Notes and Comment Blog


On the Other Hand

Sep 14th, 2005 6:50 pm | By

Since I keep picking fights with Michael Ruse’s recent arguments, it’s only fair that I should point out this item I’ve just read on Philosophy of Biology. It’s a letter Ruse sent to the dean, which he posted by way of encouraging others.

As the disaster unfolds in New Orleans, I am sure I am not alone in wondering what I can do. So far, the FSU response seems to be that we must go on with the football game. Is it at all possible to offer something to the students of Louisiana? For instance, could we take some of them in for a semester or two and wave fees? It is surely not too late in the term to think about this. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that my family would consider it a privilege to house and board for free a couple of students for the year. I am an Englishman born in 1940. I owe so much to America that for me it would be paying a very small part of the debt.

No comment necessary.



That Infinite Regress Again

Sep 13th, 2005 10:54 pm | By

John Sutherland interviewed Michael Behe in the Guardian yesterday. (P Z comments on the interview at Pharyngula). He didn’t ask some questions that it seems to me he might have.

JS: It’s no secret that you are a Catholic. But, as I understand it, your scientific theory does not predicate God in any form whatsoever. You’ve suggested that the designer could even be some kind of evil alien. Is that right?

MB: That’s exactly correct. All that the evidence from biochemistry points to is some very intelligent agent. Although I find it congenial to think that it’s God, others might prefer to think it’s an alien – or who knows? An angel, or some satanic force, some new age power. Something we don’t know anything about yet.

What is the difference? What’s the difference between an evil alien, God, an alien, an angel, some satanic force, some new age power? They’re all the same thing, really – just a big X, a big ?, a big ‘who knows’, a big wild card, a Something, a Whatever. A designer.

In other words it’s such an empty category it might as well not be there. It’s just a substitute for ‘I don’t know’. So why not just go with ‘I don’t know’? Because it’s more cuddly to suggest that it might be God, even though ‘God’ could in fact translate to ‘evil alien.’ (Apart from anything else, God is pretty obviously an alien, right? I mean what else is he going to be? A local?)

But the more basic unasked question is closer to the beginning of the interview.

JS: Is there a discourse problem here? Metaphysics can’t engage meaningfully with physics? Does intelligent design belong in science?

MB: I believe it does. I see it as straightforward empirical observation. One analogy I like to use is to Mount Rushmore. If you had never heard of Mount Rushmore, you would see immediately the images of four people and immediately recognise that to be design. There wouldn’t be any question of metaphysics there. You can tell that something was designed from its physical structure.

But then what designed the designer? ‘You see this design when you see co-ordinated parts coming together to perform a function – like in a hand. And so it’s the appearance of design that everybody’s trying to explain. So that if Darwin’s theory doesn’t explain it we’re left with no other explanation than maybe it really was designed.’ But that’s not an explanation, because it leaves you exactly where you were. So who designed the designer? Why do you think saying ‘Intelligent Design’ is explanatory when obviously anything that intentionally designed all the complex things in the universe would have to be a lot more complex than they are? You think those less complex things have to be explained – so why don’t you think the same thing about the more complex thing, only more so?

Is it just because you can’t see it? You see the flagellum under the microscope, and think ‘It looks designed’ – but you don’t see the Designer under the microscope, or through the telescope, or any other way, so, unimaginatively enough, you just forget to wonder who designed that? Don’t you think that’s kind of simple-minded? Because I do.

It’s such an obvious problem, and it’s so fatal – it’s odd that it so seldom gets raised.



Step Into the Light

Sep 13th, 2005 7:55 pm | By

Salman Rushdie has a few suggestions. Let’s hope his meet up with Irshad Manji’s and those of other reformers and start to displace the putative ‘leadership’ and ‘representativeness’ of the MCB. Let’s hope the whole project thrives.

Reformed Islam would reject conservative dogmatism and accept that, among other things, women are fully equal to men; that people of other religions, and of no religion, are not inferior to Muslims; that differences in sexual orientation are not to be condemned, but accepted as aspects of human nature; that anti-Semitism is not OK; and that the repression of free speech by the thin-skinned ideology of easily-taken “offence” must be replaced by genuine, robust, anything-goes debate in which there are no forbidden ideas or no-go areas.

Doesn’t that sound blissful? Wouldn’t it just make a huge difference if Islam were like that?

Reformed Islam would encourage diaspora Muslims to emerge from their self-imposed ghettoes and stop worrying so much about locking up their daughters. It would emerge from the intellectual ghetto of literalism and subservience to mullahs and ulema, allowing open, historically based scholarship to emerge from the shadows to which the madrassas and seminaries have condemned it.

Ghettoes, locking up, subservience, shadows. Reform is about emerging from all that. It’s a hopeful vision. Let’s hope people can start to see it that way.



The Third

Sep 13th, 2005 7:18 pm | By

I’m shocked – I went and forgot B&W’s birthday. It was days ago – September 10th. How could I forget?! Well I didn’t exactly forget; I thought it was later – late September or maybe October. But I forgot to check until today, so it comes to the same thing. How could I forget? I never have before. I suppose it’s because one of its progenitors doesn’t like it any more, poor little thing, so perhaps it seems tactless to fuss about birthdays. But anyway, another year older it is. It’s three. Last year it was two. The year before that it was one. The year before that it began. Happy Birthday, B&W.



The Perfectibility of Bunting

Sep 12th, 2005 11:27 pm | By

Madeleine Bunting. What does she mean by it.

Why is it that a significant section of liberal and left-leaning opinion has signed up with such relish to the “clash of civilisations” argument? Its champions in the media may not phrase it as such, but you can hear the creak of the drawbridge being pulled up: they believe they are surrounded by enemies – Muslims and their dastardly non-Muslim apologists – and must defend to the last man the checklist of universal Enlightenment values that sustain their mission.

That’s quite a high proportion of rhetoric to argument or straightforward factual claim. That bit about not phrasing it as such – what that means is that the argument she’s talking about is not in fact a “clash of civilisations” argument, it’s just that she chooses to call it that because it’s a pejorative. And the silly use of ‘Muslims’ as if a significant section of liberal and left-leaning opinion thinks of all Muslims as enemies. And the remarkable sneer at universal Enlightenment values – yeah, like the ones that allow her to leave the house, and that allow her to have a job, and that encourage the existence of newspapers to have jobs on, and that create large literate audiences for newspaper columns, and that forbid the government or the churches or mosques to censor her columns. Those universal Enlightenment values. What kind of life does Madeleine Bunting think she would have without them, exactly? I’ll tell you what kind of life she would have: she would be married (whether she wanted to be or not), she would have a lot of children (whether she wanted them or not), she would spoil the boys and deprive the girls, she would would go nowhere without permission, she would do nothing but tend her husband and children (boy children especially), she would have no job and no one would know or care anything whatever about her opinion on any subject. The idea that Enlightenment values should be universal simply means thinking that if other women would like to try to live the way Bunting and millions of women all around her live, they ought to be able to. I don’t think that is anything to sneer at.

How do British values look to an African? Perhaps they might see through our illusions quicker than we can, and see the brittle, episodic relationships which constitute many lonely lives; the disconnectedness whereby strangers live together as neighbours, colleagues, even friends and lovers, with little knowledge and less commitment to each other; our preoccupation with things; our ever more desperate dependence on stimulants from alcohol to porn.

Which ‘African’? Which African do you mean, Madders? Do you mean for instance the women of that corner of northern Niger where the men control the food storehouse, even when they have left home during a famine and their wife or wives and children are starving? Hmm? Or the children in Congo and Angola accused of witchcraft and tortured to death by way of exorcism? Do you think they would ‘see through’ our ‘illusions’? How about the children conscripted into armies? How about the children desperate for an education who can’t get one? How about the vast numbers of people dying of Aids? How about the people whose market stalls and homes and lives were smashed in Mugabe’s ‘urban renewal’ program? How about the lucky, lucky people of Darfur? What about their neighbours and their commitments, eh? Do you really – really, seriously – prefer whatever values cause those dire situations to flourish to the ones around you? Really?

So an elite squabbles about Islam’s take on gay rights and gender equality in a charade of moralistic grandstanding.

A charade of moralistic grandstanding – unlike, for instance, speculating on how British values would look to ‘an African’. That’s not moralistic grandstanding at all, while thinking women and gays should have rights everywhere in the world and not just in our own privileged section of it – that’s mere showing off.

Here is a quick list of some of the Enlightenment legacy that we need to keep working on: the relationship of reason to emotion and faith (of all kinds, not just religious, most particularly our faith in humanity); a broader account of human nature beyond the bankrupted belief in the perfectibility of man; more meanings of freedom than the freedom to shop…

The perfectibility of man? Is there a liberal in the universe, whether muscular or flabby, who believes in that? I’ve certainly never met one. (It’s also amusing that that jibe follows immediately on the plea for faith in humanity. Well which is it, Cookie?) And more meanings of freedom than the freedom to shop – oh, the hell with it, that’s too stupid even to bother contradicting.

Bunting could do with some enlightenment herself.



Zingers

Sep 12th, 2005 8:42 pm | By

Simon Schama comes up with a great many zingers on the devout slacker of the free world.

George W Bush has decreed that…there is to be a further day of solemnities on which the nation will pray for the unnumbered victims of Hurricane Katrina. Prayers (like vacations) are the default mode for this president who knows how to chuckle and bow the head in the midst of disaster but not, when it counts, how to govern or to command. If you feel the prickly heat of politics, summon a hymn to make it go away; make accountability seem a blasphemy. Thus has George Bush become the Archbishop of Washington even as his aura as lord protector slides into the putrid black lagoon, bobbing with cadavers and slick with oil, that has swallowed New Orleans

Zing! Exactly. He knows how to chuckle and how to bow the head, and nothing else. Not much of a repertoire. And the blasphemy bit is exactly right: that is just what he is doing with the piety schtick: he’s wrapping himself in the deity so that anyone who argues will look like one of them there values-free atheists. It’s creepy, it’s bogus, and it’s coercive. And people are finally calling him on it! It’s about time…

So this weekend it was predictable that the president would shamelessly invoke the spirit of 9/11 to cover his shamefully exposed rear end…But comparisons with 9/11…will only serve now to reinforce the differences between what the two calamities said about America, and especially about those entrusted with its government. The carnage of 9/11 generated an intense surge of patriotic solidarity, even with America’s Babylon, a city scandalously and notoriously indifferent to Heartland values…Blood and food donations piled up and a mayor disregarded his personal safety to be where he had to be, in the thick of the inferno; his daily press conferences astoundingly bullshit-free, unafraid of bearing bad news; treating his fellow-citizens, mirabile dictu, like grown-ups.

Zing, again. Oh, man, how I long – how I crave – to be treated like a grown-up, how I crave for all of us to be treated like grown-ups. How I loathe and despise and detest this regimen in which we are all treated like soppy weak-minded children. This permanent on-going insult to every one of us, in which we’re constantly talked to as if we believed in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

It was this redeeming sense of national community that protected the president from any kind of serious political scrutiny whenever he invoked 9/11 as the overwhelming reason for launching the invasion of Iraq. As John Kerry found to his cost, unexamined passion triumphed over reasoned argument. Bush won re-election simply by making debate a kind of treason; an offence against the entombed.

Zing again. Unexamined passion whups reasoned argument, over and over and over again, and the infantilization proceeds apace.

And what they saw, as so many of them have said, was the brutality, destitution, desperation and chaos of the Third World. Instead of instinctive solidarity and compassion, they have witnessed a descent into a Hobbesian state of nature; with Leviathan offering fly-by compassion, 30,000ft up, and then, once returned to the White House, broadcasting a defensive laundry list of deliveries, few of which showed up when and where they were needed. Instead of acts of mutual succour, there was the police force of Gretna, south of New Orleans, sealing off a bridge against incoming evacuees, and turning them back under threats of gunfire…And instead of an urban community of every conceivable race, religion and even class brought together by trauma, another kind of city, startlingly divided by race and fortune, has symbolised everything about America that makes its people uneasy, ashamed and, finally, perhaps lethally for the conservative ascendancy and its myths, angry.

Damn right. That’s exactly what it makes us – ashamed, and angry. And so it should. Even David Brooks – as smug a commentator as you’d want to find – last week said that leaving the poor behind in New Orleans was like abandoning the wounded on the battlefield. I for one spent the entire Clinton administration (to say nothing of its predecessors) wondering and whining ‘But what about inequality?’ Katrina did one hell of a job of making it clear why inequality does matter.

Historians ought not to be in the prophecy business but I’ll venture this one: Katrina will be seen as a watershed in the public and political life of the US, because it has put back into play the profound question of American government…Fema, which under Bill Clinton had been a cabinet level agency reporting directly to the president, had under his successor been turned into a hiring opportunity for political hacks and cronies and disappeared into the lumbering behemoth of Homeland Security. It was Fema that failed the Gulf; Fema which failed to secure the delivery of food, water, ice and medical supplies desperately asked for by the Mayor of New Orleans; and it was the president and his government-averse administration that had made Fema a bad joke. In the last election campaign George W Bush asked Americans to vote for him as the man who would best fulfil the most essential obligation of government: the impartial and vigilant protection of its citizens. Now the fraudulence of the claim has come back to haunt him, not in Baghdad but in the drowned counties of Louisiana. In the recoil, disgust and fury felt by millions of Americans at this abdication of responsibility, the president – notwithstanding his comically self-serving promise to lead an inquiry into the fiasco – will assuredly reap the whirlwind.

I think so. Some people think this will fade the way everything else fades – and maybe so, but I don’t think so. I think this one bit too deep – way too deep. I think the shame is real, and will keep the anger from fading. I think it’s another Emmett Till, another Little Rock, another Selma. I think people are going to want something better than small gummint and pious cronyism and greed is good.



It’s Over!

Sep 12th, 2005 1:48 am | By

Golly. It’s over. I’m a bit choked. I told you I was looking forward to congratulating Homa – but she got there first. I tell you what, honey, when I clicked onto my email page and saw that subject line in an email from Homa – ‘congratulations to you all for a battle well fought’ – I must have jumped a foot.

I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be all that elated, it’s just the prevention of something that never should have been suggested in the first place. But I don’t care. It was suggested, and it has been prevented, and that will make a difference, so I am elated.

And so is Homa. It says so right here.

Homa Arjomand, the women’s rights activist who organized a series of protests across Canada and Europe last Thursday to convince McGuinty to abandon Shariah, was elated when she heard the news late Sunday. “I think our voice got heard loud and clear, and I thank the government for coming out with no faith-based arbitrations,” said Arjomand. “Oh, I am so happy. That was the best news I have ever heard for the past five years.”

Homa led the entire protest, all this time, and it’s finally worked. Well done Homa! Congratulations! Hurrah!



Is the Tide Beginning to Turn?

Sep 11th, 2005 7:33 pm | By

Seyran Ates has very interesting things to say.

Why are a few particularly estimable, highly intelligent women and men in very prominent positions, blind in one eye when it comes to the protection of minorities? Why are they blind in that eye with which they have otherwise promoted equal rights for the sexes, and still do? The so-called minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women, and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures. The situation of Muslim girls and women in Germany has been played down to an extreme…I want to know, and many thousands of Muslim girls and women have a right to know, why understanding and infinite tolerance is practised with particular cultural traditions that are clearly oppressive of women. Human rights are universal and unconditional. And that goes most certainly for religious objectives.

This blind eye and playing down may finally be beginning to change, because women like Seyran Ates and Fadela Amara are speaking up and getting published in large-circulation newspapers and magazines. As are men like Johann Hari and Kenan Malik – in fact the list of women and men who are doing this is getting quite long. But there’s a lot of accumulated blindness to get rid of, so the list needs to keep getting longer and longer.

Fadela Amara, who founded ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises’:

Amara emphasises that this is the difference between those who talk about cultural relativism and her organisation, which is aimed at achieving universal human rights. “An exaggerated tolerance of supposed cultural differences which results in the maintenance of archaic traditions – that’s just not acceptable.”

Like the archaic traditions ‘Shinaz’ found herself up against:

For months, a Muslim woman living in Toronto tried to wring a divorce out of her local imam. Under sharia law, her husband had to consent to the divorce – even though he had abandoned the family four years earlier and married another woman in a South Asian country where polygamy is legal. The imam told her that her spouse wanted $100,000 and all her gold jewellery, she said, asking that her identity not be disclosed because she fears retribution from her ex-husband, the imam and her community…”The imam told me, ‘there are some sharia conditions you must follow, we must come to a settlement within sharia.’ I agreed because I was desperate,” said the woman, 29, who uses the pseudonym Shinaz.

There’s room for some optimism on the sharia in Ontario front though. The Attorney General released a statement on the day of the international protests against Sharia in Ontario – in fact, ninety minutes after the Toronto demonstration ended.

The McGuinty government is firmly and completely committed to equality principles and women’s rights as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms…We have heard loud and clear from those who are seeking greater protections for women. We must constantly move forward to eradicate discrimination, protect the vulnerable, and promote equality. As the Premier re-iterated this week, we will ensure that women’s rights are fully protected. We are guided by the values and the rights enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We will ensure that the law of the land in Ontario is not compromised, that there will be no binding family arbitration in Ontario that uses a set of rules or laws that discriminate against women.

Let’s hope he means it. Of course, fans of the idea of sharia courts insist that the ‘set of rules or laws’ in question doesn’t discriminate against women, that the rules are different for the two sexes but not discriminatory, etc etc etc – but let’s hope the AG is not playing that game. That looks on the face of it like a pretty strong (and clear) statement – the kind it would be hard to reconcile with sharia courts in the face of strong protests, without paying a heavy political price.

Homa Arjomand released a statement on the Attorney General’s statement, of which she sent me a copy.

TORONTO – “The government is definitely heading in the right direction”, said Ms. Homa Arjomand, Coordinator of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada, “I hope this statement by the Attorney General means he will soon bring an end to faith-based courts in Ontario”. Yesterday at noon, Ms. Arjomand led over 400 protesters to Queen’s Park to demand the liberal government stop allowing family legal matters such as divorce and child custody, to be settled in private courts based on religious laws. At 4:30 pm, ninety minutes following the demonstration, the Attorney General of Ontario issued the…statement…”I agree with the Attorney General, we do need more protections for women and to eliminate discrimination, said Ms. Arjomand, … we can best achieve this through the Family Law Act of Ontario. The Canadian Charter can guide us as it clearly states ‘Every individual …has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination’. All we ask is to be treated equally, the same as other Canadians.” added Ms. Arjomand.

It will be nice to be able to declare one victory. I’m looking forward to it, and to congratulating Homa.



Enough About Me, What Do You Think of Me?

Sep 9th, 2005 8:29 pm | By

Okay, so I’m a hurricane. Big deal. We all have our faults.

Meanwhile. I’ve been wanting to mention for days, but other subjects kept intervening – the proofs for Why Truth Matters have arrived. Jeremy got his Tuesday, my set arrived Wednesday – on account of how he’s a few miles from Continuum and I’m six thousand miles farther off.

We had a little discussion about the acknowledgements. Gremlins had replaced that page with the acknowledgements from a previous book of Jeremy’s and Julian’s, one that I had nothing to do with. (It would have been even funnier if it had been replaced with the acknowledgements from a book by someone entirely unknown to any of us, thanking a great crowd of people we’ve never heard of, for doing things neither of us would ever dream of doing in our most inebriated or gangrenously delirious moments, such as being helpful or patient or cheerful or pleasant.) Those acknowledgements thanked me for help with the editing – therefore would have looked rather odd in a book I co-wrote. One doesn’t usually thank oneself in the acknowledgements – although it might not be a bad idea. Who else is going to do such a thorough job of it, after all?

And finally, I would like to thank Myself, for being so unfailingly amusing, so inexhaustibly interesting, for shutting up when I needed quiet, for chattering when I needed distraction, for knowing exactly when to moan and whine and fuss, when to shout and rail and execrate, when to smirk and gloat and prance, when to titter and squeal and dribble; for knowing exactly when I wanted to eat something and when I didn’t, when I needed to go for a long walk and when I needed to lie on the floor and breathe deeply. For always being there, for sympathizing so deeply, for admiring so unreservedly, for knowing so well exactly what was wrong about everyone else and right about me.

But I hadn’t thought of that on Wednesday, so I merely suggested a smaller re-write: ‘Special thanks to Jeremy Stangroom for writing some of it, special thanks to Ophelia Benson for writing some of it.’ Jeremy suggested an alternative: ‘Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom would like to thank Ophelia Benson and
Jeremy Stangroom for making the world a better place.’ I think that’s an excellent sentiment, and that we should add it to the front page of B&W.



The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven

Sep 8th, 2005 7:20 pm | By

Christ. It keeps getting worse. If this account is reliable – it’s hair-raising.

Two paramedics, in New Orleans for a convention of emergency medical people, stuck in a hotel that ran out of food and water and on the fourth day, turned them out and locked the doors.

As we entered the center of the City, we finally encountered the National Guard. The Guards told us we would not be allowed into the Superdome as the City’s primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. The guards further told us that the City’s only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing anyone else in.

Oh. Okay. So they along with a lot of other refugees from hotels decided to pitch a camp outside the police station. The police were not pleased, and told the campers to go to the bridge over the river, where there were buses lined up waiting to evacuate people. Hurrah – so off they went. They passed the convention center, where a lot of people asked where they were going, and, upon being told, joined the march to escape.

Babies in strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm. As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads.

Well now – that’s what I call rescue.

As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander’s assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move. We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans…All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on foot. Meanwhile, the only two City shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle.

Is this common knowledge? That the bridge was actually blocked? By law-enforcement people firing guns? Is it true? I know at one point on Friday the mayor wanted to get everyone at the convention center to walk out via that bridge – and that that wasn’t possible for everyone because it is two or three miles and there is a steep climb to get up to it, so older, sicker, weaker, and disabled people and the people who stayed with them wouldn’t be able to. But nothing was said about people with guns blocking the way! Christ almighty.

Things don’t get better, either.

Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, “Get off the fucking freeway”. A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water…The next days, our group of 8 walked most of the day, made contact with New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search and rescue team…We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op.

Then they have what Barbara Bush thinks must be such a thrill for all those ‘underprivileged’ people – they make it to paradisical Texas. Where ‘the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued.’ I can’t stand to quote any more of it, it’s too sickening.



Keystone Government

Sep 8th, 2005 2:15 am | By

Oh, dear. I haven’t been to Michael Bérubé’s place in awhile – not on purpose, just because I haven’t gotten around to it. He was off on a vacation for awhile, I think, and I got out of the habit. Anyway I’m reading it now, and I keep bursting into laughter, so I thought I might as well share one or two of the shots. To set the scene for you – they have to do with Katrina and ass-covering. A major rescue operation:

“Operation Cover Our Asses was carried out with a combination of precision, speed and boldness the American people did not expect,” Bush told a select group of Gannons standing on the flight deck. “We set up an array of emergency photo ops and Potemkin villages with a can-do spirit that dazzled the world. I personally have hugged black people in the Gulf Coast, and the photos are now available on the White House website.”

Some comments on FEMA then and now:

Writing in Slate, Bruce Reed reminds us that thanks to Clinton and Gore’s wonky, do-good “reinventing government” initiative, FEMA was transformed from “a dumping ground for political hacks” to a competent, responsive agency.

But Bush had other ideas. He

appoints a campaign contributor/ horse whisperer to manage FEMA, thereby restoring to the agency the corruption and cronyism of his father’s era. (And not just any horse whisperer, mind you! An incompetent horse whisperer who was pushed out of his horse-whispering job because he was a “total disaster.” Give that guy a disaster-management position!)

Maybe that was it. Maybe the word ‘disaster’ gave someone the idea. I’m not sure I don’t believe it.

The question of which candidate would do a better job with FEMA just wasn’t important enough for most of our press to cover.

One more.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur. Chertoff, fielding questions from reporters, said government officials did not expect both lightning and thunder in the extreme weather that devastated the Gulf Coast over the past week…“We knew about the lightning,” Chertoff insisted. “We had all gathered to watch the lightning, which was really awesome. But then came the thunder, and before we knew it, most of us had dived under tables, chairs, desks, anything—anything to get away from the horrible booming noise no one could possibly have expected.”

Read the rest. Read the whole dang page.



We Are All Equal

Sep 7th, 2005 11:10 pm | By

The hijab ban a year later.

Twelve months on, the row has subsided and the law is being hailed by the Government as a success that has stemmed the Islamic fundamentalist tide and brought calm to the nation’s lycées. Fathima, who is 16, agrees. “In the end I really don’t think it was a bad law at all. I wear my voile until I get to the school gates and then I take it off. School is not a place for religion. It is a place where we are all French and we are all equal. After lessons, I put the scarf back on again. There’s no difficulty.”

That’s good – that seems a hopeful sign. Except…one hopes that after school Fathima doesn’t have to go someplace where we are not all equal. One hopes that school is not the only place in Fathima’s life where ‘we are all equal.’ But if it is – well then, what a good thing it is there, and let’s hope its influence spreads.

And in Kabul people get to see a Shakespeare play. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ which would not be my first choice, nor my tenth or twentieth – but never mind that. After 27 years of no Shakespeare at all, LLL probably looks like Twelfth Night and Hamlet combined.

It was the finale to a four-night run that was enthusiastically received by the audiences but met some fierce criticism in the conservative press, which saw it as an imposition of western values.

That’s right. It’s multiculturalism. Enjoy!

One actress had to move out of her home: neighbours suspected her of adultery or prostitution because she was coming home after sunset owing to long rehearsals.

Well then obviously she’s out spreading her legs somewhere! The slut – what business do women have being away from home after sunset?! I ask you. If the good lord had wanted women to be away from home after sunset, he would have given them night vision. I rest my case.

The audience of about 400 included members of the Afghan royal family, the French ambassador, students and builders restoring the gardens. Miss Jaber said the cultural obstacles, particularly for the female actors, had been enormous. “At first the actors would not even look at each other,” she said. Faizal Azizi, who played a courtier, said the Taliban, which ruled for five years until the 2001 American invasion, would “never allow us to put on a play, to tell a story about love. Now we have a democracy and we can show these things to our people. I am so proud.”

And so you should be. Go, Faizal, go, students and builders. Live, breathe, fly kites, listen to music, go to plays, stay out after sunset. Live.



Stop, These People Have More Money Than You

Sep 7th, 2005 2:39 am | By

Everyone’s already seen this, but I just wanted to keep it for the record. I saw it in several places, but this one is from the Guardian on September 3.

At one point Friday, the evacuation was interrupted briefly when school buses rolled up so some 700 guests and employees from the Hyatt Hotel could move to the head of the evacuation line – much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the stinking Superdome since last Sunday. ‘How does this work? They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?’ exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage. The 700 had been trapped in the hotel, next to the Superdome, but conditions were considerably cleaner, even without running water, than the unsanitary crush inside the dome.

Impressive, isn’t it.

As is the perpetual cognitive dissonance.

President Bush, in his weekly radio address on Saturday, said: “In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need.”

Well that’s a funny joke – since the entire world has been watching with its jaw dropped as we in America did exactly that – jumping into the SUV and hightailing it out of New Orleans while the SUVless stayed behind – well and truly abandoned. If we don’t abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need, what was all that, exactly? An optical illusion?



Rushdie in Michigan

Sep 6th, 2005 11:35 pm | By

This interview with Salman Rushdie is full of good observations. Packed with them.

I suppose I became more intellectually engaged in the subject of freedom. If you live in free countries you don’t have to spend all your life arguing about freedom because it is all around you. It seems redundant to make a lot of noise about something when, in fact, there it is. But if someone tries to remove it, it becomes important for you to formulate your own defenses of it.

It sure does. The more I hear of women not allowed to leave the house without a man’s permission – not allowed to live at all without being owned by a man – the more aware I become of my own freedom, and the more savage I feel at the thought of being any less so, and at the thought that most women in the world are a great deal less so.

Shikha Dalmia: Do you think freedom of speech is threatened by cultural relativism—by the idea that principles like free expression are not universal truths but simply local cultural constructs?

Rushdie: The idea of universal rights – the idea of rights that are universal to all people because they correspond to our natures as human beings, not to where we live or what our cultural background is – is an incredibly important one. This belief is being challenged by apostles of cultural relativism who refuse to accept that such rights exist. If you look at those who employ this idea, it turns out to be Robert Mugabe, the leaders of China, the leaders of Singapore, the Taliban, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Bingo.

Shikha Dalmia: Where does this leave us on the question of democratic reform in Islamic countries? Do you think that Islam lacks a crucial piece to build a foundation for freedom?

Rushdie: What it has is an extra piece that believes that religion can be the foundation for a state. It’s a question of removing that piece rather than adding something.

Brilliant. Apart from anything else – the accuracy, the explanatory power – it’s politically good, because the idea of lacking a crucial piece is obviously fairly pejorative, but having an extra piece is not.

I was very struck when Joe Lieberman was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate, and there was a certain amount of rubbish talked about whether Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate. I remember a big opinion poll taken by The New York Times in which people were asked whether they would accept as a presidential candidate a woman, a Jew, an African American, a homosexual, and an atheist. In four of those five measures, the result was resoundingly yes, by a gigantic majority, but for an atheist it was no better than 50-50. Somebody who overtly professes not to have religion can’t get elected dog catcher in this country. That’s a problem, because it creates a political discourse full of sanctimony.

Ya think?

There’s a lot more excellent stuff, read the whole thing if you haven’t already. I can’t quote the whole dang thing because it’s, you know, not mine – so read it.



Up is not Down, Out is not In, Yes is not No

Sep 6th, 2005 7:49 pm | By

Ah – things become a little clearer. I became curious about a commenter who keeps conflating theism with theology, so I googled and found a blog, where conflation turns up again.

Early in the month, a friend called my attention to this Salon interview with philosopher of science Michael Ruse, talking about evolution-vs-creationism. Ruse is pointing out some of the argumentative excesses of science (for example, the rantings of Richard Dawkins, which I’ve blogged about before) and he’s trying to stake out space to allow someone to endorse both science and religious faith. I liked what he had to say. As I’ve seen argued elsewhere, atheism didn’t exist before the Enlightenment.

Just by the way, that’s not true. Consider Lucretius and Epicurus and Democritus, for instance; and consider the entire world; and consider all classes and conditions, including people who lived out of the reach of clerics. But that’s a side issue.

According to Ruse, scientism, positivism, secularism, whatever you call it, is a worldview, quite comparable to a religious worldview in that it dictates modes of thinking, patterns of rhetoric, and certain cultural norms at the expense of other valid norms.

Hang on – you can’t call ‘it’ those three things interchangeably, because they’re three different things. You might as well say ‘According to X, mysticism, Biblical literalism, spirituality, whatever you call it, is a worldview.’ Different things are different things, and it’s impossible to get anywhere in a discussion or analysis by blithely tossing them together and saying ‘whatever you call it.’ Making careful distinctions is a crucial part of careful and critical thinking. We seem to have a habit of mind, here.

This Ruse interview caught the notice of Butterflies and Wheels, who quickly proceed to belittle Ruse. This is an example of why I lose heart for this type of argument. Ophelia of B&W pretty bluntly admits her ignorance of theology on her way to dismissing it as a serious discipline. This is Richard Dawkins’s M.O. as well. In the way of many scientists and analytic philosophers, they are overly literal, clumsy in their use or interpretation of metaphor. Also, they argue by way of snark and bullying, of unacknowledged biases and a distinct arrogance in the face of something they don’t know much about.

This is probably where the confusion started. In that comment, I did indeed talk about theology, because Ruse did. That was the subject of that comment. But it was not the subject of a later comment, which was not about Ruse, but about Paul Davies, who did not mention theology, but rather belief in God, which is not the same thing. ‘…belief in God is largely a matter of taste, to be judged by its explanatory value rather than logical compulsion. Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper level of explanation than the laws of physics.’ Distinctions again, you see. Theism is not theology, and theology is not theism. And more: asking questions is not necessarily the same thing as admitting ignorance. Asking questions is a (well established) part of argument and analysis. And I still think the questions I asked are both serious (as opposed to being ‘snark and bullying’) and legitimate. I still want to know: if God is outside of nature, how can theology exist at all? How can human beings study or inquire into something that is outside of nature? I can see how we can speculate about it, imagine it, tell stories about it, have hopes and dreams and wishes about it – but I fail to see how we can make an ology out of it. That by the way is an argument with (or a question about) what Ruse said, more than it is about theology itself, because for all I know (there is some ignorance – I don’t know) theology in fact does not hold ‘the classic Augustinian position that science and theology can never directly contradict one another, since science can only consider nature and God, by definition, is outside nature.’ Maybe theology repudiates that idea for the very reason that it would make theology itself a nonsense. But Ruse is the one who put it forward, not I. He seems to think it is still a respectable theological view.

So: let’s keep our distinctions distinct. Scientism is not secularism, secularism is not positivism, and theism is not theology. (And cheese is not peanut butter, Keats is not Shelley, blue is not green, dog is not cat – see how this goes?)



Revealed at Last

Sep 5th, 2005 10:46 pm | By

So the truth is out. The well-kept secret that there is a large and growing gap between rich and poor in the US has suddenly tumbled out of the bag and into the spotlight. Well whaddya know – you mean all those people working in Walmarts and motels and chicken-processing plants and McDonald’s aren’t earning enough to buy a big house in the suburbs and an SUV? Well I’ll be damned – I coulda sworn everybody who did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay in this country got to be a millionaire in a couple of years or so.

As President Bush scurries back to the Gulf Coast, it is clear that this is the greatest challenge to politics-as-usual in America since the fall of Richard Nixon in the 1970s…Instead of secretive “Deep Throat” meetings in car-parks, cameras captured the immediate reality of what was happening at the New Orleans Convention Center, making a mockery of the stalling and excuses being put forward by those in power.

And of the deeply fake folksy ‘concern’ of the scurrying president.

National politics reporters and anchors here come largely from the same race and class as the people they are supposed to be holding to account. They live in the same suburbs, go to the same parties, and they are in debt to the same huge business interests. Giant corporations own the networks, and Washington politicians rely on them and their executives to fund their re-election campaigns across the 50 states. It is a perfect recipe for a timid and self-censoring journalistic culture…

That’s for sure. It’s also a perfect recipe for a thoroughly corrupt political process – and that’s the meal we get.

But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington. The most spectacular example came last Friday night on Fox News, the cable network that has become the darling of the Republican heartland. This highly successful Murdoch-owned station sets itself up in opposition to the “mainstream liberal media elite”. But with the sick and the dying forced to sit in their own excrement behind him in New Orleans, its early-evening anchor Shepard Smith declared civil war against the studio-driven notion that the biggest problem was still stopping the looters.

It’s interesting. If even Fox suddenly realizes there’s something wrong – maybe the giant irrelevance that is US politics will take a turn for the non-infantile.

When the back-slapping president told the Fema boss on Friday morning that he was doing “a heck of a job” and spent most of his first live news conference in the stricken area praising all the politicians and chiefs who had failed so clearly, it beggared belief.

Yes, and then there was that little problem with the delay of supplies

Three tons of food ready for delivery by air to refugees in St. Bernard Parish and on Algiers Point sat on the Crescent City Connection bridge Friday afternoon as air traffic was halted because of President Bush’s visit to New Orleans, officials said. The provisions, secured by U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, and state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, baked in the afternoon sun as Bush surveyed damage across southeast Louisiana…

Oops. But hey – what’s a little delay of food to flood victims when you’ve got a swell funny guy like Bush around cracking jokes and cheering everyone up with his blithe indifference to suffering on a scale we can’t even take in?

We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we’re going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we’re going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch. (Laughter.)

Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that just a thigh-slapper? Doesn’t it make you wish you’d been Bush’s roommate at Yale, or that Texas high school he went to for awhile, or somewhere? Sure it does.



White House Jokes

Sep 5th, 2005 2:50 am | By

I just feel compelled to point out a couple of items from this Guardian article on the Bush team’s effort to undo the damage, because they’re funny.

On Saturday Mr Bush ordered 7,000 more troops to the Gulf coast. As important as the content of the speech was its sombre tone. It was clear the White House realised that making a joke about his young hell-raising days in New Orleans in the course of a flying visit to the flooded city on Friday, was a mistake that reinforced allegations he had failed to take the disaster seriously enough.

Gee, you think?

The second element of the White House plan is to insist, in an echo of the September 11 attacks, that the scale of the disaster, the combination of a hurricane and the collapse of the levee system around New Orleans, could not have been foreseen. Mr Bush was castigated for saying on Wednesday: “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees”. It was pointed out that there had been a string of investigations and reports in recent years which had predicted the disaster almost exactly. Nevertheless, administration officials stuck to the line yesterday. In a string of television interviews, Michael Chertoff, the head of the homeland security department, called the situation an “ultra-catastrophe”, as if the hurricane and flood were unrelated events.

That’s really kind of hilarious, in a sick way. (It won’t be hilarious if it works, which seems inconceivable now, but then so did Bush’s running for president at all, so whatever.) It’s disgusting as well as hilarious, because it displays such contempt for our collective intelligence, but it’s also funny. Just keep insisting, guys. Sure, sure, there are stacks of papers and studies showing that many many people did predict exactly that ‘combination’ (it’s not a combination, it’s cause and effect, you fools!), there are books on the subject, there are furious scholars telling CNN that they told various High Officials all about it, there are articles in major magazines from one or five years ago, all predicting exactly what happened. But you just keep insisting that no one could possibly have imagined such a thing. Make fools of yourselves. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.



The Shallows

Sep 4th, 2005 7:08 pm | By

And not only why is it deeper, but why is it considered a level of explanation? That’s a serious, literal question. I really don’t understand what it means – to talk of a deeper level of explanation based on unsupported assertions as opposed to a shallower level of explanation based on warranted assertions. How can explanations that float free of any rational epistemic requirements and checks and standards be deeper than those that are constrained by what we are able to figure out about the real world via tested methods? To put it more bluntly, how can explanations that are simply made up be deeper than those that are the result of careful inquiry and investigation? Is that what ‘deeper’ means? Made up? Fantasy based? Inventive?

How, in fact, can explanations of that kind explain at all? How can an explanation that is not tethered to evidence or investigation actually explain?

The whole idea seems to work the same way the idea of ‘alternative’ medicine works. What is alternative medicine alternative to? Medicine that works. Medicine that works, as doctors and medical researchers patiently (and impatiently) point out, is simply medicine. If it works, it works, and doctors will prescribe it. If it works, furthermore, it can be shown to work. If it works, it is possible to produce evidence that it works. Proper, replicable evidence. If it is not possible to produce such evidence, then what reason is there to think the medicine in question does work? So alternative medicine is simply a friendly name for medicine that, as far as has so far been shown, doesn’t work. It is also medicine that does not have to meet any standards or pass any tests – because that’s what non-alternative medicine does. Same with God and religion and deeper levels of ‘explanation.’ Deeper levels of explanation simply means explanation that doesn’t explain. Alternative explanation, one might call it. Homeopathic holistic alternative explanation, that doesn’t explain a damn thing, but simply tells a story. About as deep as the drop of sweat on a gnat’s eyebrow.



The Deeps

Sep 4th, 2005 6:38 pm | By

Let’s talk a little more about this idea of ‘a deeper level of explanation than the laws of physics’ that Paul Davies refers to.

…belief in God is largely a matter of taste, to be judged by its explanatory value rather than logical compulsion. Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper level of explanation than the laws of physics. Whether the use of “God” for that deeper level is appropriate is, of course, a matter of debate.

What’s interesting about that is the question of what the word ‘deeper’ is gesturing at. Well, what is it? What makes this putative deeper level of explanation deeper? Deeper than the laws of physics, and possibly to be identified with ‘God’. So it’s something outside nature, necessarily, because otherwise it can’t be ‘deeper’ than the laws of physics, it would be on the same level. So therefore the usual tools and methods for inquiry into nature (stars, dirt, humans, nematodes, bacteria, psychology, fire, weather) are irrelevant, because we’re after something different, and deeper. So…we have to avoid the usual methods of inquiry then. We have to use different methods. What other methods are there? The ones that are not useful and are not legitimate in inquiry into nature. Ones that don’t consult evidence or logic, ones that don’t submit to testing and peer review, ones that don’t have to produce replicable findings and checkable sources and evidence.

Unless I’m missing something, and there’s some third option? Something that is on a ‘deeper level’ than the law of physics, yet still relies on evidence and logic and peer review, but a somehow different kind of evidence and logic and peer review from the kind that the laws of physics rely on? But…what would that be? Do tell me, if anyone knows. We could call it The Third Way.

But meanwhile I have to operate on the assumption that there are only two options. There is rational inquiry carried on in the usual way – in history, forensic investigation, detective work, daily life, as well as in science – and there is the other thing. So it is the other thing that provides a deeper level of explanation. How? By not having any constraints. By being free as air, free as the wind blows, free as Emma Goldman on her best day. By floating free of any requirement to back up its assertions and truth claims.

Okay, so what I want to know is, why is that level deeper? Why is it not, rather, incomparably more shallow? Why is it not a mere thin layer of spit compared to the deepest part of the ocean?



Barrel-scrapings

Sep 3rd, 2005 9:42 pm | By

I must say, I’ve been a little surprised at some of the reactions to my (fairly mild, I think) comments on New Orleans.

They reinforce what I said to a different reader last week: that I’m emphatically not a tragic realist, who thinks ‘the strong do what they want and the weak endure what they must.’ No. On the contrary – I think we have to fight and resist, argue and keep on arguing, not give up, not lie down, not surrender, and certainly not shrug and say ‘that’s just how it is’ and go about our selfish business. I’m a little shocked at the amount of ‘that’s just how it is’ I’ve received in the past couple of days, in censorious emails as well as in comments.

This for instance, from an academic: ‘Please focus on what can be done to help the poor people of New Orleans. Spare us the superior morality stuff.’ I replied, and was replied to in turn: ‘I doubt that many of us need reminding that inequality exists in the US. Indeed, it’s a fact of life everywhere on this planet.’

True, inequality is a fact of life everywhere on this planet. So – ? So there’s no point in talking about it? So it’s wicked to talk about it (because, the first message said, catastrophic events are exploited for ‘political gain’)? But that doesn’t follow, and it isn’t true. All sorts of things are a fact of life on this planet; some of them can and should be changed; it’s worth trying to change them. Why wouldn’t it be? How can the fact that inequality is a fact of life everywhere possibly mean (all by itself) that it’s necessary to rebuke people for mentioning it or condemning it?

For another instance, ‘As for the the rich living on high ground, in any culture that has ever existed part of the definition of being rich is to live on high ground.’ Actually that’s not true – in volcanic areas it’s the other way around. But that’s a side issue. The central one is the same as the first. Yes, the difference between rich and poor is an old one and a widespread one – so what? It doesn’t follow that there’s no reason to discuss it. It doesn’t follow for instance that there is no difference, or no difference that matters, between relatively small gaps between rich and poor, and enormous ones. It also doesn’t follow that there is no difference between having a small underclass and having an enormous one. These things are eminently discussable (and in fact there are quite a few perfectly respectable academics who do discuss them), so the cold scorn of my critics has surprised me.

The hell with tragic realism.