Notes and Comment Blog

Cult Studs

Apr 19th, 2005 11:31 pm | By

Okay, we need a little amusement to cheer us up after hearing the news about the pope. Although some people are pointing out that it’s good news really: that it’s the Vatican shooting itself in the foot, that now people will realize how authoritarian it is after all. But I don’t know – I’m never very convinced by that kind of thing. Partly because it never seems to happen. People seem so happy to say ‘Oh how sweet, a nice authoritarian pope again.’

So we could do with a laugh. I know I could. I’m wrestling with revisions, and I’m finding this patch a struggle. Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, I’m having to drag them out by force, one at a time. I much prefer it when I get an idea and just re-write a page or two in one go. But on the other hand, I can always cheer myself up enormously by reflecting that I’m not having to revise such utter unmitigated bollocks as this:

What I will focus on here is Butler’s critique in Precarious Life of Georgio Agamben’s concept of the “homo sacer,” or “bare life,” which identifies the discursive limits of the Foucauldian concept of power as the sovereign exception over biopolitical life. I will argue that Butler, whose concept of the performative subject presupposes power to be the totalizing ground by which human subjects are made intelligible, perhaps unfairly rejects Agamben’s critique. His critique of power, I will argue, is much more in dialogue with Butler than she seems to allow, and arguably raises the stakes of Butlerian identity politics by illuminating the possibility that certain political subjects can be – in fact are necessarily, according to Agamben – erased entirely from biopower relations, or humanity itself, through what Agamben calls the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life.

Good stuff, don’t you think? Notice, just for one thing, how the hapless reviewer uses the identical emptily pompous phrase – ‘the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life’ – twice in the space of two sentences. (Okay not absolutely identical – he adds a word in the second appearance.) But notice more, oh so much more, the way the vocabulary is used as a little invisible pump to inflate some very obvious ideas into something that is meant to sound – like more than that. Like a great deal more than that. Wouldn’t you think people would eventually stop doing this kind of thing? Because people like me see them doing it and point it out and laugh raucously? Wouldn’t you think they would, some day, finally, embarrass themselves? I would. But they don’t. Why is that?

Judith Butler later clarifies Foucault’s theory of power, expanding upon its merely implied strategies for subjective resistance to dominant technologies of power and making the important intervention that subjectivity is not just an expression of the “top down” subjugation of an “individual” but is intrinsically performative. The performative subject is both inaugurated by power relations and at the same time is constantly recreating its discursive, epistemological law in dangerously supplemental, disruptive ways. Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford UP 1997) explores in depth what she, after Foucault, sees as the total immersion of the subject in power relations without recourse to an originary “individuality” or essentialized political identity who exists prior to the subject’s inauguration into power.

Right? Right.

Butler’s conceptualization of post-structuralist identity politics, like Foucault’s, relies on a presupposition of “power” as the matrix of intelligibility, or ground by and through which biopolitical subjectivity is inaugurated and “exists.” This grounding in power, for Butler, extends to the very body of the subject. Recent criticism of Foucault’s concept of power by Georgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford 1995), however, convincingly argues that power indeed has an outside – namely its “sovereign exception” over what Agamben calls “bare life,” or the homo sacer.

And so on. It’s all like that. None of it is any different. It’s all the same. It starts like that, and it goes on like that, and it goes on like that some more, and it ends like that. Somebody – a guy named Don Moore, in fact, a nice wholesome name, sounds like a baseball player – wrote it like that, presumably on purpose. Maybe it’s a parody. Only I doubt it, because if it were a parody, it would probably be a lot better, so as not to give the game away. It would be much less repetitive, for one thing. The baseball player is a graduate student in English and ‘Cultural Studies.’ I was just being abusive about the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ in conversation with my colleague a couple of hours ago, and that was before I read the bottom of this review where it tells us that the writer of it is in ‘Cultural Studies.’ I already hated the very phrase (I have that reaction that Goebbels talked about, you know the one). Now I hate it even more.

I wonder what Ratzinger thinks of Cultural Studies.

You Just Can’t

Apr 19th, 2005 1:57 am | By

I listened to last week’s ‘Start the Week’ yesterday. (I always listen to it late, for some reason.) I like Andrew Marr, but I didn’t realize how much I like him until I heard Sue MacGregor filling in for him. Dang, she made a mess of it. She kept interrupting – no doubt it’s the presenter’s job to keep things moving along and on track, but Marr manages to do that without constantly cutting people off in the middle of a sentence. And worse than that, she kept getting everything wrong, misunderstanding the guests’ books and what they said to her, and saying the silliest thing she could think of. She contemptuously told Jeffrey Sachs, who’s just written a book about how to end poverty, that we were always chucking money at Africa. He was so annoyed he repeated it back to her about eight times during the show, along with some full explanations of why it was bullshit. Come back soon, Andrew. Yes I know there’s an election, but all the same.

One of the guests was Cristina Odone. I wrote a N&C about her once, a long, long time ago. I don’t remember the details, but it was something foolish she said about religion, I remember that much. And she said more foolish things on Start the Week. She’s one of the ‘You may not say critical things about religion’ crowd. She’s very cross with her old colleagues at the New Statesman because of their cover story about the pope. She didn’t actually say that what the NS said – that the pope did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined, I believe – is not true, just that it’s bad to say it. It makes religious people angry, to see that kind of thing. Therefore we mustn’t say it. Oh. So we should just watch in cheerful silence then while the Vatican tells people not to use condoms, and even tells them that condoms don’t block the virus, which is a lie? Well the hell with that. And it’s not the NS that is wrong to point it out, it’s Odone who is wrong to rebuke them for doing so. This kind of authoritarian nonsense is increasing, it seems to me – this self-righteous ‘how dare you criticise religion’ rhetoric. Well how dare you not criticise it? Do you think the pope is right to ban condoms? If so, why? If not, why do you think we should be quiet about it?

Richard Dawkins wrote a terrific article on this subject in 2001. In it he quoted from a terrific speech by Douglas Adams.

Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says “I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,” you say, “I respect that.”

Exactly. Just what I’m always saying. You’re just not. Why? Because you’re not!

So popes can get away with murder and we’re supposed to just sit back and take it.

The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking “Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?” But I wouldn’t have thought, “Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics,” when I was making the other points. I just think, “Fine, we have different opinions.” But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say “No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it.” Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe… no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so?

And of course because people like Odone (and even other people, of whom one would not expect it) get indignant or more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger about it, thus making sure that we keep on being used to doing so, keep on shying away from the ring-fenced holy taboo inner sanctum, keep on not saying the pope did a hell of a lot of harm for just one guy without nuclear weapons. It’s a bad arrangement. Ring-fence that.

Alas, Poor Dworkin

Apr 18th, 2005 2:47 am | By

Just a couple of comments on Katha Pollitt’s excellent article on Andrea Dworkin. One to quibble, the other not.

The antipornography feminism Dworkin did so much to promote seems impossibly quaint today, when Paris Hilton can parlay an embarrassing sex video into mainstream celebrity and the porn star Jenna Jameson rides the New York Times bestseller list. But even in its heyday it was a blind alley. Not just because porn, like pot, is here to stay, not just because the Bible and the Koran–to say nothing of fashion, advertising and Britney Spears–do far more harm to women…

Not to quibble with Pollitt’s basic disagreement with Dworkin. But – ‘to say nothing of fashion, advertising and Britney Spears’ – I’m not sure I get that. Is there a huge difference between porn and ‘fashion, advertising and Britney Spears’? Or at least, wasn’t some of the kind of thing Dworkin thought harmful to women about porn, the same kind of thing that’s going on in fashion, advertising and Britney Spears? I would have thought so, frankly. I disagree with plenty of what Dworkin said – but it depresses the hell out of me that most women from the ages of six to sixty-six seem to feel obliged to look as much like prostitutes or porn stars in a state of violent sexual arousal as they can possibly manage. No no, they would all tell me with one voice, they’re ’empowered’ and ‘sex-positive’ and I’m just an angry ol’ puritan. But if it’s so empowering to mince around in catch me-fuck me shoes and tiny little camisoles and makeup and ringlets and all the rest of the nonsense – why don’t men do it? Hah? Why do men still slouch around in baggy shorts and t shirts and their regular old faces? Because they know damn well it’s not empowering, that’s why. (Okay, okay, that’s not the only reason, it’s also because camisoles and ringlets aren’t considered sexy on men. But you know what I mean!) I heard something similar on Front Row the other day, in a farewell discussion of Dworkin. Someone said Dworkin’s views would never fly now, now that every advert you see has a hypersexualised woman in it (or words to that effect). Well, yeah! I thought. That’s just it. It used to be thought (by the people who thought that kind of thing) that those ads full of panting quivering women were, you know, kind of objectifying. They haven’t become less so now just because they’re everywhere instead of just almost everywhere.

Sigh. Obviously that battle is well and truly lost, which is dispiriting. Pollitt is dispirited too.

These days, feminism is all sexy uplift, a cross between a workout and a makeover. Go for it, girls–breast implants, botox, face-lifts, corsets, knitting, boxing, prostitution. Whatever floats your self-esteem! Meanwhile, the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion–when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?
I never thought I would miss unfair, infuriating, over-the-top Andrea Dworkin. But I do. And even more I miss the movement that had room for her.

Yeah. Me too. Boy, do I miss that movement. Where did all those pissed-off feminists go?

Into the sunset, I guess.

What’s in the Daily Pope Today?

Apr 16th, 2005 11:39 pm | By

Hurrah for Ian Jack. Hurrah for Polly Toynbee and now for Ian Jack. I love this comment on the Guardian’s popification – I feel like flapping my hands and saying ‘that is so true‘ like a Valley Girl. (I am a Valley Girl at heart, actually. I just cover it up well. But underneath the cynicism, the sneers, the bad language, the bloodshot eyes, the duelling scar – underneath all that I’m basically just a San Fernando valley high school sophomore who wouldn’t hurt a fly.)

The Pope — this is a crude and prejudiced paraphrase of the coverage — had ended the Cold War, brought down the Berlin Wall, and defended the world’s poor against the depredations of the world’s rich. He was ripe for beatification. No more humane, more spiritual or more important individual had recently walked the globe.

And that’s not new, either. It obviously got a lot worse when he snuffed it – a whole lot worse – it turned into a complete explosion of imbecility – but the kind of thing was bad before. I’ve been shouting at the radio for years because of the solemn pious deeply-impressed way it used to talk about the pope and his every move – as if – hello? – he were everyone’s pope, as if we were all Papa’s children. ‘Not this cookie!’ I used to yell at NPR, before changing the channel to the all-blues station. But what was that about? That childish uncritical worshipful tone that crept into papal coverage – as if the wretched man had never done a thing wrong, as if the Catholic church were an unmixed blessing, as if – oh never mind.

Jack compares the pope festival to the Diana festival.

There was no end to grief. It is worth recalling some details. William Hague wanted Heathrow to be renamed Diana Airport, Gordon Brown was said to be seriously considering the idea that August Bank Holiday be renamed Diana Day. Three foreign tourists were sentenced to jail for taking a few old teddy bears from the tributes heap. Newspapers instructed the Queen and her family to grieve, and to be seen grieving. Many people were recorded saying that they grieved more for Diana than for their dead mothers and husbands. Not to grieve was to be odd, cynical, wicked.

Diana airport!! That is hilarious. I didn’t know that. Can you imagine – Heathrow is bad enough just as a place to be – but can you imagine having to fly into and out of Diana airport?! The shame of it!

But anyway, I remember the frenzy very well. I was fascinated by it. I remember the insane stuff about the people arrested for taking a teddy bear or two. Because – what? Diana wanted them? All of them? To do what with? And how? And boy do I ever remember the stuff about the Queen. I found it sort of funny in a way – still do in fact. Because it was so Not One. One does not emote in public (or in private either actually). One certainly does not emote on television. A passing mention of an annus horribilis in an after-luncheon speech at the Guildhall (or wherever it was) is one thing, but a command performance of sorrow for a pack of drooling subjects is quite another, thank you. And One frankly does not feel all that much sorrow in any case, to be quite honest. One has known a good many other people whom One regrets more than One regrets One’s silly narcissistic publicity-mad daughter-in-law. One wasn’t made to go on television to emote for any of them, so why is One being made to do so now? One really finds it all quite insufferable, and One will read One’s careful speech with about as much emotion as One would read the breakfast menu.

Yep, that was pretty funny stuff, but it was also pretty disgusting. Because the whole thing boiled down to the fact that Diana took a good picture. Period. If Anne had been the one to get killed, driving the Range Rover 120 miles an hour and bumping into something, would there have been all that fuss? Would there have been a tenth of it? Don’t be ridiculous. No, it was classic pseudo-event, as Boorstin called these things (and he called them that a long time ago, before they’d really hit their stride. These days pseudo-events are really pseudo-events. Pseudo-events with hair on their chests.)

My resentment — a popular resentment, so far as I can tell — came from something else: an instruction from the media to have me see as hugely important something that I regarded only as reasonably interesting, and to feel something (sorrow, awe) that I didn’t feel. The more that television and newspapers leave cold information behind in pursuit of warm emotion, the more authoritarian they seem: their tone is not so much an invitation to know as an order to feel (which is a good definition of sentimentality) —there was, in Diana’s case, a dictatorship of grief.

Just so. There’s a lot of it about. Coverage of Michael Jackson, for instance. I always drop things in shock and surprise when I’m listening to the World Service on the radio and the news leads off with something about Michael Jackson – as if that’s the most important thing they could mention. For the whole world! Michael Jackson! We’re not ordered to feel grief about him, as far as I know, but we are ordered to be interested, and pruriently interested at that. We’re ordered to feel intensely interested in and concerned with various pointless celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt and ‘J-lo’. That was the deal with the pope, I guess – he was famous. That’s all. He wasn’t quite as young or as pretty as Diana, but he was maybe even more famous. It’s a wonder nobody made the Queen go on television to say how wracked with grief she was.

Fire the Canon

Apr 16th, 2005 3:15 am | By

That discussion of literary theory I mentioned a couple of days ago was in large part about the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and whether it is a conservative organization and if it is who cares and if people do care why do they care. Kind of a ‘you have unfashionable trousers’ argument, as Chris Williams described it in a comment on ‘Not Either Silly.’ Bizarrely irrelevant. This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard the assumption, but it sounds just as fatuous the 500th time as it did the first. Henry makes the point in his post at CT.

Cultural Revolution then goes on to attack the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics for using such retrograde notions as “imagination,” “shared literary culture,” “serious,” and “classicists and modernists” in its statement of purpose, and to note how it received its initial start-up money from the conservative Bradley Foundation. So far, so pedestrian. What’s interesting about the post is not what it says, but what it assumes: that an interest in literature for literature’s sake is innately conservative. And, by extension, the question it doesn’t ask: why is it that an organization which is interested in studying literature and imagination is perceived as a conservative bulwark, and has no choice but to go to conservatives for funding and support?

Really. Very you have unfashionable trousers, if you ask me.

First, it’s by no means obvious that post-structuralist literary theory and its cousins are, in any real sense of the word, radical. Indeed, you could make a very strong case (Russell Jacoby is very good on this) that they’re substitutes for radicalism, and piss-poor ones at that…Second is the extraordinarily pervasive notion that there’s something inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake, rather than as grist for the mill of deconstructionism. I suspect that something like this is at the basis of Cultural Revolution’s suspicion of the Valve, and of ‘classicism,’ ‘imagination,’ etc. And it’s bullshit – there’s no reason why one can’t appreciate and enjoy cultural forms for their own sake…

So (I do have a point) it was interesting to read this article by Frank Lentricchia again (it’s in Flashback in case you ever want it and can’t remember who wrote it or how to find it) and see that it’s at the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics site. Because that’s what it’s about. The fact that it is possible to read literature without bothering about whether one is conservative or lefty or wearing unfashionable trousers. It’s interesting coming from Lentricchia because he was a fashionable trousers guy once, and then he got tired of himself.

I once managed to live for a long time, and with no apparent stress, a secret life with literature. Publicly, in the books I’d written and in the classroom, I worked as an historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, and without noticeable impediment, about literature as a political instrument. I once wrote that the literary word was like a knife, a hammer, a gun. I became a known and somewhat colorfully controversial figure, regularly excoriated in neo-conservative laments about the academy…When I grew up and became a literary critic, I learned to keep silent about the reading experiences of liberation that I’d enjoyed since childhood. With many of my generation, I believed that my ability to say the words “politics” and “literature” in the same breath was the only socially responsible way to affirm the value of literary study.

But, fortunately, fortunately, he did get over it. A lamb returned to the fold. A poor forlorn theorist escaped from the dungeon.

Then, seven years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unspeakably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational.

So now he’s all like conservative and he eats lunch with Rush Limbaugh and stuff because he doesn’t think it’s interesting or clever to call Faulkner a racist or DeLillo an elitist. So much for black leather jackets eh.

Another Miscellany

Apr 13th, 2005 10:36 pm | By

A few miscellaneous items worth a look.

At Crooked Timber, one on Christopher Hitchens. This includes Jimmy Doyle giving some quotations from the Guardian and the New Statesman from the autumn of 2001 to show sceptics that there really were people saying just the kind of thing that other people on the thread had said no one other than ol’ Ward Churchill actually said. Quite amusing, in a morbid way. And one
on literary theory and whether literary criticism that is interested in, say, formal or aesthetic aspects of literature, or uses the dread word ‘imagination,’ is automatically ‘conservative’ and if so in what sense and according to whom and why should we care and who asked you anyway. Also quite amusing, and about a less deadly subject (though perhaps a more deadly boring one).

At Michael Bérubé’s blog, we learn that David Horowitz has been silly. He did an email debate with Bérubé, then deleted much of what Bérubé said, then posted what was left – himself talking a lot and Bérubé being oddly tight-lipped – and, hilariously, Horowitz asking Bérubé why he keeps not answering the question. Seems like a foolhardy plan, since he didn’t exactly do this in secret. He kind of, you know, published it.

But when I went to the FrontPage site to check out the “debate,” I found that almost all my replies to David had been cut from the “conversation,” and that Glazov and Horowitz, after chopping all the stuff I’d written, slapped me upside the head for not replying to them…Well, holy infant Jesus with a rattlesnake, folks – what a shabby little stunt. First they refuse to publish my responses, and then they chastise me for not responding to them? What is going on over there at FrontPage – are they smoking crack, or are they just giving up altogether? Did they think maybe I wouldn’t notice that fifteen paragraphs of mine had somehow disappeared from the text of the “debate”?

What were they thinking, one wonders. That dangerous lefty professors can’t count good?

Oh darn, there’s an update (she says, having gone from the page with the post by itself to the home page and seen the explanation posted a day or two later). Apparently Horowitz made a mistake – didn’t see the interlineated replies, or something. (Note to interlineators: put them in a different colour next time. Red is quite noticeable.) Never mind, it’s still worth a look, because of all the huffing and puffing about intellectual laziness.

(The blog overall I don’t recommend. Bérubé has always struck me as quite self-infatuated, and unpleasant to people he disagrees with [he was remarkably rude to Russell Jacoby in the Letters section of The Baffler a few years ago, for no reason at all that I could figure out]. The combination of aggression and self-absorption is not all that appealing.)

Not Either Silly

Apr 13th, 2005 6:28 pm | By

I’m going to have to disagree with my friend Norm on Polly Toynbee’s comment on the pope. I hate to do it – but he’s off on his travels, so that’s all right. David Hadley of Stuff and Nonsense alerted me to Norm’s post. (How busy I am these days. I don’t even have time to get around to checking Norm every day. Terrible.)

I really don’t get it. Every time there’s an event that brings forth a manifestation of religious belief by large numbers of people, some militant secularist or other will give out an opinion that would be jejune coming from an intelligent sixth-former…But how she can speak in so trivializing a way of world-wide reaction to the death of the head of a church whose ‘deeper power’ she herself characterizes as lying ‘in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is mystifying to me…I do not think there are any good evidential or other reasons for belief in a supreme deity, much less a benign and all-powerful one. But to speak now, in the face of a historical experience stretching over millennia, as if religion is no more than a silly mistake of silly people – answering to no real human concerns, meeting no deeper needs, all just froth – is (not to put too fine a point on it) silly.

Well, it’s my turn not to get it, and to find it mystifying. Really. For one thing, the world-wide reaction is part of the point, surely. The irrationality and indeed anti-rationality of that reaction is part of the subject, not a reason for not talking about it. And the fact that this one man had ‘personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is also part of the point, not a reason for not addressing it. Why shouldn’t the strangeness (to put it rather neutrally) of that authority be examined and questioned? Norm seems to be suggesting that it ought rather to be taboo – but why? It is an absurdity, after all, and not one that we accept in any other context. It may sound silly to point out the absurdity, but maybe that’s because the absurdity is so obvious? So we’re just supposed to ignore it? Because it’s rude to mention it? But it is absurd – and of course far worse than absurd. Toynbee wasn’t actually trivializing, she was indicting. That’s the sad thing about the papacy and the whole rigmarole that goes with it – it’s both absurd (in a manner beneath even a sixth-former, I should think) and extremely harmful. Why should that subject be passed over in silence? It needs talking about more, not less, I would have thought.

And surely it’s this idea that we ought not to say such things that helps to perpetuate them. (As I’ve said before. How tediously repetitive I am.) There is such massive cultural pressure and peer pressure these days* to be deferential to religion (excuse me, I mean ‘faith’) and believers, and that cultural-and-peer pressure just helps religion to go on being shielded from criticism, and why should it be? Why? Why should religion alone among belief systems and institutions (with the possible exception of the family, another sacrosanct item these days**) be shielded from criticism? Especially given how powerful it is? Especially in the case of the Catholic church and especially especially the pope?! Of all people! Who else has the kind of magical global power he does? No one! The dalai lama has some international influence, but he doesn’t issue edicts in the same way, and his words aren’t binding in the same way. Plus Buddhism is nowhere near as harsh as Catholicism. And dalai lamas don’t have the gall to issue edicts announcing themselves to be infallible. I ask you. This guy is officially formally infallible and he tells people not to use birth control and not to use condoms – and we shouldn’t say harsh things about him?? He is the one person on earth most in need of oversight and criticism, as sharp as possible.

I suppose he does have one rival for magical global power – and that would be bin Laden. Same kind of power, too: power over people’s minds. Well he’s not beyond criticism, is he. Nor should the pope be, and especially when every front page you see is busy drooling over him, which is not the case with Osama.

And the part about human concerns and human needs – I don’t see the relevance. Concerns and needs don’t cause things to exist that don’t exist. People’s putative need for god doesn’t cause god to exist, any more than my need for a falafel sandwich is going to cause one to appear on my desk. And more than that, religion is one thing, and the pope is another. It’s perfectly possible to think the papacy is an absolutely terrible idea and still believe in a deity. A certain fracas that took place in the 16th century springs to mind.

So – there it is. I don’t think Toynbee was a bit silly, I think she said what badly needed saying.

*I say ‘these days’ because I do think it’s gotten worse and is going on getting worse, than it was in, erm, previous days, but don’t ask me for the exact date, because I don’t know, but date it from Jimmy Carter if you like, or Reagan, or some UK-relevant date but I have no idea which one, nothing occurs to me.

**See above but with possibly different dates.

Papal Obsequies

Apr 11th, 2005 8:34 pm | By

I usually like David Aaronovitch’s columns (even though, or perhaps because, they sometimes make me squirm slightly – not enough to rattle the chair, but enough to rearrange a few dust particles), but I take issue with something in this one. It’s about the pope and the ructions last week, and what to make of it.

The cover of last week’s New Statesman, for example, proclaims of the dead Pope that ‘he did more to spread Aids in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. By opposing the use of condoms, the argument went, the church had created intense and unnecessary suffering.
But this won’t do, either. The church has only succeeded in Africa by tolerating polygamy, and, as the Statesman admits, its teaching on birth control hasn’t prevented a dramatic drop in family sizes in some African countries. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the church is being magically obeyed on condoms, while being ignored on everything else. In other words, where doctrine conflicts with culture, doctrine loses. It wasn’t the Pope that done it.

Wait. One, Aaronovitch doesn’t know (or if he does he certainly doesn’t say) how many people in Africa do ‘magically’ obey the church on condoms. Two, is it likely that the number of people obeying the church on condoms is actually zero? None at all? Surely not. If not, doesn’t that dismissal seem a little quick? A tad hasty? It does to me. Three, the stakes are high – a horrible lingering early death that often leaves destitute orphans, some of whom go into prostitution for want of alternatives and soon die of AIDS themselves, leaving even more destitute siblings – so again the dismissal seems too quick. Four, what about the rest of the world? Especially the rest of the Third World? The Vatican’s murderous condom-ban was certainly not confined to Africa; it was global. Five, as is well known, there is already difficulty in getting men to use condoms, because men don’t like wearing them; the more subordinated women are, the harder it is for them to insist that men wear condoms; this is especially true for prostitutes – some of whom are the very young daughters of AIDS victims and other destitute people; therefore any religious edict that could give an apparent moral or religious gloss to men’s reluctance to wear them will be warmly welcomed and used by many men who will cheerfully ignore other religious edicts; such religious edicts are therefore extremely, lethally harmful to women. And six, even if not one person on the planet heeded the Vatican’s ban, it would still be wicked and disgusting of the pope to have tried it. Bottomlessly disgusting. Mindless, superstitious, pointless, stupid, and savagely cruel. The putative ‘reason’ for the church’s ridiculous insistence on banning contraception is so wildly out of proportion to its disastrous possible effects – a horrible slow degrading miserable death at an early age – that it’s surely beyond defense. And that’s the relevant point when talking about the pope, isn’t it? The fact that he tried to ban condoms, not whether or not he succeeded? He wanted to succeed, and that’s an incredibly bad, savage thing to have wanted to do. He was a bad man. Yes no doubt he meant well by his own lights – but he was desperately wrong about the lights, wasn’t he.

No, I much prefer Polly Toynbee’s take on this one. Toynbee rocks, as Chris Whiley said in sending me the link.

With the clash of two state funerals and a wedding, unreason is in full flood this week. Yet again, rationalists who thought they understood this secular, sceptical age have been shocked at the coverage from Rome. The BBC airwaves have disgraced themselves. The Mail went mad with its front-page headlines, “Safe in Heaven” and the next day “Amen”. Even this august organ, which sprang from the loins of nonconformist dissent, astounded many readers with its broad acres of Pope reverencing.

We had some idiotic headlines here, too. Of course that’s less suprising here – sad to say.

It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol’ boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace – why not?…The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy…With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms – this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.

That’s more like it. It really is beyond comprehension. The more you think about it the more beyond comprehension it is. They must have known their ban would cause people to get a horrible fatal illness – and yet that didn’t stop them. It is hard to understand.

This is said often, even in this unctuous week – and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost.

In 1971 I interviewed Mother Teresa and asked how she justified letting starving babies be born to die on Calcutta streets for lack of contraception. She said sublimely that every baby entering the world was another soul created in praise of God, even if it lived only a few hours. She was never keen on cures: suffering was a gift of God that enabled those who cared for the afflicted to demonstrate their love. She was beatified by John Paul II for their shared religious mania. Those who met them talk of an aura of love, power, listening and intensity. But goodness is in doing good; good intent is no excuse for murderous error.

Another soul created in praise of God, even for only a few hours. How beautiful, how ‘spiritual’ – except that the praise-hungry god doesn’t exist, while the woman who had the baby that died does.

At the funeral will be a convocation of mullahs, rabbis and all the other medieval faiths that increasingly conspire together against modernity. Islamic groups are sternly warning the Vatican to stand firm against liberal influences on homosexuality, abortion, contraception and the ordination of women. What is it about religion that unites them all on sex? It always expresses itself as disgust for women’s bodies, leading to a need to suppress women altogether. Why is controlling women’s bodies the shared battle flag of every faith?

Because women are sluts, obviously. Hail Mary.

One Thing to Learn

Apr 9th, 2005 11:03 pm | By

This is good fun – although a few of the answers will give people like Philip Blond fits. But that’s good, that will give him something to talk about next time he’s on the radio. No doubt producers are calling him all the time, now that he’s an expert on What’s Wrong With Science.

Anyway. Lots of good ones.

I would teach the world the importance of staying actively intellectually engaged throughout our lives, especially as we become elderly. There are good data now that point to the fact that continuing to challenge yourself late in life — taking up a new hobby, learning to play a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, etc — actually helps to maintain cognitive function, and protects against the onset of cognitive decline.

Yeah. I did one or two N&Cs on that nun study a few months ago. And it would be worth doing even without the protective effect – though the protective effect means you can do it that much longer, so it comes to the same thing.

Paranormal phenomena do not exist. Magic, witchcraft, mind-reading, clairvoyance, faith healing and similar practices do not work and never have worked. It makes a crucial difference whether we imagine ourselves surrounded by supernatural beings and happenings or whether instead we see ourselves in a world that science can help us understand.

Tell it, brother.

Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth that science gets rid of mysteries, started by the Romantic poets, was well nailed by Albert Einstein —whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling, and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets.

Beautiful. Take that, Philip Blond!

Frighteningly, most people do not understand Darwin’s great insight…Once you see it —copy, vary, select; copy, vary, select —you see that design by natural selection simply has to happen…Then, the scary implications follow. If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened, and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.

Yeah, but then we’d miss the fun of an occasional papal funeral. Are we sure that would be a good idea?

I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right.

Yeah but if everyone did that then we’d miss the fun of stuff like papal infallibility and mullahs telling everyone what to do. Are we sure that would be a good idea?

The Nerve of Some Teachers

Apr 8th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

Here’s a very useful collection for you – links to news coverage of Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley’s proposed ‘Academic Freedom Bill of Rights.’ People like Baxley are a big help, you know? Any time I listen to Start the Week or Saturday Review and get a little cross or downcast or highstrung about the way everyone simply takes it for granted that all Americans are both stupid and insane – well all I have to do is think of people like Rep. Baxley and I realize why UK radio chatters might think that.

The Alligator gets in some good jabs.

At the Capitol, Baxley opened the council meeting by saying that personal criticism he received about the bill was a sign the government should step in to govern what university professors can say in the classroom.

And Horowitz was there to spice things up, of course. (His frequent flyer miles must be really racking up these days.)

As editor of Front Page Magazine, Horowitz wrote in a 2001 article that the theory of evolution was a political invention “to attack traditional values.”

That Darwin. Didn’t he have anything better to do than invent some pesky theory to attack traditional values? What was his problem, anyway? Was he just, like, pissed because he wasn’t born in Florida, or what?

Casting the “crisis” in higher education as a struggle between “leftist totalitarianism” and “mainstream values,” Horowitz cited anecdotes about students being marked down for disagreeing with professors in class. He divulged neither the names of these students nor their professors.

Hmmmm. For instance…like in biology class, when the professor is lecturing about DNA and a student keeps interrupting to say ‘No it’s not DNA, it’s God, what does it’? Or in English class, when the professor is leading a discussion of, say, ‘The Prelude,’ and a student keeps interrupting to say that Wordsworth wasn’t actually Wordsworth but rather Anastasia Romanov in disguise? Or in history class when the professor is lecturing on the Third Reich and a student keeps interrupting to say the Holocaust never happened? Or in astronomy class when a student keeps interrupting to say that the moon is a large paper disc five thousand feet above the earth?

I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that kind of what students go to university for? To be disagreed with? If it’s not, why do they bother going at all? Well, to get a credential, I suppose. But if the credential is really that completely divorced from this business of having existing opinions and knowledge or the lack of it disagreed with, then why bother with physical attendance? Why waste all that time and energy? Why not just go to the damn credential store and buy the credential and let it go at that?

It must happen with books, too. That’s sad, isn’t it. There the poor innocent student is, reading along, and all of a sudden she reads something that is different from what she herself thinks. Fortunately, books can’t mark people down, so the harm is smaller – but all the same. Something ought to be done about it. Stickers on the covers, maybe, that give a warning – ‘Danger: Contents may contain statements that differ from reader’s own sacred identity-fostering opinions. Read with caution. Have medications handy. Play soothing music. Breathe deeply and slowly. Stop after fifteen minutes.’

Come to think of it, there are stickers like that. So much for sarcasm. Reality keeps outrunning sarcasm, these days.

A Slight Mix-up

Apr 8th, 2005 4:28 am | By

I know I shouldn’t laugh. But oh dear, it is funny. They must have worked up such a sweat trying to think up a good theoretical explanation – and all for nothing.

Literary rediscoveries form a routine part of cultural life. They have a certain protocol. A given author has been “unfairly neglected.” The reissue of a book is “long overdue.” The rescue from oblivion is, in effect, the righting of a wrong. The most striking thing about the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins is that, for once, the process is running in the opposite direction. Now that it’s clear the author was not African-American, her novels seem destined for something for which we lack a familiar language — or even a name. Kelley-Hawkins is now due, for want of a better term, to be reforgotten.

Yeah, that ‘unfairly neglected’ trope. I’ve been wrestling with that particular hydra for a long time. I went through a phase of reading a lot of rescued from oblivion novels by women, and some of them did have considerable historical and social interest. But it did finally dawn on me that in fact their consignment to oblivion had not been unfair at all, because they weren’t good enough. Some were abysmal, others were just mediocre; but what they were not, was Jane Austen-level or Emily Bronte-level good, ruthlessly tossed aside for no other reason than because the authors were women. They were like 99.9% of novels, by women and by men (and by any other category you can think of, too): just not very good, so displaced by newer not very good novels, which would soon be displaced by more not very good novels. That’s life. Fairness doesn’t come into it.

As this story* makes all too apparent. When scholars thought Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was black and hence one of the unfairly neglected crowd, she was worth reading – all the more because she mysteriously wrote about white characters. Food for theorizing there.

Without the academic labor required to interpret Kelley-Hawkins — to reconcile, in short, the extreme blondeness and pinkness of her characters with the presumed complexities of the author’s racial identity — there is no reason to read the novels at all.

Which cannot help but make one wonder if there ever was any reason.

Within a few years, Claudia Tate would write in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (Oxford, 1992) that the novelist “avoid[ed] racial despair by suppressing entirely or partially the discourse of race,” thus creating a fictional world “under the auspices of equal opportunity in a meritocracy.”

Ohhh, she suppressed the discourse of race – I see. That would explain it.

Now, there certainly were early African-American writers who were concerned with the ambiguities of “the discourse of race” and all its “codes of intelligibility.” The fiction of Charles Chesnutt, for example, actually contains all the irony and paradox that critics have laboriously contrived to uncover in Kelley-Hawkins’s novels, with their earnest tedium. Indeed, reading Chesnutt has a kind of boomerang effect. His fiction about African-Americans “passing” or otherwise reinventing themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is sometimes so intricate in implication that you only grasp what has happened in a story hours after you’ve finished it. There is nothing like that reading experience with Kelley-Hawkins. On the contrary, the critical literature since 1988 has often been at pains to avoid expressing irritation with her work. Acknowledging her mediocrity would tend to distract everyone from finding subversive meanings.

Maybe it will be a relief now, to be able to express that irritation. ‘So all those vapid white girls weren’t ironic evidence of the discourse of race, they were just vapid white girls! No wonder I always hated these novels!’

Even if Kelley-Hawkins were black, I asked, should she have been highly placed on those lists? After all, Shockley herself hadn’t been that enthusiastic about the novels.
“I had to struggle through a lot of work like that,” she said. “Some of it was quite boring, but it was worth it even to get one more black woman writer onto the list.”
It’s possible to see her point, but still to wonder. There is a passage in Four Girls at Cottage City that has been bothering me. One of the characters comments on the pleasure of going to the theater, even “if we do have to get seats in ‘nigger heaven.’”…Now if any part of Kelley-Hawkins’s work would seem to require careful analysis from scholars interested in race, that one would. Yet the critical literature tiptoes past, nodding at it but not saying much. Whatever the author’s own race, it would be crucial to understanding her world view and her work.
It is the passage in which form and content, aesthetics and ideology, are perfectly combined — a revelation that the fiction of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, trite as it may be, embodied the banality of evil. Perhaps we shouldn’t forget her just yet, after all.

*I know, it’s more than a month old, but I only saw it out of the corner of my eye then. My mistake.


Apr 7th, 2005 7:49 pm | By

He’s right you know, Krugman is.

But studies that find registered Republicans in the minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as in softer fields. Why?…In the 1970’s, even Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican Party was the “party of ideas.” Today, even Republicans like Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the “party of theocracy.”…Consider the statements of Dennis Baxley, a Florida legislator who has sponsored a bill that – like similar bills introduced in almost a dozen states – would give students who think that their conservative views aren’t respected the right to sue their professors…His prime example of academic totalitarianism? When professors say that evolution is a fact. In its April Fools’ Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution…saying that “as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.”…Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that “the jury is still out.”…Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

This is something that puzzles me, actually. I’m puzzled that there isn’t more resistance to it from Republicans. I realize there is some, but I’m puzzled that there isn’t more – that there isn’t so much that it’s effective. After all, at least two large branches of conservatism – the libertarian branch and the country club branch – tend to have a lot of time for meritocracy, education, science, rationality, and the like. They’re kind of basic to capitalism, for one thing, and capitalism is sort of a conservative thing, at least in the US. Not classically conservative, but how many classical conservatives are there in the US? Six? Seven? Everybody else is all for creative destruction. So the death-grip that the Bible-bashers have on the party of the free market and competitiveness is…a source of a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Maybe it’s just that Bible-bashing seems to win elections, so most Republicans don’t want to mess with it. Well, except when even they get fed up, as Shays apparently did. Party of theocracy indeed.

A Game, a Game

Apr 7th, 2005 2:49 am | By

Oh dear, I feel like the White Rabbit, rushing along looking at his watch and fretting at how late he is. I’m very late. But that’s because I didn’t know. I wasn’t told. No one told me. I only found out by accident, dropping in for a read of Eric the Unred. He’s got this Book Meme thing going, and he said he was going to pass the stick to three people, and one of them was My Humble Self. Is my face red. He passed me this stick and I promptly dropped it and went downtown to hang around the pool hall and frighten people. That’s not co-operative.

Right then.

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Hamlet. Hey, I’ll do you a two-for-one special – I’ll throw in Lear. And some sonnets. Such a deal.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Besides Hamlet, you mean? No.

The last book you bought is:

Oh right like I can afford to buy books.

The last book you read:

Err – all the way through, you mean? Gee, I don’t know – it was so many decades ago.

What are you currently reading?

Oh, gawd – it would be quicker to list what I’m not reading. Well, Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason, Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ Human Nature After Darwin, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, several Rorty books, Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled – among other things. I, uh, don’t read books all the way through – oh wait, you already know that, I told you all about it last month in that thing about reading sideways. I admitted it all. I read two pages of lots and lots of books, then throw them aside and go down to the poolhall. You understand.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

All of Jane Austen’s novels in one volume. Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin in one volume. (I am not cheating. Be quiet.) A fat anthology of English poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries. Anna Karenina. The Red and the Black.

I’m going to skip the one about passing the stick to other people, because Eric says this thing has been going around and probably everyone has already done it by now while I wasn’t paying attention and I don’t have time to look first to see who hasn’t and besides I’m shy.

Update. I changed my mind. I knew this would happen. Replace Anna K with the largest possible one-volume collection of Hazlitt’s essays (far larger than any that actually exists – it will have to be made specially). Replace Red and Black with ‘The Prelude.’

We’ll Run Out of Straw, at This Rate

Apr 5th, 2005 8:44 pm | By

A little wisdom from Foucault. ‘Truth and Power.’

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power…’Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.

That’s a pretty glaring bit of rhetorical sleight of hand. It’s fairly obvious that he’s talking about truth-claims, not truth itself. There’s a big (and important) difference! Obviously truth-claims can be (and often are) power-moves. The same is not in the least obvious in the case of truth itself; in fact it’s not, not to put too fine a point on it, true. Obviously Foucault, not being a fool, must have been well aware of that…but, who knows, maybe he was more intent on persuasion than on scrupulous argument. In fact maybe he was simply acting out his own point – his own truth-claim. An ‘argument’ or rhetorical claim that relies on a brazen equivocation like that is certainly one form of constraint – and a particularly obnoxious one because not explicit, not obvious, not avowed, not out in the open where it can be resisted or at least noted. It takes one to know one, as the saying goes.

Richard Wolin quotes from ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ on page 42 of his The Seduction of Unreason:

The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice; that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth; and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind.)

That is, as Wolin points out, an astonishing thing to say.

And then there’s Philip Blond. I’ve transcribed a little of the Night Waves discussion, so I’ll quote you a bit. I’ve also googled Philip Blond (and been slightly staggered to find my own mention of him here as the fourth item – now I suppose this mention will be in there too, which makes me feel dizzy). I found this bizarre-looking book on ‘post-secular’ philosophy, listing the most predictable possible trendy names – you can say them in your sleep: Kierkegaard Nietzsche Heidegger Levinas Marion Wittgenstein Derrida Freud Lacan Kristeva Irigary Baudrillard, along with three wrinkly non-trendies. All those dragooned into Blond’s ridiculous project.

I say ridiculous because the things he says on Night Waves are truly ridiculous – the strawest of straw men. Get this:

Philip Dodd: Maybe it’s time to call science’s bluff…[to Blond] Do you think science is overly revered at present?

Philip Blond: I think almost undoubtedly yes. I mean of course in some limited or partial sense science is true, but it by no means is the exclusive or sole model of what truth is. Indeed I would argue that something other than science has to be true if science itself is to be true. Science is wrong in our culture or has become unhinged it seems to me in two ways. First of all in contemporary culture science has converted its harmonic with truth into an absolutism, into a kind of quasi-fundamentalism. Such that it claims to be the sole exhaustive universal model of truth. Secondly, in doing so, it has drained all other accounts, all broader or richer accounts of truth of any value. The absolutization of science has resulted in the relativisation of morality, ethics, aesthetics, anything else you’d care to name.

See what I mean? As if scientists said they were the exclusive or sole model of what truth is, or the sole exhaustive universal model of truth! Sheer silly strawmanism, that’s all that is. And yet Mr Strawman got to do most of the talking, and got to interrupt everyone all the time (I think because he was the first one asked to speak he got the idea that he was sort of in charge of the discussion, so felt entitled and perhaps even expected to control and dominate it. Or maybe he just has an inflated idea of his own importance).

A peculiar confluence, isn’t it, a theologian and Nietzsche and Foucault. But that’s postmodernism for you. Playful.

Gertrude, Gertrude, What is the Answer?

Apr 3rd, 2005 7:44 pm | By

A bit more on this ‘science can’t answer the why questions’ trope. Because it’s a surprisingly enduring and frequently-heard one, and yet it’s completely worthless. If it’s so worthless, why is it so enduring and so often repeated? Because not enough people say often enough how worthless it is? That must be it. Okay so let’s all start saying that more often, and maybe with our combined weight we can beat it to death.

What the silly phrase means is that science doesn’t permit itself to make up answers to why questions, whereas religion and ‘theology’ do. The idea that that makes religion and theology superior rather than grossly inferior is ludicrous.

You could play that game in all sorts of ways (which means: behold, a reductio ad absurdum approaches). Ask a friend: ‘How many grains of sand are on this beach?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Shake head sadly – assert random number. ‘I can answer and you can’t.’ Repeat procedure. ‘How many leaves on that tree? What was the name of Shakespeare’s pet iguana? What did Napoleon eat for lunch on March 20 1784? What is the meaning of life?’ Rational people say they don’t know; you invent an answer; which party has a problem? Which party ‘can’ ‘answer’ the question?

And then, the answer that religion and ‘theology’ give is not an answer anyway, because the question is just as askable as it ever was. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ‘Because God.’ ‘Why is there God?’ ‘____’

Night Waves

Apr 2nd, 2005 5:16 am | By

Well it’s a good thing I listen to Night Waves occasionally, or I never would have known about this – which makes me think I really ought to shout at I mean remonstrate with Julian for not telling me, because I can hardly imagine anything more directly up B&W’s street. Well I ask you – two of the four panelists have contributed to B&W, and one of those two contributes on a regular basis, often, every two weeks, or thereabouts. So listen to it – it’s as interesting as it sounds.

The only trouble is, Nighwaves makes the usual tedious stupid mistake and has a theologian join in, and he does way too much of the talking, and says fatuous things (as theologians do). Really, it is irritating. He says a lot of things that aren’t true, for one thing – the usual guff about science thinking it knows everything and scientists thinking they should run everythng blah blah blah. It’s all crap; scientists don’t think that. Straw man stuff, and a waste of time, when they could have had more of the interesting stuff from Norman Levitt and Julian and A S Byatt. (Julian got a dig in, when he said ethics panels are not run by scientists but by other people, philosophers, a lot of them – and also theologians, for no particularly good reason. Yeah, thought I.) They are such a waste of time and attention, and yet they keep being asked. It is annoying. He did the ‘why’ thing, too, of course – you know – ‘science can’t answer the why questions.’ Oh right and you can?! How do you answer them, you blathering git? By making it up, that’s how! Why does that count?! Your answer is completely worthless, it’s just what you want to believe, and we’re supposed to think that makes theology better able to answer than science is because science just says it doesn’t know and the question is probably not answerable? Making up a weak silly wish-fulfilling answer is not better than saying ‘Dunno’! It’s not! God I hate theologians.

But apart from Philip Blond it’s very good indeed. Check it out.

More From the R-Man

Apr 1st, 2005 9:02 pm | By

A little more Rorty, for your amusement, and for the irritation of people who are irritated by my take on Rorty.

Pragmatism, by contrast, does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature – or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries…Some of these inquiries come up with propositions, some with narratives, some with paintings. The question of what propositions to assert, which pictures to look at, what narratives to listen to…are all questions about what will help us get what we want (or about what we should want.

That’s from Consequences of Pragmatism page xliii. Now a comment from Thomas Nagel, Other Minds page 9.

lately some purveyors of philosophy-made-easy have become world famous…Analytic philosophy has escaped almost completely the facile relativism that seems to be so influential elsewhere in the humanities, originally stirred up by Derrida and now defended by references to Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn. Philosophy seems to export its worst products…When debased philosophy is very influential elsewhere, the only way to combat it actively is to enter the arena and compete for popular conviction…While I admire those, like Dworkin and Searle, who have the stomach and the talent for this sort of polemic, I have lost what appetite I ever had for it, and hope instead that the current wayve of confusion will subside if we just ignore it.

No doubt Nagel is ignorant of his rudiments of intellectual history, or he wouldn’t be so harsh…[That’s a joke! No, wait, I mean that’s irony. No, sarcasm – no, zany madcap humour – no – ]

Tell Them, Gov

Apr 1st, 2005 7:52 pm | By

Well done, governor of Illinois. Step up, other 49 governors.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich filed an emergency rule Friday requiring pharmacies that sell contraceptives to fill prescriptions for birth control quickly, following recent incidents in which a Chicago pharmacist refused to fill orders for contraceptives because of moral opposition. “Our regulation says that if a woman goes to a pharmacy with a prescription for birth control, the pharmacy is not allowed to discriminate who they sell it to and who they don’t,” Blagojevich said in a news release. “The pharmacy will be expected to accept that prescription and fill it … No delays. No hassles. No lecture. Just fill the prescription.”

Well said. A little bluntness is welcome and necessary in this nonsensical situation. A situation in which people say things like this:

Supporters of pharmacists’ rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief.

Pharmacists’ rights? Pharmacists’ ‘rights’ to refuse to do the job of a pharmacist? What ‘right’ is that? They have the right to quit, obviously, but they don’t have a ‘right’ to refuse to do their job – not and keep the job they don’t. You might as well say a restaurant chef has a right to refuse to cook pasta because it looks like worms, or a plumber has a right to refuse to insert the male pipe into the female pipe because it looks like fornication, or a bus driver has a right to refuse to let passengers get on the bus because they will only be wanting to get off again.

Pharmacists often risk dismissal to stand up for their beliefs, while shaken teenage girls and women desperately call their doctors, frequently late at night, after being turned away by pharmacists. “There are pharmacists who will only give birth control pills to a woman if she’s married. There are pharmacists who mistakenly believe contraception is a form of abortion and refuse to prescribe it to anyone,” said Adam Sonfield, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which tracks reproductive issues…Supporters of pharmacists’ rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief. Women’s groups see it as a major threat to reproductive rights and one of the latest manifestations of the religious right’s growing political reach – this time into the neighbourhood pharmacy.
“This is another indication of the current political atmosphere and climate,” said Rachel Laser of the National Women’s Law Centre. “It’s outrageous. It’s sex discrimination. It prevents access to a basic form of health care for women.”

That’s what it looks like to me. The religious right is a classic case of taking a mile after the donation of an inch. The more they are offered nervous apologetic anxious soothing ‘respect’ for their ‘beliefs,’ the more respect they demand, and the more they throw their horrible mindless coercive weight around. It’s imperative to say No. No, no, no. Your beliefs are not worthy of respect; people were pretending all this time, in order not to hurt your feelings, but the fact it it’s all nonsense, and no basis on which to tell other people what to do. Go away, shut up, have some humility. Keep your god to yourself.

Theocracy in America

Apr 1st, 2005 3:22 am | By

It’s all quite alarming, as Paul Krugman points out.

Democratic societies have a hard time dealing with extremists in their midst. The desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs all too easily turns into denial: nobody wants to talk about the threat posed by those whose beliefs include contempt for democracy itself.

Doesn’t it just. Which is one reason I keep nagging so relentlessly at this ‘desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs’ – asking why we have it for some kinds of beliefs and not others, and why we have it at all, and the like. I mean, seriously – one reason I don’t have desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs is because people who make a fetish of their beliefs are far more coercive and intolerant and intrusive than people who have the humility and vestige of rationality to realize that mere beliefs are just that, and don’t entitle them to shove them onto other people, or try to tell other people what to do because of them. I think it’s way past time we started telling people ‘if you want to believe in supernatural entities, okay, but you have to recognize that that’s your choice and that you can’t expect anyone else to agree with you – because that’s how it is with supernatural entities: you have no way of giving us any evidence that they exist. So keep your beliefs to yourself.’

One thing that’s going on is a climate of fear for those who try to enforce laws that religious extremists oppose. Randall Terry, a spokesman for Terri Schiavo’s parents, hasn’t killed anyone, but one of his former close associates in the anti-abortion movement is serving time for murdering a doctor. George Greer, the judge in the Schiavo case, needs armed bodyguards. Another thing that’s going on is the rise of politicians willing to violate the spirit of the law, if not yet the letter, to cater to the religious right. Everyone knows about the attempt to circumvent the courts through “Terri’s law.” But there has been little national exposure for a Miami Herald report that Jeb Bush sent state law enforcement agents to seize Terri Schiavo from the hospice – a plan called off when local police said they would enforce the judge’s order that she remain there.

Jeb Bush used his office to try to break the law. (Gee, why does that have a familiar ring to it…)

Yesterday The Washington Post reported on the growing number of pharmacists who, on religious grounds, refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after pills. These pharmacists talk of personal belief; but the effect is to undermine laws that make these drugs available.

Welcome to God’s country. Really – it’s way, way past time to stop respecting people’s beliefs and start pushing back.

This Again

Apr 1st, 2005 3:15 am | By

Just in case you’re interested. Yet another argument about the French hijab ban at Crooked Timber, in which CT frames the issue as if all Muslims and people from majority-Muslim countries were opposed to the ban and only honky imperialists and totalitarian secularists were in favour of it. I shouldn’t be rude; the intentions are good; but there always is so much left out of this discussion, it gets up my nose. Never so much as a mention of Ni Putes ni Soumises, or the fact that a majority of Muslim women polled in France favour the ban – which you would think would be relevant to a discussion that’s premised on the idea that the ban is humiliating because it singles out a religion or ethnic group.

As always, though, there are some French commenters chiming in and setting CT straight, or at least trying to. Yabonn, who has tried before, and François. There was a memorable version of this discussion about a year ago when Rana, who unlike any of the anti-ban commenters had actually been made to wear the damn hijab as a child, told people what a joy that was. But did they listen to her? Not that I noticed. They just…don’t. One-eared.