Notes and Comment Blog

My Suspicions are Awakened

Nov 28th, 2004 9:29 pm | By

Do us a favour, if you feel like it and have a minute. I’ve heard from two readers who have written good reviews of the Dictionary at Amazon. Neither one has shown up; one was several days ago, the other was a week and a half ago. So the one-star just sits there uncontradicted all this time. Hmm…that seems odd. So if anyone else has written a favourable review that hasn’t shown up, perhaps you could let me know. I’m just curious…

Centre for What?

Nov 28th, 2004 9:21 pm | By

Frances Stonor Saunders makes a pointed comment in the Observer.

Last week came an announcement from the University of London’s Birkbeck College that it intends to establish a centre for public intellectuals…But what exactly is a public intellectual? Unfortunately, Birkbeck doesn’t tell us. There’s some woolly stuff about the centre putting itself at the ‘forefront of current intellectual debate’, about making ‘public intervention on issues of current importance’. The centre’s inaugural project will be a series of lectures honouring the life and work of Jacques Derrida. A centre for public intellectuals needs a public to address. By focusing on Derrida, whose work took impenetrability to dizzying heights, Birkbeck is clearly signalling that by ‘public’ it means elitism on a platform. It’s hard to see how this arrangement can bring clarity to ‘issues of current importance’.

Elitism on a platform – I like that. Phenomena like the cultish atmosphere around Derrida, the equation of Derrida-skepticism with ‘an attack on complex thought,’ the idea that the first thing a group of public intellectuals ought to do is get together to heap even more flattery on the already well-flattered Derrida – those are the kind of thing that I think deserve the label ‘elitist.’ It’s the impenetrability thing. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is the point, is exactly why the fans are so ardent, so cultish, so keen to equate ‘complex thought’ with what Derrida did and what he did with complex thought. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is loved, admired, sought-after, imitated. Partly (I surmise) because literature has long been thought of as a soft option at best, as a girly subject, as lacking in rigour and hard work. It’s not rocket science, it’s not brain surgery, it’s not chemical engineering or physics or even history or philosophy – it’s just old reading novels and poetry, and who can’t do that? But now, yo, there’s ‘theory,’ which is very very very difficult and demanding and arduous, takes years, has a whole elaborate technical vocabulary, not just any fool can do it, only specialists, yup uh huh. None of your chatter about Shelley here. God no – who the hell wants to read Shelley?! Nasty arty-farty bastard. No. The whole point is to read stuff that only people with several degrees in ‘theory’ can read without wanting to drop the book into a shredder. In other words, Keep Out. It’s like a No Trespassing sign stuck on the entire subject; and that’s the real elitism. Not liking Byron more than Keats, or Keats more than Byron, or either of them more than a Pepsi song. No, it’s arranging things so that outsiders will be repelled and turn away and go back to their proley little lives. It’s being pretty much the opposite of public intellectuals.


Nov 27th, 2004 8:42 pm | By

There’s a larger subject lurking behind (and propping up, motivating, triggering, etc) a lot of the issues we’ve been discussing lately. Belief. Belief in the sense of belief full stop, belief tout court, belief undefended and unexplained. Belief just because; belief because I said so; belief as intuition or instinct or inner voice or gnosis; belief that doesn’t have to give an account of itself; belief that is self-justified, which in other kinds of discourse is called a vicious circle or begging the question. The kind of thing Mill quotes Bentham teasing:

One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong; and that it is called a moral sense: and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong-why? “because my moral sense tells me it is”.

Because his moral sense tells him it is, and he believes it. If he believes it, there is no more to be said – according to a line of argument that seems to be increasingly prevalent. Public discourse seems to have far too many believers in proportion to people who ask for reasons before believing. A certain philosophy professor states it this way:

This attitude toward belief — that one should believe a proposition only if one has articulable reasons for it — represents liberalism in the epistemic realm. The contrast is epistemic conservatism, which holds that belief — in God, in the importance of marriage, in the value of tradition — needs no defense. To a conservative, beliefs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. To a liberal, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The liberal epistemic standard begs the question against political conservatism, just as a conservative epistemic standard would beg the question against political liberalism. Conservatives must not fall for the liberal trick of making nonbelief the default position.

Of course, that’s a rather tendentious way of describing the ‘liberal’ (I would call it rationalist, and I’m pretty sure conservative rationalists do exist) view. The point is not that beliefs are ‘guilty’ (or indeed innocent) but that one wants a reason or reasons to believe them rather than just accepting them blindly. It is possible to believe things that are not in fact true; that’s one reason people (even conservatives, actually, much of the time, perhaps even most of it) want reasons for beliefs. And then the examples given in the interjection are curiously mixed – are not really the same kind of thing, so that belief in one works quite differently from belief in another. Belief in God is belief in a supernatural entity that exists in the external world independent of humans; belief in ‘the importance of marriage’ or ‘the value of tradition’ is belief in human ideas or institutions, which is quite a different kind of thing. ‘Belief’ doesn’t even really mean the same thing about both. In the first case it means belief in the existence of something in the world; in the second it means something more like allegiance or commitment or approval – something more like a yes vote. And then the final touch: calling the rationalist approach to belief a ‘trick’ – now that’s very odd. Especially for a philosophy teacher. I would have thought it was pretty much a minimal definition of philosophy, that it examines the grounds of beliefs. That activity is not usually described by philosophers themselves as a ‘liberal trick’ – is it? Unless I’m terribly out of touch.

I was pondering all this anyway, and then I pondered all the more after reading that strange article about the relative absence of ‘faith-based’ law professors in law schools. And then my pondering was ratcheted even higher when I saw this post by PZ Myers at Pharyngula. I want to comment on it a little, but this post is long enough. Anyway you know what I’ll say (I’m predictable, I know). I do not like all this pressure on rationalists and scientists to be apologetic and sycophantic and appeasing, to back off and refrain from challenging or contradicting erroneous beliefs. I think the pressure needs to go in the other direction. Just for one thing the humble approach doesn’t work. The more rationalists give ground to believers, the more ground believers demand. There is just no satisfying them short of giving in on every single issue and argument – so we might as well dig in here as over there.

It’s Up to Five

Nov 27th, 2004 6:06 pm | By

Update on update. Just by way of reporting, because I think it’s interesting, as a display of apparently unembarrassed irrationality and Bad Argument. I mean, this is a guy who teaches philosophy, at a university; a guy who, one of our readers reports, has written a book about bad arguments. And yet here he is. He doesn’t have time to answer everyone who disagrees with him, he wrote yesterday, and yet so far he has posted no fewer than five complaints about ‘the lack of decency, civility, and common sense’ and the illogic of people at Crooked Timber who take exception to his doggy analogy. And yet the posts at CT are in fact substantive; B-J could easily have addressed that substance; he never has; he just keeps announcing that he is an outsider and that explains all. That’s such an obvious diversionary tactic that one would think he would refrain from using it merely on prudential grounds. But no.

If you think I’m making this up, read the posts and letters at Crooked Timber. Note the ganging up. Note the attempt to build solidarity within liberalism by attacking outsiders, such as me. Note the snide, condescending comments. Note the lack of decency, civility, and common sense. Note the illogic. These are people who are sworn by their universities to seek truth. They don’t give a damn about truth.

Note the attempt to get people to note things that aren’t in fact there, on the basis of nothing but a series of imperatives. He doesn’t quote, he doesn’t give examples, he just asserts. And he continues to do nothing whatever to address what is actually being discussed. Why doesn’t he just confound their knavish tricks by explaining why his analogy is perfectly appropriate? Since he’s presumably sworn by his university to seek truth and all. Several people have suggested that he’s just trolling, and it may be so, but it seems awfully self-shooting-in-foot if so. He’s not exactly covering himself with cognitive glory.

Physician Heal Thyself

Nov 26th, 2004 7:41 pm | By

Another Update. This time on the matter of voting dogs and marrying gays, of the ethics and etiquette of comparing gays to dogs, of Johnson’s joke and rhetorical animalia, of ad hominems and arguments, of substance and style, of professionalism and irony, of sarcasm and insults, of cabbages and kings.

Chris at Crooked Timber posted yesterday about Burgess-Jackson’s, shall we say, provocative simile, with an amusing addendum about canine psephology. Burgess-Jackson commented on Chris’ comment later the same day.

The folks at Crooked Timber are having fun at my expense…What’s interesting (and ironic) is that nobody at the site engaged my argument. In the insular world of liberalism, argumentation is unnecessary. One mocks conservatives; one doesn’t engage their arguments. Perhaps this explains liberalism’s failure in the public arena.

That’s a remarkably disingenuous comment, it seems to me. It’s true that the post in question didn’t engage his ‘argument’ but then Chris did say that Richard Chappell had already done a good job of exactly that, and did provide a link. That particular post (like mine) was about the analogy, not the entirety of B-J’s argument against gay marriage. I’ll speak for myself: I wanted to comment on the analogy, period. I didn’t want to address the whole gay marriage argument; it doesn’t interest me much; but the analogy did, and does. It interests me all the more now because of Burgess-Jackson’s apparent inability even to see what the discussion is about. I find that kind of odd. I also find it odd that B-J complains that people ‘mock conservatives’ when surely his own post mocked gays, and that’s why people object to it. And people at CT haven’t even compared him to any animal, not even a cuddly bunny or a darling little hamster! In fact they haven’t even done all that much mocking. What they have done is take exception to the dog comparison – so B-J equates that to mocking conservatives? How, why? Because it was the only thing he could think of?

Then John Holbo posted on the subject, and so did Burgess-Jackson. Holbo did it amusingly, B-J did it even more weirdly and evasively. Did it in a manner even more inadvertently self-accusing and self-condemning than the first one. Which is interesting – as an example of strange psychology, of bad moves, bad thoughts, clumsy rhetoric, some or all of those.

Several people have written in the past few hours to tell me that there’s a reply to my posts about homosexual “marriage” somewhere in cyberspace, the implication being that I’m obligated to respond to it. I don’t have time to respond to every critic, much less the uncharitable ones, much less the nasty ones. Does Peter Singer respond to even 1% of his critics? Did John Rawls? If they did, they’d never get any work done. David Hume didn’t respond to any critics. Was that a failing on his part? My rule is simple: Reply only to those who are personable (but certainly not to all of them, for time is limited). When I read something, including e-mail, I stop reading as soon as the author gets sarcastic or insulting. If you want me to read your prose, you must be kind and respectful. Is that too much to ask?

Humble, isn’t he. What about Kant, did he answer his mail? Spinoza? Aristotle? Don’t be shy.

The posts I saw on Crooked Timber yesterday are personal and vicious.

Um…Oh, never mind. It’s too obvious.

Or From the Other Direction

Nov 26th, 2004 6:00 pm | By

Update. Well that’s quite funny. Brian Leiter comments on that unnoticed assumption I pointed out in the article on religious law schools – but he views it from a different angle. He’s right of course. In fact I’m hatching a comment to talk about that very issue, and have been ever since I read the article. It really is bizarre how cheerfully people disavow reason and rationality these days. One feels like asking them, solicitously, ‘Do you really want to say that? Are you sure? Have you thought it through?’

Only those on the Left are reasonable…

…according to this article about the growing number of new, overtly religious law schools (such as Regent, Ava Maria, St. Thomas in Minnesota, and Liberty):

“The prevailing orthodoxy at the elite law schools is an extreme rationalism that draws a strong distinction between faith and reason,” said Bruce W. Green, Liberty’s dean.

The claim that professors at the leading law schools tilt to the left is supported by statistics….

Interesting juxtaposition of points, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.


Nov 26th, 2004 3:35 am | By

Tricky evasive rhetoric chapter 7863. A complaint about the New York Times’ obituary of Derrida. The obit was rather unfriendly, I noticed it at the time, but this article – well let’s have a look.

Derrida had advanced deconstruction as a challenge to unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition.

Unquestioned assumptions? Really? Derrida single-handedly woke philosophy from its dogmatic slumbers? The ‘Western philosophical tradition’ was full of assumptions that no one had ever questioned until Derrida came along? Maybe that’s not what he means to say – but if it’s not, he’s a very bad writer, because that’s certainly what the article seems to be saying. And Derrida’s fans so often do seem to say things like that – the ones in literature departments at any rate, which would explain it. It’s highly unfair, in a way, because Derrida tends to be blamed for the absurd things his fans say.

Kandell’s obit provoked an uproar among Derrida’s American admirers. Professors at the University of California, Irvine, where Derrida had lectured for years, were indignant about what they viewed as an irresponsible assault on complex thought at a time when the manichean worldview emanating from the White House encouraged “black and white thinking.”

Um – what? An assault on complex thought? So complex thought=Derrida and Derrida=complex thought? Nobody else is doing any complex thought, so therefore Derrida has to be treated with, ahem, unquestioning reverence, for the sake of complex thought? He’s the only philosopher or intellectual who does complex thought therefore he is beyond criticism? Well, the thinking behind that idea seems pretty simple at least.

I read a good memorial essay about Derrida the other day, so I know they do exist. They’re not all silly. But this one is.

God Told Me The Defendant Did It

Nov 25th, 2004 9:55 pm | By

There’s nothing like going directly from John Stuart Mill to the kind of drivel one finds in, say, law schools that intend “to bring a religious perspective to the law and to legal practice.” The move from clarity and precision to muddle and sloppiness can be quite a shock to the system. As William Whewell must have found when he read what Mill had to say about his work. Poor guy. But maybe he didn’t read it.

The article in question is itself muddled, as well as reporting on an inherently muddled subject. Here for example –

These new law schools say they are a sort of counterweight to the views that dominate legal academies in the United States. “The prevailing orthodoxy at the elite law schools is an extreme rationalism that draws a strong distinction between faith and reason,” said Bruce Green, Liberty’s dean.

The claim that professors at the leading law schools lean to the left is supported by statistics. According to a forthcoming study of 21 top law schools from 1991 to 2002 by John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University, approximately 80 percent of the professors at those schools who made campaign contributions primarily supported Democrats, while 15 percent primarily supported Republicans.

That’s an exact quotation, with nothing left out. Note the entirely unstated unexplained assumption that ‘extreme’ rationalism (whatever that might be) and ‘leaning to the left’ or supporting Democrats are exactly the same thing. As if there were no rationalist Republicans or (alas) irrationalist Democrats, and as if rationalism itself were inherently 1) political and 2) neatly divided along a left-right axis. But that’s just ridiculous. Yet the article maintains the confusion throughout.

Or is it a confusion. Maybe it’s a tactic. Because of course then the next step is to complain that alternatives to rationality are not welcome in law schools, and to treat that as some kind of bias or mistake or silly oversight. But that’s imbecilic. One might as well complain that inaccurate mathematics are not welcome in engineering schools. Well who knows, maybe ‘faith-based’ maths will be the next tragic victim of leftist dominance of US universities, and the Colorado legislature will have to pass a law (not based on rationality, of course) to correct the imbalance.

Peter Schuck, a law professor at Yale, where 92 percent of faculty political contributions went to Democrats, said Green was right to question whether religious perspectives are welcomed at mainstream law schools. “There is a sort of soft tolerance of competing views,” said Schuck, who described himself as a political moderate, “but no real interest in exposing students to seriously developed contrary points of view that proceed from a strong faith-based perspective. Fundamentalism is derided.”

Well, I certainly hope so. I hope law schools teach law from the perspective of ‘a strong distinction between faith and reason’ as opposed to teaching lawyers to rely on their intuition and chats with Jesus when doing their work. If that’s ‘extreme rationalism,’ well, then I’m an extremist. Extremism in the cause of liberty from faith-based loonies is no vice. Not in my book.


Nov 23rd, 2004 10:18 pm | By

By way of contrast, here is Richard Chappel at Philosophy Etcetera actually thinking about the subject instead of just issuing dictats. Makes a change. He takes empirical evidence into account, linking to the New Scientist, and he looks at some feeble arguments. It’s good stuff. He also takes on a rather unpleasant analogy of Keith Burgess-Jackson’s. I was especially interested in that because a couple of readers have recommended KB-J to me, thinking that he and B&W have a lot in common. But I don’t think so. I haven’t bothered reading him much, but that’s because what I did read struck me as pure boilerplate. Uninspired, familiar, and peevish. The post Richard discusses is (in my view) somewhat worse than that.

I have said in this blog many times that the very idea of homosexual marriage is incoherent, which is why I put the word “marriage” in quotation marks. I do the same for dog “voting.” If we took our dogs to the polls and got them to push levers with their paws, they would not be voting. They would be going through the motions of voting. It would be a charade. Voting is not made for dogs. They lack the capacity to participate in the institution. The same is true of homosexuals and marriage.

Oh very droll. But actually I don’t think it’s meant to be droll, or not entirely; I think it’s meant to be insulting, and with a creepy undertone of – you know, weird stuff, bestiality, dirt, stupidity, animalness. The kind of thing the Nazis (and other people) liked to say about Jews. And it’s also an echo of that patronizing-insulting joke of Johnson’s. You know the one.

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Nasty stuff. If anybody ever recommends K B-J to me again I think I’ll have to have a temper tantrum.

Jeremy Bentham and Marvin Olasky

Nov 23rd, 2004 9:52 pm | By

Some more thought for the day. Because some days need more than one thought. And because Bentham is out of copyright, and because this is funny stuff. I haven’t been used to think of Bentham as a funny guy, but that just shows how much I know.

In looking over the catalogue of human actions (says a partizan of this principle) in order to determine which of them are to be marked with the seal of disapprobation, you need but to take counsel of your own feelings: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason…In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility.

Footnote: 1. One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong; and that it is called a moral sense: and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong—why? “because my moral sense tells me it is”.

2. Another man comes and alters the phrase: leaving out moral, and putting in common, in the room of it. He then tells you, that his common sense teaches him what is right and wrong, as surely as the other’s moral sense did: meaning by common sense, a sense of some kind or other, which he says, is possessed by all mankind: the sense of those, whose sense is not the same as the author’s, being struck out of the account as not worth taking…

4. Another man says, that there is an eternal and immutable Rule of Right: that that rule of right dictates so and so: and then he begins giving you his sentiments upon any thing that comes uppermost . and these sentiments (you are to take for granted) are so many branches of the eternal rule of right.

5. Another man, or perhaps the same man (it’s no matter) says, that there are certain practices conformable, and others repugnant, to the Fitness of Things; and then he tells you, at his leisure, what practices are conformable and what repugnant: just as he happens to like a practice or dislike it.

6. A great multitude of people are continually talking of the Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their sentiments about what is right and what is wrong: and these sentiments, you are to understand, are so many chapters and sections of the Law of Nature.

I particularly like all that because it describes so well something I read a few minutes after I read it, in an interview-article on Peter Singer in a Christian magazine of a rather, shall we say, strict orientation. ‘Strict’ there is a euphemism for various tendentious words like mindless, unreflective, bible-thumping; that sort of thing.

Don’t expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the Nov. 2 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child’s play, already logically decided, and it’s time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of “fully consensual” sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine. For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, “There’s no moral problem with that.”

If you read the article you’ll notice that the author doesn’t trouble to say why in fact consensual sex between however many people or with a corpse is not ethically fine. Doesn’t even trouble to note that there might be something to say. Just takes it for granted – thus filling out Bentham’s portrait nicely. Obviously he thinks it’s icky therefore it’s wrong and there’s no need to say anything more, just as there isn’t about same-sex marriage.

And then he wraps it up with a neat summation:

This is important not only for Princeton and similar institutions but for all of American society. In the absence of debate at our leading universities, each election is an attempt by people connected to biblical ethics to hold off an onslaught by those who have imbibed Singerism and try to win by ridicule what they cannot achieve by honest reporting of reality.

Biblical ethics. Right. Which biblical ethics? The stuff about dashing babies’ brains out against walls? Jesus’ repudiation of ‘family values’? No? Well why not? Well we know why not, it’s much the same as what Bentham is talking about. It’s all pretense, in short. He means ‘the biblical ethics that prop up the prejudices I already have, and not the others.’ Phooey, now I’m not amused any more, I’m irritated. That’s no fun.

J S Mill

Nov 23rd, 2004 7:46 pm | By

Thought for the day. From John Stuart Mill’s ‘Whewell on Moral Philosophy’:

The person who has to think more of what an opinion leads to, than of what is the evidence of it, cannot be a philosopher, or a teacher of philosophers. Of what value is the opinion on any subject, of a man of whom everyone knows that by his profession he must hold that opinion?…Whoever thinks that persons thus tied are fitting depositaries of the trust of educating a people, must think that the proper object of intellectual education is not to strengthen and cultivate the intellect, but to make sure of its adopting certain conclusions: that, in short, in the exercise of the thinking faculty, there is something, either religion, or conservatism, or peace, or whatever it be, more important than truth.

Dear Adelaide

Nov 23rd, 2004 1:53 am | By

Aw, that’s nice. A reader alerted me to this blog post which is a favourable review of the dictionary. And it’s by someone I don’t even know, too. Someone in Adelaide. He likes that article by Andrew Weeks on Gibson and God, as well. Good guy, this Adelaide fella. If I’m ever in Adelaide I’ll look him up, see if he’d like to show me around, buy me dinner, laugh at my jokes.

Another Embattled Minority Heard From

Nov 22nd, 2004 9:10 pm | By

Peter Beinart in The New Republic points out that conservatives, long in the habit of sniggering at political correctness and group whining, have found a disrespected minority of their very own: evangelicals. Yeah they have, haven’t they.

Mind you, in the usual obligatory ritual, Beinart hands a little ground back, which he shouldn’t have.

To be fair, occasionally liberals do treat evangelical Christians with condescension and scorn. Conservatives frequently, and justifiably, expressed outrage at a Washington Post news story that called followers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”…On November 4, in The New York Times, Garry Wills suggested that America now resembles the theocracies of the Muslim world more than it resembles Western Europe, which is offensive, not to mention absurd.

Well is it false that followers of Falwell and Robertson are largely uneducated? I don’t know any statistics on the subject, but it seems on the face of it unlikely that F & R would appeal to educated people – unless one has a slightly special definition for ‘educated’. And as for the next part, ‘offensive’ is irrelevant – in fact its irrelevance is part of the point of the article, so it seems absent-minded of Beinart to use the word.

But then once he’s got that ‘to be fair’ stuff out of the way, things pick up.

What these (and most other) liberals are saying is that the Christian Right sees politics through the prism of theology, and there’s something dangerous in that. And they’re right. It’s fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them–as much as possible–in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can’t persuade other people, and they can’t persuade you. In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can’t be theological.

That’s what I keep saying – and I keep being surprised at how much resistance there is to that idea among some intellectuals (those ‘educated’ people again). But it seems so obvious. If you tell me a given piece of legislation would be a good thing because Moloch says so, why should that carry any weight with me? Why would you expect it to? Why should it make any difference if you substitute the generic word ‘God’ for Moloch? They both mean the same thing, after all – ‘the deity I have decided to believe in’. It’s just not reasonable to expect other people to believe in the supernatural being you have chosen to believe in, therefore that being’s word doesn’t carry any weight in public political discussions. Or rather it shouldn’t. Of course, when people use the word used by the majoritarian religion for its deity, they think they are referring to someone that everybody ought to pay attention to – but that’s a kind of trick of the light, an illusion, caused by familiarity and failure to question. And then that illusion goes on to become resentment and truculence.

What many conservatives are now saying is that, since certain views are part of evangelicals’ identity, harshly criticizing those views represents discrimination…Identity politics is a powerful thing–a way of short-circuiting debate by claiming that your views aren’t merely views; they are an integral part of who you are. And who you are must be respected. But harsh criticism is not disrespect–and to claim it is undermines democratic debate by denying opponents the right to aggressively, even impolitely, disagree. That is what conservatives are doing when they accuse liberals of religious bigotry merely for demanding that the Christian Right defend their viewpoints with facts, not faith.

Just so. That’s that special status for religion thing that I keep mentioning. Harsh criticism is not disrespect, and pretending it is is a way of trying to rule out disagreement. Exactly. Of course, it works, so needless to say conservatives are going to go right on doing it, and accusing atheists and secularists of elitism into the bargain, but at least the rest of us can point out how bogus it all is.

Symbols of Purity

Nov 21st, 2004 8:23 pm | By

Check out this interview with Jane Kramer in the New Yorker. She says some things that it would be good to see said more often, by more people, more forthrightly.

But in France, with all its freedoms, so many young women seem to be capitulating to Islamist pressure. It usually starts with the young men who are recruited, and the symbols of successful recruitment are the women in the family. In other words, the women are the symbol of the new identity of the man. When you see a twelve-year-old girl coming to school in a chador, where for two or three generations no one had worn one, you have to look at this as the expression of an enormous pressure from the men in the girl’s family. You’re really dealing with a born-again movement, and the girls get the short end of the stick, because the boys don’t have to change what they study, how they dress, and so forth. The girls are the proof of the new purity of the family.

Just so. The boys get to go right on dressing as they like, the girls have to turn themslves into symbols. As usual – yawn yawn, same old same old. Men are people, women are things; men get to have autonomy, women don’t; men apply pressure, women become symbols.

Homa Arjomand is in Victoria today to give a speech against the introduction of Sharia law in Ontario. I hope she gets a huge turnout and a lot of press coverage.

Charles and Charles

Nov 20th, 2004 10:35 pm | By

On the other hand. One letter to the Independent on the ‘Charles tells lower orders to stay in their places’ matter makes an interesting point.

How ironic that on the same day that Charles Clarke says that Prince Charles is out of touch for commenting that children want to be pop stars and the like without having to do anything to earn it, he chooses to announce that “every school must take its fair share of unruly pupils”. As a supply teacher in this country for the past two years, I think that, at least in this instance, it is Mr Clarke who seems more out of touch than the Prince. When was the last time Mr Clarke was in a classroom? There are many disruptive students who ruin it for the good children. From my experience, these disruptive ones fit the description given by the Prince, thinking that they don’t need an education as they will make it as pop stars or footballers in their teens and early twenties.

The letter-writer then suggests that disruptive students should be isolated so that no school would have to deal with them in their disruptive state, and he points out the burden those disruptive students are to both teachers and students who want to learn. Which is true. That’s a conversation I’ve had more than once with various friends who are teachers – the fact that they often have to spend more time being a cop than being a teacher, and how bad that is for the students who don’t need policing and would rather learn something, as well as for the teachers themselves. Teaching is teaching, not crowd control, not prison guarding, not military basic training. Teachers should be able to devote their energies to teaching their subject matter, not struggling to establish dominance. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy to make teachers do that, plus it’s a hell of a good way to discourage people from being teachers at all. If I ran the world, students would either act like students or leave.

However, Charles was talking about his adult secretary, not school children, and he’s still a prat.


Nov 20th, 2004 7:52 pm | By

Oh dear, oh dear. One shouldn’t. One really shouldn’t. It’s most unkind. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. One feels frightful about it, one feels almost tempted to leave it alone, to do the decent thing. And yet when one sees a barrel with a lot of lazy fish swimming around in it, one shoots at them. One can’t help it. And anyway, what’s the matter with fish today, why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their capabilities? Horrible jumped-up little bastards – where’s one’s gun?

No seriously the hell with all that. The hell with pacifism towards that particular easy fish. I mean – if Charles Windsor, of all the people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, really thinks he is in a position to rag on other people for wanting to do jobs without qualifications or natural abilities – well I mean to say. I mean to say he is literally the one person in the entire country with the least right to say such a thing. Bar none. His saying it is the exact equivalent of George W Bush and his handlers having the almighty gall to call other people ‘elitist’ when he would be doing well to be a part-time security guard if he had not been born into the shrubbery.

Oh dear, oh dear. It is funny though. Funnier than Bush, because of course Charles is so powerless, despite all the ridiculous sucking up and deference and bowing and Sirring and the bales and bales and bales of money. And it’s so funny that he apparently thinks he himself has natural abilities, at least compared with all these horrible striving proles he’s surrounded with, not to mention all these terrifying PC black women lusting after promotions. It’s always been funny. It was funny that he thought he was so clever compared to Diana because he read (wait for it) boooooks by Laurens van der Post. Oh very deep. Mind you Diana was funny that way too. Katharine Graham once told her she might enjoy going to university and Diana was very amused, saying she’d had plenty of education from life. Uh…right. Perhaps all toffs are like that. It’s a toff thing, apparently, to scorn education. One doesn’t need that sort of thing, thank you very much, that’s for the lower orders who have to do something, aristocrats have only to Be.

There are a lot of good letters on the subject here. And there is an interesting side point in this article

Mr Clarke’s comments were seized upon by opponents as evidence of a breach of the convention whereby ministers do not criticise the Royal Family.

Well…excuse me, I’m just a Yank and a Republican and I don’t properly understand these things, but that does seem like a stupid convention. Why should the Royal Family be immune from criticism by ministers? I realize it has something to do with separation of government and crown, with keeping the muck of politics out of the more transcendent realm of the monarchy, and that that’s supposed to be good for continuity and the monarchy’s ceremonial role and all that. But still. It just does seem a ridiculous way to go about it. Choose this one person and treat it as if it’s magic, and then make the resulting oddity your head of state.

Since it’s such an odd system, I do wish we could stop trying to mimic it in the US.

Entrenching Tools

Nov 19th, 2004 7:18 pm | By

An example, of the kind of thing I was talking about yesterday and a few days before that – of this matter of the complexity and arbitrariness of political categories, and of the idea that sometimes it’s just not particularly helpful or interesting to attach labels of liberal or conservative, left or right, to any and every idea that comes along. The example is from an interview with Barack Obama in the October Progressive – unfortunately not online. The interviewer, Barbara Ransby, said, ‘You also said something to the effect that you are open to ideas from both the right and the left. Now, you know this kind of talk makes progressives a little nervous. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?’ and Obama answered,

Yes, certain factions of the left have bought into an either/or argument about how we solve our problems, and I contend that all our solutions do not have to do with money. They have to do with attitudes, values, and morals. As I said in my speech at the convention, for example, we have to recognize academic achievement as parents. Now some may label that a ‘rightwing’ or ‘conservative’ position, but you go into any place in the community, you will hear the same thing.

Obama’s not kidding when he says that some may label that a ‘rightwing’ position – in fact he’s understating it drastically (no doubt being polite to the interviewer and The Progressive). There’s very little ‘may’ about it – some do emphatically label that a ‘rightwing’ position before the sentence is even finished. I noticed such a bit of labeling just the other day in an article in the New York Review of Books

Along with other black conservatives —John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell—Ogbu places the blame for ongoing inequality on black communities. He recommends a variety of self-help strategies to raise black students’ achievement, such as publicizing black students’ academic successes, reinforcing parents’ commitment to monitoring their children, and so on.

I think it’s very debatable to call McWhorter a conservative, and I think it’s even more debatable to assume (as that quotation does assume) that the idea that some factors internal to ‘black communities’ play a part in educational inequality (which is not the same thing as ‘blaming’ those communities, which is a silly, loaded, and manipulative way of stating the idea) is necessarily a ‘conservative’ idea. It can be, and it can be useful to conservative agendas, but it doesn’t have to be. But it is (in some circles, or factions, as Obama puts it) assumed to be. It is in fact a kind of litmus test – it’s one of those things that people avoid saying for fear of being put into a box they don’t want to be put into. The good old hegemonic discourse is full of minefields like that – things it’s risky to say unless you want friends to think you’ve suddenly become Krusty the Konservative.

And it’s understandable in a way. Understandable and not malevolent. We have heard enough about ‘blaming the victim’ to be very wary of seeming to do that ourselves, especially when we are not in the same victim box ourselves. It is a very queasy position to be, say, a white person worrying about anti-intellectualism among black people; we worry that we don’t know enough, that it’s easy for us to say, that we have unpleasant motives we’re not entirely aware of, that we are indeed shifting the problem from institutionalized injustices to the naughty behavior of the victims themselves. Understandable. But the trouble is – what if it’s true? What if it really is true that, for instance, black students shame each other for doing well in school or liking to read, label that ‘acting white,’ apply peer pressure to make their friends stop it? Then that sqeamishness and reluctance to talk about it doesn’t look like such a good idea, does it. Because if it really is true, then it’s a bad thing, and everyone ought to make every effort to change it, and that’s a good deal harder to do if the subject is taboo.

And that’s just one example. Which is not to say that nothing should be labeled left or right; I’m not a fan of ‘bipartisanship’; but it is to say that not everything should be labeled that way. That some issues are factual rather than ideological, is rather than ought; that an empirical, inquiring, analytic approach works a good deal better for many problems than a political or even moral one. The issue Obama is talking about isn’t one about blame, it’s one about what to do. But entrenched positions make people unwilling to think about some avenues of inquiry. That doesn’t seem particularly useful.


Nov 18th, 2004 10:52 pm | By

Now (she said, throat-clearingly), that comment of Amartya Sen’s is relevant (in my mind at least) to the discussion in Politics and Morality, below. Mark Bauerlein emailed me in a cordial way to point out that there was a survey reported in the Chronicle some months ago which asked professors in all fields about their political allegiance. “Those who considered themselves Left or Center Left outnumbered those Right or Center Right by almost 3 to 1.” So, as I said in an update to that post, that at least partly answers my question about Business schools and the like, and it’s interesting in itself.

But even with that question partly answered, the more I think about this whole subject – ‘whole’ in the sense of in its wider aspects, as opposed to the relatively narrow one of party politics – the more complicated, fuzzy, and difficult to pin down it seems. And the similarity to Sen’s point has to do with the question of categories, and how we define people, how they define themselves – how we define ourselves and each other, in short. ‘There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them.’ You could substitute ‘political beliefs’ there for the purpose of this discussion, and the effect would be the same. In other words, it seems to me that knowing that someone identifies herself as Left or Right or Center Left or Right, doesn’t necessarily tell you very much about her. It might, but it easily might not. And it also might not tell you what you think it does. Your idea of Left or Right might not be hers. But I think Sen’s point is the really interesting one – that those one or two words miss much that is important about most people – miss it or confuse it or both.

You could argue, and I think I’m going to, that one of the most interesting things about people is what trumps what. Does political angle trump artistic tastes, or the other way around? Are your commitments more moral than they are political, or vice versa, or do you have a hard time telling the two apart? And then, within those categories, what do you put where? That’s another interesting item. Consider religion, and secularism. Are those political categories? Intellectual? Moral? All those? Something else? And how are they weighted?

And then, how do we know? How do we know which issues are political and which are not? The media, I suppose, is one answer. The newspaper and tv and radio tell us. If they say religion or ‘family values’ or gay marriage or abortion or creationism are now political issues, then we generally accept it – no doubt because newspapers and tv and radio make such statements true in the very act of making them. Speech acts. Once the hegemonic discoursers throw a subject out into the political boxing ring, then that subject becomes something that political operators have to take into account. (So the media ‘create reality’ as the saying now goes.) But that’s part of the problem, in a way, or at least a source of some of the confusion. (What confusion? Well, mine, for a start.) It’s not really self-evident that, say, ‘family values’ are political at all. In fact one might think they are by definition not political. (That’s part of the problem with the way political campaigns, especially in the US [where political campaigns last four years, which means they never stop], talk about the candidates’ personal lives and characters more than they talk about exactly what the candidates are going to do if elected – it turns everything into a ‘political’ subject, including things that might be vastly more usefully and interestingly discussed under a different rubric.)

Maybe this is just a very long-winded way of saying I’m bored by politics. Which I am. Well, considering the way it’s carried on here, via a mix of cartoonish irrelevancy and shameless bribery re-labeled ‘campaign contributions’, and then considering what we end up with as a result, can you blame me?

Not the Only Category

Nov 18th, 2004 8:09 pm | By

Amartya Sen makes an excellent point, one I’ve seen him make often before (but it needs to be made over and over again, because it goes against a very strong stream of current opinion and it doesn’t make much headway), in this article in the New York Review of Books.

The richness and variety of early intellectual relations between China and India have long been obscured. This neglect is now reinforced by the contemporary tendency to classify the world’s population into distinct “civilizations” defined largely by religion (for example Samuel Huntington’s partitioning of the world into such categories as “Western civilization,” “Islamic civilization,” and “Hindu civilization”). There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them. The limitations of this perspective have already done significant harm to our understanding of other aspects of the global history of ideas. Many are now predisposed to see the history of Muslims as quintessentially Islamic history, ignoring the flowering of science, mathematics, and literature that was made possible by Muslim intellectuals, particularly between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. One result of such a narrow emphasis on religion is that a disaffected Arab activist today is encouraged to take pride only in the purity of Islam, rather than in the diversity and richness of Arab history. In India too, there are frequent attempts to portray the broad civilization of India as “Hindu civilization”—to use the phrase favored both by theorists like Samuel Huntington and by Hindu political activists.

Exactly. I think I’ve made a similar point here quite a few times – but again (and considerably less surprisingly, what with my not being a Nobel economist and not writing in the NYRB and all) it doesn’t do any good so I just go on making it. This radical simplification has a lot of disastrous consequences, some of which are very noticeable indeed in what one might call contemporary hegemonic discourse. I wouldn’t call it that, but one might. One of the most noticeable is the intense reluctance on the part of a lot of leftists to criticise Islam, for fear that that will be taken as criticising Muslims which will be taken as criticising brown or Third World people – with the immensely dreary and discouraging result that leftist, feminist, gay, secular, atheist, dissident people from e.g. Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and the like are ignored or even rebuked by people who ought to be their allies. Another is probably the (mostly unexamined, unaware, taken for granted) idea that religion is and should be and must be immune from criticism in a way that other systems of ideas are not. The over-developed sensitivity and caution and tact about saying any religion and especially Islam might have some truly bad ideas right at its core.

Where did this contemporary tendency that Sen mentions come from, anyway? Is it just a short-cut? Just journalistic laziness? Is it just that it’s faster to say ‘Muslim countries’ than it is to say ‘countries with large or majority Muslim populations’? Or is it more to do with underlying ideas about identity politics? Or is it both? Or both plus more? I don’t know, but I wish everyone would point it out and disagree with it every time it appears until it stops appearing.

One Star

Nov 17th, 2004 10:29 pm | By

Oh, what fun. We have an unfavourable review of the dictionary at Amazon – a very unfavourable review. Really doesn’t like it at all, this reader doesn’t. Thinks it’s bad and awful. Well what’s so fun about that! you ask. Well if you look at the review you’ll see. Or don’t bother, I’ll just quote heavily, because I don’t suppose Amazon reviews are exactly copyrighted, are they, and anyway the reviewer is semi-anonymous.

Another trite and innocently framed attack on those intellectuals who are trying to decenter the–and here is a phrase they make fun of–dominant hegemonic discourse, that is so corrosive and debiliating to our civilization. The authors of this book hark back to a mythical Baconian age of deductive logic. They insist on the heroic processes of logic and reason. All of this other stuff is just poo poo, lets make fun of it because we know that a.)not only can we make money off it–logically and reasonably in a consumerist world that they admire–but, b.) we can at the same time admonish complex and careful thinking–that either they are jealous of the individuals who were able to construct such complex arguments, or they actually don’t really understand them–to the realm of the ridiculous and unreasonable, the illogical. Its a powerful little book, that is far more subversive then it pretends to be, by making ‘cute’ ‘funny’ attacks on the ideas they oppose in favor of a western hegemonic ideology.

There, I quoted so heavily that that’s the whole thing. So you see why it’s fun.

Those (read: brave, heroic, embattled, misunderstood, etc) intellectuals who are trying to decenter the dominant hegemonic discourse, that is so corrosive and debilitating to our civilization. Oh them. Now, I would say, if asked, that I spend a fair amount of time here trying to do something – not decenter, particularly, but something – to the, let’s call it, dominant rhetoric of politics and various media. Call it hegemonic discourse if you insist. I would also say, even if not asked, that I do a better job of it than people who talk or write the way Ryan (the reviewer) do. In other words, I would claim that I am at least as interested in pointing out the hidden agendas, deceptions, mistranslations, euphemisms, evasions, manipulations and the like of public rhetoric as the hegemonic-discourse-decenterers are. So the implication (and it is an implication – quite manipulative and rhetorical in fact) that the dictionary attacks decenterers because they try to decenter hegemonic discourse, is nonsense. On the contrary – it’s because they do such a damn bad job of it.

Then the bit about harking back to a mythical Baconian age – where does he get that, one wonders. And the insistence on the heroic processes of logic and reason – again: really? Where? In other words, more rhetoric. The time-honoured tactic: when at a loss for an argument, just make stuff up. And then the flattery about ‘complex and careful thinking’ and ‘such complex arguments’ – familiar stuff, for instance from the old ‘difficulty’ defense that always crops up in discussions of Bad Writing. This stuff isn’t a lot of jargony polysyllabic neologistic babble disguising an empty box, no, it’s complex careful thinking and complex arguments. Yup uh huh.

And as for more subversive than it pretends to be – I beg your pardon?!? We make no pretense whatever not to be subversive! Subversion is exactly what we have in mind. Tsk. I guess we should have had ‘A Subversive Project’ for our subtitle. You have to spell things out for some people.

Okay, that was just my little fun, but there’s a slightly serious point too. That review is quite symptomatic – as I’m sure all of you who are familiar with this kind of thing will recognize instantly. It’s pure boilerplate, pure formula, and utterly empty. And that’s why things like the FD are necessary at the moment. Until would-be intellectuals get back in the habit of actually saying something instead of just stringing vacuous cliches together, well, the rest of us will just have to keep mocking.