all these things are connected. So the more people who see the connections and join the dots, the better. Greetings, 3 Quarks.

And there’s a new blog called No Credentials (hey, that’s my name), which mentions B&W in the same breath with Alan Sokal, which I take to be one of the best compliments we’ve ever had. There’s a lot of excellent stuff on that blog – too much to summarize or quote briefly: scroll down and read. Read Quackademism #2, and Michael Drout responds, and My favorite Marxist – here’s a bit from that last one:

Berman is different from, say, a David Harvey or a Frederic Jameson, in that he writes fluently and beautifully. Not incidentally, he is also a humane writer: The human heart–even the human soul, as he acknowledges in Adventures–is his real subject; it’s just that for his entire adult life he has believed that Marx’s vision offers the soul its best solace, its greatest hope, and so he commits all of his worldly efforts to that vision.

Well just read them all. Greetings, No Credentials.

And there’s the one at Philosophy et cetera that I mentioned below. Okay, maybe three is not several. But it’s almost several. Well maybe I just thought it was several because each one was so interesting – yes that must be it.


Sep 5th, 2004 7:03 pm | By

Discussion continues, in many places. Jonathan Derbyshire suggests a new thesis:

There’s a view, call it the “Crooked Timber thesis”, according to which the truth of statements about a group or a set of beliefs ought to be weighed against the perlocutionary effect of uttering such statements on the group or the holders of the beliefs in question. In one recurrent variant of this view, true statements about what, for shorthand purposes, I’ll call “political Islamism” ought to be circumscribed, if not actually withheld, for fear of inciting “Islamophobia”…And it seems to me obvious that the point applies in contexts different to the one in which it’s usually applied over at Crooked Timber. So one wonders whether the Guardian might have been advised not to run today Madeleine Bunting’s characteristically egregious and sophomoric piece on “Islamophobia” (these aren’t scare quotes, by the way; they simply indicate that the term is the one used by the author). Bunting manages a passing nod to the “horrific barbarity of Beslan”, but she has other, more pressing business to attend to.

Richard at Philosophy, et cetera has a very interesting post on the related subject of multiplicity, apparently inspired by that Manifesto by people of Muslim culture (including atheists) a few days ago.

This is great stuff, and deserves more publicity. Some of my fellow lefties are fond of diversity, but they only see it at the macro level – they espouse “cultural diversity”, yet ignore the diversity within cultures. But excessive tolerance of the former can have grevious costs for the latter. This blinkered focus can also lead to negative consequences within our own society.

Just so. This ignoring of diversity may explain why we hear so much more about al-Qaradawi and Ziauddin Sardar and Tariq Ramadan than we do about Ibn Warraq or Azam Kamguian or Maryam Namazie or Kenan Malik. Is there an assumption that Muslims are more ‘authentic’ spokesmen for ‘Muslim’ societies than secularists and atheists are? Well let’s hope not. I certainly wouldn’t accept that Christians are more ‘authentic’ spokesmen for the US than atheists are, for example. More representative, possibly, but that’s another matter. That’s that difference between democracy or majoritarianism on the one hand, and truth on the other, that we’re always running into.


Sep 4th, 2004 8:18 pm | By

A follow-up of sorts to my colleague’s Comment on Crooked Timber. Bush’s monopoly seems to be broken for the moment; the Timberites are discussing Beslan and Islamophobia and Islamophobiaphobia. Somewhat heatedly, as a matter of fact.

There is a thread on ‘Al Qaeda in Beslan?’ for instance, and another on the horror itself which kicked up an interesting comment by Dsquared:

I think that ‘Islamism’ is a politically convenient but fictional construct drawn up by people who want to drag their own pet Middle Eastern issue into the fight against Al-Quaeda.

Ah. Fictional construct. Really. Do the people in, say, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, etc etc, who are damn well terrified of Islamists, think ‘Islamism’ is a fictional construct? I don’t think so. Didn’t Islamists in fact kill one or two people in Algeria? Don’t Islamists want to impose Sharia everywhere they can? Is that a fictional construct? It doesn’t seem particularly fictional to me. Once again I have to wonder why some people think it’s in any way progressive or respectful to side with an intensely reactionary, regressive, coercive, anti-egalitarian movment, against its progressive, secular, egalitarian, rights-defending opponents.

So then Chris posted on Yusuf al-Qaradawi – and the fur started to fly.

Harry of Harry’s Place says what I would have said if he hadn’t (except I probably wouldn’t have said it as well):

If Juan Cole says it then it must be ok to criticise al-Qaradawi now? It appears that for Chris everyone else who pointed out al -Qaradawi’s reactionary views on a whole range of issues at the time of the British visit had some other agenda which nullified the value of the information they put forward.

Just so. Then Dsquared answered:

To put it bluntly (without presuming to speak for Chris) yes. Juan Cole has a very good record as a straight-shooter in these matters. At the time of Qaradawi visit to London, it seemed quite likely that he was a loon, which is why you’ll find no ringing endorsement of him on CT, but the claque screaming for him to be denounced from the rooftops seemed so bloody appalling (and was so chock full of people who had axes to grind and seemed unconcerned about distorting the truth while grinding them) that I for one was reluctant to join it. It strikes me that this is an entirely sensible approach to subjects where one doesn’t have much knowledge; to trust the judgement of those who have proved trustworthy in the past, and ignore those who haven’t, however loud they scream.

Then Harry answered that:

Well that is simply pathetic Dan. I have read multiple sources on al-Qaradawi, including the original source material of his fatwas (easily avaliable in English on his own Islamonline website). It was not at all difficult to make ones mind up about what kind of views he held. But you have to wait for an endorsment from some American academic before you can make a judgement. Pathetic but not at all surprising.

And so on – but you can read it yourself, obviously. It’s just that I’m naturally interested, because this difference of opinion is very like the one we had over Marc Mulholland’s post a few weeks ago, here, here, here, here, here, and here. People do disagree about this. Strongly. I wish people who hesitate to criticize the likes of al-Qaradawi were more aware of groups like the ones I linked to in connection with the demo today, and the one that issued that Manifesto. I wish they would side with groups like that – groups that are for equality for women and secularism, and against homophobia and anti-Semitism – rather than with groups like Fans of al-Qaradawi. I wish they would wake up and realize what it is they’re supporting, in short.

Pretty Darn Stupid

Sep 3rd, 2004 8:36 pm | By

As OB suggested below, it’s been a pretty awful time lately. And it goes without saying that Russia today is just appalling.

Admittedly I should have known better, but I decided to check out what the folk (with apologies to Dubya) at Crooked Timber made of all the horror this week.

Guess what, as far as I can tell – and despite their combined IQ of 213 – they have absolutely nothing to say on these matters. Not a squeak.

So what are they talking about?

Something about ITunes – though I’m too limited to understand a word of it.

Something about George Bush.

Ah, Rousseau. Cool.

Some blindingly obvious stuff about Durkheim. Oh no, it’s really about George Bush.

More about George Bush, but with a staggeringly pretentious title.

Oh look, George Bush again.

Ah, Kerry this time. If only, it actually turns out to be about… Dick Cheney. Variation on a theme. Very good.

Gay republicans. (I tried to think of a way that this was about George Bush, but failed. Damn!)

This one’s about copyright. But somehow it starts off by saying that Republicans are dismayingly insane!

Something about the Enlightenment. By the Rousseau fella. Obviously, he hasn’t caught whatever obsessional illness his colleagues are suffering from.

George Bush, kind of.

George Bush.

Speaker of the House. (Is that George Bush?)

George Bush.

I’m bored now. Okay, this is very childish. But there’s a serious point here. I can’t find a single mention of the murder of the Nepalese hostages, exploding Russian jets, hundreds taken hostage in Russian schools. Of course, people are entitled to their own interests. But not one mention… that I can find. (I did get bored looking!)

I’d like to finish this by quoting someone from Panda’s Thumb (well from their comments section). They’re talking about mass murder.

I was a professor for 12 years. You are fighting a losing battle. Stalin
killed millions. Mao killed millions. Pol Pot killed a million or so. But the
majority of academics will apologize for them. Why? Because most academics and
most professors are pretty darn stupid. It’s that simple.

But thank you for helping me remember why I hate academia—for there are times when I am tempted to go back.

Pretty darn stupid. He’s got that right.

What About Penniless Gay Nazis from Africa?

Sep 3rd, 2004 8:23 pm | By

Just a little more Harding – because the previous visits with her are on the August page, which no one will ever look at again, and because at least one reader thinks I may be giving her the straw man treatment. But in fact I’m making her sound better than she is rather than worse, because as I mentioned it simply is impossible to convey how feeble her arguments are via brief quotations. Brief quotations don’t, for instance, and can’t of their nature, make clear how absent any evidence is. They also can’t convey the cumulative effect of her writing, which is genuinely credulity-strainingly childish. Brief quotation for instance misses out how often she repeats the identical inane phrases, but that repetition combined with inanity is a big part of why her work makes such a bizarre impression. It’s like ‘The Dick and Jane Book of How to Know Stuff.’ The meaningless phrase ‘from the perspective of women’s lives’ is repeated multiple times on a single page, even in a single paragraph. The phrase itself is meaningless (lives don’t have perspectives); what Harding means by it (standpoint epistemology) is nonsense; and the endless iteration of meaningless nonsense does not make it more convincing, to put it mildly. But mere short quotations can’t illustrate that endless iteration; so the impression I give is actually better than the one she gives. Ironic, ain’t it.

Here’s some good stuff:

But from the perspective of groups that society excludes and marginalizes, this now conventional claim that all knowers should be interchangeable can appear to have certain antidemocratic consequences. If all knowers are interchangeable, then affirmative action in the sciences can be ‘only’ a moral and political agenda. It can have no possible positive consequences for the content or logic of the natural sciences; the scientific work of men and women, blacks and whites, Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners will be equally supervised and disciplined by scientific method. If all knowers are in principle interchangeable, then white, Western, economically privileged, heterosexual men can produce knowledge at least as good as anyone else can.

Fascinating, isn’t it? And lest you think she’s just describing reality there – she begins the next paragraph with the phrase ‘Even worse…’ No, these are the ‘antidemocratic consequences’ she’s talking about. Apparently she thinks it would be more prodemocratic if, say, the scientific work of women (white ones? ‘economically privileged’? Western? who knows) were ‘supervised and disciplined by scientific method’ in some way other than ‘equally’ with that of men or Nazis. (Well what about Nazi women? Huh? How do we figure all these items out? How does a rich Nazi gay male compare with a poor Western heterosexual female KKKer? Do they get points for each item and then we add them all up and figure out how to supervise and discipline their work? Or what?) Interesting notion. What would that way be, exactly? What other way is there to supervise and discipline scientific work? I would really like to know, but of course Harding does not in fact say. She never does. And that again is what it’s impossible to show by mere excerpt. You’re at liberty to assume that she in fact does say, farther down the page or into the chapter, and I just haven’t bothered to quote that bit. But no. She doesn’t. She just sets up these ridiculous pseudo-‘problems’ and then wanders off and talks about something else. She doesn’t even think through her own claims, or notice the glaring contradictions they’re full of.

So there’s no straw here; it’s all pure solid brick.

Manifesto of Freedoms

Sep 2nd, 2004 11:09 pm | By

And then as soon as I posted that, I found this rather inspiring Manifesto at Jonathan Derbyshire’s blog. And the thing is…it seems to me that people in the US and the UK who side with the pro-hijab side against the ban don’t quite realize the extent to which they’re siding against people like those who wrote that Manifesto. Against people like Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie and Ibn Warraq. People who are not arrogant Westerners, not Eurocentric, not colonialists, not Orientalists, not hegemonists keen to trample on the Other, but people who want to get rid of the regressive, punitive, subordinating aspects of their own cultures, just as we all want to get rid of those aspects in our own. I wish Western liberals would pay less attention to pro-hijab protests and more to things like this Manifesto and the Bulletin of the Committee to Defend
Women’s Rights in the Middle East
and Ibn Warraq’s Secular Islam site. They’re the ones who need and deserve support.

Not That Again

Sep 2nd, 2004 10:23 pm | By

Damn – it’s one of those days. Horrible sectarian fights breeding violence everywhere you look. What a disgusting world. Schoolchildren and teachers held hostage by Chechen rebels, mosques burned and people injured in Nepal after a group of Nepalese workers are murdered by Islamic militants, two French journalists held hostage by more Islamic militants and threatened with death because of a French law against wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools. It’s hard not to think that a good deal more secularism would be a helpful vitamin for a lot of people.

It pains me to say it but I don’t agree with Normblog on this issue. At least, not with the way he states it. I think it’s reasonable to disagree about the ban, because there clearly are irreconcilable tensions in it. It feels like a violation of rights, an interference with basic freedom, to both sides. But I think it’s less reasonable to come down on one side or the other by denying those tensions. So I don’t think this is right: ‘The law forbidding it is an unjust and illiberal one, preventing people from affirming their identity in ways that don’t harm others.’ But there is a claim that the presence of the hijab in the classroom does harm others. That’s the whole point. So it’s too easy just to say that it doesn’t.

No doubt I err in the other direction. But I do at least realize that people who want to wear the nasty thing (now stop that) feel unfairly treated.

I do think the hijab a nasty thing though. Very. So I do think that talking about ‘preventing people from affirming their identity’ is a too-emollient way of referring to it. If some people wanted to wear slave-chains, or signs proclaiming them Untouchables, or yellow stars or striped concentration camp uniforms to school, should that be called ‘affirming their identity,’ especially when people in the same ‘group’ found that very identity-affirmation profoundly degrading and subordinating? The whole problem with the hijab is that it does far more than merely affirm the ‘identity’ of the person who wears it. To some extent that’s potentially true of any clothes. I have to say, I’m damn glad that I went to school in the 19th century so that I didn’t have to be surrounded with girls poking their stomachs and buttocks out of their pants all day. They look stupid and kind of pathetic, and I think I would have felt stupid and pathetic by association. (Therefore I think school dress codes are a good thing on the whole, and that is after all all the French law is – a school dress code.) But it’s more true of the hijab because of its history, especially its recent history – because of its connection with Islamism and violence against women. That’s one reason it’s not an exact equivalent of crosses – because people don’t get beaten for not wearing crosses (as far as I know anyway). Furthermore, both sexes wear crosses. They’re just not a badge of subordination in the way the hijab is (even though of course a lot of Muslim women don’t see the hijab as a badge of subordination – but on the other hand a lot do).

I damn well hope those two journalists don’t get murdered as a result of the law though. But no doubt they will. That seems to be the way things fall out these days.

All the Way Back

Sep 2nd, 2004 6:17 pm | By

The rest of it…









January 2003

December 2002




Sep 2nd, 2004 5:48 pm | By

Just trying something out, here…







January 2004

December 2003



Ode to September

Sep 1st, 2004 10:59 pm | By

Have you noticed? It’s September. I love September, and always look forward to its arrival. Because I don’t like summer much, and I do love autumn, and then I don’t have to go back to school, so what do I care.

And since it is September – next month is October. (Seven, eight – that’s how to remember.) And at the end of October, the Dictionary comes out, and you can all rush off to the nearest Waterstones’ and buy armfuls. Yes, armfuls, I tell you – you can give them as Christmas presents. Every single person you give one to will be your friend for life – except for academic pseuds, who will be your enemy for life, so you win either way, you see. And in the meantime you can admire it or even order it here. Since it’s a new month (September, that is) I thought I’d better put the link on this page, for everyone’s convenience. I might do the same thing on October 1. It will be interesting to find out, won’t it.


Sep 1st, 2004 10:36 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about the puzzling (to me anyway) question of where all this automatic hostility to science comes from. This is not the first time I’ve thought about that question, of course; it’s not even the second, or the fifth. I think about it quite often. It is something of an enigma. There are a lot of people out there who do reliably say very dismissive things on the subject, not as if such things were controversial or debatable, but as if they were obvious and taken for granted and incontrovertible. As if it were just common knowledge among all people who pay attention even slightly, that science is root and branch wicked and harmful and to be condemned out of hand. It’s odd.

The question has renewed force because of reading Sandra Harding. She’s a really good example – paradigmatic, one might say – of this kind of thing. Of just assuming from the outset that science is a terrible thing and that everyone who reads her already knows that. She has to be assuming that, because she sure as hell does a crap job of making a case for it. In fact she does no job at all. She just takes that assumption as her starting point. No evidence, no explanation, hardly even any examples. Just earnest cross-eyed science-hatred. Okay, so why?

There are some obvious reasons. It’s powerful and succesful, it’s difficult, capitalism needs it, it can be smelly and/or dirty, we were bad at it in school. That kind of thing. Compelling stuff, needless to say. But there are other reasons, and those are the ones that it’s interesting to think about. (Irritating, but interesting.) The ones that are less explicit, less ‘theoretical’ and rational, less academic; the ones that are more like fear of snakes or spiders, or dislike of people in suede shoes.

Thinking about those reasons of course risks getting into into armchair-Freudianism territory, and that’s not a territory I want to light out for. But I’ll take the chance anyway. Cautiously. Right: I think one of those background reasons is the fact that science doesn’t give a shit. At all. It’s not just that it’s not all that bothered, it’s that it does not care at all. That’s the problem right there: it’s the realm of what just is, no matter what we think about it. Where our wishes, hopes, plans, fears make nothing happen.

Of course that’s true of life anyway, with or without science. It rains or it doesn’t, the volcano erupts or not. In fact science and technology are our best shot at changing obdurate facts about the world that we don’t like – sickness, weather, hunger. But still, science also makes the independence of what is from what we want it to be, systematic and official, and that’s why people hate it, as if it were a bully wandering around stomping on all our little doll houses and acorn tea sets. We feel beside the point next to it. It’s not democratic, or multicultural, or libertarian, or kind; all those words and all words like them are just the wrong category. We feel more at home in the kind-ought-value-want category. So it feels natural to a lot of people to hate science, and they assume not only that it feels natural to everyone but also that that is the right way to feel, the humane, thoughtful, reflective way to feel. At least, that’s my guess. But it’s not a scientific guess, just an armchair one.

[Update: By ‘we’ of course I mean those who fit the description and not those who don’t.]

Henry James

Sep 1st, 2004 1:38 am | By

David Lodge has a new novel out, Author, Author. It’s about Henry James, and about writing – especially about writing. I thought Lodge’s two latest novels were really verging on bad, but this one sounds brilliant. The people on Saturday Review last week (all but one, who was tepid) competed with each other in superlatives. ‘I just, loved it,’ they kept exclaiming.

I find James quite an interesting character, and always have. His letters fascinate me. I have a lovely volume of letters beween him and his also fascinating brother William. But I find Harry even more interesting, I suppose because he’s more obsessive and peculiar – less ‘normal’ than William. Though neither of them was what you’d call average. At any rate, it’s suddenly apparent that a lot of people find Harry interesting, although predictably and boringly enough that’s sometimes because of his sexual orientation rather than because of the intellectual life – the writing and the thinking about writing. But not Lodge’s, apparently.

Mark Lawson did a long interview with Lodge on Front Row yesterday. It’s good stuff. And Jonathan Derbyshire did one for Time Out last week and has posted the transcript on his blog. Lodge has written about consciousness before, and the new novel could be seen as the third in a sort of trilogy about consciousness. But this one is also a historical novel, which complicates things:

Somewhere in ‘Consciousness and the Novel’, in fact, I quote [James] saying that the historical novel is an impossibility, because the novelist cannot think himself back into the consciousnesses of people in, say, the Middle Ages. That was a very interesting indication of how he thought the quick of fiction was in the interior consciousness of the characters, and that however many facts you might accumulate, you could never actually know what it was like to experience the world in those distant periods.

It’s a suggestive thought – because of course what it suggests is ‘yes but you can’t actually know what it’s like to experience anyone else’s consciousness, no matter how contemporary. You can get hints, an idea, an approximation – maybe – provided your sources aren’t lying to you, or lying to themselves and hence to you, or inarticulate, or confused, or…’ – well you see the problem. It’s all guess-work and extrapolation. Though I suppose what James meant is that we have far less material with which to make those guesses and extrapolations; we have fewer hints and ideas and approximations.

I think our sensibility and our consciousness is not so totally different from that of the late Victorians. So it’s not impossible to reconstruct their view of the world. And we have an enormous amount of data about how people actually felt and thought. We know an immense amount about James himself too. So we know a lot more than a Victorian novelist could know about medieval history. So there’s no real contradiction in trying to write a novel about Henry James.

The letters help, and there are a lot of them. James did have a point – there aren’t a great many letters of the kind he and William wrote, from the 14th century. The Paxtons wrote different kinds of letters and besides they were later.


Aug 30th, 2004 8:46 pm | By

Aww. I don’t know when I’ve been so, so, so almost maudlin with emotion. So nearly overcome. So tempted to soak my delicate silk and lace hanky with tears. So hungry. (Eh? Well it’s past noon, and anyway I’m pretty much always hungry.) Norm is planning to swap anecdotes with me in the great chat-fest in the sky. And he’s chuffed to learn that we’ll both be able to, according to no less an authority than the dear achbish of Canterbury. I do love those guys. So – agile in their accomodation of dreadful beliefs along with less disconcerting ones. Yes, Jesus decides these things, and yes he sorts the sheep from the goats and sends the goats (or is it the sheep) to the The Bad Place – but not to worry! because he’s a mysterious fella (see below) and it could be that some of the sheep (unless it’s goats) will go to the Good Place anyway because – um – because it’s cheerier to think so, and we still get to believe in the magical livestock-sorting abilities of Jesus? Because it’s not so much cheerier as more polite, tactful, acceptable, ‘appropriate,’ multicultural etc to think so and we still get to believe Jesus knows who belongs where? Probably. Very probably, in fact.

I don’t know, though, I think Norm may be taking a slightly optimistic view of the archbishop’s statement. Rowan Williams (I always do want to say Atkinson) did say that Muslims can go to heaven, according to the Telegraph, but he is not quoted as saying that atheists can. I really think Norm may be jumping to conclusions in thinking that if Muslims can then atheists can. I mean, there are limits, after all. Otherwise what’s the point? Right? If atheists can, well hell then anyone can and you might as well not bother having heaven at all, it just becomes ‘that place where anyone at all can get in no questions asked.’ Kind of like, you know, the world, where people just arrive, regardless of quality.

And then, it’s important to note exactly how the archbish phrased it.

Dr Williams said that neither he nor any Christian could control access to heaven. “It is possible for God’s spirit to cross boundaries,” he said. “I say this as someone who is quite happy to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by Jesus. But how God leads people through Jesus to heaven, that can be quite varied, I think.”

You see? Did you catch it? That little ‘I think’ there at the end. That says it all. He doesn’t actually know all this – he just thinks it. Well what good does that do?! I don’t want some guy’s off the cuff opinion about whether I get to sit around chatting in heaven or not, I want to damn well know, don’t I! I mean – what business does he have giving an opinion anyway? What are opinions worth on this kind of thing? What’s his opinion based on? Anything? Just the fact that he thinks things will be more comfortable that way (see above)? Is that the kind of thing that decides how things fall out in the real world?

Okay, I’ll stop. I know it’s silly. One doesn’t go to an archbishop for rigorous or even clear thought. But it’s fun to pretend now and then.

God Moves In Mysterious Ways

Aug 30th, 2004 1:27 pm | By

I’m not one to laugh at the religiously afflicted (okay, that’s probably not true), and certainly not at people being seriously injured; and I know that this is probably terribly unsophisticated, but what’s god up to? She’s an omnipotent, omniscient being (apparently). You’d have thought she’d be able to handle a bit of grandstand seating. But it appears not. Hmmm. Which reminds me of the story of Widecombe parish church. October 21 1638, in the middle of an afternoon service, a lightning bolt lands smack bang in the middle of the church, killing or maiming half the congregation. Needless to say, the devil is the chief suspect. Isn’t it just always so…

And since I’m talking about religious lunacy, how about the fella who decided to apprehend the leader of the Olympic marathon in the middle of the race. Seemingly, it had something to do the first coming* of the son of god. I can just imagine the thought process:

My lord and saviour is sending her only forgotten** son to atone for the sins of mankind (again).*** I know what, I’ll interfere with the Olympic marathon. That’ll please everybody.


* There appears to be some mistake on the notice thing he’s carrying. Something about a second coming… Did I miss the first one?

** That’s poetic license.

*** The atoning thing probably isn’t theologically sound. Sorry.