Notes and Comment Blog

The inter-faith world

Jun 9th, 2008 12:15 pm | By

What exactly does Blair have in mind with this ‘Faith Foundation’ thing?

We want people of one faith to be comfortable with those of another because they know what they truly believe, not what they thought they might believe.

But what if ‘people of one faith’ believe things that in fact make ‘those of another’ uncomfortable? And vice versa? And why on earth does Blair assume (as he apparently does) that that can’t and won’t be the outcome? Why does he assume that once people know what people of another ‘faith’ believe, then they will necessarily be ‘comfortable’ with them? Has he never in his whole life met or heard of someone who believed loathsome sinister vindictive murderous things? We know that’s not true – we know he’s heard of lots of people who believed such things. We know he heard of some of them on the morning of July 7 2005, for just one example. So what does he mean? What is he thinking? Is he seriously thinking that if ‘people of faith’ just hash things out for long enough, in the end everyone will be ‘comfortable’ and we’ll all get along? He can’t be – he’s not stupid. But then what is he thinking?

We cannot afford religious illiteracy. No modern company would today be ignorant of race or gender issues. The same should be true of faith.

No it shouldn’t. This is the same pie-eyed thinking that tried to treat ‘religious hatred’ as the same kind of thing as racism and sexism, but it’s not the same, it’s different, because religion is propositional while race and sex are not. Race and sex are genetic and physical while religions are sets of ideas.

We have agreed to partner the proposal initiated by the Co-Exist Foundation to establish Abraham House in London. Though expressly about the Abrahamic faiths, it will be open to those from the wider faith community. It will be a standing exhibition, library and convention centre for the inter-faith world.

Ecch. That’s as substantive as he gets in the whole speech. You keep looking for something specific about what he is actually going to teach at Yale, about what ‘faith’ is actually supposed to have to do with globalization, but all in vain. It’s a big blob of warm fuzzy well-meaning wool. Maybe his friendship with Bush isn’t so surprising after all.


Jun 9th, 2008 11:39 am | By

One the one hand what do you expect from a conference of the OIC, but on the other hand, what sinister bullying crap.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, warned there seemed to be a growing “campaign of hate and discrimination” against Muslims by a small number of individuals and organizations. In a speech to a conference in Kuala Lumpur on improving ties between Muslims and the West, Ihsanoglu praised Western nations for criticizing acts such as the recent release of an anti-Quran film by a Dutch lawmaker, but said more should have been done. “Mere condemnation or distancing from the acts of the perpetrators of Islamophobia will not resolve the issue, as long as they remain free to carry on with their campaign of incitement and provocation on the plea of freedom of expression,” Ihsanoglu said.

Well that’s blunt enough. Mere criticism and condemnation and distancing are not enough, as long as people remain free to criticize Islam. Mere condemnation is not enough: they have to be stopped, they have to be prevented, they have to be made not free to carry on. Criticism of Islam must be made globally universally illegal; only that will ‘resolve the issue.’

On the one hand, criticism is too weak, more must be done; on the other hand, criticism is much too powerful and must be forcibly stopped. Criticism of Islamocritics must be enforced with forcible silencing of Islamocritics, while criticism of Islam must be eliminated altogether. Yeah, that’s fair, also a really good idea, being as how Islam is so perfect and all.

“It requires a strong and determined collective political will to address the challenge,” Ihsanoglu said. “It is now high time for concrete actions to stem the rot before it aggravates (the situation) any further.”

Bully bully bully bully; threaten threaten.

Imam Feisal Rauf sets us all straight.

What we have today is much less a “Clash of Civilizations” than a clash of perceptions. Little about our cultures, religions or ways of life—though these are certainly different—suggests coexistence to be impossible; rather, it is our perception of this impossibility that drives discord…Incorrect perceptions in the West about Muslims need fixing too, including the oft-heard charge that Muslims categorically practice violence and abuse women. As we know, however, Muslim-majority countries are more tolerant and diverse than many in the West suppose.

That’s nice – and probably true, because it’s so vague. Exactly how tolerant and diverse is that? More so than many in the West suppose. Ah! That clears that up. But it’s perhaps just as tolerant and diverse as many others in the West suppose, and a great deal less tolerant and diverse than many still others in the West suppose. There are lots of people in ‘the West’ and they suppose lots of things. But how tolerant and diverse Muslim-majority countries actually are is another question – and the sad truth is that we know damn well a lot of them are not very, and are getting steadily less so. The sad truth is that we are hard-pressed to think of a majority Muslim country that is overall anything we would call really tolerant. Indonesia? Jordan? Morocco? Better than some, but not exactly starry.

The impressive plurality of ethnicities, languages, beliefs and opinions among today’s population of more than 1.2 billion Muslims does more than validate the Prophet’s tradition that “Differences of opinion in my community are a blessing”—it puts to rest the notion that Muslims are a homogenous and insidious group, naturally opposed to dissent from within or without.

Oh that tradition! The one that fits so nicely with dire punishment for apostasy, and the division of the world into Muslims and unbelievers – that tradition. And the issue isn’t whether Muslims are ‘naturally opposed to dissent’; of course they’re not; that’s a red herring; the issue is whether they are trained (by Islam) to be that way. There is considerable evidence that they are, and that it takes a lot of effort and courage to resist.

Issues of perception are key in debunking the sense that cultures are clashing. Lately, it has become clear just how carefully religious scholars, politicians and commentators must choose their language to avoid making the problem worse. To illustrate, the current US Presidential election has seen both John McCain and Barack Obama distance themselves from former spiritual guides—Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who famously blamed the US for the September 11th terrorist attacks and Reverend Rod Parsley, the notorious defamer of Islam. Though both candidates have rightly disavowed such comments, they recognize that more work still needs to be done, and have sent representatives to Kuala Lumpur to help repair the damage to the public’s perception of the Muslim-West divide.

Hmmmm. Okay, but is it only Christian ‘spiritual guides’ who say stupid or vicious things? Do they have a monopoly on hate-mongering? Are there no imams who get a little heated sometimes? Is it really all a matter of ‘the West’ trotting obligingly along to KL to grovel and apologize and promise to do better, while the Organization of the Islamic Conference presents it with a list of ways to crack down harder on ‘Western’ people who fail to admire Islam? Hmm?

Whatever’s good for you

Jun 7th, 2008 6:05 pm | By

Gourevitch on Mugabe.

Mbeki has been utterly unwilling to show any spine in dealing with Mugabe. On the contrary, he has exhibited a sinister solidarity with his fellow onetime liberation fighter…In April, South African stevedores refused to unload a shipment of seventy-seven tons of rockets, mortars, and other munitions from China destined for Zimbabwe—a cargo reminiscent of the deliveries to Rwanda before the genocide of 1994. And, in deliberate contrast to Mbeki’s obliging absence, the American Ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, has been making his presence felt, leading his colleagues in the diplomatic community into the rural areas to investigate and report on the extent of the torture. On a recent excursion, he collected testimonies, notebooks, and photographs that document how Mugabe’s goons flay their victims and break their bones. McGee offered this evidence to Mbeki’s representatives; they declined to meet with him, and Mugabe threatened him with expulsion.

Meanwhile, in Burma, people go on dying miserable deaths while the USS Essex and four support ships steam away with all their relief supplies still on board. Mugabe tells international aid agencies to stop distributing food and Burma’s generals turn away relief – callous thugs are perfectly content to sacrifice thousands or millions of people for their own trivial self-interest. It gets you down. Hundreds of thousands of people suffering starvation, thirst, exposure, disease on the one hand, and a few people protecting themselves on the other. There’s a lack of proportionality there. Contemplating this doesn’t make one think well of human beings.

Sex and the shantytown

Jun 5th, 2008 12:05 pm | By

If you’re a woman – don’t live in Sierra Leone if you can help it.

One in 8 women dies during pregnancy or childbirth, and women have an abysmal life expectancy of just 43 years, one of the lowest in the world. Girls can expect to receive only six years of schooling. On top of it all, the horrors of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, in which perhaps a third of the country’s women and girls suffered sexual violence, haunt women today. Widows struggle to get by, survivors of wartime rape face stigma and discrimination, and men continue to assault women with impunity.

One in 8! One in 8!! That’s grotesque. But Papua New Guinea is not great either.

Girls in Papua New Guinea can expect to receive only five years of schooling. What’s worse, accusing women of sorcery is often used as a form of social “payback.” If someone unexpectedly becomes ill or dies, the grievance is often taken out on an alleged “sorcerer”—almost always a woman—who is beaten, raped, or even killed in retaliation.

Haiti isn’t a female nirvana.

Nearly half the young women and girls in the capital’s Cite Soleil shantytown have been raped or sexually assaulted…[T]he problem isn’t taken seriously because many Haitians, including members of the police and judicial system, consider nonconsensual sex as rape only if the victim was a virgin….[I]f a husband finds his wife engaging in adultery in his home, the criminal code excuses him if he kills her…

And as for Yemen, why, it sounds very much like Saudi Arabia –

Early marriage is commonplace in Yemen, with 48 percent of girls married by the time they are 18 and some brides as young as 12….One in 39 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, and 1 in 10 children doesn’t make it to a fifth birthday. Yemeni women live particularly restricted lives; for example, getting a passport and traveling abroad requires a husband’s or father’s permission.

If you’re a woman…be very careful about where you settle down.

Denmark used to have a reputation

Jun 5th, 2008 11:45 am | By

Jakob Illeborg says Denmark should have known better.

[T]he hawkish approach taken by the Bush administration internationally is reflected by a similarly tough position on Islam and Muslims in Denmark. If the US is leading a global mission, the Danes have been fighting an inner mission, standing up against what is perceived, by some, as a threat to our democracy. Ever since the prophet cartoon crises of 2006 and 2008, Islamist extremists around the world have been threatening bloody revenge on Denmark.

So…maybe that’s why this ‘what’ is perceived by some as a threat to our democracy? Because of the, you know, threats? Of bloody revenge? For some cartoons? Could that have something to do with it? And could there be a way to describe it other than ‘hawkish’?

Monday’s attack, is of course, indefensible, but it raises questions about the wisdom of the much-debated cartoons and Danish reactions to Muslim wrath…The tragedy in Islamabad only confirms the views of those on both sides of the argument…[M]any are proud of Denmark’s newfound role as a “player” in the international conflict between the west and Islam. This is certainly not a position we used to pride ourselves on – nor is it one that is shared by other Scandinavian countries. Denmark used to have a reputation as a liberal, consensus-seeking country advocating calm and reason…

Whereas now it has…what? A reputation as an illiberal country that thinks newspapers should be able to publish innocuous cartoons without triggering death threats and riots and car bombs outside embassies? Is that what he’s saying? Is he saying that publishing the cartoons is not liberal? That it’s anti-liberal?


Particularly insidious

Jun 5th, 2008 11:18 am | By

Very good take-down of Edward Said (and review of Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West). I don’t always agree with Peter Berkowitz (much less the Hoover Institution) but I do here.

Like the book it introduces, the preface exhibits a master propagandist at work, as he weaves together moderate and reasonable pronouncements with obscurantist rhetoric and sophisticated invective.

That’s how it’s done, of course – mixing the two so that the reasonable stuff provides cover for the obscurantist rhetoric.

Certainly, Said’s conclusions can be convenient. Learning Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and studying the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim poetry and philosophy, and the social and political structures and history of the peoples of the Middle East are exacting and arduous labors. It’s much easier to forgo all that hard work and instead, following Said who follows Foucault, proclaim that such learning and study inevitably falsify their subject matter and ineluctably contribute to the domination of cultures that the Western mind can never hope to understand. Better not to engage in systematic study of Arabs and Muslims, and better still to take one’s stand against those who do. In this way, Said and his disciples stand the scholarly vocation on its head, transforming the self-imposition and social enforcement of ignorance into intellectual and moral virtues.

And what’s really annoying about that is that Said has countless epigones who think and say that he was a great scholar, when that’s just what he wasn’t. David Barsamian on ‘Alternative Radio’ the other day, for instance:

Edward Said, the great Palestinian-American scholar commented that racism against Arabs is the last acceptable form of racism in the U.S. Arabs are constructed as the Other, dark and evil.

Uh huh. Barsamian ought to visit Saudi Arabia sometime if he wants to see some real Othering.

There’s one passage that every scholar, journalist, popularizer, and educator should learn by heart.

Said’s brand of propaganda is particularly insidious. Although he presents himself as a heroic defender of liberal learning and systematic scholarship, he conjures egregious misrepresentations and promulgates toxic misunderstandings, thereby undermining the separation between scholarly vocation and partisan pleading in defense of which he purports to write.

Yeah. There’s a lot of that around. That’s bad.

Sisterhood is powerful

Jun 4th, 2008 6:00 pm | By

I love it when women push back against exclusion and demand their rights, don’t you?

Muslim extremist women are challenging al-Qaida’s refusal to include – or at least acknowledge – women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam. In response to a female questioner, al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman’s role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of al-Qaida fighters. His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists.

Well I should think so. The nerve of that guy! A woman’s role is limited to house and children, indeed – doesn’t he know it’s the 21st century?! Jeez – wake up, dude, we got past that awhile ago. Women can do anything! Free to be you and me! Our bodies ourselves – our bodies belong to us and we can blow them up just as well as men can. We probably do it better – we’re better at planning and patience, you know.

“A lot of the girls I speak to … want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression,” said Huda Naim, a prominent women’s leader, Hamas member and Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza. “We don’t have a special militant wing for women … but that doesn’t mean that we strip women of the right to go to jihad.”

All right! Way to go Hamas, not stripping women of their right to explode themselves and others. Solidarity forever.

Mr. Al-Zawahri’s remarks show the fine line al-Qaida walks in terms of public relations. In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, al-Qaida’s attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the public at large.

Uh…so it comes as a newsflash to these women that al-Qaida isn’t really a feminist outfit? Have they been paying full attention?

On the other hand, noted SITE director Ms. Katz, Mr. al-Zawahri has to consider that many al-Qaida supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.

Well quite. This is what I’m saying. Many al-Qaida supporters do not believe women should drive cars, or have jobs, or get medical attention when ill, or refuse to marry when told to, or leave the house. Playing a military role kind of fits into that larger picture, if you see what I mean.

Mr. Al-Zawahri’s stance might stem from personal history, as well as religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. air strike…“I say to you…[I have] tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favourite wife’s chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling,” he wrote in a 2005 letter.

Oh…that’s a shame. So sad that it wasn’t his least favourite wife instead. Poor guy.

Women bent on becoming militants have at least one place to turn to. A niche magazine called “al-Khansaa”…has popped up online…Its first issue, with a hot pink cover and gold embossed lettering, appeared in August if 2004 with the lead article “Biography of the Female Mujahedeen.”

Excellent! Kind of Sex and the City for the abaya set.

She baked a date cake as a thank-you

Jun 2nd, 2008 1:02 pm | By

But of course the real crime is the murder of Leila Hussein – a story I can hardly make myself read.

Leila Hussein lived her last few weeks in terror. Moving constantly from safe house to safe house, she dared to stay no longer than four days at each. It was the price she was forced to pay after denouncing and divorcing her husband – the man she witnessed suffocate, stamp on, then stab their young daughter Rand in a brutal ‘honour’ killing for which he has shown no remorse. Though she feared reprisals for speaking out, she really believed that she would soon be safe. Arrangements were well under way to smuggle her to the Jordanian capital, Amman. In fact, she was on her way to meet the person who would help her escape when a car drew up alongside her and two other women who were walking her to a taxi. Five bullets were fired: three of them hit Leila, 41. She died in hospital after futile attempts to save her.

She was so close.

‘She had not been able to sleep the night before. I stayed up talking to her about her plans after she arrived in Amman. I gave her some clothes to take with her and she was packing the only bag she had. She was too excited to sleep.’ Mariam said that when she awoke Leila had already prepared breakfast, cleaned her house and even baked a date cake as a thank-you for the help she had been given.

And then they shot her.

As she lay in her own hospital bed receiving treatment, Mariam said that she heard someone saying that Leila had been shot in the head. But there were other mutterings that were clearly audible. ‘I could hear people talking on the corridors and the only thing that they had to say was that Leila was wrong for defending her daughter’s mistakes and that her death was God’s punishment. ‘In that minute I just had complete hatred in my heart for those who had killed her.’

Yeah. And I still do – and for the hateful malicious vindictive brutal shit god they invoke. I hate them all.

Crime wave

Jun 2nd, 2008 12:53 pm | By

Another shocking crime – some slag got married and it turned out she wasn’t a virgin.

The wedding night party was still under way at the family’s home in Roubaix when the groom came down from the bedroom complaining that his bride was not a virgin. He could not display the blood-stained sheet that is traditionally exhibited as proof of the bride’s “purity”. Mr X went to court the following morning and was granted a annulment on the grounds that his bride had deceived him on “one of the essential elements” of the marriage. In disgrace with both families, she acknowledged that she had led her groom to believe that she was a virgin when she had already had sexual intercourse. She did not oppose the annulment.

Sounds like a fun party, doesn’t it? But what was the judge thinking? This was a secular court in France, not a jirga. Are French women legally required to be virgins when married? If so, who does the testing? Maybe they call in the pope.

A crime, I tell you

Jun 2nd, 2008 12:43 pm | By

Good good. The Vatican is still alert, it’s on the job, making sure nobody sneaks anything past..

The Vatican insisted Friday that it is properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood as it issued a new warning that women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated…”The church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ,” Amato said…The reference is to Christ’s having chosen only men as his Apostles.

Yes, but as I’ve murmured before, JC did a lot of things, and the Vatican doesn’t feel compelled to imitate all of them. (Poverty springs to mind, and then settles down there and makes itself at home.) It is not as self-evident as the Vatican would apparently like to think that JC’s choice of apostles was intended as a sex rule for all time.

The decree was published Thursday by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which in a headline called the ordination of women a “crime.”

Yeah, and an exceptionally vicious crime at that.

Pope Benedict…has consistently rebuffed calls to change traditional church teachings on divorce, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and the requirement that priests be male and celibate.

No kidding. That’s presumably what they chose him for – the ability to rebuff calls to change ‘traditional church teachings’; the narrowness and malice to call the ordination of women a crime; the blindness and authoritarianism to insist on continuing an all-male clerisy that presumes to tell women what to do and what to be.

In El Dorado nobody can hear you scream

May 30th, 2008 5:28 pm | By

They want to escape, but they can’t. (The article is from 2006.)

Police in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., say they’re seeing a number of teenagers who are fed up with the Fundamentalist LDS Church and leaving on their own…”One of the biggest problems that we have with the individuals that are wanting out is they’re underage and there’s not much we can do for them legally,” said Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office…[S]ervice providers cannot help them because they’re minors and runaways…”At HOPE, we follow the law and with a runaway we’ve got to call law enforcement and child and family services,” said HOPE director Elaine Tyler. “With the last two we’ve dealt with they’ve gone right back to their parents.”…While most of the teenagers who leave the border towns are not reported as runaways because their polygamous families do not want to attract government attention, it still becomes problematic to deliver services.

Their polygamous families do not want to attract government attention – why not, exactly? What a sinister ring that has.

In May [2006], Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed HB30 into law. It allows 16-and-17-year-olds to petition the juvenile courts for emancipation from their parents.

Good, good – but what about 15-year-olds? 14-year-olds?

Tyler said many children are waiting until they’re adults before coming to The HOPE Organization for help. “Some have come to us after they’ve turned 18 and then we’re able to help them. There was a girl who was living in a basement of another girl I was helping. She said ‘I was living in rags and I couldn’t tell you I was there,’ ” Tyler recalled. “It broke my heart.”

The Utah Department of Human Services has been considering changing laws and policies to help children leaving polygamy…Price said they need to move quickly to provide resources to teenagers leaving a closed society before they succumb to the temptations of the world.

What a mess.

And the ACLU joined the suit, siding with the parents – which I find horrifying. They’re defending the parents’ ‘rights’ to raise their children as prisoners kept away from any possibility of outside help. Why aren’t they defending the children’s rights instead? Why aren’t they worried about what’s going on behind those fences?

Women go strolling

May 30th, 2008 11:35 am | By

Whenever things get a little slow, and there seems to be nothing pressing to do, and it’s just really hard to think of any way to interfere with everyone – that’s when it’s time to get busy telling women what to do. It’s a thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s a job that’s never done, so somebody’s got to keep doing it over and over and over again. The horrible slags never listen, but somebody’s got to keep trying all the same – and anyway when desperate somebody can just kill them when they don’t listen.

A powerful state body regulating the role of Islam in Turkey has come under fire over an article on sexual behaviour…”Women have to be more careful, since they have stimulants…His highness the prophet Muhammad did not think kindly of women who put on perfumes outside their homes and go strolling and saw this as immoral behaviour.”

No; we know. Tough shit. His highness the prophet Muhammad should have minded his own business, and so should you.

The article said women and men should not be alone together unless married and questioned the role of females in mixed-gender workplaces. It blamed “social and moral” decline in the west for the legalisation of abortion…Yusuf Kanli, a columnist in the English-language Turkish Daily News, said it reflected a “very primitive mindset”, adding: “Is this mentality at all different with that of the Taliban that placed Afghan women behind chadors?”…The article is especially striking since Diyanet has a reputation for promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam. It is sponsoring a study of the hadiths, the sayings ascribed to Muhammad, with a view to striking out those judged inauthentic or misogynistic.

Well…so much for that idea then.

Not too hot and not too cold

May 29th, 2008 5:49 pm | By

A little of this, a little of that; split the difference; a plague on both your houses; between two extremes the correct answer is always in the middle; nothing too much; there are two sides to every question; cut the kid in half. Funny how often that cashes out to some caring woolly sentimentalist discovering that everyone to that side is wrong in that way and everyone to the other side is wrong in the other way and Caring Woolly Sentimentalist turns out (what a coincidence!) to be the one person who has it Just Right. Yeah sure – that’s how that always works, as sure as sediment sinks to the bottom. Ideas sort themselves into two sets of opposing wrong extreme versions and a tiny spot right in the middle that is Perfection Itself.

Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives’ majoritarian bullying and secularists’ insistence on separation of church and state as “extremes” that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal.

But why carve it just there? And why narrow the discussion to two groups each of which has one idea? Because that makes it easier to declare oneself the winner. Yeah but besides that.

Waldman’s centrism may appear to support a mildly liberal resolution; his book is, in the end, a defense of separation of church and state, very narrowly defined. But by slighting the enduring strength of religious conservatism, suggesting that the right’s partisans and the left’s separationists are evenly matched and assuming that his relatively liberal views are the happy mean, Waldman undermines the case for real religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Founding Faith is one of those books that find friends and enemies on both the left and the right and thus declare themselves balanced, as if freedom and equality were sandwich meats to be weighed on a scale.

It’s always a bad idea to assume that one’s own views are the happy mean. It’s kind of like assuming the center of the universe is the spot where you happen to be sitting.


May 28th, 2008 6:33 pm | By

Ah, Buddhism – so spiritual, so compassionate, so deep.

Sharon Stone says the Chinese earthquake was bad karma.

“I thought, ‘Is that karma?’ When you are not nice, bad things happen to you.”

Ah right – we see that every day. Cosmic justice is dealt out with unerring accuracy and gratifying speed, day in day out. Well spotted, Ms Stone.

“I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” Stone said in footage widely available on the internet. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma?”

Yeah, that’s what it is all right. All those schoolchildren crushed under their schools, all their teachers, all their parents; they were all unkind to the Tibetans; China’s policy toward Tibet is of course decided by schoolchildren among others. All the children left orphans by the earthquake; they were unkind too. The people at the other end of China are of course a different breed entirely, and have never been unkind in their lives. Oh and Katrina happened because of all the whores and faggots in New Orleans, too. Glad we got that straight.

A different kind of thing

May 28th, 2008 1:36 pm | By

Oh, please.

From this week, astrologers, palm-readers, mediums and the like must display a kind of rationalist health warning. Wherever they sell their services, new consumer protection regulations require that they declare “for entertainment only”, because not “experimentally proven”…[I]t is tempting to raise a scientistic cheer. At last the quacks have been foiled, their bluff called! Until, that is, one asks what else in the marketplace of goods and services could pass a similar test.

Well nothing could, because ‘proven’ is the wrong word, which is not Mark Vernon’s fault if that’s really what the regulations themselves say and not just some journalist’s sloppy paraphrase. But the things that astrologers and mediums do or rather claim to do are not backed up by evidence, and there’s really nothing particularly silly about expecting people who sell services for money to provide evidence for claims they make about those services, and if they can’t, to warn consumers that they’re not actually, literally, offering the services – they’re just pretending to by way of entertainment.

And Mark Vernon is, perhaps, pretending to think that lots of things are on the same kind of footing as astrology and mediuming.

Consider a housing development that bills itself as a provider of “beautiful homes”?…Science has developed no Geiger counter for aesthetic measurements, a device whose clicks become a purr as it draws close to good taste…So it is actually quite tough, and often impossible, experimentally to verify many of the things that we take for granted in life.

Yes yes yes, but claiming these houses are beautiful is a different kind of thing from claiming to be able to talk to a consumer’s dead child. Thinking or assuming or pretending to think or assume that everyone thinks a particular kind of house is beautiful is a different kind of thing from thinking a medium can talk to dead people. The first is not all that outlandish, especially since tastes in beauty are largely social and manufactured, so what developers say helps to shape taste in houses over the years. The second is very outlandish indeed. So…Vernon’s comparison is just kind of…beside the point.

Strengthening the hand of the theocons

May 27th, 2008 11:05 am | By

Jeff Sharlet has some of the same qualms I have about Nussbaum on religion and freedom.

More worrisome are those liberal defenders of religious equality such as Nussbaum and Waldman, who actually do know better and yet strengthen the hand of the theocons by underestimating and even minimalizing the scope of the Christian nationalist challenge…The overlapping consensus model extends an assumption of good faith to all parties. That’s fine. But it fails when it rests too easily on assumptions about just what good faith is.

Precisely. That’s exactly what Nussbaum does – she backs up these assumptions about just what good faith is by citing easy examples, like Quaker non-violence, instead of hard ones, like raising girls to be subordinate and marrying them off at 14. By doing that, she minimalizes the scope of the problem with, for instance, closed fundamentalist sects that subordinate women and don’t allow them to leave. Not that she supports such things, but by talking about Quakers rather than Mormons on Bill Moyers’s tv show, she gives a distorted picture. That’s worrisome.

Ethically dubious

May 25th, 2008 6:10 pm | By

I sometimes notice an odd and unpleasant phenomenon: people on blogs and forums and discussion boards and the like will accuse other people of lying, and more than that, when shown to be wrong, will not withdraw the accusation, much less apologize. This is odd because in what is jestingly called real life, at least in my experience, that’s not done lightly. One doesn’t go around accusing people of lying when talking nose to nose; it doesn’t go down well. But when typing words on screen – people just step right up. Then if you tell them they’re mistaken and that they ought not to throw that accusation around so blithely, they simply vanish. Many of them do it anonymously, too, which is even more…dubious.

There was a discussion on Aaronovitchwatch last April, for instance. Jeremy commented there (to say, amusingly I thought, that Group-Schadenfreude is just a little distasteful), and Daniel Davies, whose post it was, quickly retorted by snarling, irrelevantly, at Butterflies and Wheels. Jeremy pointed out that he’s not responsible for the content of B&W. Daniel came back.

Jeremy is of course fibbing when he claims not to be responsible for the content of Butterflies & Sneers. [then he linked to the B&W About page, where it says Jeremy is Associate Editor/Webmaster] Why would anyone try to bullshit me about something a) which they know I know and b) which is so easily proved?

Jeremy was bored by then and so didn’t see the accusation, but I did, so I told Daniel he had it wrong and that I am indeed responsible for all the content of B&W. Dave Weeden pointed out that the About page doesn’t make that clear and that Daniel might have been wrong but he took his evidence from the best source available; I agreed with him –

That’s what I said. I said Daniel was wrong – I didn’t say he was “fibbing.” But he did in fact announce as a fact that Jeremy was “fibbing,” and he was wrong about that. It’s bad form to announce that people are lying when they’re not.

And that was the end of that as far as Daniel was concerned. No withdrawal, no apology, no anything.

And another (and much more protracted and insistent) example just in the last few days. Shiraz Socialist linked to an interview of me by the Freethinker and quoted one bit.

FT: Is it true that your upcoming book, Does God Hate Women?, was turned down by the first publisher because in was too critical of Islam?

OB: Yes, a publisher did turn it down for that compelling reason. It wasn’t exactly the first publisher since it never actually accepted it, but it was very interested, got Jeremy [Stangroom, the co-author] in to have a chat etc (I live six thousand miles away or I would have gone along for the chat too, whether they’d invited me or not) – then said they’d decided no because one mustn’t criticize Islam.

FT: How did you feel about that at the time?

OB: A mix of amusement and disgust, I think – amusement at the docile predictability, disgust at the crawling. I also felt even more convinced that the book was needed, precisely because a publisher would turn it down for such a reason. What publisher, you wonder? Verso.

A small cabal of anonymous people, including one who makes foolish comments here occasionally, decided to make all sorts of claims about what really happened, what Verso really said, what Verso really meant, what Verso would have said if it hadn’t been being tactful, and so on and so on. In short, they suggested that I was not telling the truth. There were a lot of sensible readers who were unimpressed by their arguments (some are regulars here, and make comments that are not foolish), but the arguments kept rolling in all the same. This went on for days; Jeremy joined in yesterday, which made sense since he’s the one who actually talked to Verso; in the end the last accuser made an awkward retreat, of the ‘all I said was’ variety. But no one bothered to withdraw the accusations, much less (as I mentioned) apologize. This is interesting.

A common objective?

May 24th, 2008 11:05 am | By

Tom Clark argues with the theologian John Haught. He starts out with some common ground – or perhaps not.

As much as their worldviews differ, both naturalists and anti-naturalists share a common objective: getting the nature of reality right according to their best lights.

I don’t really think that’s true – at least not of anti-naturalists of the type discussed in the article. I thought that as soon as I read it, then as I read the rest of the article I found places where Clark makes points that are (at least) in tension with it. It seemed to me as soon as I read it, and then thought about it, that anti-naturalists are motivated in their anti-naturalism by something other than getting the nature of reality right. I think what they want to do is get the nature of reality into alignment with their wishes, and that getting it right is subservient to that goal.

And what comes after that passage simply bears that out.

From Haugh:

Do our new atheists seriously believe …that if a personal God of infinite beauty and unbounded love actually exists, the ‘evidence’ for this God’s existence could be gathered as cheaply as the evidence for a scientific hypothesis?

But why should anyone think that, even if there is a ‘God,’ it is one of infinite beauty and unbounded love? If your goal is to get the nature of reality right, you start by taking an impartial look (to the best of your ability) at reality, at the world as it is; if you do that, do you think that beauty and love describe the world? Not if you really take a look. Not if you know anything about it. If you really look, you know very well that there is a lot of ugliness and misery too, and that a god of beauty and love seems at the very least incomplete as a god of this world and this reality.

Haught further says that to decide the question of God’s existence it is necessary to open oneself ‘to the personal transformation essential to faith’s sense of being grasped by an unbounded love.’ Clark comments:

[W]e see that detecting the object of knowledge – infinite Love, should it exist – requires receptivity to the possibility of its existence on the part of the knower. But of course being receptive is patently to be psychologically biased in favor of the possibility, to be susceptible to a certain interpretation of one’s experience, namely that one is being embraced by god. So right away we encounter a stark contrast between Haught’s theological mode of knowing and ordinary empirical inquiry, in which subjective biases in favor of certain hypotheses are seen as threats to objectivity. For those concerned about whether their preconceptions and desires might be distorting their grasp of reality, that is, anyone interested in truth as opposed to wishful thinking, the theological requirement of receptivity raises a bright red flag.

Exactly. Which is why I’m not sure naturalists and anti-naturalists do share the common objective of getting the nature of reality right.

It’s an excellent article; read the whole thing.

Goodness, what’s the rush?

May 22nd, 2008 5:27 pm | By

A Texas appeals court rules that the state CPS acted too hastily in removing all the children from the FLDS ranch.

In the decision, the 3rd Court ruled that CPS failed to provide any evidence that the children were in imminent danger. It said state acted hastily in removing them from their families. The agency had argued that the children on the ranch were either abused or at risk of abuse. The Texas Family Code allows a judge to consider whether the “household” to which a child would be returned includes a person who has sexually abused another child. Child welfare officials alleged that the polygamist sect’s practice of marrying underage girls to older men places all its children at risk of sexual abuse.

And there’s another thing – the fact that the children in question are not free to leave. To put it mildly. Make no mistake: they are locked in there, and the doors are not open. And, it goes without saying, they don’t go to school. If anything is wrong, there is no one they can tell.

The court wrote, “Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse as the Department contends, there is no evidence that this danger is ‘immediate’ or ‘urgent’ … with respect to every child in the community.”

Even though they can’t leave? Even if there is no way for anyone from outside to make sure all the children are all right? Sorry; I don’t buy it. I’ve read and heard enough accounts from some of the few people who have escaped to have good reason not to buy it.

Scott Dixon, a CPS regional director, said some shelters and facilities were already getting calls from parents asking when they could pick up their kids…Carolyn Jessop, who fled the sect in 2003, was leading the training. She called the decision “a shock. I am just hoping that enough people will come out and protest it,” said Jessop. She is an ex-wife of Merril Jessop, the assumed leader at the Eldorado compound.

An ex-wife who as a teenager was married to Jessop at the command of her father. She was raised FLDS, she couldn’t say no, but she was shocked and horrified. No; sorry; men shouldn’t be allowed to marry off their daughters like so much livestock.

Scott McCown, a former judge and executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said…protective services could still remove the children after a full trial. McCown said there is a very real risk that if the children are returned to their parents they will be moved to another state, Canada or Mexico and be outside the jurisdiction of Texas’ protective custody. “One of the real dangers is flight, and the court doesn’t address that at all,” McCown said.

Oh well. So a few hundred kids have crappy lives, and raise their own children to have crappy lives, and so on forever; no big deal.

You have the right to remain silent

May 21st, 2008 4:41 pm | By

Free speech? Wozzat?

A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word “cult” to describe the Church of Scientology. The unnamed 15-year-old was served the summons by City of London police…Officers confiscated a placard with the word “cult” on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Uh – right. Because that’s obviously a crime. Saying Scientology is a cult is self-evidently a crime. Uh…what? In what universe?

Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church’s £23m headquarters near St Paul’s cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was “abusive and insulting”…A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and “strongly advised” him to remove the sign. The section prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

Which covers, if the police so choose, pretty much all words. Except maybe ‘nice’ – maybe the sign would have been permitted if it had said ‘Scientology is nice.’ Or maybe not, in case it was sarcastic.

The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a “cult” which was “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”. After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.

Justice me no justices, Teenager; public order requires that things not be said on signs no matter how many justices have said them beforehand. Public order is a very fragile thing. All of London could be reduced to screaming anarchy and bloody warfare in a heartbeat if a sign were allowed to call Scientology a cult – so hand it over, and here’s your summons.

Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: “This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain’s free speech traditions. “After criminalising the use of the word ‘cult’, perhaps the next step is to ban the words ‘war’ and ‘tax’ from peaceful demonstrations?”

Might as well. Best not to risk it.