Notes and Comment Blog

Not Entirely Fuzzy, Actually

Jun 13th, 2006 1:24 am | By

One interesting and valuable current in the comments on Scott McLemee’s interview at Inside Higher Ed was the discussion triggered by Adam Kotsko’s comment:

I’m glad to see that she at least concedes the existence of more fuzzy kinds of truth at the beginning and restricts the empirical kind to science and history — too often, arguments “defending” the existence of scientific empirical truth head down the slippery slope of asserting that such truth is the only real or worthwhile kind and that anything else is mere charlatanism. There are ways of making interesting and even (validly) persuasive claims about the world that do not mimic the scientific method. It would be great if everyone could agree on that principle.

Well…that depends on what is meant by ‘mimic the scientific method,’ I would say. When people make claims of that kind it is usually defined very narrowly; perhaps as something necessarily involving either petri dishes or centrifuges. But the kinds of claims that are meant are claims that do in fact rely on rational thought and evidence; they’re not claims that are entirely untethered from, shall we say, the real world. When you look at them more closely this becomes apparent. So I was pleased when ‘we are all scientists now’ set about doing just that, by asking for ‘a precise example of a validly persuasive claim about the world that doesn’t follow something very much like the (a?) scientific method’. The answer came, ‘There is more to life than material gain. This says something about the human condition and it means more than its literal rendering gives.’ ‘We are all’ replied:

It certainly hints at (controversial) claims about the human condition, but I’m not pursuaded. How would we persuade the Wall Street hedonist driving a kickass car that there’s more to life than money and positional goods? Well, we might appeal to evidence: many people, even very rich and powerful people, find that there is more to life than material gain. Ergo…But that anecdotal claim alone cannot be persuasive, because I’m willing to bet that a carefully designed and sufficiently representative survey of a great many people will find at least a few reasonable folks who, after due consideration, think that material gain really is all they need to live a satisfying life. Are these people simply wrong? Are they morally deficient? [etc] No doubt, once we had a better idea of the correlates of variation in claims about life satisfaction in our sample, we’d be tempted to make a moral argument about character and virtue, to the effect that some sorts of life really are better than others, and these more worthy ways of life feature more than simply material gain. We might then be tempted to use this moral framework to explain the variations in our survey data. But notice that, if we followed this path in turning your pithy aphorism into a persuasive claim, we’d end up making precise philosophical arguments and sociological hypotheses in light of careful empirical research. That sounds a lot like a scientific approach to me…

Exactly. I’m always irritated by this rather unexamined idea that literary or moral or aesthetic claims are completely different from empirical or scientific claims, as opposed to being, say, more tentative, more fuzzy in parts, more reliant on guesswork and personal commitments and the like, but still not completely untethered to any rational forms of inquiry or exploration or verification or checking at all. If such claims were like that they would be of no interest, and they would be undiscussable; but they’re not, are they. When people make moral or aesthetic claims we disagree with we jump right in and argue, don’t we; we give reasons; we cite counter-examples; we may even cite studies or surveys or statistics. We mostly don’t just make stuff up from scratch out of nowhere and fling it down in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. If we did it wouldn’t get us anywhere. We would have to talk gibberish to do that, and people would just shrug and talk about something else (so there goes your ‘validly persuasive’).

This attempted radical separation between the two kinds of truth seems to me to be quite mistaken, but it’s popular. The discussion went on, and it’s a good read.


Jun 11th, 2006 8:11 pm | By

Strange anti-anti-‘postmodernism’ is cropping up everywhere today. (Okay three places that I’ve seen. That’s postmodernist for ‘everywhere.’) The scare-quotes on postmodernism are because the postmodernism in question seems in every case to be some kind of weird ragbag or catch-all term that is so elastic it means pretty much nothing, or anything, or just ‘whatever I feel like making it mean for the purposes of this particular sentence or this particular non-argument.’ But the fact that the word is being used as a ragbag doesn’t mean it doesn’t function as a sower of suspicion of dastardly enemies of (unspecified and very very blurry) postmodernism. (The word is also being used, confusingly, to mean ‘various forms of skepticism and critical scrutiny that have been around for twenty or thirty centuries at least but that I, because I haven’t read very widely, think are all the invention of something called postmodernism.’)

Iain Macwhirter on Stephen Law’s new book for instance.

Now, postmodernists and structuralists might say that Law is naive and reductionist and that he fails to recognise the social context of morality. It’s all very well laying down absolutes, but you have to take into account people’s different viewpoints…Law is impatient with all this. “Postmodernists accuse me of authoritarian conservatism; that as a white male I shouldn’t be telling people how to live. But I don’t have a lot of time for that.” Perhaps he should find the time, because as an author of popular philosophy he can’t ignore the most influential strand of modern philosophy in British universities. “Structuralism” doesn’t even appear in Law’s index, and there is no discussion of the popes of postmodernism, such as Louis Althusser or Michel Foucault.

But part of the reason ‘postmodernism’ is ‘influential,’ if it is (which depends for one thing on how it’s defined, and for instance whether or not one considers Althusser a postmodernist), is for the same sort of reason the head of the MCB is ‘influential,’ which is that newspapers like the Telegraph keep calling him influential. This business of being influential is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy – very ‘constructed,’ in fact, in good postmodernist (according to some ragbaggy definitions) fashion. And the more newspapers and journalists keep repeating that one ‘can’t ignore’ postmodernism because it is influential, the more influential it will become, thus making it even more mandatory that one not ignore it, in a tightening spiral of influence and mandatoricity and thou shalt not ignoreism, all quite independent of any merit inhering in postmodernism itself. And is Althusser really a pope of postmodernism?

Then there’s Marc Mulholland, commenting on the utter inanity of a Florida law barring the teaching of ‘revisionist’ history.

This is outrageous. Historical knowledge is approached by the interplay of evidence, scholarly protocols, and veracious argument. The state has no useful function to play in determining academic procedures. This seems rather to confirm my long standing concerns regarding the obscurantist uses the mundanities of militantly anti PoMo can be put to use.

But know-nothing fits about ‘revisionist’ history in the US have no need of postmodernism. Such fits have been going on for decades, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with putative postmodernism at all. They simply boil down to ‘any interpretation of history that I don’t like.’ Again, one needs a terribly ragbaggy, capacious, sagging, world-size definition of postmodernism to make it central to this issue. One also, perhaps, needs to adopt this irritating and uninformed idea that putative postmodernism invented every single skeptical or critical thought anyone ever had in order to think it is central to this issue. One, postmodernism has no monopoly on either skepticism or critical thought, and two, postmodernism often abjures and even reviles critical thought rather than recommending and embracing and making use of it. Norm has a comment here; I saw the post via his.

And there is the (very interesting, I must say) discussion at Inside Higher Ed, where the ‘postmodernism thought of everything and without it we’d all be credulous robots’ line keeps coming back, along with a repetitive insistence that people who defend the idea of truth don’t mean truth but Truth or Absolute Truth or certain truth. No matter how many times I say ‘no, just truth,’ the capital letters and transcendent adjectives keep returning. Like the repressed.

One of [Foucault’s] mind blowing and truly innovative arguments centers on the creation of homosexuality as a social category. Foucault contends that the articulation of homosexuals as a distinct and scientifically identifiable group occurred in the late 19th century; “homosexuals” were “created” in 1870s. This doesn’t challenge the “truth” of same-sex attraction or its pre-1870s history. BUT, it suggests that the scientific way of understanding same-sex eros is history-bound and culture-bound. The sexologists in the late 19th century didn’t suddenly just “get it right” by turning sexuality into an object of scientific inquiry. As I see it, that’s the “post” of the “postmodern” part; after reading Foucault, we don’t have to slavishly buy into a modernist/scientific reading of sexuality – a reading that’s likely to be reductionist, determinist, essentialist, and some other bad word.

As if (as ‘we’re all scientists now’ points out) we would have had to before reading Foucault. Sometimes (often) one wants to stop arguing with self-declared postmodernists and just urge them to read more widely. A lot more widely.

How Green Was My Yurt

Jun 10th, 2006 9:30 pm | By

Excuse me a moment.




Oh, christ. That’s a good one. Dylan Evans – remember him? – has ever such a good idea. He’s going oop north with his cat to live in the mud, no I mean he’s going oop north with his cat to set up Utopia. And a very nice Utopia it does sound.

He has banned TV and mobile phones, but sanctioned the internet (because he believes that the web could re-knit itself after a disaster). Medicines are fine (“this is play-acting, not religious cult”), and if the community collectively decides to import other conveniences, that’s OK too…Evans will be converting a barn (on farmland belonging to a friend) for communal living, erecting yurts, and installing toilets and solar-powered showers. He has already visited eco-villages, ashrams and monasteries to see how other “intentional communities” operate…“Our wild, or primary, nature, which has been stunted by the way we live today, is much more trustworthy than we think. And it flourishes brilliantly in our natural habitat. Look at the way hunter-gatherers make decisions, punish transgressors and counter dominant people — they know how to put people in their place. I want to explore whether those social mechanisms will work.”

Can’t you just not wait to stay away from that? I sure can! Dylan Evans is a funny, funny guy. I’ve said it all along. JS said he was sane once upon a time, but that was clearly a good long while ago.

“I began to think: could the same thing happen to our industrialised civilisation? So far, hundreds of civilisations have collapsed — why do we think ours is immune? And what would life be like in the aftermath? It suddenly struck me that such a collapse might not actually be a bad thing. It would be terrible while it happened because millions of people would die, which is obviously horrible, but those who survive might have the best chance of creating Utopia that we’ve ever had. I realised that if I was going to explore this issue, I’d have to act it out.”

Oh dear. Shame about the millions. Terrible, terrible; dear oh dear. Now – now that that’s out of the way; god damn, mama, what fun! We get to create Utopia! Yurts! Internet! No tv! Pizza! No hamburgers! Dishwashers! No stoves! Everything just perfect how I like it, with lots of this and none of that, according to my preference, oh boy oh boy oh boy, I can’t wait.


Staring at the Rod in Wonder

Jun 8th, 2006 9:12 pm | By

I’ve been known to disagree with Giles Fraser (when he tries to tell us Christianity is naturally opposed to slavery, for instance), but he’s right this time.

“We are told that in England it is a crime to spank children,” writes Debbi Pearl from No Greater Joy Ministries, following a row that has erupted over the distribution of their literature in the UK. “Therefore Christians are not able to openly obey God in regard to biblical chastisement. They are in danger of having the state steal their children.”

See, that’s why people like me get so hostile to religion. One reason anyway – but probably the biggest one. Because it is (of its nature, and cannot help being) so useful to people who want to use it to justify and protect their desire to do nasty things. Because the central claim there is not corrigible or negotiable or subject to discussion or thought, so there is just no way to teach or persuade people who believe that claim that it is mistaken. With other kinds of claim it is possible, however difficult and challenging that may be. But with unarguable religious claims, it isn’t. So if people are convinced God wants them to hit their children with a stick, they are not going to listen to people who try to tell them they’re wrong. If people are convinced God wants them to write books defending the practice of hitting children with sticks, the same applies. If people are convinced God wants them to blow people up in wholesale lots, same applies. It’s no good.

Chastening begins early. “For the under-one-year-old, a little, 10- to 12-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient,” writes Michael Pearl. With older children he advises: “After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his backside. Somehow, after eight or 10 licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment. The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand-new child emerges. It makes an adult stare at the rod in wonder, trying to see what magic is contained therein.”

Hmm. I might have to read this book.

For, as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father’s anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel.

Well – they could turn that back around on you, Vic. Frankly. Because Christianity is only partly a religion of forgiveness and compassion. This is that slavery thing again; you’re reading selectively. There is plenty of very cruel, cold, vindictive stuff in the New Testament, including in the Gospels, including in the speeches of Jesus.

But, needless to say, I agree with your basic point all the same. This is nightmare stuff.

According to Ted Tripp, in his monstrous bestseller Shepherding a Child’s Heart, even babies who struggle while having their nappy changed are deemed to be rebellious and need punishment. Last month Lynn Paddock of North Carolina was charged with the murder of her four-year-old son, Sean. She had apparently beaten him with a length of quarter-inch plumbing line – plastic tubing. Like many in her church, Paddock had turned to the Pearls’ resources on Biblical parenting. The Pearls say chastisement with plumbing line is “a real attention getter”. Sean Paddock’s autopsy describes layers of bruises stretching from his bottom to his shoulder.

Theocracy’s got to go.

Casus irae

Jun 8th, 2006 9:11 pm | By

This seems like a bizarre reason for being angry:

Washington was angered by Mr Malloch Brown’s references to middle America, and the influence upon it of conservative commentators such as Mr Limbaugh. Mr Bolton said the speech demonstrated a “condescending, patronising tone about the American people. Fundamentally and very sadly, this was a criticism of the American people, not the American government, by an international civil servant. It’s just illegitimate.”

Did it? Was it?

“Much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News,” Mr Malloch Brown said in a speech in New York on Tuesday. Depending on the UN while tolerating “too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping” was “simply not sustainable”, he said. “You will lose the UN one way or another.”

If the Guardian is reporting what Mr Malloch Brown said accurately, then what Mr Bolton said looks like yet another instance of sloppy reading (or hearing). Yet another instance of translating X into Y and then railing at the speaker for saying Y. If that quotation and paraphrase is accurate, Malloch Brown wasn’t criticising the American people, he was criticising the Bush administration’s failure to defend the UN against people like Limbaugh. That’s a different thing. But…of course the folksy pseudo-populist schtick is way popular with the Bush admin, because it mostly works. There is simply no bottom to the weirdness of Bush successfully pretending to be a reglar fella merely via presentation of self, but there’s no denying it’s worked. This looks like another entry in that continent-size dossier.

Postmodernist Domination

Jun 8th, 2006 1:15 am | By

Dave asked if I planned to say anything about the comments on Scott’s Inside Higher Ed interview. I thought I would mention just one item, in the most recent (at the moment) comment, because it has a certain risible typicality. It comes from someone who calls herself, matily, ‘Violet’, an associate professor in the midwest, addressing another commenter.

I’m sorry to hear that postmodern thinking wasn’t for you. I suppose it’s up for debate whether or not we should abandon the teaching of postmodernism, a cultural movement which dominated the latter half of the twentieth century, solely based on your negative experiences.

There. I like that. I didn’t know postmodernism had ‘dominated the latter half of the twentieth century’ – did you? I also don’t know what that means – did postmodernism dominate plumbing in the latter half of the twentieth century, and transportation, and chemical engineering, and ecology, and the weather, and wars, and rumours of wars, and demographics, and epidemics, and revolutions, and medicine, and tv, and agronomy, and everything? Just, everything about the latter half of the twentieth century, every event, every object, every pattern, everything? And if so how did this domination manifest itself? Did everything, like, cower before the massive power and bulk and teeth of postmodernism? Or what?

Well, that’s probably not exactly what she meant, she probably just wrote carelessly. She certainly reads carelessly, as you can see if you read her first comment – she misreads every single answer of mine that she elects to comment on. Maybe she meant something far more modest, such as that postmodernism dominated, let’s say, intellectual life in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’m betting that’s what she meant. That seems like a fair reading, don’t you think? Not uncharitable? Or perhaps she meant only academic endeavor? Or perhaps she meant only academic endeavor within the humanities and social sciences? That would certainly be radically narrower and more modest than what she did say. And yet, even narrowed down that drastically, it’s still not true. But her thinking it is true is absolutely typical of ‘postmodernism’ at its preening worst. (If you don’t believe me, just remind yourself of that letter Judith Butler wrote to the NY Times about its Derrida obit. Go on. We’ll wait.)

And then, amusingly, having been so opaque herself, she goes on to ask a commenter who is less than fond of postmodernism a lot of sharp questions about what exactly he means. That’s a postmodernist thing to do.

(I have to say this though. What’s with the first name bit? Who invited her to call me by my first name? Eh? I certainly didn’t. Is that a postmodern thing too?)

Don’t Ask Questions, Just Sign Up

Jun 7th, 2006 4:57 pm | By

This is good. A letter to the Times.

John Wainwright (letter, May 31) states that “tolerance implies that we have no right to challenge the behaviour of individuals or organisations that we disagree with or deem harmful”. However, the word tolerance has not been defined in this way until very recently. The traditional dictionary definition of tolerance is “the ability to endure”; that is, the ability to endure someone else’s expression of an opinion, even if we find it insulting, demeaning or offensive. This does not preclude criticism of their beliefs but it should preclude censorship of them.

We’ve encountered this muddle many times. It comes into play with the use of words like ‘offensive’ and ‘respect’, too, and now with this new use of ‘human rights’. There was for instance that discussion about what kind of ‘respect’ people should be required to commit to for job purposes. I disputed the idea that employers get to demand signed promises to ‘respect and value the differences among us’ with no specification of what kind of differences were meant – or, for that matter, of what was meant by ‘respect and value’. No doubt what they meant was non-persecution and non-tormenting of people for stupid reasons such as their race or gender or sex pref or hairdo – but that’s not what they said, and it’s risky to sign things on the assumption that they mean some vague thing that hasn’t actually been said when there is ample room for them to mean something else. But that’s just what we keep being gently but firmly pushed to do: to tolerate and respect and value anything and everything, and at the very same time (look sharp, now) support the human rights of religious groups to demand respect for their most profound beliefs, and to enforce that demand by censoring and closing down plays and art exhbitions. Erm – but aren’t those expectations in tension? Yes, of course they are, but that’s your problem, not ours; just sign the promise and shut up. So it is our duty to respect and value and tolerate Ruth Kelly’s human right to have her personal profound beliefs which are in sharp tension with the duties of her job but of course that is her business, not ours, and if we press her on the point, why, we might as well say that people of ‘faith’ can’t do jobs like hers, and that’s absurd!

One can’t help noticing a certain lack of clarity in all this.

No Blinking

Jun 7th, 2006 4:16 pm | By

It’s a bit like belonging to a Nazi party, or the KKK, or the God Hates Fags gang, and then trying to claim not only that of course one’s belonging to that organization doesn’t in the least mean one can’t “speak up” for the rights of Jews or blacks or gays, why on earth would it, but also that even asking the question is absurd and outrageous and indignation-worthy. It’s a bit like that, but to many observers it doesn’t look like that, because we’ve been so relentlessly trained to think of religious beliefs and teachings as in some profound way entirely different from political beliefs. But why would they be? Because it’s taboo to challenge them, that’s why – and that’s a terrible reason.

Ruth Kelly[‘s]…full title is secretary of state for communities and local government…which involves responsibility for equality, including gay rights. It is this last responsibility that lit a firestorm when her appointment was announced, with activists arguing that one of the country’s most high-profile Catholics was unfit to speak up for rights that her church actively opposes. In the same terms, many women’s rights campaigners have argued that her position as minister for women is also questionable…[G]iven that her faith is explicitly anti-abortion and anti-contraception and that its very highest level of priesthood is open only to men, is she really the best-placed person in government to speak up for women’s rights?

I would say no. I would say there is a real tension there, and that it’s no good just pretending that tension is inconceivable. But that’s the road Kelly takes.

As a devout Catholic, though, is there room for manoeuvre on these issues? Does her faith clash with women’s rights? “No! . . . Oh come on!” Kelly exclaims, frustrated. “We risk getting into the situation where you say people of faith can’t hold these jobs – I mean, that’s absurd!”

No it isn’t. That’s just it. It’s unacceptable, it’s ‘offensive’, it’s taboo, but it’s far from absurd. It’s simply no good pretending that “faith” never conflicts and never can conflict with secular ideas about rights and justice and equality.

Marjane Satrapi

Jun 6th, 2006 1:37 am | By

Wow, that was a shock. I was at the county library today – at a branch of the county library system, that is – and on my way out I passed a catalogue terminal and had a wild and crazy impulse to look up Why Truth Matters. I didn’t think they’d have it of course, just thought I’d make sure. But what a shock I got – they’ve ordered three copies. That’s a lot of copies.

One is for Redmond. Maybe that’s Bill Gates’s copy.

Speaking of libraries – last Saturday I went to a talk-book signing thing at a local branch (of the city library this time) with Marjane Satrapi, who wrote and drew Persepolis and Persepolis 2. I kind of didn’t expect very much – maybe out of caution. Partly I just didn’t expect her to speak much if any English, because I know she lives in Paris (and went to school in Vienna) so it seems a bit much to expect her to speak English on top of Farsi, French and German (and, it turns out, Swedish and Italian). Anyway I just had modest expectations. But she was amazing. She was amazing. She looked like her cartoons of herself, for one thing. She has a strong face, strong eyebrows, and a great wicked smile. And she speaks English just fine, thanks, and has a lot to say, and what she says is worth hearing. It was exhilarating. The place was packed. It was good.

Oh and I found out how to pronounce her name, which I’d wondered. It’s Marzhahn.

Extreme Prejudice

Jun 5th, 2006 7:02 pm | By

Update: outeast pointed out in comments that the article linked is, shall we say, long on rhetoric and short on evidence; or perhaps a joke; anyway that it seems to misrepresent what the game is actually like. Somebody play it for me and find out, okay? I certainly don’t want to play it.

Did you look at the Christian dominionist video game items? Exciting, aren’t they? Thrilling to know there are people with views like that out there, planning, planning, planning…

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission – both a religious mission and a military mission – to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state – especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is “to conduct physical and spiritual warfare”; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice.

That sounds like a fairly large number of infidels. In fact it sounds like everyone except dominionist Christians. How long before they take to hijacking planes, one wonders.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City – 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian.

New York – obviously. Home of the infidel. The UN. ‘New York intellectuals’ which is code for Jews. Jews. Atheists. Intellectuals. Catholics, Muslims, foreigners, queers, arty types, people with a sense of humour, free women, journalists – oh the place is a sewer, I tell you.

The designers intend this game to become the first dominionist warrior game to break through in the popular culture due to its violent scenarios and realistic graphics, lighting, and sound effects…Could such a violent, dominionist Christian video game really break through to the popular culture? Well, it is based on a series of books that have already set sales records – the blockbuster Left Behind series of 14 novels by writer Jerry B. Jenkins and his visionary collaborator, retired Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye.

In other words, yes, easily. Oh well. Antarctica might be warm enough to live in before too long.

PZ has a comment here.

Your Mileage May Differ

Jun 5th, 2006 6:43 pm | By

Someone told me the other day that argument isn’t, shall we say, my strong suit – by which I think was meant I’m terrible at it. Oh, I thought, and picked up the classifieds to look for another job. This time I might even try to find one that pays money, however little. That’s what I get for leaving school in the seventh grade. Not that I regret it – those years on the streets were the making of my character.

But so I was amused to see this entry on a philosophy-type blog (a transgendered one at that) that’s full of recommendations of good skeptical, philosophical, scientific and similar sites, and says in a paragraph on logic-oriented sites –

If you lack familiarity with the basics of the subject then The Fallacy Files is a good place to start – it categorises the major logical faults and gives clear illustrative examples. The list sits alongside a blog which subjects news items to argumentative criticism. A similar site, although not a blog, which does the same thing for mathematics, is Numberwatch which has a regular Number of the Month page lambasting innumeracy in the media. My favourite blog, however, in this field is the Notes and Comments of the Butterfliesandwheels site which is dedicated, as they put it, to “fighting fashionable nonsense”. Most (all?) of the entries are written by Ophelia Benson with just the right amount of righteous [indignation] and rigorous logic.

Well, in that case, I’ll put the classifieds back in the zebra’s cage for now.

Ages of Experience Have Taught Us

Jun 3rd, 2006 6:55 pm | By

Next up. Bush’s bizarro non sequitur.

Mr Bush said: “Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society.”

Okay – and? So what? What’s your point? What follows from that? How, exactly, do you get from that to a need to forbid gay marriage? What’s the deal? Are you thinking that the existence of gay marriages will exert some kind of sucking effect on straight marriages, causing them gradually but surely to – um – become something other than straight marriages? To turn into poker dens, or iron smelters, or Manolo Blahnik shoes? But how? How would gay marriages do that? What exactly is the mechanism you think is operating here?

I know, I know; silly question. Silly because it doesn’t matter; silly because irrelevant. The people who pay attention to that kind of drivel won’t notice or think about the non sequitur, and Bush and his caretakers know that, so of course it’s irrelevant. But what the hell. I wanted to point it out anway.

Who Gets to Bully Whom?

Jun 3rd, 2006 6:41 pm | By

People do keep trampling on the rights of religious believers, don’t they. Have you noticed that? Exhibiting paintings that some Hindus don’t like, putting on plays that some Sikhs don’t like, drawing cartoons that some Muslims don’t like, refusing to give arbitrary unequal treatment to people that some Christians would prefer to see getting arbitrary unequal treatment – there’s just no end to it. So naturally the religious believers are speaking up. Wouldn’t you?

Consider for instance these UK proposals to ‘protect gays and lesbians from being denied “goods, facilities and services” because of their sexual orientation.’

Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, said in a statement issued by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship that the proposals could also undermine people’s rights to exercise their religious beliefs…Lord Mackay said: “For people of religious faith who believe that the practice of homosexuality is wrong, these proposals seem to me to carry a serious threat to their freedom in their voluntary and charitable work and in relation to earning their livelihood in a number of occupations.”

Yes – true. Laws and regulations are like that. They carry of their nature serious threats to freedom. That’s rather the point of them. If they weren’t meant to stop people doing things or to make them do things, they wouldn’t be laws and regulations, they would be something else, like polite advice, or gentle urging, or poetic rumination. The freedom of murderers is badly dented by laws against murder. Is this news to Lord Mackay?

Senior Muslims were also critical. Dr Majid Katme, the spokesman for the Islamic Medical Association, argued that the proposals demonstrated that the Government was prepared to discriminate against faith communities in order to promote “equality”. “The right to hold deep faith convictions that affect the way people think and behave in every aspect of life is sacrificed in these regulations,” he said.

The scare-quotes on ‘equality’ are interesting. Did Dr Katme make the little finger-hooks in the air when he was talking to the Telegraph, or what? How did the Telegraph know to put the scare-quotes on? Whatever. However that happened, it’s fascinating to see people catching on. Ohhhhhh – guess what, there’s a big fat tension in all this cuddly droning about ‘communities’ (I put those scare quotes on myself) and ‘faith communities’ and ‘rights’ and ‘the right to hold deep faith convictions’ on the one hand, and equality and freedom on the other. Guess what, the two don’t always mingle smoothly; guess what, you can’t always have both; guess what, your freedom to hold deep faith convictions that women should be imprisoned and subordinated and silenced conflicts rather sharply with my freedom to be a person like other people. We got a problem here, dude. Same with the gay stuff. Your right to hold deep faith convictions that gay people are wrong and bad and sinful conflicts rather sharply with gay people’s freedom and equality. Unless of course you can bring yourself simply to have the deep faith convictions without trying to enforce them or act on them in any way – but apparently you can’t, or you wouldn’t be complaining about these regulations. You’re not actually talking merely about deep faith convictions, you’re talking about putting them into practice. You’re trying to defend your desire to apply special unequal rules to gay people by calling that unpleasant desire ‘deep faith convictions’ and associating the whole package with freedom and rights. You’re complaining that your right and freedom to treat people unequally is under threat, and you’re dressing it up with talk of deep faith convictions and faith communities and people of religious faith. It’s a low trick. You guys need less in the way of deep faith convictions and a lot more in the way of rational thought about morality.

Human Rights

Jun 2nd, 2006 8:41 pm | By

Oh dear, another ‘community’ has been attacked and defamed and had its human rights abused. Will this kind of thing never end? This time it was an art exhibition that attacked and defamed the Hindu community and abused its human rights. But the Hindu community didn’t take this attacking and abusing lying down – or at least, the group ‘Hindu Human Rights’ didn’t. Bless their hearts.

So we are fully aware of, respect and uphold British laws and traditions, which protect the rights of the Hindu community to protest when attacked and defamed.

That’s a sly one. Yes, of course, British laws and traditions protect the rights of anyone to protest when attacked and defamed, or any other time; British laws and traditions protect rights to protest in general. But the way that’s phrased makes it look (if you read hastily) as if British laws and traditions protect specifically the rights of ‘the Hindu community’ specifically to protest ‘when attacked and defamed’, which is more dubious; it also makes it look, perhaps even if you don’t read hastily, as if ‘the Hindu community’ had in fact been ‘attacked and defamed’, which is highly dubious. It is highly dubious to consider an exhibition of paintings that includes some paintings of naked Hindu deities an exercise in attacking and defaming ‘the Hindu community’. Highly dubious, but also highly popular and highly effective. If you’re religious, just announce that anything that gets up your nose is an attack on and defamation of your ‘community’ and everyone for miles around will turn pale and clammy with anguish, and put a stop to whatever nose-upgetting item is at issue.

We have campaigned for years for these values and freedoms to be granted to the Hindu communities which are persecuted in many parts of the world…As anyone can see from our website and publications, we exist to highlight the abuses of the human rights of Hindus going on in many parts of the world.

By…shutting down art exhibitions? By protesting naked deities in art exhibitions? Because…naked deities in art exhibitions are abuses of human rights? Well, yes; that probably is exactly what Ranbir Singh thinks; that is the way this line is going. Remember that cardinal last month who said exactly that? About the DaVinci Code? “This is one of the fundamental human rights – that we should be respected, our religious beliefs respected, and our founder Jesus Christ respected,” said Cardinal Arinze.” A nice modest humble claim, that we all have to respect everyone else’s religious beliefs and (as if that weren’t enough) religious founders as well. Walls creeping ever closer.

Well, Gravediggers Are Pleased

Jun 2nd, 2006 2:41 am | By

Bad. ‘Uganda was a beacon of hope in Africa’s struggle against HIV, but the Christian right’s grip on US policy is undermining this effort with fatal consequences, reports Oliver Duff from Kampala.’

Aids activists and development officials point to the 130,000 Ugandans infected with HIV last year alone – up from 70,000 in 2002 – and say the recent obsession with abstinence is handicapping the country’s once-successful fight against the virus. Health workers see the fingerprints of America’s Christian right all over the chastity message and believe the Bush administration is using its financial might to bully them into accepting evangelical ideology at the expense of public health…Uganda receives more US money than ever…But that cash comes with conditions: in a gesture to the Christian right in the US, at least one-third of all prevention money must go to “abstinence-only” projects…Critics counting each new infection in field clinics say this has dangerously skewed Uganda’s previous “balanced” approach which seemed to be working.

Working, yes, but at the price of allowing some people to go with condoms instead of abstinence, and that’s dirty. It’s better to make the dirty people be dead and only the clean people live. Except that gets tricky, because you can get people who are faithful (one of the items in Uganda’s ABC – abstinence, be faithful, condoms) but are infected by their partners; that usually means women being infected, because male to female transmission is much easier. And then there are the children they have, and the children they leave orphans, some of whom are forced to become prostitutes to survive, and quickly get Aids and die themselves. But maybe it’s worth it, to keep from allowing condoms to appear on billboards and remind everyone of sex? Maybe not.

“Because of the US, our government now says Abstain and Be faithful only,” says Dr Katamba. “So people stop trusting our advice. They think we were lying about how condoms can stop Aids. Confusion is deadly.” And so it is proving to be: the number of infections is again rising, after years of decline…The trusted and influential first lady, Janet Museveni, is a born-again Christian. She has publicly equated condom use with theft and murder and said that Aids is God’s way of punishing immoral behaviour.

Aids is God’s way of punishing immoral behaviour in men by infecting their wives and leaving their children orphans. Interesting view of punishment, isn’t it.

People on both sides of the argument agree that Washington is prolonging tens of thousands of Ugandans’ lives through treatment – and that abstinence is crucial. “The evangelicals are absolutely right: abstinence is the best way of preventing the spread of HIV/Aids,” says Sigurd Illing, the EU ambassador to Uganda. “But some people aren’t receptive. We need an end to this bedevilling of condoms by people who take a high moralistic stance and don’t care about the impact that this has on reality.”

Ah yes, reality. Now where have we heard about that before…

“Saying ‘abstain’ is not realistic.” Nor is saying “Be faithful” at present, given the widespread and accepted male infidelity in Uganda that results in one infected person spreading the virus quickly…Constance Namuyiga, a 28-year-old mother of three young children, found out she was HIV-positive two years ago. “Men think they own us here,” she says…Not everyone is sad about the escalating epidemic. In a roadside timber yard near Kampala’s Mulago Hospital, coffin makers report that business has never been better.

Oh, good, that’s cheering.

Geekiness Not Just for Men

Jun 1st, 2006 2:21 am | By

Oh look, here’s Catherine Bennett confirming much of what Lucy and I said in But What About? the other day – on the ‘why aren’t there more women writing blogs and editing websites and doing Euston-type things?’ question. It’s not, as I pointed out, because they’re not allowed. One reason I offered was that a lot of them think, stupidly, that it’s a childish guyish geeky thing to do, and that they’re better than that. Now here’s Catherine Bennett doing just what I was talking about:

A couple of months ago, an American robin, Turdus migratorius, made it across the Atlantic. News reports showed a long row of birdwatchers, waiting, with the utmost patience, by a garden wall in Peckham, London. Almost all of them were men. I wondered, at the time, if this – minus binoculars – is what a reception party of bloggers would look like. Now, thanks to the drafters of the Euston Manifesto, a pub-born project that has just launched as a real-life political alliance, the question has been answered. It is, indeed, what a reception party of bloggers would look like.

Good for them – the patient watchers. That’s not a bad or a stupid thing to do; it’s not bad or stupid to be interested in birds; what is the sneer for? I bet Bennett wouldn’t sneer that way at women who watch ‘Neighbours’ of an afternoon – she’d think that was elitist, she’d be embarrassed to sneer (I’m betting – I don’t know for a fact), but to sneer at people watching for a bird with binoculars is fair game. Why is that? As it happens, the most passionate birders I know are women; one of them goes on trips to Africa and Brazil to watch birds; and she knows a lot more women birders than I do. But even if that weren’t the case, it might be that women were missing something of value by not themselves watching birds, as opposed to being more grown-up and sensible by ignoring birds. Bennett is claiming (apparently without realizing it) that women are better than men because they have narrower interests. They have better sense than to watch birds or mess around with blogs or politics. Well – I respectfully disagree. And guess what – I’m a woman.


Jun 1st, 2006 2:21 am | By

The Interrogations Archive

The Archive

Genuflect Genuflect Genuflect

May 30th, 2006 5:51 pm | By

The old ‘how do I look in this attitude’ problem again. The old ‘get me, I’m so transgressive’ problem again. Funny how persistent it is.

What chiefly surprised me about last winter’s list was its lack of any humor, any irony. The self-styled most important journal of theory was going to inform us – so it told us – what an objective method revealed about who the most important theorists were in its pages. How? By counting citations to theorists. Behind the rhetoric about discovering “the identity of our journal” lies an implicit assumption: If you’re cited in Critical Inquiry, you’re the best of the best. Sometimes the folks in Chicago get a little pumped…

If we like you you’re the best of the best. Okay, that’s one way of measuring. Possibly not the most self-effacing or non-risible method though.

The authors of the ranking, Anne H. Stevens, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Jay W. Williams, Critical Inquiry’s managing editor, note that “Benjamin’s works are cited nonargumentatively,” which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer’s sign of the cross. But the genuflecting to Benjamin points, perhaps, to something hocus-pocus about this whole counting exercise. The essay that accompanies CI’s list crows that the theories featured in the journal “share a tendency to question received wisdom and accept few absolutes or foundations.” Yet this list seems like a monument to CI’s importance.

That, exactly, is what makes my skin crawl about ‘theory’ at its (all too abundant) worst: that dreadful and endemic habit of citing totemic names ‘nonargumentatively’, of using names as window dressing rather than the ideas of the names as something to be engaged with, of citing people reverently without having to figure out what they said, of genuflecting. It’s a great marker for the presence of empty attitudinizing as opposed to real thought or inquiry. That’s why I sometimes, as a reader pointed out last week, criticize the writing of X about Y on the basis of what X said without necessarily having read Y, because it is what X has said about Y, rather than Y, that I’m talking about. It really is possible, in fact it’s pretty easy, to spot nonargumentative citation window dressing when you bump into it. It’s nothing if not obvious.

A Review

May 29th, 2006 8:48 pm | By

Another review. JS sent me the link. It’s…well it’s a good review. It sees the point, for one thing. That’s rewarding. Excuse me for just a second here – this is very cringe-making in a way – but I do want to say something.

In this book, Benson and Stangroom are wide-ranging in their knowledge and in the thinking about what they know, and so the book appears laid out almost like a collection of essays that are connected by the theme described above. Anthropology, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, feminism, philosophies of various sorts, and the policies of Nazism are all touched on or addressed. Each chapter is interesting in its own right, but the background and source materials are so comprehensive, the reader may need to put in some effort to integrate them and keep the theme in focus. This is not a bad thing — readers usually benefit from adding their own effort.

I love that last thought. Quite independent of any particular book, I love that thought. We had a running argument about exactly that throughout the writing: about how careful to be not to throw anything at readers that might seem too arcane or obscure or academic. The arguments were rather fierce at times. That’s because I worry about leaving out things that are interesting or enriching or thought-provoking or necessary merely because one hypothetical reader somewhere might not have heard of it. I don’t think it’s worth doing that, beyond a certain point – I think it’s worth risking stretching people a little. But JS had a serious point too, which is that it’s not worth risking making people feel stupid. I agree that it’s unkind to make people feel stupid, but I also feel rather strongly that we don’t always read about what we already know backwards and forwards; that if we never read about anything we don’t already know inside out, we never learn anything; and that to some extent people choose to feel stupid instead of feeling stimulated to learn more, and I don’t really want to pander to that. I think it works as a kind of auto-impoverishment. I’m serious. I’ve heard apparently sensible people arguing passionately that such and such book made them feel stupid because it was full of references they didn’t recognize. But why didn’t they feel inspired to learn more, I wondered. I think that ‘feeling stupid’ response is a learned, indeed a political response; it’s rather like the ‘feeling offended’ response to cartoons and paintings and operas and plays and novels. I think it’s somewhat sinister, and I worry about encouraging it. So I was really thrilled to read that ‘readers usually benefit from adding their own effort’. That is exactly what I think, and I think that’s a generous view (I don’t mean I think I’m generous for holding it, I mean I think it’s the generous way to go).

So – what’s on at Folk Life this afternoon?

Socratic Deformation

May 29th, 2006 8:12 pm | By

This review of Rousseau’s Dog is odd.

How silly can clever men be? For anyone on more than nodding acquaintance with university professors, the answer is clear: ‘very silly indeed’. For the fortunate majority denied first-hand experience, this account of the relationship between two of the wisest fools in Christendom will fill the gap.

Well, of course, clever university professors can be extremely silly, especially moderately clever ones who think they’re more than moderately clever, as moderately clever university professors often do, on account of spending several hours every week looking at the upturned faces of dear little undergraduates who know less than they do (see ‘Socratic deformation’ in The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense). But some are sillier than others, and not all are silly. Let’s not get carried away here. Just because clever people can be silly, it doesn’t follow that Hume was as silly as Rousseau.

There are plenty more such good moments in this wonderfully readable account of two very silly men.

That’s a silly concluding sentence on this subject; it’s a lot sillier than anything Hume ever wrote. (Yes, I have; every word.)

Carole Angier is much better. Much less, one might say, silly.

…our authors seek to discover what really happened between Rousseau and Hume, and to adjudicate between them. The debate, as they present it, is between sense and sensibility, rationality and feeling, and they come down on the side of feeling. In the case of Hume, the opposition is simplified. But if, like me, you choose sense, you’ll want to argue with E and E on almost every page.

I do choose sense. Feeling (of course; obviously; indisputably) is essential, but it needs to be checked by rationality. Rousseau wasn’t always terribly good at that, and he certainly wasn’t always generous. Hume was immensely generous to Rousseau, and Rousseau was immensely ungrateful and vindictive in return. There is no contest between the two of them.

It’s the accepted view of Hume they want to challenge: le bon David, universally admired for his decency and serenity. They certainly show that, about these events at least, he was far from serene; and not always decent either…we’d probably all agree that he behaved badly in publicly attacking poor, tormented Rousseau, instead of maintaining a charitable silence. They show that Hume was human. But they go much further than this. They always find the best possible explanation for Rousseau, and the worst possible one for Hume.

The trouble is…wanting to challenge an accepted view is an agenda like any other, and it can cause one to distort the evidence just as any other agenda can. It’s yet another distortion-device that one needs to be careful about.

Rousseau’s Dog traduces and misinterprets Hume like this throughout. He grounded his moral philosophy on the human capacity for altruism and fellow-feeling, and he practised both in his life. He failed with Rousseau, but so did everyone else. E and E suggest that the encounter with brilliant, unbalanced Rousseau made Hume temporarily unbalanced himself. I fear the same has happened to them.

Funny that it didn’t occur to them that there might have been a reason that Hume was universally admired for his decency and serenity and that people ended up fleeing from Rousseau. Maybe they’re rather silly clever people too.