Notes and Comment Blog


The Anatomy of Lunacy

Feb 19th, 2006 6:27 pm | By

Allow me to explain. I’m a little vague about the way the RSS feed works, on account of I don’t have it myself. I forgot (or perhaps never knew, despite having been told) that people who subscribe to the RSS feed get the whole N&C – I mistily thought they (you) got a notification, rather than the thing itself. Jeremy reminded me of how it actually works and said that it’s normal practice when making a big change to put a time on it, so that it doesn’t look as if I’m cluelessly trying to sneak a change in when the RSS makes that impossible. I deleted two paragraphs yesterday and substituted a much shorter one, saying ‘oh look, I’m sane again, that’s enough of that.’ But I knew I wasn’t doing it covertly, I knew people would have seen the previous version, and that’s fine. I almost did leave it and just add an update, but then decided that because it was so no longer true, I might as well erase it.

But it’s interesting, psychologically. So I’ll explain, because of the interest. I was half-crazy yesterday morning and most of Friday afternoon. I thought it was at least as much resentment of publisher’s faux pas as it was wanting the book – until the books arrived, and I immediately realized it wasn’t. Well not quite immediately – I spent a minute or two yowling at everyone in earshot about how relieved I was, and clawing open the package. But almost immediately, I realized that the publisher’s faux pas had shrunk to almost nothing – as of course it should have long ago. So it became instantly blindingly clear that it was the combination of the frustration of not having the book, along with the faux pas, that had been making me nuts. I spent considerable time yesterday afternoon pondering how bad for the psyche and character frustration can be, especially repeated frustration, especially repeated frustration when you expect it to go on being repeated. (Waiting for something to come by mail that doesn’t come, in short. Like being six years old and waiting for your secret decoder ring, or whatever fool matchbox thing it is you’ve sent away for.) I find that it’s very bad for the character indeed. I was a creature from hell yesterday morning – a very gargoyle.

And there was nothing I could do about it. That’s the aspect that makes me think it was quite like being genuinely mentally ill – at least a glimpse of it. I could not get my mood under my control, despite trying really hard. Especially yesterday morning, when I spent an enormous amount of energy trying to convince myself the book wasn’t coming that day or any day soon – trying to avoid that horrible moment when opening the mailbox – and just forget about it and let go and calm down – and I could not do it. Trying to do it just made me a nervous wreck. I was dreading that day’s mail delivery, and Monday’s, and the rest of the week – anticipating repeated torture for at least another week. Mad as a hatter, I was. But I was desperate to have that book. Frantic. I don’t even know why, exactly; it’s not rational; but I was. So then when it did arrive after all, and I became instantly sane again – I realized it was much more about the non-possession of the book than it was about anything anyone did. It was about impersonal matters like the slowness of the mail, so nothing to get bitter and resentful about. The return of sanity is a remarkably pleasant change.

So that meant the two paragraphs I had posted from the depths of struggle against mood were null and void, so I simply erased them. In future when I do that I’ll add a note saying I done erased them.

And your reward for following this deeply uninteresting saga is to know that I know that I am by no means always sane or rational or reasonable. I’ve always known that, but that doesn’t mean you know I know. Well now you know.

And by the way, the book is every bit as beautiful as Jeremy said it was, and furthermore, he says he’s seen it at one (1) Waterstone’s, so that means it is in at least one (1) Waterstone’s, and not hiding until March or April after all. And it’s not a bad read. It’s really not.



Sing it, Deeyah

Feb 19th, 2006 5:30 pm | By

Oh, really; how pretty. How perfectly lovely.

A Muslim pop singer has been forced to hire bodyguards to protect her during a visit to Britain next month after she received a string of death threats from religious extremists. US-based Deeyah is due in London next month to promote a new single and video, released tomorrow. But the track “What Will It Be?” has already outraged hardline Islamists here as it promotes women’s rights.

Yes, well, you can see why that would outrage people, promoting women’s rights. Women can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t have any rights, because the whole point, or almost the whole point, of hardline Islamism is to take rights away from women. Take that away and what’s left? Okay, there’s some fun left – executing a teenage girl because she stabbed one of three men who were intent on raping her and her teenage niece, for instance, and hand-amputation, and execution of gays – of course those are all good, but they don’t match the fun of keeping women squashed and oppressed, now do they. Use your head.

Her performances with a clutch of male dancers and revealing outfits have also deeply offended many Muslims. In one scene in her latest video, the singer drops a burqa covering her body to reveal a bikini.

‘Deeply offended’ – well we can’t have that. No no no no no – if there is anything the past few weeks have taught us, it is that ‘deeply offending’ many Muslims – no matter what footling thing ‘many Muslims’ choose to be ‘deeply offended’ by – is Forbidden. Or else dangerous. One of those – we seem to have a little trouble making up our minds which.

That has attracted vitriol from some quarters. The 28-year-old singer claims that in the past she has been spat upon in the street and told that her family would be in danger if she did not tone down her work…”I have been on the verge of a breakdown. Middle-aged men have spat at me in the street and I have had people phone me and tell me they were going to cut me up into pieces. I became this figure of hate simply because of what I do and wear.”

Well, yeah – because you’re a woman, see, and what you do and wear is not up to you to decide, because of your being a woman. See?

Deeyah, who was born in Norway of Iranian and Pakistani parentage, remains keen to return to Britain. “I miss London,” she said, adding that she wanted to inspire British Muslim women. “I receive letters and emails from women saying I am doing a good job. Putting my life at risk no longer bothers me. That so many women – Muslim women included – are abused by people in their own religion and communities does.”

Yeah. It bothers a lot of us. Go, Deeyah; good luck; peace be upon you. Not figurative peace, not in heaven peace; real peace; no harm.



Not Too Sweet

Feb 18th, 2006 7:35 pm | By

The book has arrived, and the result was an immediate and dramatic improvement in the weather. So that’s the end of that tedious story, at last.

But this piece brought a little of my colour back, even before I opened the mailbox at midday (the post comes late around here).

Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision “out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy.”

Well there you go. I’ve been thinking that all along. I wouldn’t mind so much all this self-censorship if the self-censorers just said ‘we won’t publish them because we’re scared’ instead of all the sinister bilge about being thenthitive. Just for one thing, with the first explanation, everybody is clear that that’s not a good situation, that no one should be pleased and happy about it, whereas with the second, all too many people are pleased – and say they are pleased, and throw little parties to prove it – that everyone is getting more thenthitive. The first situation will not persuade many people that self-censorship is a good thing; the second will.

…what’s at work here is not the Muslim street’s spontaneous revulsion against sacrilege but a calculated campaign of manipulation by European Islamists and self-interested Middle Eastern governments. If the images first published in Jyllands-Posten last September are so inherently offensive that they cannot be viewed in any context, why did Danish Muslims distribute them across an Islamic world that seldom looks at Copenhagen newspapers? As Bernard-Henri Levy wrote this week, we have here a case of “self-inflicted blasphemy.” Then there’s the question of why there was no reaction whatsoever when Al Fagr, one of Egypt’s largest newspapers, published these cartoons on its front page Oct. 17 – that’s right, four months ago – during Ramadan…Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with – you guessed it – one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures. He didn’t even blush.

Incoherent? Double standards? Oh, surely not! No, it’s pure sensitivity; really it is.

Aamer Ahmed Khan takes a look at some hidden meanings and agendas in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s religious parties, who had been calling for mass demonstrations against the cartoons since the controversy first flared up, have disowned the violence. But they have stopped well short of a categorical condemnation of the rioters while vowing to continue with their “peaceful protests”…Most of the vehicles set alight were motorbikes, which are owned mostly by lower middle class people. Such targets have nothing to do with the cartoons but have historically been the target of choice for religious activists whenever they have had a reason to take to the streets. Why motorbikes and cars? Because they are readily available – parked on roadsides and unprotected – burn easily and provide the media with fiery images.

Right. Same way, if you’re going to rob somebody, it’s cleverer to rob somebody small and weak who won’t hurt you, rather than somebody big and strong and heavily-armed, who will. If you’re going to rape somebody, you wait until there’s no one around to help her. It’s only sensible.

Attacking such properties makes for a powerful statement of the cultural agenda pursued by almost every Pakistani religious organisation…Pakistani observers point out that while the protests may have done little to bring the alleged blasphemers under pressure they have certainly conveyed the destructive potential of injured religious sentiment to the outside world…Pakistan’s religious leadership may not be averse to the idea of demonstrating to the world that Pakistanis remain a deeply religious people despite Gen Musharraf’s liberal rhetoric. And if demonstrating this requires arson and looting, it may be a small price in the mind of the country’s religious leadership for emphasising an orthodox cultural agenda which has been under consistent pressure since the September 2001 attacks on the US.

Which should remind the sensitive types, yet again, that Muslims (excuse me, ‘the Muslim community’) don’t all think alike, and that religious zealots don’t speak for all Muslims, much less all people who live in majority-Muslim countries such as Pakistan or Indonesia. They don’t speak for everyone any more than Pat Robertson speaks for me just because we’re both part of the US community. The sensitive types need to realize that religious zealots scare the hell out of a lot of people, including people who are also Muslim, but not so conservative about it as the motorbike-burners. Pay attention, now, sensitives. Take notes.



Book

Feb 16th, 2006 6:19 pm | By

I’ve had some emails asking what’s going on with Why Truth Matters, which means there are probably other people who wonder, who haven’t emailed; so I might as well tell you what I know, which is almost nothing. I thought the book was published and about to be in shops and sent out by online places, but the Amazon UK site says the book is ‘usually dispatched within 1 to 3 months.’ JS received one copy on February 3, and two more (I think two) on February 11. Those three plus the editor’s copy are the only ones I know to exist. I have received none. That’s all I know; I’m not kept informed.



Creeping Sharia

Feb 15th, 2006 9:39 pm | By

This is good – every day that I go to the mailbox and don’t find the books that should be here by now and that I’m quite (and by quite I mean violently) keen to have, my mood becomes fouler and more bitter, so that’s very good for doing an intemperate N&C. Lovely.

The Staggers does the predictable. Surprise surprise.

The New Statesman has never been afraid to ruffle feathers. Thus it is fair to ask why we, like others in the media, have refrained from publishing the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. The reason is simple: we are prepared to take great risks and to cause offence, but only in the name of good journalism. By good journalism we mean breaking stories of malfeasance and other deeds, or producing original and sometimes unpalatable comment. It doesn’t mean poking fun just to prove a spurious point about press freedom.

And it also, of course, doesn’t mean making the cartoons available to readers (reminder: not everyone has internet access) so that they can understand the subject. No, why would it mean that?

There is nothing brave about causing gratuitous offence. But there is everything courageous about challenging the powerful, about exposing facts that individuals and institutions would rather stayed hidden.

And…therefore they have refrained from publishing the cartoons. Eh?

Andrew Sullivan does much better. Much.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, it might be helpful to view the actual cartoons so you can see what on earth this entire fuss is about. But the British and American media have decided that it is not their job to help you understand this story. In fact it is their job to prevent you from fully understanding this story. As of this writing no major newspaper in Britain has published the cartoons; the BBC has shown them only fleetingly and other networks have shied away. All have decided not to give you this critical information, without which no intelligent person can construct an informed and intelligent position on the matter. You’re on your own.

Well, exactly. So what is the New Statesman doing patting itself on the back for not doing its job?

The fundamental job of journalists is to give you as much information as possible to make sense of the world around you. And in this story, where the entire controversy revolves around drawings, the press is suddenly coy…If you want to see why newspapers are struggling, surely this is part of the reason. They have forgotten their fundamental task: to provide information.

That’s been one of the oddest things about all this self-congratulation from media and government about witholding the cartoons – the fact that that meant witholding the core of the story. Editors and politicians talked as if the only possible reason to publish the cartoons would have been to ‘offend’ Muslims further – but that would not have been the only possible reason; not even close. It’s very forgetful not to realize that.

But the bad news is that the Islamists have just scored a huge victory. Their hope has always been what can only be called creeping sharia. Bit by bit, free societies abandon small freedoms to accommodate the sensitivities of Muslims or Christian fundamentalists or the PC police or other touchy fanatics. Bit by bit, we cede our freedoms to fear and phoney civility — all in the name of getting along. Yes, in this new war of freedom versus fundamentalism I always anticipated appeasement. I just didn’t expect the press to be among the first to wave the white flag.

Bingo. Creeping sharia, of many kinds. Abortion is harder to get, public prayer is harder to avoid, and bland cartoons are hidden away as if they were magic.

The Economist also eschews woolly evasions. I wonder if Anthony Gottlieb wrote the piece .

When the republished cartoons stirred Muslim violence across the world, Britain and America took fright. It was “unacceptable” to incite religious hatred by publishing such pictures, said America’s State Department. Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary, called their publication unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong.

Yup. Both were noted here. No, not noted, reviled. That’s all I do these days: revile. Good thing I’m in such a bad temper.

But the Muhammad cartoons were lawful in all the European countries where they were published. And when western newspapers lawfully publish words or pictures that cause offence—be they ever so unnecessary, insensitive or disrespectful—western governments should think very carefully before denouncing them. Freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining freedom of liberal societies. When such a freedom comes under threat of violence, the job of governments should be to defend it without reservation.

[Shouts] Exactly! [Normal voice again] I do wish more newspapers and magazines had managed to see it that way.

In Britain and America, few newspapers feel that their freedoms are at risk. But on the European mainland, some of the papers that published the cartoons say they did so precisely because their right to publish was being called into question. In the Netherlands two years ago a film maker was murdered for daring to criticise Islam. Danish journalists have received death threats. In a climate in which political correctness has morphed into fear of physical attack, showing solidarity may well be the responsible thing for a free press to do. And the decision, of course, must lie with the press, not governments…There are many things western countries could usefully say and do to ease relations with Islam, but shutting up their own newspapers is not one of them.

No it is not. Thank you, Economist. (I don’t say that every day.)

Excuse me, I have to go spit some nails now.



Clarity

Feb 14th, 2006 8:39 pm | By

Sometimes the legal mind can cut through the fatuous pandering sniveling fawning dreck like a buzzsaw. Judge Jones is one memorable example, and David Pannick QC is another. (Hold the jokes. He’ll have heard them all.)

We respect the right of everyone to believe whatever they like: that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, Muhammad was God’s prophet, the Red Sea was parted for the Children of Israel or L. Ron Hubbard identified the path to total happiness. But there are two important limits to religious tolerance. First, I have no right to legal protection against your scepticism, criticism or ridicule. Religion is too powerful a force, and is too often a cause of injustice or evil, for it to be immune from discussion and debate…But in Europe it is not the role of the law, far less the Government, to prohibit or punish publications that sections of the community (whether Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists) find offensive.

And a good thing too. It ought to need only a few seconds of thought to see why. Think ‘goose’ and ‘gander’ if you need help.

The second legitimate restriction on freedom of religion is that Parliament and the courts may prevent some manifestations of religious belief. The law prohibits harmful conduct (such as setting fire to an abortion clinic), however sincerely a person may believe that such acts are commanded by his or her god…Much more difficult questions are raised by manifestations of religious belief that do not cause such obvious harm, but that may conflict with public policy or with other interests.

That may, in other words, cause non-obvious harm. Harm doesn’t have to be obvious to be harm. Sometimes it’s all the more harmful for being non-obvious.

Last November, the European Court of Human Rights decided, by 16-1, that it was not a breach of the right to religious freedom for a female university student in Turkey to be refused admission to lectures if she insisted on wearing an Islamic headscarf. The court emphasised that, in a multicultural society, restrictions on the manifestation of religion might be necessary to protect the interests of others. The university authorities were entitled to require the removal of the headscarf in order to protect female students who did not wish to wear such an item and who would otherwise come under severe pressure from extremist groups to comply with religious requirements.

Exactly the non-obvious harm that is so obstinately overlooked by people who are horrified by the French ban on the hijab in state schools.

A secular school is entitled to refuse to allow its female pupils to wear the more conservative jilbab if there is a reasonable basis for concern that girls who would wish to follow a more liberal tradition would then be pressured to conform to an extreme religious conception of the female role that they want to avoid. Shabina Begum v Denbigh High School is not just a case about the rights of a schoolgirl to wear a jilbab. It is also a case about whether a secular school may protect other pupils from religious pressures that seek to dictate the role of women.

There. A good buzz-saw.



Photoshop

Feb 14th, 2006 5:52 pm | By

First of all there’s the guy in the pig snout. Just fancy – that’s not a cartoon of the prophet, it’s not a cartoon of anyone, it’s not a cartoon at all, and it’s also nothing whatever to do with the prophet, or a different prophet, or any prophet, or Islam, or Muslims, or religion, or satire, or secularism, or free speech, or hate mail, or anything like that. Just fancy – it’s a guy taking part in a pig-squealing contest in France in August last year. My oh my, isn’t that amusing. Apparently what happened is, when the Danish imams were putting together their ‘brochure’ to take to the Middle East to show to the nice officials of the region and get their sympathy and indignation – their hand slipped, and this photo of the guy in costume was blurred and faked up so that it could be taken for a cartoon. In a bad light, by people who didn’t look too closely or think too rigorously, and were being told by some unhappy imams that it had arrived as hate-mail to – um – someone or other in Denmark, at least so they were told, or thought they were told, sort of, maybe, they forget.

Well that’s impressive. Very good. Brilliant. We know most of this indignation and rage has been deliberately worked up by people who wanted it to be worked up, and we know that the putative pig cartoon was by far the most offensive item, and we know that a lot of the indignant enraged people thought the putative pig cartoon was one of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and we know that a lot of people have been killed over this. How impressive to know that they died over a picture of a guy in a pig-squealing contest, a farm contest, that is and was not by any stretch of the most paranoid imagination anything to do with them or any of their business. That is and was not in fact what they thought it was, at all. How very impressive. How clever humans can be when they really put their minds to it.

And then there’s Franco Frattini’s revolting capitulation. I’ve been meaning to revile it for days (but there’s been so much reviling to do, you know – it’s a full-time job these days), and the time has come. Who is Frattini – a mole for the Vatican, or what?

Europe’s justice commissioner Franco Frattini has confirmed that voluntary rules are to be drawn up after talks with media bosses, journalists and religious leaders. He told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that there was a “very real problem” in the EU of balancing “two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion”.

Horseshit. That’s a very unreal problem, there is no problem, because there is no tension between the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. None. That’s a completely bogus, sneaking, moleish idea that’s just a subterfuge for forbidding people to say things that (some) believers don’t want to hear. Hey, guess what! Our saying things about your religion does not, repeat does not, interfere with your freedom of religion. Why would it? How could it? Freedom to do or pursue or be involved in something doesn’t entail being free from any possibility of ever encountering any criticism or mockery or skepticism about the something you are involved in, you know. I’m free to eat butter pecan ice cream; it doesn’t follow that someone across town is forbidden to say butter pecan ice cream tastes like stale sardines. Freedom of religion does not entail immunity from criticism! God, it’s so basic, and there are so many fools around who seem convinced of the exact opposite. It’s maddening.

Frattini is appealing for the European media to agree to “self-regulate”. “The press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right,” he said.

How’s that for craven and disgusting and contemptible? The press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware that the loonies among you will pitch violent fits and kill people over certain exercises of the right of free expression, and we’re pissing ourselves with fright, so we’ll do whatever you say, please don’t hit us, we’ll lock up all the women if you like, please don’t hit us, except the women, you can hit them, but please don’t hit us.

Fortunately, the International Federation of Journalists is having none of it – not surprisingly.

“We have already made it clear to Brussels officials that this will be unacceptable to everyone in media and they have agreed to encourage a professional dialogue but not to start drawing up codes or guidelines. That is the responsibility of media professionals alone,” said IFJ general secretary Aidan White.

No faked pig-snout cartoons, no surrender, no imaginary new right to freedom from being ‘offended’. No pasaran.



You Have to Respect

Feb 13th, 2006 8:17 pm | By

Kofi Annan joins the unseemly rush to tell us what we may not say.

Annan condemned the drawings, first published in a Danish newspaper, as “insensitive and rather offensive,” and also denounced the violent reactions in some Muslim countries. He said the drawings, one of which shows Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, could be seen as vilifying a religion with more than 1 billion adherents.

So what? What’s the one billion got to do with anything? What is that other than moral blackmail? Number of adherents is not necessarily a good index of quality or merit, let alone of truth or rational credibility. If Nazism had one billion adherents (as perhaps in fact it does, though under other names), would that make it something we should respect or keep politely quiet about?

Annan said he defends free speech, but insisted “it has to come with some sense of responsibility and judgment and limits. There are times when you have to challenge taboos,” he said. “But you don’t fool around with other people’s religions and you have to respect what is sacred to other people.”

No, you don’t. No, you do not ‘have’ to respect what is ‘sacred’ to other people. It depends what it is, just for a start. If other people hold a small depression in the ground sacred, you may choose to respect that, if you’re in a forgiving mood, but you don’t ‘have’ to. But there sure are a lot of people – well-meaning people, many of them – running around telling us we do have to. Good thing there is also PEN.

Philip Pullman and Nicholas Hytner are leading a campaign to repeal blasphemy laws after the Government’s failure to outlaw “abusive and insulting” criticism of religion…Pullman, who wrote about the death of God in The Amber Spyglass, told The Times that the blasphemy laws had no place in modern Britain. “Exactly the wrong response would be to extend them to cover other religions. Where would you stop?” he asked. “The right response would be to repeal them altogether and let religion, like every other form of human thought, take its chance in free, open debate.”

Where, indeed, would you stop? Would every single system of irrational ideas be off-limits while all the rational ones were left out in the hailstorm? What would be the justification for that? What is the justification for it now? Evidence-free beliefs must be protected while reasonable, evidence-based beliefs must and need not? Why is that a good idea?

The idea that respect is a right is an odd idea anyway, unless respect is defined in a fairly minimal way. But of course it never is defined when people are ordering us to exercise it toward religion – it’s used to mean anything from silence to groveling.

Respect is not a right…Yet all the terrifying Muslim uprisings across the world in response to the Danish cartoons have all been about a demand for respect, as of right. They are demanding respect for religion, or at any rate for their own religion and their own religious sensibilities. The same is true of the more moderate demonstrations in London yesterday. Worse, many westerners are penitentially admitting that Muslims do indeed have a right to respect for their faith, and that it is wrong to express disrespect for a religion. This is disastrous.

Exactly; it is disastrous. It shores up (and rams home) this idea that religion is Special and should get special treatment at all times. Well, why is it special? How long have I been asking that question now – two years? Longer? I don’t know, but at any rate, I haven’t seen a convincing answer yet, and I have been looking for one. I begin to suspect there may not be one.

“What is being called for,” said Faiz Siddiqi, the committee’s convenor, “is a change of culture. In any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult me’, you do not, out of respect for them.”…First of all there is a tendentious conflation of respect for one’s religion and respect for oneself. It may be true that in traditional Muslim thought a perceived insult to the Prophet is an insult to the believer, but in western culture there is a crucially important – and highly prized – distinction. Freedom of speech depends on people accepting that criticism of a belief, even aggressive, satirical or offensive criticism, is not necessarily intended to insult a person or an ethnic community.

Clearly. Because without that distinction, no criticism, and hence no thought, is possible. Ruling out criticism and thought is not a good plan. I’m against it.



Virilio

Feb 13th, 2006 5:28 pm | By

A reader sent me a quotation from Paul Virilio the other day. I’m going to add it to quotations, and I thought I would flag it up here too, since it certainly gave me a hell of a laugh. It’s from Polar Inertia, translated by Patrick Camiller ‘with financial support from the French Ministry of Culture’. Hmm – I wouldn’t, if I were you, French min of cult.

An earthling based at NASA headquarters will be equipped with a data suit and a helmet relaying live vision of the Martian surface; he will then be able to remote-guide a vehicle several light years away on the red planet.

The robot’s video-sight will certainly be his own, as will the hands steering the instrument about. And when it cautiously moves around on the burning soil of Mars, it will be the feet of its human remote-guide that allows it to do so.

Don’t you just love the idea of remote-guding something that is several light-years away? Not to mention the idea that Mars is several light-years away. Cackle, shriek.



The Judgment of Solomon

Feb 12th, 2006 4:50 pm | By

Rhetoric is simply inexhaustibly interesting. One never does come to the end of it. One thing that’s interesting about it is how easily it can slip past us. I’ve just noticed a bit that slipped past me the other day, when the publishers explained why they had sent a copy to one author but not the other, the other being your humble. They only had two advance copies, you see, and had to keep one in the office, but my copies were ordered from the warehouse on the same day that Jeremy’s was sent out. There it is – I didn’t catch that. It’s interesting. They had one advance copy to send out – and that was Jeremy’s. It belonged to him, already, before they even sent it. It was his property. Because – ? Who knows. Because he’s a man, because they think I’m his stenographer, because he’s an academic and I’m gutter trash; who knows. But I think it’s fascinating. Irritating, needless to say, but also fascinating. Mindless unconscious automatic discrimination and favouritism always is fascinating, especially in people who probably think they’re incapable of such a thing. (I don’t think I’m incapable of it, I should add. I’m pretty sure I’m quite capable of it. An uneasy thought.) And mindless automatic discrimination coupled with language that reveals the unconsciousness is even more fascinating.

I should give belated credit to Souvenir Press, who published the Fashionable Dictionary. I didn’t realize how special this was at the time, but they managed to send out two advance copies, one for each author. Not one copy, for one author out of two, which might possibly cause resentment on the part of the non-recipient author, but two copies, for two authors, one for each. What a sterling, admirable, ethical way to behave. And to think that in October 2004 I simply took it for granted! How little did I imagine that I was being given a special treat, being included in the publication of a book I had had a hand in writing. I know better now. Well done, Souvenir.

Petty, isn’t it. Sure; but women get like that, you know. It has to do with years and years of noticing the way in any random set of woman and man, the man is seen by others as the authoritative one to talk to. (One reader of B&W a couple of years ago took this so far as to urge JS to tell me to shut up. He really did think I was the stenographer, apparently.) Yes, we get prickly, and we resent being treated like the help; but I don’t in fact think that is unreasonable or irrational. Just for one thing, that reaction can be an engine of social change for the better. (Or it can be an engine of social change for the much worse, as we’ve been seeing for the past two weeks. There are no guarantees.) At any rate it may prompt some thought about unconscious bias and how it shows up when we don’t even realize it – a useful thing to think about.

Happy Darwin Day!



A Tonic

Feb 11th, 2006 6:23 pm | By

For a restorative, there is this from Delaware.

In the end, the cartoon battle is not about respect or disrespect. The fundamental conflict behind the rioting is over the idea of blasphemy. That requires belief. But you cannot blaspheme what you don’t believe in. Islamists demand that laws punish blasphemers. That cannot be done in secular societies. How can a society be free if the law requires you to believe?

And there is Ayaan, peace, freedom and secularism be upon her.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali said it was “correct to publish the cartoons” in Jyllands Posten and “right to republish them”…Ms Hirsi Ali, speaking in Berlin, said that “today the open society is challenged by Islamism”. She added: “Within Islam exists a hardline Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them.” Ms Hirsi Ali criticised European leaders for not standing by Denmark and urged politicians to stop appeasing fundamentalists. She also said that although the Prophet Muhammad did a lot of good things, his decree that homosexuals and apostates should be killed was incompatible with democracy…Ms Hirsi Ali said the furore over the cartoons had exposed the fear among artists and journalists in Europe to “analyse or criticise intolerant aspects of Islam”.

Artists, journalists, and politicians. Which is worrying.



More Wisdom

Feb 11th, 2006 6:17 pm | By

There’s also Anas Altikriti, a former president of the Muslim Association of Britain.

France, which stood against war in Iraq, scuppered its good relations with the Muslim world when its secular fanatics insisted on banning the hijab in state schools. These cartoons come at the end of a long line of events in which there has been a striking absence of representation of the Muslim perspective and of our rights and freedoms.

Secular fanatics is it. And ‘the Muslim perspective’ on the hijab – but a lot of Muslims, especially women, were in favour of the ban. What about their perspective?

Religion no more restricts freedom of speech than secularism promotes it. Is it so difficult to digest that Islam considers insulting the prophets of God a profound violation of what is sacred, just as Europe rightly regards denial of the Nazi Holocaust?

No, not ‘just as’ – quite differently. Denial of the Holocaust has nothing to do with violation of the sacred – that’s complete bullshit (in the most technical sense).

Those who claim to uphold freedom of speech by defending the right to reproduce insulting depictions of the prophet are in effect saying to Muslims that what they hold dear and sacred is far more worthy of protecting than what Muslims hold dear and sacred.

No. That’s wrong. Sacred is the wrong word. It’s the wrong word in the same way and for the same kind of reason that blasphemy is the wrong word.

Tomorrow, Britain’s Muslim groups will be joined by non-Muslims in Trafalgar Square to show unity against Islamophobia and incitement of all kinds.

All of Britain’s ‘Muslim groups’? And if all of Britain’s ‘Muslim groups’ are in fact there, does that mean all Muslims are there, or are represented by the ‘groups’ that are there?

The protest will send a message that Britain is leading the way in the west to creating a modern, multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith society that lives in peace and prosperity.

And, of course, that forbids, legally or by social pressure, ‘blasphemy’ and criticism of (what some people take to be) the ‘sacred’.



We Demand

Feb 11th, 2006 6:13 pm | By

Also sorry I missed that inspiring demo.

Several thousand Muslims turned out today to demonstrate against the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad – but the numbers were far lower than the 30,000 the organisers hoped would take part. They gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square holding banners proclaiming: “United Against Incitement And Islamophobia.”

Good about the numbers. Bad about the moral blackmail.

A series of speakers gathered to offer their support to the Muslim community but also to voice their opposition to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Jeremy Corbyn MP, a long-term protester against the war in Iraq, said: “The only way our community can survive is by showing mutual respect to each other. We demand that people show respect for each other’s community, each other’s faith and each other’s religion.”

As usual – ‘the’ Muslim community, as if every single Muslim thinks the same thought and breathes the same breath. And then the outrageous demand that we all show respect for all ‘faiths’ and religions. Do I have to respect the Raelians? The Branch Davidians? The late inhabitants of Jonestown? The Heaven’s Gate community? Is there any leeway at all for me to say ‘yes but this is all a load of codswallop and I don’t respect it in the least’?



The Whole World Belongs to Allah

Feb 11th, 2006 6:01 pm | By

Gee, I’m sorry I missed that show.

On Monday, the BBC program Newsnight gathered several Muslims, among them Anjem Choudary, who had organized that demonstration…He verbally abused the other speakers, denouncing one highly intelligent and personable woman, a Conservative candidate at the last election, as an unbeliever because her head was uncovered, and a man because he was clean-shaven. No, of course England didn’t belong to the English, Choudary insisted, or to any human inhabitants, “It belongs to Allah, the whole world belongs to Allah.” He prayed for “the domination of Islam” (“hopefully peacefully”) and looked forward to the day when “the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street.”

Yeah. Can’t wait. Can’t wait to live in a world where I’m not allowed to have my head uncovered, and where I have to take orders from thugs like that. Just cannot wait.

Apart from the demands of multiculturalism and “sensitivity,” there is a factor of which Americans may not be aware: The Labor Party in general and some MPs in particular, Cabinet ministers among them, are gravely concerned about the Muslim vote…Last Friday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that he supported free speech – you always know what the next conjunction is going to be – “but there is not an obligation to insult or to be unduly inflammatory.” This was a fine case of non sequitur meets category mistake…

So good-bye secularism and women’s rights on account of the Muslim vote. Spiffy.



Why Truth

Feb 10th, 2006 8:52 pm | By

So, Why Truth Matters is published. Jeremy received a copy of it a week ago, and he says the publishers have done a beautiful job. I was all excited, and looked forward to getting a copy too, rushing to the mailbox every day all eager for the treat, then feeling bitterly disappointed when it wasn’t there. By Wednesday I suspected and by yesterday I realized that I wasn’t getting one, so I asked the publishers if I could have one too, and they explained that they had only one and they sent it to Jeremy. They said they were sorry they couldn’t send me one too. Oh.

So I have it only on hearsay that the publishers have done a beautiful job, but I daresay it’s true. Jeremy made a page for it which includes extracts.



Demands

Feb 9th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

And not just threats, but also demands. Like this demand.

British imams have demanded changes in the law and a strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission code to outlaw any possible publication of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the UK.

That’s quite a demand. Quite a bold, confident, aggressive, demanding demand. I don’t think clerics and priests and rabbis and imams should make demands like that of secular societies.

Yesterday’s event, which involved imams and grassroots figures from throughout England and Scotland, marked the foundation of the Muslim Action Committee (MAC), whose leaders plan a continuous campaign to confront the alleged disparagement of Muslim communities and to call for “global civility”…Faiz Siddiqi, the MAC’s national convenor, said: “What is being called for is a change of culture. In any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult me’, you do not, out of respect for them.”

True. If you’re polite and reasonably kind, you don’t insult people. But in any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult Jesus’ or ‘don’t insult Spock’ or ‘don’t insult Aphrodite’ or ‘don’t insult Loki’ then that’s different. Siddiqi is confusing two completely different kinds of insult. That confusion of course is pervasive, and is a tool of coercion. But one could use the same logic about anything and everything, with the outcome that I keep pointing out: total mental paralysis. To be wearyingly repetitive, free speech isn’t free speech if it is forbidden to say anything offensive, and if one offensive thing is ruled out, why not all offensive things?



I Must Have Misplaced My Glasses

Feb 9th, 2006 6:36 pm | By

Correction, to something in ‘Lesson Time’. I didn’t notice this until well after I’d posted the comment, so I had a good opportunity to feel surprised and irritated at my own befuddlement. It’s like those games where an extra word is inserted in some familiar bit of doggerel, and we don’t notice it because we see what we expect to see. Only not very much like that, because I should have been paying better attention, seeing as how I was arguing with the content. Thanks to sloppy reading I agreed with an absurdity. Allow me to start again.

Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Really. Really? Illustrators refusing to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech? It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion? Really? (Now you see why I feel like such an idiot for not noticing that yesterday. [slaps self upside head]) So if people refuse to paint or say or write something for fear of reprisals, that’s not an attack on free speech? That’s odd, because it looks exactly like an attack on free speech. Unfortunately Werbner is right about the second part. It shouldn’t be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion, but it could be, and can be, and is being. That’s the upturned belly thing. People mouthing pieties about free speech while at the same time ordering everyone not to use it, and pasting the label ‘recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion’ over the whole malodorous mess. We’re living through the very situation Werbner describes: threats against free speech construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.



Lesson Time

Feb 8th, 2006 5:48 pm | By

Anthropologists are reliable sources of you have to understandism. Pnina Werbner does her bit.

There are some lessons (the British) learned from “The Satanic Verses” that I’m afraid others in Europe still need to learn. One of them is the simple lesson that blasphemy is a double-edged sword.

Okay, now it’s time for anthropologists to learn a simple lesson: words like ‘blasphemy’ and ‘haram’ and ‘apostasy’ don’t apply to people who don’t subscribe to the religion in question. It’s a rather disgusting form of coercion to pretend that they do.

But there was no gain on either side in terms of reaching mutual tolerance or understanding. The novel just inflamed peoples’ feelings – Muslims felt they had been disrespected and their feelings disregarded.

Another simple lesson for anthropologists. Here it is. So what. Is every novel ever written supposed to respect the feelings – the alleged feelings, the attributed feelings, the assumed feelings, the guessed-at in advance feelings – of ‘Muslims’? If so, does that apply to the feelings of everyone? Might that be a tall order? Such a tall order that compliance would simply shut down novel-writing entirely? And by extension all writing and all thought? Do you really – academic that you are – want to say that ‘feelings’ about writings should necessarily be respected? If you do, I think you’re an imbecile. That’s a simple lesson.

The Satanic Verses affair taught people in Britain a lesson about the depth of religious feelings among Muslims. Although the affair died down, it remains an underlying, painful memory for British Muslims even today.

Yes. It did. And not only people in Britain – people over here, too, and other places as well. It taught us the lesson that religious zealots were willing to threaten and kill people over a novel they didn’t like. It taught us to fear and despise people like that. It did not, however, teach us to admire or respect or love or think good the ‘depth of religious feelings among Muslims’. It’s not clear whether Werbner grasped that part of the lesson or not.

Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Yes, it could, and that is a good thing why, exactly? Because all ‘sacred taboos’ are benign and harmless? Are they?

It is a matter of having some kind of voluntary understanding – one that says that the price one pays for a sort of entertaining bit of journalism is not worth it because there are people who will feel genuinely offended. It is difficult for us Westerners with our secular upbringing to understand and sympathize with the depth of feeling of believers. Their passionate belief is puzzling and alien to us.

Here’s another simple lesson. We’re not required to sympathize. Understand, yes, but sympathize, no. I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling that motivates school boards to order science teachers to read religious statements to their students, or to murder abortion doctors, just as I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling of Nazis or Fred Phelps of ‘God Hates Fags’ or people who think Howdy Doody is God’s messenger. I don’t, and I don’t have to. Sympathy is not the right subject here, because the beliefs in question have content, and we are allowed to evaluate the content. We are not obliged to give sight-unseen unconditional pre-judgment sympathy to any and all feelings provided they are deep enough, and as a matter of fact we ought not to do that, we ought to do the opposite. That’s not hard to understand, is it? Even for us with our secular upbringing that makes it so hard for us to understand things?



Ask the Women

Feb 8th, 2006 4:49 pm | By

Yes. I wondered about this a great deal at the time.

Girls do not figure in this “youth uprising”. Stones were thrown in Paris in 1968, too. But the barricades were occupied by men and women, even if the leaders were all men…It is all the more surprising that alongside the justified focus in the French and international press on the issue of racism, the sexism or machismo of these riots has barely been touched on.

Exactly. The riots were discussed as if they were – in however noisy or violent or overenthusiastic a way – representative of Muslim feeling in general. But why assume that? Why not think a little harder and realize that the rioters are all young males, and that not all Muslims are young males, and that violent young males don’t necessarily represent anyone but themselves? And especially, they don’t represent women.

The girls and women in these areas have long been living in fear. As well as being victims of violence within their own families more frequently than the average French woman, they are also at greater risk on the street. The Islamist-influenced boys and men divide women into two categories: saints and whores. The saints stay at home, the whores go out into the world. And they are made to pay. The price ranges from brutal street robberies, that affect women with striking frequency, through to what is called the ‘rotonde’: the form of gang rape to which Kahina’s sister Sohane was also subjected…[W]hen it gets dark and the rioting begins, there is not a single woman left on the streets. For on fiery nights like these, the “whores” are in just as much danger as the “sons of whores”.

Why did that go so unmentioned last autumn? Because it would or could have been seen as defending the discrimination and deprivation of the banlieus? Maybe. But that doesn’t do the girls and women much good, and they are after all half the people in question.

I did hear something about it on the BBC quite recently – well after the riots – a month or so ago, on the World Service, which irritates me so often. A reporter did an in-depth story on the subject, and talked to a group of girls at a community center. Why was it only young men in the riots? the reporter asked them. Because they don’t think, the girls said, they don’t think about what they’re doing, they just react, they don’t care if they hurt people or destroy things. There wasn’t a trace of sympathy or solidarity or admiration in their voices; they didn’t see the rioters as activists working for their betterment; they saw them as a lot of silly violent jerks. And then the reporter asked about male dominance in general, and those girls cut loose. They are angry, and it’s the men around them they’re angry at. ‘Our honour is in our bodies,’ one girl said indignantly. ‘Our bodies are our honour – they don’t belong to us.’

It’s extremely odd that commentary by outsiders so often – so nearly always – assumes that ‘Muslims’ all have the same basic interests and all think and feel as one. This kind of gulf isn’t small or trivial, yet it gets ignored. Very, very odd. Also stupid. Women may be the only hope.



Careful

Feb 8th, 2006 2:35 am | By

The credulity-straining oxymoronism continues. You have freedom of speech but only if you don’t use it; you used it; you’re fired; also, we all hate you.

A student editor at the University of Cardiff found out his mistake when he published one of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Somebody really ought to test his urine – what other explanation could there be?

A student union spokeswoman said Tom Wellingham, the editor of the paper, which won newspaper of the year at last year’s Guardian’s Student Media Awards, had been suspended alongside three other journalists. “The editorial team enjoy the normal freedoms and independence associated with the press in the UK, and are expected to exercise those freedoms with responsibility, due care and judgment,” she said.

There you are – you can’t say fairer than that. The editorial team enjoy the normal freedoms and independence associated with the press in the UK, so if they publish anything blasphemous and offensive, out they go. Obviously ‘normal freedoms and independence’ has nothing whatever to do with publishing anything that would offend anyone – good heavens, what an idea! Great hopping Christ almighty, newspapers mustn’t offend people! Fuck, no! Not ever; not under any; not no matter how much; not possibly. No, no, no. Everything that appears in a newspaper must be as anodyne and bland and blancmange-like and pallid and limp and devoid of interest or excitement and emollient and soothing as a warm bath to the tune of a lullaby. Obviously. Because looky here, newspapers go into people’s houses, I mean their homes, their lovely tasteful homes, where they eat and sleep and have family values. Newspapers can go into family rooms! Do you realize that? They can go right straight into family rooms, and be seen by family people, who would be upset and distraught and all twisted up inside if they saw something offensive. Had you thought of that? No, I didn’t think so. Well I bet it makes things look a little different, doesn’t it! It makes it pretty dang obvious why nothing offensive can go in newspapers. That still leaves plenty that can. Recipes, and how to make the home look pretty (Martha Stewarty kind of thing), and sports (if there aren’t drugs or swearing or rape or – well maybe not so much sports), and nice cartoons, like that nice Family Circus, and what’s on tv, if it’s not too offensive. That’s plenty.

The students’ union very much regrets any upset caused or disrespect shown by the publication of the controversial cartoon and has taken immediate action by promptly withdrawing all copies of this week’s edition of Gair Rhydd at the earliest moment possible.

Because that’s what you do when something in a newspaper offends anyone – you yank it back quick as winking, and then you tear it up into little tiny minuscule pieces, and you give them to the gerbils. Always. Every time. One peep from Someone Offended, and into the chipper that edition goes.

The students’ union has launched an investigation into how the images came to be published in the paper, which has a potential readership of more than 21,000 students.

Good. Good, good. I feel so reassured. I feel so much happier and more peaceful. Otherwise I would wonder – how, how, how could such a thing happen? Not because the editor wanted to publish something that was in the news – of course not! So how then? But it’s all right, because the union has launched (with a bottle of champagne, I hope) an investigation. I hope they have the handcuffs in reach at all times.

Local councillor Joe Carter, whose Cathays constituency houses the students’ union, described the publication of the cartoon as a “controversial and risky manoeuvre. They were wise to pull it but I’m surprised they ran it in the first place. There’s a very strong argument about freedom of the press versus tolerance of religion. We have to have tolerance of people’s views and culture,” he told icwales.co.uk.

There’s a very strong argument, which can be decided in only one way – so it’s actually not so much an argument, as a piece of dogma. We have to have tolerance of people’s views and culture – because if we don’t, there’s that beheading thing.

Ashgar Ali, the chairman of Cardiff’s Medina mosque, criticised the publication. “You can’t play with someone’s religion,” he told the website. “The Muslim students at the university are going to be upset. Pulling it as soon as possible was the right thing to do.”

You can’t play with someone’s religion. You can’t upset people. So no coverage of war, politics, the arts, economics, science – nothing that will upset people. That would lead to mere anarchy of the press. Understand?