Notes and Comment Blog

Politics and Morality

Nov 13th, 2004 10:07 pm | By

Okay, here I am doing my best. Brushing the sweat out of my eyes, swatting at mosquitoes, worrying about frostbite, avoiding hidden cravasses, catching bullets in my teeth, eating old bread with maggots and weevils and turnip crumbs in it, being charged by cranky lions and rhinos and people who sell insurance. Here’s one item I was thinking about before the virus pounced and turned my computer into an evil demon. Mark Bauerlein has an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed – but even though it’s interesting I have some disagreements with it. It’s about the familiar subject of lefty groupthink in (US) universities. One problem is that he says campuses, colleges, academics, rather than specifying ‘certain branches’ of same. He does mention the humanities and social sciences a couple of times at the beginning of the piece, but then goes on to talk about academics in general as if forgetting that stipulation. People so often do when they talk about this subject. But though I don’t think I’ve seen any figures on this, I have a hard time believing that Business Schools, Law schools, Engineering, Dentistry, Medicine, and all the sciences, are overwhelmingly on the left. I don’t have a hard time believing it about the humanities and social sciences, but I do about the rest. Am I wrong? Are US medical schools and B-schools full of ardent lefties who change drastically the minute they get out? I don’t know for certain that they’re not, but I am skeptical. Yet Bauerlein’s article doesn’t really deal with that aspect.

But there’s also a more general (and more interesting) point, I think.

Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn’t qualify as respectable inquiry. You won’t often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies…The ordinary evolution of opinion — expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them — is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It’s social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing…Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom. An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers is put forward not for discussion but for approval…The final social pattern is the Law of Group Polarization. That lawas Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has describedpredicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs…Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one’s mind narrows.

I don’t disagree with his overall point. There is a lot of groupthink and Law of Group Polarization around, and very irritating it can be, too. And not only irritating but also an impediment to clear or critical thinking. But I do somewhat disagree with the way the point is framed, or with what is left out of account.

It all has to do with what is defined as political and what isn’t, what is considered (or defined as) debatable and what isn’t. What Bauerlein is talking about in the article (though in fact he doesn’t mention many specific examples) is the contemporary right-on consensus. Fair enough, but the thing is, today’s right-on consensus may well turn out to be tomorrow’s consensus that even the most ferocious Limbaughites wouldn’t seriously question, or consider debatable. It may (parts of it may) go from being classifiable as ‘liberal’ to being just basic decency. Attitudes about such things do change over time – sometimes for the worse instead of the better, as with the rise of Islamism over the past quarter century – and some attitudes or beliefs or views do become much less debatable (realistically debatable, though anyone can always play at debating them for the exercise or shock value) than they once were.

That being the case, I think it may be a little misleading to call these disputes political only. I’m not sure they are, not all of them. I think many of them are about morality rather than politics; or they’re about both at once. But surely there are things that just aren’t debatable, or ought not to be, and if so, aren’t they moral rather than political? General agreement on moral issues – some moral issues – is looked on much more favourably than is general agreement on political issues. Politics is supposed to be dual (though it’s not supposed to be more than that, which is interesting); it’s supposed to be balanced and fair and not too top-heavy on either side. But that’s not as true of morality. Very few people wring their hands over the dreary consensus that murder is considered a bad thing (except by tv and movie directors, one might add). Do we want university faculties to have a good showing by people who think the Holocaust was a good idea and should be tried again? Or that thieves should have their hands cut off? Or that slavery is good for the economy and should be restored? Or that suspects in criminal cases should be routinely tortured? Or that people should be executed for stealing a chicken or a shirt? No, not in this part of the world. But people once did think that, and in some places still do. Yet people don’t often write articles for the Chronicle wishing universities had a lot more people who thought that way.

What is political and what isn’t is surely a temporary matter. X is political right now because it is indeed still under debate, and because we’ve decided to think of it that way (or the mass media have), but that doesn’t mean it always will be or that it always has been. And it’s possible that some items don’t really need a ‘balanced’ debate. If they did – if every single issue one can think of would benefit from discussion from all points of view – then why don’t we spend a lot of time listening to advocates of slavery, genocide, capital punishment for petty theft? Isn’t it because we don’t really think there is much to say on the contrarian side?

I think this problem is related to the problem of the tension between democracy and human rights, which we’ve talked about before (sometimes causing fireworks in the process). There are some issues that are political, and subject to democratic decision, and up for grabs; but there are others that are not, or should not be, and that have been placed partly outside the political process, by such devices as Constitutions and Bills of Rights and Universal Declarations of Human Rights. No – there isn’t really an interesting exchange of views to be had on the benefits of keeping women as permanently powerless and unequal and abused, for example, or on the desirability of child labour. Some things, yes, other things, not really. I think discussions like these don’t usually look at that aspect (if it is one), so they give a somewhat oversimplified view.

Update: Mark Bauerlein tells me there was an article in the Chronicle a few months ago about a survey of US academics’ political self-identification. Those who considered themselves Left or Center Left outnumbered those Right or Center Right by almost 3 to 1, so that’s one answer to my objection about Business schools and the rest.


Nov 13th, 2004 6:21 pm | By

Well perhaps not as bad as I thought.

I can’t just delete now because of the RSS feed.

And look what I just found! What a lovely surprise. I can pretend I’m still there.

Trip Nostalgia

Nov 10th, 2004 11:33 pm | By

It’s beautiful here today, in an odd, subdued sort of way. I went for a walk and gazed out over the Sound an hour or so ago. Everything is grey – the sky, the water – but it’s a bright, translucent grey in places. The clouds are shapey and various as opposed to being a single pewter-coloured blanket, and there are places where the sun almost shines through them, so in the distance the water is quite silvery. I’ve been back for a week (plus a bit). Things have shaken down as they do after a trip (that’s one of the fun things about trips: the sense of strangeness when you get back), and I’ve had time to think it over and consider the high points. (Mind you, they were all fairly high, apart from one very rainy afternoon when I insisted on going for a walk anyway, and a couple of traffic jams, and the casual little walk I took the morning I left, so casual I didn’t take the A to Z, which ended in my getting more lost than I’ve ever been, and accidentally walking almost to the Tower instead of back to Bedford Square.)

It was fun meeting my colleague. It’s been fun not meeting my colleague all this time – there’s something quite entertaining about collaborating with someone that, um, collaboratively, for that long, without having ever met. I enjoyed the paradox of knowing each other quite well in one way and not at all in the more usual one. The well-known oddity of Internet acquaintanceship. But after all this time – collaborating for two years, chatting for three – I was curious about the more usual version. So it was fun. And he was a very kind host. He showed me the sights – the nice new(ish) mall, Safeway, Waterstone’s, Smiths. Leith Hill, Box Hill. He also showed me ‘The Office’ in its entirety, and Dream Theater – not to mention Spike. All good stuff. It was also fun meeting Julian, though that was much briefer, he was only in London for a couple of days – he’s a busy guy. The two of them talked about things I didn’t understand, which was a nice humbling experience (not that I needed it – I’m extremely humble already, as I keep saying, in my humble way). Vagueness, they talked about. I could follow what they were saying, it didn’t seem like gibberish or anything, but I couldn’t have added anything to it if you’d put a gun to my head.

On the other hand, sad to say, I didn’t get to meet another virtual friend I had hoped to. He was going to be in London for a few days and it was all planned and then I couldn’t make it after all; that was very disappointing. Oh well – I’ll just have to go back, that’s all.

And then there are the high points of London itself (never mind the low ones, they’re not my problem, because I don’t live there). Richmond Park, that view from Terrace Gardens (I visited it three times – can never get enough of that view), Wimbledon Common (I’d always meant to explore that a bit and now I have – very good. There’s a part with long tawny grass and birch trees that is very satisfying), Hampstead Heath, the Hill and the Pergola, Nonsuch. You’ll notice I like commons and heaths and the like. Well, I do. Regent’s Park, Waterlow Park, Green Park, Holland Park, Ranelagh Gardens, Bishop’s Park – I love them all. I could just stay home and walk in a lot of fields, but…it’s not the same. And the new stuff – the Eye, and Tate Modern, and the Gherkin, and the Globe, and the shaky bridge. In fact bridges in general – I could do a little aria to London bridges. Waterloo, Westminster, Blackfriars, Battersea, Albert, Putney, Hammersmith, Kew, Richmond, Kingston. And then river walks. The walk from Blackfriar’s Bridge to the Tate is pretty staggering, for instance.

Okay, I’ll shut up now. A lot of you already know this anyway because you live right there, and others do because you’ve visited, and the rest don’t care. Although I could always say this is a post for City Comforts. Because London’s lavish hand with parks and commons is one of the things that make it a great city (while the traffic rules are one of the things that make it a terrible one), and its river is another. So this is a kind of implicit discussion of urban planning. (Seattle doesn’t have anywhere near enough parks and parkland. There are very few places in Seattle where one can go for the kind of really long walk through park or parks that one can go for in most of London. That’s bad.)

A Word from George Eliot

Nov 9th, 2004 9:34 pm | By

A bit of old business I’ve been meaning to get to for several days. This question of religion and the focus of its public rhetoric and exhortation on a narrow view of sexual morality with a comparable neglect of social justice – of, if you prefer, poverty, oppression, exploitation, bad working conditions, injustice, and the like. One of our readers took issue with that view of the matter, and I thought I would offer one or two more places where I’d seen the idea discussed.

One is this piece by Ishtiaq Ahmed in the ‘Daily Times’ of Pakistan.

The Islamic position on life on earth was that Muslims should enjoy the good things of life within limits prescribed by Sharia…What is worrisome about such calculations is that promises of reward in the hereafter can be used to stifle protest and demands for justice on earth. This suspicion is confirmed when we remember that the Islamists almost never champion the rights of the exploited and dispossessed and spend most of their time giving vent to anger against the imagined liberation of women…Such fixation with moral chastity has meant that sprawling multitudes of hungry and neglected people, almost always the vast majority of them being Muslims, can be found all over the Muslim world. You will seldom find any Islamist devoting his sermon to the alleviation of their privations. Some change in such orientation took place between the mid 1950s and early 1970s when ideas of Islamic social justice found reception in parts of the Muslim world, but such movements were superseded by Islamism after the Iranian Revolution. No wonder economic development has been slowed down in the Muslim world ever since Islamism began to influence the political agendas of Muslim societies.

Whether he’s right or not, the point is, it’s not only irritable Western atheists who think such things. And he says Hindus have the same problem:

As regards Hindu culture, while the upper castes were allowed to own property the Dalits were denied it and told instead to fulfil their duty (dharma) of serving their superiors quietly and passively so that in their next birth perhaps their karma (fate) will be a better one…Later, the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj movements tried to bring about social reform. The Nehruvian state tried to change attitudes in a progressive manner. However, the rise of Hindutva changed the agenda once again: it accepted neo-liberal ideas in the economic sphere but in the social and cultural spheres conservative values were strengthened.

Martha Nussbaum has an interesting quotation in chapter 1 of Sex and Social Justice, ‘Women and Cultural Universals’ (page 30):

Or, as a young Bangladeshi wife said when local religious leaders threatened to break the legs of women who went to literacy classes conducted by a local NGO, ‘We do not listen to the mullahs any more. They did not give us even a quarter kilo of rice.’

Short and to the point. Not so much of the threatening and preventing education, thanks, especially if you can’t and won’t even help us not starve to death. Or to put it another way, what is it about the mullahs that makes them prefer to threaten women and stop them becoming literate rather than give them food? And whatever it is, why on earth would anyone want to be bossed around by it? Or consider it somehow a good (‘spiritual,’ pious, etc) thing? Since what it looks like is just sheer bastard-like cruelty, bullying, and exploitation; treating people like so many brooms and cooking pots, as insensate things to be used.

So the problem seems to be one that fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have in common at the moment: that they’re way too concerned with crushing people (especially women and Dalits) and way too little concerned with consoling or comforting or helping them.

Now, for your amusement, consider this passage from George Eliot’s brilliant essay from the Westminster Review in 1855, ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’:

Of Dr Cumming personally we know absolutely nothing: our acquaintance with him is confined to a perusal of his works, our judgment of him is founded solely on the manner in which he has written himself down on his pages…For aught we know, he many not only have the gift of prophecy, but may bestow the profits of all his works to feed the poor, and be ready to give his own body to be burned with as much alacrity as he infers the everlasting burning of Roman-catholics and Puseyites. Out of the pulpit he may be a model of justice, truthfulness, and the love that thinketh no evil; but we are obliged to judge of his charity by the spirit we find in his sermons, and shall only be glad to learn that his practice is, in many respects, an amiable non sequitur from his teaching.

There. She was one hell of a phrase-maker, Maryann Evans was. If you haven’t read that essay, I do recommend it. And she’s talking about the same phenomenon I was the other day – and the one Mary McCarthy was talking about when she said that religion is good only for good people; it makes bad people even worse.

Index on What?

Nov 9th, 2004 2:21 am | By

The comments by Juan Golblado on the ‘Paying Too Much Attention’ Comment have prompted me to hurry up and do what I’ve been meaning to do, which is to say a word or two about this bizarre article at Index on Censorship. It is, as Mr Golblado says, a striking case of the fox being invited into the henhouse. Unless of course the Index on Censorship is supposed to be an organization that sings the virtues of censorship, but I kind of thought it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of organization.

Van Gogh’s juvenile shock-horror art finally led him to build an exploitative working relationship with Somalia-born Dutch MP Ayann Hirsi Ali, whose terrible personal experience of abuse has driven her to a traumatizing loss of her Muslim faith.

Why is the relationship exploitative? And how does Jayasekera know? And note the way he makes her abuse sound like an aberration, a terrible but singular experience, as opposed to being the experience of many women under Islam. Then note the idea that what is traumatizing is the loss of her Muslim ‘faith’. Seems to me that keeping it would have been more traumatic in the circumstances – it would have meant accepting the rightness, the godliness, of what was done to her.

Together they made a furiously provocative film that featured actresses portraying battered Muslim women, naked under transparent Islamic-style shawls, their bodies marked with texts from the Koran that supposedly justify their repression. Van Gogh then roared his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities. An abuse of his right to free speech, it added injury to insult by effectively censorsing their moderate views as well.

‘Supposedly.’ Because there are no such texts in the Koran? And then what does that stuff about roaring his critics into silence mean? His critics had no way to roar back? Why? How? He doesn’t say, just asserts something that sounds pretty unlikely. And in essnce says van Gogh asked for what he got. And this is on the Index on Censorship site? Not good. Not encouraging.

Another interesting item from a reader: in the Letters today, expressing admiration for Azar Majedi (who wrote the article protesting van Gogh’s murder you’ll find on our front page) and adding this quotation from I don’t know what but it looks like a newspaper account:

‘the Rotterdam police were destroying a mural by Chris Ripke that he’d created to express his disgust at the murder of Theo van Gogh by Islamist crazies. Ripke’s painting showed an angel and the words “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Unfortunately, his workshop is next to a mosque, and the imam complained that the mural was “racist”, so the cops arrived, destroyed it, arrested the television journalists filming it and wiped their tape’

Peachy. The imam complained. If the mural is described accurately, it doesn’t sound racist. Maybe the imam should be agreeing instead of complaining. Sigh.

The Scales Fall From my Eyes

Nov 7th, 2004 3:50 pm | By

Okay, I give in. I’ve had a conversion experience. I’ve recognized the error of my ways. All these people who have been telling me what a horrible elitist I am have worn me down. I’m convinced. It’s true, I am an elitist, and that makes me a terrible person, so I have to stop. Okay. I’ll stop. I’ll become a better person. I won’t like anything that is not extremely popular, and I won’t dislike anything that is extremely popular. (God, for instance.) I won’t do anything that lots of people don’t do, and I won’t refrain from doing anything that lots of people do. I’ll become as humble and modest and unassertive as the people who tell me what a horrible elitist I am – and they are very modest and humble and unassertive indeed, and never do anything at all that a majority of their fellow humans don’t also do. From this moment I shall take such people as my role model, and be just like them.

So the first thing I have to do – even before I give away all my books and replace them with different ones (but perhaps I shouldn’t give them away? Perhaps that would only be passing the corruption on to other people, encouraging them to be elitist in my place? Perhaps I should simply throw them all in the bin?) – is stop making judgments between good and bad. Because that’s where the harm lies, I’m told. That’s where it gets me, that’s what makes an elitist a terrible person – it’s this business of making judgments. At least in aesthetic matters, and the like. In areas where judgments can’t be grounded. It’s okay (I take it) to say one hammer is better than another, because you can show that it does the job better (pounding the nail in, breaking the window, whatever). But you can’t say one poem or play or song or concerto is better than another because none of those things can pound nails or break windows – you can’t show a job that a good one can do better than a bad one, therefore when you say one is better than another you’re just hand-waving. Except you’re not just hand-waving, it’s worse than that, and that’s where the terrible person thing comes in. I’m told.

Here’s how the argument goes, if I understand it correctly. Judgments of quality in aesthetic matters cannot be grounded, therefore they are simply rhetoric – there is nothing else they can be; therefore they are necessarily power plays. So, if that’s right, every time I say or even think that, say, Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is better as poetry than, say, Pinter’s anti-war poem, I’m making a power play and nothing else.

Now, I’ll admit, I resisted that idea at first. I thought it was wrong. In fact I was sure it was, because, if nothing else, of my own inner experience of the matter. Naturally that can’t be conclusive to anyone else, on account of how my mind is my mind and not anyone else’s, but it was convincing to me. My sense of the difference between poetry I think good and poetry I don’t think good doesn’t feel like a power play, it feels like something to do with thinking about the poetry as poetry. The truth is, it seemed to me that the act of telling me that my opinions are elitist power plays itself looked far more like a power play than my opinions do. In fact it kind of felt like a power play in the same way that a full-scale invasion by an army would, or a loud knock on the door at 3 a.m. followed by shouts of ‘Police! Open up!’ would. I felt quite skeptical that my mere opinions or reading habits could have quite the same effect.

But that was then. As I say, I’ve had a conversion experience. I’ve realized that all this resistance and disbelief of mine is just a sign of how thoroughly corrupt all my thinking is. I’m considering entering a convent. But in the meantime there is much that I can do, starting, as I said, with ceasing to make judgments between good and bad.

Of course, this will result in something of a change in the nature of B&W. I’ve realized it will mean I’ll have to stop writing these N&Cs, for one thing. That may seem a little drastic, but it’s not – because what I’ve realized is that it is quite impossible to write at all without constantly making an endless series of tiny imperceptible sub-aware judgments of quality. It’s obvious if you think about it. I mean, what else am I doing every time I use one word rather than another? Eh? I’m making a judgment! Oh, shit! Think of it! With every single word I type, I’m rejecting tens of thousands of other words I don’t write! Godalmighty – why have I never thought of this before? I’m so ashamed. All those hurt feelings, all those tens of thousands of words turning sobbing to their pillows every single time I type a word. Oh noooo – I’m so sorry guys. I’ll stop. I’ll just finish this one and then I’ll stop.

And the words are just the beginning. There are ideas, thoughts, links; there’s organization, paragraph breaks, punctuation. One judgment after another. So you can see: N&C is quite impossible. And then News links will be different, because I will have to just pick them at random. And Articles will be different, because I won’t read them, I’ll just accept everything sight unseen, and of course I won’t do any editing or proofreading, because what does that involve other than judgments? Well I suppose I could proofread, because there are some rules one can follow. That needn’t be entirely subjective. But could I do it in a purely objective way? Could I do it without any element of judgment (and thus, remember, power play) creeping in? I’m not at all sure. Especially since I now realize I’m an almost insanely judgmental person. No, it’s too risky, I can’t proofread, and I certainly can’t edit. So Articles will just be whatever turns up in the Inbox. In Focus – I think I’d better just delete the whole of In Focus, because it’s completely corrupt, and I don’t see how I could do any new ones.

And then there’s other editing work I do, which is also suffused with aesthetic judgments. I guess I’ll have to stop doing that too. And as for writing books – ! Well it’s obvious how hopeless that is. Okay…let’s see. I could be a janitor (and have in the past, so that’s cool). I could do yard work. No gardening, because that’s full of aesthetic judgments too, but I could cut grass. There are a lot of lawn-service outfits around here, I’ll just try one of them.

I’m becoming less terrible already, I think. Hope you guys don’t mind too much about the changes to B&W. I’ll do it after work – will be much quicker now, without all that judging to do.


Nov 7th, 2004 1:40 pm | By

Go, Manchester City. Go, Paula Radcliffe.

Update. She went.

With the Devout

Nov 6th, 2004 8:18 pm | By

Religion again. Or rather, still. It never does go away, does it. Funny how people keep urging us to have more of it when its consequences so often seem so very…unpleasant.

Jonathan Derbyshire has a couple of posts on the subject – one about the fallacy that atheists and materialists lack a sense of wonder or awe and the other a review of what sounds like a very irritating book on atheism. Theists have the most remarkable way of assuming that only they are capable of an enormous range of human qualities and aspirations – morality, imagination, dreams, commitment, wonder, honesty, dedication, kindness, mercy, courage, putting the cap back on the toothpaste, virtue, monogamy, not picking their noses in public. Hey, I hate to tell you, but non-theists are capable of all those too, and in the meantime they don’t bore everyone to death talking about some non-existent geezer in the sky who tells everyone not to use condoms or not to let women leave the back room or not to let Adam and Steve get married. Two for the price of one. We can have good qualities and we don’t dress up all our sadistic controlling exploitive impulses by pretending God told us to beat the crap out of this woman or to shoot this Dutch guy six times and then cut his throat and run away.

Garry Wills had an interesting Op-ed in the NY Times a couple of days ago.

The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past. In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies. Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein’s Sunni loyalists.

Well, frankly, I don’t understand that fundamentalism either. At all. It’s beyond me. There are some aspects of religion that (I think) I do understand, but there are others I don’t. I knew a fundamentalist once – someone I worked with. He was one angry dude, man. All his religiosity seemed to express itself in rage at people who didn’t share it. (In fact he once got suspended for half a day for threatening to kill a co-worker for – well for saying exactly what I’m saying: ‘Jim, for a religious guy, you sure seem to have a lot of anger.’) That’s what religion seems to be for a lot of people – a hell of a good pretext to be in a frothing rage all the time. About what? About people who don’t share their loathsome narrow rage-filled punitive view of the world, that’s what.

Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe in some circumstances and settings they are sweet and kind and compassionate. Only that’s not what the rest of us see – I suppose because we’re the spawn of Satan. But then that’s the problem. Religion is just another way of creating ingroups and outgroups, and it sanctions much worse treatment for the outgroups than is normally considered reasonable.

A third post of Jonathan’s touches on this point.

Now I was reminded of all that when I read this in Mark Schmitt’s post:

“The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change.”

If Schmitt is right in his characterization of what he calls, following Robert Fogel, the “Fourth Great Awakening” in American Protestantism, what implications does this have for Sandel’s attempt to connect religious belief with a certain form of public life – with being a citizen with certain responsibilities?

Good question. And no, I haven’t the faintest idea what the answer is.

Here is a handy, or at least hilariously funny, page of atheist quotations. Well not all that funny, but it certainly made me burst out laughing.

Paying Too Much Attention

Nov 5th, 2004 8:28 pm | By

I find the murder of Theo van Gogh quite disturbing, upsetting, disgusting, infuriating, etc. As I’m meant to, of course; as we all are – all we unrepentent atheists and secularists and women who wander around in the world without asking anyone’s permission. Killing him is meant precisely as a message – to people like him, to people like his co-producer of the film ‘Submission,’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to people who criticise or resist Islamism in general.

Some of the coverage of the murder is slightly peculiar. It seems somewhat – cowed. Hesitant. Apologetic. It seems to want to say or signal that van Gogh kind of sort of asked for it. That he shouldn’t have said such mean things about Islamism. This article for example.

People of Moroccan Muslim descent make up the largest single ethnic minority group in the Netherlands and their representatives had been on the frontline in van Gogh’s frequently harsh war of words on extremist Islam. This war reached a height with the recent broadcast on Dutch TV of his short film Submission, a film that protested van Gogh’s view of Muslim treatment of women…Co-produced by the Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist of Somali origin who has blamed Islamists for fostering repression and domestic violence in the Netherlands’ immigrant communities, the film provoked an outcry. Both Hirsi Ali and van Gogh received death threats.

‘Frequently harsh’…Well the reporter is there and I’m not, and I haven’t seen the movie, I haven’t seen van Gogh’s work. But I have to wonder. What’s wrong with saying ‘harsh’ words about ‘extremist Islam’. Why wouldn’t Ayaan Hirsi Ali blame Islamists for fostering repression and domestic violence (to put it more forthrightly, oppression of women)? Is it a secret that ferocious control of women is one of the chief goals of Islamism? Is that some sort of Western or Orientalist myth? Homa Arjomand and Maryam Namazie and their colleagues, women from Iran and other ‘Muslim’ countries, would say no, as would (and did) Ishtiaq Ahmed in this column a few weeks ago. So why the tip-toeing? Multiculturalism run amok or plain fear of another jihadi with a knife and a gun. Who knows. But it’s a tad creepy.


Nov 5th, 2004 1:06 am | By

And now that we’ve given the charitable reading room to breathe, let’s take it back again. Let’s say the hell with the charitable reading – it can hold its breath. Because the problem with the possible feelings of superiority thing (besides the ones I’ve already mentioned) is that it just isn’t necessarily true, and it’s destructive (and often hostile and unkind) to assume that it is. Sure, it’s always possible that The Subject likes [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] for invidious reasons, just as it’s always possible that The Subject does anything for invidious reasons, but that’s not quite good grounds for assuming that she does. What the feelings of superiority explanation overlooks is the possibility that The Subject just really does like [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] and finds a lot of joy, interest, meaning and the like in doing so – that The Subject is genuinely, passionately, self-forgetfully absorbed in [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] and is not thinking about her superiority or inferiority at all, that her liking for [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] has nothing to do with presentation of self or jockeying for position or display or competition or looking down on people. That could be true even if The Subject is delusional and wrong to like [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever], even if she is merely slavishly conforming to conventional tastes, even if she is merely obediently liking what the culture has told her to like.

So that’s the problem with the possible feelings of superiority thing, and the problem with the anti-elitism campaign that it feeds into is that anti-elitists have a tendency to like to shame and humiliate people for being putative elitists. It’s easy to do. It always is easy to shame and humiliate people who are excited and enthusiastic about something – just wait until they’re maximally involved in talking about whatever it is they’re enthusiastic about, and then interrupt to tell them they’re elitists for being enthusiastic about that. It’s a familiar old schoolyard trick, of course – just let old four-eyes get going on atoms or poetry or algebra or whatever sucky nerdy geeky thing it is he likes to get going on, and then pounce and tell him how nerdy and geeky and sucky he is, and maybe beat him up for good measure. I’ve mentioned before here a very interesting, indignant, poignant passage Stephen Jay Gould wrote on this subject in Bully for Brontosaurus – the quantity of intellectual curiosity and excitement that gets teased and beaten out of children in school playgrounds in the anti-intellectual culture of the US. (The apotheosis of George W Bush is unlikely to make that kind of thing more scarce.) John McWhorter writes about a very similar phenomenon in black culture – an incident in his childhood when a boy held his younger sister up so that she could repeatedly hit McWhorter because he had spelled a word correctly on request. It’s depressing, in fact heart-rending, that kind of thing – kind of like ‘The Office’, where people spent so much of their energy ripping each other to shreds.

I used to work with someone who was a classic case, in one of the many menial jobs I’ve had (elitist that I am). He was quite a bright guy, I thought, and I also thought that was probably why he was so hostile – frustrated intelligence. He had it in for me. I had the audacity to read sometimes at lunchtime, so he never missed an opportunity to taunt me. I didn’t much care, because I was indifferent to his opinion, but it was irritating. But the thing is, he had two young children, and he was proud of how smart they were – but he was also threatened by it. He said truculent things from time to time about not letting them get too smart, about teaching them to be real boys, blah blah. God how that depressed me – he wanted to make sure they would end up as frustrated as he was. No doubt he’s succeeded by now. Well at least they won’t be any damn elitists using high-falutin’ big words and thinking they know everything. That’s a relief.

Breathing Room

Nov 4th, 2004 4:32 pm | By

Okay, first, to be fair, let’s try to make a case for anti-‘elitism’. Let’s try to figure out if people who stake out claims to the anti-elitist moral high ground have any good reasons for such claims – let’s try to figure out if there is anything going on here besides one-upsmanship and a paradoxical (not to say ironic) kind of elitism via reverse-elitism. (It is kind of funny from that point of view. It can be seen as nothing but an endless silly regress. ‘You’re an elitist and I’m not, therefore I’m better so I’m in the elite and you’re not…um…wait…’) Let’s try to do the charitable reading thing, just this once.

The moral core of the idea seems to have to do with feelings of superiority. The thought is that people who like or profess to like (or who know something about or profess to know something about) certain cultural products – literature, art, classical music – as opposed to others – tv shows, movies, pop music – think they are better than people who don’t like or know about such products. That, in short, people who prefer or claim to prefer ‘Hamlet’ to ‘Titanic’ think they are better than people who prefer ‘Titanic’ to ‘Hamlet’.

There’s still some unpacking to do there, such as asking how the word ‘better’ is defined or used or meant in such a context, and then asking some (doubtless unanswerable but still pertinent) factual questions about whether people really do think they are ‘better’ in all possible senses of the word or only in a pretty narrow sense and whether that makes any difference and whether the whole thing isn’t drastically muddied and qualified and complicated by the possibly infinite other criteria for ‘better’ that could be relevant. That is, even if it is true that everyone who prefers ‘Hamlet’ to ‘Titanic’ thinks she is better than ‘Titanic’-preferrers in the sense of having better taste of a certain kind, does it follow that all Hamlet-preferrers think they are better in every possible way? What about ‘Titanic’-preferrers who are also brilliant astronomers or cooks or mountaineers or (as Mike said) plumbers? At least some people who like artifacts such as Hamlet have enough sense to know that there are many many criteria for what’s ‘better’ among humans and that no one is likely to be decisive.

And so on. But that’s a large subject, one we might go into another day, but for the moment let’s give the charitable reading room to breathe.

Okay, here’s the room to breathe. Sure – it’s true – preferences in the matter of literature, music and the like can prompt and foster feelings of superiority. Definitely. Thorstein Veblen made the point quite wittily a century ago, and people have gone on making it ever since. It’s a fair cop. I certainly had such feelings when I was a teenager, and possibly more recently. I may even have them still, although I do think they’re very attenuated if they exist at all, because I’m so sharply and permanently aware of all the things I don’t know – but then that’s a self-serving thing to think, so treat it with due caution.

But now – we’ve given the superiority-feelings room to breathe, so now what? What follows from that? That liking ‘Hamlet’ or the equivalent can lead to feelings of superiority therefore – what? No one should ever read ‘Hamlet’ again? Everyone should look around and figure out what is the most popular cultural artifact of the moment and then consume only that and nothing else lest feelings of superiority might be aroused? But then what would stop people deciding they had a more profound or refined or sophisticated or enlightened appreciation of the given cultural artifact? So – what? No one should read or listen to or look at anything ever lest feelings of superiority might be aroused? But then wouldn’t people just decide their appreciation of food or sex or breathing was in some way better than other people’s? So – what? People should blindfold themselves, wear ear-muffs, cut off their genitals? Or just jump off a cliff and have done with it?

Nope. This is a mug’s game, obviously. Or at least it’s obvious to me. Yes, things like a taste for literature can cause feelings of superiority and smugness, but then, so can just about anything else. Or not. People are very resourceful, and can find reasons to feel superior almost anywhere. That’s even a good thing in some ways – a source of ego-strength, motivation, energy, commitment, and the like. So we kind of have to live with it, don’t we. This one is smug because she is keen on Wordsworth, that one is smug because he can run a marathon in two hours and twenty minutes; she works hard at learning about medieval agriculture, he works hard at playing squash. R is thin and disdains fat people, Q is rich and disdains poor people, L is idealistic and disdains materialistic people, and so it goes.

Or at least so it always can go. It doesn’t absolutely have to, or it doesn’t absolutely have to loom large, I don’t think. Such feelings can be background feelings, there when needed for self-defense or a spur to energy, but otherwise shrunk very small and stuffed in a corner. It is possible for people to talk about subjects that happen to interest them, even if they are things that don’t interest most people, without preening or self-congratulation, merely because the subjects in fact interest them. Elitism wars can cause people to think dark thoughts about moving to a desert island or a mountaintop cabin or central Greenland and talking to seals or bats or palm trees but not human beings any more. Could be quite good fun, provided it’s a really superior bit of central Greenland, one that most people have never heard of.


Nov 3rd, 2004 9:54 pm | By

I’m just going to ignore it. That’s okay isn’t it? Just pretend it’s not there. Or at least that I don’t particularly have to talk about it. I mean, what is there to say, and everybody else is already saying it anyway. I don’t have to chime in. (It’s not even just the politics. It’s more basic. It’s the thing about minimal competence. It’s like having a choice between a grown-up and a not very bright child to do a difficult job – designing a bridge, doing research into a new killer virus, figuring out how to get cookies right-side-up on a plate, that kind of thing – and choosing the child.) I don’t have to chime in so I’m not going to. I’m just going to bracket the whole damn thing for as long as it takes – the rest of my life, probably, and everyone else’s too. The gerrymandering thing makes it look as if the bastards are going to be there forever, busily drawing Congressional districts that look like pretzels or corkscrews or the finest old Brussels lace or a game of spillikins so that there will always always always be a Republican majority until Ozymandias returns from the dead and asks what –

Sorry, sorry, I said I was going to ignore it. And I am.

Actually Ozymandias is a good way to make the transition from what I don’t want to talk about to what I do. I didn’t mention him on purpose, he just came into my head, I suppose because I was thinking about eternity and forever-and-ever and metaphors and phrases for same – so there was Oz, sitting there smirking at me. ‘You wantcher metaphor for eternity? I’m yer man.’ So I grabbed him and stuck him into the sentence. I didn’t plot or plan it (that’s what I mean about ‘on purpose’ – not that it was an accident, but that there was no forethought involved), I didn’t form a deep design to mention a name that will be less familiar to some people than Lisa Simpson or Posh and Becks in order to make myself feel clever and grand and learned. I didn’t. But there are people who might suspect that I did. Or who might even firmly believe I did, and say so, and laugh uproariously and tease and mock and demand how many people I think will have the faintest idea who Ozymandias is. People who [voice rising like Tweedledee’s when he was so fussed about his nice new rattle] themselves refer often to names and concepts that I know nothing whatever about, but do I take it for granted they’re showing off and being pretentious and playing one-upmanship? Do I? Hah? Do I not rather simply think that I don’t know much and ought to know more and ought to do better and ought to fill in some of these gaps? Do I call them


No, I don’t, but they call me it, and when I flap my arms around like a heron and say I’m not I’m not, they draw diagrams that they claim show that I am. Hmph. What could be more elitist than that? I can’t draw diagrams that show people are what they say they aren’t, so therefore someone who can when I can’t must be an elitist. Obviously. Since that’s the definition in play.

Except actually it’s not, it’s a highly selective version of that definition that’s in play. It goes like this [I would draw a diagram if I could, but I can’t]: Anything that X mentions that might not be common knowledge is a symptom of elitism and anything that I mention that might not be common knowledge is a symptom of the fact that I know some things that are not common knowledge but I do it in an anti-elitist way. That has to be the case, a priori, because I’m anti-elitist and X is elitist, by nature. X has an elitist personality and I have an anti-elitist personality; these things are hard-wired.

I’m being slightly outrageous here, but only slightly, because that is pretty much how the argument goes. It’s a slightly outrageous argument, it seems to me (not to say waspish), so it seems only fair for me to be slightly outrageous too.

Anyway elitism and charges of elitism and resistance to perceived elitism are all subjects that interest me a lot and also that seem relevant to much of fashionable nonsense. Therefore I think the whole subject is worth exploring, and I intend to – I intended to make a start right here, but I got sidetracked into some mocking and teasing first and now this N&C is more than long enough and I have to run off, so this will have to do for the moment. Actually it’s not a bad way to start, despite the peculiar tone, because it does bring up some of the issues involved. What does make one kind of subject matter ‘elitist’ when another that is at least equally obscure or little-known or erudite is not? What makes one word (‘quotidian,’ say) elitist when others (teleology, contingency, sentient, omniscience, say) are not? That’s a real question. I have a feeling I know the answer (that nothing does, because they’re not different), but I could be wrong, and maybe you have some thoughts. If so, enlighten us – go on, it will take your mind off the vegetation in the White House.


Nov 3rd, 2004 3:43 am | By

Yo, I’m back! Out of the outhouse, into the inhouse, back at the desk, back to work. I’ve left the bright lights and whirling crowds of Bedford Square for the quiet backwater of Seattle. I came in, dropped all my cases and bags and excess sweatshirts in the middle of the living room, grabbed a water bottle, and rushed out to vote. Saw a friend on the way in; did not have to stand in line; saw another friend on the way out. You see what a quiet backwater it is. That wouldn’t happen in Bedford Square.

Ohio. Pennsylvania. Michigan. Florida. Well, we’ll see. I don’t dare let myself think about how I long to be rid of Bush.

More tomorrow. I’ve been awake for more hours than you would believe, so there’s no sense trying to say more now. Especially since my eyes seem to be trying to secede from the rest of my head.

Musings on Evolution and Christianity

Nov 1st, 2004 1:01 am | By

Okay, so I have to post something so that November isn’t just a blank page (yes, I should have been cleverer when I programmed this thing). But unfortunately I have so little going on in my head that I’m really struggling here…

I did have a thought – a couple of weeks ago now, whilst running over a golf course – about Michael Ruse. In his book, The Evolution Wars, he claims:

I am arguing what history has shown: there is really no reason why a Christian should not be a Darwinian, and there is really no reason why a Darwinian should not be a Christian.

At first thought, this doesn’t seem an unreasonable claim. But it does raise a number of interesting issues.

  1. If you’re a Christian, have you got to think there’s a kind of teleology in evolution? Were things set-up so that humans were necessarily going to evolve?
  2. But that’s a bit problematic. Maybe something like humans had to evolve, but it does seem that there is contingency in the precise form that humans take (well certainly someone like Gould would think so; and when I asked Ed Wilson whether he’d expect us to emerge again if evolution were re-run, he said he wouldn’t).
  3. However, if one thinks about this even vaguely closely, there are some possible responses that a Christian could offer.(a) Maybe what appears contingent to us, isn’t contingent at all. I can buy that, but it leads to further puzzles: why, for example, would God have set things up so that the emergence of the human species reeks of contingency? That’s bizarre. (b) Or maybe it didn’t matter too much to God exactly what form human beings took; it’s enough that we’re sentient, have a moral sense, etc. Not sure about this one either. If nothing is contingent to God, then she can’t but help know how evolution was going to end up (given omniscience). So she would know exactly what form humans were going to take from the beginning (to the extent that ‘from the beginning’ makes sense when talking about God).
  4. And then there’s a further thought here that maybe this whole puzzle is just a version of the old Calvinist, predestination thing. Perhaps what’s key here is that God is atemporal; that there is genuine randomness in the way that evolution unfolds (maybe it’s allowed by the laws of nature), but because God is somehow present at all stages in the unfolding, any such randomness is not an impediment to her knowing how things were going to turn out. But I’m not sure that this even gets off the ground as an argument. Would it mean that God did a number of different evolutionary experiments, and then kind of stopped when she got humans from initial conditions which had randomness built in? Or perhaps somehow she would know exactly how the randomness would turn out, so she wouldn’t need more than one? I’m not sure I can make sense of either of those possibilities.
  5. And then there is the possibility the whole idea of randomness, or contingency, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve never really been able to understand what it means to claim that things could have turned out other than they did. No doubt this is some limitation on my part.

I had other thoughts about all this; but I’ve bored myself outlining just these few. Anyway, OB can’t complain now that I’ve let down the side by posting nothing on November 1st. Okay, it isn’t November 1st yet, but I’m going to cheat on the timing!

OB’s in an Outhouse

Oct 23rd, 2004 8:34 am | By

I have sent OB on a mission to count copies of The Dictionary. Her base of operation is a sumptuous residence in Bedford Square (though she only gets to use the outhouse). Unfortunately, it has no internet access (not the kind of thing which is required for the servant quarters). This means that there will be a blogging hiatus. Unless I can think of something to say in the meantime. Which I can’t. Hang on, let me think – what have I been irritated about over the last few days? Hmmm. Oh yes. The soccer player Adrian Mutu got caught with traces of cocaine in his body; so he has to undergo a course of psychological counselling. There are so many levels of stupidity with this idea that I’ve exhausted myself thinking about them, so I’m shutting up.

Ah, There it Is

Oct 19th, 2004 6:32 pm | By

Further travel news.


Oct 19th, 2004 8:55 am | By

More travel news.

That Dream Again

Oct 18th, 2004 6:05 pm | By

I just wanted to call your attention to this post on Normblog. It’s his reaction to yet another of those helpful lectures on how impoverished and pathetic secularism is and how we have to give up and admit that we ‘need’ religion. Of course, as always, the writer makes the case by 1) pretending that religion is the only possible source of things like meaning and solidarity, and 2) by redefining religion. Okay. At that rate – if there’s enough taking away combined with enough redefinition – I could be brought to agree with that idea too. But what of it? Of what use is it to assume that secularism is something it isn’t and that religion isn’t what most people take it to be? Of what use is an argument that depends on a bunch of fictions?

Enabling dreams of Paradise, a world where swords will be beaten into ploughshares, a counter-reality which glimpses an alternative republic of heaven on earth, where peace is built on justice rather than conquest… this, not virgin births, second comings, holy wars and infallible books, is the real stuff: hard-core religion in action. And we have a basic need for that, even if we know the need can never be wholly satisfied, the itch never healed.

No it isn’t. That is not the real stuff of religion. Religion has no monopoly on dreams of peace and justice, and plenty of religion has nothing whatever to do with peace and justice. I do wish if people are going to try to make a case for religion they could manage to do it honestly.

Real Life

Oct 18th, 2004 8:38 am | By

Travel news.


Oct 13th, 2004 8:30 pm | By

I love this. There are those who think that people like me who insist, whether petulantly or earnestly or flintily, that Shakespeare (as it might be) is quite a good writer and better in many ways than quite a few other writers, are ‘elitist’ and snobbish and mindless enemies of all of popular culture. But ’tis not so. It’s just that I insist in the same kind of way there too – some of it is better than other of it, that’s all. I don’t love all of popular culture. But then I don’t love all of the putative ‘canon’ either – some of it I think is over-rated. Gatsby, for instance.

But one bit of popular culture I do love, though I hadn’t given it much thought for some years, or decades, is Pogo. This article in the Boston Review attracted a post at Crooked Timber and the post has attracted fans, fans with more knowledge and better memories than I have, and both the article and the comments have made me all in a sweat to read it again. It’s hilarious stuff, and very American – but in a good way. Not the usual sappy mushy silly goggle-eyed irony-free way that people seem to think is so typical of us – no, in a Twainish, Menckenish, W C Fieldsish, Grouchoish, Ring Lardnerish, self-mocking way. Not bad for red paint.