Notes and Comment Blog


Irritating Bluebottle

Oct 26th, 2005 10:42 pm | By

I trust you enjoyed that Christopher Hart piece in the Times. I liked it so much I thought I would revisit a few of the highlights, just for the pleasure of it.

The difficulty is rather that all the religions on offer are so patently preposterous, if not downright unpleasant. Judaism tells us in its most sacred text, the Torah, that a donkey once turned round and started an argument with its master (Numbers, chapter 22); and that the supreme creator took time out to instruct his chosen people not to carry dead badgers, pelicans, hoopoes or bats (Leviticus, chapter 11). Christianity, while accepting these texts as sacred, further believes that God manifested himself on earth in the form of an excitable and frequently ill-tempered 1st-century Jewish rabbi called Joshua (“Jesus” in Greek) who disowned his family and believed that the world was soon going to end. How do we know Jesus was Jewish? Because he lived at home until he was 30 and his mother thought he was God.

Excitable and ill-tempered – well of course he was, on account of not being allowed to carry dead hoopoes or badgers around. Wouldn’t you be? We are a luckier people in a happier time – we get to bring blue teddy bears and bunches of flowers and cards with messages to an alley where someone found a bit of premature chicken. Thus are religions born.

Enter new Labour with shining morning face, like some eager perfectibilian schoolboy, believing that with a few waves of its legislative wand it can banish cultural frictions and religious disagreements from the earth…If the bill is passed then the kind of things I have written at the start of this article – to my mind, perfectly reasonable, evidentiary and legitimately discomforting things – could well land me in Wormwood Scrubs. It is astonishing that any modern democratic government should be even considering such a law…This is a blundering bluebottle of a bill, inanely buzzing around our heads, a colossal nuisance with no sign of intelligence behind it whatsoever.

Yeah. Always beware of eager perfectabilians with shining morning faces – little bastards.



Radical Innovative Bollocks

Oct 26th, 2005 7:21 pm | By

Steve Fuller is a social constructionist, a Stong Progamme-ist. He says things like this:

So, what exactly do science studies scholars do – and why does it seem to bother scientists so much? We apply the theories and methods of the humanities and social sciences to the work of natural scientists and technologists. We study them as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human beings. This may sound like pretty harmless stuff, but it actually took a while even for sociologists to come round to it. Until the 1970s, the ‘sociology of science’ was based on a fairly uncritical acceptance of what distinguished scientists and philosophers of science had to say about the nature of science. To see what this means, imagine relying exclusively on the testimony of priests and theologians for developing a sociology of religion.

Propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them – yes – but what kind of sense? It’s possible to propose explanations that ‘make sense’ of things but are still inaccurate, or point-missing, or fantasy-laden, or tendentious, or all those. Strong Programme explanations of the activities of scientists tend to adduce explanations that have to do with status, financial interests, prestige, rivalry, and the like, while omitting explanations that have to do with evidence; thus they tend to ‘make sense’ of the activities they are considering, at the expense of leaving out major, central explanatory factors.

So maybe it’s not all that surprising that Steve Fuller would tell a US federal court that the theory of intelligent design is a scientific rather than a religious concept that should be taught to children in American schools. In fact maybe it’s not surprising at all. Maybe that’s where strict social constructionism gets you. If you think scientists are to science as priests and theologians are to religion, then no wonder.

Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, said that the theory – which maintains that life on Earth was designed by an unidentified intelligent force – is a valid scientific one because it has been used to describe biological phenomena…Prof Fuller, the author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Intelligent Design Theory, was called by lawyers for the school board. He said the scientific community was slow to accept minority views, but argued that introducing intelligent design might inspire students to help develop the theory. “It seems to me in many respects the cards are stacked against radical, innovative views getting a fair hearing in science these days,” he said. Citing the work of Michael Behe, a leading advocate of intelligent design and a previous witness at the trial, Prof Fuller said scientists have observed biological systems and inferred that a “designer” must exist.

Behold, a variation on the Galileo fallacy. The ‘scientific community’ is slow to accept minority views, the cards are stacked against radical, innovative views getting a fair hearing in science these days – therefore it’s a good idea to cite the work of Michael Behe. They said Galileo was wrong, they say my ideas are wrong, therefore my ideas are right. Einstein did badly in school, I did badly in school, therefore Behe has a point. Radical, innovative ideas are sometimes greeted with skepticism, scientists are skeptical of ‘Intelligent Design,’ therefore ‘Intelligent Design’ should be taught in schools. Let’s call that the Transgressive Fallacy, shall we?



Complicity with Complicity

Oct 25th, 2005 11:25 pm | By

A kind reader sent me such an interesting announcement – which included the injunction at the top ‘Please Circulate Widely’ – so I will! Nobody’s ever said I’m not obliging. (That’s an arrant falsehood, of course, but never mind.)

I should warn you though – this adventure took place October 20 – so that was last week – so it’s over. So you can’t go. So don’t get all excited, because you can’t go.

You’ll really wish you could, though, when I tell you where it was held. In the ‘Namaste Lounge’ – that’s where. I’m not making it up.

There was a ‘panel on the questions surrounding racialized sexualized politics within
the neoliberal political economy through an understanding of empire.’
Professor X’s work on ‘geographies and migrations aims to make
visible the relations of power within the production of knowledge, in
its disciplinary and interdisciplinary forms. It aims to locate these
processes with the larger geopolitical contexts of the production and
reproduction of empire.’ Professor X drew on a book in progress: Seductions
of Empire: Complicity, Desire, and the Insecurity in Contemporary World
Politics.

Complicity – there’s that word again. It must be hot right now. I’ll have to remember to say it more often.

Of course, seduction(s), empire, desire, production of knowledge, and locate aren’t exactly stone-cold either. But complicity has that kind of shimmer to it…

The ‘colloquium utilize[d] a transnational feminist Marxist
analysis to examine the role that desire and desire industries have come
to play within the re-structuring of the neoliberal political economy,
with particular focus on racialized, sexualized formations within
“peripheral states.”’ The discussion aimed ‘to pose broad questions about the politics of
exploitation, violence and desire, and the role of transnational
feminist praxis, feminist International Relations, and cross bordered
social movements challenging the racialized, gendered violences of
transnational capitalism, neocolonialism and empire.’

Professor X ‘has published numerous articles on issues
of migration, reproduction and formal/informal economies, transnational
desire industries, decolonizing feminist methodologies, security and
militarization, and cross-bordered feminist interventions into the
neoliberal political economy. Her work engages in debates within the
fields of feminist and cultural studies, international relations,
international political economy and sexuality, human rights and trauma
studies.’

There we have that omnicompetence thing again, that broad sweep, that modest willingness to take on – I mean, to ‘engage in debates within the
fields of’ – ten or twenty fields that other people spend whole lifetimes trying to learn about and contribute a little to just one of, or a fraction of one of. What is it about these exciting people in Complicity studies, Desire studies, Circulation studies, Knowledge production studies, Decolonizing Feminist methodologies studies, Transnational Desire Industries studies, and the like, that enables them to understand, engage in debates with, intervene in, write books about, and just generally get a grip on so much more stuff than the slow timid havering lily-livered people in the old-fashioned boring dreary disciplines? Is it like a secret pill or a tonic or an incantation? Or what? And why don’t they all just take over everything? Since they have this magical ability – wouldn’t you think they would want to use it to do more than take part in discussions in Namaste Lounges?

They’re probably just biding their time, until the moment is right.



Down With Communalism

Oct 23rd, 2005 7:31 pm | By

Well, this is where communalism and communal thinking and identity politics and endless repetition of words like ‘community’ get you.

A fourteen year old girl was alleged to have been raped ‘in an Asian hair shop, Birmingham, Perry Barr.’ Therefore –

The shop thought to be part of a chain called ‘Beauty Queens’ was one of many which were closed down in anticipation of the peaceful mass protest. The campaign was designed to raise awareness of the issue and expose the tendency of national media institutions to marginalise or ignore crimes perpetrated against the African British community. At one point many advocated boycotting all Asian businesses to place pressure on the community into breaking the wall of silence it had erected when asked for any information to confirm or denounce the allegations.

Boycotting all Asian businesses, because a rape was alleged to have happened in one Asian business. So – if a rape were alleged to have occurred in an African British business, would a boycott of all African British businesses be a good, or fair, or rational, or just, or useful, or sane idea? If the advocacy of a boycott of all Asian businesses were coming from the BNP, would Ligali think it was a good, or fair, or rational, or just, or useful, or sane idea? Would it have misgivings? Would it stop to wonder why an African British business in, say, Peckham was being boycotted because of an alleged rape in an African British business in, say, Inverness? Would it take a moment to ponder whether that might be a little unfair or not? Would it pause to think that idea smacked a little of lumping all people in ‘the African British community’ into one homogenous mass and then pretending that an action by one atom of the mass is an action by every atom of the mass? Would it hesitate long enough to notice that actually that kind of thinking sounds quite a lot more like Hitler and Streicher foaming about the Jews than it does like a progressive multicultural helpful way to proceed?

Calls for the boycott have now been limited to Asian hair shops where the alleged incident took place.

Ah – the alleged incident took place in several ‘Asian hair shops’ then? It’s one incident, but it took place in several – or perhaps all? – ‘Asian hair shops’? No, probably that’s not what’s being suggested. Probably what is meant is: because the alleged incident is alleged to have taken place in one ‘Asian hair shop,’ therefore there are now calls for a boycott of Asian hair shops in general, of Asian hair shops qua Asian hair shops. And these are ‘limited’ calls. Yes indeed, moderation itself. Again – if a rape were alleged to have occurred in one ‘African British’ hair shop, would calls to boycott all African British hair shops seem like a sensible idea?

Organisers in both Birmingham and London have repeatedly stressed that this is not about stoking the fires of a ‘race war’ between African and Asian communities. The principle focus of the Campaign is to acertain the truth behind the allegations and seek justice. However there is an additional focus on cultivating enough national support regardless of ethnicity, gender and social status…

Well organizers can repeatedly stress whatever they like, but calling for a boycott of all Asian businesses because of an alleged rape in one – repeat, one – Asian business is a pretty odd way of damping down any fires. And then the smug resort to the right-on phrase ‘regardless of ethnicity, gender and social status’ – is a bad joke.

That’s where communalism gets you.



Wake Up

Oct 23rd, 2005 1:15 am | By

People don’t pay enough attention. Maybe they don’t pay any attention. Maybe all those octagonal red signs just flash pointlessly in front of their eyes without being taken in. Maybe everyone is entirely made of wood. I have to wonder sometimes.

It’s this BBC item on Rowan Atkinson, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and others joining forces to urge the government to add three amendments to the religious hatred bill – ‘to ensure people can still ridicule and criticise religion.’

Opponents of the bill, which faces detailed scrutiny in the House of Lords next week, say it would outlaw jokes and criticism of beliefs. They argue that people can choose their religion, unlike their race and so should not be protected against offence or criticism. On Thursday, the alliance of writers, comedians, bishops and peers unveiled a series of amendments they want added to the bill.

Good, good. Hope they succeed. Would prefer (as they would) no such bill, but failing that, hope they get the amendments accepted.

Blackadder star Mr Atkinson said campaigners against the law backed the government’s alleged intentions. But he warned: “The prime motivating energy for the bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but more from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda.” He pointed to those who would have liked to use such laws to prevent Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Even if there were no prosecutions under the new law, it would create self-censorship by writers, suggested Mr Atkinson.

A lot of that self-censorship is already on site, I would say – in the form of all the hand-wringers who are always rushing to and fro urging everyone to ‘respect’ religion I do beg your pardon I mean ‘faith’ and not to ‘insult’ or ‘offend’ religious beliefs. But not to worry – according to an authoritative body.

But the Muslim Council of Britain defended the law, disputing claims that it would lead to a loss of free speech. “People like Rowan Atkinson have created a media frenzy by claiming that the proposed law will ban criticism of religious beliefs. It certainly will not,” said Sher Khan, chairman of its public affairs committee.

And apart from a perfunctory ‘Sure, we’ll have a look’ from the Home Office, the MCB comment is the last thing in the article. In other words, they get the last word. Also the only word from that particular ‘community.’ Okay – that’s the not paying attention part. Why is the MCB consulted? Why did the BBC rush to ask the MCB what it thought? Why is the MCB so readily – so downright automatically – treated as the authoritative body to consult on such questions? Why is it treated as some sort of ‘leadership’ or as ‘representative’ when a lot of people – emphatically including Muslims – have pointed out that they’re not leaders and not representative? Not to mention not elected and not even – what they are so often taken to be – particularly ‘moderate’. Especially after that ‘Panorama’ – and Panorama is a BBC show, after all. So…they’re not paying attention. That’s irritating.



Deterioration

Oct 22nd, 2005 7:10 pm | By

I’m not in a mood to be tolerant and accepting. As a matter of fact I’m in a foul savage mood; I’m in a mood to bite the heads off fluffy kittens. Have been ever since yesterday. I’m in the kind of mood where people suddenly rush off to live in the Arctic circle, or quit their jobs, or try to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle and disappear somewhere in Nebraska. So be careful what you say to me.

So I’m not in an accepting embracing mood. I’m not ready to have secular commercial establishments shoving unrequested religious messages at me. (Like, what? I’m ready for that kind of thing when I’m in a good mood? No. Okay, but I’m even more savage about it today. Humour me.)

Coffee drinkers in the US could soon get Jesus with their morning jolt as Starbucks plans to put a religious message on its cups next spring. The cups will carry a religious quote from the Rev Rick Warren, the author of the blockbuster self-help book The Purpose-Driven Life. Mr Warren said he had had the idea after seeing a quote on one of the store’s cups on evolution by the paleontologist Louise Leakey. [sic – they mean Louis. Duh.] His quote reads: “You are not an accident. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.”

Well how’s that for stupid? How’s that for a moronic, dribbling, slack-jawed, fatuous, blithering piece of dreck? Pretty good, I’d say. Scores pretty high on the dumbOmeter. Your parents may not have planned you, but Kramer did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by Kramer and for Kramer, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in Kramer do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny. That’s a lot of stuff to discover all in one place, isn’t it – our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny. Whoo-ee – that’s quite a package. Unless it’s just a string of big-sounding words thrown in arbitrarily to make it all sound Deep and Meaningful – could that be it?

While the religious inscription may be a first for Starbucks, packaging goods with a message from God has been done before. For the past 30 years Alaska Airlines has put prayer cards on food trays. The California-based fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger has long carried verses from the Bible on its wrappers.

Yeah – I got one of those wretched ‘prayer cards’ from Alaska airlines a few years ago. Boy did that piss me off. It’s not as if you can get up and leave, is it!

When the founder of the clothing chain Forever 21 and XXI saw them he included a quote from John 3:16 on his shopping bags, declaring: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The quotes were “evidence of faith”, a spokesman, Larry Meyer, told USA Today.

Well obviously. That’s where the slack-jawed bit comes in – because ‘faith’ as a euphemism for religion means believing things without evidence, and ‘faith’ in that sense is not a virtue. The quotes were ‘evidence of credulity,’ the spokesman might as well have said.

So – Oratory School please note.

Government policy on school admissions was in disarray last night in the wake of a ruling from the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly that a church school could carry on interviewing parents to select its pupils. Parents’ leaders and pressure groups claimed that the decision would open the floodgates to schools of all faiths to adopt the practice – thus paving the way for more segregation in schools…Ms Kelly’s decision gave the green light to the London Oratory School, where Tony Blair sends his three children, to carry on the practice. The school says that it uses the interviews to determine parents’ commitment to their faith, whatever it is.

Church schools interview parents to determine their commitment to their credulity – so presumably it’s only if they are (or appear) credulous enough that their children are allowed to attend. Strange criterion.

But maybe no stranger than thinking libraries should get over their stupid backward-looking interest in dreary old books.

In the debate about modernising libraries, for instance, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) advocates that the New Model Library should feature “cafés, lounge areas with sofas, and chill-out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts”. CABE accuses traditional libraries of being “caught in the grip of traditional notions of the book-lending centre”. Behind this anti-book approach lies a real contempt for teenagers who are cast as so shallow that they might be enticed into reading by a few gadgets and soft furnishings.

Not to mention cast as so shallow that they can’t possibly have any interest in books in the first place – that they can’t possibly go to libraries because they have an already existing interest in books and desire to read a wider range of them, and that that’s a stuffy boring ‘traditional’ (and of course elitist) interest for anyone to have. Yeah. The hell with books, secularism, rational thought, skepticism, and independent-mindedness, and up with sheeplike ‘faith,’ pious coffee cups and shopping bags, ‘faith’ schools, and libraries converted to sofa-filled tv-watching centres. Okay that’s it – Arctic Circle, I’m on my way.



To Silence the Blasphemer

Oct 21st, 2005 4:55 pm | By

Kenan Malik remembers the beginning. He was in Bradford to interview Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques and the guy who burned The Satanic Verses at a demonstration, and he encountered an old friend.

“I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign to silence the blasphemer…No need to look so shocked. I’ve had it with the white left. I’d lost my sense of who I was and where I came from. So I came back to Bradford to rediscover it. We need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs, and not allow anyone – ”racist or Rushdie” – to trample over them.” I was astonished. The Hassan I knew in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as had I for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his indulgences were sex, Southern Comfort and watching Arsenal. We had marched together, chucked bricks at the National Front together, been arrested together. I had never detected a religious bone in his body. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners.

An errand boy to the mullahs – there it is. Imagine what that would be like. Imagine you’re in Lynchburg or Boulder or Pocatello to interview Fallwell or Dobson about whatever the latest religiofascist move is – blaming feminism for September 11, for instance – and you encounter an old friend, a wine-drinking lefty – who turns out to be there not to mock, not to investigate but as an adherent. As an errand-person to the bible-bashers.

I transpose the terms because it’s obvious how disconcerting that would be to most first world lefties. But when it’s running errands for the mullahs rather than the bible-bashers, somehow the disconcerting quality is less obvious. There’s a tendency to confuse Islamists with freedom fighters instead of with Falwell-types. That is such a mistake…

Today, “radical” in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. Hassan embodied this mutation from left-wing activist to Islamic militant. He was not alone.

Just so. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition, and the replacement of it with its own opposite. It’s a horrible tragedy, and all the more so because it’s so confusing. There really are a lot of lost-in-the-fog types – including Guardian editors, apparently – who hear the words ‘radical’ and ‘militant’ and ‘activist’ and think they mean exactly what they did thirty and forty years ago – who simply haven’t grasped yet that they mean not exactly what they did, and not even more or less the same kind of thing with some inevitable modifications over time, but rather, the deadly enemy of the original meaning.

The Rushdie affair made me question my own relationship to the left. For the transformation of Hassan mirrored a wider political shift. It was a conversion from a belief in secular universalism to the defence of ethnic particularism and group rights. At one time, the left had been a champion of Enlightenment rationalism, of a common humanity and universal rights. Over the past 20 years, however, many key figures and organisations on the British left have promoted the idea of multiculturalism. “You have to treat people differently to treat them equally,” Lee Jasper, race adviser to Ken Livingstone, says. Or as Labour MP Keith Vaz put it, “Britishness cannot be imposed on people of different races, cultures and religions.” After Rushdie, I came to realise that tackling this “politics of difference” was as important as challenging racism…The roots of the politics of difference can be found in the new forms of radicalism that emerged in the 1960s. Radicalism came to mean the rejection of all that is “western” in the name of marginality or difference.

And the Other – don’t forget the Other, whatever you do.

Multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it created a space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed before. It fostered a more tribal nation, undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders. It is true that since 9/11 and particularly since 7/7 there has been growing questioning of the consequences of multiculturalism. From David Blunkett to CRE chief Trevor Phillips, many have talked of the need to reassert common values. Yet the fundamental tenets of the politics of difference remain largely unquestioned. The idea that society consists of a variety of distinct cultures, that all these cultures should be respected and preserved and that society should be organised to meet the distinct needs of different cultures – these continue to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook. The lesson of the past two decades, however, is this: a left that espouses multiculturalism makes itself redundant.

It undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders – didn’t it just. So we hear a great deal from Iqbal Sacranie in the Guardian and on the BBC and nothing from Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian. So much for radicalism.



Dogmatism

Oct 20th, 2005 9:41 pm | By

Consider dogmatism.

For instance consider Sign and Sight’s acid comment on Prospect’s list of Topp famous public intellectuals.

Who is on “top” has been decided purely by how famous they are. No one in their right mind can take this list seriously, not even the people who drew it up…Even those who are prepared to see in the Pope – a professional dogmatic – an intellectual, would have trouble getting him on the list. Benedict XVI has not got his intellectual status to thank for his number one spot, but his public office…

That’s exactly the question – can a professional dogmatic be an intellectual? I wondered the same thing in the teaser when I first posted the Prospect list, on September 22 – ‘Do popes and clerics qualify as intellectuals?’ A letter to the Observer made a similar point on October 2.

It is not just faith schools that encourage sectarian strife. The religious institutions themselves are the prime movers and schools, important as they are for young, impressionable minds, need to be reinforced by regular sessions of ‘worship’ in which ‘holy books’ are to be accepted without question.

Without question, you see – that’s where the dogmatism comes in. Authority, worship, holy books, without question – it all converges on dogmatism.

And Simon Blackburn also says it

But let us start with the tiny bit that is right. This is the association of religious belief with dogma, intolerance, and illiberalism, and the corresponding association of atheism and agnosticism with liberalism and toleration…It needs to be said, loudly, that it makes no more sense to talk of faith-based schools or faith-based education than it does to talk of superstition-based science or terror-based debate. There have, of course, been educated and enlightened people who profess faiths, but their education and enlightenment happened despite their superstitions, and not because of them. Faith is by its essence the enemy of education, which teaches people to base beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Just so. So much is faith the enemy of education that at its most threatened it sends ‘students’ to ‘Faith camp’ to learn how to resist education – how to resist basing beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Spend a couple of days at the workshop and it becomes clear that, for many of these students, college is fraught with peril…There is also the subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview. There are biology courses that ask students to accept evolution, which workshop organizers and most of the students reject as untrue and ungodly. There are literature courses that see any text, including the Bible, as open to multiple interpretations. And there are philosophy classes that view absolute truth as nothing more than an illusion.

We need another sweatshirt slogan, to join ‘Rootless cosmopolitans’ and ‘Faith is not a virtue.’ Dogmatism is the spawn of Satan – something like that. Entries on a postcard. No, wait – entries in a large envelope accompanied with a wad of cash.



Mission Creep

Oct 18th, 2005 7:34 pm | By

A lot of it just boils down to irrelevance. To changing the subject. To complete, utter, thorough-going abandonment of the work one is supposed to be doing in order to do another kind of work altogether. As if one should hire out as a French chef and spend all one’s time on the job carving ornate soap dishes out of driftwood. As if one should land a lovely job as a cardiologist and devote all one’s job time to training a turtle to recite poetry. As if one were a housing contractor who agreed to build a three bedroom house with a verandah and a library, and once on the site spent all one’s time knitting balaclavas for the troops.

Irrelevance and changing the subject are important categories for nonsense and bad thinking, you know. They’re a huge resource for people who don’t have very good arguments for what they want to believe. Why is ‘because God’ a good argument against allowing euthanasia in certain narrowly-defined circumstances? Oh well let’s change the subject to the sanctity of something or other. (That’s exactly why ‘suppose we change the subject’ is one of the punchlines to the turtles all the way down joke.) And it applies not just in verbal matters, in argument and debate, but also in actions. Like people in what appear to be literature departments giving guest lectures that cover everything from imperialism to identity to race to queerness to numismatics. Where do they get the omniscience, one wonders. Where does all this staggeringly wide-ranging expertise come from? Why don’t people in other, less ambitious departments have it?

So at the University of Oregon. There was this committee, see, and it came up with ever such a good idea to transform the university – the entire university, every bit of it, not just the studies departments, but all of it, math, physics, biology, all of it – from a pesky old educational and research institution into a wonderful caring hand-holding Make Everything Better device. Into a branch of mental health and/or social work. Super idea, no? Only…one wonders why not leave that to mental health and social work and similar organizations, in order to leave time and space for the university to go on doing what the university is (generally) supposed to do? On account of how it’s all tooled up to do that, and knows how, and has the equipment in place, and has the rules written down, and the staff hired, and the beds fitted up with sheets. That’s not to say it couldn’t do it better, that there’s no possible room for improvement, but it is to say that it seems a little wasteful to make it do a completely different job after it’s already gone to all that trouble. Unless of course we think teaching and research are just completely valueless, in which case it does make sense to recycle all those books and microscopes and libraries and lecture rooms into something else as best as people can. But do we think that? Have we decided that? Have we quite, entirely made up our minds that teaching and research are just boring effete pointless elitist preoccupations that should now make way for therapy and massage and bedwetting? Have we? I don’t think we have, quite. We may be stumbling and creeping in that direction, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

The plan proposes incorporating “cultural competency” into funding, hiring and tenure considerations, as well as “cluster hirings” of several professors each year to teach courses on topics of race, gender and sexuality. “Cultural competency” is not defined explicitly, but is understood to mean working with members of different ethnic and racial groups…Faculty members said that many of their colleagues were upset by the draft. Twenty-four professors signed a letter expressing their concerns about the draft. Of highest concern to many faculty members was the draft’s “Orwellian insertion of the undefined political notion ‘cultural competency’ into every aspect of administration, teaching and performance evaluation,” according to the letter.

Yeah, see, that’s the thing. That’s where the carved soap dishes come in. That’s where worries about changing the subject, permanently and from top to bottom, come in.

“‘Cultural competence’ is a vague term. Nobody knows what it means. To me, it’s devoid of content,” said Michael Kellman, a chemistry professor. “Making it the focus of promotion and salary decisions would be a huge distraction from the university’s job of teaching and scholarship.

Distraction. That’s another way of saying changing the subject, and irrelevance. It’s just not a good concept, to try to do one job by doing a different one altogether. Humanity has worked that out over a long long history of experiment and trial and error. If you want to get a piece of fruit that’s on a high branch, it’s not useful to dig a deep hole in the ground half a mile away. If you want to get out of the rain, it’s not useful to start looking for bits of leftover fruit in the grass. If you want to escape from that leopard that’s charging you, it’s not useful to grab the nearest conspecific and start humping. Breadth is good, wide vision is good, creativity and interdisciplinarity can be good, but there is a limit. That limit is called irrelevance.

Faculty members responded forcefully to the draft’s notion that a group be formed to evaluate “cultural competence” with regard to new hires and research funding. “Who do you think you are?” Boris Botvinnik, a math professor, asked. “You would like to tell us what to do in terms of research in mathematics? We’d like to have a nice atmosphere of diversity on campus. We hire the best people available, and this is the only way to keep the level of the department high.”

There it is, you see. ‘Who do you think you are?’ is another way of putting it.

Norm Levitt has an article on the subject at Spiked.

In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed ‘culturally competent’ if they openly profess the approved corpus of received values.

In other words ‘competent’ is (as one somehow sensed – there is something oddly patronizing in the word itself, that signals manipulation) a euphemism for groupthink. ‘Competent’ people are the ones who say what they are expected to say, incompetent people are the ones who unaccountably refuse to do that. It sounds disquietingly like those ed school phrases – life adjustment, attitude adjustment, social skills – that have been such perennially popular substitutes for actually learning anything of substance, in US educational schools. Go to teach in a university and gradually, through the tender ministrations of The Committee, learn to be Competent. What a glorious ambition.



Faith is not a Virtue

Oct 18th, 2005 2:06 am | By

What was that we were just saying about Thought for the Day? Thought for the Day and the kind of emetic bullshit offered up there by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? Who is, rumour has it, rather pompous, and a tad bossy. Now there’s a surprise.

Yes, Thought for the Day, we were talking about. So was Simon Blackburn in a lecture for the British Humanist Association a few years ago.

The debate in this country, and still more in the United States, too often aligns itself around a simple polarity. Are we to be religious? In that case, it is assumed, there are real truths, real standards, real values which we can use to guide our own behaviour and that of others. Or, are we to be atheists or agnostics? In that case, it is again assumed, there are no real truths or standards or values, and we fall prey to a variety of ailments: materialism, cynicism, nihilism, relativism. There is almost nothing that is right about this way of drawing up the issue, and the philosophical tradition has abundant resources to show that there is almost nothing right about it. Yet this tradition seldom gets its voice heard. It is not allowed on Thought for the Day, where bishops and rabbis and mullahs are given their daily, publicly-subsidized, advertising time.

It shouldn’t be called thought for the day at all, should it – not if real thought is actually ruled out. It should be called religious musing for the day.

Blackburn says a lot of good things in that lecture. He seems to have a habit of doing that, doesn’t he. Several people picked up that comment I wrote about ‘Religion and Respect’ the other day, and read and then wrote admiringly about R and R themselves – P Z at Pharyngula for instance. They find the article as target-hitting as I do.

I’ll just offer a brief sample of the good things for now, because I have to run off.

The first and all too often the last virtue of any of the monotheistic religions is faith, because it is faith that holds the flock together, and defines Us, inside, against Them, outside. But faith is not a virtue. Faith is credulity: the condition of believing things for which there is no reason. It is a vice, and it inevitably encourages other vices, including hypocrisy and fanaticism. It needs to be said, loudly, that it makes no more sense to talk of faith-based schools or faith-based education than it does to talk of superstition-based science or terror-based debate.

Yeah!! How many times have I said that, I wonder – faith is not a virtue. If I’ve said that once, I’ve said it several times. There’s another sweatshirt and bumper sticker and coffee mug saying for us – Chris put in a request for ‘Rootless Cosmopolitans’ a couple of days ago, which I strongly second; let’s add ‘Faith is Not a Virtue.’

Faith is by its essence the enemy of education, which teaches people to base beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Precisely. Well that takes us all the way to page two – and I have to go. Read on.



Doing the Islamophobia Rag

Oct 16th, 2005 7:34 pm | By

‘Islamophobia’ in the news today. There is Nick Cohen’s piece on Maryam, and comments on that at Normblog and Harry’s Place. And there is a Times article that says Hizb ut-Tahrir is recruiting students ‘using an anti-racist front organisation’ called ‘Stop Islamophobia.’

Well there’s part of the problem right there – ‘Stop Islamophobia’ shouldn’t even be seen as the name of an anti-racist organization. It’s too late now, of course, the name is well dug in, but it never should have been allowed to get so well dug in – it performs exactly the deceptive maneuver its proponents want it to do: it conflates criticism of Islam with criticism of Muslims, opposition to Islam with opposition to Muslims. The word ought to be ‘Muslimophobia’ – in which case it still wouldn’t be anti-racist, since ‘Muslim’ is not a race, but it would at least be about group prejudice. But as it is it isn’t even that – it’s about dissent from and criticism of a particular religion – which ought not to be treated as in the same category as blanket criticisms of large groups of people. A religion is one thing, the people who adhere to it constitute another thing. The word ‘Islamophobia’ is just a trick to make Islam beyond criticism.

Nick and Maryam sum up the problem well:

After years of hearing this postmodern twaddle, Namazie flipped. Why was it, she asked, that supposed liberals always give ‘precedence to cultural and religious norms, however reactionary, over the human being and her rights’? Why was it that they always pretended that other cultures were sealed boxes without conflicts of their own and took ‘the most reactionary segment of that community’ as representative of the belief and culture of the whole. In a ringing passage, which should be pinned to the noticeboards of every cultural studies faculty and Whitehall ministry, she declared that the problem with cultural relativism was that it endorsed the racism of low expectations. ‘It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?’

I suppose you’ve seen the ridiculous Islamophobiawatch. It’s so classic, so typically typical, it’s tempting to think it’s a joke. But it probably isn’t.

At least it sometimes has useful links or extracts. This from on offline article in Tribune by Joan Smith, for example:

I haven’t opposed religious reactionaries all my life to suddenly go soft on people who argue that calling for a ban on ‘adulteresses’ being stoned to death is a bit too radical for Islam at the moment (yes, I do mean Tariq Ramadan). It’s time they took an honest look at where they may be heading and I don’t just mean the restoration of the Caliphate.

Dear me – she seems to be a religious reactionaryphobe. How very shocking.



Cosmopolitanism Forever

Oct 15th, 2005 9:07 pm | By

Roger Scruton (yes, Roger Scruton – he’s not always rhapsodizing about the joys of fox hunting) makes a good point.

The danger that democracy will degenerate into a tyranny of the majority was clearly expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. Both of them recognised, however, that democracy is not some kind of new departure which repudiates all that had gone before, but a system of government built upon a specific legal inheritance. Barnett & Hilton rightly refer to the rule of law and individual rights as the first of their principles of democratic government. These were historical achievements of the European legal and judicial systems. They preceded democracy and have not been replicated everywhere. Until they are in place, the introduction of elections may merely let the majority loose upon whatever minority provokes its indignation.

There you go. The rule of law and individual rights are not an automatic or inherent part of democracy; they preceded it and have not been replicated everywhere – to put it mildly. Unless and until they are in place, democracy can simply let the majority impose a theocracy on everyone; unless and until they are in place, democracy can simply let the majority take away the rights of – a majority, to wit, women, as well as various minorities, to wit, various ethnic groups, heretics, infidels, gays, weirdos, nonconformists – you name it.

I don’t agree with all of what Scruters says next though.

The crucial point in all this is to recognise secular government as the sine qua non of democracy, and theocracy as its natural opponent. And secular government depends upon finding some other focus of communal identity and solidarity than religious faith…Our political culture is a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and the faithful. We are brought up – or were brought up until recently – on a conception of national history and national identity which promoted mutual trust and solidarity between neighbours…That kind of territorial patriotism has suffered erosion…from a culture of repudiation among intellectuals who, for a variety of reasons, not all of them bad, have tried to discard national loyalty and to replace it with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. The problem, as I see it, is that cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite and will never be shared by the mass of human kind.

I like the first sentence of that, but not the rest of it. Especially the last sentence. Why? Why will cosmopolitan ideals never be shared by the mass of human kind? How does he know, and why is it true? I don’t see it. He could be right, but it seems to me far from obvious that cosmopolitan ideals are inherently (as opposed to contingently) the property of an elite. And I don’t trust appeals to communal identity and solidarity. I see why they are appealing (and that appeal is probably why Scruton thinks cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite), but I don’t think that appeal should be trusted, or encouraged, or fetishized. No, I prefer Simon Blackburn’s take.

And as far as toasting some particular subset of humanity goes, I also wish people were not keen on separating themselves from others, keen on difference and symbols of tribalism. I don’t warm to badges of allegiance, flags, ostentatious signs of apartness, because I do not think they are good for the world.

Ditto. I can see that they promote solidarity and the like, but they do that at the cost of the opposite of solidarity toward everyone else, and that is too high a price to pay. Way too high. I think cosmopolitanism, however lukewarm it may be, is preferable to the hot bonds of solidarity plus hatred.

If you want to take a look at some hatred, you could check out Nick Cohen’s new website which has (in solitary splendour for the moment) his New Statesman article on anti-Semitism on the left. And what do you know – someone (anonymous, of course) obligingly ambled by and dropped a richly anti-semitic comment. As if to help Nick make his point. So helpful.

The either/or polarity between believing in an orchestrated worldwide conspiracy or disclaiming any possibility that bands of Jews act together in their shared ethnic interests is a strawman dichotomy. Everybody knows that Jewish power and influence are vastly disproportionate to their numbers in Britain and the USA, that they hold leadership positions in influential areas of public life, and that they frequently try to suppress criticism of their concerted actions by squealing about ‘antisemitism’. That does *not* make you an ‘antisemite’, only a realist about evolutionary psychology. You may still think that only Jews should be allowed to criticise other Jews in semi-privacy, but not much of the rest of the world is impressed by this double standard any longer. Jews are a rich, powerful little ethnic group which, like any other, acts to preserve itself and further its material interests, and can be devious in so doing. Big friggin’ deal, tell us something we couldn’t have guessed.

And so on. Staggering, isn’t it.

I think cosmopolitan ideals are all we can possibly hope for, the only possible alternative to this kind of dreck. They’d better not be the property of an elite.



Medievalism Rampant

Oct 14th, 2005 6:54 pm | By

Polly Toynbee says it.

The bishops have no right to restrict our right to die…This week’s debate on Lord Joffe’s bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill turned into a remarkable battle between the forces of the enlightenment and a barely disguised medievalism. Who rules here? God or man? How loud the voice of religion sounded in this, the world’s most secular nation. So much religious thinking still permeates every aspect of public life as, somehow or other, the religious occupy disproportionate positions of power wherever you look – from prime minister and half the cabinet to the head of the BBC.

That’s one reason pious cant about ‘ceremonial theism’ won’t fly. It’s never safe to assume that ceremonial theism actually is ceremonial – it can always go from ceremonial to deadly earnest in the blink of an eye when somebody wants to force other people to stay alive when they don’t want to or to bear children when they don’t want to. Ceremonial theism, ceremonial fascism – not safe toys.

The tone of the Lords debate was set in a joint letter from leaders of the nine major faiths, beginning: “We the undersigned, hold all human life to be sacred.” It was thunderingly reiterated alongside the Bishop of Oxford’s refrain – we are not autonomous beings. Extraordinary how many religious speakers repeated this odd mantra.

Extraordinary, except that that’s the whole point, isn’t it. We are not autonomous beings; we are subject to the will of bishops. Because all human life is ‘sacred’.

Atheists did mention God. What was the creator’s view of the sanctity of human life in the tsunami and the ruins of Kashmir or New Orleans? Lord Gilmore mocked the Archbishop of Canterbury’s saccharine view that everyone was wanted and that every life was valued to the very end; he (Lord Gilmore, that is) would hit anyone who said that while leaving him suffering in agony on his deathbed.

Same here. I certainly hope I have a cosh handy for the purpose, and the strength to swing it good and hard. [makes mental note to self: keep cosh handy for deathbed] Why do people think it’s fine for their putative God to wipe out people in wholesale lots but it’s not all right for us to make a quick exit? Where is the sense in that? Why are we supposed (and expected) to have such reverence for the cruel sadistic bastard that we have to stick around for purposeless pain on his account? Why don’t they make themselves sick, saying things like that? I would really like to know.

The religious view distorts all reality to squeeze into its own dogma. It was shocking to hear a number of (religious) doctors claiming every death could be eased and painless these days…The Bishop of Oxford harrumphed in the Lords at this week’s Guardian leader that said the bishops “should be listened to with respect – and then ignored”. But he didn’t explain why we are obliged to listen to them at all within parliament. It is, says the National Secular Society, the only legislature in the west with ex officio religious lawmakers…

Ironic, isn’t it.



Vatican, Meet the Supreme Court; Court, Meet Vatican

Oct 13th, 2005 1:33 am | By

Christopher Hitchens is irritated.

What in God’s name – you should forgive the expression – is all this about there being “no religious test” for appointments to high public office? Most particularly in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court, there is the most blatant religious test imaginable. You may not even be considered for the bench unless you have a religion of some kind. Surely no adherent of any version of “originalism” can possibly argue that the Framers of the Constitution intended a spoils system to be awarded among competing clerical sects.

Argue, no, probably not, but then the adherents don’t have to, do they, since no one (Hitchens apart) ever makes an issue of it. Especially not the people who actually vote whether or not to confirm Supreme Court nominees – which is Hitchens’ point, and why he’s irritated.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the man who is now our chief justice. I pointed to unrebutted evidence that, in answer to a direct question from a fellow Catholic (Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.), Roberts had replied that in the case of a conflict between the law and the teaching of the Vatican, he would recuse himself. Since obviously it is impossible to nominate, let alone confirm, anyone who does not answer that the law and the Constitution should control in all cases, I proposed that Roberts ought to be asked the question again and in public. For this, I got exactly what I expected: allegations of anti-Catholic bigotry from the fideists at National Review and then (not just for my benefit) a full-page ad or two in the press, saying that anyone who dared raise such a question would be accused of applying … “a religious test.”

So much for that little issue then.

But what is honest skepticism – and a regard for evidence and logic – when set against the profession of a mere “faith” that neither demands nor offers any evidence of any kind? And this latter “qualification” is now urged upon us with special fervor in the selection of – a judge.

Score one for the theocrats.



‘Thought’ for the Day

Oct 12th, 2005 4:44 pm | By

More on the ‘no you may not die until God says you may’ line of cant. This time from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Thought (thought?) for the Day.

Nine years ago my brothers, my mother and I saw my father go through five major operations in his eighties. It was almost unbearably painful to see one who was once so strong and upright, fight a long, slow, losing battle with death. Yet I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like if he, or we on his behalf, had been given the choice to bring that last day closer. He was a proud man who hated being a burden to others. How easy it would have been for him to spare us those final tormenting days. I can see him doing it. Yet he would have been so wrong – because, more than anything else, we wanted to be there with him in his suffering giving back some of the care he’d given us when we were young.

That’s meant to be good – to be in some way compassionate, kind, sensitive – in some way that rises above, or digs deeper than, the possible desires of the person in question. It’s meant to be good, but it’s horrible. It’s horrible that he’s glad his father didn’t have the choice to end the torment. It’s horrible that he’s glad his father wasn’t able to do what would have been easy – that he doesn’t think ‘ease’ may be desirable when the alternative is torment. It’s horrible that he apparently thinks (although he may just have expressed it badly) that what he and his brothers wanted should outweigh what his father might have wanted. It’s horrible that he skirts the issue of whether his father would have preferred to end his own suffering for his own sake.

The doctors were heroic in treating his pain. All of us, doctors, nurses, the family, my father himself, were united in cherishing life, leaving it to a will larger than ours to decide when it should end. There are some choices we should not be allowed to make, and of these the most fateful is to decide that a life is not worth living. My father was able to leave this world gently because he was spared that choice. Better a society that strives for life, than one that offers us the choice of death.

Gently? Because he was spared that choice? Where does the ‘because’ come in? What’s ‘gentle’ about for instance suffocating to death, the way Diane Pretty did? Or dying in horrible ever-increasing pain? Is that leaving the world ‘gently’? Is a society that ‘strives’ to force continued life on other people who don’t want it because they are in pain or totally disabled and helpless, better than one that allows them the choice to end it? Well, possibly. There are arguments to be had – secular ones. But dragging in the ‘will larger than ours’ (whose? where? what’s its phone number? what’s its email address? how do we ask it for a review?) doesn’t help. Thinking it does can motivate people to produce some horrible arguments, that boil down to ‘my father might have preferred to end his life himself and avoid the last few days of pain, but fortunately he wasn’t able to make that choice.’



The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Oct 11th, 2005 8:50 pm | By

Archbishops are very presumptuous, aren’t they.

The Archbishop of Canterbury says even watching his mother’s slow, painful death did not persuade him of the arguments for euthanasia…But despite this experience, he is still against assisted dying “chiefly on the grounds of my religious commitments – the conviction that life is a gift from God that we cannot treat as a possession of our own to keep or throw away as we choose,” he said.

Well that’s a stupid argument. Those grounds are not good grounds – not for a public debate, especially not for a public debate that influences legislation, they’re not. Life is not a gift from ‘God’ any more than it’s a gift from Krishna or Aphrodite or Baal or Mr Potato Head. If the Archbish wants to think it is for his own pleasure, fine, but he has a hell of a nerve making the rest of us die a slow painful – agonizing torturing degrading – death when we don’t want to on the basis of his belief in a fictional being. He has a nerve telling us that we cannot treat our lives – our lives – as possessions of our own, because he thinks they’re a prezzy from The Big Guy. He has a colossal nerve telling us we cannot keep or throw away (i.e. end) our own lives as we choose simply because he thinks they were a valentine from the deity. There are other reasons for saying that, or something like it, but they are secular reasons. The reason he gives is unadulterated blither, and it’s disgusting that he is allowed to impose it on everyone else. There is a debate to be had about euthanasia, there are secular, rational reasons to cite against it as well as for it, but allowing pious untrue cant to clutter up the subject is 1) not helpful and 2) a ridiculous, coercive intrusion.

We would know that if the wording were just a little different. If he said ‘chiefly on the grounds of my religious commitments – the conviction that life is a gift from Wallace and Gromit that we cannot treat as a possession of our own to keep or throw away as we choose’ – the worthlessness and intrusiveness would be obvious. Replace ‘Wallace and Gromit’ with Lucille Ball, or Spock, or Yosemite Sam, or Widow Twankey, and the worthlessness and intrusiveness remain just as obvious. But replace it with a different fictional character, and people become blind to the worthlessness and intrusiveness. It’s accepted that archbishops have something of value to say on the subject – something extra (deep, profound) that secular reasoners don’t have. But they don’t. They think they do, but they don’t. They have emotive formulas about gifts from God, and that’s not something of value, it’s nonsense. Nonsense that causes people not to change their minds even when they watch people die painful deaths. We don’t watch our dogs and cats die painful deaths, but people? Well, their lives don’t belong to them, unlike those of cats and dogs.



Analyze Everything

Oct 10th, 2005 7:07 pm | By

Time for a Monday morning tease. Or more of a mock, really. I know I shouldn’t – it’s fish/barrel stuff – but I want to, so I will.

There was this lecture, see. And it was full of new, profound, fresh, original, searching stuff that no one had ever thought of or said before. Not a word of it was stale or familiar or old news.

Jasbir Puar, an assistant professor in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, spoke on “Queer Biopolitics and the Ascendancy of Whiteness” yesterday in Stimson Hall to provide a theory for the way race and sexuality affect U.S. and international politics…Puar’s was the first of a series of lectures sponsored by the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department that “seek to explore the future of queer studies”…The series of lectures are also a “concerted effort to talk about race and imperialism…”

Well great! That should cover it. That should pretty much dot all the eyes and cross all the tease. Terrific. Women, gender, queerness, biopolitics, whiteness, race, sexuality, U.S. and international politics, feministgenderexuality studies, queer studies and its future, raceandimperialism. A modest menu! A humble, self-deprecating agenda for the various Studies departments. I suppose they really ought to have sorted out capitalism and acne while they were at it, but still, it’s a good try.

Puar said her lecture explored the “intersections of sexuality and the war on terror, specifically how some [lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and questioning individuals] are complicit with nationalist, racist, and orientalist politics of the U.S.”

Fan-tastic! It’s about time someone cleared that up. I’ve been fuming for years now about the way lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and questioning individuals, violinists, beet-pickers, cats, goldfish, and lentil farmers are complicit with nationalist, racist, and orientalist politics of the U.S., and I’ve been wondering when someone was going to point it out. At least Puar has made a start! Props to her eh.

The core of Puar’s lecture, underlying the theory and terms, focused on identity. Puar began her work as a graduate student after four years of travel around the world, where she realized her self-identity changed wherever she traveled. In an interview with The Sun, she said identity is complicated, that it is a localized concept, and that who you are depends on where you are.

Oh my god!! Identity is complicated! It can change, depending on circumstances! Wow! Who ever knew that, who ever imagined such a thing? The insight is staggering. It’s like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, or Homi Bhabha’s discovery of liminality, which is also about the staggering discovery that identity is complicated. What a precious hour that lecture must have been, how fortunate the interdisciplinary people of Cornell who were there to hear it.

She said the ideas of her lecture are important because they “complicate single identity politics” and that organizing and activism on many college campuses focus on only one identity.

Yes. You bet. Important. Yes. Very important. Well done. ‘Complicated – identity complicated.’ Important idea. Yes.

Shirleen Robinson grad explained the idea of the dilemma of identity Puar proposed in her lecture. She said that if a guy wearing a turban is the victim of a hate crime and it also turns out he’s gay, one must analyze what identity his attackers intended to target. She said his identity can be read in different ways; his Arab identity is associated with terrorists and 9/11, while harems and a mystique of hypersexuality are associated with his sexual identity.

Err…yeah, and his jeans and T shirt are associated with creeping Americanization and the Starbucks cup he is holding is associated with globalization and the copy of Discipline and Punish he is carrying is associated with Paris and the Marlboro he is smoking is associated with cowboys. Could keep the analyzers busy for some time.

“I think there are ways of talking about diversity and inclusiveness that embrace initiatives like open hearts, open minds,” Villarejo said, but added that “a lot of those communities are deeply homophobic” and that we need to “make sure discourse of inclusivity is also offered” to queer African Americans, queer Asian Americans, and queer Latinos.

You forgot queer Native Americans! And queer Muslims! And queer disabled African Americans! And queer disabled – stop, cut it out, what are you doing, get off, help, let go of me



Multiculturalism Again

Oct 9th, 2005 6:06 pm | By

How did everything get turned around?

Today, to criticise multiculturalism, one is invariably derided as ‘right wing’ or ‘reactionary’. Conversely, to champion multiculturalism, one is invariably perceived as ‘progressive’ or ‘of the left’. But it should be, and historically it has been, the other way around. Multiculturalism represents the antithesis of the Enlightenment principle of colour-blindness and the notion of the universality of humankind – while the fetishisation of ethnic particularism is a quintessentially Tory ideal. The liberal-left’s love affair with multiculturalism today is a betrayal of what it used to stand for.

That’s for sure. That realization is starting to trickle through, but dang it’s taking a long time. Hurry up, folks! Get a clue. The fetishization of ethnic or religious or cultural particularism is an idea whose time has gone. Kiss it good bye. Get with the program.

Salman Rushdie says it.

In Europe, integration has been held up as a bad word by multiculturalists, but I don’t see any necessary conflict. After all, we don’t want to create countries of little apartheids. No enlightenment will come from multicultural appeasement.

Maryam Namazie says it.

Though political religion is facing a revival, it is the political Islamic movement which is spearheading this. And this rise is taking place within a new world order in which universal norms and values taken for granted only decades ago can no longer be taken so. In this climate of cultural relativism, Islamists and their apologists have perfected the use of rights language to dupe and silence any opposition.

Simon Blackburn says it.

And as far as
toasting some particular subset of humanity goes, I also wish people were not keen on
separating themselves from others, keen on difference and symbols of tribalism. I don’t
warm to badges of allegiance, flags, ostentatious signs of apartness, because I do not
think they are good for the world. I am glad that the word “race” has lost most of its
reputation recently, and I would rather like the word “culture”, as it occurs in phrases like
“cultural diversity,” to follow it. More moderately, we might keep it, but also keep a
beady eye on it. When people do things differently, sometimes it is fine, but sometimes it
is not.

And Patrick West discusses it in detail in the Spiked piece.

Multiculturalism in subsequent years has acted only to divide the population into groupsicles of competing ethnicities who feel they have nothing in common with each other…In an article in the liberal monthly, Prospect, in December 2000, Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen argued: ‘Solidarity and diversity are both desirable objectives. Unfortunately, they can also conflict…But it is easier to feel solidarity with those who broadly share your values and way of life. Modern progressives committed to diversity often fail to acknowledge this.’ Diversity and solidarity, both sound bites of the Left, can be mutually antagonistic.

As can democracy and freedom, or democracy and rights, and for much the same reasons. It’s as well to keep that strongly in mind – to keep ‘a beady eye on it’ – when flinging around the usual rhetoric about democracyandhumanrights or democracyandfreedom, which tend to sound as if they are inextricably linked and that the one entails the other, when in reality they can fight each other, and one of them can lose the fight.

It is peculiar that many who are the inheritors of the secular, rational Enlightenment tradition, and who call themselves progressives, are not only apologists for ethnic separateness, but – under the ostensible banner of respecting diversity – defend organised religion and irrationalism. When Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum lost her High Court battle to wear strict Islamic dress to school in June 2004, some left-leaning commentators decried this as racist and oppressive.

Peculiar indeed. I remember some left-leaning commentators who resorted to patronizing sexist rhetoric about me when I had the gall to keep pointing out that a lot of French Muslim and Muslim-background women were in favour of the hijab ban in schools. The things that come oozing out of the woodwork can be very surprising – as Nick Cohen notes in the New Statesman.

Her cheery note ended with a warning: “You’re not going to believe the anti-Semitism that is about to hit you.” “Don’t be silly, Ann,” I replied. “There’s no racism on the left.” I worked my way through the rest of the e-mails. I couldn’t believe the anti-Semitism that hit me. I learned it was one thing being called “Cohen” if you went along with liberal orthodoxy, quite another when you pointed out liberal betrayals. Your argument could not be debated on its merits. There had to be a malign motive. You had to support Ariel Sharon.

So it goes. Anti-Semitism, sexist epithets, patronizing anti-intellectual speculation about boredom or money-love – whatever tool comes to hand.

As Stephen Eric Bronner laments in Reclaiming the Enlightenment (2004), this is the symptom of a deeper corruption of the Left. Under the spell of relativist postmodernist theory, and despairing of the failure of the Socialist experiments of the twentieth century, erstwhile progressives have sought intellectual refuge in identity politics. They have come to resemble the conservatives of old. Todd Gitlin notes this in The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars.

Yes he does. I’ve recommended that book to quite a few inquiring minds.

In academia, there are relatively few voices of the Left still championing reason, such as Noam Chomsky; Brian Barry, author of Culture and Equality (2001); Stephen Eric Bronner; Richard Wolin, author of The Seduction of Unreason (2004); and the late Susan Moller Okin, whose Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women? (1999), gave the answer ‘yes’ to its title. When Okin concluded that gender equality was impossible to achieve among societies that practice polygamy, forced marriage or female genital mutilation, she faced the accusation of being dogmatically attached to Western liberalism.

Well…we’re working on that (those of us who are), and the dam is beginning to break. Witness all those citations. So just keep chipping away at the dam…



Secularist of the Year

Oct 9th, 2005 1:05 am | By

Maryam won! Maryam Namazie is Secularist of the Year. Ya-hoooooo. Sorry to be so American, but I’m really really pleased. As a matter of fact, I’m also damn smug. Here I’ve been publishing her articles like mad all this time, which I haven’t noticed the Guardian or the Independent bothering to do. Well? Well??! Wouldn’t you be smug? Wouldn’t you? Who has the better judgment? Eh? Eh? Which would you rather have published – Dilpazier Aslam, or Maryam Namazie?

Well maybe now they’ll start publishing her. Maybe this will be the push they need. Kenan Malik said, you know. Remember that? In the Guardian (she said pointedly). All the way back in January.

It also creates a climate of censorship in which any criticism of Islam can be dismissed as Islamophobic. The people who suffer most from such censorship are those struggling to defend basic rights within Muslim communities. Marayam Namazie is an Iranian refugee who has long campaigned for women’s rights and against Islamic repression. As a result she has been condemned as an Islamophobe, even by anti-racist organisations. “On the one hand,” she says, “you are threatened by the political Islamic movement with assassination or imprisonment or flogging. And on the other you have so-called progressive people who tell you that what you say in defence of humanity, in defence of equal rights for all, is racist. I think it’s nothing short of an outrage.”

I don’t see anything about the award in the papers yet (Maryam told me herself, and Azar Majedi sent a congratulatory message), so I’ll just link to this for now. It wouldn’t do for people not to know.



The Amplifier

Oct 8th, 2005 5:42 pm | By

Some more on that terrific Simon Blackburn article ‘Religion and Respect’. So much of it is so exactly what I think myself, and have been saying here with tedious iteration – naturally I think it’s terrific. But it is, all the same.

But, I argued to myself, why should I
“respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs
of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my
host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some
such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed
angry.

Just so. We’re expected (all but coerced, at times) to ‘respect’ some beliefs, but not others.

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term…The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on
the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it
uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes.

Exactly. As do words like faith, and community, and spiritual – words that span a spectrum and mean different things for different purposes. It is necessary to be always, permanently, without fail, tirelessly vigilant about and attentive to words like that. They have designs on us (which is to say, people who resort to them have designs on us). It is essential to foil their knavish tricks.

People may start out by insisting on
respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too
difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request
for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling,
or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

Bingo. Respect creep – that’s exactly it. (And come to think of it, it also makes a nice nickname for Galloway – but that’s another story.) There’s a huge difference between respect in the sense of leave me alone, and respect in the sense of see me and my beliefs as special and devout and good and superior. The first does not entail the second. Crucial point.

In postmodernist writings on religion, it is the done thing to distinguish between
theology and ‘onto-theology’, or religion and ‘onto-religion’. Onto-theology makes
existence claims. It takes religious language in the same spirit in which people calling
themselves scientific realists take science. It makes claims about what exists, and these
claims are more or less reasonable and convincing, and when they are true they point to
explanation of the way things are in one respect or another…In more sophisticated circles, onto-theology is old hat. Instead we should see
religion in the light of poetry, symbol, myth, practice, emotion and attitude, or in general
a stance towards the ordinary world, the everyday world around us…

Yes. We’ve seen that ‘sophisticated’ line more than once. I’ve been known to call it harsh names. In fact, amusingly, I made a note while reading page 11 that I would put it more strongly than SB does: I would call it a cheat. On page 15, SB does exactly that, which made me laugh a good deal. Snap!

But equally perhaps ‘God exists’ functions largely as a license to demand respect
creep. It turns up an amplifier, and what it amplifies is often the meanest and most
miserable side of human nature. I want your land, and it enables me to throw bigger and
better tantrums, ones that you just have to listen to, if I find myself saying that God wants
me to want your land. A tribe wants to enforce the chastity of its women, and the words
of the supernatural work to terrify them into compliance.

Brilliant image. Tantrum-amplifier, threat-amplifier, enforcement-amplifier.

I think
that the ontological imaginings do their work at a slightly different place. They work to
close off questions and doubts, and in effect to fend off reason. They cement a particular
way of associating ‘ought’ and ‘is’ and insulate it from criticism…By closing its eyes to this bit, expressive
theology in fact repudiates everything that makes religious language the power that it is.

Yet again – just so. But you’re going to get tired of reading me saying ‘Exactly,’ so I’ll stop. That’s only a fraction of the ‘exactly’s in the article. I give it my personal secular award for today.