Notes and Comment Blog


Jan 7th, 2004 8:27 pm | By

Well, really. I’ve probably said this before…but I’ll simply have to repeat myself then. This is one of those times I just have to shake my grizzled head and croak with the Wicked Witch of the North, ‘What a world, what a world.’

A kind and helpful reader, Chris of the blog Intelligent Life, alerted me to this horrible story in a comment on another story about gangs of religious thugs terrorizing people. There’s just no end to it, it seems.

Sanika Bapat, another post-graduate scholar merely questioned, ‘‘Why did they tear a Shivaji manuscript from this library? Are they Shivaji worshippers or patriots? They are worse than any militia. We are another Taliban now.’’ People sitting outside the library were at a loss for words. Said Dr M A Mehendale, ‘‘What can I say in the face of this destruction? Words really fail me.”

Everyone’s worst nightmare, or most people’s anyway. ‘We are another Taliban now.’ The worst kind of ignorant, narrow, aggressive, righteously-enraged, violent, destructive, red-eyed zealots breaking down the doors and smashing everything they find. Bullying, punishing, beating up, imprisoning women; destroying books and manuscripts; demolishing the Bamiyan Buddhas; smashing airplanes and heavily-populated buildings; burning down mosques; murdering publishers and translators; blackening the faces of women on billboards; threatening, threatening, threatening.

Another reader alerted me a few months ago to the matter of Romila Thapar – another historian that the Hindutva brigade doesn’t like.

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications. Claiming that “her appointment is a great travesty”, an online petition calling for its cancellation has, as of the last week in May, collected over 2000 signatures. Thapar, according to the petition, “is an avowed antagonist of India’s Hindu civilization. As a well-known Marxist, she represents a completely Euro-centric world view”. Protesting that she cannot “be the correct choice to represent India’s ancient history and civilization”, it states that she “completely disavows that India ever had a history”. The petitioners also aver that by “discrediting Hindu civilization” Romila Thapar and others are engaged in a “war of cultural genocide”.

At this rate, I’m going to have to put together an In Focus on Religious Outrages on Scholarship, or something. I certainly have more than enough material.

Update: I also posted about this at the group history blog Cliopatria which invited me to join them the other day. There are interesting comments from historians there.

Judith Butler Superstar

Jan 6th, 2004 8:17 pm | By

Okay, what’s the deal with Judith Butler. Why does everyone who writes about her call her a celebrity or a superstar. A superstar?? Someone who teaches gender studies at Berkeley? A superstar?

Berkeley’s Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s bad grammar and slippery use of the term “sovereignty.”

I’m not making it up, that’s from the Boston Globe, from a story on the MLA convention. Not a very affectionate or over-impressed story, either – and yet Scott Jaschik calls Butler a superstar. Well if she got married in Las Vegas and then had the marriage annulled the next day, would we hear about it? Would it take up time on the BBC World Service’s half-hour news report? If she were arrested for child molestation, would we hear about that, would the World Service consider that important enough to spend a minute or two on? I have to say, I kind of doubt it.

Well to be sure, Jaschik does call her a superstar of gender and literary studies – not just a superstar tout court. But then further questions arise. Do reporters write about superstars of nursing, superstars of postal work, superstars of meat packing? Do they write about superstars of history or Classics? I don’t think so. So what is it about Judith Butler that somehow hypnotizes people into calling her a superstar? Or is it something about her field that does that – and if so, what? And what does it mean – what does all this vocabulary of stardom and trendiness and hipness and fashion portend? Why is it catching? Why don’t people just laugh when academics are called superstars?

Even in Israel, even that far away and with other things to attend to, they are susceptible. Witness Ha’aretz.

Butler is an unusual figure in academia. On the one hand, she is a celebrity who has a community of followers and who exudes charisma. Groups of followers sometimes line up for her lectures, as though she were a rock star; and her major influence on feminism at the start of the 21st century is widely noted. On the other hand, many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her; nor have they come across her ideas, or been influenced by them.

Celebrity? Followers? Charisma? Rock star? Well at least Ha’aretz realizes some of the truth – ‘many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her.’ Yes, you could say that. Quite a few, I daresay. In fact I would venture to guess that the non-hearing of Judith Butler outside feminist academia is pretty nearly universal.

Rock star, celebrity, superstar. How do these rumours get started, I always wonder.

No Thank You

Jan 5th, 2004 9:52 pm | By

I read something interesting and even (very slightly) encouraging in a month-old New York Times magazine article on Pakistan by Barry Bearak.

Government by ”the mullahs” has long been a dreaded prospect by the vast majority of Pakistanis with less doctrinaire views, and the M.M.A.’s unexpected victories intensified fears that ”Talibanization” was creeping its way across the land.

It is good to know that the vast majority of Pakistanis (which I think is what that not very clear clause means: the vast majority of Pakistanis, who have less doctrinaire views, as opposed to the vast majority of Pakistanis-with-less-doctrinaire-views, which of course could be a much smaller number) dread the prospect of government by the mullahs. But it’s only a little good to know, only slightly encouraging, because superior numbers do not always prevent coups by people like mullahs or generals.

Seven months later, extremists — shouting the all-purpose invocation ”God is great!” — inflamed those anxieties by marauding through the city of Peshawar. As police placidly looked on, the crowd confiscated CD’s and tapes from stores and burned music and movies in a bonfire. They blackened the faces of women on billboards. In the meantime, politicians in the new government spoke of plans to not only enforce their version of Shariah law but also compel its obedience with patrols of religious constables.

Blackened the faces of women on billboards did they – yes I just bet they did. Imagining themselves doing the same thing to real live three-dimensional women, no doubt. The maniacal hatred of women among ‘Talibanizers’ is…well, interesting.

I read a novel by Nahid Rachlin the other day, Married to a Stranger. It was published in 1983 but takes place in Iran in 1975, and refers often to a fanatical religious group called Bandeh Khoda. The group wants women to put the chador back on, and all the rest of the program. The protagonists of the novel dislike and fear them just as much as I would if I were there. Nahid Rachlin no longer lives in Iran.

Jesting Pilate Goes to Hollywood

Jan 5th, 2004 12:24 am | By

The World Service, part 2. Another thing I heard this morning, while standing around with my nose in my first cup of coffee (or perhaps it was the second) and waiting for the living room to warm up a little, was a lively and too-brief discussion of the vexed question: does it matter if movies tell enormous lies about history? The historian Anthony Beevor argued that it does, some entertainment boffin whose name I instantly forgot argued (of course) that it doesn’t. If I’ve heard the boffin’s argument once I’ve heard it a thousand times. Movies are movies, they have to entertain (what does he mean ‘have to’?), they have to tell a story; nobody cares about the truth they just want to see a good story so that they can laugh and cry and tremble and faint; real history is boring the way real life is boring, it has to be shaped and formed and moulded into something dramatic and involving with lovable characters; at least people learn something from watching them even if what they learn is complete bollocks. Beevor pointed out that movies are powerful and that the untruths they put on the screen stick in people’s minds and become what they think they know about history. The boffin was entirely unpersuaded.

There’s an interesting book called Past Imperfect on this subject – the distortions and untruths in various historical movies, starting (amusingly enough) with ‘Jurassic Park’ analyzed by Stephen Jay Gould. It was published several years ago, but needless to say, movie-makers haven’t stopped telling whoppers in their movies. Mel Gibson seems to be making a career of it. In short movie-makers are another example (or really the same example, just different people) of the issue I talked about a few days ago – the issue of people who have disproportionate power and influence, people who are listened to because they are pretty or good at acting or rich or royal, rather than because they know what they are talking about, feeling free to use that power and influence without much care. People refusing to recognize that their power has anything arbitrary or irrational about it and that therefore they really ought to be cautious about using it. People simply accepting that power cheerfully and doing what they like with it. People being irresponsible, in short. Moviemakers ought to realize, and admit, that those things they make have huge, unprecedented power to get into all our heads and never get out again. If they’re going to make movies about nonfictional subjects, they really ought to do a good job of it! And by ‘good job’ I don’t mean be as entertaining as possible – I mean do their best to tell the truth.


Jan 4th, 2004 9:24 pm | By

I heard something very irritating on the BBC World Service on the radio early this morning as I was bumbling around in waking-up mode. In beginning a feature on the religious avowals being made by all nine Democratic presidential candidates, the reporter said ‘The United States is a deeply devout country…’ I gave a kind of mental yowl of disgust and rage. It is not! It does have a lot of religious believers in it, to be sure, but the figure is not 100% yet! And it is possible to ignore the stuff most of the time. Really it is. People who’ve never been here will hear that kind of thing and imagine that every other building is a church, priests and nuns lock up pregnant women and keep them imprisoned for years on end, contraceptives and divorce are unavailable, the streets are clogged with people crossing themselves or shoving bibles in your face…It’s not that bad yet! There is an enormous amount of religious nonsense flying around, especially in political rhetoric, but there are also huge swaths of the public realm that are entirely free of it. You can go to the supermarket and buy some pasta sauce and oranges without getting a sermon at the checkout counter. You can go to the post office and get stamps without being asked to pray with the clerk. There are no muezzins yelling into the air five times a day. Hey, supermarkets are even open on Sunday – in that way we’re far more secular than the UK is.

The fact is, the degree of our ‘devoutness’ gets badly exaggerated. I don’t even know any devout people. Of course I only know about three people, so that doesn’t prove much, but still – those three people don’t know any devout people either, and none of their friends do, and and –

No but seriously. It is exaggerated. I don’t know why – it’s probably partly the usual maddening way that Democrats fall all over themselves to imitate Republicans. Bush II is a religious zealot and some people like and approve of that, so instead of offering us an actual alternative to that way of doing things, the Democrats do their level best to give us more of the same. Well why bother having two parties then? Why not just drop the pretense and have one?

But why entities like the Beeb feel compelled to help them is beyond me. ‘Deeply devout’ indeed – two hurrah words when they could have been two neutral or even two boo words. ‘Devout’ – that makes it sound so nice, doesn’t it. Humble, loyal, grateful, all those good things. But there are other ways of looking at it, other adjectives that could have been used.

Those nice people at Socialism in an Age of Waiting cited one of my blasts at religion recently. They do say the sweetest things.

On this very subject see also Ophelia Benson’s comment “Theological Education” in the Notes and Comment section of Butterflies and Wheels (also in sidebar –>). As always Ophelia skewers some very well-known knowns that, in our more patient and optimistic moods, we’d like to think didn’t need spelling out any more.

You just can’t get much better than that. Not only do I skewer, but I do it always. My lifelong ambition has been realized.

What Problem?

Jan 2nd, 2004 6:59 pm | By

The nonsense continues. So there’s no point in ceasing to talk about it, not yet at least. (And I daresay we can be pretty confident that the nonsense won’t stop, it never does.)

There is this string of absurdities for example.

In a departure from past practice, a Dec. 27 Dean campaign event opened with a prayer from a minister. That same day, Dean told voters, “I think religion is important and spiritual values are very important, which is what this election is really about.” The faith-friendly tone follows a December cover story, “Howard Dean’s Religion Problem,” in The New Republic magazine. The article called Dean “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.” It quoted Dean, whose wife and children are Jewish, saying he doesn’t go to church “very often” and that “my religion doesn’t inform my public policy.”

Note the elision of religion and ‘spiritual’ values, whatever that means. Note the fact that Dean has a religion ‘problem.’ Note that in this context the word ‘secular’ is apparently an accusation. Note the default position – that Dean has a religion problem, not that Bush has a rationality problem.

In a Gallup Poll conducted Nov. 10-12, Bush held a 67 percent to 30 percent lead among religious voters over the Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Dean. In hypothetical head-to-head races with both Gephardt and Clark, Bush’s lead was 65 percent to 33 percent. “It seems that in the three years since the (2000) election, Bush has become the go-to candidate for those who feel that religion is important to their vote for president,” wrote Gallup religion and values editor Albert Winseman.

Note the combination not to say conflation of religion and values. Note how that subliminally (for those who don’t happen to notice the oddity) conveys the idea that people who lack the first also lack the second. Note how that subtly tells us that secular people have no values. Note how coercive it all is, without really seeming to be.

And this article in the Independent reminds us (in case we’d forgotten) how absurdly dysfunctional the US election system is. Terrific: all the Democratic candidates except Dean are shredding Dean with more energy than they are Bush, with what happy results for the future one can imagine. Flip a few pages on the calendar and picture all the tv ads quoting Lieberman and company on that turble turble secular fella Dean. Paid for by all those corporations that do pay for US elections, and then write US law in exchange for the favour. What a marvelous arrangement.

A Brief Journey

Jan 2nd, 2004 4:52 pm | By

Well, that was exciting! In a terrifying sort of way. I get on the computer only to find B&W not there. Missing. Gone. Not responding to my summons. I hate it when that happens.

But as you can see, all is well. The Webmaster got it back. So let that be a lesson to you, not to take the Webmaster for granted. He may be a bit on the quiet side at times (thanks to his many occupations), but there wouldn’t be any B&W without him (on account of how I don’t know the smallest thing about programming). Actually he probably staged the whole thing just to teach me not to take him for granted. Show-off.

Cross as Two Sticks

Jan 1st, 2004 8:48 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. Wyatt-Brown wrote the introduction to a new edition of Cash’s book in 1991 – and a very good introduction it is. I particularly like this comment (p. xxxvi):

We need to appreciate how the malady from which he suffered [depression] contributed to his special vision of the South…and provided the seemingly necessary sense of alienation and distance that the subject required. We must also ask ourselves this question: ‘If he had been less angry with himself and his surroundings, if he had lived the ordinary life of a newspaper reporter, how likely was it that he could have broken away, as he did, from the traditions of his childhood and discovered the underlying forces that had so long bedeviled the white South’s ethical history?’

How likely indeed. That’s a subject that interests me a lot: how entangled our ideas, thoughts, political views and commitments are with sub-rational aspects of ourselves like temperament, personality, psychic health or its absence in general. How mottled and patched what we think of as cognitive choices are by emotions, reactions, habits, aversions and attractions. How dependent our principled, committed decisions may be on what seem like irrelevancies or even intrusions.

A friend remarked jokingly to me the other day that he is an iconoclast in an immature kind of way – anti-everything. Well of course you are, I thought and said. We wouldn’t be friends otherwise. I never am friendly with people who are too much at ease in Zion.

It’s perfectly true, I’m not. I tend to think there’s something actually wrong with people who never think there’s much of anything to get exasperated about. It’s a state of mind so alien to me that I can’t really imagine it very well. It’s like trying to imagine what it’s like to be a bat.

It’s the same problem Lizzy Bennett has with Jane in Pride and Prejudice, and that Emma has with Mr. Weston in her eponymous novel – he’s too agreeable, he won’t join her in her dislike of Mrs Elton, and in fact he’s so horribly agreeable that he ends up inviting Mrs Elton along on the trip to Box Hill, exactly what Emma didn’t want. It’s no good laughing, it is a problem. If you like me but you also like that awful person, what good is your liking me? If you like absolutely everyone indiscriminately, what good is that? Not everyone deserves to be liked, and nor does everything. Some institutions, ideas, systems are very terrible and have to be said to be terrible. People who are too comfortably embedded in them, too cheerful and placid and optimistic, may not be very good at seeing beyond them. Oppositionists, nay-sayers, mockers, satirists, teasers, even angry or noisy or irritating or boring ones, even ones who are wrong, are necessary. One doesn’t have to be depressed for that, fortunately; hostility and irritation will do just as well, if not better. In fact I for one find hostility and irritation the very opposite of depression – more like exhilaration really.

I wrote one of the first N&Cs on this subject back when B&W was an infant. How it’s grown since then. Here we are celebrating its second New Year, the dear creature. It has a slight tendency to iconoclasm too, one might say.

What Right?

Jan 1st, 2004 12:29 am | By

I meant to say something about this article in the Guardian last week, but then that Soapy Joe business came along and pre-empted other ideas. The article discusses a book about Prince Charles and what academics think of his publicly expressed opinions on a range of important subjects.

The heir to the throne has used his position to sound off on architecture, the environment, agriculture and science in a curious blend of the vaguely alternative, the home counties nimbyist and the off-the-wall.

Here is what David Lorimer, the book’s author, has to say:

“He combines a spiritual world view with practical applications. He starts from the basic premise that nature is not a collection of accidents, but has an intrinsic sacred depth, so it must be respected rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. This theme runs through all his thinking, and informs both his position on the economy being a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and his approach to holistic medicine, which is based on the human body not being just a set of mechanistic particles. He is not, as some believe, a person who is locked into the past: rather he highlights the continuity between the past and present.”

Oh is that the basic premise he starts from – well no wonder he talks such a lot of crap then. Nature doesn’t have ‘an intrinsic sacred depth,’ whatever the hell that is, so if he starts from that basic premise he’s going to get everything all wrong, isn’t he. And he does.

Treading on toes or not, the prince has been known to exceed his non-political remit. Rather than being happy to use his position to champion the hard science of experts, he has sometimes tended to strike out on his own on the basis of limited evidence or on the advice of mavericks from within the intellectual community. So, long before he had even discussed GM with anyone who knew about the science, he was condemning the technology and doing years of harm to an industry that had the possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives…This gets to the heart of the mainstream academic opposition to the Prince of Wales. Highly respected scientists, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, argue that he operates on prejudice, not evidence, but because of his position he is listened to. They believe that overall he has done science a disservice.

(Uh oh, should I be Commenting on condition of anonymity? Oh well, I’m not eligible for a gong anyway.) But this is what I wanted to point out – ‘because of his position he is listened to.’ He is listened to because of his position. Does that ring any bells? Does that sound like something we’ve been talking about lately? Such as a well-known and talented actor using her fame and talent to take a very public stand on a controversy that should be decided on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice? A controversy that has a very real possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives – by so alarming them about the MMR jab that they don’t take their children to be vaccinated? That’s what it sounds like to me anyway. Exactly like.

For instance there is the Channel 5 view of the matter, reported in another article in the Guardian:

The charity Sense, which represents families whose children have become deaf or blind as a result of rubella, criticised her for her remarks. Stephen Rooney said: ‘Juliet Stevenson has no scientific or medical expertise and yet has given a number of interviews in which she has called into question the safety of the vaccine.’ But a spokesman for Channel 5 said last night that the actor had every right to make her views known. ‘Juliet Stevenson has never claimed to be a medical expert. She is expressing her views as a mother.’

But does she have ‘every right’ to make her views known? And does the Prince? In what sense of the word ‘right’? In a legal sense, Stevenson presumably does; with the Prince it’s a bit more iffy. But it’s pretty obvious that the spokesman for Channel 5 isn’t talking about legal rights, since he’s answering a moral criticism. He’s claiming (surely) that she has every moral right. But does she? What about the fact that she has far more ability to make her views known than most other people – than scientists, for a start. What about the fact that she can command attention out of all proportion to her real importance, and certainly to her actual knowledge or expertise, simply because she is a famous actor who has starred in movies and on tv? What about the parallel fact that Prince Charles also can command attention out of all proportion to his own real worth, simply because of whose son and grandson and great-great-great-grandson he happens to be? Might it not be morally incumbent on people in that situation – people with a particularly arbitrary and even absurd quantity of fame and influence – to use that situation, that fame and influence, with great caution? Rather than opting to take conspicuous positions on subjects they know little about? Subjects on which ill-informed opinion can get things badly, dangerously wrong? Might it be the case that they are in fact abusing their disproportionate fame and influence?

Theological Education

Dec 31st, 2003 2:11 am | By

I found a blogger today who motivated me to say a little more about religion (I’m going to end up writing a damn book, at this rate). The blogger feels a need to educate Dawkins and his cheerleaders, with me chief among them. I can always do with educating (I mean that literally), but this lesson didn’t quite take. Some of what the blogger says is true enough but I doubt that anyone including Dawkins disagrees with it, and the rest of it I maintain is not true.

This is what I would like to tell Dawkins and all of his cheerleaders: they need to go beyond their scientific atheism to a more mature vision of what it means to be a human being in a community, and the various kinds of knowledge which are required to make that community function. Intelligent and educated people have found many different ways to discuss the various and complex issues which arise for human beings. Science is only one mode of expression, and it is a very useful one, but there are aspects of experience which it systematically excludes. This is why even scientists continue to read and appreciate literature, a form of expression with no pretense to literal truth, but which describes some more general truths about human experience which it would be difficult to capture in scientific prose. Religion is, I think, similar to literature in its attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation.

Certainly – of course there are many different ways to discuss human issues; certainly literature is one of them. On the other hand – science is not primarily a mode of expression, and much more to the point, neither is religion. Religion does attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation, yes, but it is emphatically not a method ‘with no pretense to literal truth.’ That’s just it. That’s exactly why religion is indeed different from literature, and capable of vastly more harm. Religion does make truth claims about the world. It also tells people what to do, and in no uncertain terms. It is important not to lose sight of those two facts. I think it’s possible that well-meaning secularists tend to do exactly that – to think that religion is basically just a nice attitude. For some people no doubt it is, but at its core it makes factual statements about the world, history, the universe, reality as a whole; and it prescribes how we are to live. That being the case, surely we want to know on what it bases its truth claims and its claims to tell us what to do. Don’t we? Do we instead want to shrug all that off and just let religion get on with it because it always has? I don’t. If its truth claims are wrong, and its normative claims are either also wrong, or right but right for the same sorts of reasons that other normative claims are right, as I think is the case, then surely that’s relevant to discussions about both religion’s utility and its veracity.

In short, what we have here is, I think, a kind of thing that one sees a lot of from well-meaning defenders of religion: a resort to various maneuvers that redescribe religion in such a way that it seems more innocuous, benign, useful, and profound than it in fact is. Redefine it so that it’s essentially the same sort of thing as literature, when in fact the differences between the two are enormous and central. Omit to mention the destructive, coercive, cruel, vindictive aspects of it and dwell only on the emollient ones. Misattribute to religion what in fact belongs to other entities – to philosophy or rationality or common sense or secular ethics or all those.

But that just won’t do. When Soapy Joe tells his rivals they should talk about religion more, he doesn’t mean just Nice Thoughts – he means they should pledge allegiance to a supernatural deity of one kind or another. He’s not picky which one; religious people so often aren’t these days; one is allowed to believe in almost any deity, it’s only nonbelief in any deity that is not allowed. And all the supernatural deities in question have very nasty sides to them – yes, even dear old Jesus. There are bits of Matthew and John that make the blood run cold – and that didn’t do the Jews any good over the years, either. And when it comes to morality, none of them says anything better than other, secular thinkers have also said. Religion may be good at motivating people to be better – but alas, that possibility has to confront the other one, that religion is also good at motivating people to be worse. It may be that lukewarm secularists are on the whole safer than impassioned believers.

In any case I don’t think it’s possible to figure out anything about religion if we pretend it is what it isn’t and that it isn’t what it is. Obfuscation is not helpful.

A Thought from Susan Haack

Dec 28th, 2003 11:27 pm | By

Thought for the day. From Chapter 10 of Susan Haack’s Defending Science, ‘Point of Honor’:

‘In The Mind of God, Paul Davies, also a physicist, but a believer (and winner of the million-dollar Templeton Prize “for progress in religion”) concludes that “belief in God is largely a matter of taste, to be judged by its explanatory value rather than logical compulsion. Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper level of explanation than the laws of physics. Whether the use of ‘God’ for that deeper level is appropriate is, of course, a matter of debate.” This, from the idea that explanatoriness is just a matter of taste, through the play on “deeper,” to the insouciance about the meaning of “God,” sounds to me like – well, a million-dollar muddle.’

Blunt Instrument

Dec 28th, 2003 9:12 pm | By

So, as promised, or threatened, a little more of the Counterblast on Religion in Politics. Because it raises so many issues, that are so very often danced around rather than addressed directly. Because the whole subject is so hedged about with squeamishness and politeness and tact and unexamined assumptions and let’s pretend and refusals to admit the obvious. Not, certainly, because I have anything new or original or profound to say. I’m not that delusional. But because what I do have to say gets drowned out by what the soapy side has to say. It’s the same point as the one Daniel Dennett made in that Op-Ed piece about the Brights: that if atheists are politely silent while theists never shut up, then atheists start to think they are a tiny peculiar insignificant minority, and theists get more and more domineering and aggressive.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for “liberating” them. I hadn’t realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They’d never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn’t believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

We don’t realize. We lose sight of the way our polite silence becomes not just polite silence but actual assistance for the ill-mannered people who would force religion on everyone else.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power — by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call “the side of the angels.”…Most brights don’t play the “aggressive atheist” role. We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage the “godless” among us. From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter.

Try to disregard the unfortunate ‘brights’ usage. Apart from that, everything he says seems to me to be obviously true. That diplomatic silence is, surely, a terrible mistake. So this is some of the explanation for Dawkins’ bluntness, and for mine too. All this politeness and mealy-mouthedness just lets the theocrats get away with it.

So, allow me to be blunt. It is understandable but mistaken for theocrats to confuse religion with morality. It’s not entirely mistaken for theocrats to think that religion adds some motivation or stiffening to morality – it probably does. It’s understandable and not entirely mistaken for theocrats to value some of the good effects of religion (I say ‘some’ because most of the effects of religion are so mixed, the good effects so difficult to disentangle from the bad ones) such as loyalty, community and so on. It is entirely mistaken for theocrats to think and to tell the rest of us that belief or ‘faith’ is a virtue. It is not. Not in the sense they mean it. Faith in a friend or relative, faith in democracy or equality or liberty, may well be a virtue, but faith in the existence of a supernatural being for which there is no good evidence is not a virtue, it’s a vice. In any other context we know that perfectly well. We don’t want to hear engineers’ ‘faith’ that the bridge will stand up, nor the pilot’s that the plane will fly; we want considerably more than that. Religion gets a special dispensation, or rather two: first, it is accepted on the basis of authority rather than evidence, and then that very acceptance becomes a virtue. That’s a bad thing, not a good one. Pointing that out only seems ‘glib’ or too blunt or blowhardism because we’ve been trained to shut up while the theocrats shout. It’s time to stop doing that.

The Underground Grammarian

Dec 28th, 2003 1:48 am | By

On a lighter note. Somewhat lighter anyway. I’ve been reading Susan Haack’s wonderful new book Defending Science – Within Reason, which I strongly recommend you all read without delay. I was amused to find her twice (at least) quoting the Underground Grammarian – whom I also suggest you read without delay. This amused me partly because only a few days ago a reader emailed me with an apposite quotation from the dear Grammarian, and added that it was via B&W that he’d learned of that irascibly witty writer. That did make me feel useful.

Here’s a brief sample – although not as brief as usual, because there is no worry about copyright: the dear Grammarian gave blanket permission to use as much of his material as our little hearts desired, and the site continues that tradition.

The truth, at last, can be told. That Aristotle fellow was, in fact, not a literate man. He never developed positive feelings about barbarians. Indeed, the more he came to learn about them, the less he appreciated them. Franz Kafka wasn’t literate either, you know. Like so many other illiterate “writers”-who can count them?-he was never able to develop any positive feelings of self-worth and importance…But don’t worry about it. Our schools are doing everything they can to assure that we will be less and less troubled by such pseudo-literates. The true literates are in the sphere—or is it the arena?—of education. In that sphere, or field, it is almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t developed impregnable feelings of self-worth and importance…The quality of their relationships with others is amazing; they never, never disagree or contend, and they always hail enthusiastically each other’s bold innovative thrusts and experiential programs of excellence. And what could be stronger testimony to their fulfillment of individual potential than the fact that they have somehow persuaded the rest of us to pay them for all the stuff they do?

And a bit farther down (this is volume 6 number 2, by the way):

Among the great successes of our schools is the fact that they have always been able to prevent serious and widespread outbreaks of hyperkinetic reading behavior syndrome. This is a remarkable feat, since most young children, even when they first come to school, already exhibit morbid curiosity behavior and persistent questioning behavior, dangerous precursors that must be replaced quickly with group interaction skills and self-awareness enhancement. (Children who are properly preoccupied with themselves and with some presumed distinctions between individual whims and collective whims hardly ever fall into hyperkinetic reading behavior syndrome.) Although a few intractable cases can still be found, we realistically expect, and before long, to eradicate this crippling disability and usher in the age of true literacy.

The Grammarian did not think much of US schools of education. He didn’t worry much about hurting those schools’ feelings, either. He was a lovely fella.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Dec 27th, 2003 9:00 pm | By

Part of what is so grotesque about Lieberman’s tactic (and I realise it is indeed a tactic, and part of a political campaign, and that people will say whatever they think will work in those situations [which is one of the more irritating and destructive aspects of democracy] and so in a sense perhaps not to be taken too literally – but then again if the candidate thinks the tactic will work, perhaps that makes it still worth examining) is the fact that Dean hasn’t exactly been campaigning as an atheist. Has he? Not that I’m aware of. No, it’s just that he ‘has run a steadfastly secular campaign’ as the Times put it.

So he’s not even allowed to be neutral. Not allowed simply to be silent on the matter, to take no position one way or the other, to keep his opinions to himself, to keep his own counsel. Neutrality on this subject is not permitted. He has to declare, and he has to declare for one side and not the other. Public avowed ‘faith’ in a pious fiction is mandatory if you want to win high office in the US. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with that, think it’s a fine thing, an excellent guarantor of moral principles. That’s one argument, but let’s at least be clear about it. We can’t have the argument at all if most of the terms of it are forever being covered up, prettified and fuzzied and blurred and confused. If we pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious about demanding public declarations of faith in a fictional supernatural entity as a condition of election to a secular office.

I’ve noticed a couple of clichès in play that help this fuzzification process along.

“I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

That’s a very popular one, almost as popular as ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,’ that unanswerable retort to people who favor equal treatment for gays. One has to wonder what people mean by it. We can have freedom of religion but not freedom from religion? Does Lieberman really want to say that? Religion is mandatory? We are free to choose one but we’re not free to choose none? Funny, I would have thought that the constitutional separation of church and state does indeed promise freedom from religion in the realm of the state. But then that would rule out all those invocations and prayer breakfasts and ‘in God we trust’ on the money, and that would never do.

The other banality is from the Atlantic.

Dean signed a gay-civil-union bill and is suspected of having culturally elitist values-a point made by Scott Spradling, the co-moderator at the New Hampshire debate. “Governor Dean said recently that religion does not play into his policy decisions,” Spradling noted. “Do you believe this could hurt the Democratic Party’s chances in areas of the country like the South, where politics and religion tend to go very much hand in hand?”

Culturally elitist values? Making policy decisions on grounds other than religion? That’s culturally elitist?

Well, maybe it is, maybe it is. Or maybe not. But then, surely lots of things are in some sense ‘culturally elitist’ that one would think would be useful qualifications for the job in question. Things like, you know, knowledge of the world, politics, society, history; ability to think and talk well and quickly; wisdom, understanding, judgment. Those are all minority attributes, though they’re also all attributes we can all aspire to, they’re all attributes we can all develop in ourselves if we put some effort into it, they’re not like being seven feet tall, which only a few of us can do. But even more than that, consider the way such assertions function as directives; the way the descriptive becomes the normative in the act of being uttered. ‘Most people ______.’ Therefore (the implication goes) you’d better _____ too if you don’t want to be abnormal and weird and geeky and, ooh er ah ugh, ‘culturally elitist.’ So both religion and being like Everyone Else become mandatory, and we get yet another drearily mediocre talent-free guy for president. The resounding banality has done its work again.

Asymmetry Again

Dec 27th, 2003 7:50 pm | By

A couple of our readers are cross with Dawkins and with me for being blunt about religion, or perhaps for oversimplifying it. Of course that’s one of those perennial irregular verb things that I’m always noticing. One of those eye of the beholder things, one of those glass half-full or half-empty things, one of those Well it depends on which way you look at it things. Granted, I did speak bluntly and even rudely – I said as much at the time. But this is part of my point. How odd that hardly anyone rushes to upbraid Lieberman for being rude about atheism or secularism. How odd that there’s such a radical asymmetry in public rhetoric about the whole question, and that we’re so used to that asymmetry that we never even notice it. Why is it all right for Lieberman and other believers to chastise non-believers, but not all right for non-believers to chastise back? This set-up is bizarre and inequitable in at least two ways. One, it’s just unfair on the face of it. They can say we’re wrong, and we’re not allowed to say that they’re wrong. Two, it’s particularly absurd because they are in fact so very much more likely to be wrong than we are – and that’s putting it politely. That, you see, is why I put it so rudely. Because surely there is something grotesque about the fact that religious people get to scold non-religious people for, precisely, not sharing their ‘faith’ or ‘belief.’ What does faith mean in that context? It means believing something is true without good evidence. The word itself carries the implication that one is supposed to overlook the lack of evidence and just believe anyway – a procedure which is not considered intellectually respectable in other contexts. We don’t just have faith that the earth moves around the sun or that the Holocaust happened or that viruses cause colds, do we – we rely on evidence. Granted it’s not evidence that we ourselves have examined or produced. Even if we are astronomers or historians or medical researchers, we still have to rely on researchers in other fields to examine that evidence in our place; nobody can examine the evidence for everything we believe. But that’s not the same thing as no evidence at all. There are no equivalents of astronomers in religion – theologians don’t look for evidence, that’s not in the job description.

So that’s why it is grotesque that religious people think they are entitled to scold non-religious people – because they are urging people to believe something that there is no good reason to think is true. We are so accustomed to the grotesquery that most of us don’t notice it, but that doesn’t make it less grotesque – arguably it only makes it more so. Hence the need to point out, loudly and firmly, to windbags on the campaign trail, the epistemologically shaky status of what they believe. However rude it may seem.

Richard Dawkins

Dec 26th, 2003 8:57 pm | By

Soapy Joe again. I asked Richard Dawkins to say a few words on the subject, and he kindly obliged. You will see that he’s just as impressed with the seriousness and intellectual depth of our political campaigns as I am:

“The fact that political candidates, even those of education and intelligence like Howard Dean, are obliged to feign religious faith in order to stand a chance of getting elected, makes the United States the laughing stock of the civilized world.”

Richard Dawkins

Soapy Joe is all Wrong

Dec 26th, 2003 8:08 pm | By

Religion on all sides. How it does keep coming up, and how it does shape (and often distort) the debate – for that matter, how it does shape our lives. It’s inescapable, and massively influential, and yet it’s taboo to discuss it honestly. What a bizarre situation.

It’s kindly meant, of course. It’s about protecting people’s feelings and sensitivities. But the trouble is, if we give religion a permanent free pass, it can go ahead and trample on other people’s feelings and sensitivities, not to mention their freedoms and rights and bodies and lives. Religions are the foundation of a lot of the glaring systematic injustices in the world, and the more kindly-meaning people are too polite to say so, the more such injustices can carry on their merry way.

And then of course even apart from the physical harms religion can do, there is also the cognitive harm. There is the damage done to everyone by the pervasive pretense that religion is true. That’s another obvious fact that simply gets systematically overlooked, in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. But at what a price! And besides, why doesn’t it ever work the other way? Why aren’t religious people too polite to hurt the feelings of non-religious people by disputing their truth claims? Hmm? Religious people don’t hesitate to say that atheists have it all wrong, so why do atheists keep their mouths shut when theists are talking? Why does Soapy Joe Lieberman get away with scolding Democratic presidential candidates for not talking about religion enough?

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut called on Tuesday for strengthening the role of religion in public life and took a veiled swipe at Howard Dean, who has run a steadfastly secular campaign. “I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Some people forget that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose and our individual lives.”

Yeah, and some other people forget that ‘faith’ is not central to all our individual lives. But much more basic than that – people like Soapy Joe forget one important thing: that religion is not true. He’s rebuking people for not talking about a fiction as if it were true. He’s rebuking candidates for high office for not taking a fairy tale seriously, he’s whingeing about the putative failure of people seeking a secular political office for not loudly and often enough avowing their belief in a supernatural being for which there is no evidence. He doesn’t rebuke his rivals for not declaring their ‘faith’ in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Hobbits or wizards or elves or talking animals, does he? Not that I’m aware of anyway. But rebuking them for neglecting to talk about that other made-up, invented, fantasized, magical being – that’s another matter, that’s normal and acceptable, and nobody answers him, ‘We don’t talk about the deity because we have no reason to think it exists, that’s why.’ Well why not? Because it would be rude and insensitive, no doubt. You may think I’ve just been very rude and insensitive. But what is the difference? Why is one invented supernatural being taken with the utmost seriousness when the others are not? Custom, habit, precedent? Not very good reasons, I would think, and certainly highly circular. Psychological need, wishful thinking? But our desire for something to be true doesn’t make it true, as surely we realize once we grow up. Group think? Everyone else does so I might as well too? Yes, no doubt, which is precisely why it would be nice if more people were willing to drop the ridiculous pretense and point out the truth. Soapy Joe should stop urging his rivals to join him in peddling a pack of lies.

Agenda in Plain View

Dec 25th, 2003 7:51 pm | By

RC makes a good point in a comment on the post below. Guilt by association certainly is a classic Bad Move, one that functions just as the word ‘brown’ does: as an attempt at intimidation via guilt-tripping. Maybe that’s one of the uses of entities like B&W, actually – to make moves like that just a bit less likely to work. That would be a worthy goal. If we could, by just a little, detach inquiry from ideology – maybe we could do some shaming in our turn, but in our case, I hope, by legitimate means and to good effect. If we could get people to realize and notice and accept that saying a given truth-claim is associated with a particular group or political stance is not the same thing as saying that it’s not true – that would be useful.

But there is also a tactical question, and that’s another matter. It’s also one that comes up endlessly. Feminists who oppose pornography find themselves on the same side (on this one issue, and for different reasons) as conservative Christians. Various human rights campaigns find themselves on the same side (on some issues) as libertarians with whom they disagree strongly on other issues – and so on. There’s no end to it, which is not at all surprising, since politics is a very large field with many possibilities, so the notion that there could be only two possible answers to any and every question, and they would all neatly harmonize each time, is an odd one. So it comes up endlessly, and one just has to keep deciding afresh each time, it seems to me. On one issue one might decide it’s not worth giving support to a party or movement one doesn’t agree with, while on another one might decide it is. It boils down to deciding which enemy trumps which, really.

But one thing it is possible to say very flatly indeed. There is no need whatever to spy out some hidden racist agenda to explain my, at any rate, opposition to and dislike of the hijab. [I call it the hijab, by the way, because the English alternatives seem unsatisfactory. It’s more than a headscarf, because it wraps around the neck and the whole face: it looks far more like a nun’s headgear than it looks like those triangles the royal women wear when out with the horses. But it’s not a veil in the English sense either, because it doesn’t cover the face. Ibn Warraq tells us ‘The Arabic word “hijab” is sometimes translated as veil, but it can signify anything that prevents something from being seen – a screen, a curtain, or even a wall…’ {Why I am not a Muslim, p. 314} So since both headscarf and veil are a bit misleading, I’m going to go with hijab.]

I loathe and detest and despise the damn thing, not because I’m a racist, but because I’m a woman. It’s not about tender concern or sympathy or piety or altruism – it’s about sheer gut loathing and fear. That’s how all women would look, all over the planet, if the Islamofascists got their way. The hijab is a badge of inferiority, slavery, obedience, submission. Of course I hate it! Are Jews fond of yellow stars and tatooed numbers? Are slaves and the descendants of slaves fond of shackles and brands? Would they take them up as either a fashion statement or a religious one? You can tell me it’s voluntary and chosen all you like, but I don’t have to believe it, and I don’t. And I’m not going to, either, until men start wearing them.

Of course, it doesn’t follow from that that the ban on conspicuous religious garments is a good idea. It may well be that the believers’ right to wear what they like ought to trump all other rights, not only the right of women and girls in general not to have to see symbols of their own putative inferiority in school all day, but also the right of girls who want to resist pressure to wear the hijab not to have extra pressure applied by compliant schoolmates. But I think it’s far less debatable what the basic meaning of the hijab is. I think it’s evasive and dishonest to pretend that it’s solely an expression of identity or religion, to deny that it is at least also a badge of submission, inferiority, degradation, and powerlessness.

Which Coercion?

Dec 24th, 2003 7:26 pm | By

The issue of the possible French ban on the hijab or headscarf in public schools raises a lot of interesting questions – also a lot of strong emotions, not to say plain rudeness. There was a discussion of the subject at Crooked Timber a few days ago that was quite interesting at the beginning, but I abandoned it in disgust after being accused of patronizing ‘subdued and voiceless brown women’ one too many times.

But it’s not that simple, obviously – well it’s obvious to me, but clearly not to everyone. That is to say, whatever one thinks about the proposed ban, it’s too simple to say that the ban is exclusively about seeing Muslim women as subdued, voiceless and brown. (The brown bit, of course, is pure rhetoric, pure attempted intimidation, pure browbeating and guilt-mongering. Just for one thing, not all Muslims are ‘brown.’ For another thing, even if they were, would that mean that no ‘Muslim’ custom or law could ever be disagreed with? There might be some dangers in an idea like that, I would think.) It’s not exclusively about that for the compelling reason that a good many Muslim women (and women of Muslim background as opposed to religion) are strongly opposed to the hijab and in favour of the ban. So why are ‘white’ non-Muslims forbidden to agree with them, one wonders.

The BBC has a good article on the subject.

Samira Bellil, a 30-year-old Algerian-born Frenchwoman is just as passionate as Antoine in her rejection of the hijab. She has become involved in a Muslim women’s campaign against the headscarf in schools. She says girls are being pressurised to wear it, as much to protect themselves from the casual violence of the ghetto, as by their families or religious leaders. Samira herself was raped not once but twice as a teenager in the Paris suburbs. Her attackers were also Muslim. Later, she was told by one classmate that she wouldn’t have been attacked if she had been wearing the hijab instead of flaunting herself bare-headed. It was that sort of attitude, Samira told me, that she was campaigning against. It was the idea of women as objects, told what to do and how to dress by men. That, for her, is what the hijab symbolises.

Interesting, isn’t it. One wonders to what extent rape is used as an enforcement tool in those Paris suburbs. ‘Either stop flaunting your wicked seductive self, put on this bag that covers your wicked seductive hair and neck and ears and in fact looks like a nun’s headgear – or else I’ll rape you.’

Yet people opposed to the ban insist with great indignation that wearing the veil is a free choice and that it’s thought-crime to wonder if that’s always true. Well – but is it always true? That quotation above would certainly seem to hint that it might not be.

People think of the state as highly coercive – and of course it is. It has an army, and a judicial system, and prisons, and access to the media, and control of funding for a lot of necessary institutions. But the fact remains that the state is not the only source of coercion in the world, and that it can sometimes (indeed often) use its coercive power to protect some people from the coercion of some other people. Peer pressure is coercive, the family can be coercive, as can men, fathers and brothers, religion, Islam. Yes, girls can still make a free choice (at least in theory) to wear the hijab. But how free are the girls who don’t want to, to refuse to wear it? If their fathers and brothers order them to, and their classmates tell them they’re inviting rape if they don’t, and neighbours rape them if they don’t…is their choice really as completely free and uncoerced as it might be? One has to wonder, it seems to me. What if it’s not a simple choice between coercion and freedom, but rather a choice of who gets coerced? In that case, why should it be the girls who don’t want to bag themselves who are coerced, and the ones who do want to (or have been coerced to) who are ‘free’?

One advantage of state coercion, it seems to me, is that it’s obvious. We know it’s coercion. Things like peer pressure and threats of rape and what happens behind closed doors in the family, are less obvious, so more difficult to resist, also more difficult to point out and quantify. But that does not necessarily make them less coercive. On the contrary, surely.

Some writers of letters to the Guardian make similar points.

Secular states, not religious ones, most effectively protect the rights of minorities. Where would Madeleine Bunting prefer to live if she were a Muslim woman: France or one of numerous Islamic states where her freedoms would be at best challenged, at worst removed? If she were a Jew, a Sikh, or a Baha’i, which state might she expect to protect her beliefs: France or a Muslim country? The headscarf move is a sensible school uniform measure designed to stop the French school system from becoming the Northern Irish nightmare I was taught in. Multiculturalism gets you Northern Ireland: integration gives you tolerance and the rule of law for everyone.


Madeleine Bunting’s article on French moves to ban headscarves (Secularism gone mad, December 18) made no reference to what is happening in the quartiers sensibles in urban France, where many Muslim girls are pressured into wearing Islamic headdress by their young brothers. Showing their hair or even wearing jeans are seen as signs of western depravity by their menfolk, who abuse and threaten them. Ms Bunting should be aware of the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises movement organised by Samira Bellil and her book about gang rapes of young female Muslims who dare to rebel.


As an Iranian who experienced the Islamic revolution, I applaud a ban on headscarves especially in educational institutions. Which seven-year-old, without family pressure, would opt to wear a headscarf? The codes of “modesty” for women in Islam can be interpreted in many ways. The raw facts are that subjective and arbitrary interpretations in Islam have become the norm and women coerced into behaving according to them. Women are being used as tools, this time in a political movement which is making the question of Islamic headscarf a political issue.

Anti-banners also like to point out that the French xenophobic right wing is also in favour of the ban. Fair point. But by the same token, the kind of people who like to beat up women who refuse to wear it are opposed to the ban, so again, it’s a matter of choosing one’s undesirable allies, rather than a matter of one side’s having loathsome supporters and the other side’s being free of such entities.

The World at Large

Dec 21st, 2003 8:42 pm | By

Here, on the other hand, is a comment on the MLA and hipness [in the comments on the post] that is quite another matter – and says (from inside the academy as opposed to outside it) what I’ve been thinking for a couple of days, as well as for many years:

At the moment (ask me again on Dec. 30 how I feel), the bottom line seems to me that many serious scholars of literature and culture, who would very much like to engage in a serious, generous, forthright way with the world-at-large, often find themselves prevented from doing so by both the internal demands of the scholarly universe (publishing in the “right places” demanding certain kinds of technical language and attention to trends) and by the jeers of that world-at-large (the technical language and trendiness taken as evidence of our irrelevance).

There. This is what I’m saying. Academics of all stripes, and especially, for heaven’s sake, literary academics, serious scholars of literature and culture, ought to want to engage with the world at large. Not necessarily every single one of them, I don’t mean that; some people would rather just concentrate on research, and are better at it; but some of them. It ought to be within the possible realm of thought for the discipline. That’s why I take exception to that ‘We’re professionals and this is our turf and it’s nothing to do with you so shut up and go away’ line. The quotation above is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to see.

It’s common knowledge that engagement with the world at large, that popularization and public education are not the way to get ahead in universities. To put it mildly – they are in fact a ticket to oblivion. I’ve heard this from many relatives, friends and acquaintances. It’s only established stars who can afford to popularize or engage with the world at large. Carl Sagan was kept out of the National Academy of Sciences because he was a popularizer – because he did such a damn good job of turning people on to science. Well, brilliant – that’s a good way to run things. Wouldn’t it be nice if that system could begin to change. (People have been saying that for as long as I can remember, which is awhile. But one might as well go on saying it.)