Notes and Comment Blog

Veto That Demand

May 7th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

Earlier this morning while working on something unrelated to B&W (which I do occasionally) I was reading this review by Judith Shulevitz of books on the conflict between evolution and creationism by Eugenie Scott and Michael Ruse respectively, and I was brought up short by this gloss on Ruse’s argument:

Nonetheless, he says here, we must be careful about how we use the word “evolution,” because it actually conveys two meanings, the science of evolution and something he calls “evolutionism.” Evolutionism is the part of evolutionary thought that reaches beyond testable science. Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective.

Okay not so fast. Hang on a minute. What do you mean all the work of a religion? Who says that is the work of a religion? and even if you concede that other disciplines or ways of thinking or systems of ideas also do that work, who says that’s the work of a religion at all? why is it the work of a religion? What qualifications does a religion bring to the task? What tools of inquiry does it use? What kind of logic does it apply? What are its criteria for accepting or rejecting evidence? What is religion’s special knowledge or expertise or insight into those questions that is available only to religion and not to any other interested human inquirer? I’m serious, now – please name one. People never do. When one asks that question, people never do answer – at least not that I’ve seen. What tools does religion have that no one else has that enable it to ‘do the work’ of addressing those questions? I want to know. And if the answer is, ‘Er, don’t know,’ then why is that platitudinous falsehood so endlessly recycled? I want to know.

It’s just a big damn falsehood, it seems to me. The part of evolutionary thought that reaches ‘beyond’ testable science is the kind of necessarily (because of the reaching beyond bit) speculative thought that is open to anyone to pursue. There is no magical third category where the thought is still speculative but it has some sort of voodooish instrumentation and rules of logic or llojick and special weird untestable evidence or evvedentz that is accessible only to graduates of theological seminaries. Nuh uh. There ain’t no such. There’s only the real world of empirical inquiry of various kinds, and the unreal world of speculation and supernaturalism (or if you prefer the reaching beyond testable science), where the findings may or may not be true but are (by definition) not subject to verification. That second world is wide open. By its nature, it has no expertise, because there is nothing for it to have expertise in. Expertise in speculation about The Beyond is a peculiar kind of expertise – which is to say, no expertise at all. Thus religion doesn’t get to declare a monopoly on the subject. So it’s just flat-out false to say or imply that evolutionary thought is as it were trespassing on religion’s territory, or committing some kind of lèse majesté or blasphemy or violation of the sacred by addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. Don’t people think about what they’re saying? Don’t they realize that it is a disaster to claim that only religion is allowed or qualified to address those questions, that those questions are its (and implicitly only its) ‘work’? Do we want religion and only religion addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it? I sure as hell don’t! I want good, sane, rational answers to those questions, not woolly pious authoritarian rootless ones. Those questions are public ones, wide open ones, ones that benefit from rational inquiry; they’re not special, sacred, fenced-off, taboo ones, and religions don’t get to declare them such. Some religious believers want them to be able to declare them such, but the rest of us have to veto that demand. So if Ruse is claiming that evolutionary thinkers should forbid themselves to address such questions, by way of placating and mollifying religious believers and the ID crowd – I just think he’s wrong.

A Mensch

May 7th, 2006 1:58 am | By

Now, to stop messing around and being so silly for a moment – don’t miss this blog about Ramin Jahanbegloo’s case. It’s full of useful information, which saves us the trouble of looking via Google news. But it’s all pretty alarming.

A prominent Iranian-Canadian arrested in Tehran, reportedly under accusations of espionage, is being held under circumstances similar to those of murdered Montreal photojournalist Zara Kazemi because Iran is loath to let foreign diplomats meddle in domestic cases, government officials and those connected to the Kazemi case warned yesterday. Ramin Jahanbegloo, an internationally known human rights advocate, was arrested around April 27 when he stopped at the Tehran Airport on his way from India to attend a conference in Brussels…When the former University of Toronto professor failed to arrive in Brussels on Saturday, his colleagues contacted Canadian officials. Ottawa has already made inquiries of Iranian officials in Tehran and in Canada. Even with reports last night that Mr. Jahanbegloo has already been placed under medical care, Ottawa has been unable to secure a visit with the Canadian citizen…Mr. Jahanbegloo is reportedly being held in the notorious Evin prison, where many political prisoners have reported being tortured until they confessed to crimes…A friend of Mr. Jahanbegloo, Shahram Kholdi, said the academic has already been transported to hospital for unknown medical treatment, CBC reported yesterday.

I do not like the sound of that at all. Or of anything else in that article. It’s very very worrying. Don’t do it, Iran.

I’m outraged,” said Mohamed Tavakoli, a professor of Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Toronto who worked with Mr. Jahanbegloo and invited him to Toronto for the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in 2004. “He represents a political trend in Iran that focuses on the civilization of dialogue, respect for difference and calls for tolerance,” Mr. Tavakoli said in an interview. “As an intellectual, he takes pleasure in conversing with people of various political cultural persuasions. His love for difference should not be a political charge against him.”…Mr. Tavakoli called his colleague, “charismatic, a mensch of a guy” and “a global intellectual, a truly cosmopolitan intellectual.”

Cosmopolitan intellectuals are just the kind we want to hold onto for dear life. Plus he’s a mensch. (I do love it when guys named Mohamed call a friend a mensch. It makes me get all chokey. It’s so cosmopolitan.)

Turn Around at Once!

May 7th, 2006 1:30 am | By

So we’ve been wrestling with some very technical issues – specifically, with how the injunction that it is ‘unacceptable for Muslim inmates to face Mecca while using the toilet’ works out in practice. We’ve been wondering whether it’s unacceptable to face Mecca while using the toilet but acceptable to turn one’s back on Mecca while using the toilet, and if so, why, since it would seem to be at least as rude to defecate at Mecca as it is to look towards Mecca while defecating away from it. So an inquiring commenter (or a commenting inquirer) found out, and now we know.

The Qur’an states that one should enter the restroom with left foot first while saying a prayer of protection. It is not permissible to enter a restroom while carrying anything that bears the name of Allah, such as the Qur’an, or any book with the name of Allah in it, or jewelry such as bracelets and necklaces engraved with the name of Allah.

Gee – it dawns on me that I’ve never in my life given any thought to which foot is the first over the threshold of the room with the toilet in it – it’s always just whichever one gets there first. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. It’s never both though – I never jump in. But, frighteningly, I also never say a prayer of protection while whichever foot it is is making the transition between the bedroom or hall and the room with toilet. Never. It’s never occurred to me. Isn’t that funny now. I suppose it’s because I’m not aware of the dangers? Which are? That the sharks or Komodo dragons or Loch Ness monsters or crayfish that live in the toilet might come leaping out as I pass between the outer space and the toilet-containing inner one, and fling themselves onto my carotid artery and neatly sever it? That the spider that’s sitting peacefully in the bathtub wondering why it keeps doing this will suddenly race up the side and catapult itself into my face and deliver a poisonous bite? That the floor will give way and drop me into a tank full of serial killers swimming in acid? Oddly, I’ve never considered any of those possibilities. I’m curiously unimaginative, even phlegmatic, apparently. From now on I think I’ll have a minor nervous breakdown every time I enter that room, and wish I knew a prayer of protection.

“When the Prophet felt the need of relieving himself, he went far off where no one could see him”. It is implied that one should be out of sight, thus doors of toilets should be securely closed.

Because of the prophet. Otherwise it would never have occurred to anyone. Christians and atheists of course relieve themselves wherever they happen to be when they feel the need: at parties, in the middle of other people’s living rooms, at the dinner table, on the bus, wherever. We’re a gregarious, uninhibited, sharing bunch. Plus it saves all that trouble with keeping track of the feet and dodging the sharks.

Now we get to the bit we were looking for.

Islam prohibits facing the Qiblah while defecating. The Prophet said “if you go to defecate, do not face the Qiblah nor turn your back toward it. Instead, you should turn to your left side or your right side”…[I]t is something forbidden in both open and enclosed areas and it is best to refrain from doing so as much as possible out of respect for the Qiblah.

This thing about turning to a side makes me uneasy. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the front and the back are wide, but the side is narrow. Have you ever noticed that? We are so, like, not symmetrical that way – not cubic. We’re not the same on all four sides; we’re like a handkerchief box instead of like an orange box. We’re flat. Not really flat, of course, but not cube-like. So if we turn our sides to this Qiblah, we’re not really facing away from it, and we don’t really have our backs turned away from it either. It seems a little unfortunate to me – an unsatisfactory compromise. We can look toward Mecca out of the corner of one eye while we’re on the can, and one side of our bum is facing that way too – so we’re sort of offending both ways. I tell you what, I don’t like it. I think it should be changed so that it’s respectful to face the Qiblah, because that way the bum is as far away from the Qiblah as it can get, and there is no ambiguity with these skinny sides. But that’s not what the prophet said, of course, he said sides, so sides it is. I’m glad I’m an atheist and get to go just any old where.

Free Exercise 2

May 5th, 2006 8:40 pm | By

A further thought on The Righteousness of Blasphemy.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas. Here’s why.

Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines.

Actually I’m not sure that’s quite true (unless I misunderstand what Peter Fosl means by ‘formally’ and/or ‘discourse’, which is quite possible). In the US, for one thing, the free exercise clause of the Constitution results in the fact that, in a legal sense, there is something special about religious doctrines: they have special protection. This is unfortunate, I think, but it’s a fact. How that clause should be interpreted in practice is a highly contested issue, as we saw last month in Free Exercise. Different courts decide differently, and things change as circumstances (and attitudes) change.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle.

But that doesn’t detract from the basic point – although some religious people would argue that indeed it does: that the right to free exercise of religion does indeed entail protection from ridicule, jokes, searching questions, and blasphemy. There is a large strain of thought that thinks the right to free exercise of religion requires interfering with all sorts of other rights and the free exercise of all sorts of other activities. Some people think they can’t freely exercise their religion in Arkansas if there is an atheist freely talking in Seattle. And at the moment the tide is running more in their favour than in that of the atheists.

Oh Look, it’s the Pontiff

May 5th, 2006 5:34 pm | By

Actually of course it’s quite funny in a way. I keep laughing about it. I find myself having written a book (a whole book, mind you, not just an article or a wee pamphlet) about why truth matters with someone who isn’t quite sure Afrocentric history shouldn’t be taught in universities. There is something very funny about that, in a banana peel kind of way. Especially since there is a whole thick section of Why Truth Matters that talks about Afrocentric history, in some detail. And it doesn’t talk about it from the point of view that it’s kind of a good thing, or that it has its virtues; rather the contrary. So apparently the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke. It’s kind of like having written a book about the faults and errors of the Catholic church with someone who turns out on closer inspection to be the pope. Oh, oops! My mistake!

Yup. Pretty funny.

Doing My Bit

May 5th, 2006 2:28 am | By

Oh come on, Todd, tell us what you really think.

Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of “No Child Left Behind” while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a “Christian nation.” When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings…his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.

Yeah, so? You got a problem with that? You a Naleetest or something?

In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists’ resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics.

Hey Todd! [jumps up and down, waves, whistles] Over here! One dissenting intellectual* doing her best to stand for reason and asking how it came to pass and exploring the subject and studying contrary tendencies. That’s me, you’re describing me.** I just thought you’d like to know – there are some like that.

Among the topics they might explore: the academic left’s ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory” from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification.

Nope, not me, I do that other thing you said: I explore the tropism for foreign saviors, the reliance on intricate jargon, the commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory”. That’s what I do – down the nights and down the days, that’s what I do. Little children flee from me, because I try to tell them about the hybridity of the subaltern, and it makes them cry.

It don’t pay well, but it’s steady work.

*or pseudo-intellectual, or would-be intellectual, or crawling toadying lickspittle, or pathetic pretentious ignorant Shakespeare-reading snob.

**except probably for the intellectual part, on account of I’m not qualified.

Charlie Brown and Lucy Go Another Round

May 4th, 2006 9:05 pm | By

The HERO interview is kind of a risible train wreck. It starts off by referring to ‘The [B&W] site’s editors Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’ which of course is nonsense: there’s only one editor, and I’m it. JS has nothing to do with the content. (That’s not HERO’s fault: it no doubt got that from the Why Truth Matters jacket, which calls both of us editors of B&W. I wanted to correct that, but I was overruled.) So it starts off with an inaccuracy, and then proceeds to serve up a series of clashing replies, where I say something and JS says the opposite. (Maybe that’s a good thing – maybe it’s interesting and piquant. Maybe readers will think ‘how did these people ever manage to collaborate on a book, and what can it possibly be like?’) It ends with a grand flourish as JS cheerily disavows everything the book is about. Makes for quite a surrealistic read.

But, as I say, who knows, maybe that’s brilliant; maybe something so ludicrous and shambolic (and slightly sadistic) will make people eager to read the book. Maybe it’s postmodernism, its hour come round at last.


May 4th, 2006 5:10 pm | By

More than one identity again. More than one community again. Things aren’t quite that simple again. Take a closer look again.

But speaking of a “Muslim community” is as misleading in the Balkans as it is in Western Europe…In Albania — declared the world’s first atheist state in 1967 – Islam is the dominant religion, but the majority of the population is secular…Kosovo, apart from the Serb minority and a few pockets of Roman Catholicism, is almost completely Muslim, but pronouncedly secular.

But there are people who would like to change that.

Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, has been actively promoted within the region’s Islamic communities over the past 15 years, both by (mainly Saudi) humanitarian groups and by locals returning from religious studies in the Middle East.

An unhappy development.

But while these streams may be radical, they’re also marginal. In Albania, as well as in Macedonia, the overwhelming majority of Muslims practice their faith in a peaceful and tolerant manner. Perhaps due to the communist heritage, religion for many is more a matter of preserving their tradition than devotion with political implications.

Read the rest. It’s a long and interesting article.

Not so Much Roasted as Fried

May 4th, 2006 4:44 pm | By

So Bush wasn’t all that pleased and flattered by the attentions of Stephen Colbert. Huh. I thought he was supposed to have such a great sense of humour – I thought he was supposed to be such a kidder. (He was awfully funny about Tanya Faye Tucker pleading for clemency, and there was that great joke about Trent Lott’s front porch. He’s a funny guy. Gets it from his mother, apparently – those jokes about the good life at the Houston astrodome were real thigh-slappers.) But apparently he looked more as if he had a mouthful of bleach.

Mr. President and first lady, my name is Stephen Colbert and it’s my privilege tonight to celebrate this president. He’s not so different, he and I. We both get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.

Well, I think that’s funny. I’ve heard more than enough drivel like that to find mockery of it pretty funny. Bush needs some vitamins or something.

I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world…But I just have one beef, ma’am. I’m sorry, but this reading initiative. I’ve never been a fan of books. I don’t trust them. They’re all fact, no heart. I mean, they’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen.

Yep. Anti-gut, that’s what they are.

The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

That one’s more like straightforward reportage than a joke.

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

May 4th, 2006 12:39 am | By

Another one of those too-easy marks, but I can’t let it go. I never can. I’m bad that way. [voice rising to a shriek] I just can’t let anything go! It’s Giles Fraser daydreaming again.

What is fascinating about the ill-fated combination of the BNP and Christian Voice is that it demonstrates how deeply resistant Christianity is to all forms of racism. It has not always been apparent that this was the case. After all, Christianity had a hand in slavery and apartheid.

Sorry, people of Putney, but I find that hilarious. It has not always been apparent that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. Why? Because it had a hand in slavery – meaning, for not just a few minutes or a week or two or fifty years but centuries, official Christianity and most of its practitioners slept soundly every night and ate a good dinner every noon despite the presence of slavery in their midst, sometimes so in their midst that it raised and cooked the good dinner and generated the wealth that paid for the fluffy pillows and the houses that sheltered them. But nevertheless it was (because it is) the case that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. This tranquil ability to live happily and prosperously right alongside it and often right off it, with whippings and overwork and broken-up families all complete, was a mere appearance, you see; the resistance was the reality. A deeply buried, hidden, undetectable reality, to be sure, kind of like the structure of the atom, but a reality all the same. Only for a long, long, long time, while generations of slaves were born and lived crappy lives and died, this hidden fact was not apparent. These things take time, you know. The apparent does not always become apparent just right away – sometimes it takes thousands of years. But finally the mills of god deliver the goods, and they do it right around the time that modern compassionate vicars who think slavery is a bad idea are on hand to look at the view. Then lo! the vicar looks at the view, and he sees the Christianity of his own day, and he sees a religion that is deeply resistant to all forms of racism – not just at the moment, contingently, but of its essence, and for all time – only not in a way that is apparent.

But Christianity also played a decisive role in the dismantling of both. For every bigot wanting to exploit Christianity in the service of racist ideology, there is a Wilberforce or a Tutu reminding Christians of what’s in the Bible.

Oh well that’s fine then. Christianity propped slavery up for a few centuries, and then finally when it got its wits together, it inspired a tiny minority of Christians to think slavery was a bad idea. And as for the second sentence – bullshit! Are there in fact as many Tutus as there are racist bigots? Of course not. Racist bigots are a dime a dozen, and Tutus are not. So what does he mean by saying their numbers are exactly equivalent? Nothing, he just wasn’t thinking, that’s all; he wanted to say what sounded good and he didn’t think about his own meaning.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say it’s not admirable and moving when religion does stiffen people’s resistance to racism and other injustice. It’s just to say that ‘apparent’ lack of resistance to racism is something more than mere appearance. It’s the genuine article.


May 2nd, 2006 9:27 pm | By

This is very funny. At least I think so. Apparently what it is, is a blog set up by an English teacher at a small US college (or perhaps university), where students are supposed to post as part of their coursework. Actually that’s not funny; given the level of difficulty of what they’re doing and the fact that this is a college or even a university, it’s bottomlessly depressing; given the fact that some of them are seniors and juniors, it’s – oh never mind. Anyway, their first assignment was to post urls of five misleading websites and explain why they are misleading. Well (you’ll have realized where I’m going with this) – guess who made the cut! I’m so proud. The others are just obvious choices like weight-loss sites and diploma mills and sites that give you free money, but with the last item we hit pay dirt – we hit a really, genuinely, bafflingly misleading site. Misleading not because it pretends it can make you lose 200 pounds in a week or because it’s going to tell you how to make millions of dollars with just a spoon and a Jack Russell terrier – no, that’s kid stuff, this site is misleading because for one thing what the hell is the name supposed to mean?! What butterflies? Where? I don’t see any fokkin butterflies! And what’s with the wheels bit? And what is all this stuff, and what are they trying to do, and where am I?

This site is misleading because its title is butterflies but it talks about issues other than butterflies. The information doesn’t seem legitimate. Topics aren’t clear to me. It seems that this website is based on opinions and not real facts. Not sure what this website is trying to accomplish. The look of the website isn’t appealing and not very clear as to where I should go. It has links to other sites but I don’t know if I would trust the information given.

Very true. Why do people do that? Have titles with words in them but talk about issues other than those words? And information that doesn’t seem legitimate? It’s puzzling.

Mind you, it’s also puzzling that a bit of writing that brief and with such short, clause-free sentences (and such minimal research and sub-minimal thought) should constitute an acceptable assignment in a college English class, but so it is.

The Royal George

May 2nd, 2006 1:42 am | By

Okay, what does Bush mean by it?

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution…Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush’s assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ”to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ”execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional.

Because – why? Because he’s a constitutional scholar? Because even if he’s not a scholar he knows more than most people about what’s constitutional and what isn’t? Because he knows anything at all about what is constitutional? Because it says in the Constitution that if a president ‘believes’ a given law is not constitutional he can just ignore it? Because the US president has unlimited, monarchical powers? Because magical powers to interpret the Constitution correctly pass to the new president the moment CBS news says who won Ohio? Because presidents who are elected because their father was president sometime in the previous decade have special rights to ignore laws whenever they dang well feel like it? Because presidents who have signed more death warrants than anyone else in the country are empowered to bypass laws? Because presidents who are in office when people fly airplanes into buildings are permitted to tear up all laws that they find pesky?

No, none of those reasons, I don’t think, on account of how none of those are true. So, why, then?

Far more than any predecessor, Bush has been aggressive about declaring his right to ignore vast swaths of laws — many of which he says infringe on power he believes the Constitution assigns to him alone as the head of the executive branch or the commander in chief of the military. Many legal scholars say they believe that Bush’s theory about his own powers goes too far and that he is seizing for himself some of the law-making role of Congress and the Constitution-interpreting role of the courts.

Well that certainly is what it sounds like.

Bush administration spokesmen declined to make White House or Justice Department attorneys available to discuss any of Bush’s challenges to the laws he has signed. Instead, they referred a Globe reporter to their response to questions about Bush’s position that he could ignore provisions of the Patriot Act. They said at the time that Bush was following a practice that has ”been used for several administrations” and that ”the president will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution.” But the words ”in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution” are the catch, legal scholars say, because Bush is according himself the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution. And he is quietly exercising that authority to a degree that is unprecedented in US history.

Gee – here was I thinking the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution was supposed to be a Supreme Court thing, not a president thing. I must have done more sleeping in government class than I thought.

Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said the American system of government relies upon the leaders of each branch ”to exercise some self-restraint.” But Bush has declared himself the sole judge of his own powers, he said, and then ruled for himself every time. ”This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy,” Fein said. ”There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.”

There’s something deeply enraging about the whole thing. Who does that man think he is? (God’s chosen, I know. Don’t remind me.)

Blasphemy Rocks

May 1st, 2006 1:30 am | By

Someone should have said this long ago.

Something terribly important has been missing from discussions orbiting around the Mohammed cartoons…What’s been missing has been an acknowledgment that blasphemy isn’t just something that must be tolerated. It’s something that possesses a special political value of its own. Blasphemy, in short, is a good thing. It’s something admirable, noble, and, yes, even respectable.

Actually…now you mention it…somebody ought to start a magazine called Blasphemy. And mean it.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas…Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines. Like other ideologies, religion instructs and even commands people about what they should value and how they should conduct themselves…Many clerics actually tell their congregations how to vote. It’s simply not acceptable for a participant to enter public debate, have such a powerful effect upon it, and then claim immunity from the sort of treatment to which other participants are subject.

Exactly! They don’t get to mix it up so thoroughly in public debate and then demand immunity. They don’t get to dive head-first into the profane and then demand (with threats and menaces) to be treated as sacred.

The article is in an Open Debate at TPM: you can reply to it, and Peter Fosl will reply to three of the best, which will (I think, although it doesn’t say that on the page) be published in the magazine.

One for the Dictionary

May 1st, 2006 1:14 am | By

Here’s something I’d like to know. Why do people keep calling Galbraith an ‘unapologetic’ liberal? Why is being a liberal something one is expected to apologize for?

Gustave et Marcel

May 1st, 2006 12:58 am | By

Those French – they’re witty bastards. Flaubert for instance. I picked a Penguin selection of his letters off a shelf this morning, for no particular reason, I just caught sight of it and felt like browsing in it – I opened it at random – at a letter to Louise Colet in which he talks about Musset, with whom Colet had just begun an affair. (Page 185)

I have been thinking a great deal about Musset. And I think that in the end it is all just Affectation…Men sentimentalize over everything, and most of the time the poor women are taken in by it. It was only to make a good impression on you that he said: ‘Try me. I have left Italian women gasping’ (an idea of Italian women that is connected with the idea of a volcano; you always find Mount Vesuvius between their legs. Nonsense! Italian women are like Eastern women: drowsy, languid, voluptuous things; but never mind, it is a received idea), whereas in fact the poor lad may simply be having trouble satisfying his washer-woman. It was so as to look like a man of passion that he said: ‘I am one of the jealous kind, I would kill a woman, and so on.’ He hasn’t killed George Sand.

And it goes on like that, and there’s a lot more like it in other letters. He was a funny, rude, caustic bastard.

And then there’s our friend Marcel, who was also a funny bastard, in his own way. Behold Albertine.

As soon as she entered my room, she would spring on to my bed and sometimes would expatiate upon my type of intellect, would vow in a transport of sincerity that she would sooner die than leave me; this was on mornings when I had shaved before sending for her.


Here’s a bit more Gustave. (Page 188)

They are all essentially the same, all the people who tell you about their lost love, their mother’s grave, their father’s grave, their sacred memories, who kiss medallions, who weep in the moonlight, who go into raptures when they see children, swoon at the theatre, look thoughtful when they stand by the Ocean. Fakers! fakers! triple charlatans! who use their hearts as trampolines in order to reach up to something.

Dear grenouilles.

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

May 1st, 2006 12:57 am | By

I like this item of Julian’s, too. He asks what is meant by ‘being religious’.

Yet logos and mythos do not exhaust the meanings of religiosity. There is a third sense, one which I believe is more important and more widely held. This is the idea of having a religious attitude. Attitudes are…deeply important to how we live, for they determine our entire orientation to the world around us. Among the primary religious attitudes are those of awe, reverence, gratitude and humility. What each have in common is that they capture a sense that there is something greater than us, which commands us, and which we cannot control. And it is the perceived absence of these attitudes in atheism that lends it the reputation for arrogance. Yet although religion arguably allows for a more natural expression of these attitudes, they are compatible with even the most naturalistic cosmology.

Indeed. Although I think it’s fair to say that the reason atheism is widely thought to lack those attitudes is that the atheist versions are not personal, are not about an agent or a loved mega-person, and as such, are considered too thin, too impoverished, too abstract, cold, unemotional – unloving, perhaps. I can see why theists would think that – but I think it’s wrong. Just for one thing, I think that view underestimates the intensity of the love it’s possible to have for places, for landscapes, for nature, for the world or the cosmos. They should read some Wordsworth: that might enlighten them. Or Proust. Or they could listen to Gene Sparling’s account of finding the Ivory Bill. No thinness in any of those.

A theist, for example, has a clear object for their feeling of gratitude: the creator God. But an atheist can clearly have a sense of their own good fortune and an understanding that any period of prosperity may be impermanent. Likewise, a theist feels awe and reverence for “creation”, yet as even the atheist Richard Dawkins has described in his Unweaving the Rainbow, almost identical emotional responses to the natural world can be shared by materialist scientists.

Exactly. That’s why I quoted a bit of Unweaving the Rainbow to end Why Truth Matters

To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposed to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected…The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.

Along with something Matt Ridley said at Spiked:

The one thing I would try to teach the world about science is that 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, started by the Romantic poets, that science gets rid of mysteries 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. Isaac Newton showed us the mysteries of deep space, Charles Darwin showed us the mysteries of deep time, and Francis Crick and James D Watson showed us the mysteries of deep encoding. To get rid of those insights would be to reduce the world’s stock of awe.

There you go. We do awe.


May 1st, 2006 12:01 am | By

The Archive

Interrogations Archive

Stepping Sideways

Apr 29th, 2006 11:15 pm | By

Phrasemaker, Scruton, isn’t he.

Freud, who assumed the mask of the objective observer, who presented his results as the inescapable conclusions of arduous empirical study, who repeatedly claimed that his psychological discoveries would one day be grounded in biology, is now widely accepted at mask-value…Someone must have reminded him that not all children are boys; but he had an easy way with his critics, which was to throw the Greeks at them. Thus was born the Electra complex, conjured from a thigh-bone of Oedipus…At every point where scientific method might impose its logic on the argument, Freud stepped sideways into metaphor, asserting with dogmatic intransigence that this is how things are because this is how they must be.

Stepping sideways into metaphor – perfect way of putting it. That’s quite a familiar dance step these days, beloved of bishops and postmodernist theologians alike, not to mention astrologers.

And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell. Freud suffered from the ‘charm of disenchantment’. Like Marx he was irresistibly drawn to explanations that demean us, and which turn our world-view upside down – or set it, as Marx insisted, ‘on its feet’.

Yeah. I used to suffer from that charm too – I’m sure most of us did. Although I wouldn’t say ‘explanations that demean us’ – I don’t think that’s quite accurate (though it’s close). I think it’s more a matter of trying to see past explanations that sentimentalize or prettify us, to get at the uglier (more demeaning) truth underneath. Of course that’s not always mistaken, to put it mildly (advertisers aren’t actually always in the business because they want to educate us); but it’s also not always the case that the most repellent or unnerving explanation is invariably and necessarily the right one. Freud often does seem to be convinced that the most irritating intepretation he can come up with is indeed necessarily the right one. Probably because of his toilet training.

Astrology Not Nonsense After All

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Okay and now that we’ve got it straight that I have no choice but to go on being smugly complacently in favour of rational inquiry as opposed to the other thing, let’s drop in on the Independent and see what it has to say about astrology.

The massive power of waves and the tides that cause them are, it is universally accepted, a direct consequence of the gravitational influences of the Moon and the Sun upon Earth. We also know that the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour and has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance, hence the word lunatic. Is it, astrologists argue, therefore completely impossible that the other planets also exert influences on our lives and personalities, to greater or lesser degrees and in varying combinations?

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anything quite as ridiculous as that, at least in a respectable newspaper. (Okay, not counting Bunting.) Note the discrepancy between ‘it is universally accepted’ in the first sentence and the much vaguer ‘we also know’ in the second. Who’s we, bub? And what do you mean ‘know’? And once we’ve got that clear – what on earth do you mean by ‘the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour’? You mean like wolves howling at it? Or you mean like the moon turning bats into vampires? And then when we’re clear about that, what in the sam hill do you mean by ‘has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance’? Eh? What do you mean ‘linked with’ for a start? You mean correlated with? You mean somebody has said ‘Hey, Clara went barking mad when the moon was almost full, and that other woman across town went a little funny during an eclipse’? Saying the moon has ‘long been linked with’ women’s ‘mental disturbance’ is perfectly compatible with simply saying that a lot of people who didn’t know much about either the moon or women’s brains have made random speculative correlations between the moon and women flipping out – which isn’t saying much. (Neither is ‘hence the word lunatic’. We know whence the word lunatic, you prat, that doesn’t constitute evidence that the moon does in fact make women go crazy, it just constitutes evidence that people thought the moon made people go crazy.) And then the descent into complete raving in the last sentence. Who knows whether it’s ‘completely impossible’ or not, but that’s not the issue; the issue is that there’s no reason to think so. Woolly thinkers always babble about proof and certainty and completely impossible, when those are not what’s at stake. Anyway – how did Terry Kirby get from the waves and the tides to ‘influences on our lives and personalities’? (By sly stages, that’s how. Waves and tides, to animal behaviour, to aspects of our lives such as menstruation and mental disturbance, to influences on our lives and personalities – as if they were all pretty much the same kind of thing. Well they’re not. If Kirby knows of some evidence that gravity influences our personalities the same way it influences the tides, I’d be curious to see it.) And then there’s ‘the other planets,’ meaning in addition to the moon and the sun. Err…

And that, having been around in various forms since the ancient Babylonians first began to describe celestial omens 4,000 years ago, astrology deserves more respect than the derision commonly accorded it by the rational scientists and the established churches[?]

Well there’s a stupid ‘argument’. Lots of things have ‘been around’ for four thousand years or more, but that doesn’t automatically mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ – why would it? Stupid ideas don’t become less stupid as they get older; often the contrary is true, as better information becomes available. The four humours were around for a long time too; does that mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ now?

Marlene Houghton, an astrologer for more than 30 years, puts it another way. “Astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science.”

Yupuhuh. Also known as the easy out. Astrology is a ‘metaphysical doctrine’ – okay, but then if it claims that distant planets do in fact ‘exert influences on our lives and personalities’ then it is making non-metaphysical truth claims, and doesn’t get to wiggle out of noticing disconfirming evidence with handwaving about metaphysical doctrines. That is, in the vernacular, cheating.

I’ve never seen astrology as a prop or a belief system but, as Ms Chalklin says, simply a tool to better understand the ups and downs of everyday life and help explain something about ourselves and the people we meet. It’s not rocket science, in fact, it’s not science at all. Whether you are an Aries or a Pisces, it is ultimately about people and what makes us what we are.

But if it’s a crap tool with all broken teeth and twisted prongs and dull blades and bent shafts, then what’s the point of it? How does it help anyone better understand the ups and downs of anything if it’s a great whirling cloud of vapor? How does it explain anything about ourselves and the people we meet when in fact it doesn’t explain anything at all because it’s pure raving nonsense?

Ah, the hell with it. With people like that around and the Indy publishing them, I’ll just have to go on being smug and complacent, I can’t possibly do anything else.

No Remedy

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Sastra makes a relevant point, or set of points, in a comment on ‘No Exit’.

Bottom line, science is the method you use when you want to force yourself to seriously consider the possibility that you might be wrong. It’s designed to eliminate bias and test views as much as possible. It’s structured to force a change of mind. If that is allowed to pass as just a “different kind of dogma,” then being undogmatic would mean refusing to consider the possibility you might be wrong, embracing your biases, and not testing your beliefs. Don’t change your mind. Stay firm. Otherwise, you might be in danger of the smugness of scientism.

Just so, and that’s where the regress comes in, and I just can’t see any way out of it. For one thing, as Sastra indicates, taking things on faith itself involves a kind of smugness. In fact you could say that it doesn’t involve smugness, it is smugness. The refusal to consider disconfirming evidence (and that is what faith is, by definition) could be seen as the very essence of smugness. Again, I reach a dead end where I just don’t see what the alternative can be. Making a virtue of refusing ever to change one’s mind, no matter what, is not an anti-smug stance.

But then it’s smug of me to say that. We’re saying (we have a consensus) that rational inquiry and science, which always include the possibility that we might be wrong, are better forms of inquiry than their opposites, which exclude the possibility that their practitioners might be wrong; we’re saying this method is better than that method; therefore there is a potential for smugness. Sure; there is; but the remedy for that can’t be to take up a much smugger, more self-protective way of thinking. I don’t know what the remedy is, other than the usual ones of trying to be vigilant, aware, self-critical, and so on; but I’m pretty convinced of what it’s not.