Notes and Comment Blog

Cohere, dammit!

Feb 8th, 2007 8:54 am | By

It’s good that they’ve figured it out at last, but they do make me laugh while they’re doing it, sometimes.

The government must rely less on Muslim leadership organisations, Ruth Kelly said yesterday…The communities secretary said: “There are many people in Muslim communities who are already taking a brave stand…this new, more local approach will help reach directly into communities…”

In other words, the communities secretary used the word ‘communities’ several hundred times in the course of a short announcement. Oh well – I suppose it’s only to be expected.

“In the past, government has relied too much on engagement with traditional leadership organisations.” But there is concern in the Muslim community that the government is marginalising groups which represent large parts of the community, such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

The Guardian has the tic as badly as Kelly does, and the Guardian is not even the communities secretary. There is concern in the community that groups that represent large parts of the community are being – wait, where am I, I’m getting all tangled up here; community, groups, parts, community – oh never mind, let’s go be concerned about something else for a change.

Hazel Harding, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Safer Communities Board, said the funding would help, but warned that community cohesion involved effort from all groups.

Also parts of groups. And factions of parts of groups. And sects of factions of parts of groups. But once we get all that straightened out and lined up in rows – what about the cohesion thing? Isn’t community cohesion in some instances the problem as opposed to the solution? It depends on which group (or faction or community) is doing the cohering and to what end, doesn’t it. I can think of some cohering I wish had never taken place. There was that festive little outing to King’s Cross for instance.

The libidinal pleasure of gazing at torture

Feb 7th, 2007 2:34 pm | By

Johann Hari has some thoughts on the Chapman brothers.

In 2003, the Chapmans bought some of Goya’s original prints – and vandalised them. Where Goya drew with documentary clarity the agonised victims of war, the Chapmans painted the jeering faces of clowns and puppies over them. “Goya’s the artist who represents the kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the ancien regime,” Jake Chapman explained, “so it’s kind of nice to kick its underbelly.” Goya famously said “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. The Chapmans say the opposite: it is when reason is wide awake that it produces monsters…The Chapmans trashing Goya is a pure expression of postmodernist philosophy. They vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason – and what do they offer in its place?

Oh, you know, the usual stuff, Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, torture, ‘transgression.’

Jake Chapman echoes his hero. He talks about the “libidinal pleasure” that comes from seeing a real picture of a real person being tortured, because of the “transgression of the ethics that that image is supposed to trigger or incite”. A few years ago he was asked in the Papers of Surrealism: “Does Battaille’s formulation of the conception of transgression relate to the way that work like your own is sometimes suggested as being part of a necessary force?” He replied: “Yes – a good social service like the children who killed Jamie Bulger.”

Wo – dude, that’s hip. Or something.

Why are atheists atheists?

Feb 7th, 2007 2:32 pm | By

So Julian turns up on Comment is free.

If there’s one thing philosophers are not in short supply of it’s confidence and self-esteem…The unexamined life, we are fond of repeating, is not worth living. It sounds very noble, until you realise that the subtext is that not only are the Big Brother-watching masses unfit for existence, but even those engaged in less fundamental academic pursuits are lower forms of life.

But is that the subtext? It depends how you decide what a subtext is, I guess (the subness of a subtext gives a certain leeway for accusing people of saying things they haven’t actually literally said, which can be interesting but unfair or fair but uninteresting or various other things), but I have doubts. Saying a life is not worth living is not the same thing as saying that people who have lives of that kind are unfit for existence – it could be, for instance (and is, surely), rather advice to people in general to try to have such a life, one that is within reach of anyone not incapacitated by illness or desperate poverty or the like. I don’t think it has to be read as necessarily an elitist bit of self-congratulation, any more than an enthusiastic recommendation of ‘Hamlet’ does.

Of course, Julian knows a lot more philosophers than I do, and maybe he’s speaking from experience; maybe they do swan around preening themselves on their examined lives and pitying everyone else. But I’m not sure that bromide about the unexamined life has to be read that way.

Formal schooling in philosophy tends to teach you to listen for just one thing: logical consistency. That is as wrong-headed as learning to listen only to the melody of a piece of music and to ignore harmony, rhythm, timbre, phrasing and the rest. I’ve increasingly noticed this in debates about religion. Many atheist philosophers seem to think the value and nature of religion is determined purely by the truth or falsity of its creeds, understood literally. Religion’s other dimensions – practice, attitude, form of life and so on – are ignored as irrelevant at best, and secondary at worst. As an atheist myself, I find this spiritual tone-deafness detrimental to the cause.

Hmmm. Well, again, Julian would know about atheist philosophers, but all the same – I’m not convinced that that amounts to spiritual deafness. In fact – this just occurred to me – if the truth and falsity of the creeds aren’t primary for Julian himself, then why is he an atheist? If he thinks practice, attitude, form of life ought to be primary along with the truth and falsity of the creeds, then couldn’t he just be a non-believing religious person?

That’s why atheists are atheists, isn’t it? It’s certainly why I am. Even when we do value the practice, attitude, form of life, singing, and the rest, we can’t and don’t want to sign up to the whole thing simply because we don’t believe it. The truth or falsity question is primary and everything else is secondary because it is (for those to whom it is). I can see that there’s more to talk about, but I’m not sure I can see why truth or falsity should be anything other than primary.

And apart from that, the idea that truth or falsity should modestly step back a little makes me uneasy. Doesn’t that just open the door to all those instrumentalist arguments for why religion is so wonderful? It’s good for your health, it makes you happier, it’s consoling (unless you think things through), it provides community, it motivates many people to be good, so never mind that it’s all an invention. But it’s very hard not to mind that, and it’s also not intellectually honest. Does that amount to spiritual deafness? I don’t think it does.

Loitering at the intersection

Feb 6th, 2007 11:34 am | By

Speaking of groups and maintaining them and rights and related issues – my colleague is working on a book about identity, one which looks set to be very good and very interesting. We were talking about it on the phone yesterday, I was talking about Amartya Sen and his view that identity can and should be multiple and fluid and voluntary, and JS said (something like) yes but we don’t want all identities to be fluid and optional, we for instance want to stick to the Enlightenment (that’s very approximate; I wasn’t taking notes and besides he talks very fast and I get only about one word in ten). I said yes but is the Enlightenment a matter of identity? Is it not rather one of values or principles? I don’t remember where we went from there, but wherever it was he had a point, but so did I, and the intersection of the two is one I frequently find myself loitering at. It’s the obvious and familiar paradox: I believe in critical thinking; very well, so do I believe in critical thinking about critical thinking? Well, yes, of course, but I can’t help noticing that the result is always the same: I go on believing in critical thinking. To do anything else would seem to be a contortion beyond human ability. If I think critically about critical thinking and so decide it’s a bad thing and that I will be dogmatic and uncritical instead, then I no longer believe in critical thinking, so I’ve been consistent, in a sense, but I’ve also turned myself inside out. I suppose I can just answer by saying that no matter how critically I think about critical thinking, I still go on thinking critical thinking is necessary, but I do so for sound reasons. A dogmatist could just reply that I merely think I do so for sound reasons.

Maybe I can just resort to a brute fact. It’s a brute fact that we have to think in order to function well. That’s how we got here. We can decide to give it up, but it’s not the best way for entities like us to function, just as it’s not clever to poke our own eyes out or chop our own legs off. (Some people do chop their own legs off. I got a phone call from one such person a few months ago. He’d read an article I wrote for TPM on the subject, and phoned me to tell me about his recent leg-chopping-off. Oh god…)

This paragraph from Jerry’s book in progress is relevant to all that.

It is not only in tightly-knit groups such as Buford’s hooligans that this merging of personal and group identity occurs. Indeed, at least in part, we all define ourselves in terms of our membership of particular social groups. Thus, for example, the author of this book self-identifies as British, heterosexual and male. However, the part that such identities play in what might be called our narratives of self, and the emotional investment that we have in each of them, varies from individual to individual and from group to group.

And also from time to time, and situation to situation. For instance, I was probably much more aware (albeit in a background way, because slightly different thoughts were in the foreground) of my identity as a female while I was writing that back of the bus comment below. I’m more aware of my identity as an American when reading or hearing unaffectionate comments about Americans in for instance global media. I’m possibly slightly more aware of my identity as heterosexual when writing comments about anxious archbishops, although actually I doubt that, because (as queer theorists rightly point out) straight identity is generally so dominant and taken for granted that one doesn’t really think about it even when faced with a contrast; it’s the same (as whiteness studies theorists point out) with whiteness. Default identities recede way into the background in ways that less dominant ones don’t. Nationalism must have been a much punier thing before cheap rapid travel, because whatever you were was the default thing to be.

More later.

Life is not a museum

Feb 6th, 2007 10:47 am | By

Some tensions here.

Miriam Shear’s day quickly turned ugly when she was ordered by a religious man to move to the back of the bus, a common practice on many routes serving the religious population…[She] refused politely when he demanded her seat, pointing to several others nearby. He yelled and spat on her. Incensed, she spat back. In the 20-minute scuffle that followed, which was joined by four other men, she was slapped, pushed out of her seat and onto the floor, beaten and kicked…Shear’s case, which has gained notoriety here as a kind of religious Rosa Parks incident, is cited in a petition to the Supreme Court to review the segregated bus policy, in what is seen as a test case in balancing the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion against the basic human rights of all.

I am already very leery of that phrase, ‘the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion,’ and its cognates, and I get more so all the time, since they keep expanding and explanding and encroaching more and more on all other rights. To be blunt, I don’t think a minority (or anyone) should have ‘rights of freedom of religion’ except to the extent that such rights don’t encroach on other people’s rights. That’s a lot easier to say than to spell out, because what does and does not encroach on other people’s rights is, to put it laughably mildly, contested. But that’s my basic stance, all the same.

‘…when people are being sprayed with bleach on the street because their clothes are not considered modest enough, when women are being beaten on buses, when these things are going on and the rabbinical leaders say nothing, there is an appearance that it is condoned,” Ms. Shear said in a telephone interview from her home in Canada, emphasizing that she respects Haredi values but regards the violence as a tragedy that cannot be ignored.

Well, she has something of a problem then, whether she realizes it or not. It’s very very difficult to do both; perhaps impossible. It’s hard to ‘respect’ values and resist their real-world instantiation at the same time. If you decide to sign up to (or never decide to sign off from) a set of very conservative religious beliefs and rules, it becomes very difficult to justify resisting any of them. That’s because that’s how very conservative religious beliefs and rules work: they are given, they are a product of authority, they are dogma; change, flexibility, critical thinking, adaptation are not the goal and not valued. This means that people who ‘respect’ the overall picture are at a radical disadvantage if they want to select a few of the rules and beliefs to refuse.

[S]ecular passengers have reported being harassed or kicked off for what other passengers deem inappropriate dress, and even modestly dressed women have been verbally abused for refusing to board through a rear entrance and sit at the back…[T]he bus question is part of a growing trend of what observers say is an increasing drive for religious purity in some parts of Haredi society in the face of growing Western and secular influences…[R]eports have emerged of so-called bleach patrols trolling the religious neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, throwing bleach on the clothing of women they deem to be immodest…More serious is a new rabbinical ruling that has ordered an end to postsecondary degree programs for Haredi women, even within ultra-orthodox educational institutions.

Familiar stuff. Growing Western and secular influences. Oh dear; what to do? Crunch women some more. Squeeze them harder and harder and harder until there’s nothing left – just a husk. Just a dry empty weightless husk. The only safe woman is an emptied-out woman.

“There is a very strong feeling of attack from the outside world,” said Tzvia Greenfield, a Haredi woman and former left-wing member of the Knesset who holds a doctorate in political philosophy…The question for liberal thinkers is to find the right equilibrium between these two main concerns: women’s rights and human rights on one hand, and the right of the group to maintain its way of life.”

Well, that’s not the question for this liberal thinker (meaning me). The question for this liberal thinker is why Greenfield is concerned at all about ‘the right of the group to maintain its way of life’ when that way of life depends so heavily on squashing and controlling and bullying more than half of its members. What’s to maintain? What’s to be concerned about? Not all ways of life are good for all members of the group, so what’s all this curatorial fretting about maintaining them? The hell with them. The way of life of slaveowners was not worth maintaining; why maintain the way of life of any group that has no truck with equality or justice or rights except for the privileged sector of the group?

This one covers a lot of ground

Feb 6th, 2007 9:04 am | By

One comment I particularly liked in this review of Why Truth Matters, because it said we did a kind of thing that I like to see done, that I think is a worthwhile thing to do, so it was very gratifying to find that someone thought we had done it.

Benson and Stangroom’s WTM opposes unqualified relativism and thus allies itself with other books in this tradition. So if you are lured to it by the prospect of finding something extraordinarily startling, but have first familiarised yourself sufficiently with this type of literature, then you probably won’t find here anything shocking. However, to its great credit, and unlike other books of its class, this one covers a lot of ground (virtually every school of notoriety of radical relativism) in a few concise, enjoyable to read pages.

Well…good; I’m glad you think so. That was one of the goals. (Of course, we also wanted to startle and shock, and perhaps even terrify, but you can’t have everything.)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali can’t say that, can she?

Feb 4th, 2007 12:13 pm | By

Another conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose new memoir is titled bluntly and succinctly Infidel.

Strictly speaking Hirsi Ali is not an infidel but an apostate, a designation that in the Koran warrants the punishment of death. The distinction is not without significance. In a poll published last week, one in three British Muslims in the 16-24 age group agreed that ‘Muslim conversion is forbidden and punishable by death’. This figure comes as no surprise to Hirsi Ali…Liberals, she says, have shirked the responsibility of making the case for their own beliefs. They need to start speaking out in favour of the values of secular humanism. And they need to make clear that they are not compatible with religious bigotry and superstition.

Yup they do – even at the price of being called a liberal neocon.

She speaks in a language that makes no concessions to the softening euphemisms of political correctness. Those immersed in circumspection and ever vigilant to the contemporary sin of offence are bound to ask themselves if she’s allowed to say what she says…Writing in the New York Review of Books, the historian Timothy Garton Ash described Hirsi Ali as a ‘slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist’. Last year when Garton Ash chaired a discussion with Hirsi Ali at the ICA, he seemed both to admire the incisiveness of her quietly spoken logic and to wince at its unshakeable conclusions…She was one of the few intellectuals, for example, who rushed to support the Danes in the cartoon crisis last year. If you believe in the right of freedom of expression, she says, you have to defend that right. In a debate a few years back, Hirsi Ali challenged the Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, something of a poster boy for the multicultural left, to be more consistent and clear-cut in what he said…Ramadan responded by questioning Hirsi Ali’s adversarial style. ‘The question,’ he said, ‘is whether you want to change the mentality or please the audience.’…’Tariq Ramadan is filled with contempt for Muslims because he believes they have no faculties of reason…Like many believers in multiculturalism, he puts himself on a higher plane. The other thing is that it’s not about your style, it’s about your content. Are my propositions right or wrong?’

She also argues that it’s important to address white liberals because they need to overcome the self-censoring effects of post-colonial guilt. ‘If you want to feel guilty,’ snaps Hirsi Ali, ‘feel guilty that you didn’t bring John Stuart Mill and left us only with the Koran.’…’In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals,’ wrote Garton Ash, ‘she has gone from one extreme to the other’. The word on Hirsi Ali is that she is ‘traumatised’ by her upbringing and her subsequent adoption of a Western lifestyle. It’s the word that Ian Buruma uses to describe her condition in his book Murder In Amsterdam. Needless to say, she finds this appraisal of her ideas patronising.

So do I, so does Pascal Bruckner. Garton Ash and Buruma take exception to Bruckner’s account of their views, but he does directly quote them; I think it’s a fair cop.

Read the whole article; it’s very meaty.

A short but holistic PhD

Feb 3rd, 2007 3:26 pm | By

So Ben Goldacre reads Gillian McKeith’s PhD – all 49 stapled pages of it.

Inside is what I could only describe as Cargo Cult science: she’s going through the motions, but the content, only closer inspection, is like an eerie parody of an academic text. There are lots of grand statements about research, with nice superscript numbers relating to references in the back. But when you chase to the back of the book to see what these academic documents are, they include such august periodicals as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite: Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet…She expands grandly and uncritically – with anecdote, but no data – about her many dramatic treatment successes, like a physician from the dark ages. She talks about her own “clinical research”, with huge claims for its findings, but wherever this clinical research is, all you can find here are her anecdotes…Since people like me started digging, the McKeith industry – worth millions – describes her as a holistic nutritionist. There is no such thing as “holistic nutrition”: if you make statements about food and are backed up by academic/scientific research, as McKeith does, repeatedly, in her books, her shows, her semi-academic work, and products … then that’s just nutrition. The word “holistic” is at best a piece of branding; but at worst, it’s a cloak for accepting inadequate standards of referencing and evidence.

Ah yes…Did we remember to include ‘holistic’ in the Dictionary? What a silly question.

Everything good. Whole, pure, sincere, whole, integrated, spiritual, whole, centered.

And of course nutritionistic, and healthy, and natural, and (as an unexpected bonus) scholarly.

Bunting lays another egg

Feb 2nd, 2007 12:30 pm | By

Bunting produces another lead balloon. For once it’s worth reading the comments (well not all two million of them, but some) because they’re so uniformly, shall we say unconvinced. Of what? Of Bunting’s sweet suggestion that, good heavens, people, sharia isn’t as bad as all that.

Sharia’s basic meaning is “path to God”; it is a set of spiritual disciplines, which any serious Muslim abides by. The basics are such things as prayer, fasting and the Haj. But it also covers such instructions as no gambling, no backbiting, no alcohol and no cheating. Any devout Muslim is attempting to follow sharia. But that doesn’t mean they want to impose sharia on anyone who is not a Muslim, nor does it mean they agree with the most extreme interpretations of sharia law. Every faith has its laws – churches have canon law, Orthodox Jews have rabbinical courts – and no one argues that this represents separatism as Cameron did of Muslims this week.

No one? No one? Man, Bunting has a short attention span. The fight with the archbishops was only last week, Mads! Keep up!

Don’t get me wrong, there are some exceptionally horrible elements of how sharia has been interpreted – and still is, in some parts of the world – but reducing this vast body of thought to the barbaric practices of the Taliban is a gross simplification, which will do nothing to assist our understanding of the attitudes of Muslims in this country.

It might do something to assist your determination not to be subject to sharia though.

I’ll decide how much light you need

Feb 1st, 2007 6:45 pm | By

Noga pointed out two more articles, and I’m feeling slightly peeved at being told not to ‘blame the Jews, for Chrissakes,’ as if I had, so I’ll say a little more. The articles are interesting. From The Canadian Jewish News, which says the Canadian Jewish Congress doesn’t agree that the synagogue should have asked the Y to frost its windows.

[C]ommunications director Leyla Di Cori…said CJC is trying to get the message out to the public that the entire chassidic population represents only five to 10 per cent of the Montreal Jewish community and “does not reflect the community as a whole.”

Well of course it doesn’t, and neither does anyone else, because there is no such thing as ‘the community as a whole’ except in the case of a town or neighborhood, in which case there is still no one who can ‘reflect the community as a whole’ because that doesn’t mean anything, because people don’t think in a bloc. Why would anybody think that the people at the synagogue did ‘reflect the community as a whole’? I suppose because people keep talking about ‘communities’ that way, just as Leyla Di Cori does.

What the people at the synagogue may ‘reflect’ is a growing tendency for religious zealots to think they can tell everyone else what to do, but that’s not the same thing as reflecting a ‘community.’

Di Cori said she thinks this seemingly minor incident has been played up in the media because it fits into the “reasonable accommodation” debate going on in Quebec today about how far a society that prides itself on being secular and progressive should go to tolerate practices of religious and cultural minorities that are at odds with the majority.

I’ll tell you how far. Zero far. Unless of course there’s no issue, which is no help, because when there’s no issue there’s no debate about how far anyone should go. If there’s no harm and nothing at stake, no problem; if there is harm, the society should go zero far.

B’nai Brith Canada legal counsel Steven Slimovitch “commended” the Y administration for good neighbourliness and finding a “compromise” that poses little or no inconvenience to the institution or its members. In fact, it appears to have been a plus for the Y, because the congregation paid for the change to the windows.

Why is that a plus? The congregation paid to make the windows opaque so that there is less light inside. Why is that a plus? Many of us like natural light.

“Was the space rendered any less comfortable? Can they not work out there any more? No. If it had been, for example, a sewing class that was held there that required a lot of natural light, it would be a different story.”

Ah – so it’s up to him to decide how much light the people at the Y get to have in a situation where the people at the synagogue want them to have less. It’s up to him, not up to them. I see.

He deplored what he regards as the visceral “us versus them” mentality among some Y members. In an increasingly diverse society, he said, it’s necessary more than ever to co-operate and show respect and understanding.

Respect and understanding for the religious zealots who want women to hide, not respect and understanding for people who don’t share their religion and don’t want it telling them what to do and how much light they’re allowed to have in a public gym. No, it’s not necessary to show that, it’s necessary to refuse to show that.

Slimovitch said he doesn’t see this case as a status of women issue in any way, or one that endorses a view that women are somehow shameful and must be kept out of sight.

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he. And he’s not the one who’s being told to cover up, is he, so I really don’t think his opinion is interesting or relevant.

And here’s an ugly little finale:

Alex Werzberg, president of the Coalition of Outremont Chassidic Organizations and a Satmar community member, called “the whole thing a big joke…Everything was fine for months, and then somebody came in and made a big deal out of it – an agent provocateur – who says, ‘Those Jews are not going to tell us what to do,’ called the media and made a hullabaloo.”

Did she? Did she say that? Did she? Or did he just say she did? I know what I think.

Cover yourself!

Feb 1st, 2007 1:31 pm | By

So if there are ‘devout’ people around, then anyone living or working or exercising or playing sport in a building near them has a responsibility to make sure that the devout people don’t see anything that they (or, really, some of them) don’t like. Even if that means that a subset of the devout people can see what the other people are doing only by going outside, around the corner, into the alley, where they peer into the windows – it is the responsibility of the horrible non-devout people next door to wear armour or paint their windows black or turn all their lights off, because after all what right does anyone have to wear shorts and a skimpy top for athletic purposes if there are devout people nearby? No right at all of course. Devout trumps non-devout. Right? Right.

Some members of the Avenue du Parc YMCA are upset with the centre’s administrators, who allowed windows on the building’s west side to be tinted in order to placate leaders of a Hasidic synagogue across the alley. The Y members claim the tinted windows compromise the building’s interior lighting and make it hard to practise tai chi and yoga.

Oh grow up. For heaven’s sake. So the Y is a little darker than it used to be; get used to it.

Members of the Yetev Lev synagogue, on Hutchison Street, paid for tinted windows at the Y after they complained their children and youth were unwittingly watching too many women in various states of undress work out at the gym. The congregation’s rabbi said public nudity is not acceptable to his members, nor to any religious Jew.

Public nudity in the sense of inside a building, next door to another building containing people who ‘unwittingly’ watch women in various states of undress. Right; well that makes sense. It’s perfectly fair, too.

But some people just won’t see reason.

[N]ow the windows have opened up a rift over whether the institution went too far to accommodate a minority. Some Y members have circulated a petition demanding the opaque windows be removed because they not only deprive the room of light, but allow a religious group to impose its ways on the majority.“It’s like getting us to wear a veil. Since we represent temptation, we’re being asked to hide,” Renée Lavaillante, who started the petition, said yesterday. “We shouldn’t have to hide in order to exercise in Quebec. We’re a secular state, and shouldn’t hide ourselves for religious reasons.”

It’s also like ordering you to go to the back of the bus – but hey, be reasonable; the back of the bus is a perfectly nice, homey place. Settle down, get comfortable.

The Hasidic community says it is not out to stop women from exercising the way they like. Members just want to find a way to maintain their strict traditions in a secular world, and felt the windows – for which the congregation footed the $3,500 bill – were a reasonable solution.

Of course they were! Perfectly reasonable! Hey, if a neighbour of mine decided he couldn’t stand the possibility of getting a sight of me reading a godless book (which he couldn’t, because I live at the top of a hill and my windows face into thin air, but never mind), of course it would be perfectly reasonable of him to demand that I have the windows painted black, especially if he footed the bill. Why should I mind a darkened living room if it makes a neighbour happy? I’m not so petty, I assure you!

“We have a belief in being dressed modestly, and we want our kids to see women dressed modestly,” Mr. Weig said.

Not just in our own living rooms, but also in their living rooms. We want our kids to see women dressed modestly, therefore we think we have a right to demand that all women everywhere ‘dress modestly’ according to our definitions and no matter where they are. We don’t want much, do we.

Serge St-André, director of the YMCA branch, said the Hasidim’s request had been submitted to an advisory committee, which judged it to be reasonable…“We are geographically at the junction of several communities, and the YMCA has to take on the colours of those communities,” he said…“We try to be responsive to the requests of the community. It’s a challenge to satisfy everyone.”…a Y member walked up to say he objected to the windows. “We can’t let ourselves be imposed upon by extremist religious groups. What’s next? Separate gyms for women and for men? Wearing long pants and long sleeves to exercise?” Outremont resident Robert Dolbec asked. “They [the Hasidim] should cover their own windows. I respect their right to practise their religion, but not their right to impose their religion on us.”…The frosted-window kerfuffle is just the latest flare-up between the fast-growing Hasidic community in Outremont and the larger secular community that surrounds it. In the 1980s, Outremont passed a bylaw banning the wearing of bathing suits in its public parks; the law was struck down as unconstitutional by Quebec Superior Court in 1985…Asher Wieder, a rabbi at the Yetev Lev synagogue, said he hoped the window row would be resolved peacefully. “We felt the way we worked it out was very fair. They still have light in the room and we help our children keep their traditions and religion,” he said. “I think it’s a good compromise.”

They don’t have as much light, but hey, that’s what ‘compromise’ means. So if that neighbour wants me to paint my windows black and I agree to paint just half of the windows, everybody is happy. Compromise is great.

The psychology of such accommodations

Feb 1st, 2007 10:32 am | By

Jonathan Derbyshire’s interview with Nick Cohen is very good.

‘I realised that people on the left who had once supported Iraqi socialists were going to dump them. That’s when the iron entered the soul. That’s when I thought something is going very badly wrong and that I need to write about it.’Instead of supporting socialists and trade unionists in Iraq once Saddam had been overthrown, some on the left went so far as to romanticise the insurgency launched by Baathist irregulars and radical Islamists, declaring it to be a movement of ‘national liberation’…‘To say it’s left-wing to turn your back on Kurdish and Iraqi socialists is to throw the best traditions of left solidarity out of the window. What kind of left is it that betrays its comrades?’

A very confused one, at any rate.

‘What’s Left?’ is not a book about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq but rather an attempt to answer the question of betrayal…[H]e compares the strenuous act of historical forgetting involved in seeing Islamism as authentically ‘anti-imperialist’ with the mental gymnastics demanded of Communists and their fellow-travellers in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact was sealed. Cohen is interested in the psychology of such accommodations.

Yeah. So am I. I always have been, for some reason – I spent most of my twenties reading about the mental gymnastics of the left in the 30s. I’m very interested in the psychology of such accomodations. And the weird gymnastics of today are indeed reminiscent of those of the 30s – Nick and I did some muttering about that while he was writing the book.

Metaphysical naturalism

Feb 1st, 2007 10:29 am | By

Mark Vernon takes issue with Anthony Grayling on the question of the latter’s challenge to Madeleine Bunting ‘to name one – even one small – contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years’.

After all, there are a number of essentially theological ideas that underpin modern science, such as the notion that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on.

But are those ideas essentially theological? Are they theological at all? (Does ‘essentially’ there mean – necessarily, or of its essence, or something like ‘perhaps not obviously but down deep beyond appearances’? It could be just a no true Scotsman move.)

I don’t think the ‘notion’ that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on is an essentially theological idea, and I tend to suspect that claims that it is are part of the usual pattern of giving theism, or particular religions, credit for pretty much every idea anyone’s ever had, including some pretty obviously secular ones. We’re told that Christianity invented the idea of equality, anti-slavery, science, the worth of the individual, human dignity, secularism – you name it. But the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible doesn’t depend on also thinking there is a god; the two can be separate thoughts; one can have one without the other; in fact, lots of people do have one without the other (some of them are called ‘scientists’). Why would it depend on thinking there is a god? Because the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way? That must be the thought, but it doesn’t seem like a very compelling thought to me. It’s the regress problem again, for one thing. If you think the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way, then why not also think a god couldn’t be a coherent-universe-maker unless a bigger god had made it that way, and so on? And for another thing, it adds a kind of person to the puzzle, instead of just stopping with a coherent universe, for reasons which are not self-explanatory, at least not to me. So why couldn’t people just look around them and see a lot of coherence and intelligibility and come up with the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible, and leave it at that? They could; lots did; so in what way is that notion essentially theological?

I said at Comment is free that the coherent-universe notion could be a metaphysical belief (as opposed to a theological one) but also that it could equally well be a working assumption, which is what most scientists take it to be.

I don’t like this habit of labeling all or most human ideas religious or theological. It really is possible to think thoughts that are not essentially somewhere down at the bottom theological.

Nostalgia for mud

Jan 29th, 2007 5:22 pm | By

Bunting is at the old stand again.

But it is [A C Grayling’s] claim of the west’s steady march of progress to the happy lands of a universal ideal of rationality and freedom that strikes so hollow. The more vehemently one hears liberal progressives claim progress, the more one wonders who they are trying to convince. Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity – that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James’s new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west’s “good life” – success, fame, wealth – mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Isn’t that just the truth? Don’t you just want to leap out of your seat and yell ‘Dang, Madeleine, you are so right!’? That stinking old progress we like to attribute to something called ‘western or enlightenment values’ is just such a, a, a dead mackerel, compared with the bliss and joy and heaven of the alternative. How I wish I lived in Bangladesh, or Zimbabwe, or Darfur, or Congo, or Guatemala, or Indonesia, instead of here in the poxy old ‘West’ with its poxy old enlightenment values. How I wish I were dirt poor, and illiterate, and crippled from overwork and childbearing (or in fact dead, which is more likely), and malnourished, and bossed around by some man who sits smoking and bullshitting with his friends all day while I do all the work. Doesn’t that just sound like paradise? I do so agree with Bunting about that – how I hate all this education, and clean water, and edible food, and electric light, and functioning plumbing and sewer systems, all these streets and buses and libraries and shops, all these books, all this music, all these schools and universities cluttering up the place.

Anthony Grayling agrees with her just as warmly as I do. He is as impressed with her good sense and powers of observation and inference as I am.

Ms Bunting will be on top of the mailing list for the large tome I’ve just spent years writing (I thank her for this advertising opportunity) on the way liberties, first of conscience, then thought, then the person, then for working people and women, were wrested from the bitter opposition of church and absolutisms premised on “divine right” and their joint legacy of oligarchies of privilege and patriarchy. If the Catholic Church were still running Europe, Ms Bunting would not be writing for the Guardian. Actually, if this was 1950s Ireland, she might not be writing anything.

Indeed she might not. Especially if she’d grown up at Goldenbridge, or been shoved into one of the Magdalen laundries. But she appears to be, frankly, not clever enough to grasp that not very difficult point. She’s just clever enough to do the Christianophobia schtick, and not one bit cleverer.

Finally, Ms Bunting wheels out the bunkum that we (here in Britain?) live in unhappier and more spiritually impoverished times because we do not dwell – well, where? In the warm glow of Torquemada’s Inquisition pyres? On a slave plantation in Jamaica? Would she prefer to be in a harem, or an undermaid in a medieval kitchen?

No, but she thinks she would, which is what makes her so absurd. One of the things – she has other ways:

Having abdicated so much ground in political life – particularly over the economy – liberal progressives have to scrabble together another way to define their notion of progress, and they have recycled old anti-clericalism to attack religion. Faith has become a curiously faddish target in a new, ersatz politics. Judging by the outcry over the past few days, Catholics, or Christians in general, are lurking on every street corner to deprive the English of their most cherished liberties, as they have done all through history. The National Secular Society even raised the cry of English kings down the centuries last week: “Who runs Britain – the government or the Vatican?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Catholics have a duty to care for the millions of people who are under their authority, so shut up about them, even if they do demand special exemptions from regulations mandating equal treatment. If it were some dreaded arrogant liberal progressives demanding such an exemption, would Bunting be so briskly dismissive? I don’t know, but [darkly I doubt it.

The church’s tender concern for children

Jan 28th, 2007 11:47 am | By

Well damn. As Andy Gilmour reminds us in a comment on the last post, the Archbishop’s record on concern for children isn’t what it might be. Isn’t so flawless that he is really the ideal person to be saying what kind of person should be ruled out in advance from eligibility to adopt children. Maybe he really ought to worry about gay couples less given that he did such a bad job of worrying about a priest before.

One of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales has defended his decision to allow a known paedophile to continue working as a priest, despite warnings he would re-offend. A BBC investigation found evidence suggesting Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor ignored the advice of doctors and therapists that Father Michael Hill would carry on assaulting children.

It may have been just a case of compassion, of believing that the priest had changed and ought to have another chance, but even then, the Archbish could have erred on the side of caution out of concern for children and givent the priest another chance in a different kind of job. But he also, according to the BBC, ignored advice.

Documents seen by the BBC suggest the archbishop ignored the advice of doctors and therapists who warned that Hill was likely to re-offend. Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor has now agreed that boys abused by the priest should receive compensation, but as part of the settlement they were required not to speak publicly about what happened.

What right does the church have to set conditions? And how does the church square that with its vaunted conscience and its boasted principles? Why doesn’t it put the children ahead of its own interests? Why in this case didn’t it simply prostrate itself in guilt and remorse and sorrow and do everything it could to make amends, rather than making conditions and silencing the victims?

In short, what principles? What conscience?

A BBC News investigation in 1999 revealed evidence that some Catholic bishops in the UK were failing to follow the church’s child protection guidelines, allowing priests accused of child abuse to continue working. Since 1994 the Catholic Church has had strict rules in place which state that if a complaint is made against a priest, social services should be informed and the priest removed from parish duties.


Principle, conscience, beliefs

Jan 28th, 2007 10:25 am | By

Well, it’s difficult for nice Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, clearly, but – but he does fall back on a lot of emotive but undefined terms, doesn’t he. As do Sentamu and Williams. They all do – because they have to, because they have nothing else to say. What else are they going to do? Just say ‘we hate poofters, they’re icky!’? Say they just can’t stand the thought of men humping each other, it makes them come over all trembly, so they have to dig their little episcopal heels in and say No? Apparently not. So instead of that they just say resounding nothings, that don’t mean anything until the meaning is specified, which it never is. It’s all conscience, and principle, and church teachings, and beliefs, and sensitivities, and morality, and the family, and a man and a woman.

We don’t believe in discrimination – homosexuals should be treated with respect and sensitivity – but the best way of bringing up a child, and the government says so, too, is having a mother and a father.

That’s as concrete as the Cardinal gets. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t cover the subject, because 1) there are more children needing adoption than there are mother-father couples wanting to adopt them and 2) there is more than one thing to compare with the mother-father option: there are gay couples but there are also single gays (which the church does allow, making the cardinal’s remark irrelevant), single straights, potentially (I would suggest) other adult groups, and – last but decidedly not least – institutions. Even if mother and father is the best option, what the cardinal fails to address is the question whether institutions are better than gay couples – and everybody who’s not stark raving mad agrees that responsible loving couples of any kind are better than institutions. So the cardinal’s comment there is beside the point on at least two counts. And that’s his best effort.

Moral views may be changing but our view is rational and has been held for many, many years in this country as the normality. Shall we leave it there?

No. Here’s why. Your view is not rational, for the reasons cited above among others, and the fact that it has been held for many years does not make it so, as you and anyone who pays attention ought to know perfectly well. All sorts of hateful views get held for many many years as normality; it happens all the time; that doesn’t magically make the hateful views nice or okay or acceptable or moral.

We’re not talking about huge numbers. It’s a principle…This is about the rights of the government to legislate, but is also about the rights of conscience – the rights of large numbers of citizens to live according to their beliefs.

But what kind of principle? What kind of conscience? What kind of beliefs? They’re only as good as they are, Cardinal.

Catholics are obliged to obey the law, just like any citizen, but I believe there is such a thing as conscientious objection. On adoption, our beliefs in the primacy and the foundations of family life are a matter of conscience to us.

One that justifies you in a priori excluding gays from being considered for adoption? My conscience says no. It’s a principle.


Jan 28th, 2007 9:49 am | By

Right. This is where two principles slam right into each other. They are frankly irreconcilable. They can’t both be fully accommodated, any more than two bodies can occupy the same space.

The Catholic Church is to go to war over new legislation on rights for homosexuals, vowing to create “gay rights martyrs” if the laws are passed. In a change of tactics, Church officials now say they will not close down adoption agencies as a result of new laws forcing them to deal with applications from gay couples. Instead, they will deliberately break the law in order to bring a case to court. The Church believes it could then challenge a guilty verdict through Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which upholds the freedom of religious expression.

One wonders if it will succeed. One imagines that it might; and that would be a disaster.

This is a perennial problem in the US, as I’ve mentioned before, because of the free expression clause of the First Amendment. That clause is sometimes held to invalidate legislation. How broadly judges define ‘the freedom of religious expression’ is probably going to be an increasingly worrying issue as time goes on. The more broadly it is defined, the less possible a secular state becomes. That is deeply alarming to those of us who don’t want the Vatican or imams or preachers dictating terms for all of us.

And hurry up about it

Jan 27th, 2007 1:08 pm | By

People will get aggrieved and resentful and angry and irritated about anything, have you noticed?

Senior leaders within the Muslim Council of Britain tried to reverse the controversial decision to stay away from Holocaust memorial day, the Guardian has learned…It is understood that Daud Abdullah, the deputy secretary general, and affiliate members from the Muslim Association of Britain joined forces to oppose the lifting of the ban at the meeting last November. They were aided by irritation at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line. Last October, Ms Kelly appeared to criticise the MCB and suggested that organisations that snubbed the holocaust event might be starved of funds.

Irritation ‘at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line’. But the government gives the MCB money (for reasons which are somewhat mysterious, at least to me). The government might decide to stop giving the MCB money. This is irritating? Why is the government obliged to go on giving the MCB money, even if it decides it’s not crazy about what the MCB does?

It’s probably natural to think that way; to think that once people start handing you money on a plate, they have to continue; but it’s irritating.

Adopted children of God

Jan 27th, 2007 12:47 pm | By

This is one time when I find a religious argument rather attractive – although in fact it’s not really a religious argument as such, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any supernatural truth claims. The claims are in fact ethical and secular, but they are made more persuasive, emotive, convincing to believers because they are attributed to Jesus. And this version of Jesus is indeed vastly more attractive and moving than the usual one, and it’s certainly more attractive than the threatening demands of the established churches to be allowed to continue to exclude a despised group. As Simon Barrow points out. The churches seem to have lost the plot, if they think excluding despised groups was Jesus’s pet project.

Despite continuingly emollient words about service and conscience, the church message to the prime minister is still crystal clear: “allow us to discriminate against lesbian and gay people, or we pull the plug on ‘our’ adoption agencies”. This kind of threat is not quite what Jesus had in mind, I think, when he said, “suffer the little children to come to me”…These words were, tellingly, addressed to people who had acquired a habit from religious authorities of putting their own interests ahead of the most vulnerable. Children were usually last in the pecking order in Jesus’ society, which is why he singled them out as exemplars of God’s special concern for those at the bottom of the heap. That’s the gospel. The Catholic Church, like many historic religious bodies, is not at the bottom of the heap…Still seeing its future as a powerful stakeholder, the church naturally struggles with the deliberately marginal ethos of the early Christian movement, and instead is tempted towards policies which enshrine positional arrogance over pastoral care. It has lost its Christian bearings and opted instead for what John Kenneth Galbraith called the deception of “institutional truth”.

And it has not always and everywhere been conspicuous for its tender concern for the people who are at the bottom of the heap. Children in Irish industrial schools come to mind. So do women imprisoned by the church in ‘Magdalen’ laundries, also in Ireland. Victims of paedophile priest join the queue. Maybe the church should worry more about that than it does about its perceived right to go on excluding yet another despised group.

Ironically, one of the key terms the Epistle to the Ephesians uses to describe those who belong to the church is “adopted children of God”. The point is that people belong to the family of Christ not because they are good, worthy, rich, of the “right” family line, ethnicity, gender or theological persuasion. No, they are “in” solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, and they are a sign of that love. This makes the church anti-exclusionary by nature, rightly understood.

I don’t know how true that is (how well it reflects some original nature of the church or of Chistianity), but I do find it rather moving. But I also immediately compare it with the cold, harsh, unloving treatment of children at Goldenbridge – which was not just an absent-minded habit, but a matter of policy – and I marvel at the gap between the ideal and the reality.


Jan 26th, 2007 12:01 pm | By

So now it’s time for threats.

Senior Cabinet ministers including Gordon Brown and John Reid have been warned that Catholic church leaders will campaign against Labour candidates…Mario Conti, the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, has written to five Scottish Cabinet members – the chancellor, the home secretary, trade secretary Alistair Darling, transport and Scottish secretary Douglas Alexander, and defence secretary Des Browne – repeating his warning to Tony Blair that preventing Catholic agencies from discriminating will be a “betrayal”…Last night, the church said it planned to defy the new equality law…[A] Catholic spokesman made clear the sense of rancour within the church.

That last bit really staggers me. The sense of rancour within the church – they feel aggrieved, they feel bitter, they’re pissed off and resentful. At…? At a regulation that forbids them to discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services. If there’s a sense of rancour, that means they feel they’re right to be angry – they feel they’re hard done by. They think it’s a ‘betrayal.’ None of this handwringing about teachings or our conscience, just bloody-minded resentment – at being forbidden to treat homosexuals as outcasts. So we’re right back in Little Rock in 1957 or Mississippi in 1964 – it’s just as benevolent, just as reasonable, just as excusable.

And Blair still hopes. Hopes what?

Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of both the religious community and supporters of gay rights.

Oh did he. What business does he have being hopeful about such a thing? Why does he want to ‘respect’ the ‘sensitivities’ of ‘the religious community’ at all? Why does he not just consider them not respectable and thus refuse to respect them? Substitute other ‘sensitivities’ and see how that rebarbative formula sounds. ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the white community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Gentile community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Caucasian community.’

Haven’t we learned by now that we ought not to respect the ‘sensitivities’ of people who want to treat other people unequally, excludingly, prejudicially, unjustly, for no defensible articulable secular reason? Haven’t we? I thought we had – construing ‘we’ to include people Blair would want to include himself among, as opposed to racists and other defenders of ‘No __ Allowed’ signs and blockages of school house doors and arresting or beating up women who refuse to move to the back of the bus. Give it up, Mr Blair; just respect a better set of sensitivities and let it go at that.