Notes and Comment Blog

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

Dec 29th, 2004 7:46 pm | By

I’ve been visiting the Other Side. Well not so much visiting it, I guess, as reading about it. Or researching it, you could call it. Sylvia Browne calls it researching, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t.

And never mind about shooting fish in barrels. Not that you would, most of you, but some of you would and do. Some of you seem to think that the targets are too easy and that there’s no reason to shoot at them. Well the targets are easy all right, I’ll give you that, but there is every reason to shoot at them. I’ll show you why.

So why this current interest and acceptance of the absolute truth that yes, there are Angels among us?…First of all, as the belief in Angels continues to grow, people are less and less reluctant to speak up about their encounters with them.

That’s Sylvia Brown, in The Other Side and Back (page 25). And she’s right. She’s wrong about nearly everything she puts on paper, but she’s right in that last sentence. As belief in angels spreads and gets entrenched and becomes commonplace and meets little opposition – so it spreads and gets entrenched and becomes commonplace even more, and meets even less opposition, and so people are indeed less and less and less reluctant, embarrassed, inhibited, ashamed about believing in angels and speaking up about their ‘encounters’ with them. And that’s a bad thing. A very, very bad thing. It may be getting to the point where we have to worry that bus drivers, airline pilots, dentists, engineers, pharmacists, grocers and countless other people we entrust with our bodies, our health, our food, our safety, believe in angels and listen to advice from their spirit guides. We really, really don’t want that. Trust me on this (or don’t – read for yourself) – we don’t want people who think the way Sylvia Browne does to have jobs of that kind. It’s hard to think of jobs that are harmless enough to entrust them to people who think like that, really.

I’m actually serious. I sound flippant but I’m serious. Browne does have a serious point there, and she is right. It’s a meme thing. A groupthink, conformity, culture thing. Humans do take their cues from each other, and it is becoming ever more Okay to believe and avow belief in ‘paranormal’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘supernatural’ or ‘metaphysical’ entities and events, as more and more people do exactly that. I don’t see any way to resist this dangerous and idiotic trend other than to resist it. Exposing it is the first step.

And then of course a lot of it is also extremely funny.

We on earth are stuck with our dimension’s annoying laws of time and space, laws that contribute concepts like ‘late’ and ‘crowded’ and ‘traffic jam’ and ‘stressed out’ to our vocabulary. The residents of The Other Side joyfully function without those restrictions and instead enjoy the freedom of such universal laws as infinity and eternity.

Cool. Einstein meets the tooth fairy and everybody’s happy.

And how is this for something to look forward to: All spirits on The Other Side are thirty years old…Spirits can assume their earthly appearance when they come to visit us, to help us recognize them, but in their day-to-day lives on The Other Side, not only are they thirty but they can choose their own physical attributes, from height to weight to hair color.

Eeyup, and they can choose their clothes, too, and their jewelry, their shoes, their accessories, their cars, their wine cellars. Yup.

And on and on it goes like that – just a description of anyone and everyone’s fantasy of a perfect world with everything good at hand and all limits and frustrations and undesirables erased – but described as if it were a real place, and as if Browne had the maps and guidebooks and lyrical travelers’ descriptions at her elbow. Of course, she says she does; she says her spirit guide Francine has told her all about it, and that she herself has then ‘validated’ what Francine tells her through ‘meticulous research.’ Right on page 13 she says that – ‘Typically, Francine gives me information about The Other Side, and I then validate it through meticuous research, including regressive hypnosis…’ Ah yes, that’s meticulous research all right. I tell you about a hitherto unknown alternate universe that my spirit guide has given me information about, and which I have validated through regressive hypnosis. Er, you ask, but how can you being hypnotized validate anything about the existence of a place outside you? Tsk – don’t be silly – that’s a physical question, and the information I’m giving you is metaphysical. Or something.

And yet, and yet – the description can be quite of the earth earthy, at times…

The Other Side is a breathtaking infinity of mountains and oceans, and vast gardens, and forests – every wonder of nature that exists here, its beauty magnified hundreds of times. The landscape is punctuated with buildings of brilliant design and variety – classical Greek and Roman architecture for the temples, concert halls, courtyards, sports arenas, and other public gathering places –

Hmm – sound a little like a mix of Disneyland, Celebration, Las Vegas, a wet dream of Prince Charles’, and Nazi Berlin? And now for the real estate agent’s patter:

– and homes designed to meet every entity’s personal preference, so that a stately Victorian mansion might share a neighborhood with a simple log cabin and a geodesic dome.

Yeah right. People are really going to want to go to The Other Side so they can live in a log cabin while other people whoop it up in a ‘stately Victorian mansion’ (a what?) just as if they were still on This Side. No. Look, if we’re just going to sit around dreaming up our fantasy places, let’s get it right, shall we? The deal is, I get to live in the biggest house in the place, and all the people who irritated me on This Side have to live in nasty little shacks nearby enough so that I can see them when I feel like gloating and far enough so that I can ignore them when I want to. That’s the housing set-up on The Other Side, obviously. Not to mention which, picture it, will you? These chaotic neighborhoods? Norman Bates’ house on one lot, Abe Lincoln’s on the next, a McMansion across the street, a yurt next to that, Trump Towers next to that, then a pueblo, then a Frank Lloyd Wright, then Castle Howard, then the Gherkin – oh gawd, I feel sick. The Other Side will be one long festival of nausea.

Okay, that’s enough meticulous research and regressive hypnosis for the moment.

Whose Community, Again?

Dec 28th, 2004 8:27 pm | By

Exactly. How very seldom this kind of thing gets pointed out:

Second, the promotion of religion in public life, especially under New Labour, has not only legitimised “rotten” multiculturalism – where culture has long given way to religion, particularly if it is capable of delivering ethnic minority votes. It has also created space in institutional forums that has been exploited by communities such as the Sikhs. While the sentiments of inter-religious dialogues are noble, the result is often to stifle dissent within religions and essentialise particular traditions as representing the Sikh, Muslim, Christian or Hindu way. In a highly plural and secular society, nothing could be further from the truth.

Just exactly so. All this pious invocation of ‘community’ and ‘culture’ on every hand works to confine people within those communities who don’t necessarily want to be confined there, and to shut them up when they don’t necessarily want to be shut up.

Behzti is not an aberration. While the gaze of the establishment has been fixed on using religions to deliver peaceful outcomes, it has overlooked the serious contestations within these traditions and the implications for multiculturalism. Marginal groups, like the Southall Black Sisters, have long complained of physical abuse within minority ethnic communities; only last week a Sikh father was sentenced for plotting to kill his daughter who, according to him, had brought disgrace on the family by marrying a Jew.

The ‘serious contestations within these traditions’ – that’s what I keep saying. Community, culture, tradition, religion – all those words function to obliterate differences, refusals, dissent, desires to escape and say no and decide for onself, hopes for autonomy and self-fashioning and adult independence and equality. They are profoundly, intensely conservative, coercive, confining words, all of them; they should be hedged about with enormous suspicion and caution at the very least, instead of invoked with aggressive piety and self-righteousness by people who take themselves to be progressive.

Salman Rushdie says cogent things too, not surprisingly.

‘It has been horrifying to see the response. It is pretty terrible to hear government ministers expressing approval of the ban and failing to condemn the violence, when they should be supporting freedom of expression.’ His outburst was sparked by the refusal of Fiona Mactaggart, the home office minister, to offer support for either the theatre or the author following protests by a violent mob last weekend…Mactaggart, whose constituency of Slough has a large Sikh population, refused to condemn the mob and told Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday that the play would be helped by the closure.

And Rushdie goes on to make a point that had occurred to me – the Behzti riot reminded me of the BORI riot last year. Remember that? When an angry mob sacked the Bhandharkar Oriental Research Institute because an American scholar of mythology had been disrespectful of Shivaji?

Mr Rushdie, who was born in India, said that the Sikh protestors had adopted the violent tactics used by Hindu nationalists on the sub-Continent. ‘This seems to be a trend that has come from India, where extremists have attacked a number of artistic and cultural events, with very little control. Works by some of India’s most revered artists have been attacked by Shiv Sena [an extremist Hindu grouping], and now the Sikh community here are travelling down a similar path,’ he said.

Indeed. And see this article by Latha Menon on the subject, with particular regard to historians and other scholars. A number of artistic and cultural events indeed, and institutions and processes as well. Not good. Not a thing to soothe and mollify and brush away under the cozy rubric of ‘community.’ Andrew Coates wrote about this last week:

As we have seen, a majority appears to align with Islamicists against secularism. The Anglo-Saxon “left’s” views correspond to an ideology resting on three sources. The first derives from straightforward British imperialism. That is the practice of separating “communities” on religious ground. Under the Indian Raj different religious groups had the right to distinct “personal law”. That is that the profoundly unequal relations between men and women under Hindu and Islamic “law” (with the notable contradiction of Sikh rules) were eternalised in jurisprudence. At present in Canada there are serious attempts to re-establish this state of affairs. “Community leaders” (not elected but given by their status as religious figures) are recognised by the state as those who determine “their” communities’ rules.

There you are again – another one of those words or phrases that need to be treated with extreme caution and alertness, and so seldom are – ‘community leaders.’ Those community leaders who met with the Birmingham Rep to try to get them to re-write ‘Behzti’ – who made them leaders? Who agreed that they were leaders? Who appointed them, who asked them? The papers and radio never said, at least not that I saw or heard. It just always seems to be taken for granted that people who present themselves as the voice of the ‘community’ are exactly that. Especially, I’m guessing (do correct me if I’m wrong), when those people are (as they so often are) men.

Peter Tatchell had good things to say the other day too.

Whatever happened to the principles of universal human rights and international solidarity? Is it really Islamophobic to condemn the stoning of adulteresses in northern Nigeria and the arrest and torture of gay people by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority? Can we remain silent when Muslims are suffering persecution at the hands of fellow Muslims? Is Muslim-on-Muslim oppression any less worthy of our concern?

So. Community me no community, at least not until some searching questions have been asked.

Disaster? What Disaster? Hey, What’s the Score?

Dec 26th, 2004 7:50 pm | By

Well happy Boxing Day. Nothing like a gigantic global disaster to perk things up.

I’ve just been ranting at Crooked Timber about the bizarre shortage of coverage on US television. Silly me, I thought that what with the number of countries affected, the vast geographic sweep from Somalia to Indonesia, picking up the Maldives, southern India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Thailand on the way, and the immense number of people known killed already which is sure to rise astronomically once the counting gets going – that even here in the notoriously uninterested provincial triviality-obsessed US, people would be mildly interested. But if they are, you would never know it from looking at tv news. India and Indonesia might as well be orbiting Zeta Reticuli. They might as well be a few billion light years away as opposed to a few thousand miles. Ho hum. Well hey, there’s snow in North Carolina today, so that needs a few minutes of air time too, along with this pesky little tsunami-thing over in Asia or Nepal or wherever it is. Have another beer.

Whose Community?

Dec 26th, 2004 2:07 am | By

Index on Censorship is a strange outfit. We’ve had occasion to notice that before, last month after the murder of Theo van Gogh, when Rohan Jayasekera was more critical of van Gogh than of his murderer. And now there’s a comment on the censorship of Behzti that also says some peculiar things – peculiar at least for an organization called Index on Censorship.

This in the subhead, for instance:

The decision of one group of Sikhs to lobby for changes to a play written and performed by members of their own community in their town is one thing. Their refusal to rule out violence and consequently force its closure is quite another.

They go on to condemn the censorship, which is good, but that beginning seems to me to have a highly dubious idea or two behind it. What does Index mean, ‘their own community’? And ‘members of their own community’? There seems to be an implication there that putative members of a putative community (and communities always are putative, you know – there are myriads of communities we can all belong to, or not; we’re not required to pledge allegiance to any of them) have some sort of obvious right to lobby for changes to a play written by other putative members of that putative community. Why? Is that the usual attitude to books and plays and movies and tv shows? Did the ‘community’ of office workers or Territorial Army sergeants or residents of Slough lobby for changes to The Office? If they had, would anyone have talked about their ‘own’ community that way? Would anyone have done anything other than fall about with scornful disbelieving laughter? Okay, not a perfect parallel, because of the religion factor. But all the same – that word ‘community’ (especially with the ‘own’ attached – that little word is always a signal of rhetoric in play) is used as a manipulation-device. It’s there to set us up to have a certain kind of reaction. And not particularly legitimately, in my view, not unless one accepts an extremely essentialist and coercive idea of ‘community’.

The cheering thing about the debate that preceded the opening of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s black comedy Behzti at Birmingham Rep theatre, was that it was held at all. Both sides – theatre and Sikh community – met to make their points before the show opened. Significant concessions were made by the theatre. A statement from the local Sikh community would be distributed at the venue; peaceful public protest would not be opposed; the programme would include positive messages about the Sikh faith.

Again, there is that silly word, unexamined, unexplained, imprecise. Both sides, theatre and Sikh community, met. The Sikh community was there? Really? All of it? Every Sikh and former Sikh and descendant of Sikhs in Birmingham and the surrounding area was there? Probably not, right? No, the people who did this lobbying were ‘representatives’ or spokespeople or the like. Well, how representative were they? Were they really speaking for the entire ‘community’? Does the ‘community’ speak with such a unified voice? The article doesn’t say. It just assumes it. Journalists and people who write for Index on Censorship (they above all) really really need to stop assuming that. What if these lobbyists were in fact a tiny minority of angry threatened men, as opposed to being the voice of the community as a whole? What then? What if most Sikhs were rolling their eyes and thinking ‘Don’t speak for me thanks’? We don’t know, and the article doesn’t say. The very word ‘community’ just paralyzes everyone’s thinking faculties. Everyone knows communities are monolithic, right? Everyone in them thinks the same, everyone in them has the same opinions, no one wants to escape the damn community? That’s how it is, right?


It’s a decent article, on the whole, it’s just that that vagueness about the ‘community’ starts things off badly, and that vagueness seems to be pervasive in journalism.

One place the question did get discussed though is Radio 3’s Nightwaves on Wednesday where the participants did point out that there weren’t any Sikh women in those protests at the theatre, and that what the riot in fact was, was a group of men silencing a woman. Not such a community project after all, perhaps.


Dec 22nd, 2004 8:25 pm | By

A self-referential moment. Beg pardon. But there’s some amusement value in it (well I think so at least). Plus of course there’s the flogging aspect, and after all, the less the book sells, the sooner I will have to go out and pluck chickens for a living, after which I will be far too tired and chickeny to mess around with B&W.

So there are some reviews. There’s this one at Mugged by Reality – which is quite funny because he quotes the outraged review at Amazon and then says this:

I actually came across the book by accident. I was perusing Harry’s Place and inadvertently clicked on the Amazon link in his sidebar.
‘Hmmm’, I thought as I scanned the synopsis, ‘that looks pretty groovy, I’ll put it on my Christmas wants list’.
However, reading the above review prompted me to rush out to buy the thing straight away.

That does make me laugh. The reviewer at Amazon does tip his hand a little – or apparently more than a little.

There’s also Backword Dave who finds himself reading the Morning Star.

One of the problems of being on the “left” is the feeling of “I ought to support them.” I see a lonely copy of the Morning Star on the last rung of the paper rack of my local shop and I feel that someone should buy it out of solidarity. (I never have.) Still, they give a very decent review to The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense.

And then there’s Jalan-Jalan, also reading the Morning Star.

I don’t normally read the Morning Star but a book review of theirs caught my eye which makes me feel glad that I read the Morning Star. It’s for the book, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense which I hope someone will give me as a new year present.

Well I hope someone does! As a matter of fact I hope a few thousand people do.

Whither Clarity

Dec 22nd, 2004 7:23 pm | By

Well here’s an oddity (the air is thick with oddities these days) – someone arguing for more clarity, an end to muddling through, an awareness of tensions and conflicts and the need for hard choices – and doing it by means of surprisingly muddled mushy unclear woolly language. That seems like a peculiar way to argue for clear thinking.

The conflict played out in Birmingham, and elsewhere every day, is between two values – one that liberals have cherished for centuries and another acquired much more recently. The ancient, almost defining liberal ideal is freedom: of expression, of movement, of protest. The newer value is an approach to society’s minorities that aims to go beyond mere tolerance, and reaches for understanding and sensitivity. Today’s good liberal aims to be both. Stop one in the street and ask if artists should have the right to say what they like, and the answer will be yes. Ask if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, and the answer will be yes again.

Bullshit. If Jonathan Freedland stopped me in the street and asked me if artists should have the right to say what they like, my answer would not be yes, and (I certainly hope) neither would a lot of people’s, good liberals and good radicals and possibly even some good libertarians. That’s a ridiculous way to frame the question; he just oversimplifies his own argument in order to make us see it in his terms. But his terms aren’t the right terms. And then if he asked me the second question, if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, my answer again would not be yes. It would be “What do you mean by ‘feelings’? What do you mean by ‘respected,’ what do you mean by ‘differences,’ what do you mean by ‘understood’? And what kind of feelings, on what subjects? And what kind of differences, about what kinds of actions and practices? And why Muslims or Sikhs or Jews? Why not everyone? What are you proposing – that Muslims or Sikhs or Jews ought to have their ‘feelings respected’ while atheists or Buddhists or non-adjectival people ought not to? Why are you asking me such an inane, meaningless question? What about you? Do you think chess players or runners or train-spotters ought to have their feelings respected and their differences understood?”

In other words, Freedland is doing what ‘good liberals’ so often do in this kind of discussion: he’s wrapping his meaning in layers of protective fuzz so that we won’t quite grasp what it is we’re assenting to. In a sense, of course, I think everyone’s ‘feelings’ should be ‘respected’ – in pretty much the most basic uncontroversial empty sense one can think of. Other things being equal, people ought not to be gratuitously or rudely challenged or insulted. As a rule, and depending on the situation, people ought to be treated politely and with forebearance. But those qualifications and stipulations are necessary. Once we get down to specifics, things are not so easy. Some ‘Muslims’ no doubt ‘feel’ that the impending stoning to death of Hajiyeh Esmaelvand is a fine thing and should proceed as scheduled. Do I ‘respect’ that feeling? No. Do I think it ought to be ‘respected’? No. So what is the point of even asking such a damn silly empty meaningless question then? Well, it’s what I said: to make the subject seem simpler than it is, even though the column as a whole is arguing for recognizing the very complexity the wording of those questions works to conceal. Why is that? Have people become so habituated to fuzzy rhetoric that they can’t notice it even when it is their very subject? If so – well, it’s unfortunate, that’s all.

I am having to make some of these awkward choices myself. All of my instincts set me against the government’s proposed move to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. An admirer of America’s first amendment, I start as an absolutist on free speech: let everyone say what they want.

Really? Are you sure? What if somone (part of everyone) wants to say ‘that playwright should be killed!’ Or that novelist should be killed, or that film-maker should be killed, or that apostate, or that whoring woman, or that daughter who dishonored her family by refusing to marry the man her parents told her to marry? Not to mention of course ‘those Croations should be killed,’ or those Kosovars, or those Tutsis, or those intellectuals, or those infidels.

No, he goes on to say that he’s not sure, because he approves of the results of the ban on incitement to racial hatred. But ‘let everyone say what they want’ just seems so simple-minded to begin with. Why begin from there? (Yes, I know free speech absolutists exist, I’ve been arguing with them for years. But I think that’s a simple-minded position to start from.)

If I don’t want the law which effected that change repealed, then logic demands I should want it extended to everyone who needs protection. If it’s good for black, Sikh and Jewish Britons, then it can hardly be denied to Hindus and Muslims. (To say the first group is racial while the latter is religious is to make a distinction that does not fit the real world.)

Everyone who needs protection is just everyone. Period. Just as with the silly question about whether we think Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected. Other things being equal, everyone has that right. Either everyone does, or no one does. Perhaps that would be the right answer to Freedland’s question for the good liberal in the street. [judicious stroking of chin] ‘Hmm…yes, Muslims Sikhs and Jews, fine, and possibly vegans as well, but not Hindus or Buddhists or Wiccans. That’s my considered opinion.’ Clarity and rigour, indeed. Hmph.


Dec 21st, 2004 11:42 pm | By

Just two or three more brief quotations from Wicca. My little solstice present for you.

To discourage a poltergeist from remaining in the house put up a list of chores and tell it that if it is to remain in the house it must earn its keep. If it does not, then you will bring in an exorcist.

Errm – okay. But – um – how do I tell it? Write it at the top of the list of chores? But how do I know if the poltergeist has seen the list of chores? Or that it can read? Should I tell it personally, by announcing it aloud? But how do I know where polty is, or if it’s listening? Do I wait until stuff is flying around the room and then quick like a bunny start shouting – ‘Oi, I’m putting up a list of chores for you to do and you have to do them if you want to stay in the house, because you have to earn your keep!’ (Keep? What keep? Does it eat the food? First I’ve heard of it. I thought it just threw things.) I wish these people would give proper directions. It’s like being told to make a Lady Baltimore cake by putting some flour and eggs and whatnot in a pan and baking it. But at least it does say how to threaten the little bastard. ‘If you don’t, I’m bringing in an exorcist! So if that bathtub is not clean enough to eat a Lady Baltimore cake off by this time tomorrow, you’re outta here!’ Because I really know where to find an exorcist, right? And then there’s the tricky business of deciding which chores to give the poltergeist. Making dinner? Hmm…no. Making the beds? No. Doing the laundry? Well…risky. You can see the problem.

Still practiced by some, alchemy can also be practiced to search for an elixir of youth, a universal cure for all disease , the attainment of eternal life, and other accomplishments.

Yup. It sure can. There is no gainsaying that. That is one true statement. Yes indeedy. That is one true, safe statement – alchemy can indeed be practiced to search for just about anything. A way to travel to the far side of the universe without spilling your coffee, a way to travel to 1600 and get Shakespeare to re-write Hamlet with a part for you in it, a way to turn diamonds into lice and bedbugs into Brazilian tapirs. You can practice alchemy to search for such things every waking minute for the rest of your life if you like. Have fun!

This is from an entry on dark side:

The side of life associated with death, decay, entropy…The dark, while unpleasant, is not inherently evil, though evil can take on aspects of that which is evil. For example, the television and movie characters, the Addams Family, were dark, though certainly not evil.

Uh – oh never mind.

An Insider

Dec 20th, 2004 8:15 pm | By

Update: Check out Amardeep Singh’s No False Medicine for as he puts it ‘insider updates.’ Amardeep is a Sikh himself, and not best pleased about all this. This post includes part of an email from a Sikh friend in Birmingham:

I am in Birmingham and have been talking to people who were at the protests on Saturday and I can tell you that the Khalistanis in Britain have scented blood and are not going to step down. They have been inciting people in Gurdwaras and on websites and Punjabi radio stations to come to Birmingham from all four corners of Britain to “protest” outside the theatre. It is the raising of a lynch mob, people are talking about thousands being there, and I can tell you, they have got it in their minds that this is their own personal struggle against the enemies of Sikhism, that they are facing down Aurengzeb, and making the last stand to protect the dharma and the Sikh roop. Having spoken to many of the youth who attended the protest a sense of exhiliration came through that they have the eyes of the world on them, and I asked them specific points about what they would be prepared to do. People said repeatedly that they would not mind if Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was killed or at least hospitalised because of this, and when I asked them that if they play was not stopped, would you be prepared to burn the theatre down to the ground and they said yes. This has been headline national news on every television and radio station in Britain. Needless to say, it has made Sikhs look like fascists and taliban like in their outlook, a disastrous result for a community that has been previously thought of as hardworking, industrious and creative.

Lynch mobs are so, so, so easily raised. Ironically, of course, that thought is exactly the thought behind the religious hatred law – and surely the lawmakers are not wrong to think that. But the proposed cure seems so likely to do more to encourage ever more lynch mobs than it does to calm them down…

Further updates. Harry’s Place has a good comment on the subject here. Insert Joke Here has one here. And Amardeep has this link to the complaints about Behzti and one to an interesting editorial from Asians in Media.

Not Again

Dec 20th, 2004 7:48 pm | By

Well, here we go again. Another victory for religious sensitivity and obscurantism and shutting people up, another defeat for open discussion of religion and religions. Another victory for clerics, another defeat for playwrights, theatres, actors, and playgoers. Another victory for the principle that if discussion of Subject X is ‘offensive’ to certain easily-offended domineering people, then discussion of Subject X gets stopped, and that’s that. Hooray. (Of course, looked at another way, it’s also a victory of a sort for wider dissemination of Subject X. No doubt a lot more people will be at least reading ‘Behzti’ than otherwise would have, even if fewer will be seeing it. But the terrible precedent is still set.) It’s all so obvious. You know what I’m going to say – there’s not even any point in my saying it. So I’ll just quote from the newspaper and BBC reports instead. From the Independent:

Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in south Birmingham, welcomed the decision. But he said the Rep could have avoided the disturbances more than a week ago. “It’s a sad fact but it’s a very good thing that they have seen common sense on the issue,” he told the Press Association. “But the fact of the matter is that it has taken things to become violent before it happened. What precedent does this set? Will it happen again when people think peaceful protest is not going to work? Those are the answers we need. We were in negotiations with the Rep about a week ago and they didn’t budge. That’s when they should have budged.”

Common sense. Right. Stupid of the Birmingham Rep, wasn’t it. Why won’t people see sense. Surely, whenever people produce a play, write a novel, research an article, make a movie, and some other nice people come along and talk to them and negotiate with them and ask them to stop doing that, surely it’s only common sense for the producers and writers and researchers and movie-makers to negotiate back and say ‘Yes, indeed, we see what you mean, and we will stop at once.’ But no! The horrible willful obstinate people at Birmingham Rep didn’t budge. How very rude and disobliging of them. It’s an outrage – and Britain calls itself a democracy!

Then Mr Singh followed up this excellent argument with more good sense and a threat:

He rejected claims they were stifling free speech, adding: “Free speech can go so far. Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 thousands Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that? Religion is a very sensitive issue and you should be extremely careful.”

Well exactly. That’s what I mean – it’s democracy. So perhaps five thousand spoiled ponces might have seen the play – while 20.6 million Sikhs got upset! Can you imagine! So no wonder that note of menace creeps in there at the end. You can hardly blame the guy.

From the Guardian:

Earlier Sewa Singh Mandha, the chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In a Sikh temple sexual abuse does not take place; kissing and dancing don’t take place; rape doesn’t take place; homosexual activity doesn’t take place; murders do not take place. I am bringing to the attention of the management of the theatre the sensitive nature of the play because by going into the public domain it will cause deep hurt to the Sikh community,” he said. The author Hanif Kureishi, however, defended the Birmingham Rep’s production of the play. He told Today: “I think the Sikh community should be ashamed of the fact that it is destroying theatres. Destroying a theatre is like destroying a temple. Without our culture, we are nothing. Our culture is as crucial to the liberal community as temples are to the religious community.”

‘Deep hurt.’ We’ve heard that kind of thing before. Just a few days ago in fact, when discussing that column by Polly Toynbee.

Iqbal Sacranie of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain said that linking the Prophet’s name with this crime “will have shocked Muslim readers” who are “calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs”.

Deep hurt, dearly cherished beliefs. Religious censors are attempting to use emotional and emotive language to make their case. ‘I feel deep hurt, my dearly cherished beliefs are being challenged, therefore you are obliged to shut up.’ That’s how religious censors think. It’s not a good idea to encourage them in this line of thought.

The attack comes as the government attempts to usher through parliament a law against incitement to religious hatred. Although as a monoethnic religious group the Sikh community is already covered by specific race hate legislation, the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris has argued that the proposed law on religious hatred creates a climate in which “any religion’s assertion is that their beliefs, leaders, icons and places of worship are protected from criticism, ridicule or parody”.

Just so. This is one of the problems with the law. Fiona McTaggart tells us that private prosecutions won’t be brought, but what about the encouragement the law gives to this kind of ‘respect my dearly cherished beliefs or else’ line of thinking?

From the BBC account:

A spokesman for the Sikh community in Birmingham, Councillor Chaman Lal, predicted there would have been larger protests had the play’s run continued. He said: “The theatre has made the right decision in response to a peaceful protest. There are no winners or losers – common sense has prevailed.” Cllr Lal did not accept that the theatre had bowed to the threat of violence and mob rule. “We have nothing against freedom of speech, but you do not make a mockery of someone’s faith or beliefs. That is oppression.” Earlier, the theatre said short of “blatant censorship” and cancelling the production, it could not have done more to appease the Sikh community.

Free speech, no problem, but of course that doesn’t mean making a mockery of someone’s faith or beliefs. No. You can talk about anything else you like. Food, sport, some tv shows – um – food…

That’s a Nice Weapon You Have There

Dec 19th, 2004 8:05 pm | By

Another dispatch from ‘Hey I’ll believe anything’ land. This time from Celtic Myth and Magic by Edain McCoy.

There’s a great long section in the middle of this book about ‘Pathworking.’ Pathworking, we are told, is another name for ‘guided meditations.’ Okay and what are guided meditations? Apparently they are pre-scripted daydreams. What you do is, you read one of the stories McCoy writes out for you, then you do the relaxation/meditation thing (you know: get comfortable, do breathing stuff, empty your mind, all that), then you have a daydream in which you are the protatgonist of the story you’ve just read (complete with pronunciation guide, because we wouldn’t want to be mispronouncing all those Celtic names in our daydream, now would we – Maeve and Cuchulain might get annoyed). Got that? You read a story, you lie down and empty your (already probably not overfull) mind, you have a daydream about the just-read story. Okay. Sounds a little childish and pathetic for a grown-up (I mean come on, grown-ups ought to be able to come up with their own daydreams, am I right?), but okay; whatever floats your boat, as the saying goes.

But of course ‘pathworking’ is not at all the same thing as a scripted daydream, even though that’s what it sounds like. No, it’s More.

Pathworking, as guided meditations are called, is a term which comes to us through ceremonial magick. It is one of the most potent tools we have for aligning ourselves with the energies of deities and mythic figures. The term ‘pathworking’ has been adopted by Pagans who define it as a guided journey into the inner-world, or universal/archetypal/astral plane, for the purpose of acquiring a lasting change on both the conscious and sub-conscious mind of the journeyer.

Ah. It’s a daydream, but one that takes us on a real journey, to the astral plane (aka the universal or archetypal one). Oookay. And don’t be in any doubt – these deities and mythic figures whose energies we get to ‘align ourselves with’ (what does that mean?) are real. Not pretend, not imagined, but real. Understand?

The inner/astral world should never be mistaken for being somewhere which is not ‘real,’ or where the inhabitants are also somehow less than ‘real.’ The archetypes we humans have created on these inner-planes over the centuries are indeed real, and even sentient, creatures. If they were not real, then how would we be able to go to these places, draw energy or information from them, and bring that change or knowledge back into our concrete world?

Er – by making it all up? Because things like ‘energy’ or ‘information’ that someone claims to have found or ‘drawn’ on the astral plane are a little on the intangible side, you know? It’s not like coming back with a carbon-datable dagger or slice of tea-cake. Oh dear oh dear. And the people who write this kind of stuff are allowed to drive cars and vote and have children. It’s scary.

And then it gets even better. McCoy reassures us and tells us not to be fearful, and then she warns us – leaving at least one reader with a feeling of profound confusion and mixed-message-reception.

There are a lot of people, some Pagans included , who have an unnatural fear of altered states…and especially of inner-world journeys. Possibly this is because they have been taught…that they will ‘lose control’ of themselves or even become lost in the inner-worlds, or not be able to awaken to deal with emergencies. All of these fears are basically groundless.

That’s page 117. On page 118 we find this:

Some persons have experienced or read about others who have become ‘stuck’ on the astral plane and unable to return to their bodies. Generally this does not happen…Being stuck ‘out’ is a mental blockage caused by one’s own fears and it can almost always be overcome by relaxing…

Wait. ‘Generally’? ‘Almost always’? But you said all these fears are basically groundless. What exactly does ‘basically’ mean? Is it a new synonym for ‘not’?

Getting lost should never be a problem. If you find it is, you might consider seeking psychiatric help to find the cause of the blockage.

Yeah, I look forward to that little chat with the shrink. ‘Well, see, I was having this daydream, and…’ Not to mention all this confusing stuff about should, and never, and if it is. ‘Your fears are groundless, there is basically no danger, but if you do burst into flames, we’ll do our best to extinguish them.’

And there’s an even better bit.

Some people also excessively fear the creatures they meet in the inner-world. While it cannot be over-emphasized that the inner-planes are in the mind but are still a very real place, there is no more to fear than there is in your own home. You must always be respectful of the deities and other beings you encounter on the inner-planes, but you should never overtly fear them. Most of them are benevolent or, at worst, neutral to your presence.

Most of them. Most of them. Okay, but what about the others, however few? She doesn’t say, you’ll be unsurprised to learn.

If you do encounter a being in whose presence you feel uncomfortable, simply move yourself slowly away from it.

Okay. As I would if it were a tiger, right? and I just hoped I could move myself away before it springs. And this ‘uncomfortable’ thing – do I feel uncomfortable because it is walking quickly toward me swinging a large axe? Or just because I think it doesn’t look quite friendly or even neutral. Well, she doesn’t say.

I think I’ll just stay here.

Flew, Meyer, Jones, Today

Dec 18th, 2004 10:40 pm | By

Pootergeek has a harsh word or two to say about Antony Flew on the god question.

It takes a professional philosopher to choose, of all the arguments for the existence of some kind of god, the most exquisitely wrong.

Brian Leiter is also somewhat ungentle.

His understanding of the putative “science” is not, shall we say, robust, and old age, as we know, takes its toll on people in many different ways. This is more an embarrassment for Flew than some triumph for creationism.

And The Secular Web attempts to clear up the confusion about exactly what Flew’s position is right now as opposed to last October or a year ago or August 2001.

At any rate Leiter and some of his correspondents ask an apposite question, the same one I asked with the sarky stuff about Bush and Osama and Billy all changing their minds one of these days:

Gilbert Harman (Philosophy, Princeton) observes: “What’s interesting is that there are no headlines about famous believers who become atheists, or anyway I don’t remember such headlines…” Nor do I…[W]hy is it that an alleged embrace of theism by an atheist is deemed so newsworthy, while the converse (which must surely happen) is not?

Well we know why of course. Because the hurrah-religion position has (for some godunknown reason) become the default position in the ‘mainstream’ media and discourse, therefore atheists who recant are News while theists who recant are dropped down the memory hole. Anthony Cox of Black Triangle makes the connection in a comment at Pootergeek:

The Today programme had one of these intelligent design people vs Steve Jones on this morning. You could sense his annoyance that it is even necessary to counter such rubbish these days. The reporter finished with some throw away line like “I’m sure the controversy will go on”. Controversy? 99.99% of biologists think intelligent design is nuts and the BBC managed to make it into a controversy because they “intelligently design” a 50/50 split on the Today programme?

Too right. And the ID prat (Stephen Meyer) does the vast majority of the talking, too. Why’s that? Why is Today so eager to ask him to talk and so slow to ask Jones? Why does Today keep returning to Meyer after Jones has said about twenty words, and then let Meyer go on and on? Why does Today start and end with Meyer leaving Jones only a few short replies in between? Maddening.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Dec 17th, 2004 7:12 pm | By

Okay, you wanted more from the Wicca book. Yes you did. Yes you did. Well, one of you did. So here is a little more for your Friday entertainment.

Part of the paradigm shift frequently required of many people who become Wiccan is to take it for granted that ghosts, spirits, and psychic abilities exist, that they frequently are a normal part of everyday life, and that the skills associated with these phenomena are controllable, usable, and subject to development and improvement…Remember that at one time both flight and the ability of a human being to breathe while moving at speeds greater than thirty miles an hour were commonly declared impossible.

Ah yes. Do remember that, and then draw the appropriate conclusion. Good idea. And let’s not stop there, shall we? No. Let’s see. At one time the ability of a human being to go from Akron, Ohio to Alpha Centauri in .3 second by taking thought was commonly declared impossible (people talked of nothing else for awhile). Therefore, ghosts exist and are a normal part of everyday life. Yup – that follows all right. Thus we see what belief in Wicca does to people’s ability to think straight. (No, I know – correlation not causation – it could well be that our authors were bat-loony from infancy and that’s why they were drawn to Wicca. But still. If they make a virtue and a practice of this kind of ‘thinking’ it’s hard to believe that doesn’t affect their ratiocinative powers a little.)

When something happens that looks, feels, sounds, or smells ‘funny,’ don’t just automatically dismiss it. Acknowledging unusual phenomena will help you become psychically aware. Allow yourself to explore the possibility that it is a ‘supernatural’ event. Once you have recognized one psychic event, it is easier to recognize another. As you recognize more and more impossible psychic events (no matter what they are), your Conscious Mind will begin to believe and then know that these impossible events are real.

Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that just brilliant?

[pause to mop eyes and generally calm down]

Oh, gawd. Where to begin. The looks feels sounds or smells ‘funny’ would be one place. Dang, these people must be busy! I mean…I see stuff that looks funny all the time; doesn’t everyone? My face in the mirror when I accidentally get a glimpse of it, that neighbour, that other neighbour, that person whose trousers end six inches above her shoes, that ridiculous ‘nativity’ scene outside that church – they all look funny. And as for sounding and smelling – ! Dogs smell funny, garbage smells funny, that guy smells funny – what doesn’t smell funny?! And I sound funny whenever I shriek with laughter while reading Wicca book. But we’re supposed to explore the possibility that all these things are supernatural events – and then after that we’re supposed to move with no transition at all (and apparently without deciding to reject the possibility after exploring it) to ‘recognizing’ that ‘unusual phenomena’ (i.e. anything that looks or smells funny) are indeed psychic events. Well, that’s easy.

And then, as the authors sagely point out, once you’ve done that once, it’s easier to do it another time, and as you do that more and more, why, your Conscious Mind starts to believe absolutely anything and everything is supernatural and psychic and an impossible event that is nevertheless real – and you have become a raving imbecile. Congratulations.

There are risks though. In their usual caring, careful, concerned way, the authors give due warning.

Sometimes when people start picking up on large amounts of psychic information they can become overloaded with the data.

Yes, I bet they can. I was just commenting on that myself. Their lives must just become one big whirl of incoming psychic events.

This is one reason for the ‘Psychic War Syndrome’ experienced by many newly aware people. This syndrome can occur when someone who is newly psychically awake misinterprets anything (and frequently everything) [what did I tell you? {ed.}] that they now pick up as a ‘psychic attack.’ There are such things as psychic attack and psychic war that can occur when someone is either praying or casting spells against someone else…Once you open yourself up psychically, you will open yourself up to bad things, but once you’ve experienced it, you won’t have too much trouble distinguishing a ‘psychic vampire’ from a ‘faery.’

Ah. Won’t I. Well that is reassuring.

It’s the same thing I noted last time. First, put the dangerous bait out there, then, give a warning of the danger. Draw a pentagram, then say don’t use it or the debbil will gitcha. Tell people to ‘recognize’ psychic events whenever something smells funny, then warn of data overload and psychic attack panic and general freakout and mental meltdown. They don’t always give the warning though. They don’t first say ‘be credulous and believe everything you can possibly believe’ and then follow up with the warning ‘this procedure is pretty much guaranteed to turn you into an idiot.’ Caveat emptor, I guess.

The Standard Blog Critique

Dec 16th, 2004 7:45 pm | By

Chris has a good post at CT on some of the omissions and blind spots in the ‘standard blog critique’ (cf. ‘Standard Social Science Model’) of the proposal to criminalize incitement to religious hatred. We’ve been talking past each other for some time, B&W and CT, but in this post I at least see Chris’ point, or rather points. The part about media ownership and access to the airwaves as a crucial part of free speech I completely agree with and always have. It’s always irritated me when free speech is defined in an such an impoverished way that it just means a cop doesn’t handcuff you for saying something. The next part, about hate speech and intimidation, I’m not so sure about, because the law itself seems like such a form of intimidation.

But then in item 2, I think he does point out some genuine problems for the SBC (not that I necessarily agree that B&W’s critique is a ‘standard’ one, on account of I’m far too vain and conceited to think I’m standard and predictable – but never mind that).

Many advocates of the SBC write about religion being a matter of choice, or religion consisting of a body of doctrine which ought to be open to critique etc. I basically agree, though I think people sometimes overstate the chosenness of religion. But their insistence on these points amounts to an almost wilful neglect of another, namely that even if religion is a matter of choice, religious identity may not be. There are societies where “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” is a sensible question…

I think that’s a fair point about overestimating how chosen religion is. I’ve been discussing religion (and its chosenness) as a system of ideas that adults can rationally consider and accept or reject – which of course it is, but equally of course that’s not all it is. It’s also what your parents teach you (or don’t), what you grow up in, your history and past and memory bank. And looked at in that way, it’s obvious enough how extremely difficult it can be to choose to reject it. Just for one thing it’s bound to be all tangled up with issues of class and education and upward mobility, with abandonment and loyalty and love. Especially for people from marginalised or underprivileged or impoverished or excluded groups – immigrants, the poor, the working class. The parents work and slave to get the children an education, and then the educated children become alienated from the parents: it’s a familiar pattern, and a heart-breaker. How can the children reject the religion of the parents without implying that the parents are stupid and just don’t know any better? Not easily. So that is one factor that makes the chosenness of religion a lot less easy or automatic than I’ve been saying. I needed brackets or something, or an automatic ceteris paribus or some such stipulation. Religion is chosen considered in the abstract as a set of ideas independent of family history and affective ties. (The argument applies to football, as well. A guy I used to work with once informed me that one can’t choose not to support a football team one has always supported, from earliest childhood; it’s simply impossible. Thus so is free will, I think he added, but I could be misremembering.)

The point about religious identity is also true, I think, but there are complications. For instance there’s a difference between our internal ideas of our own identity, and what other people take to be our identity (though of course the one can reinforce or even create the other: one may not think about one’s own identity in such terms at all until other people make an issue of it). Yugoslavians used to think of themselves as Yugoslavians, and then they started (or reverted to or revealed that they always had been) thinking of themselves as Serbs or Bosnians, and look what good came of that. It seems to me at least possible that the proposed law would reinforce the conflation of race with religion that’s already prevalent, and that that would just promote a sort of Bosniazation. That’s going on anyway, but the law and the way it’s being viewed and discussed could help that process along, and make it more entrenched and hard to counter. At least I think so.

Oh No, What’s That?

Dec 15th, 2004 7:32 pm | By

And now for another little trip to la-la land. This time not an angel book, but Essential Wicca. Like the angel book, it is packed full of opportunities to squeal with undignified uncontrollable laughter. As in the angel book, they simply leap off the page. Here’s a bit in a chapter called ‘Working the Sacred’ where we are being told how to do a Working (here’s a hint: it takes place in a Circle, which is Sacred Space, and capital letters appear quite a lot):

It’s good to remember that little children and cats are generally much more sensitive to the psychic/spiritual world than most adults, so they may be a rough gauge of how things are going. If, for instance, your previously content sleeping pussy-cat takes off at a dead run for parts unknown, or every baby within earshot starts screaming, you might want to check what’s going on.

And that’s the end of the paragraph, and the next one changes the subject. One is left wondering (with the sweat beading on one’s brow) what kind of thing might be going on. But the book doesn’t say. It’s like that. It drops hints but then doesn’t go into detail.

Not to mention of course the other hilarities. Especially the cat thing. Notice the absence of dogs. Well fair enough. Dogs would just lie there happily snoring and farting while six kinds of devils turned up and started peeling everyone present with a very blunt carrot peeler. But what about parrots? Eh? The parrots I’ve known have been very god damn sensitive to the psychic/spiritual world. But they just get ignored in favour of those histrionic fakers, cats. I blame Andrew Lloyd Webber.

There’s more scary stuff. Really scary. It gets just a little more specific. This is on the next page (59) where we’re learning about pentagrams and elemental crosses.

You might not want to use a pentagram, because a pentagram can create a strong resonating signal on the astral plane. It calls attention to you for anything or anyone who cares to come and investigate.

Oh my god! Oh jeezis! Did you get that? Anyone or [shudder] anything! Ow, ow, ow, I’m really scared now. I won’t sleep for a month. I mean – damn – so there are anyones and anythings out there, all the time, and the reason they haven’t come in and yanked our heads off and eaten the rest of us on rye bread with mustard is because we haven’t called attention to ourselves? Yet? But we could anytime? Just by using a pentagram? Well hell on wheels. Life is even more precarious than I’ve always thought. (So what are these stupid people doing drawing pentagrams on the pages of their book then? Huh? I mean, brilliant! Tell us how to draw pentagrams and then in the next breath casually remark that if we use them we might call attention to ourselves for the benefit of who knows what ravenous dribbling Thing that’s lounging around in the munchosphere. Do these people have no sense of responsibility? Or is it that they’re actually working for the hungry creatures. That’s probably it. The warning is just a bluff, of course, as well as a way of protecting themselves against lawsuits by the very distant relations of the gobbled-ups. They know damn well that half the people reading this book will be using those pentagrams the very instant they see the warning. Oh well, maybe that’s good. If the gobblers are eating the pentagram users, that means they’re leaving the rest of us alone, at least for now.)

Dearly Cherished Beliefs

Dec 15th, 2004 6:35 pm | By

Polly Toynbee has a very good column today on the religious hatred law.

The natural allies of the rationalists have decamped. The left embraces Islam for its anti-Americanism. Liberals and progressives have had a collective softening of the brain and weakening of the knees. While they have a sympathetic instinct to defend harassed minorities, they prefer to abandon some fundamental principles and prevaricate over some basic freedoms than to face up to the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.

Exactly. What I keep saying – to the point of tedium. Mushy language about ‘the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion without fear’ is designed to do exactly that – to overlook and skirt around and pretend out of existence, ‘the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.’ Peacefully practicing one’s own religion to some people means peacefully bullying women into wearing the hijab, staying home, always being in the possession and control of a man. To others it means keeping lower castes in their place. To others it means an invisible guarantee that all their instincts are sound and all their decisions are right because God wants them to do what they take God to want them to do.

Iqbal Sacranie of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain said that linking the Prophet’s name with this crime “will have shocked Muslim readers” who are “calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs”. And there it is. He expects the new law to protect “cherished beliefs”, while David Blunkett in the Commons assured his critics it would do no such thing. Dead prophets and holy books would be as open to criticism and ridicule as ever. The law will protect the believers, not their beliefs.

And there it is indeed. That’s one problem with a law like this, even if it really is true that it might, carefully applied, prevent some incitement to group hatred that otherwise would go ahead. It reinforces the assumption of religious people that their ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ ought to have some kind of special immunity. Of course they have the assumption anyway, but the fact that the state agrees with them would just entrench it that bit more.

That’s what I keep getting at with those repeated questions about why religious ideas should have special protection or respect or tact or forebearance when other ideas don’t and shouldn’t. I’ve suspected all along that I knew what the answer was, but I wondered if other people would think so too. My suspicion is pretty much what Iqbal Sacranie said – that the beliefs are ‘dearly cherished’ and therefore they should be immune. That’s an understandable reason, but it’s also an absolutely terrible one. It’s a recipe for permanent blindness, illusion, submission to authority, and inability to think. Humans have to be able to think. It’s as simple as that. The reasons are blindingly obvious – things like nuclear weapons being only one.

And of course the ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ reason is a bad one also because it’s not consistently cited. Other dearly cherished beliefs are not respected, obviously, so it’s still not clear why some should be when others are not.

Foreign Dispatches has a post on Toynbee’s column and also on a couple of Crooked Timber’s comments on related matters.

Update: I re-worded that last sentence, since I put it clumsily.

Reporting In

Dec 15th, 2004 1:15 am | By

Things have been too quiet here. My fault. My computer went funny in the head again, and I’ve been busy whining at it and flinging it about the room until it came back to its senses.

I’ve just found what looks set to be an interesting new blog – belonging to a cancer surgeon with an interest in Holocaust denial (not a friendly or approving interest, I hasten to add) and alternative medicine. It’s always interesting to read informed commentary on alternative medicine, from people like, you know, doctors and researchers, as opposed to future monarchs and prating bystanders (by which I mean me).

More on Religious Hatred Law

Dec 12th, 2004 7:33 pm | By

There is this excellent column by Nick Cohen in the Guardian for instance. (Nick Cohen debated Julian Baggini on this subject at Open Democracy last summer, but the debate is now behind subscription.) He talks about the strange incident at Index on Censorship (which we also talked about quite a lot here) when the associate editor ‘piled blame’ on Theo van Gogh instead of on his murderer.

What was most telling was Index’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who worked with van Gogh on the film. I can remember when she would have been a liberal heroine…She overcame enormous handicaps to become a Dutch MP and, as free men and women are entitled to do, decided she didn’t believe in God. Needless to add her secularism made her dangerous enemies, and the police had to protect her from Islamists…In the 20th century, feminists had a little success in persuading Western liberals that women should be treated as independent creatures whose intelligence ought to be respected. But these small gains can go out of the window when brown-skinned women contradict the party line that religious fundamentalism is all the fault of poverty or racism or Bush or Israel and isn’t an autonomous totalitarian ideology with a logic of its own. Jayasekera dismissed Ali as if she was some silly geisha girl.

Just so. I keep marveling at the way atheist feminists from Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, are ignored in favour of the devout variety of ‘brown-skinned women’; I’m glad I’m not the only one.

MPs didn’t point out that when society decides that people’s religion, rather than their class or gender, is the cultural fact that matters, power inevitably passes to the priests and the devout for whom religion does indeed matter most. To their shame, many on the left have broken with the Enlightenment to perform this manoeuvre. They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into ‘the Muslims’. A measure of their bad faith is that they would react with horror if this trick was pulled on them, and they were turned into ‘the Christians’ whose authentic representatives were the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘Dr’ Ian Paisley.

What I keep saying. Just plain atheists from Iran and the rest are also ignored. (Amartya Sen talks about this too – the way people in the West think of India as all-‘spiritual’ all the time, and ignore the secular rationalist tradition in India which is actually quite strong.) Because – what? The Enlightenment is a bad smell now? (Horkheimer and Adorno have a lot to answer for.)

Madeleine Bunting sees things differently (now there’s a surprise).

For starters, “religious hatred” is not about having a laugh, or criticising aspects of a religion: it is far more grotesque, and we can’t pretend that we don’t know the difference

We can’t pretend we don’t know the difference. Really? Some people can, it seems.

Speaking on a BBC Radio 4 programme the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, argues that the proposed ‘incitement to religious hatred’ law is required to prevent Muslims from being hurt by ‘abusive’ speech and writing.

Dave at Backword Dave has a transcript of part of the interview:

Khalid Mahmood: Well this law is not just needed now. This law became a real issue when the Salman Rushdie affair came into light. And there’s a huge amount of hurt that was felt by a lot of the Muslim communities. And the fact that they felt that they had no recourse …

Interviewer [interupting] So if we had this law, we’d have been able to ban the “Satanic Verses”?

KM: Well, what the scholars who’ve looked at the book at the time wanted was some editing of the very, very few minimal [?] amount of paragraphs within that which were just purely abusive …

Int: But is there not a difference between being abusive about a religion and inciting hatred?

KM: Well no; those two things apply, because what you do is by abusing, by being abusive about it is you actually incite those people and therefore those people go out in the street and take action, and therefore you’re inciting so the one follows from the other.

Oh fine. The ‘scholars’ who looked at the book just wanted some editing, that’s all. So everyone will have to permit clerics and other such ‘scholars’ to vet all manuscripts and edit anything they consider abusive of their religion – according to Khalid Mahmood, that is. But then Khalid Mahmood is an MP. MPs make the laws. So it goes.

There are good posts on all this at Harry’s Place – here and here and here.

If Carl Sagan Had Lived Just a Little Longer?

Dec 12th, 2004 5:05 pm | By

So Antony Flew has changed his mind. Hmm. If Hume had lived to be 81, would he have done likewise? If Nietzsche had lived that long and hung onto his marbles, would he? If Bertrand Russell had lived to be 110, would he? In twenty years, will we be reading (those of us still alive) that Richard Dawkins has?

Who knows. And by the same token, maybe any day now we’ll hear that Billy Graham has finally seen the light, that Jimmy Carter takes it all back, that Jerry Fallwell has caught on at last, that George W Bush has realized it was all a drunken mistake, that Osama bin Laden has decided the hell with it and ordered a few pallets of whiskey. You just never know.

But it’s interesting that the headline writers put Flew’s change of mind so misleadingly. ‘Atheist Philosopher, 81, Now Believes in God’. Well, no, not exactly, as the article makes clear. Flew still doesn’t believe in ‘God’ in the sense in which most people understand (and use) the word – most people including atheists. That is, when that word is used in routine conversation, most of us including non-believers understand it to refer to a particular kind of deity and not just any and every kind of deity – in fact we understand it to refer to a fairly specific deity. A personal one, a person, a man, a vast (infinite) powerful all-knowing deity, who receives prayers and makes things happen in the world. That ‘God’ is a sort of literary character, and we all have an approximate idea of what he’s like. (Not as witty as Lizzy Bennett, not as interesting as Hamlet, not as irritating as Clarissa Dalloway.) That’s not the God that Flew has decided he believes in.

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God — more or less — based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday. At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe…Flew said he’s best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people’s lives. “I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

A person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, he supposes. Not exactly the guy who pointed the admonitory finger at Eve and Adam, or the guy who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. More like a purposeful intelligent Big Bang – like the god of the deists, as Flew points out.

Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before…But Aristotle himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact…It seems to me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about human behaviour.

And so on. But of course all the godbotherers will be jumping up and down anyway, rejoicing at another lamb gathered into the flock. Whatever.


Dec 10th, 2004 7:55 pm | By

A little more on this argument about the proposed religious hatred law.

There is for instance number 8 in the Home Office’s FAQ:

The Government is determined to protect both the rights of free speech, which have been long respected in this country, and the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion without fear.

That sounds unexceptionable, indeed benevolent, at first blush. But what about after a little thought? The difficulty is that leading ‘a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion’ covers a lot of territory. Rather too much territory. Which is not (contra at least one of our commenters) to say that the government therefore ought to interfere with that right; it’s simply to say that the idea itself might not be as benign as it first looks. That’s the thing about phrases like that – phrases that sound good and kind and caring and concerned: they set us all up to read and hear them as benign and helpful when in fact they may not be, or they may be so only partly, or with a lot of further qualifications. In short, there’s rhetoric afoot. There are several hurrah-words that are meant to make us think the idea is a hurrah-idea – that’s how hurrah-words work. Right, lead a life, peacefully, one’s own, religion. They’re all gathered together there to block any impulse we might have to say ‘Wait, hang on, what about – ‘ I mean to say – how can anyone object to protecting all those things? People peacefully leading their own lives and peacefully practising their own religion – you might as well offer to burst into their living rooms and strangle their puppies.

But, as I mentioned, in reality the phrase covers a lot of ground. Practising one’s own religion may include subordinating, exploiting, and harming other people. Sad to say, one of the things religions do is erect and justify systems for, precisely, the subordination and exploitation and harming of other people. This is not a secret. So issuing blanket ukases about the peaceful practise of religion is not always as benign as it may sound. People who’ve grown up around milder forms of religion may lose track of this fact – and then phrases like the one under discussion help the process along. Religion is ‘one’s own’ – so obviously it can’t harm anyone else, right? Because it’s ‘one’s own’. My opinions don’t hurt you, yours don’t hurt me; everybody’s happy. But religious beliefs are not always inert, to say the least; they influence and justify behavior and action. Some fathers and brothers (and sometimes mothers) think it is right to murder daughters and sisters who have, say, run away from arranged marriages or married the ‘wrong’ man. From their point of view, they are indeed practising their own religion. So the phrase is misleading. Maybe that doesn’t matter; it’s just one phrase, after all; but the whole discussion all too often relies on phrases like that. I think that’s worth keeping in mind.

Classy Cartoon

Dec 10th, 2004 2:16 am | By

Speaking of [I’d better not say what, it will spoil the joke] – Richard Chappell of Philosophy Etcetera has sent me a link to a good cartoon.