Notes and Comment Blog


Run That By Me Again?

Mar 26th, 2006 8:29 pm | By

There’s a lot of ‘How’s That Again?’ at the moment. There is the half-laughable half-weepable mess of the ‘March for Free Expression’ ha ha for instance. The ‘March for Free Expression’ which had to be renamed at the last minute the ‘March for Free Expression Only as Long as the Free Expression in Question Doesn’t Irritate Anyone Too Much’ – which, you have to admit, is a pretty lame halting stumbling weak-kneed shambling unimpressive unstirring sort of march. More like a ‘Keep on Lying Down for Thoroughly Hedged “Free” Expression’ than a march for anything. You might as well march against a war and have on all the banners ‘Unless You Really Really Want to Of Course’. You might as well march for workers’ rights and add ‘Unless it’s too expensive that is’.

You did see what happened, right? On Thursday, two days before the march and demonstration, Voltaire/Peter Risdon (and props to him for trying, anyway) said – of all things in the world – ‘No Danish cartoons, please’. Umm – okay, but then what’s the march for? What good is it to take a stand for free speech prompted by the cartoon fuss and at the same time say ‘No Danish cartoons, please’?

A lot of commenters at the site are very annoyed. And things at the demonstration itself got…peculiar.

Peter Risdon, an organizer of the March for Free Expression, initially had announced that he would allow protesters to display banners and wear T-shirts depicting those images. On Thursday, however, Risdon asked demonstrators not to show the cartoons out of fear their display would alienate sympathetic Muslims and give credibility to a far-right political group, the British National Party, which has used the cartoons as a rallying cry. “The principle of freedom of expression is used by some as a Trojan horse, as a proxy for racism and Islamophobia,” Risdon wrote in an explanation on the Web site. The decision prompted angry responses on the Web site – and at the march. “It’s my freedom, everyone’s freedom, to expose these pictures and encourage everyone to do the same,” said Reza Moradi, 29, a protester who identified himself as an Iranian who has lived in Britain for eight years. Moradi was later questioned by police after someone lodged a complaint regarding the “nature of his placard,” which featured a copy of the Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, a London police spokeswoman said. After a brief, heated exchange with officers, Moradi left the protest on his own and then rejoined the demonstration later.

Someone lodged a complaint about the nature of his placard, so the police questioned him. Er – isn’t this where we came in? Wasn’t this rather the point?



You’re Too Kind

Mar 26th, 2006 7:40 pm | By

Time for yet another installment of that long-running series, ‘How’s That Again?’ or What the Oxymoron Said. Sit down, stop whispering, fold your hands, don’t kick the seat.

The scene this time is Afghanistan, where a judge is explaining things to BBC reporter Sanjoy Majumder.

Under the interpretation of Islamic Sharia law on which Afghanistan’s constitution is based, Mr Rahman faces the death penalty unless he reconverts to Islam. “The Prophet Muhammad has said several times that those who convert from Islam should be killed if they refuse to come back,” says Ansarullah Mawlafizada, the trial judge. “Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, kindness and integrity. That is why we have told him if he regrets what he did, then we will forgive him,” he told the BBC News website.

Brings a tear to the eye, don’t it.



Crusty

Mar 25th, 2006 9:54 pm | By

Russell Jacoby is in fine form.

If you missed the 1995 CUNY “Question of Identity” conference, the issue of October magazine devoted to it, the “remarkable” essay on the same subject in Diacritics or – even worse – you are unaware you have missed these, don’t despair. Help is on the way. Eric Lott, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Virginia, will bring you up to speed. His book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is to stay-at-home tenured radicals what the television remote is to couch potatoes. Without parking hassles or library bottlenecks, you get the latest on unforgettable conferences and pathbreaking journal articles. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Wise’s “famous” essay “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies” was “intriguingly revised” in Pease and Wiegman’s anthology The Future of American Studies? No?

No, I don’t think I did, but I’m terrifically interested to know, because I have that book! (Someone sent it to me – as a joke, I think.) I made ruthless fun of it here a long time ago. I can even find the fun again, thanks to dear Google. Quite astonishing, to be able to type ‘Wiegman notes comment’ into the box and find links to posts of mine from two and a half years ago. How the two passages quoted in the first comment bring it all back – that combination of mirth and suffocation.

Like most founding gestures, this one gave monumental status to an origin retrospectively invoked, thereby giving the past authority over the present in a management strategy that seemed aimed to contextualize, if not override, the present threat of rupture and incoherence. In so doing, Wise sought to repair the conceptual ground of a field whose fissuring into multiple programs and subfields at once reflected and gave expression to the aspirations of social movements that had exceeded the ‘founding’ field’s epistemological grasp.

That’s just part of one passage – do read the rest if you want to laugh and smother at the same time. Anyway, it amuses me a good deal that Jacoby mentions that appalling book right at the beginning, and it also tells me where we are and what’s up. (I love the bit about the ‘famous’ essay. That is so typical. Famous? Famous where? Well, in the same places that Judith Butler is a ‘household name,’ of course.)

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists.

Dude, those are as radical as commitments can get, don’t you know that? Course you do.

Throughout this tract Lott charges boomer liberals with reformist politics and theoretical simplicity. Even if one grants these points, what does he offer to replace them? He claims the high political ground, but he cannot formulate a single coherent sentence about politics as seen from there. He tosses off phrases about “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity,” but politics hardly enters this political book.

Yeah but dude the praxis potential of antinormativity is as politics as – oh never mind.

Consider Lott’s criticism of Mark Crispin Miller’s The Bush Dyslexicon, a collection and analysis of Bush’s malapropisms. Miller’s critique of Bush is apparently limited by his “own boomer investments” and his simple-minded theory of propaganda. “You don’t have to be a media specialist,” sniffs Professor Lott, “to recognize how crusty this apparatus seems in an age of post-Althusserian, post-poststructuralist, and post-Lacanian cultural studies.” Imagine that! Miller does not refer to post-poststructuralism or post-Lacanian cultural studies! Where has he been?

Well exactly! Not browsing hiptheory.com, that’s obvious. Dang fool – dang crusty fool. Dang crusty unhip out of touch clueless old uncool unfashionable (did I mention unhip?) fool geezer old bastard. Fashion! Fashion is everything! If you don’t keep up with the fashions, you’re selling out the workers!

A hundred pages later, however, Lott rolls up his sleeves and tells us about these widely debated theorists and their purchase on reality. First place belongs to Laclau, an Argentine post-Marxist theorist who teaches in England. While Gitlin and other old fogies yearn for a universal left, Laclau provides the essential key as to how to push ahead. Oh, no! In a bad piece of luck, just as Lott turns to Laclau, the bell rings and he is forced to close with a few hasty remarks. “I haven’t the space to lay out the intricate conceptual elegance of Laclau’s discussion,” apologizes Lott…

Good one! Doncha just love it when they do that? It just cracks me up (along with slightly suffocating me). Andrew Ross does that in Strange Weather – makes wild speculative claims and then bashfully says it’s ‘beyond the scope’ of the book to go into detail. I give him a hard time for it in Why Truth Matters – I wish I’d thought of ‘the bell rings’ though; that’s hilarious.

Lott briefly summarizes Laclau’s discussion for us:

Its most important move is to argue that the only acceptable political notion of the universal – and therefore of the organizational imperative – is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference-based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social-symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization.

Well you can see why he’s so pleased with himself. Besides, he went on this march once, to support the service workers…

After 200 pages of hyping antinormative intersectionality and dismissing boomer liberals for their reform politics, Lott steps out of his classroom to support service workers who seek several bucks more an hour–living wages, plain and simple. Good for him, but nothing here about subversive egalitarianism. Not a word about postidentity politics….Lott and his allies, 150 strong, brush past the mounted police. “Juiced,” they rush the maw of state power: the Lawn. “We were not stopped…We were a movement now, and we couldn’t lose.” Their march lasts all of five minutes – but Lott has lost interest, and tells us nothing more. Presumably another conference beckons.

Crusty, dude.



Freedom of the Mind

Mar 24th, 2006 6:17 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about preferences, and what matters to us, and what we put first – how we rank what matters to us; and about freedom. I’ve been thinking about the fact that freedom of certain kinds seems to matter to me very profoundly indeed, and about why that is, and what flows from it.

I won’t bore you with the why that is part (and I have only guesses anyway), but I will talk about one thing that I think flows from it. It offers one reason I dislike religion so much. Why I’m not just indifferent or uninterested but actively hostile, especially when religion comes out of its churches and mosques and isolated farmhouses to engage in public discussion. It’s because religion is not a free way to think, and since that’s one of those kinds of freedom that matter to me (and, I think it’s fair to assume, to a lot of people) more than most things, religion makes me bristle mentally like a cat seeing a dog. I dislike religion because it’s not a free way to think.

Granted, for determined people it can be made to be that way, but typically and averagely, it isn’t. Religion has a body of doctrine, a dogma, which is given, and which is not empirical or rationally arrived at – it is a mental prison house. I mean that somewhat literally as well as figuratively – in the sense that it feels prison-like. It feels imprisoning and also desperately stale; and the two feelings are related. Ideas that seem fresh (alive, adaptable, open) don’t feel prison-like; ideas that feel confining and rigid don’t feel fresh or open.

And dogmatically religious people give that impression themselves – that they are inmates, and that their thoughts are unpleasantly stereotyped and unfree. ‘God says.’ ‘What Allah wants.’ ‘Peace be upon him.’ ‘It is a sin’ – it’s all so many walls, bars of a cage, locks; barriers to thought. Unthought, the opposite of thought, the prevention of thought – like that brilliant phrase at the end of ‘The Dunciad’: ‘light dies at thy uncreating word.’

This is also, obviously enough, why I hate all those conscriptive words like community and respect: because they are intended to balk and prevent free thinking. They are intended to compel us to want various groupthink virtues more than we want the ability to let our minds dart around unimpeded, and I think we ought not to want that and ought not to be manipulated into wanting that.



One K

Mar 24th, 2006 1:51 am | By

Good, excellent, supa. Perfect. I was still worrying about the update because about 300 people signed up but about 700 didn’t. Google changed my ‘add’ to ‘invite’ (I suppose because it’s a big list, and they don’t know me, so for anything they knew it was all a scheme to enlarge the genitalia of everyone in the whole world, which would be irksome) and I worried that the email they sent looked like spam, so a lot of them could have been filtered and a lot more deleted unread. Plus there was a thing in the email about having to set up a Google account in order to view the group website, and I figured a lot of people would have thought they had to do that to subscribe and not wanted to. In other words [draws a deep breath] I thought those 700 people probably still wanted to get the update but didn’t really know about it. So I danced a stately minuet with the people at – with the Google Team, as they always signed themselves, for a few days, and finally we got everything lined up nicely and pressed the right buttons and hooray hooray, the 700 have been added. So B&W has its mailing list back (yaboosucks hacker) and it is a healthy thousand-plus strong and most important (this was really bugging me) almost no one has been accidentally left out. (There were five left out for cryptic reasons; I could always try to email them; don’t worry about it.) So that’s that.

(I’m really pleased. It has been bothering me [well you know how I get]. It’s nice to solve something that’s been bothering you. Champagne all around! On the house [not my house, but someone’s, I’m sure].)



Protectionism

Mar 23rd, 2006 8:58 pm | By

Let’s think a little about this idea that there is a tension or conflict or contradiction between freedom of speech and religious freedom.

What is meant by religious freedom? One, individual belief. No problem. However, that does not entail protection and insulation from disagreement – from awarness of other people who don’t share one’s beliefs. That is not how we understand freedom. My freedom to run up and down hooting and waggling my fingers does not mean that other people can’t laugh and point and make remarks. Freedom just means freedom, it doesn’t mean freedom plus nice pleasant soothing feelings of calm self-satisfaction free of all disruptive challenge. If you want insulation from awareness of people who don’t agree with or unconditionally admire your religion, you have to enter a closed religious order. You have to insulate yourself, you can’t call on the state or international law to insulate you. Two, practice. That’s different, because it may affect other people (and other sentient beings). Familiar stuff – drugs, animal slaughter, education, pacifism and the draft, medical attention, underage marriage, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, caste systems, female subordination, punishment, law – and a great deal more. Practice is where religious freedom really can be in tension with other very important values and commitments, which is why disputes over the tension often end up in court. But the idea that freedom of speech and religious freedom are in tension seems to be about belief rather than practice. It seems to be about claiming that one is not free to believe what one wants to unless other people are prevented from interfering with that freedom by mentioning their refusal to believe the same thing. But an irrational belief that depends for its survival on the assent of everyone else is no kind of irrational belief at all; it’s just sissy stuff. Surely real zealots ought to be embarrassed at themselves for turning to the UN to help them hang on to their beliefs! True ‘faith’ comes from within, and laughs to scorn the idea that it needs outside help – especially from the UN of all places.



De Profundis

Mar 23rd, 2006 6:35 pm | By

What a relief it is to read Kenan Malik after Doudou Diéne.

At the beginning it feels not so much like reading Kenan Malik as like stumbling into an echo chamber.

“I believe in free speech, but…” That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian “believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend.” For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an “open season” on religious taboos.

Part of the liberal left, I would urgently interject. Not all! By no means all. Not B&W and not Kenan to name two; not Nick Cohen and not the people who organized the March for Free Expression, not Maryam Namazie and not Norm – and so on. There are a lot of us, and we’re a talkative bunch. But his main point is – well, one I’ve made in almost the same words, so I agree with it.

So free speech is good, but has to become less free in a plural society. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” the sociologist Tariq Modood argues, “they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

Well, there’s one of the more revolting ideas I’ve seen in awhile. One could take it as a mere banal definition, of course – he could simply be saying that subjecting fundamental beliefs to criticism can lead to conflict, can be seen as a kind of conflict itself. This unstartling observation can be followed with ‘and a good thing too’ along with the observation that fundamental beliefs that never get subjected to criticism are about as exciting and inspiring as one’s own pancreas. They’re just there, they’re inert, they’re like wallpaper; who cares. But that probably isn’t what Modood means. (If it were, Kenan probably wouldn’t have quoted it.) There is that ‘have to’ for instance – that has that familiar whiff of intimidation and coercion about it, that we’re all getting so immensely tired of. ‘You have to limit your criticism of my fundamental beliefs – limit it to zero, please – or else I will show you some conflict, if you get my drift.’

It’s a Rawlsian view of sorts, I suppose. A slightly bullying version of Rawls’s political liberalism. It depends among other things on what one means by ‘political space’. Does Modood mean literally, narrowly political space, where laws are made? Or does he mean the social world in general? If the former, it can mean (if I understand Rawls properly, which I’m not sure of) something like bracketing fundamental beliefs and disagreements about them for the sake of agreeing on something that needs doing. But if, as I suspect, it means the social world in general, it just means the same old crap. ‘Shut up because I don’t like what you’re saying’ – dressed up in grand talk about occupying space without conflict. Not a modification of free speech then, but its flat obliteration.

Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it…This argument reveals how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs…There is no reason to treat Muslims – or, indeed, any religious believers – as special cases. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Racists have a visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them because their beliefs are so deeply held? Of course not.

Of course not indeed. Depth, intensity, passion, fervour, devoutness, warmth, zeal, profundity of feeling are no guide whatsoever to the merit of the object of the feeling. Absolutely none. Hitler was deeply attached to the mess he believed in, Timothy McVeigh was similarly attached to his, zealots in general are fervent and intense about what they believe; it does not follow and it is not true that what they believe is true or right or just or good for other people. The merit of the content of beliefs has to be evaluated quite separately from anyone’s emotional attachment to said beliefs.

In any case, I would challenge anyone to show me that my humanism is less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something almost racist about the claim that Muslims are so different from everyone else.

I would just drop the ‘almost’, myself. I think it is exactly inverse racism (except that Muslim isn’t a race, but the people who go in for this kind of inverse racism are just the people who insist on pretending it is, and they certainly think about it as if it is). It makes a special category of Muslims and then treats them with special rules it would never apply to, say, the BNP or Fred Phelps. No matter what the depth of Fred’s attachment to his ‘faith’.



Blame Denmark

Mar 22nd, 2006 11:39 pm | By

So the UN rapporteur explains what’s going on and whose fault it is. His report is apparently not available in English yet; this rather right-wing blog translates from the excerpts Politiken and Jyllands-Posten published.

Finally, the Danish government’s first reaction – rejecting to take an official position on the nature and publication of the cartoons while referring to Freedom of Speech as well as rejecting to meet with the ambassadors from the Moslem countries – is symptomatic not only for the political trivialisation of Islamophobia but also, due to its consequences, to the central role those politically responsible have for the national extent and the international consequences in the shape of demonstrations and expressions of Islamophobia…Judicially, the Danish government ought therefore, especially considering its international obligations, to have, respecting Freedom of Speech, taken a position not only on the consequences of the caricatures for its community of 200.000 Moslems but also for the protection of peace and order.

So it’s the Danish government’s fault. It should have met with the ambassadors from ‘the Moslem countries’ and – what? Agreed to arrest, prosecute and punish the cartoonists and editors? Pass new laws banning prophet-mocking? Sworn a great oath that no Dane would ever make a joke about anything to do with Islam from now until the ending of the world?

Their uncompromising defense of a Freedom of Speech without limits or restrictions is not in accordance with the international rules which are based on a necessary balance between Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion, especially to combat calls for racial and religious hatred, and which all the member countries of UN have decided are the basic rules for Human Rights. This attitude shows an alarming lack of sensitivity and understanding of the religious conviction and deep emotions of the groups of society in question.

There it is again. Just what Frattini talked about: the ‘very real problem’ of balancing ‘two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion’. The idea that freedom of religion requires silencing people who would mock or dissent from a particular religion – thus making freedom of religion itself a joke, and a very unfunny one at that, and making freedom of expression an empty phrase. The freedom of religion does not require the ‘freedom’ never to hear anything one might find irritating or disconcerting. That is not the meaning of freedom. That has never been the meaning of freedom. Translating it to that is a shortcut to theocratic tyranny. It takes considerable gall to name censorship and tyranny and silencing ‘freedom’. The idea that religious conviction and ‘deep emotions’ should determine which speech can be free is also not a very good idea.

There are more extensive excerpts here.

More later.



Ill Wind

Mar 22nd, 2006 10:30 pm | By

Boy, Conservative MPs don’t talk this way around here. Conservative MPs, conservative Representatives; whatever – anyway they don’t talk like that around here. We should be so lucky.

The whole climate in which religion is discussed has chilled notably in the past few months. After the Danish cartoon controversy, the momentum is with those people who use their particular, narrow faith to silence other voices. If you doubt that’s so, just ask why no British newspaper felt that it could reproduce those cartoons. And reflect on why the British and American governments had to apologise for the offence caused. What were governments doing saying sorry for the independent actions of free citizens? Bending before a very ill wind.

Exactly. And not only apologizing for the independent (and legal, and in the view of rational people, moral) actions of free citizens, but telling us we mustn’t do them. Telling us we were (technically, if we insisted) free to do them, but we mustn’t, that it was unacceptable. That we ‘enjoy’ normal freedoms but that if we exercise them we will be suspended and our newspapers will be seized and shredded. That we have freedom of expression but no duty to gratuitously offend. Not so much bending before an ill wind as falling face down on the ground and then burrowing their way into the earth until nothing but a centimeter of buttock remained visible, before an ill wind.

When the House of Commons debated the Religious Hatred Bill, the argument was made that criminalising what one said about faith would have a chilling effect on debate overall. And, even without the law having been passed, one section of our community has succeeded in just that aim…I’m sure that Trapped in the Closet is wildly offensive. I certainly hope so, anyway. Because the one thing that Scientologists need more than anything else is ridicule. A religion founded by a science-fiction writer in the 1950s which invites its followers to believe in an inter-galactic tyrant called Xenu and offers them the chance to control time itself by becoming “Operating Thetans” deserves nothing less.

It’s funny the way people keep on using the word ‘faith’ without quotation marks. It’s such a horrible word – wouldn’t you think everyone would want to sneer at it with sneer-quotes? But no, people keep on taking it seriously. That’s odd.



Who Was That Young Man?

Mar 22nd, 2006 7:58 pm | By

So that’s how it went.

On 3 September 2002, the first day of the autumn term, the respondent (then aged nearly 14) went to the school with her brother and another young man. They asked to speak to the head teacher, who was not available, and they spoke to the assistant head teacher, Mr Moore. They insisted that the respondent be allowed to attend the school wearing the long garment she had on that day, which was a long coat-like garment known as a jilbab. They talked of human rights and legal proceedings. Mr Moore felt that their approach was unreasonable and he felt threatened…The young men said they were not prepared to compromise over this issue.

Who was the other young man, and how was he explained to the assistant head teacher, one wonders. How was his presence explained? How was his interest in the matter explained? How was it made clear why it was any of his business what an unrelated thirteen-year-old schoolgirl wore to school? ‘This is a friend of mine’? ‘This is our imam’? ‘This is Knuckles’? ‘This is our “spiritual advisor”‘?

The school was anxious to establish contact with the respondent’s guardian and accordingly, on 4 September 2002, a member of the support team telephoned her house and spoke to a male member of the family who said that the respondent had seen her solicitor and was going to sue the school. On 5 September 2002 Mr Moore telephoned and spoke to the respondent’s brother. Mr Moore inquired why the respondent was not in school. The respondent’s brother told Mr Moore that he (the brother) was not prepared to let the respondent attend school unless she was allowed to wear a long skirt.

He didn’t say whether the other young man was prepared or not. The other young man seems to have disappeared from the story. I wonder what he thinks about it all.



Heroism

Mar 22nd, 2006 7:53 pm | By

I’ve noticed something interesting. Ever read any Deborah Tannen? Differences in the way women and men use language? Women say ‘sorry’ a lot more than men do, that kind of thing? Somewhat worrying, a tad too similar to the Gilligan-Harding school of feminism which is too inclined to characterize women as big soppy soft-headed damp-palmed lachrymose huggy squishy melty getOFFme fools – but interesting all the same, and she is better at both gathering data and thinking about the data once she’s gathered. Anyway – differences in the way men and women use language. I think I’ve noticed a new one (new in the sense that I hadn’t noticed it before, though Tannen probably has). Here is my theory. [protracted pause to cough and clear throat] When men report on something they’ve done in collaboration with someone else they say ‘I’ve done this (with X).’ Women say ‘X and I have done this.’ I find that really profoundly interesting, and indicative of something or other. (Well, it’s fairly obvious of what, but it would be unkind to spell it out. snigger, snerk.) It reminds me of a guy I used to work with at the zoo. He once did a written report of something we had worked on together – and he used the pronoun ‘I’ throughout. ‘I did this, I did that.’ I pointed out to him that actually we had done this and that – and he was entirely uninterested. There’s something hilariously funny about that, in a tragic sort of way.

(And no, that still does not mean that Mileva Marić collaborated with Einstein!)



Lamentable Disrespect and Raving Lunacy

Mar 21st, 2006 11:07 pm | By

Charles Taylor joins the flock.

“The publishing of these caricatures shows a lamentable disrespect,” said Taylor, who elaborated on his views to an audience of nearly 200 people at an event organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. “Freedom of speech means you can’t outlaw the printing of these cartoons,” acknowledged Taylor, “but in order to get through this difficult time, we need an informal code where that kind of gratuitous insult can not take place.”

Well doesn’t that sound just like Jack Straw and Sean McCormack and Franco Frattini and the pope and Kofi Annan and that student union spokeswoman at the U of Cardiff – doesn’t that sound just like all of them saying No you may not say that. Not because it’s a lie, or fraudulent, or a falsification, or dangerous, but because – it shows a ‘lamentable disrespect’. Well does it? Does publication of these caricatures show a lamentable disrespect? Some people certainly think so; other people claim to think so because that sounds better than saying they are afraid of getting beaten up or killed; but other people again don’t think so, and think on the contrary that the very idea that it does is more disrespectful than the publication of the caricatures could ever be. But not Taylor, it appears.

Taylor questioned why the editors of the Jyllands-Posten didn’t consider the 100,000 Muslims living in Denmark before they printed the caricatures and the reactionary responses to them.

Um – because that’s not how editors do things? Because they don’t look at material they plan to publish and run through a mental list of the national population complete with figures for each, wondering what they will think of the material in question? Could that be why? Because if that were the way editors did things newspapers would be a little on the empty side? Would have, like, nothing in them? Does Charles Taylor not know that? And has he even looked at the dang cartoons? Has he even asked himself where the lamentable disrespect comes in?

Taylor defended his position against the printing and reprinting of the caricatures, and refuted [she means rebutted] the argument that printing them was somehow a defense of a free press. “Who can take away your press freedom? The German government can, not the government in Damascus. I don’t understand why [people here] are so hypnotized by this idea of press freedom. It’s just raving lunacy,” he said.

Is it. Valuing press freedom is raving lunacy. Is it indeed. Charles Taylor is a name philosopher. Dear oh dear.



There is a Limit

Mar 21st, 2006 10:47 pm | By

I admire freedom as much as the next person, but we all know there are limits, right? There is such a thing as too much. Liberty does not mean license. There are some things no one can be free to do. Cough at the opera, spit in the soup, wear black in summer, and – one other thing.

A man could be sentenced to death after being charged with converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under Afghanistan’s shariah laws, a judge said yesterday…The accused was charged with rejecting Islam…”We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law,” the judge said. “It is an attack on Islam.”

Well of course, and obviously an attack on Islam has to be against the law, and not only that, it has to be a capital crime. Obviously. Because otherwise – well exactly.

Shariah law states that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be sentenced to death, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Repeated attempts to impose a jail sentence were barred.

Well good. Super. None of that panty-waist bleeding-heart Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging dewey-eyed sympathetic hand-holding poppycock about not killing people for changing their religions. Good for them! How refreshing! They stick to their guns in these Shariah places. Submit to Allah or we’ll kill you. What could be fairer than that?

The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, said he had offered to drop the charges if Mr Rahman converted back to Islam, but he refused. “He would have been forgiven if he changed back. But he said he was a Christian and would always remain one,” Mr Wasi said. “We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty.”

Of course he must. Because they are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against their laws. QED. Good night and good luck.



That’s That Done

Mar 20th, 2006 10:26 pm | By

Very good, it’s set up now. I actually got the actual update, so I can tell that it’s working. And people are accepting the invitation or signing up for the first time. Very good. Greetings.

Go here if you want to sign up.

A good day then. That update has been bugging me for six months. How glad I am to have a decent substitute at last. And it was a good day even before that. Someone emailed to give his opinion of the book, and it was – well, you get the idea. People rushed from all directions to apply ice to my head to prevent swelling.



Weekly Update

Mar 20th, 2006 7:02 pm | By

So – after a considerable wait, Google accepted the mailing list and I have – I think – sent out the first update since October. But I think people have to click a link in an email message from Google in order to be added to the new list, so the update probably went to no one at all. And I haven’t even received it myself, despite being thoroughly added, so maybe it doesn’t work at all. So if any of you are on the old list and get an update or alternatively don’t get an update, it would be helpful if you would let me know.

Update (on update – how confusing). No don’t bother yet. They’ve sent me a message saying I don’t have permish, despite having sent me an earlier message saying I did have permish. No doubt we’ll work it out before too long.



Women Say No

Mar 20th, 2006 5:32 pm | By

The Times notices something that astute, attentive readers of B&W (and you all fit that description) have known for a long time.

Sitting in the airy living room of the spacious modern [house] where Sultan and her husband live, it is hard to believe this small, neatly dressed woman could be at the centre of an international firestorm. Just as improbable is that the most important and controversial critics of Islamic fundamentalism, violence and intolerance are, like Sultan, women, mostly from Islamic countries.

Well it’s not very improbable to us, is it; we’ve known that for years. Years.

They include Ayaan Hirsi Ali…Irshad Manji…Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam and Muslim academic and author, who has infuriated traditional Muslims by leading Friday prayer for Muslims in New York, a role traditionally taken only by male imams. Other Muslim women in the front lines of the clash with Islamic governments are as diverse as Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani village woman who was brutally gang-raped in 2002 as reprisal for an alleged transgression by her 14-year-old brother [which he didn’t commit – OB], and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003 for her defence of the rights of women and children in fundamentalist Muslim Iran.

Yes; and there are many many more, as you know. Maryam Namazie, Azam Kamguian, Homa Arjomand, Azar Majedi, Marjane Satrapi. The women of ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises’. Mimount Bousakla, the Belgian MP. Serap Cileli, Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates in Germany.

When a broader German public began concerning itself with the parallel Muslim world arising in its midst, it was primarily thanks to three female authors, three rebellious Muslim musketeers: Ates, who in addition to practicing law is the author of “The Great Journey Into the Fire”; Necla Kelek (“The Foreign Bride”); and Serap Cileli (“We’re Your Daughters, Not Your Honor”). About the same age, all three grew up in Germany; they speak German better than many Germans and are educated and successful. But they each had to risk much for their freedom; two of them narrowly escaped Hatun Surucu’s fate…Taking off from their own experiences, the three women describe the grim lives and sadness of Muslim women in that model Western democracy known as Germany.

Of course it’s not really improbable at all that the most important critics of Islamic fundamentalism and violence should be women, since they’re so often at the sharp end of it. Not always. The turning point experience for Wafa Sultan was not gender specific –

…her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said. “They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, ‘God is great!’ ” she said. “At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point.”

But most of them are. Women have every reason to join the resistance.



Location Location Location

Mar 19th, 2006 7:55 pm | By

Addendum. It occurred to me earlier that much or all of this disagreement or confusion over terms may be simply geographical, or geographico-political. All three of the people who think I’m confused are in the UK. I wonder if this has to do with the difference between having a written consitution and bill of rights, and not having either. In other words, the UK doesn’t actually have an explicit written constitutionally protected right to free speech or a free press. As a consequence of that it also doesn’t have a Supreme Court. As a consequence of that, the gummint can pass laws that would be unlikely to pass over here (although items like the Patriot Act may raise doubts about that). The House of Lords may amend such laws in a more free speech direction, but not in deference to a written explicit constitutional right. It may be that the legal right is more taken for granted here, with the result that there is less need to be expansive about it. Or, maybe not – since as I’ve mentioned, lots of people over here think the First Amendment is very expansive. Still, it’s a thought.



Forcibly

Mar 19th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

Norm and Eve have further thoughts. Norm starts:

Like Holocaust denial in general, falsifying evidence to the purpose of Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence. You are free, consequently, to do it.

Legally free; but not necessarily free tout court.

In a subsequent post, Ophelia says that in her view falsification of historical evidence should not be a criminal offence. Legally, then, one can do it, though this doesn’t make it morally right or admirable; it is (wherever it is), like Holocaust denial in general, a liberty right. That Ophelia endorses this legal state of affairs entails that she thinks falsifying historical evidence not only is a liberty right but it ought to remain one. From this it follows that she thinks it is part of a morally acceptable legal state of affairs that a person who falsifies historical evidence to propagate the lie that the Holocaust didn’t happen is behaving within their rights, albeit also behaving vilely.

Within their legal rights, but not necessarily within their rights in all senses. Again, I just remain unconvinced that the word ‘rights’ is universally understood to mean legal rights and nothing else. I remain unconvinced that it’s a peculiar or outlandish or unusual idea that one can have a legal right to do something without having a moral right. Not all moral issues are or should be or can be settled by the police. Not all moral issues are criminal or legal matters. That may be a very colloquial usage – and I’m not one to claim that every colloquial usage is necessarly sensible or informative; but if this one is a colloquial usage, I think it does point to a distinction that makes sense. It makes sense if only because we want to be able to think that people don’t have a (moral) right to do immoral things, without feeling obliged to call the police every few days. The colloguial (if it is colloquial) usage ‘You have no right to treat me this way’ does not translate ‘I am going to have you arrested for treating me this way’. It translates to a sort of intensifier of ‘ought’. There are mild oughts – you ought to be better-tempered – and there are stronger oughts – you ought not to call me a bitch every time you’re in a bad mood – and there are stronger oughts again – you ought not to call your child ugly and stupid every time you’re in a bad mood. It’s not against the law to call your child ugly and stupid, but my guess is that a lot of people would agree that it’s so cruel and destructive that no one has a moral right to do it, in spite of having a legal right. (And if there is enough of it, social workers may intervene, and children may be taken away, without anyone’s going to prison. [A friend of mine is a family court judge; she has to read piles of briefs that reach from the floor to her knees in one evening sometimes; there is a world of fuzzy territory here.] It’s not a criminal offence, but it can sometimes be forcibly prevented.) So – I think it’s a morally acceptable legal state of affairs that a person who falsifies historical evidence to propagate the lie that the Holocaust didn’t happen is behaving within their legal rights – but not moral rights.

Whatever may be your rights, you will not be a reputable figure within the community of historians, to say nothing of other scholars and people more generally.

This is all I’m saying. I’m saying that cashes out to historians not thinking historians have a moral, or epistemic, or vocational, or scholarly right to falsify, despite having a legal right. I’m saying you won’t hear historians saying ‘Irving has a right to falsify the evidence’ just like that, with no qualifications. At least, I don’t think so! I should offer a challenge. Somebody find me a historian saying that! It will be like one of those thousand dollar challenges, only without the thousand dollars.

This is merely to confuse the issue of legal and moral rights, which protect people against coercive interference in what they choose to do, and the standards applied to the conduct of certain activities by those who have a concern for them and/or the rules governing some competitive endeavours.

Well – hasn’t that been my whole point all along? I thought it had. I thought the difference between legal rights and moral rights was exactly what I’ve been talking about the whole time. Standards and rules are the kind of thing I’ve been talking about from the beginning, in disagreeing with unadorned unqualified unhedged claims that Irving has a right to falsify the evidence.

And Eve:

The moral right to free speech isn’t a right to have your views disseminated or published or agreed with; it’s just a right to say what you choose, without others forcibly preventing you.

Right; that’s what I said. “Which people and in what sense of ‘prevent us’ I wonder. In the examples Eve gives, I’m not sure it’s true that people close to us ought not to try to prevent us by persuasion, for instance. But no doubt she means forcibly prevent, which is another matter.” When I said that, she hadn’t said ‘forcibly’ prevent; now she has; so that answers my question.

I think we all mostly agree on the basics, it’s just that I keep thinking qualifications are being left out. If we can stipulate legal rights and forcibly prevent, I think we’re saying much the same thing. Although I find Sunstein’s chapter interesting, and it connects in an interesting way with Rawls’s idea of political liberalism and also a book by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson on Democracy and Disagreement, so I might go on talking about those sometime.



Twinned With

Mar 19th, 2006 6:31 pm | By

Now, this is nice. At least, I like it. It’s the Amazon page for that book, but the nice thing is that it’s paired with a book by Dawkins. Good company they’ve put us in. (Yes, of course I check, why do you ask? And the answer is no; hasn’t sold a copy in days, or is it weeks.)



Yaller Flars

Mar 19th, 2006 6:24 pm | By

March is a good month. Don’t you think? I love March. March and October, they’re the best. Although April has a strong claim, despite the cruelty thing. But March is special. I think it’s the daffodils. I have a really slightly insane passion for daffodils – especially the way they’re planted in the UK, in those great blankets covering whole sections of parks and gardens. We don’t do that here, unfortunately. No blankets. But there are a lot of them, just in smaller batches, so I trudge around the place gazing fondly at clumps of them next to trees and on parking strips. I took a trip to London in March about ten years ago and people laughed at me when I showed them my pictures. ‘They’re all of daffodils!’ everyone exclaimed, falling over laughing. ‘Every single one is of daffodils!’ I looked and was much abashed to see that it was true. Kew with daffodils, Hampton Court with daffodils, York with daffodils, Cambridge with daffodils, Kenwood with daffodils, Burleigh with daffodils. Very King Charles’s head, it was. I felt slightly silly. But I was pleased to have so many pretty pictures of daffodils, all the same!