Notes and Comment Blog


I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found

May 1st, 2005 2:07 am | By

Wow. If you can read this story without getting choked or moved or stirred or some other way shaken, you’re a stronger man than I am, Gunga Din. But then I’m a sucker for resurrection stories.

The spectacular ivory-billed woodpecker, which was declared extinct in 1920, has been found alive in North America, Science magazine reports. The news has stunned ornithologists worldwide, with some comparing the discovery to finding the dodo…The find has ignited hope that other “extinct” birds may be clinging on to survival in isolated places. “This find is so significant that it is really difficult to describe,” Alistair Gammell, of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told BBC News. “We sadly won’t rediscover the dodo, but it is almost on that level.” Frank Gill, of the US National Audubon Society, added: “This is huge, just huge. It is kind of like finding Elvis.”

I love the idea of ornithologists worldwide being stunned. For once I’m not being sarky, I really do. It’s kind of thrilling. (If you’re not careful I’ll tell you about the time I went along on a zoo field trip to release a couple of rehabilitated [after injury] bald eagles into the wild. That was thrilling, if you like.)

The discovery was first made on 11 February 2004, by Gene Sparling, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who was kayaking in a reserve in Big Woods. He saw an unusually large red-crested woodpecker fly towards him and land on a nearby tree. He said the creature did not look quite like anything he had seen before, so he contacted Cornell University’s Living Bird magazine. After a team of experts interviewed him, they felt they might be onto something special.

See? The suspense builds. There they are, that team of experts, eyeing each other and thinking ‘…Could it be? It sounds like – but surely – but could it be?’ Quaking with excitement, I’ll bet.

John Fitzpatrick, of Cornell University, headed the search party, which included Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird. Within a month, Dr Gallagher had seen the ivory-billed woodpecker for himself. Describing the moment he first set eyes on it, he said: “Just to think this bird made it into the 21st Century gives me chills. “It’s like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave.”

Laugh at me if you like, but I love that story! Imagine that moment – when he first set eyes on it! I don’t care what you say. It’s thrilling.

Update. There you are. I wrote that before I saw the Telegraph story.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama, interviewed Sparling and they were so convinced that they went back to the same bayou. On Feb 27 a large bird flew less than 70ft in front of Gallagher and Harrison, who together cried “ivory-bill!” “When we finished our notes,” Gallagher said, “Bobby sat on a log and began to sob, saying, ‘I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'” Gallagher said he was too choked with emotion to speak.

‘Ivory-bill!’ I was choked just reading the BBC story; imagine what it would have been like to be there and see it. ‘Ivory-bill!’



Wormwood Scrubs For Me, Thanks

Apr 28th, 2005 9:16 pm | By

Really, it is a wonder that anyone goes into teaching, and even more of one that anyone stays. It sounds a hell of a lot worse than being a prison guard.

‘One of the most important things about Classroom Chaos is that the schools were chosen randomly by Thomas’s supply teacher agencies, and most had been identified by Ofsted as being average or better than average,’ he said.
‘The situation was so constant that we can confidently say anti-social behaviour is an everyday reality in classrooms across Britain,’ he added. ‘It is an appalling situation and one which must not be allowed to continue: education is being strangled.’

Lest you think it’s any better in the US, it’s not. I have friends who’ve gone into teaching and gone right back out again, it was so hellish. I have other friends who’ve stayed, but they live with a lot of frustration.

Thomas estimates that, on average, she failed to teach anything at all in four out of six lessons a day. Experienced teachers to whom she spoke confirmed that they lose around two to three months a year of effective teaching through struggling to control antisocial classroom behaviour…Thomas assumed the fault must lie with her teaching methods until she asked heads of departments to visit her classes and found her efforts were praised. ‘It was when I heard lessons being taught by full-time teachers whose pupils were just as loud as mine, and who were having to shout at them just as much as I was, that I realised the state of my classrooms was normal,’ she said.

Teachers comment on this article, one confirmation after another. It’s a depressing read.

Update: link now added. How absent-minded I am…Probably my teachers’ fault.



Hold the Irony

Apr 27th, 2005 8:07 pm | By

Michael Lynch has a terrific article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed – about liberalism and passion and communitarianism, and truth, commitment, relativism, Rawls and comprehensive liberalism, and the fact that liberals do in fact have actual commitments, that they can argue and defend with passion.

Social conservatives have long argued that progressive liberals, in trumpeting individual rights, ignore traditional communities as a source of value…But as the neocons are well aware, traditional family values frequently clash with liberal values…Some traditional communities are rife with intolerant oppression — precisely the sort of thing that enlightenment liberalism is presumably meant to combat. Surely liberals needn’t tolerate intolerance.
Walzer valiantly attempts to deal with that concern. But in the end, his principle argument is resistible. Consider a hypothetical local religious community that does not value equal education for boys and girls. According to Walzer, if we are to compel our traditional community to educate its girls, we shouldn’t appeal to individual rights; we should appeal to the pragmatic demands of citizenship.

No thanks. I don’t want to defend my right to read any books that men read on the basis that I’m more useful to the state that way, I want to defend it precisely on the basis of individual equal rights. I want to defend it on the same basis I used to defend my rights as the youngest of three children: ‘It’s not fair!’ Fairness, and the sense of it and of its lack, is not some kind of gilding or cake frosting; it’s central to having a reasonably healthy sense of how we fit in the world. If we’re systematically and formally given inferior treatment, we either think we deserve it, or become twisted with rage, or both.*

In my view, the reason that liberals are sometimes perceived as passionless isn’t because liberal values are in need of a communitarian correction. The reason is that some liberals misunderstand, and therefore misrepresent, their own values. In particular, they misunderstand their values in a way that has made them wary of describing their own moral position as true. And that is bad. For once you cease thinking of your values — your fundamental moral beliefs — as objectively true, it is hard to even think of them as values at all. And without political values, there simply is no place for political passion.

The worry is that if you think your values are true you immediately turn into Bob Jones III, or perhaps Pope Rottweiler.

In recoiling from that position, some left-leaning thinkers have argued that liberals need to adopt what the philosopher Richard Rorty calls an “ironic” attitude toward our own liberal principles. If we want to be truly tolerant, the thought goes, we need to stop seeing liberal views about equality and tolerance as objective moral truths. Instead, we should see them as morally neutral. Otherwise, we risk being intolerant about tolerance.

Yeah. I don’t want to be truly tolerant. I have no desire to be tolerant of people who throw petrol bombs at marathons because women are allowed to run in them. I want them to stop doing that, and go away and stop telling women what to do. Sometimes tolerance just isn’t the right tool for the job in hand.

As philosophers like Joseph Raz have argued, liberalism isn’t value-neutral, nor should it be. Liberal values like tolerance and equality are just that — liberal values, neither merely “true for us” nor ethically inert. Rather, they are part of a particularly liberal ideal of the good life — an abstract ideal but an ideal nonetheless.

Yup. Ideals are good things. Funny, I just dug up a quotation a couple of hours ago in which Franz Boas called himself (in a letter to his sister) an ‘unregenerate idealist.’ I like unregenerate idealists. Boas’ idealism led to some unfortunate epistemic consequences in anthropology, but he was a mensch. Not an ironic mensch, just a mensch.

*This doesn’t apply to the treatment I received as the youngest of three children. Such gross injustices as not being allowed to put my feet on the sofa, and not getting to sit in the front seat of the car, when my brother and sister were and did, were gradually rectified over the years. I got over it.



The Struggle Continues

Apr 27th, 2005 7:24 pm | By

Well at least some people are fighting back. I sure do hope they succeed.

Placard-waving women protesting against the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan demonstrated outside the national parliament yesterday after a mob attacked female runners. The attack has spurred worries about the growing influence of Islamic extremists.
A week ago baton-wielding men threw petrol bombs and torched vehicles at a mini-marathon in Gujranwala…

Which was one of the first to allow women to participate. Can’t have that. Women are things, sluts, devils, son-factories, and on all those counts they must not be allowed to – well, do anything, really.

“This has got to stop,” said a protester, Aisha Shaukat, outside parliament yesterday. “These mullahs want us to just stay home, have children and God knows what else.” She stood before a placard that read: “The obscenity is in your mind.” Others handed out leaflets saying: “We the citizens condemn this Talibanisation”. Newspaper columnists and other critics have made frequent comparisons between the social agenda of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a powerful alliance of Islamic political parties spearheading the rise of the religious right in Pakistan, and the Taliban.

God know what else all right: nothing. Stay home, have children, and nothing else. That’s the goal. The plan for women is to make them nothing, and their lives nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. That’s what the black bags are all about: to make them look as much as possible like an ambulatory negation. An absence. A blank.

The Gujranwala race was attacked by supporters of the MMA. Since gaining control of the provincial government in North West Frontier Province two years ago, the MMA has banned music and dancing in public, torn down advertising billboards featuring women, and introduced gender segregation on college campuses…”Marathons are not objectionable – as long as the menfolk and womenfolk run separately,” said Syed Munawar Hassan, a senior MMA leader. “Every society is not an American or western society. We have our own package of values.”

Who’s we, bub? Not all Pakistanis want your package of values. That’s why you’re resorting to petrol bombs.



Why

Apr 26th, 2005 7:18 pm | By

So what is going on here? Why is this issue not on the radar?

David Hadley asks:

…within these oppressive religious regimes – in this case strict Islam – there is a form of sexual apartheid too. Where women don’t even get the luxury of being even second-class citizens. Which makes me wonder why none of the left-wing ‘progressive’ media are calling for sanctions and boycotts of these regimes.

Surely it is a great cause for them to rally behind, isn’t it?

Karl adds:

there’s that post-colonial guilt thing going on. Women’s rights, gay rights, individual rights–they’re all so modern and western. They’re all undermining those fragile traditional cultures and turning everyone into atomized consumers who exist without real purpose in shiny soulless Corporate World. Sympathy is reserved for those proud noble tribesmen who are fighting to preserve their unique cultural heritage.

Karl nailed it, I think. It’s the authenticity thing. I was pondering this the other day – why do right-on people feel slightly (or sometimes more than slightly) uneasy about rationalist atheist feminist people from Third World countries when they don’t feel that way about atheists, rationalists, feminists from First World countries? I think it is a guilt thing. The background idea (generally, I think, not very carefully thought about or examined, as background ideas often aren’t, which is why we call them background ideas, hence one that may be vulnerable to argument, eventually) that rationalism etc are ‘Western’ importations and contaminations; that they are not authentic. I think the background idea behind that background idea is a vague postcolonialist guilt about taking away distant people’s authenticity. This relies, of course, on the still further background idea that irrational and anti-rational ideas are natural and authentic while the other kind are not (or else some even weirder idea that they’re in the DNA of Western people and not that of Third World people). I think this is an easy idea to slide into – I think I used to do it myself, hence this hypothesis is partly an extrapolation from my own lumber room of formless unexamined assumptions. I suppose we have some sort of mental picture of rationalist atheist (that’s inaccurate of course, but that’s just it) thrusting capitalist imperialism from The West injecting itself as if from a giant syringe or sexual organ into the irrationalist theist traditionalist rural homogeneous Nonwest. And of that Nonwest as uniformly and consistently Different – Other, you know – from The West, therefore (by definition) not rationalist or atheist or feminist, because those are all items in the syringe. A mental picture of the Third World as something rather like the way women used to be conceptualised – shapeless, formless, chaotic, swirling, opaque, mysterious, and above all uniformly and everywhere completely different from the invading exploiting uninvited imperialists.

In other words, I think there is a tendency to assume that for instance feminism is an importation from the West and that therefore it is, one, not authentic, and two, a contamination. It’s almost a kind of touristy idea. We don’t go to Bombay or Jakarta to eat at McDonald’s, and we don’t go there to encounter rationalist feminists of the kind we could find on any corner in Camden Town or Cambridge. Nosir. When we go abroad, god damn it, we want our exoticism, we want authentic traditionalism and primitivsm. Well, hey, what could be more primitive than oppression of women? Hah? Not much.

And there’s a feeling that it’s too easy. That’s another outcropping of the postcolonialist guilt thing. It’s too easy for us to prefer our own ideas. What’s difficult is to force ourselves to accept the things that trouble us. It’s easy to eat unfamiliar food, but to accept unfamiliar morality, that’s not so easy. So, people often unfortunately conclude, because this acceptance is difficult, therefore it is the right thing to do. Uh oh. Red flag. Wrong, Wrong, wrong, wrong. Look – the mere fact that it is difficult for us to accept that the oppression of women is okay, does not mean that it is in fact okay. It’s not a useful moral exercise for us to force ourselves to think that cruelty and deprivation are good things. That ‘too easy’ thought is one that should put people on alert. It may be a useful insight, and the starting point for asking ‘why do I think this particular idea or taboo is right?’ but it may also be a disastrous starting point for accepting horrors.

Of course all this is all wrong anyway. It simply assumes that only one kind of thinking, one kind of morality, is ‘authentic,’ and that others are importations and injections. But that’s nonsense. The West has no monopoly on rationalism and feminism (and it could be considered quite arrogant and Eurocentric and ethnocentric to think it does) and the Nonwest has no monopoly on irrationalism and antifeminism. Ideas don’t have DNA, and they don’t have passports. Anybody can think of anything. It’s insulting and ridiculous to think or even assume that atheists and feminists from Iran or Pakistan or anywhere else are the slightest bit less ‘authentic’ than misogynist theists are. So get over it, already. Tariq Ramadan is not more ‘authentic’ than Azam Kamguian, any more than the BJP is more ‘authentic’ than Amartya Sen. The ideas need to be judged on their merits. The oppression and subordination of women does not become more noble or acceptable because it’s enacted by ‘devout’ Muslims, any more than the oppression and subordination of dalits becomes more noble or acceptable because it’s enacted by ‘devout’ Hindus. Authenticity is an idea whose time has gone.



Cultural Highlights

Apr 26th, 2005 2:03 am | By

And a little more again, about that conference at the UN, because Azam sent me the link to this Commission on Human Rights report, and it has more detail than the news articles. You should read it.

Ms. Azam Kamguian from Iran was the first speaker in the session on ‘Infidels and Apostates’. She started by describing her own experience; growing up with an all powerful and pious father. The temptation to subordinate her being to God was very strong but when she was an adolescent she decided that she did not need religion to tell her who she was. “Even though I left Islam, I had to live with it”, she stated.
According to an extremist interpretation of the Sharia Law, the greatest sin is disbelief. Non-believers and atheists do not have the right to life and apostasy is punishable by death. There was a case where a man was executed for having converted his wife. Even in the academic community, discussions of the Koran are considered to be taboo. According to Ms. Kamguian, Islam should be subject to criticism. Currently, if someone criticizes Islam in Iran they face death.

Yep, it’s hard to disagree with the statement that Islam should be subject to criticism, as should any other religion. But…it’s not a news flash that criticism of Islam is not exactly popular in a lot of right-on circles. In fact it’s taboo. So deafening silence greets conferences like this one. Where is the Guardian, eh?

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the “freedom to change religion or belief”. Mr. Ibn Warraq observed the discrepancy between this standard and the situation in Muslim countries. He first described the evolution of Islam in regard to its position on apostates. The Koran prescribes condemnation for apostates only in the next world, but this has evolved to mean those who change religion must be killed. In some countries, such as Sudan and Mauritania, the penal code provides the death penalty for apostasy. Also, Muslim theologians are aware that apostasy can tempt Muslim women to free themselves from Sharia law and they have taken measures to prevent this from happening. In fighting causes of apostasy and bringing changes to the Muslim world, Mr. Warraq sees one solution: “without any post-colonial guilt, we must defend our values. We still have freedom of expression and the right to criticize Islam”. In this sense, publications in the West are very important in helping populations in Islamic countries.

Aren’t they though. So isn’t it too bad they aren’t helping. Because of post-colonial guilt, no doubt. How depressing it is…

Ms. Fourest listed three main reasons why Muslim extremism is more threatening today. First, Muslim movements compete by rejecting and resisting western modernization. This, in turn, encourages them to add extreme elements to their religion, such as the veil or genital mutilation. These used not to be commonplace, but now “the veil has become almost the sixth pillar of Islam”, she stated. Second, the degree of secularization in Muslim states is non-existent. On that point, Ms. Fourest drew a comparison. Jewish women in Mea Shearim may face the same oppression as those of Tehran, but the former have access to justice, whereas the latter will be put in jail by the state itself. The third factor, mostly playing in places where Islam is a minority religion, is cultural relativism. The minority is expected to continue its “cultural” practices, including wearing the veil, genital mutilations or stoning, for the “folklore”, Ms. Fourest said. Indeed, cultural relativism is a real danger and must be addressed first, since it deprives those who are fighting extremism of the support that progressive humanists should grant them.

Exactly. Cultural relativism deprives those who are fighting extremism of the support that progressive humanists should grant them. Indeed it does. It never stops surprising me how completely this subject gets ignored.

Finally, Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, member of the Dutch Parliament and women’s rights activist, recalled all the discriminations and atrocities suffered by Muslim women in the world. These include the need to be granted permission by a man in order to leave the house; the right of men to divorce their wives by repeating ‘I divorce you’ three times; wearing the veil; inheriting less than men and feminine genital mutilations. “The only way out is education. We must stop financing faith based schools in Europe”, Ms. Hirsi Ali said.

And Hirsi Ali has to have police protection, and, if you remember, has to live in hotels away from her desk and books and papers; she can’t work, her life has been trashed. But – hey – that’s their culture.



For Example

Apr 24th, 2005 8:12 pm | By

A little more about that meeting and press conference at the UN last week. It’s interesting that one of the available articles is from the CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – since Canada has some ‘issues’ itself on this stuff, as regular readers of B&W know. Homa Arjomand has been working tirelessly to oppose the introduction of Sharia law in Ontario, but Ontario in its wisdom has not changed its decision. Ontario should have been at the UN last Monday. Ontario needs to pay attention.

Hirsi Ali, a Somali immigrant who has become a prominent women’s advocate in the Dutch parliament, said European countries have to accept that women are more threatened within Muslim communities than in their wider secular societies. Governments must take measures to protect these vulnerable women, even if such action is deemed culturally insensitive to the Islamic community or leads to accusations of anti-Muslim bias, she said. “If you look at the women’s shelters in the Netherlands, the majority of the victims are women from non-Western countries and the majority of them are Muslim women,” she said. “Liberal democratic governments are not interfering because they argue that that’s their culture,” she added.

And if they’re Ontario they go beyond not interfering, and actually help. Not clever. Not even all that culturally sensitive, really. Culturally sensitive toward fundamentalists who want to push women around, but damn insensitive toward the women who don’t want to be pushed. Odd to take the side of the former rather than the latter, isn’t it.

Respecting cultural diversity is really a form of “upside-down racism,” preventing immigrant women from enjoying the same freedom and protection as native European women, said Iranian activist Azam Kamguian. While Europe pays lip service to universal human rights, it is in reality “bribing Islamic countries and Islamists to give up terrorism and then saying the rest is OK,” Kamguian said. By turning a blind eye to Islam’s hostility toward homosexuality and Jews, European governments are buying “a one-way ticket to the Middle Ages,” Hirsi Ali said.

And they don’t even get frequent flier miles. Not clever and not even smart shopping.

Homa gives an example.

In communities where Sharia law interferes with people’s lives, family problems are not simply disagreements between a man and a woman and who gets what. In fact, private matters and religion are closely linked together. To make my point clear, I would like to present one case study I have come across in my social work. I have a client in Toronto who was taken out of school by her parents at the age of 15 and forced to marry a 29 year old man; according to Sharia, she is married whilst under the Canadian legal system she is not. At the age of 16, this young pregnant girl is going through separation because of domestic abuse. In a secular court, the fact that she was forced to marry at a young age is considered a crime and her husband will be charged for assault and child abuse. As for her parents, they too will be charged. The Children’s Aid Society will get involved and if they have any other children younger than 16, all will be moved out to the Aid Society’s care. While in the eyes of the Sharia tribunal no crime has taken place and the matter is a civil one, which can be resolved by the Islamic tribunal, under the modern secular system of Canada, the child will be immediately protected and the abusers prosecuted.

Cultural sensitivity, eh?



Monday in New York

Apr 23rd, 2005 10:33 pm | By

I wish I’d been in New York last Monday. I wish I could have dropped in on the UN. I’d have liked to attend (if they were open to the public) the press conference or the seminar or both. All the more since two of the participants have contributed articles to B&W.

The main global humanist organisation and a group of former Muslims on Monday accused European countries of ignoring violations of human rights in their Islamic communities to preserve “multi-culturalism”…”Yet in Europe many women find themselves subject to domestic violence, undergo forced marriages or are even killed by family members because of some belief that they have tarnished the family honour,” Brown declared. That view was echoed later by three ex-Muslims and self-described atheists — Somali-born Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Iranian exile rights activist Azam Kamguian and historian of Islam Ibn Warraq — and French sociologist Caroline Fourest.

How I wish I’d been there. In the front row, taking notes, with a video camera, and a tape recorder, and a stenographer.

Hirsi Ali, who fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, told the news conference she condemned “the moral relativism in Europe whereby women from Third World countries do not enjoy the same freedoms as native European women enjoy”…Kamguian, a former political prisoner and women’s activist in Iran, who now lives in London, said this “cultural relativism” in Europe and Canada “was upside-down racism” which denied the universality of human rights, especially for women….Fourest, author of several books on religious extremism, told the seminar on the fringes of the commission that sexism and oppression of women “are the main values shared by fundamentalists of all three monotheist religions.”

Exactly. As the dear Vatican made so unambiguous the other day.

She told the news conference a resolution from Islamic states on “defamation of religion” passed by the commission last week was in line with efforts by the Catholic Church and other faiths to protect religion from criticism.

Oh, perfect – just what the world needs. UN resolutions protecting religion from criticism. For every Azam Kamguian and Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq there are whole football stadiums full of religion-protecters and multiculturalists telling them to shut up or else. This story didn’t exactly receive blanket coverage, one can’t help noticing.



Whoology?

Apr 23rd, 2005 2:40 am | By

So now we find we don’t even know what theology is. Or that maybe we don’t. Or that maybe we know what it is in some places but not in others, and that it may depend on whether the department has changed its name or not.

Names have a lot to do with it, in fact. I’ve always assumed that theology was a different sort of discipline from comparative religion, history of religion, sociology of religion and the like. Atheists and secularists can perfectly well study the latter items, but I’ve always taken it for granted that the first would be something of a bad fit. By definition. That only theists can be theologians. But apparently that’s not a universally accepted fact.

But theology does apparently start from the assumption that there are good reasons for believing in God, for instance the evidence of the natural world. That’s why I say names have a lot to do with it. Because I can see thinking there is at least a question about how the natural world got here, and why there is something rather than nothing; and I can see thinking there must be or should be an X that caused it all (though of course I would then wonder what created the X, and get stuck, as I always do – but never mind that for now). But I have serious difficulties with calling it God. God is a person. God is a guy’s name, and the guy is a character with specific qualities and a particular history. God is a proper name the way Allah is a name and Jhwh is a name and Zeus is a name. God is a local, parochial, familiar kind of fella, quite human but more powerful. He’s not the kind of thing that could create the cosmos – any more than Huckleberry Finn could have created it, or than Emma Woodhouse, or M. Homais, or Werther, or Hedda Gabler could have. We might as well all think our cats created the cosmos. It’s just too local, and too human, and too literary.

But that’s not what’s meant by God, God is the First Cause, or the Unmoved Mover, or another name for the Big Bang. But, one, no he isn’t. You can’t use the same name for two completely different things like that – it causes hopeless confusion. Like an underground map with all the stations put in wrong. You’d be getting out at Turnham Green when you wanted Belsize Park. And, two, if that is what God means, why name it God, why not just stick with the Big Bang, or with ‘whatever made all this happen’? Or X? Since nobody knows the answer to those questions – since whatever explanation is given we can always say something like ‘yes but what about just before that?’ or ‘yes but where did all this happen?’ – what is gained by labeling it God? I really don’t see it.

Especially if there is an X that made it all happen (as in some sense there is, though what that sense is, God only knows – well not him, but X, or gravity, or something) then it’s a pretty, well, exotic X. It’s not our kind of thing. Not friendly, or consoling, or helpful, or something to sing hymns to. Write poetry about, possibly, but sing to, no. It could be just…a lot of code. Probably is. We are, so maybe it is. Just code. Not Mind, not Conscious, certainly not feeling. It doesn’t love us, or anything else. Or it’s just something like gravity or energy. It’s not…a guy. Not even a very very big very very clever one. It just isn’t. And what people think when they hear the word ‘God’ is definitely a person. Not some code. Am I right? Theology doesn’t mean codeology. Theologians don’t think of themselves as students of code or of the Big Bang. So why call it God? So as not to have to make a whole lot of new name tapes, I suppose.



Job Description

Apr 21st, 2005 8:20 pm | By

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Revision is so difficult. I mentioned that the other day, didn’t I. But it is. It’s hard. It’s like…trying to unknit a bit of a sweater and then knit it up again. It’s like trying to pick through a large pot of chili or minestrone, picking out grains of rice of a particular length. It’s like trying to re-weave a broken spider’s web. It’s like trying to take individual crumbs out of a piece of bread without having the piece of bread fall to bits. It’s – it’s – it’s –

Pause for prolonged scream and bout of self-administered hair-pulling.

I’ve been staring at this same paragraph at intervals for an hour or more. I have to re-write it, and somehow I can’t summon the strength. I’m weak, I’m feeble, I’m a poor wandering erring mortal. I think I’ll convert to Catholicism.

Or maybe not.

The one thing the new pope stands for is hierarchy, and the resolute suppression of anything like democracy within the church. In particular, the opinions of educated lay people are to be shunned – a loathing which is heartily reciprocated. The only time I ever saw him, at a lecture he gave in Cambridge, some of the theology faculty boycotted the event in protest against his treatment of inquiry within their discipline.

Of course, the question immediately occurs to me, what kind of ‘inquiry’ goes on in theology? What kind of ‘discipline’ is theology? But maybe that’s a damn-fool ignorant question. Maybe there really is real inquiry. Maybe there is good empirical evidence for theology, and I’ve just never heard of it. To me it sounds like inquiry in Peter Panology, or Spockology, or Dr Whoology. But then I’ve never studied theology. (Though I did once take a course in Church history, when I was at university. Taught by a priest, too. That was odd…) But leaving all that aside, it’s interesting that theologians find Ratzinger anti-inquiry. If they think so, what would the rest of us think, I wonder.

The fear of change can make perfect sense. If you believe that the Catholic church can only maintain its hold on human minds by force and fraud, then electing the man who used to run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the bureaucratic guarantor of Catholic doctrine – is a natural thing to do. The road to the top in the Kremlin, after all, used to be through the KGB. But to follow the same logic is an odd process for faithful Catholics.

Hmmmyes and no. That’s part of the nature of Catholicism, after all. That’s why Luther ended up knocking it all over instead of just reforming it. It really is about central authority and being told what to believe. That’s not to say it’s not possible to be a Catholic and ignore all that, because of course it is. (Those Catholics feel a bit queasy right now, I gather.) But it does mean that the Vatican is what it is, and not something else. It’s not an anti-hierarchical type organization, pretty much by definition. If it’s anti-hierarchical it might just as well pack up the stoles and incense and break camp. Being anti-hierarchical ain’t what it’s there for.

I wish Ratzinger would drop in to say hi and revise this paragraph for me.



Strange Alliances

Apr 21st, 2005 3:42 am | By

Harry’s Place is always very good value, you know. Each item posted is one you want to know more about. This one is certainly interesting.

At last week’s NUS conference, the AWL reports that the SWP joined the islamist Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) – a Muslim Association of Britain front – in a walkout when guest speaker Houzan Mahmoud addressed the Conference.
Why would the SWP join FOSIS in a walkout?…Her key error appears to have been that she is the UK head of the anti-occupation Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq which is a vocal opponent of Islamism. The fact that she has campaigned to bring human rights abuses by US and UK troops to public attention wasn’t sufficient to save her from the walkout; she evidently blotted her copybook by condemning the Baathist and Islamist terrorists for which the SWP cheerlead.

How repulsive. I wish Trotsky could come back and slap them upside the head. If you want to cheer yourselves up, take a look at the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.



Cult Studs

Apr 19th, 2005 11:31 pm | By

Okay, we need a little amusement to cheer us up after hearing the news about the pope. Although some people are pointing out that it’s good news really: that it’s the Vatican shooting itself in the foot, that now people will realize how authoritarian it is after all. But I don’t know – I’m never very convinced by that kind of thing. Partly because it never seems to happen. People seem so happy to say ‘Oh how sweet, a nice authoritarian pope again.’

So we could do with a laugh. I know I could. I’m wrestling with revisions, and I’m finding this patch a struggle. Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, I’m having to drag them out by force, one at a time. I much prefer it when I get an idea and just re-write a page or two in one go. But on the other hand, I can always cheer myself up enormously by reflecting that I’m not having to revise such utter unmitigated bollocks as this:

What I will focus on here is Butler’s critique in Precarious Life of Georgio Agamben’s concept of the “homo sacer,” or “bare life,” which identifies the discursive limits of the Foucauldian concept of power as the sovereign exception over biopolitical life. I will argue that Butler, whose concept of the performative subject presupposes power to be the totalizing ground by which human subjects are made intelligible, perhaps unfairly rejects Agamben’s critique. His critique of power, I will argue, is much more in dialogue with Butler than she seems to allow, and arguably raises the stakes of Butlerian identity politics by illuminating the possibility that certain political subjects can be – in fact are necessarily, according to Agamben – erased entirely from biopower relations, or humanity itself, through what Agamben calls the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life.

Good stuff, don’t you think? Notice, just for one thing, how the hapless reviewer uses the identical emptily pompous phrase – ‘the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life’ – twice in the space of two sentences. (Okay not absolutely identical – he adds a word in the second appearance.) But notice more, oh so much more, the way the vocabulary is used as a little invisible pump to inflate some very obvious ideas into something that is meant to sound – like more than that. Like a great deal more than that. Wouldn’t you think people would eventually stop doing this kind of thing? Because people like me see them doing it and point it out and laugh raucously? Wouldn’t you think they would, some day, finally, embarrass themselves? I would. But they don’t. Why is that?

Judith Butler later clarifies Foucault’s theory of power, expanding upon its merely implied strategies for subjective resistance to dominant technologies of power and making the important intervention that subjectivity is not just an expression of the “top down” subjugation of an “individual” but is intrinsically performative. The performative subject is both inaugurated by power relations and at the same time is constantly recreating its discursive, epistemological law in dangerously supplemental, disruptive ways. Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford UP 1997) explores in depth what she, after Foucault, sees as the total immersion of the subject in power relations without recourse to an originary “individuality” or essentialized political identity who exists prior to the subject’s inauguration into power.

Right? Right.

Butler’s conceptualization of post-structuralist identity politics, like Foucault’s, relies on a presupposition of “power” as the matrix of intelligibility, or ground by and through which biopolitical subjectivity is inaugurated and “exists.” This grounding in power, for Butler, extends to the very body of the subject. Recent criticism of Foucault’s concept of power by Georgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford 1995), however, convincingly argues that power indeed has an outside – namely its “sovereign exception” over what Agamben calls “bare life,” or the homo sacer.

And so on. It’s all like that. None of it is any different. It’s all the same. It starts like that, and it goes on like that, and it goes on like that some more, and it ends like that. Somebody – a guy named Don Moore, in fact, a nice wholesome name, sounds like a baseball player – wrote it like that, presumably on purpose. Maybe it’s a parody. Only I doubt it, because if it were a parody, it would probably be a lot better, so as not to give the game away. It would be much less repetitive, for one thing. The baseball player is a graduate student in English and ‘Cultural Studies.’ I was just being abusive about the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ in conversation with my colleague a couple of hours ago, and that was before I read the bottom of this review where it tells us that the writer of it is in ‘Cultural Studies.’ I already hated the very phrase (I have that reaction that Goebbels talked about, you know the one). Now I hate it even more.

I wonder what Ratzinger thinks of Cultural Studies.



You Just Can’t

Apr 19th, 2005 1:57 am | By

I listened to last week’s ‘Start the Week’ yesterday. (I always listen to it late, for some reason.) I like Andrew Marr, but I didn’t realize how much I like him until I heard Sue MacGregor filling in for him. Dang, she made a mess of it. She kept interrupting – no doubt it’s the presenter’s job to keep things moving along and on track, but Marr manages to do that without constantly cutting people off in the middle of a sentence. And worse than that, she kept getting everything wrong, misunderstanding the guests’ books and what they said to her, and saying the silliest thing she could think of. She contemptuously told Jeffrey Sachs, who’s just written a book about how to end poverty, that we were always chucking money at Africa. He was so annoyed he repeated it back to her about eight times during the show, along with some full explanations of why it was bullshit. Come back soon, Andrew. Yes I know there’s an election, but all the same.

One of the guests was Cristina Odone. I wrote a N&C about her once, a long, long time ago. I don’t remember the details, but it was something foolish she said about religion, I remember that much. And she said more foolish things on Start the Week. She’s one of the ‘You may not say critical things about religion’ crowd. She’s very cross with her old colleagues at the New Statesman because of their cover story about the pope. She didn’t actually say that what the NS said – that the pope did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined, I believe – is not true, just that it’s bad to say it. It makes religious people angry, to see that kind of thing. Therefore we mustn’t say it. Oh. So we should just watch in cheerful silence then while the Vatican tells people not to use condoms, and even tells them that condoms don’t block the virus, which is a lie? Well the hell with that. And it’s not the NS that is wrong to point it out, it’s Odone who is wrong to rebuke them for doing so. This kind of authoritarian nonsense is increasing, it seems to me – this self-righteous ‘how dare you criticise religion’ rhetoric. Well how dare you not criticise it? Do you think the pope is right to ban condoms? If so, why? If not, why do you think we should be quiet about it?

Richard Dawkins wrote a terrific article on this subject in 2001. In it he quoted from a terrific speech by Douglas Adams.

Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says “I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,” you say, “I respect that.”

Exactly. Just what I’m always saying. You’re just not. Why? Because you’re not!

So popes can get away with murder and we’re supposed to just sit back and take it.

The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking “Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?” But I wouldn’t have thought, “Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics,” when I was making the other points. I just think, “Fine, we have different opinions.” But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say “No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it.” Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe… no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so?

And of course because people like Odone (and even other people, of whom one would not expect it) get indignant or more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger about it, thus making sure that we keep on being used to doing so, keep on shying away from the ring-fenced holy taboo inner sanctum, keep on not saying the pope did a hell of a lot of harm for just one guy without nuclear weapons. It’s a bad arrangement. Ring-fence that.



Alas, Poor Dworkin

Apr 18th, 2005 2:47 am | By

Just a couple of comments on Katha Pollitt’s excellent article on Andrea Dworkin. One to quibble, the other not.

The antipornography feminism Dworkin did so much to promote seems impossibly quaint today, when Paris Hilton can parlay an embarrassing sex video into mainstream celebrity and the porn star Jenna Jameson rides the New York Times bestseller list. But even in its heyday it was a blind alley. Not just because porn, like pot, is here to stay, not just because the Bible and the Koran–to say nothing of fashion, advertising and Britney Spears–do far more harm to women…

Not to quibble with Pollitt’s basic disagreement with Dworkin. But – ‘to say nothing of fashion, advertising and Britney Spears’ – I’m not sure I get that. Is there a huge difference between porn and ‘fashion, advertising and Britney Spears’? Or at least, wasn’t some of the kind of thing Dworkin thought harmful to women about porn, the same kind of thing that’s going on in fashion, advertising and Britney Spears? I would have thought so, frankly. I disagree with plenty of what Dworkin said – but it depresses the hell out of me that most women from the ages of six to sixty-six seem to feel obliged to look as much like prostitutes or porn stars in a state of violent sexual arousal as they can possibly manage. No no, they would all tell me with one voice, they’re ’empowered’ and ‘sex-positive’ and I’m just an angry ol’ puritan. But if it’s so empowering to mince around in catch me-fuck me shoes and tiny little camisoles and makeup and ringlets and all the rest of the nonsense – why don’t men do it? Hah? Why do men still slouch around in baggy shorts and t shirts and their regular old faces? Because they know damn well it’s not empowering, that’s why. (Okay, okay, that’s not the only reason, it’s also because camisoles and ringlets aren’t considered sexy on men. But you know what I mean!) I heard something similar on Front Row the other day, in a farewell discussion of Dworkin. Someone said Dworkin’s views would never fly now, now that every advert you see has a hypersexualised woman in it (or words to that effect). Well, yeah! I thought. That’s just it. It used to be thought (by the people who thought that kind of thing) that those ads full of panting quivering women were, you know, kind of objectifying. They haven’t become less so now just because they’re everywhere instead of just almost everywhere.

Sigh. Obviously that battle is well and truly lost, which is dispiriting. Pollitt is dispirited too.

These days, feminism is all sexy uplift, a cross between a workout and a makeover. Go for it, girls–breast implants, botox, face-lifts, corsets, knitting, boxing, prostitution. Whatever floats your self-esteem! Meanwhile, the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion–when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?
I never thought I would miss unfair, infuriating, over-the-top Andrea Dworkin. But I do. And even more I miss the movement that had room for her.

Yeah. Me too. Boy, do I miss that movement. Where did all those pissed-off feminists go?

Into the sunset, I guess.



What’s in the Daily Pope Today?

Apr 16th, 2005 11:39 pm | By

Hurrah for Ian Jack. Hurrah for Polly Toynbee and now for Ian Jack. I love this comment on the Guardian’s popification – I feel like flapping my hands and saying ‘that is so true‘ like a Valley Girl. (I am a Valley Girl at heart, actually. I just cover it up well. But underneath the cynicism, the sneers, the bad language, the bloodshot eyes, the duelling scar – underneath all that I’m basically just a San Fernando valley high school sophomore who wouldn’t hurt a fly.)

The Pope — this is a crude and prejudiced paraphrase of the coverage — had ended the Cold War, brought down the Berlin Wall, and defended the world’s poor against the depredations of the world’s rich. He was ripe for beatification. No more humane, more spiritual or more important individual had recently walked the globe.

And that’s not new, either. It obviously got a lot worse when he snuffed it – a whole lot worse – it turned into a complete explosion of imbecility – but the kind of thing was bad before. I’ve been shouting at the radio for years because of the solemn pious deeply-impressed way it used to talk about the pope and his every move – as if – hello? – he were everyone’s pope, as if we were all Papa’s children. ‘Not this cookie!’ I used to yell at NPR, before changing the channel to the all-blues station. But what was that about? That childish uncritical worshipful tone that crept into papal coverage – as if the wretched man had never done a thing wrong, as if the Catholic church were an unmixed blessing, as if – oh never mind.

Jack compares the pope festival to the Diana festival.

There was no end to grief. It is worth recalling some details. William Hague wanted Heathrow to be renamed Diana Airport, Gordon Brown was said to be seriously considering the idea that August Bank Holiday be renamed Diana Day. Three foreign tourists were sentenced to jail for taking a few old teddy bears from the tributes heap. Newspapers instructed the Queen and her family to grieve, and to be seen grieving. Many people were recorded saying that they grieved more for Diana than for their dead mothers and husbands. Not to grieve was to be odd, cynical, wicked.

Diana airport!! That is hilarious. I didn’t know that. Can you imagine – Heathrow is bad enough just as a place to be – but can you imagine having to fly into and out of Diana airport?! The shame of it!

But anyway, I remember the frenzy very well. I was fascinated by it. I remember the insane stuff about the people arrested for taking a teddy bear or two. Because – what? Diana wanted them? All of them? To do what with? And how? And boy do I ever remember the stuff about the Queen. I found it sort of funny in a way – still do in fact. Because it was so Not One. One does not emote in public (or in private either actually). One certainly does not emote on television. A passing mention of an annus horribilis in an after-luncheon speech at the Guildhall (or wherever it was) is one thing, but a command performance of sorrow for a pack of drooling subjects is quite another, thank you. And One frankly does not feel all that much sorrow in any case, to be quite honest. One has known a good many other people whom One regrets more than One regrets One’s silly narcissistic publicity-mad daughter-in-law. One wasn’t made to go on television to emote for any of them, so why is One being made to do so now? One really finds it all quite insufferable, and One will read One’s careful speech with about as much emotion as One would read the breakfast menu.

Yep, that was pretty funny stuff, but it was also pretty disgusting. Because the whole thing boiled down to the fact that Diana took a good picture. Period. If Anne had been the one to get killed, driving the Range Rover 120 miles an hour and bumping into something, would there have been all that fuss? Would there have been a tenth of it? Don’t be ridiculous. No, it was classic pseudo-event, as Boorstin called these things (and he called them that a long time ago, before they’d really hit their stride. These days pseudo-events are really pseudo-events. Pseudo-events with hair on their chests.)

My resentment — a popular resentment, so far as I can tell — came from something else: an instruction from the media to have me see as hugely important something that I regarded only as reasonably interesting, and to feel something (sorrow, awe) that I didn’t feel. The more that television and newspapers leave cold information behind in pursuit of warm emotion, the more authoritarian they seem: their tone is not so much an invitation to know as an order to feel (which is a good definition of sentimentality) —there was, in Diana’s case, a dictatorship of grief.

Just so. There’s a lot of it about. Coverage of Michael Jackson, for instance. I always drop things in shock and surprise when I’m listening to the World Service on the radio and the news leads off with something about Michael Jackson – as if that’s the most important thing they could mention. For the whole world! Michael Jackson! We’re not ordered to feel grief about him, as far as I know, but we are ordered to be interested, and pruriently interested at that. We’re ordered to feel intensely interested in and concerned with various pointless celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt and ‘J-lo’. That was the deal with the pope, I guess – he was famous. That’s all. He wasn’t quite as young or as pretty as Diana, but he was maybe even more famous. It’s a wonder nobody made the Queen go on television to say how wracked with grief she was.



Fire the Canon

Apr 16th, 2005 3:15 am | By

That discussion of literary theory I mentioned a couple of days ago was in large part about the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and whether it is a conservative organization and if it is who cares and if people do care why do they care. Kind of a ‘you have unfashionable trousers’ argument, as Chris Williams described it in a comment on ‘Not Either Silly.’ Bizarrely irrelevant. This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard the assumption, but it sounds just as fatuous the 500th time as it did the first. Henry makes the point in his post at CT.

Cultural Revolution then goes on to attack the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics for using such retrograde notions as “imagination,” “shared literary culture,” “serious,” and “classicists and modernists” in its statement of purpose, and to note how it received its initial start-up money from the conservative Bradley Foundation. So far, so pedestrian. What’s interesting about the post is not what it says, but what it assumes: that an interest in literature for literature’s sake is innately conservative. And, by extension, the question it doesn’t ask: why is it that an organization which is interested in studying literature and imagination is perceived as a conservative bulwark, and has no choice but to go to conservatives for funding and support?

Really. Very you have unfashionable trousers, if you ask me.

First, it’s by no means obvious that post-structuralist literary theory and its cousins are, in any real sense of the word, radical. Indeed, you could make a very strong case (Russell Jacoby is very good on this) that they’re substitutes for radicalism, and piss-poor ones at that…Second is the extraordinarily pervasive notion that there’s something inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake, rather than as grist for the mill of deconstructionism. I suspect that something like this is at the basis of Cultural Revolution’s suspicion of the Valve, and of ‘classicism,’ ‘imagination,’ etc. And it’s bullshit – there’s no reason why one can’t appreciate and enjoy cultural forms for their own sake…

So (I do have a point) it was interesting to read this article by Frank Lentricchia again (it’s in Flashback in case you ever want it and can’t remember who wrote it or how to find it) and see that it’s at the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics site. Because that’s what it’s about. The fact that it is possible to read literature without bothering about whether one is conservative or lefty or wearing unfashionable trousers. It’s interesting coming from Lentricchia because he was a fashionable trousers guy once, and then he got tired of himself.

I once managed to live for a long time, and with no apparent stress, a secret life with literature. Publicly, in the books I’d written and in the classroom, I worked as an historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, and without noticeable impediment, about literature as a political instrument. I once wrote that the literary word was like a knife, a hammer, a gun. I became a known and somewhat colorfully controversial figure, regularly excoriated in neo-conservative laments about the academy…When I grew up and became a literary critic, I learned to keep silent about the reading experiences of liberation that I’d enjoyed since childhood. With many of my generation, I believed that my ability to say the words “politics” and “literature” in the same breath was the only socially responsible way to affirm the value of literary study.

But, fortunately, fortunately, he did get over it. A lamb returned to the fold. A poor forlorn theorist escaped from the dungeon.

Then, seven years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unspeakably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational.

So now he’s all like conservative and he eats lunch with Rush Limbaugh and stuff because he doesn’t think it’s interesting or clever to call Faulkner a racist or DeLillo an elitist. So much for black leather jackets eh.



Another Miscellany

Apr 13th, 2005 10:36 pm | By

A few miscellaneous items worth a look.

At Crooked Timber, one on Christopher Hitchens. This includes Jimmy Doyle giving some quotations from the Guardian and the New Statesman from the autumn of 2001 to show sceptics that there really were people saying just the kind of thing that other people on the thread had said no one other than ol’ Ward Churchill actually said. Quite amusing, in a morbid way. And one
on literary theory and whether literary criticism that is interested in, say, formal or aesthetic aspects of literature, or uses the dread word ‘imagination,’ is automatically ‘conservative’ and if so in what sense and according to whom and why should we care and who asked you anyway. Also quite amusing, and about a less deadly subject (though perhaps a more deadly boring one).

At Michael Bérubé’s blog, we learn that David Horowitz has been silly. He did an email debate with Bérubé, then deleted much of what Bérubé said, then posted what was left – himself talking a lot and Bérubé being oddly tight-lipped – and, hilariously, Horowitz asking Bérubé why he keeps not answering the question. Seems like a foolhardy plan, since he didn’t exactly do this in secret. He kind of, you know, published it.

But when I went to the FrontPage site to check out the “debate,” I found that almost all my replies to David had been cut from the “conversation,” and that Glazov and Horowitz, after chopping all the stuff I’d written, slapped me upside the head for not replying to them…Well, holy infant Jesus with a rattlesnake, folks – what a shabby little stunt. First they refuse to publish my responses, and then they chastise me for not responding to them? What is going on over there at FrontPage – are they smoking crack, or are they just giving up altogether? Did they think maybe I wouldn’t notice that fifteen paragraphs of mine had somehow disappeared from the text of the “debate”?

What were they thinking, one wonders. That dangerous lefty professors can’t count good?

Oh darn, there’s an update (she says, having gone from the page with the post by itself to the home page and seen the explanation posted a day or two later). Apparently Horowitz made a mistake – didn’t see the interlineated replies, or something. (Note to interlineators: put them in a different colour next time. Red is quite noticeable.) Never mind, it’s still worth a look, because of all the huffing and puffing about intellectual laziness.

(The blog overall I don’t recommend. Bérubé has always struck me as quite self-infatuated, and unpleasant to people he disagrees with [he was remarkably rude to Russell Jacoby in the Letters section of The Baffler a few years ago, for no reason at all that I could figure out]. The combination of aggression and self-absorption is not all that appealing.)



Not Either Silly

Apr 13th, 2005 6:28 pm | By

I’m going to have to disagree with my friend Norm on Polly Toynbee’s comment on the pope. I hate to do it – but he’s off on his travels, so that’s all right. David Hadley of Stuff and Nonsense alerted me to Norm’s post. (How busy I am these days. I don’t even have time to get around to checking Norm every day. Terrible.)

I really don’t get it. Every time there’s an event that brings forth a manifestation of religious belief by large numbers of people, some militant secularist or other will give out an opinion that would be jejune coming from an intelligent sixth-former…But how she can speak in so trivializing a way of world-wide reaction to the death of the head of a church whose ‘deeper power’ she herself characterizes as lying ‘in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is mystifying to me…I do not think there are any good evidential or other reasons for belief in a supreme deity, much less a benign and all-powerful one. But to speak now, in the face of a historical experience stretching over millennia, as if religion is no more than a silly mistake of silly people – answering to no real human concerns, meeting no deeper needs, all just froth – is (not to put too fine a point on it) silly.

Well, it’s my turn not to get it, and to find it mystifying. Really. For one thing, the world-wide reaction is part of the point, surely. The irrationality and indeed anti-rationality of that reaction is part of the subject, not a reason for not talking about it. And the fact that this one man had ‘personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is also part of the point, not a reason for not addressing it. Why shouldn’t the strangeness (to put it rather neutrally) of that authority be examined and questioned? Norm seems to be suggesting that it ought rather to be taboo – but why? It is an absurdity, after all, and not one that we accept in any other context. It may sound silly to point out the absurdity, but maybe that’s because the absurdity is so obvious? So we’re just supposed to ignore it? Because it’s rude to mention it? But it is absurd – and of course far worse than absurd. Toynbee wasn’t actually trivializing, she was indicting. That’s the sad thing about the papacy and the whole rigmarole that goes with it – it’s both absurd (in a manner beneath even a sixth-former, I should think) and extremely harmful. Why should that subject be passed over in silence? It needs talking about more, not less, I would have thought.

And surely it’s this idea that we ought not to say such things that helps to perpetuate them. (As I’ve said before. How tediously repetitive I am.) There is such massive cultural pressure and peer pressure these days* to be deferential to religion (excuse me, I mean ‘faith’) and believers, and that cultural-and-peer pressure just helps religion to go on being shielded from criticism, and why should it be? Why? Why should religion alone among belief systems and institutions (with the possible exception of the family, another sacrosanct item these days**) be shielded from criticism? Especially given how powerful it is? Especially in the case of the Catholic church and especially especially the pope?! Of all people! Who else has the kind of magical global power he does? No one! The dalai lama has some international influence, but he doesn’t issue edicts in the same way, and his words aren’t binding in the same way. Plus Buddhism is nowhere near as harsh as Catholicism. And dalai lamas don’t have the gall to issue edicts announcing themselves to be infallible. I ask you. This guy is officially formally infallible and he tells people not to use birth control and not to use condoms – and we shouldn’t say harsh things about him?? He is the one person on earth most in need of oversight and criticism, as sharp as possible.

I suppose he does have one rival for magical global power – and that would be bin Laden. Same kind of power, too: power over people’s minds. Well he’s not beyond criticism, is he. Nor should the pope be, and especially when every front page you see is busy drooling over him, which is not the case with Osama.

And the part about human concerns and human needs – I don’t see the relevance. Concerns and needs don’t cause things to exist that don’t exist. People’s putative need for god doesn’t cause god to exist, any more than my need for a falafel sandwich is going to cause one to appear on my desk. And more than that, religion is one thing, and the pope is another. It’s perfectly possible to think the papacy is an absolutely terrible idea and still believe in a deity. A certain fracas that took place in the 16th century springs to mind.

So – there it is. I don’t think Toynbee was a bit silly, I think she said what badly needed saying.

*I say ‘these days’ because I do think it’s gotten worse and is going on getting worse, than it was in, erm, previous days, but don’t ask me for the exact date, because I don’t know, but date it from Jimmy Carter if you like, or Reagan, or some UK-relevant date but I have no idea which one, nothing occurs to me.

**See above but with possibly different dates.



Papal Obsequies

Apr 11th, 2005 8:34 pm | By

I usually like David Aaronovitch’s columns (even though, or perhaps because, they sometimes make me squirm slightly – not enough to rattle the chair, but enough to rearrange a few dust particles), but I take issue with something in this one. It’s about the pope and the ructions last week, and what to make of it.

The cover of last week’s New Statesman, for example, proclaims of the dead Pope that ‘he did more to spread Aids in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. By opposing the use of condoms, the argument went, the church had created intense and unnecessary suffering.
But this won’t do, either. The church has only succeeded in Africa by tolerating polygamy, and, as the Statesman admits, its teaching on birth control hasn’t prevented a dramatic drop in family sizes in some African countries. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the church is being magically obeyed on condoms, while being ignored on everything else. In other words, where doctrine conflicts with culture, doctrine loses. It wasn’t the Pope that done it.

Wait. One, Aaronovitch doesn’t know (or if he does he certainly doesn’t say) how many people in Africa do ‘magically’ obey the church on condoms. Two, is it likely that the number of people obeying the church on condoms is actually zero? None at all? Surely not. If not, doesn’t that dismissal seem a little quick? A tad hasty? It does to me. Three, the stakes are high – a horrible lingering early death that often leaves destitute orphans, some of whom go into prostitution for want of alternatives and soon die of AIDS themselves, leaving even more destitute siblings – so again the dismissal seems too quick. Four, what about the rest of the world? Especially the rest of the Third World? The Vatican’s murderous condom-ban was certainly not confined to Africa; it was global. Five, as is well known, there is already difficulty in getting men to use condoms, because men don’t like wearing them; the more subordinated women are, the harder it is for them to insist that men wear condoms; this is especially true for prostitutes – some of whom are the very young daughters of AIDS victims and other destitute people; therefore any religious edict that could give an apparent moral or religious gloss to men’s reluctance to wear them will be warmly welcomed and used by many men who will cheerfully ignore other religious edicts; such religious edicts are therefore extremely, lethally harmful to women. And six, even if not one person on the planet heeded the Vatican’s ban, it would still be wicked and disgusting of the pope to have tried it. Bottomlessly disgusting. Mindless, superstitious, pointless, stupid, and savagely cruel. The putative ‘reason’ for the church’s ridiculous insistence on banning contraception is so wildly out of proportion to its disastrous possible effects – a horrible slow degrading miserable death at an early age – that it’s surely beyond defense. And that’s the relevant point when talking about the pope, isn’t it? The fact that he tried to ban condoms, not whether or not he succeeded? He wanted to succeed, and that’s an incredibly bad, savage thing to have wanted to do. He was a bad man. Yes no doubt he meant well by his own lights – but he was desperately wrong about the lights, wasn’t he.

No, I much prefer Polly Toynbee’s take on this one. Toynbee rocks, as Chris Whiley said in sending me the link.

With the clash of two state funerals and a wedding, unreason is in full flood this week. Yet again, rationalists who thought they understood this secular, sceptical age have been shocked at the coverage from Rome. The BBC airwaves have disgraced themselves. The Mail went mad with its front-page headlines, “Safe in Heaven” and the next day “Amen”. Even this august organ, which sprang from the loins of nonconformist dissent, astounded many readers with its broad acres of Pope reverencing.

We had some idiotic headlines here, too. Of course that’s less suprising here – sad to say.

It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol’ boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace – why not?…The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy…With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms – this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.

That’s more like it. It really is beyond comprehension. The more you think about it the more beyond comprehension it is. They must have known their ban would cause people to get a horrible fatal illness – and yet that didn’t stop them. It is hard to understand.

This is said often, even in this unctuous week – and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost.

In 1971 I interviewed Mother Teresa and asked how she justified letting starving babies be born to die on Calcutta streets for lack of contraception. She said sublimely that every baby entering the world was another soul created in praise of God, even if it lived only a few hours. She was never keen on cures: suffering was a gift of God that enabled those who cared for the afflicted to demonstrate their love. She was beatified by John Paul II for their shared religious mania. Those who met them talk of an aura of love, power, listening and intensity. But goodness is in doing good; good intent is no excuse for murderous error.

Another soul created in praise of God, even for only a few hours. How beautiful, how ‘spiritual’ – except that the praise-hungry god doesn’t exist, while the woman who had the baby that died does.

At the funeral will be a convocation of mullahs, rabbis and all the other medieval faiths that increasingly conspire together against modernity. Islamic groups are sternly warning the Vatican to stand firm against liberal influences on homosexuality, abortion, contraception and the ordination of women. What is it about religion that unites them all on sex? It always expresses itself as disgust for women’s bodies, leading to a need to suppress women altogether. Why is controlling women’s bodies the shared battle flag of every faith?

Because women are sluts, obviously. Hail Mary.



One Thing to Learn

Apr 9th, 2005 11:03 pm | By

This is good fun – although a few of the answers will give people like Philip Blond fits. But that’s good, that will give him something to talk about next time he’s on the radio. No doubt producers are calling him all the time, now that he’s an expert on What’s Wrong With Science.

Anyway. Lots of good ones.

I would teach the world the importance of staying actively intellectually engaged throughout our lives, especially as we become elderly. There are good data now that point to the fact that continuing to challenge yourself late in life — taking up a new hobby, learning to play a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, etc — actually helps to maintain cognitive function, and protects against the onset of cognitive decline.

Yeah. I did one or two N&Cs on that nun study a few months ago. And it would be worth doing even without the protective effect – though the protective effect means you can do it that much longer, so it comes to the same thing.

Paranormal phenomena do not exist. Magic, witchcraft, mind-reading, clairvoyance, faith healing and similar practices do not work and never have worked. It makes a crucial difference whether we imagine ourselves surrounded by supernatural beings and happenings or whether instead we see ourselves in a world that science can help us understand.

Tell it, brother.

Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth that science gets rid of mysteries, started by the Romantic poets, was well nailed by Albert Einstein —whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling, and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets.

Beautiful. Take that, Philip Blond!

Frighteningly, most people do not understand Darwin’s great insight…Once you see it —copy, vary, select; copy, vary, select —you see that design by natural selection simply has to happen…Then, the scary implications follow. If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened, and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.

Yeah, but then we’d miss the fun of an occasional papal funeral. Are we sure that would be a good idea?

I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right.

Yeah but if everyone did that then we’d miss the fun of stuff like papal infallibility and mullahs telling everyone what to do. Are we sure that would be a good idea?