Notes and Comment Blog

The Nerve of Some Teachers

Apr 8th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

Here’s a very useful collection for you – links to news coverage of Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley’s proposed ‘Academic Freedom Bill of Rights.’ People like Baxley are a big help, you know? Any time I listen to Start the Week or Saturday Review and get a little cross or downcast or highstrung about the way everyone simply takes it for granted that all Americans are both stupid and insane – well all I have to do is think of people like Rep. Baxley and I realize why UK radio chatters might think that.

The Alligator gets in some good jabs.

At the Capitol, Baxley opened the council meeting by saying that personal criticism he received about the bill was a sign the government should step in to govern what university professors can say in the classroom.

And Horowitz was there to spice things up, of course. (His frequent flyer miles must be really racking up these days.)

As editor of Front Page Magazine, Horowitz wrote in a 2001 article that the theory of evolution was a political invention “to attack traditional values.”

That Darwin. Didn’t he have anything better to do than invent some pesky theory to attack traditional values? What was his problem, anyway? Was he just, like, pissed because he wasn’t born in Florida, or what?

Casting the “crisis” in higher education as a struggle between “leftist totalitarianism” and “mainstream values,” Horowitz cited anecdotes about students being marked down for disagreeing with professors in class. He divulged neither the names of these students nor their professors.

Hmmmm. For instance…like in biology class, when the professor is lecturing about DNA and a student keeps interrupting to say ‘No it’s not DNA, it’s God, what does it’? Or in English class, when the professor is leading a discussion of, say, ‘The Prelude,’ and a student keeps interrupting to say that Wordsworth wasn’t actually Wordsworth but rather Anastasia Romanov in disguise? Or in history class when the professor is lecturing on the Third Reich and a student keeps interrupting to say the Holocaust never happened? Or in astronomy class when a student keeps interrupting to say that the moon is a large paper disc five thousand feet above the earth?

I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that kind of what students go to university for? To be disagreed with? If it’s not, why do they bother going at all? Well, to get a credential, I suppose. But if the credential is really that completely divorced from this business of having existing opinions and knowledge or the lack of it disagreed with, then why bother with physical attendance? Why waste all that time and energy? Why not just go to the damn credential store and buy the credential and let it go at that?

It must happen with books, too. That’s sad, isn’t it. There the poor innocent student is, reading along, and all of a sudden she reads something that is different from what she herself thinks. Fortunately, books can’t mark people down, so the harm is smaller – but all the same. Something ought to be done about it. Stickers on the covers, maybe, that give a warning – ‘Danger: Contents may contain statements that differ from reader’s own sacred identity-fostering opinions. Read with caution. Have medications handy. Play soothing music. Breathe deeply and slowly. Stop after fifteen minutes.’

Come to think of it, there are stickers like that. So much for sarcasm. Reality keeps outrunning sarcasm, these days.

A Slight Mix-up

Apr 8th, 2005 4:28 am | By

I know I shouldn’t laugh. But oh dear, it is funny. They must have worked up such a sweat trying to think up a good theoretical explanation – and all for nothing.

Literary rediscoveries form a routine part of cultural life. They have a certain protocol. A given author has been “unfairly neglected.” The reissue of a book is “long overdue.” The rescue from oblivion is, in effect, the righting of a wrong. The most striking thing about the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins is that, for once, the process is running in the opposite direction. Now that it’s clear the author was not African-American, her novels seem destined for something for which we lack a familiar language — or even a name. Kelley-Hawkins is now due, for want of a better term, to be reforgotten.

Yeah, that ‘unfairly neglected’ trope. I’ve been wrestling with that particular hydra for a long time. I went through a phase of reading a lot of rescued from oblivion novels by women, and some of them did have considerable historical and social interest. But it did finally dawn on me that in fact their consignment to oblivion had not been unfair at all, because they weren’t good enough. Some were abysmal, others were just mediocre; but what they were not, was Jane Austen-level or Emily Bronte-level good, ruthlessly tossed aside for no other reason than because the authors were women. They were like 99.9% of novels, by women and by men (and by any other category you can think of, too): just not very good, so displaced by newer not very good novels, which would soon be displaced by more not very good novels. That’s life. Fairness doesn’t come into it.

As this story* makes all too apparent. When scholars thought Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was black and hence one of the unfairly neglected crowd, she was worth reading – all the more because she mysteriously wrote about white characters. Food for theorizing there.

Without the academic labor required to interpret Kelley-Hawkins — to reconcile, in short, the extreme blondeness and pinkness of her characters with the presumed complexities of the author’s racial identity — there is no reason to read the novels at all.

Which cannot help but make one wonder if there ever was any reason.

Within a few years, Claudia Tate would write in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (Oxford, 1992) that the novelist “avoid[ed] racial despair by suppressing entirely or partially the discourse of race,” thus creating a fictional world “under the auspices of equal opportunity in a meritocracy.”

Ohhh, she suppressed the discourse of race – I see. That would explain it.

Now, there certainly were early African-American writers who were concerned with the ambiguities of “the discourse of race” and all its “codes of intelligibility.” The fiction of Charles Chesnutt, for example, actually contains all the irony and paradox that critics have laboriously contrived to uncover in Kelley-Hawkins’s novels, with their earnest tedium. Indeed, reading Chesnutt has a kind of boomerang effect. His fiction about African-Americans “passing” or otherwise reinventing themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is sometimes so intricate in implication that you only grasp what has happened in a story hours after you’ve finished it. There is nothing like that reading experience with Kelley-Hawkins. On the contrary, the critical literature since 1988 has often been at pains to avoid expressing irritation with her work. Acknowledging her mediocrity would tend to distract everyone from finding subversive meanings.

Maybe it will be a relief now, to be able to express that irritation. ‘So all those vapid white girls weren’t ironic evidence of the discourse of race, they were just vapid white girls! No wonder I always hated these novels!’

Even if Kelley-Hawkins were black, I asked, should she have been highly placed on those lists? After all, Shockley herself hadn’t been that enthusiastic about the novels.
“I had to struggle through a lot of work like that,” she said. “Some of it was quite boring, but it was worth it even to get one more black woman writer onto the list.”
It’s possible to see her point, but still to wonder. There is a passage in Four Girls at Cottage City that has been bothering me. One of the characters comments on the pleasure of going to the theater, even “if we do have to get seats in ‘nigger heaven.’”…Now if any part of Kelley-Hawkins’s work would seem to require careful analysis from scholars interested in race, that one would. Yet the critical literature tiptoes past, nodding at it but not saying much. Whatever the author’s own race, it would be crucial to understanding her world view and her work.
It is the passage in which form and content, aesthetics and ideology, are perfectly combined — a revelation that the fiction of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, trite as it may be, embodied the banality of evil. Perhaps we shouldn’t forget her just yet, after all.

*I know, it’s more than a month old, but I only saw it out of the corner of my eye then. My mistake.


Apr 7th, 2005 7:49 pm | By

He’s right you know, Krugman is.

But studies that find registered Republicans in the minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as in softer fields. Why?…In the 1970’s, even Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican Party was the “party of ideas.” Today, even Republicans like Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the “party of theocracy.”…Consider the statements of Dennis Baxley, a Florida legislator who has sponsored a bill that – like similar bills introduced in almost a dozen states – would give students who think that their conservative views aren’t respected the right to sue their professors…His prime example of academic totalitarianism? When professors say that evolution is a fact. In its April Fools’ Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution…saying that “as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.”…Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that “the jury is still out.”…Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

This is something that puzzles me, actually. I’m puzzled that there isn’t more resistance to it from Republicans. I realize there is some, but I’m puzzled that there isn’t more – that there isn’t so much that it’s effective. After all, at least two large branches of conservatism – the libertarian branch and the country club branch – tend to have a lot of time for meritocracy, education, science, rationality, and the like. They’re kind of basic to capitalism, for one thing, and capitalism is sort of a conservative thing, at least in the US. Not classically conservative, but how many classical conservatives are there in the US? Six? Seven? Everybody else is all for creative destruction. So the death-grip that the Bible-bashers have on the party of the free market and competitiveness is…a source of a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Maybe it’s just that Bible-bashing seems to win elections, so most Republicans don’t want to mess with it. Well, except when even they get fed up, as Shays apparently did. Party of theocracy indeed.

A Game, a Game

Apr 7th, 2005 2:49 am | By

Oh dear, I feel like the White Rabbit, rushing along looking at his watch and fretting at how late he is. I’m very late. But that’s because I didn’t know. I wasn’t told. No one told me. I only found out by accident, dropping in for a read of Eric the Unred. He’s got this Book Meme thing going, and he said he was going to pass the stick to three people, and one of them was My Humble Self. Is my face red. He passed me this stick and I promptly dropped it and went downtown to hang around the pool hall and frighten people. That’s not co-operative.

Right then.

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Hamlet. Hey, I’ll do you a two-for-one special – I’ll throw in Lear. And some sonnets. Such a deal.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Besides Hamlet, you mean? No.

The last book you bought is:

Oh right like I can afford to buy books.

The last book you read:

Err – all the way through, you mean? Gee, I don’t know – it was so many decades ago.

What are you currently reading?

Oh, gawd – it would be quicker to list what I’m not reading. Well, Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason, Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ Human Nature After Darwin, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, several Rorty books, Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled – among other things. I, uh, don’t read books all the way through – oh wait, you already know that, I told you all about it last month in that thing about reading sideways. I admitted it all. I read two pages of lots and lots of books, then throw them aside and go down to the poolhall. You understand.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

All of Jane Austen’s novels in one volume. Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin in one volume. (I am not cheating. Be quiet.) A fat anthology of English poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries. Anna Karenina. The Red and the Black.

I’m going to skip the one about passing the stick to other people, because Eric says this thing has been going around and probably everyone has already done it by now while I wasn’t paying attention and I don’t have time to look first to see who hasn’t and besides I’m shy.

Update. I changed my mind. I knew this would happen. Replace Anna K with the largest possible one-volume collection of Hazlitt’s essays (far larger than any that actually exists – it will have to be made specially). Replace Red and Black with ‘The Prelude.’

We’ll Run Out of Straw, at This Rate

Apr 5th, 2005 8:44 pm | By

A little wisdom from Foucault. ‘Truth and Power.’

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power…’Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.

That’s a pretty glaring bit of rhetorical sleight of hand. It’s fairly obvious that he’s talking about truth-claims, not truth itself. There’s a big (and important) difference! Obviously truth-claims can be (and often are) power-moves. The same is not in the least obvious in the case of truth itself; in fact it’s not, not to put too fine a point on it, true. Obviously Foucault, not being a fool, must have been well aware of that…but, who knows, maybe he was more intent on persuasion than on scrupulous argument. In fact maybe he was simply acting out his own point – his own truth-claim. An ‘argument’ or rhetorical claim that relies on a brazen equivocation like that is certainly one form of constraint – and a particularly obnoxious one because not explicit, not obvious, not avowed, not out in the open where it can be resisted or at least noted. It takes one to know one, as the saying goes.

Richard Wolin quotes from ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ on page 42 of his The Seduction of Unreason:

The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice; that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth; and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind.)

That is, as Wolin points out, an astonishing thing to say.

And then there’s Philip Blond. I’ve transcribed a little of the Night Waves discussion, so I’ll quote you a bit. I’ve also googled Philip Blond (and been slightly staggered to find my own mention of him here as the fourth item – now I suppose this mention will be in there too, which makes me feel dizzy). I found this bizarre-looking book on ‘post-secular’ philosophy, listing the most predictable possible trendy names – you can say them in your sleep: Kierkegaard Nietzsche Heidegger Levinas Marion Wittgenstein Derrida Freud Lacan Kristeva Irigary Baudrillard, along with three wrinkly non-trendies. All those dragooned into Blond’s ridiculous project.

I say ridiculous because the things he says on Night Waves are truly ridiculous – the strawest of straw men. Get this:

Philip Dodd: Maybe it’s time to call science’s bluff…[to Blond] Do you think science is overly revered at present?

Philip Blond: I think almost undoubtedly yes. I mean of course in some limited or partial sense science is true, but it by no means is the exclusive or sole model of what truth is. Indeed I would argue that something other than science has to be true if science itself is to be true. Science is wrong in our culture or has become unhinged it seems to me in two ways. First of all in contemporary culture science has converted its harmonic with truth into an absolutism, into a kind of quasi-fundamentalism. Such that it claims to be the sole exhaustive universal model of truth. Secondly, in doing so, it has drained all other accounts, all broader or richer accounts of truth of any value. The absolutization of science has resulted in the relativisation of morality, ethics, aesthetics, anything else you’d care to name.

See what I mean? As if scientists said they were the exclusive or sole model of what truth is, or the sole exhaustive universal model of truth! Sheer silly strawmanism, that’s all that is. And yet Mr Strawman got to do most of the talking, and got to interrupt everyone all the time (I think because he was the first one asked to speak he got the idea that he was sort of in charge of the discussion, so felt entitled and perhaps even expected to control and dominate it. Or maybe he just has an inflated idea of his own importance).

A peculiar confluence, isn’t it, a theologian and Nietzsche and Foucault. But that’s postmodernism for you. Playful.

Gertrude, Gertrude, What is the Answer?

Apr 3rd, 2005 7:44 pm | By

A bit more on this ‘science can’t answer the why questions’ trope. Because it’s a surprisingly enduring and frequently-heard one, and yet it’s completely worthless. If it’s so worthless, why is it so enduring and so often repeated? Because not enough people say often enough how worthless it is? That must be it. Okay so let’s all start saying that more often, and maybe with our combined weight we can beat it to death.

What the silly phrase means is that science doesn’t permit itself to make up answers to why questions, whereas religion and ‘theology’ do. The idea that that makes religion and theology superior rather than grossly inferior is ludicrous.

You could play that game in all sorts of ways (which means: behold, a reductio ad absurdum approaches). Ask a friend: ‘How many grains of sand are on this beach?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Shake head sadly – assert random number. ‘I can answer and you can’t.’ Repeat procedure. ‘How many leaves on that tree? What was the name of Shakespeare’s pet iguana? What did Napoleon eat for lunch on March 20 1784? What is the meaning of life?’ Rational people say they don’t know; you invent an answer; which party has a problem? Which party ‘can’ ‘answer’ the question?

And then, the answer that religion and ‘theology’ give is not an answer anyway, because the question is just as askable as it ever was. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ‘Because God.’ ‘Why is there God?’ ‘____’

Night Waves

Apr 2nd, 2005 5:16 am | By

Well it’s a good thing I listen to Night Waves occasionally, or I never would have known about this – which makes me think I really ought to shout at I mean remonstrate with Julian for not telling me, because I can hardly imagine anything more directly up B&W’s street. Well I ask you – two of the four panelists have contributed to B&W, and one of those two contributes on a regular basis, often, every two weeks, or thereabouts. So listen to it – it’s as interesting as it sounds.

The only trouble is, Nighwaves makes the usual tedious stupid mistake and has a theologian join in, and he does way too much of the talking, and says fatuous things (as theologians do). Really, it is irritating. He says a lot of things that aren’t true, for one thing – the usual guff about science thinking it knows everything and scientists thinking they should run everythng blah blah blah. It’s all crap; scientists don’t think that. Straw man stuff, and a waste of time, when they could have had more of the interesting stuff from Norman Levitt and Julian and A S Byatt. (Julian got a dig in, when he said ethics panels are not run by scientists but by other people, philosophers, a lot of them – and also theologians, for no particularly good reason. Yeah, thought I.) They are such a waste of time and attention, and yet they keep being asked. It is annoying. He did the ‘why’ thing, too, of course – you know – ‘science can’t answer the why questions.’ Oh right and you can?! How do you answer them, you blathering git? By making it up, that’s how! Why does that count?! Your answer is completely worthless, it’s just what you want to believe, and we’re supposed to think that makes theology better able to answer than science is because science just says it doesn’t know and the question is probably not answerable? Making up a weak silly wish-fulfilling answer is not better than saying ‘Dunno’! It’s not! God I hate theologians.

But apart from Philip Blond it’s very good indeed. Check it out.

More From the R-Man

Apr 1st, 2005 9:02 pm | By

A little more Rorty, for your amusement, and for the irritation of people who are irritated by my take on Rorty.

Pragmatism, by contrast, does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature – or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries…Some of these inquiries come up with propositions, some with narratives, some with paintings. The question of what propositions to assert, which pictures to look at, what narratives to listen to…are all questions about what will help us get what we want (or about what we should want.

That’s from Consequences of Pragmatism page xliii. Now a comment from Thomas Nagel, Other Minds page 9.

lately some purveyors of philosophy-made-easy have become world famous…Analytic philosophy has escaped almost completely the facile relativism that seems to be so influential elsewhere in the humanities, originally stirred up by Derrida and now defended by references to Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn. Philosophy seems to export its worst products…When debased philosophy is very influential elsewhere, the only way to combat it actively is to enter the arena and compete for popular conviction…While I admire those, like Dworkin and Searle, who have the stomach and the talent for this sort of polemic, I have lost what appetite I ever had for it, and hope instead that the current wayve of confusion will subside if we just ignore it.

No doubt Nagel is ignorant of his rudiments of intellectual history, or he wouldn’t be so harsh…[That’s a joke! No, wait, I mean that’s irony. No, sarcasm – no, zany madcap humour – no – ]

Tell Them, Gov

Apr 1st, 2005 7:52 pm | By

Well done, governor of Illinois. Step up, other 49 governors.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich filed an emergency rule Friday requiring pharmacies that sell contraceptives to fill prescriptions for birth control quickly, following recent incidents in which a Chicago pharmacist refused to fill orders for contraceptives because of moral opposition. “Our regulation says that if a woman goes to a pharmacy with a prescription for birth control, the pharmacy is not allowed to discriminate who they sell it to and who they don’t,” Blagojevich said in a news release. “The pharmacy will be expected to accept that prescription and fill it … No delays. No hassles. No lecture. Just fill the prescription.”

Well said. A little bluntness is welcome and necessary in this nonsensical situation. A situation in which people say things like this:

Supporters of pharmacists’ rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief.

Pharmacists’ rights? Pharmacists’ ‘rights’ to refuse to do the job of a pharmacist? What ‘right’ is that? They have the right to quit, obviously, but they don’t have a ‘right’ to refuse to do their job – not and keep the job they don’t. You might as well say a restaurant chef has a right to refuse to cook pasta because it looks like worms, or a plumber has a right to refuse to insert the male pipe into the female pipe because it looks like fornication, or a bus driver has a right to refuse to let passengers get on the bus because they will only be wanting to get off again.

Pharmacists often risk dismissal to stand up for their beliefs, while shaken teenage girls and women desperately call their doctors, frequently late at night, after being turned away by pharmacists. “There are pharmacists who will only give birth control pills to a woman if she’s married. There are pharmacists who mistakenly believe contraception is a form of abortion and refuse to prescribe it to anyone,” said Adam Sonfield, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which tracks reproductive issues…Supporters of pharmacists’ rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief. Women’s groups see it as a major threat to reproductive rights and one of the latest manifestations of the religious right’s growing political reach – this time into the neighbourhood pharmacy.
“This is another indication of the current political atmosphere and climate,” said Rachel Laser of the National Women’s Law Centre. “It’s outrageous. It’s sex discrimination. It prevents access to a basic form of health care for women.”

That’s what it looks like to me. The religious right is a classic case of taking a mile after the donation of an inch. The more they are offered nervous apologetic anxious soothing ‘respect’ for their ‘beliefs,’ the more respect they demand, and the more they throw their horrible mindless coercive weight around. It’s imperative to say No. No, no, no. Your beliefs are not worthy of respect; people were pretending all this time, in order not to hurt your feelings, but the fact it it’s all nonsense, and no basis on which to tell other people what to do. Go away, shut up, have some humility. Keep your god to yourself.

Theocracy in America

Apr 1st, 2005 3:22 am | By

It’s all quite alarming, as Paul Krugman points out.

Democratic societies have a hard time dealing with extremists in their midst. The desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs all too easily turns into denial: nobody wants to talk about the threat posed by those whose beliefs include contempt for democracy itself.

Doesn’t it just. Which is one reason I keep nagging so relentlessly at this ‘desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs’ – asking why we have it for some kinds of beliefs and not others, and why we have it at all, and the like. I mean, seriously – one reason I don’t have desire to show respect for other people’s beliefs is because people who make a fetish of their beliefs are far more coercive and intolerant and intrusive than people who have the humility and vestige of rationality to realize that mere beliefs are just that, and don’t entitle them to shove them onto other people, or try to tell other people what to do because of them. I think it’s way past time we started telling people ‘if you want to believe in supernatural entities, okay, but you have to recognize that that’s your choice and that you can’t expect anyone else to agree with you – because that’s how it is with supernatural entities: you have no way of giving us any evidence that they exist. So keep your beliefs to yourself.’

One thing that’s going on is a climate of fear for those who try to enforce laws that religious extremists oppose. Randall Terry, a spokesman for Terri Schiavo’s parents, hasn’t killed anyone, but one of his former close associates in the anti-abortion movement is serving time for murdering a doctor. George Greer, the judge in the Schiavo case, needs armed bodyguards. Another thing that’s going on is the rise of politicians willing to violate the spirit of the law, if not yet the letter, to cater to the religious right. Everyone knows about the attempt to circumvent the courts through “Terri’s law.” But there has been little national exposure for a Miami Herald report that Jeb Bush sent state law enforcement agents to seize Terri Schiavo from the hospice – a plan called off when local police said they would enforce the judge’s order that she remain there.

Jeb Bush used his office to try to break the law. (Gee, why does that have a familiar ring to it…)

Yesterday The Washington Post reported on the growing number of pharmacists who, on religious grounds, refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after pills. These pharmacists talk of personal belief; but the effect is to undermine laws that make these drugs available.

Welcome to God’s country. Really – it’s way, way past time to stop respecting people’s beliefs and start pushing back.

This Again

Apr 1st, 2005 3:15 am | By

Just in case you’re interested. Yet another argument about the French hijab ban at Crooked Timber, in which CT frames the issue as if all Muslims and people from majority-Muslim countries were opposed to the ban and only honky imperialists and totalitarian secularists were in favour of it. I shouldn’t be rude; the intentions are good; but there always is so much left out of this discussion, it gets up my nose. Never so much as a mention of Ni Putes ni Soumises, or the fact that a majority of Muslim women polled in France favour the ban – which you would think would be relevant to a discussion that’s premised on the idea that the ban is humiliating because it singles out a religion or ethnic group.

As always, though, there are some French commenters chiming in and setting CT straight, or at least trying to. Yabonn, who has tried before, and François. There was a memorable version of this discussion about a year ago when Rana, who unlike any of the anti-ban commenters had actually been made to wear the damn hijab as a child, told people what a joy that was. But did they listen to her? Not that I noticed. They just…don’t. One-eared.

Strange but True Excuse Me I Mean ‘True’

Apr 1st, 2005 2:57 am | By

I mentioned Rorty. Well I’ve been reading him lately. I knew he had a habit of saying strange things – but he says even stranger things than I realized he had a habit of saying. That is, he says some things that are so strange I find myself surprised that he says them. Taken aback, disconcerted, astonished, amazed. Maybe that’s why he says them – so that people will have such reactions. That is one reward of saying things, of course. I know people who tell absurd lies for that very purpose – the fun of causing their interlocutors to splutter and wheeze and argue. Maybe that’s what Rorty is doing. He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases.

Probably not though. At least not entirely. But then – oh well, you have a look.

Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity – the desire to be in touch with a reality which is more than some community with which we identify ourselves – with the desire for solidarity with that community.

No…I don’t think he is joking. I think he’s a disaster.

My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity.

Both of those from Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, page 39.

The tradition in Western culture which centers around the notion of the search for Truth…is the clearest example of the attempt to find a sense in one’s existence by turning away from solidarity to objectivity. The idea of Truth as something to be pursued for its own sake, not because it will be good for oneself, or for one’s real or imaginary community, is the central theme of this tradition.

Ibid, page 21. The first two from ‘Science as Solidarity,’ the third from ‘Solidarity or objectivity?’ In the third, it’s clear in context that that tradition is a bad one that we gotta get rid of.

Susan Haack points out (Manifesto of Passionate Moderate p. 67 n. 29) ‘that Rorty doesn’t always sound this radical; just very often.’

He’s painful to read. I’ve probably had three or four transient ischemic attacks just today.

Flying North

Mar 30th, 2005 8:35 pm | By

It’s one of those peculiarly gorgeous days here, when it’s difficult to stay at the desk tap-tapping. You know the kind of thing. After several days of rain, an interval, of scrubbed translucent dazzling blue sky and white clouds. So I gave up the struggle and went out for a walk along The Wall overlooking the water, islands, mountains, all that. And got a bonus. I was half-aware (my mind was elsewhere – probably musing on Richard Rorty) of hearing bird calls overhead, but I paid no heed – but then I noticed a couple of people ahead of me gazing upwards, so I looked, in plenty of time to see two large Vs of snow geese flying north. The two Vs scattered, regrouped, reformed into one V while I watched, and off they all went – maybe a hundred or so – towards the Skagit for a rest stop, then towards Canada and the Arctic. Man, it was beautiful.

Panda’s Thumb Round-up

Mar 29th, 2005 12:00 am | By

[Mopping streaming eyes] This is very amusing. Over at Panda’s Thumb.

Prof. Steve Steve holds the B. Amboo Chair in Creatoinformatics at the University of Ediacara. He has been nominated five times (only twice by himself) for the Nobel Prize and has received six Barnes and Noble gift certificates.

Read the whole thing. Admire Steve’s picture, too. And there’s the one on Scientific American’s surrender to the creationists. About time – elitist bastards!

Oh just read the whole site – there’s one good item after another. What do they think, that I’ve got all day to read their posts?!

And there is the NY Times article on the Imax theatres rejecting evolooshun movies.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including “Cosmic Voyage,” which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; “Galápagos,” about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor…Hyman Field, who as a science foundation official had a role in the financing of “Volcanoes,” said he understood that theaters must be responsive to their audiences. But Dr. Field he said he was “furious” that a science museum would decide not to show a scientifically accurate documentary like “Volcanoes” because it mentioned evolution.

The Times article apparently prompted other articles, which prompted protests, which prompted the Dallas/Ft Worth science museum to reverse its decision – so that was a useful Times article. Good. The Times irritates me often, for instance by patting itself on the back all the time, but that was useful. Props, and all that.

Sham Inquiry

Mar 28th, 2005 8:37 pm | By

A bit from an essay of Susan Haack’s in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, page 8.

And to inquire is to try to discover the truth of some question. But pseudo-inquiry is a phenomenon no less common than pseudo-belief…Peirce identifies one kind of pseudo-inquiry when he writes of ‘sham reasoning’ [Collected Papers, I. 57-58]: making a case for the truth of some proposition your commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof.

Yes. A neat summing-up. Also a neat expression of the basic, the as it were foundational principle of B&W – which could be called identification of and opposition to sham inquiry.

Also a neat, succint description of how Margaret Mead went wrong. I’ve just been re-reading Derek Freeman’s book on the subject, as well as a brilliant long article on Franz Boas in The New Yorker last year (not online, unfortunately) by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It’s an interesting and somewhat conflict-inducing subject – because Boas was so right, from a moral and political view; he was so admirable, and often so isolated. And yet. From an epistemic point of view, he did get things backward. And yet – what else can one do in a situation like that? When racist ‘eugenic’ ideas are sweeping the intellectual landscape and you’re convinced they’re both harmful and false, what can you do but look for evidence to back up your conviction? And yet – if you do that, you are getting things the wrong way around, and you are very likely – you may indeed be consciously determined – to ignore any evidence you don’t want. Politically, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do (and I’m sure I do it all the time); in terms of inquiry, it’s just not the way to go.

Haack goes on,

He has in mind philosophers who devise elaborate metaphysical underpinnings for theological propositions which no evidence or argument would induce them to give up. I think of Philip Gosse’s tortured efforts to reconcile the evidence Darwin adduced in favour of the theory of evolution with the literal truth of the book of Geneisis – and of the advocacy ‘research’ and politically motivated ‘scholarship’ of our own times. The characteristic feature of sham inquiry is the ‘inquirer’s’ prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition for which he tries to make a case.

Something to watch out for.

My Ancestor Was Not an Underwater Vent!

Mar 28th, 2005 3:49 am | By

It’s good to have idiots deciding what people get to see at the science museum, isn’t it. Well, that’s the market for you.

Some IMAX theaters are refusing to carry movies that promote evolution, citing concerns that doing so offends their audience and creates controversy – a move that has some proponents of Darwinism alarmed over the influence of “fundamentalists.”…A dozen science centers rejected the 2003 release, “Volcanoes,” because of it speculation that life on Earth may have originated in undersea vents, says Dr. Richard Lusk, an oceanographer and chief scientist for the project. Because a only small number of IMAX theaters show science films, a boycott by a few can reduce the potential audience to the point that producers question whether projects are financially worthwhile…

And that’s that. Whereas it probably doesn’t work the other way. A few intellectually curious people who want to see more movies with speculations about the origins of life on earth probably don’t inspire producers to make such movies. So the easily offended get to decide.

When the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History played the movie for a test audience, the responses were sufficiently negative for the museum to drop it from its offerings. Responses like “I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact,” or “I don’t agree with their presentation of human existence” doomed the film’s chances. “Some people said it was blasphemous,” says Carol Murray, the museum’s director of marketing.

And if some people say it was blasphemous, well, away with it then.

The film’s distributor says other science museum officials turned him down “for religious reasons” and because “Volcanoes” had “evolutionary overtones” – a claim that makes Hyman Field, a former National Science Foundation official who played a role in its financing, “furious. It’s very alarming,” he says, “all of this pressure being put on a lot of the public institutions by the fundamentalists.”



Mar 25th, 2005 7:46 pm | By

Wow. Cool. Look – Huxley.

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. It may seem an audacious proposal thus to pit the microcosm against the macrocosm and to set man to subdue nature to his higher ends; but I venture to think that the great intellectual difference between the ancient times with which we have been occupied and our day, lies in the solid foundation we have acquired for the hope that such an enterprise may meet with a certain measure of success.

The things one can find on the Internet. (Is it, or is it not, God’s will? If it is, why didn’t he give Voltaire and Hazlitt and Seneca and Protagoras the pleasure? Witholding bastard.)


Mar 25th, 2005 4:56 pm | By

Excellent. Hazlitt again. Say what you will about the Guardian – they do have a good books section, and they do keep having articles on Hazlitt. More than you can say for the New York Times!

I’ve said it before so why not say it again (especially since the article is saying much the same thing). Hazlitt is the most inexplicable case of undeserved literary obscurity that I know of in the case of an Anglophone author. Absolutely the top one. To be sure, there are Elizabethans and 17th century people who are well worth reading, who don’t get read all that much any more – Sidney, Nashe, Browne, Burton. But the barriers to reading them are easily understandable. But Hazlitt? Hazlitt?? Hazlitt is so readable it’s absurd, and the genre he writes in, unlike the genres that Nashe, Browne and Burton wrote in, is still very much current. He wrote essays and reviews. Big leap, huh? Nobody reads essays and reviews any more!

So why is Hazlitt so damn gone? Why was I made to read Lamb essays in school while I never so much as heard of Hazlitt? Why, why, why? I have no idea. I mean I really don’t – I don’t have a lurking suspicion of something or other; I have no clue; it makes no sense.

Because here’s the thing. He’s a brilliant stylist. Brilliant. Not just pretty good, not just very good; brilliant. One of the very, very best. He makes Orwell look lame. And nobody reads him. It’s tragic! And in case being a brilliant stylist is not enough, he’s no slouch as a thinker. And he’s politically interesting, and he’s good on literature, and he has an interesting mind and personality and take on things. There’s just no downside to reading Hazlitt. But no one does.

A reasonably well-educated friend noticed this book peeping out of my pocket one morning and remarked that it was rather heavy reading for such a time of day, or indeed for any time. I do wish people would stop doing this. Because Hazlitt died 170-odd years ago and is not as famous as Wordsworth or Coleridge, they assume that he cannot be an easy read, or even less of an easy read than W&C, or that to read him is more of a duty than a pleasure.
If you want a depressing lesson in contemporary cultural memory, go to any average-sized branch of a chain bookstore and ask for anything by Hazlitt. You will notice that it will take the person at the counter four or five goes to get the spelling right…

Terrible. Hazlitt rules. Down with archbishops and up with Hazlitt. Happy Easter.

The Archies

Mar 25th, 2005 4:23 pm | By

Right. Let’s get down to it. With some help from Polly Toynbee.

But here the usefulness of faith ends, for it is mainly the power of the religious lobby that forces people to die in pain and indignity due to beliefs on the nature of life and death shared by very few. For 20 years now, every poll on the subject shows that 80% of people want the right to be helped to die at a time and in a way of their own choosing. But that kind of “choice” is not on the agenda.

And furthermore, even if the beliefs were shared by very many, even if they were indeed universal, they would still be both wrong (in the sense of inaccurate) and disgusting. (Which is the same problem that always comes up in discussions of for instance ‘honour’ killing and the like. I heard an example on the BBC World Service the other day, talking about the murder of Hatin Surucu in Berlin recently: the reporter said that clerics are telling the people in their mosques that ‘honour’ killing is not in the Koran. Well, clearly that’s one useful precaution under the circumstances, but the fact remains that even if it were in the Koran it would still be disgusting, contemptible, reprehensible. That the question to ask about a social practice that does obvious, radical, extreme harm to some people is not ‘Is it condoned or recommended or mandated in the Holy Book?’ but ‘Is it a good or acceptable or justifiable practice? Is it a cruel savage domineering controlling practice with no shred of justification?’) They would no doubt be much, much harder to get rid of; indeed they would probably be impossible to get rid of, if they were universal; but they would still be bad and wrong.

What kills you in the end if you have cancer or other terminal diseases? Not often the cancer itself. Nor the morphine that people innocently imagine will one day waft them away on a cloudy pillow of dreams to some opium-fuelled nirvana. What people actually die of, like Terri Schiavo, is dehydration when they can no longer swallow enough water to live – and it takes time. Enough morphine to die quickly is very rarely administered these days. Instead, cautious doctors, extra wary after Harold Shipman, give just enough morphine to kill people by degrees. It is enough, in the very end, to render them unable to drink so they die, semi-conscious, of thirst. Hospices don’t put up drips to keep people alive, but they don’t give out death-dealing injections either. The legal compromise is death by dehydration or sometimes slowly and gasping for breath by morphine-induced chest infection – “old man’s friend”. That is the great unspoken truth.

There. That’s nice, isn’t it. Something to look forward to. Read it all. Read about morphine-induced constipation and hallucinations.

Good though palliative care can be – my mother had the NHS at its very best – its own practitioners admit they often watch people die in great mental and physical anguish. People clutch at doctors’ sleeves, begging for an injection: “Can’t you do something?” How easy it is to slip into death-like unconsciousness under an anaesthetic, gone into oblivion before you can count to five. That little death in the operating anteroom is a paradigm for how the good death could be for those who want it.

Let’s hope the law is changed in the UK. And here – though it obviously won’t be any time soon, with these unspeakable bastards imposing their ‘culture of life’ on the rest of us even though we don’t want it. Because of their sick pathetic delusional beliefs.

As the Pope rasps out his last breaths, his bishops are using his final suffering as a testament to the religious requirement to endure whatever quality of life God sends. Both C of E and Catholic archbishops here will fight any attempt to change the law. Politicians have taken their cue from the churches.

The religious requirement to endure whatever quality of life God sends – what complete raving nonsense! If there is a requirement to ‘endure’ then doctors and medicine are illegitimate, right? Or, if the requirement to ‘endure’ somehow means the requirement to endure both illness and what medicine and doctors are able to do about it, then why does it rule out medical decisions that it’s time to put out the light? Because religion is a diseased imposition on human life, that’s why. What requirement? What kind of God is this that wants people to suffer as much as possible at the end of their lives? What is the matter with archbishops that they believe this kind of crap and impose it on everyone else? Serial killers and torturers go to prison (and in the US are executed) for causing that kind of suffering, but archbishops are respected for it.

Do archbishops live outside? Do they shiver in the cold and get wet in the rain? Do they blunder about in the dark, bumping into things? Do they eat all their food raw? Do they abjure clothes, books, transportation, medicine? If they have a headache do they not take aspirin? If you prick them do they not apply a band-aid? What is this hypocritical incoherent inconsistent sadistic mindless drivel about ‘what God sends’?

Go, archbishops, and sin no more.


Mar 24th, 2005 4:09 am | By

Oh, Florida, Florida, Florida. What is your problem.

I mean for one thing there’s this winner.

Republicans on the House Choice and Innovation Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to pass a bill that aims to stamp out “leftist totalitarianism” by “dictator professors” in the classrooms of Florida’s universities…According to a legislative staff analysis of the bill, the law would give students who think their beliefs are not being respected legal standing to sue professors and universities.
Students who believe their professor is singling them out for “public ridicule” – for instance, when professors use the Socratic method to force students to explain their theories in class – would also be given the right to sue.

Is that a clever idea? I mean…what if students believe ‘God’ made the earth a few years before their parents were born? What if they believe 11 plus 2 equals 957,853? What if they believe Napoleon invented the automobile and Hitler was a Notre Dame football star?

What do students go to university for at all, if it’s not to have their beliefs not respected? They go there to find out that some of the things they believe are wrong. Dang – they even go there to find out that beliefs aren’t about ‘respect’. Well, except in Florida, maybe. (And, if Horowitz has his way, in Ohio and a few other states and pretty soon all fifty and I have to go pack my trunk now.)

And then there’s the Jebster.

Mr Bush’s brother, Jeb, meanwhile, has suggested doctors might have misdiagnosed Mrs Schiavo’s condition, which he says might be one of minimal consciousness rather than vegetative.
According to the Associated Press news agency, the governor and the state’s social services agency say they have filed a petition with a Pinellas County trial court seeking to take custody of Mrs Schiavo.

Mr Bush’s brother suggested that based on what, exactly? His own medical knowledge and familiarity with the case and personal examination of the patient? Intuition? Something he saw on tv? A fairy whispering in his ear? Hmm. I wonder if I can do that. [closes eyes, thinks hard] Okay, let’s see. There’s a car in the shop in Wichita, Kansas, that the mechanics have said has transmission problems, but I, sitting at my desk here in Seattle, suggest that the mechanics might have misdiagnosed that car’s condition, and actually what it has is ugly upholstery. I mean, my opinion is as good as theirs, right? It’s disrespecting my beliefs to say it’s not. It’s hell’s own arrogant for those stupid doctors to think they know more about Terri Schiavo’s condition than Jeb Bush does, just because they’ve examined her and he hasn’t and they know how a brain works and he, to put it mildly, doesn’t.

Well, great. What the hell. Let’s let legislators decide what college teachers should teach, and let’s let governors decide when doctors have made boo-boos. Peachy. Three cheers for minimal government. Not only micromanaging hospital care and university teaching, but also claiming universal competence. Brilliant.

Whatever. Maybe when Jeb gets custody of Schiavo he’ll have his parents move in so they can babysit for her and give him some time off. That would be sweet. Family values kind of thing.