Notes and Comment Blog

People Do Change Their Views

Jul 8th, 2003 10:37 pm | By

I found a rather odd interview with Susan Greenfield the other day. The site is some sort of Christian one, but some of Greenfield’s answers are still a bit strange.

My husband, Peter Atkins, is an atheist of the Dawkins stamp and so I’ve sat through many science-religion ding-dongs, and they strike me as a complete waste of time. No one is going to change their views. The Atkins-Dawkins stance treats science almost as though it were a religion, and evangelically try to convert other people. Meanwhile, the religious person can’t articulate why they believe what they do: they just do.

But people do change their views. Of course they do. Not all people of course, and not every time anyone tries to persuade them to, but some people some of the time. That’s what teaching does, isn’t it, it gets people to change their views. Going from ignorance about something to some knowledge to more knowledge, that’s a change of views right there. And people do indeed change their views about religion, quite often precisely because of reading a book or talking to someone. Ideas do that. And as for the fact that religious people can’t articulate why they believe what they do, they just do…well what of it? If I ‘just believe’ that the sun travels around the earth, what’s wrong with someone teaching me that it doesn’t? Religion isn’t just a vague emotion, it’s a set of truth claims; what’s wrong with scientists and skeptics pointing out the lack of evidence for those truth claims?

So, I don’t believe in God but that is a belief, not some thing I know. I believe I love my husband, but I couldn’t prove it to you one way or the other. How could I? I just know I do. My particular belief is that there is no Deity out there, but I can’t prove it and therefore I would not have the temerity to tell other people they’re wrong. The coinage of proof is not appropriate for belief ­ and Dawkins thinks it is.

But it’s not about proof, it’s about evidence. Naturally it’s not possible to prove there is no Deity out there, just as it’s not possible to prove there’s not an intangible invisible scentless and every other way undetectable by the human senses dragon in my living room – but that doesn’t mean I’m required to believe there is one, or that there are four trillion of them. Yes, I can choose simply to go ahead and believe it. But these ‘science-religion ding-dongs’ are generally about religion as a public matter, and there surely evidence is highly relevant. Religions don’t just sit back nicely and let people believe whatever they ‘just do’, they tell them what to believe, and how to act as well; they go into schools, they publish magazines and books, they go on tv and radio and write for the newspapers, they’re called in to give their opinions on ethical issues. So it seems perfectly reasonable and indeed very useful, in fact vitally necessary, for people who notice the non-existence of evidence for their beliefs, to point that out. And the analogy with loving someone seems to me to be a terrible analogy. People used to ask Carl Sagan that in a truculent manner, too. ‘Do you love your wife? Yes? Well how can you prove that? Can you see it? Huh?’ But what’s that got to do with anything? Again – religions are not just emotions, they make truth claims, claims about the world. Truth claims about the world can and should be tested and queried, surely.

Other People’s Rhetoric

Jul 8th, 2003 7:36 pm | By

Let’s revisit Deborah Cameron’s article yet again, because judging by the comments on my comments, I didn’t make myself clear. Or perhaps I did and people disagree anyway, or perhaps I’m just dead wrong. But I want to try to clarify one or two points all the same. The disagreement is with what I said about the different value we place (the culture we live in places) on thoughts and feelings. I do think that difference exists, I do think there is a seldom-examined or -questioned assumption that feelings are good, authentic, spontaneous, real, honest, natural, and for all those reasons and perhaps more, better than thoughts. Some readers point out that the distinction between thoughts and feelings is not clear-cut – and I agree with that, I realize it’s not. But I’m talking about the rhetoric rather than the reality. It seems to me it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this particular discussion whether it makes sense to separate and oppose thoughts and feelings, because the point is that that’s what the rhetoric does, that’s what the culture does, that’s what other people do. Tell them to stop opposing feelings and thoughts, heart and head; don’t bother telling me, I already know.

For example, a quotation in Cameron’s book Good to Talk?, from ‘Circle Time’, a bit of advice on ‘teaching interpersonal and communication skills that is used in some British schools’:

Within the circle children are encouraged to talk about their feelings and about problems that may have arisen at school…

Pure boilerplate, of course, and that’s my point. People are always encouraged to talk about feelings, full stop, not about feelings and thoughts. Now, granted, and here is where we probably just have to agree to differ, if I do have to choose one to talk about and say is better than the other, I will choose thoughts. I do think that when the two are separated there is an entrenched cultural habit (blame D.H. Lawrence, if you like) to say and believe that feelings are better, and I would reverse that if I could. But even leaving that aside, even without that disagreement, I still think there is room to notice and ponder and question the complete omission of thoughts. I think that is part of the subtext of Cameron’s article, and I think it’s worth making supertext, that is to say, explicit.

Here is part of that quotation from the article again:

The main premise of the ‘Mars and Venus’ literature is exactly the one restated by BT—that men are far less at ease than women with self-revelation and the verbalizing of emotional states.

Again. There is a whole set of implicit assumptions there. That self-revelation equates to verbalizing emotional states and not cognitive ones. Yes, the two bleed into each other and overlap, of course they do, but then why is emotional the only word used there? If both are involved, why are both not mentioned?

Oh dear, I ought to write a book myself, no doubt, but it would be such an effort.

‘Somebody with a Doctorate’

Jul 3rd, 2003 5:27 pm | By

Well, this is what I’m always saying. This is where anti-elitism gets you. Influential political operatives who are not ashamed to sneer at education.

Why this administration feels unbound by the consensus of academic scientists can be gleaned, in part, from a telling anecdote in Nicholas Lemann’s recent New Yorker profile of Karl Rove. When asked by Lemann to define a Democrat, Bush’s chief political strategist replied, “Somebody with a doctorate.” Lemann noted, “This he said with perhaps the suggestion of a smirk.” Fundamentally, much of today’s GOP, like Rove, seems to smirkingly equate academics, including scientists, with liberals.

And hence with really terrible people. The GOP could of course look at it another way – they could wonder why people with more education tend not to be of their party, they could pause to wonder what that says about their party. They might wonder what people have learned, that tends to make them dislike right wing parties. That would be one reasonable reaction. Or they could do what they are in fact doing, they could be certain in advance that dislike of right wing parties can’t possibly be well-founded and that therefore any activity that tends to promote such dislike must be corrupting and polluting. Hence higher education is a bad thing.

And then of course that has the incalculable added benefit of giving an entirely spurious but tragically convincing aura of populism to the party of tax cuts for the rich, so that people who make too little money even to pay taxes vote GOP all the same in the illusion that the GOP is on the side of Just Plain Folks and against elites. Stark nonsense. The GOP may pride itself on sneering at people with doctorates, but it’s very much in favor of elites.

Caring and Sharing

Jul 2nd, 2003 11:25 pm | By

Now, language is an interesting subject, isn’t it? So much of what we talk about at B and W comes down to language – well it would, wouldn’t it, since we’re talking about what gets written and said in academic ‘discourse’ and ‘texts’. Naturally it’s language, what else would it be, mud pies? But it’s interesting all the same.

I mentioned Deborah Cameron the other day, after hearing her with Richard Hoggart on Thinking Allowed. A friend sent me a link to this article of hers, which is an excellent read. Also quite amusing in places.

In the past, the habit of talking about oneself was almost universally decried as impolite, immodest and vulgar. Today’s experts, by contrast, do not regard self-effacement as a virtue…As BT’s ‘better conversations’ booklet puts it: ‘Unless you’re able to recognise your own feelings, you won’t be able to express them clearly and be open with other people.’

Well, maybe, but so what? What makes us all think that other people want us to be open about our feelings? How do we know they don’t want us to shut up about our wretched feelings and talk about something more interesting? Hurrah for people who are closed, and not only don’t express their feelings clearly, but don’t express them at all. Granted, that’s a slight exaggeration. Here I am expressing a feeling right now: exasperation. I’m very clear and open about it; aren’t you pleased?

Multinational corporations may require their employees to import the American English preference for informality into languages like Hungarian, where the distinction between formal and informal address is more strongly marked in the grammar (and where formal address would be the unmarked choice for the context).

Tell me about it. I often feel like a Martian in my own land. Oddly enough, I don’t like it when complete strangers telephone me to sell me something, and to start things off call me by my first name and ask me how I am. I must be Hungarian then.

Will we all consent to become the caring, sharing, self-reflexive, emotionally literate communicators who are currently idealized in both expert and popular literature? Or might we have our own ideas about what makes it ‘good to talk’?


Jul 2nd, 2003 8:44 pm | By

I have one or two more thoughts on this matter of scientific literacy that we were discussing last month (that is to say, yesterday), inspired by this article on the CSICOP website, which was in turn inspired by a pair of articles in the Guardian.

One thought, which I touched on but in a jokey not to say flippant manner, has to do with how manipulative and touchy-feely and sub-rational it all seems. The public feels this and feels that, and the public feels this or that because we do things to make them feel that way. We hold their hands, we flatter them, we plant moist kisses on their cheeks, we tell them we really value their opinions. Is this not a little creepy? A little like the way we talk to six year olds who need a nap? Or the way advertisers and ‘Public Relations’ experts and real estate agents and political operatives and indeed politicians themselves talk to us? There are books and expensive seminars on how to do that kind of thing, how to tickle people’s sensitivities and nudge their fears and activate their prejudices in order to get them to do what we want. Hitler was good at it and the nice people who sell everyone enormous SUVs are good at it, too, but are those really examples of how we want scientists to talk to us? We all become like poor stupid drugged Linda in Truffaut’s movie version of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ thinking the nice man in the giant TV screen is really talking to her. ‘And what do YOU think, Linda?’ ‘And what do YOU think, Public?’ ‘Montag, look, they’re talking to me, they want to know what I think!’

The other thought has to do with some unexamined assumptions. Or some sacred cows, would be another way of putting it. Especially the assumption that the public already knows enough about science to make decisions about it. All the public, apparently, all six billion plus of us, infants included. How did we get that knowledge? Were we born with it? Is it innate? Do we just kind of breathe it in, or get it by osmosis? Susan Greenfield puts the matter this way:

Or could the “it” be that I was implying, however covertly, a patronising attitude to an otherwise Renaissance general public, who are already, as Turney avows, clear minded and up to speed with the subtleties and problems facing the integration of science with society? This mindset is, of course, in the focus-group-anti-elitist spirit of our age.

Exactly. The public must be universally wise and reflective and knowlegeable enough, because that’s the only decent thing to think. If experience and evidence contradict that happy thought, well, experience and evidence must be elitist, so we’ll just pretend they don’t exist.

The Reptile Brain

Jul 2nd, 2003 8:38 pm | By

I’ve had one or two further thoughts about Deborah Cameron’s ‘Good to Talk’ article.

And the relevance of this to the subject of conversation is that intimacy must be created and sustained to a large extent through a particular kind of talk, involving continuous mutual self-disclosure. The modern cliché ‘they just couldn’t communicate’, proffered as an explanation for the break-up of a marriage or other significant relationship, does not imply that the parties never spoke or that they found one another’s conversation unintelligible. Rather it implies a lack of honesty and emotional depth in their exchanges—a failure by one or both individuals to share their feelings openly and express their true selves authentically.

This is all true, and good stuff, but there’s a further aspect Cameron doesn’t go into (at least in this article). Why is self-disclosure and the authentic expression of our true selves purely emotional? Why is it only feelings and emotions that we’re supposed to reveal, disclose, express, communicate, converse and talk about? When how and why did we decide that the true authentic hidden-until-expressed self is purely emotional? Why aren’t our thoughts and ideas part of our selves too? Why can’t self-disclosure be cognitive as well as or even instead of emotional?

It’s interesting to note, for one thing, that if we did understand the self that way, the tacit or covert preference for the putative female style of communication might disappear.

The main premise of the ‘Mars and Venus’ literature is exactly the one restated by BT—that men are far less at ease than women with self-revelation and the verbalizing of emotional states…But in a culture that places emphasis on self-reflexivity and the creation of intimacy through self-disclosure, it is entirely logical that the (real or perceived) asymmetry between women and men should come to be apprehended as a serious problem. It is also logical that the problem should be seen to inhere primarily in men’s behaviour—for despite the efforts of authors like Deborah Tannen to present the sexes as ‘different but equal’, comments like the one quoted above from BT suggest an implicit common-sense belief in female communicational superiority.

If women are boringly and claustrophobically assumed to be better at communicating their feelings, men are perhaps assumed to be better at communicating about ideas. All too often that is seen as a flaw – a sign of how emotionally crippled and stunted men are compared to honest, open, in touch with their feelings women. Well that’s one way to look at it – but then, another way is that it’s women who are crippled and stunted, unable to get their heads out of the boring egotistical sludge of their own personal feelings and think about something more important.

When how and why did we decide that feelings are better than thoughts? And not only better but also somehow more real, more honest, authentic, internal, of the self? I wonder if it has to do with benevolent impulses toward egalitarianism and inclusiveness. Perhaps we’re afraid that not everyone has much in the way of thoughts and ideas, but we’re pretty sure that anyone can have feelings – it’s simply a matter of ‘getting in touch’ with them. So we convince ourselves that the core of our being is emotions, and that thoughts are some sort of aristocratic artificial overlay, an external frippery and decoration that disappears when the going gets tough; and then we convince ourselves that the core is the part that counts and the overlay is a slightly suspect sophistication or adulteration or pollution. So we end up coercing each other, with the best of intentions, to distrust the cognitive and overtrust the emotional. We get atrophied intellects and hypertrophied feelings. There are some drawbacks to that arrangement, I think.


Jul 2nd, 2003 6:36 pm | By

On second thought, I take it back. That business about incentives and rewards. The fact is I don’t really believe that, or if I do it’s only about 25%, it’s only set about with a mass of stipulations and qualifications and reservations. I don’t so much believe it as see that other people have a point when they believe it. Or perhaps I mean I don’t so much believe it as want not to be a silly fatuous naive wool-gatherer who doesn’t understand how the economy works. I don’t want to have the kind of ideas that, if anyone were ever so stupid as to put them into practice, would immediately reduce the economy to a level with Bangladesh’s. So as a result I tend to concede ground that I don’t really concede. I make dutiful noises about incentives, but they’re only dutiful. Because I don’t believe it, I think a lot of that stuff is pure rhetoric and self-interest, is rich people throwing up a smoke screen to veil the fact that they always want more and more money, whether that’s good for the economy or in fact bloody bad for it. More money for me please even if that does mean that all those tiresome poor people can’t afford to buy anything and so the economy tanks.

And above all I don’t believe money is the only incentive there is. Well I wouldn’t, would I – nobody pays me a dime to do this. Nobody pays me a dime to do most of the things I like to do, I just like to do them. Don’t we all. Do we get paid to look at the sunset, to watch birds, to read Flaubert or Austen, to swim, to go to the theatre? There are such things as intrinsic goods, and intellectual activity is often thought to be one of them. The fact is I don’t really believe that academics at Oxford necessarily become mediocrities just because they don’t have a star system and no one is rushing around to give them a flat overlooking Christ Church meadow and a cottage in the Dordogne. Why should they? If they’d wanted to get rich they would have gone into a different line of work in the first place. Not everyone values money above everything. Academics at Oxford can perfectly well be motivated to write brilliant books and/or teach inspiringly for internal reasons, reasons having to do with thinking the job is worth doing and valuable and interesting. I don’t want to be woolly but I also don’t want to think or even pretend to think that money is the best thing in life.

Star System

Jul 2nd, 2003 2:02 am | By

The Boston Globe has a depressing article about the star system in US universities. Maybe in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter much, maybe I’m just a Puritan to find it so dreary. But it does seem so Hollywoodish, so rock star-ish, so hype-driven, so silly, so irrational-appeal-based, and hence so anti-intellectual.

“One couldn’t imagine all of this happening in Oxford, where there’s a kind of gentleman’s agreement that we’re all equally brilliant,” Ferguson says in an interview. “It’s extremely bad form to suggest that one person is as vulgar as to be a star.”

Yes…well I know what you’re thinking. You’re picturing a crowd of moss-covered mediocrities in Oxford contentedly trudging along the daily round, boring their students into fits and never publishing anything, but by gum they’re all equal. Fair enough. There is something to be said for making a fuss over people who teach or write better than others; for incentives and rewards. I can see that. But do they have to be so enormously better than everyone else’s rewards?

Star compensation at these “nonprofit” universities can top $200,000 for only a class or two a week, which in turn has widened the divide between haves and have-nots in higher education. Columbia offers fancy apartments with majestic views to woo stars (though not every home is as stunning as Sachs’s town house west of Central Park); meanwhile, part-time faculty who do the bulk of the teaching are forming unions just to fight for cost-of-living wage increases.

Philip Cook and Robert Frank wrote an excellent book called The Winner-Take-All Society explaining how these markets work and also why they’re not entirely desirable. All very academic.

Glass More Than Half Empty

Jun 30th, 2003 8:58 pm | By

This month is rather empty. A great many N and Cs got erased by the server malfunction. I might eventually put some of them back, if only for my own satisfaction. And the date is really July 27, but I have to call it June to get it in this month.

Problematizing the Dominant Narrative

Jun 6th, 2003 12:54 am | By

I do get to have fun, toiling and slaving here at the mills of B and W. I browse Google and sometimes I do find peculiar gems.
This one for example: a review of a book whose very title reeks of fashion: Dis/locating Cultures/Identitites, Traditions, and Third World Feminism. Got all that? You think the author stuffed enough Right On signposts in there for one title? The cute ‘Dis/locating,’ the buzzwords ‘cultures’ and ‘identities’ slammed together with that artful /, and finishing off with a flourish with Third World Feminism. There, that’s all the bases touched, Narayan must have thought in satisfaction. No one can say I don’t know the patois.

And that’s only the title, and only the book under review. The reviewer is such a treat, it’s hard to imagine the author can be quite up to that level. It’s all there, it’s all so very very there, in the very first words. ‘This book is an impressive intervention’ – ooh, an intervention yet. Armed? And impressive besides, imagine. Right, literary critics excuse me ‘theorists’ don’t do anything so tame as write mere books any more, no, they produce interventions. Wouldn’t you think they’d embarrass themselves, giving the game away like that? Do they dress up in Che outfits and parade around the corridors of the English/Philosophy Building looking macho? Do they drive bright red cars and go vrooom vrooom at the lights?

And it (so to speak) keeps it up, too, all the way down the page. Problematic representations of the Other, strategically situates the Third-World female ‘subaltern,’ dominant or as (must get that name in) Spivak says, ‘hegemonic feminist’ (what, because that’s such a dazzlingly brilliant and original phrase that you had to cite Spivak, you couldn’t have said that yourself?) narratives, enacting confrontational praxis…oh Christ, that’s only the first three sentences or so, I can’t bear to do any more. You’ll just have to read it yourselves. It ought to be a parody, it certainly looks like something out of the Jargon Generator, but I don’t actually think it is.

The despotism of the signifier. Feminist colonial discourse analysis. Historically engaged postcolonial hermeneutic. Connection-making apparatuses. No no no, I’ve got to stop! Enjoy, gentle readers.

Guardians of the truth?

Jun 5th, 2003 5:35 pm | By

If you click on the Guardian story link in the ‘Post-Orientalism” entry below, you’ll find it doesn’t work. Here’s why – from the Guardian’s web site today:

A report which was posted on our website on June 4 under the heading “Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil” misconstrued remarks made by the US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, making it appear that he had said that oil was the main reason for going to war in Iraq. He did not say that. He said, “The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.” The sense was that the US had no economic options by means of which to achieve its objectives, not that the economic value of the oil motivated the war. The report appeared only on the website and has now been removed.

I wonder whether the Guardian got it wrong because they’d really like it to be right? Nope? Fair enough, I don’t want to be uncharitable, so here’s Jonathan Steele excelling himself in the Guardian instead:

One of the UN’s biggest worries is the future of the oil-for-food programme. Around 16 million people, more than 60% of the Iraqi population, depend on it. At the moment the Iraqi government imports food commercially through a UN-supervised programme. It is distributed by Iraqis via 45,000 outlets in every big city in a scheme which is accepted even by the US and the UK as fair and efficient.

Once the first shot is fired, distribution is likely to stop because drivers will fear going into a war zone. The Iraqi government last month gave people two months’ ration but aid agencies say the poorest Iraqis have sold some of it. Even if they do not flee their homes under bombing raids, they will be at risk of hunger. UN officials will be withdrawn from Iraq in advance of the bombing, and there is no guarantee when their programmes will resume. The World Food Programme appealed for $23m to finance “an initial contingency plan” which would stockpile enough food just outside Iraq to give meagre rations for 900,000 people for 10 weeks. “So far only enough is in place for 500,000 for 10 weeks. We have received only $7.5m,” said Trevor Rowe, the WFP spokesman. “We may have to feed more than 10 times the number we appealed for, that is, 10 million people.”
Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, March 10th

And here he is again a month later:

The Pentagon’s failure to plan for the “day after” adds to the anger. Making the time-honoured mistake of re-fighting the last war, the only preparations they made were for food. Air-dropping humanitarian parcels or delivering food by road provides good propaganda images. In a country that had suffered from three years of drought like Afghanistan it also made sense.

Washington did not seem to know Iraq was different. The one thing people are not short of is food, thanks to the monthly rations of basics such as rice, sugar, cooking oil, tea and flour that every Iraqi receives, regardless of income. In a sanctions-damaged economy, 60% rely on the state-run programme and on the eve of war Saddam Hussein sensibly issued up to five months rations in one go.

Instead of concentrating on food aid, the US ought to have prepared teams of water and power engineers, as well as flown in extra troops to prevent the postwar looting that breaks out in every country when regimes collapse (there should have been no surprise here).
Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, April 21st

What a guy!

A Glaring Omission

Jun 5th, 2003 5:00 pm | By

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain lately. It’s not available in the States yet, but my colleague sent it to me from the UK. It’s great stuff, of course – Dawkins is a brilliant polemicist, essayist, explainer, persuader. His review of Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures/Fashionable Nonsense is hilarious (though of course it could hardly help it, having such rich material to work with). And Dawkins mentions one fact in passing which I feel compelled to make a fuss about.

Sokal was inspired to do this [his famous hoax] by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, an important book which deserves to become as well known in Britain as it already is in America.

Indeed it does, and I have reason to know that it’s not and it can’t be, because it’s damn well not in print there. It’s an outrage! There you all are in the UK, lulled into a false sense of security, calmly and cheerfully going about your daily lives not realizing what demented foolery gets published and admired in the US. It’s worth knowing about, because it’s influential stuff – it’s a meme, in fact. All the knowing sneers and/or impassioned tirades about the social constructedness and patriarchalism and Eurocentrism and horrid cold rationalism of science that one hears on every hand, they come from somewhere, and Higher Superstition gives a detailed account of where that somewhere is. It ought to be in print. At once, please.


Jun 5th, 2003 12:05 am | By

My colleague and I have been discussing (or arguing about, if you like) the
Guardian story which reports that Paul Wolfowitz said the Iraq war was about oil. I have more doubts and qualms about the war than Jeremy does, but then as he concedes, I live in the US whereas he lives in the UK: the differences in our respective heads of state could account for our different views all by themselves. But one thing we do agree on is the irredeemable awfulness of Islamofascism, and that there is no proper opposition to it (with, as he points out, the honourable exception of Christopher Hitchens) on the Left.

Why is that? I think it has to do with the way the value of tolerance and acceptance is taken to trump all other values, and the way tolerance is then taken to mean never criticising or questioning. Above all it is taboo to say harsh things about Islam, because most Muslims are in the Third World: therefore it must be Eurocentric and colonialist and (worst of all) Orientalist to say there could be anything wrong with Islam, particularly so-called ‘moderate’ Islam.

Ibn Warraq says in an article on this site that Edward Said’s book Orientalism has a great deal to do with this reluctance to be skeptical or hostile towards Islam on the part of Western Leftist intellectuals. Therefore I was very interested to learn that Azar Nafisi talks about Said in her Teaching Lolita in Teheran, as mentioned in this interview in the Atlantic.

You include an ironic anecdote in your book, about an Islamist student who quoted Edward Said to denounce certain decadent Western authors—an anti-modernist invoking a postmodernist. But haven’t these sorts of contradictions been part of the revolution since the beginning, in the collaboration between the Islamists and the radical left?

Unfortunately (in my view at least) Nafisi then goes on to say that the great divide in Islamic society is not between religion and secularism. Well if it isn’t it ought to be, I think. A non-fundamentalist Islam would be vastly preferable to a fundamentalist one, but a secular society would be better than even a moderate theocratic one. No argument on that around here.

Ee-lim Anate the Negative

Jun 2nd, 2003 1:20 pm | By

Well I’m always telling people, in my annoying way, that ‘negative’ doesn’t mean bad or critical or disapproving or pessimistic or skeptical or cynical or hostile. That if you want to call something any of those, you should use those words, and not the word ‘negative’ which 1. doesn’t mean any of those and 2. if you do use it as a pointless euphemism for those other words is vague and woolly and non-specific and confusing. By the same token ‘positive’ doesn’t mean approving or friendly or optimistic or patriotic or cheerful or warm or helpful. There’s a bizarre kind of covert thought-control going on in the translation of all words conveying disagreement and dissent into ‘negative’ and all words conveying acceptance and approval into ‘positive.’ We are being told that it is bad and wrong to dislike anything, which means we are also being told that it’s wrong to judge and analyse at all, because it’s impossible to judge and analyse properly if an unfavourable verdict is ruled out in advance.

I’ve been droning about this for years, as I say, and now here’s an amusing example. Richard Lewontin uses the word to mean what it does mean, in a review in which he mentions a book by Evelyn Fox Keller, and Fox Keller understands it to mean what it doesn’t mean and rebukes him for it, whereupon he has to explain (without actually quite saying so) that he was using it to mean what it means, not what it has come to mean lately in mush-speak.

My reference to Keller’s “negative view” of a unified theory of biology was in no way meant to imply that she places a higher value on one kind of explanation than on another. Her view is negative in the simple sense that she characterizes the attempt to create a unified theory as having failed up till now.

See what happens when words go all fuzzy? Confusion, misunderstanding, corrections and corrections of corrections in newspapers. Terrible business. Quite funny though.

Nonsense at Hay Festival

May 30th, 2003 4:17 pm | By

Oh really, what crap. It’s only snobs and supercilious critics who think bad novels are bad novels. Excuse me, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a bad novel is just a bad novel.

Trollope, whose restrained prose is as elegant as the lady herself, poured haughty scorn on the pretensions of the literary genre, and in particular the “grim lit” the critics seem to adore “that makes you want to slash your wrists”.

Well that’s wrong for a start. ‘Restrained’ prose? Well sure, I suppose. That’s one way to describe it. One might say the same of a train timetable, or a laundry list, or a tax code. That couldn’t be a nice evasive way of saying bland and dull, could it? Or could it. True enough, Trollope’s style isn’t florid or frenzied or melodramatic, but it’s not very interesting, either. It’s an okay, serviceable stringing-together of flat, banal language that gets the story told, and nothing more. I would hardly call it elegant! Though whether it’s as elegant as the lady herself or not, I have no idea. For all I know she’s a slattern on a level with Don Quixote’s Aldonza, and what looks like patronizing newspaper boilerplate is actually a hilarious joke that means Trollope’s prose is about as elegant as a Paris urinal. Or to put it another way, here’s a journo talking about literary style in language that shows she doesn’t know what it is. No wonder she takes Trollope and Cooper at their word.

An “inherent puritanical strain in the British psyche” was responsible, Trollope claimed, for this “silly” prejudice against popular fiction. Happy endings, or even ones offering a glimmer of hope were considered outré. “Reading shouldn’t be this much fun, we think. Naturally, we are hung up on this, we distrust anything that is readable and fun…”

That may or may not be true, but even if it is, does it necessarily follow that Trollope’s novels are good? Of course not. The way to answer the question whether they’re any good or not is to look at the novels themselves, not the putative motives of the people who think they are not good.

And she found an unexpected ally in the critic and novelist DJ Taylor, author of a new book on George Orwell, the paragon of the simple, well-crafted sentence, who managed to be both popular and literary.

More sly implication and non sequitur. Leaving aside the question of Orwell’s popularity, which was pretty non-existent for most of his career, what would his being both popular and literary have to do with the matter in any case? Does the fact that one of his several biographers agrees with one thing Trollope says somehow make Trollope an Orwell-equivalent? If so, how?

One bad move after another; perhaps I should hand it all over to Julian.

Dyslexic, Perhaps?

May 26th, 2003 12:22 am | By

But then, the person who wrote that article concluded it with this bit of wisdom by way of her nomination for the 100 Worst Books list:

To kick off, mine is Wuthering Heights – it has all the emotional depth of sixth-form poetry and I feel an intense desire to give all the characters a good slap and tell them to stop being so self-indulgent. Mysteriously, it’s considered a landmark of English literature by many people whose judgment I usually admire.

So clearly I shouldn’t be surprised if she uses words in a silly way. In fact I should be surprised that she’s writing for a major newspaper, that’s what I should be surprised at.

What Overtones?

May 25th, 2003 11:46 pm | By

All right. Clearly one of these days I’m just going to have to drop everything and make a real effort to figure out what in hell people are talking about when they call someone or something ‘elitist.’ I’ve said it before but I’m afraid I’m just going to have to say it again, and no doubt I’ll have to say it many more times in the future, because it just keeps on happening – people use it for anything and everything! Snob, clever clogs, intellectual, nerd, bookish person, someone who thinks some things are better than other things, conceited person, anything and everything within a fifty mile radius of either Cambridge or Oxford, quiche-eater, in the UK. In the US the word makes even less sense. It means everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh, anyone who thinks the 43d president might possibly be wrong about anything, anyone who favours a progressive tax system, anyone who isn’t passionately fond of Sport Utility Vehicles. Put the two ‘definitions’ together and you have total incoherence.

Consider this comment from a Guardian article about the BBC’s 100 favourite books list, for example.

The same format would not have worked with books, because it would have carried such undertones of elitism. The BBC could have asked people to nominate the 100 ‘best’ books – contemporary and classic works of literature that stand out for their fine writing, profound explorations of the human condition and their impact on the direction of world literature. But it probably would have received less than one-tenth of the votes, excluded most children and produced a very different Top 100 which would have looked more like an English undergraduate’s reading list and would have been of interest only to the very small number of people who regularly tune in to book programmes.

How does the writer know that’s how people would have defined the ‘best’ books? But more to the point, why would it have carried overtones of elitism? What does that even mean? That only the very rich read the best books? That only upper class twits do? Only the royal family does (now there’s a joke)? Why is it ‘elitist’ to read what someone might possibly consider the ‘best’ books? When did elite stop meaning the rich and powerful who run everything and start meaning educated and/or intellectual people? And why does no one seem to realise how idiotic that is? How it simultaneously ignores the real sources of inequality and unfair influence, and denigrates what ought to be accessible to everyone and a source of curiosity, joy, excitement, and adventure for everyone?

But answer came there none. I’ll just have to keep asking.

Small World

May 22nd, 2003 8:20 pm | By

The Jayson Blair saga continues. There is a staggeringly bizarre interview with him in the New York Observer today. It’s interesting (to me anyway) that he chooses the same sentence from the long Times article on him that I remarked on the other day.

In The Times’ lengthy May 11 account of Mr. Blair’s long trail of deception, it reported that “the porch overlooks no such thing.” Mr. Blair found this funny. “The description was just so far off from reality,” he said. “The way they described it in The Times story—someone read a portion of it for me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.”

We must have noticed the same thing, or perhaps different angles on the same thing. The hint of emotion in that phrase – ‘the porch overlooks no such thing.’ It is such a giveaway, isn’t it. I could tell the reporters were angry, and no doubt Blair could tell that and a great deal besides. So he laughed and laughed…

But in truth Blair is not the only odd thing about this article. The reporter – the one reporting on the reporter – says some fairly peculiar things too. This, for instance:

Why had a promising 27-year-old reporter with a career in high gear at the most respected news organization in the world thrown it all away in a pathological binge of dishonesty?

I’ve read and heard that characterization of the New York Times many times since the Blair story broke. The most respected news organization in the world? Really? Are you quite sure about that? Is it just barely possible that that’s a somewhat parochial and unexamined view of the matter? Is it conceivable that there are one or two other fairly good news organizations somewhere else on the planet? Is it also possible that the New York Times is in fact not all that good in any case? That its reputation is a good deal larger than its merit? That we’ve (we in the US that is) been hypnotized by that reputation into simply assuming that it’s the best not only newspaper but ‘news organization’ in the world? Or that other local newspapers in the US are so bad that the Times in comparison seems like a miraculous shining star? Whatever the explanation, I would submit that the BBC, for example, is rather well thought-of, and that there may be one or two German or French or Australian or Canadian newspapers that aren’t dramatically worse than the New York Times.

And then there’s this:

He was one of those rare people who seemed preordained to be a journalist—a reporter suffused with a kinetic combination of charm, drive and ambition that compelled his co-workers, even in the wake of his scandal, to describe him as “talented.”

Those are the attributes that mark someone out as a preordained journalist? Charm, drive and ambition? Not intelligence, curiosity, dedication, verbal ability, observation? Charm? Charm? What is this, high school? A popularity contest? A presidential election? What’s charm got to do with anything? Journalists are supposed to find out what the truth about a given subject is and then write about it, aren’t they? They’re not supposed to flash a cute smile around the room while they make up the story out of their own adorable heads. No thanks; keep the charm and give us accuracy, attention, evidence, reliable sources, fact-checking, and other charmless staples of good journalism.

Hills of Beans

May 15th, 2003 7:33 pm | By

Hard on the heels of the story about New York Times reporter-trickster Jayson Blair comes this Guardian examination of the Jessica Lynch ‘story’ and the various forces that played into that exercise in media manipulation. Saving Private Lynch is one of the stories Jayson Blair was reporting on when he concocted the porch overlooking the tobacco fields and the herds of cattle, the porch that ‘overlooks no such thing,’ as the Times account says so acidly that I found myself wondering what the porch does overlook. A pile of rusting cars? A still? A tennis court? A swimming pool?

I thought when I first read the long Times story – so, they had him covering the Washington sniper, and then the Jessica Lynch story, that is to say the talk to the family part of the story. The final, undoing charge of plagiarism came with another human interest, talk to the family story. I did think, in passing, that perhaps the Times has had a touch of the old hoist by its own petard here, in grubbing after all this Capraesque sentimental cloying Peggy Noonanish real Amurica human interest ‘how did you feel?’ stuff. Rick had it right: the reactions of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. No, they don’t, and nor should they; not disproportionately. In the larger scheme of things, the human interest stories are not really the ones we need to know about. Is it possible that if the New York Times didn’t feel a need to cover general human interest stories it wouldn’t be hiring young unfledged reporters with journalism degrees in the first place? That it would instead hire people with more solid knowledge and expertise, people who could report on diplomacy, politics, world affairs, Islam, history, economics, sociology? Anybody can go and ‘interview the family’ or, indeed, pretend to; not anybody can analyse and explain the context of wars in the Middle East.

Surely our bottomless appetite for gossippy ‘news’ serves us badly, and the willingness of serious papers like the Times to feed (and keep nurturing and increasing) that appetite has some connection to the ability of a reporter to fool his editors with fairy tales and boilerplate ‘reactions of the family’ stories. Maybe the Times should make that part of its understanding of this particular bump in the road.

History is Bunk

May 13th, 2003 8:39 pm | By

But it’s not very surprising if we don’t value learning, effort, apprenticeship, craft, if we’re not eager to spend years learning to play the cello or write real poetry that rhymes and scans, or to read Gibbon or Montaigne or The Tale of Genji or any of those long-winded books people used to write because they had nothing better to do – it’s not all that amazing if we don’t want to do that, when our leaders have such a squalidly practical, utilitarian, narrow, worm’s-eye view of the value of education. School is for job training, and that’s that. At least, that’s that when it comes to publicly funded education: they don’t mind our getting purely curiosity-driven education if we pay for it ourselves.

This recurring issue came up yet again a few days ago when the Times Higher Education Supplement reported that

Education secretary Charles Clarke has again attacked learning for learning’s sake by saying that the public purse should not fund “ornamental” subjects such as medieval history. Mr Clarke told a gathering at University College Worcester that he believed the state should pay only for higher education that had a “clear usefulness”. He reportedly said: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” This follows his earlier comments that studying classics is a waste of time.

Clarke disputed the account given in the Guardian, saying his remarks had been taken out of context. But he has made comments of a similar import, and historians are not pleased; one unnamed Cambridge medievalist is quoted as calling him a ‘Philistine thug.’ And a spokesman for the Department of ‘Education and Skills’ (ominous name) delivered an impeccably utilitarian elucidation of the Secretary’s remarks:

He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.

But a long article in the Guardian detailing the historical interests and education of many prominent Labour figures, including four colleagues of Clarke’s in the Cabinet, showed up that blinkered argument for the impoverished thing it is.