Notes and Comment Blog


How humanists are like the Taliban

Nov 26th, 2008 11:23 am | By

The British Humanist Association got a grant from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to hold a series of debates about the place of religion in public life.

The four events will include speakers from faith groups but one of the keynote addresses is being delivered by the prominent atheist Professor AC Grayling…

But? Why but? What do they mean ‘but’? That a series of debates about the place of religion in public life should include nothing but ‘speakers from faith groups’? But that would be kind of a stupid ‘debate,’ wouldn’t it? More like a prayer meeting, or a preaching to the choir session? More like a complete waste of time in fact? Why would a series of debates about the place of religion in public life not include atheists, even prominent atheists?

Critics say it is wrong for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to give taxpayers’ money to a controversial organisation whose stance would be found objectionable by many members of the public. Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister who specialises in religious discrimination, said: “It’s a bit like paying the Taliban to lecture on women’s rights.”

Oh is it. Is it really. Because the British Humanist Association has so much in common with the Taliban? Or simply because in both cases the idea is that the thing discussed is not such a good idea. But the equivalency of course is 1) absurd and 2) vicious. You might as well say that abolitionists holding debates on slavery is a bit like the Taliban lecturing on women’s rights. In both cases the parties are opposed to the thing under discussion, but the morality of each position is hardly equivalent. Of course Neil Addison the Catholic barrister knows that perfectly well, but he also knows that his outrageous comment will leave the desired impression. Very Catholic, that is; downright Jesuit, that is.

No actually Mr Addison the Catholic church has a hell of a lot more in common with the Taliban than any humanist group does. Both tell women what to do, both tell women they are subordinate to men, both try to keep women pregnant and dependent. Both hate women unless they are meek and ‘devout’ and mostly out of sight. There’s some ecumenical ‘religious discrimination’ for you. Go tell the UN on me.



How constitutions differ

Nov 25th, 2008 3:49 pm | By

How Bangladesh went wrong.

Bangladesh began sliding slowly towards Islamism following the assassination of Rahman in 1975. In 1977, references to secularism were deleted from the constitution and the phrase “Bismillah-Ar-Rahiman-Ar Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful”) was inserted. Five years later, General Ershad…introduced the Eighth Amendment, making Islam the state religion. The constitution now states that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.”

Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful, who (according to them) wants men to treat women like dirt, and treacherous disobedient dirt at that.

I was on a bus yesterday that had an ad inside with that saying on it, along with an injunction to ‘Learn More About Islam.’ It’s a ridiculous saying – which is what makes it so irritating to see. The Beneficient, the Merciful, when actual life for most Muslims around the world is so shitty, and getting so much shittier, largely thanks to people who want to ratify all their bullying rules and restrictions with ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful.’ If Allah is so beneficent and merciful, why are the rules and restrictions so harsh and cruel?

Ridiculous being ordered to have absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah when the human interpreters are so untrustworthy.



One sees why Mary Kenny gets grumpy mail

Nov 25th, 2008 11:20 am | By

Mary Kenny must be somewhat impervious to criticism – she’s saying the same absurd things she said last time we took this ride – minus the hilarious gripe about gloomy atheist funerals, to be sure.

‘Atheist bus’* – blah blah –

I found the atheists’ coda “so relax and enjoy life” ludicrously implausible. I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters. Read GK Chesterton’s great poem ‘The Ballad of the Sad Athiest’. It perfectly describes this kind of dreary and austere puritan.

I think I said this last time, but ho hum, I know my duty, I’ll just say it all over again – but in a high squeaky voice this time, by way of variety. What or whom Mary Kenny has or has not met is supremely beside the point. Mary Kenny does not get to conclude from whatever sample she personally has encountered, what all atheists are like. Besides which, Kenny so obviously has no sense of the need to check one’s own perceptions and biases that I don’t even trust her to know what kind of atheists she’s met – I don’t trust her to avoid the obvious error of remembering the glum atheists and forgetting the cheerful ones; in short, selection bias. One can’t even trust her to punctuate her own sentences (what happened after that parenthesis? a blackout?) so why should one trust her to sort her own memories with caution?

I still believe in freedom of speech and freedom of debate: although it is clear that if the militant atheists had their way, there would be no space whatsoever for Christians or other believers in the public realm.

Is it? Is that clear? Not to me, and Kenny (you won’t be surprised to learn) offers not a shred of a ghost of a reason to think it is. She just announces it, that’s all. She doesn’t remember meeting any sanguine atheists therefore all atheists are miserable blighters therefore they want to expel all believers from the public realm. QED.

I am convinced that this injection of atheism into the culture is directly responsible for the increase in drug-abuse, in crime and, most specifically, in the five-fold increase in suicide that we have seen in these islands over the last 25 years.

Kenny is convinced of a lot of things, on no apparent grounds whatever. She shouldn’t make a boast of it though.

A life without a spiritual sense of purpose, or the moral parameters set by the Ten Commandments — is a living hell.

Jesus god – the ten commandments. Please. Three about crawling to god; sabbath; parents; adultery; and four blindingly obvious minimal prohibitions: murder, lying, theft, and envy. Big fucking deal. Life without that stupid little list, more than half of which is either dead wrong or debatable, is a living hell? There’s not a word about cruelty; nothing about being generous or kind or (Karen Armstrong please note) compassionate; nothing about justice or rights or equality. Yet life without that narrow jejune superstitious unimaginative impoverished piece of crap is a living hell? It seems much more likely to me that a life limited to that grocery list as the sum total of morality would be – not necessarily a living hell but certainly a small airless thing.

Then she goes on to say – pleasantly – that atheists are the cause of parents who torture their babies to death. Back atcha, hon.

*Atheist bus? It’s a bus with an atheist ad on the side. Is it a theist bus when it has a theist ad on it? You don’t seem to see that phrase, so probably not. Yet another case of Special Rules for Atheism.



The pope says more than he meant to

Nov 24th, 2008 11:55 am | By

The pope perhaps spilled the beans even more than the Vatican realizes.

[T]he pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”…To some scholars, the pope’s remarks seemed aimed at pushing more theoretical interreligious conversations into the practical realm. “He’s trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?”

How indeed. By thinking about the subject in secular, rational, human-based terms, that’s how. By bracketing ‘creedal’ matters altogether and thinking about this world and these humans and these issues. But the pope of course won’t have intended to say that…



Forget Joan Didion, ask the Delphic oracle instead

Nov 24th, 2008 11:12 am | By

Oh gee – there might be an irony gap developing. How horrifying, how shocking, how alarming.

Its ill health was noted by, among others, no less an ironist than Joan Didion, the nation’s poet laureate of disillusion. The week after the election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Ms. Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an “irony-free zone,” a vast Kool-Aid tank where “naïveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in” and where “innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.”

Did she. Well that strikes me as quite a stupid thing to say. Is that ironic?

But Ms. Didion might be on to something. A Nexis search found that the incidence of the words “irony,” “ironic” and “ironically” in major American newspapers during the two-week period beginning Nov. 6 slipped 19 percent from the same period last year.

Really? Well hooray – there is nothing more unironic than constantly belaboring the notion of irony. Irony turns deadly earnest the instant you lay claim to it.

Some sometime cynics bristled at the suggestion that they had gone soft or lost their edge. “To me, it’s a false choice to say we’re either going to be running our own little ‘Daily Show’ of the mind 24/7 or we’re going to be completely earnest,” said Kurt Andersen…“One can maintain one’s ironic armor and arsenal where one needs it.”

Well quite. One can be not particularly ‘ironic’ about Obama without being earnest or literal or flat-footed about everything. Does anyone – even Joan Didion – really need to be told this?

But it is at times like these, Ms. Didion seemed to argue, when a distanced perspective is needed most. (Not that she was willing to elaborate on her talk. “Basically,” she said on the phone Tuesday, “I don’t like to talk about anything I’ve written or that I’m writing. What you write down, there it is and you’ve done it.”)

Could that be because it doesn’t mean anything? How ‘ironic’ is Joan Didion anyway? What does it mean to call her ironic? Is there any substance to anything she says or is it just style, just a tic, just an attitude, just a get-me-I’m-hip pose? Is there less there than meets the eye? In other words could it be that she was not willing to elaborate on her talk because she was not able to, because it was just some word-spinning as opposed to an actual thought or argument? I think it could. And I say that without a trace of irony.



‘I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing’

Nov 23rd, 2008 1:02 pm | By

Afghanistan at war with Afghan women.

For women and girls across Afghanistan, conditions are worsening – and those women who dare to publicly oppose the traditional order now live in fear for their lives. The Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai receives regular death threats for speaking out on women’s issues. Talking at her home in central Kabul, she closed the living room door as her three young daughters played in the hall. “You can’t imagine what it feels like as a mother to leave the house each day and not know if you will come back again,” she said, her eyes welling up as she spoke. “But there is no choice. I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing. Should I stop my work because there is a chance I might be killed? I must go on, and if it happens it happens.”

A brave woman. There is a choice of course – but she’s refusing to make it. An extremely brave woman.

Barakzai receives frequent but cryptic warnings about planned suicide attacks on her car, but no help from the government. Officials advise her to stay at home and not go to work, but offer nothing in the way of security assistance, despite her requests. She said warlords in parliament who received similar threats were immediately provided with armoured vehicles, armed guards and a safe house by the government.

Really. Male warlords get massive protection, women who work for women’s rights are left hanging out there with no protection. Bastards, bastards, bastards.

Afghan women are feeling increasingly vulnerable as the security situation worsens and a growing number of western and Afghan officials call for the Taliban to join the government. “We are very worried that, now the government is talking with the Taliban, our rights will be compromised,” said Shinkai Karokhail, an outspoken MP for Kabul. “We must not be the sacrifice by which peace with the Taliban is made.”

Really. I’ve been flinching for weeks as people talk about negotiating with the Taliban – pointing out cheerily that the Taliban is not Al Qaeda. No, it’s not, but it’s not a cocker spaniel puppy, either!

Afghan women who defy traditional gender roles and speak out against the oppression of women are routinely subject to threats, intimidation and assassination. An increasingly powerful Taliban regularly attacks projects, schools and businesses run by women…Talking to the Guardian at a safe house on the outskirts of Kabul, Mullah Zubiallah Akhond, a Taliban commander from the southern province of Uruzgan, said the group’s attacks on women were always political and not based on any desire to target or punish women specifically.

Oh right, no of course not, certainly not, no indeed those ‘political’ attacks on women obviously have nothing to do with any desire to target or punish women specifically – they’re just based on a desire to keep women confined, invisible, helpless, and enslaved, and to kill or burn any woman who resists.

[T]here had also been a sharp increase in rapes by men who claimed they could not afford to pay the dowry needed to marry. After the public shame of an attack, the victim is usually outcast and the rapist is then the only man who will have the woman as his wife. It is crimes like this that make many Afghans nostalgic for the harsh justice of Taliban rule. Barakzai countered: “Women were safe, in one sense, under the Taliban – but they were kept as slaves, they were not allowed to do what they wanted even in their own home.”

Here’s a daring ambition – for Afghan women to be both safe and free. Imagine that.



Al Qaeda ingratiates itself

Nov 22nd, 2008 4:16 pm | By

Al Qaeda sets us all straight about that Obama fella.

In a propaganda salvo by Al Qaeda aimed at undercutting the enthusiasm of Muslims worldwide about the American election, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy condemned President-elect Barack Obama as a “house Negro” who would continue a campaign against Islam…Appealing to the “weak and oppressed” around the world…

Al Qaeda, appealing to the weak and oppressed around the world – that is truly rich. Al Qaeda thinks the weak and oppressed around the world should be kept out of school, out of hospitals, out of the police forces, out of all jobs, off the streets, locked up in windowless houses. Al Qaeda thinks that any weak and oppressed who struggle against such rules should have acid thrown in their faces, or their heads cut off. Al Qaeda pretending to be the defender of the weak and oppressed is one of the most disgusting jokes I know of.

“And in you and in Colin Powell, Rice and your likes, the words of Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy on him) concerning ‘house Negroes’ are confirmed,” Mr. Zawahri said, according to an English-language transcript…In the original Arabic, according to SITE, the words used are “house slave.”

Well that sounds about right. Ayaan Hirsi Ali spent some time in Saudi Arabia as a child, and she says her teacher called her Aswa Abda: black slave girl. ‘I hated Saudi Arabia,’ she concludes. (Infidel, p. 49) Here’s al Qaeda covering itself in glory by doing the same thing. They’re racist sexist murderous thugs – yes that’s appealing all right.



Permitted and forbidden

Nov 21st, 2008 3:59 pm | By

I saw a segment on Deutsche Welle’s European Journal the other day about a new Swedish tv show, rebarbatively named ‘Halal-TV,’ that is hosted by three women wearing hijab and calling themselves (of course) ‘devout’ Muslims. The DW item included a woman of Muslim background saying state tv had no business telling us all we have to love Islam. Good, but it also had one of the hijab-wearing hosts informing us that ‘halal’ means ‘right’ and ‘haram’ means ‘wrong.’ That’s sugar-coating the pill with a vengeance, and it’s bullshit. Halal means ‘permitted,’ not ‘right,’ and haram means ‘forbidden,’ not ‘wrong.’ There’s a major difference. There’s a huge difference, and a difference that could hardly be more important. What is ‘permitted’ can be profoundly wrong and cruel and wicked; what is ‘forbidden’ can be entirely harmless or enormously beneficial. To many people, girls going to school is haram, and stoning girls to death for being raped is halal. Confusing the concept ‘permitted’ with the concept ‘right’ is a recipe for the worst kind of moral blindness and stupidity. By the same token, being ‘devout’ is not the same thing as being good, or kind, or compassionate, or generous. In the case of a vicious misogynist thuggish god, it has no chance of being any of those things.

A Swedish news source in English has more.

Controversy about Halal-TV erupted even before the first episode aired on Monday night when author and commentator Dilsa Demirbag-Sten, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who moved to Sweden at the age of six, pointed out that one of the show’s hosts had previously said she thought that stoning a woman to death was an appropriate punishment for adultery.

See? They care about what’s ‘permitted,’ and can’t even figure out what is ‘right.’ They’re misguided, and deluded, and dangerous – yet the show (from what I saw of it) portrays them (as such shows so often do) as hip and happenin’ hijab-chicks.

“There are many ways for public broadcasting to use high standards of journalism to address the diversity issues which affect the Muslim part of the population without reducing the group to deeply faithful, headscarf bearing, homophobic teetotalers who believe that women should be virgins until they are married and support stoning for adultery,” Demirbag-Sten wrote in a column published last week in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper.

Yeah. Hooray for Dilsa Demirbag-Sten.

In one of the segments, Awad and El Khabiry refuse to shake the hand of Aftonbladet newspaper columnist Carl Hamilton, electing instead to greet the guest by putting their hands on their chests, leaving Hamilton’s extended hand hanging in the air and prompting a sharp exchange.

Halal, you see. Rude, degrading, insulting, slavish, but halal. And devout.

Where this kind of thinking gets you is well illustrated by a story from Australia.

Some Muslim religious leaders are condoning rape within marriage, domestic violence, polygamy, welfare fraud and the exploitation of women, a report on imam training has found…The report says the 24-man board ignored or did not directly answer many of the questions. It says women, community and legal workers and police were particularly concerned about domestic violence and suggested that imams aimed to preserve the family at the cost of women. It says the husbands of some women who were legally separated but not religiously divorced entered their houses, demanded sexual intercourse and took it by force. “Workers who have assisted women in this situation said that the advice women received from the imams was that it was halal – permitted – because there was a valid nikah – marriage,” the report says.

See? It’s halal. It’s wrong, it’s shitty, it’s brutal, it’s greedy, it tramples on the woman’s wishes and her dignity and her right to her own body and self, but so what? It’s halal. Spread your legs.



It was very unsettling, very jarring

Nov 21st, 2008 3:28 pm | By

Well after all, atheism is illegal, you know. I mean to say. What do they expect?

An Ontario billboard company is removing a controversial Rancho Cucamonga billboard promoting atheism after receiving complaints, according to the group that paid for the advertisement. The billboard…says “Imagine No Religion” in large letters on a stained-glass background. Underneath is the name of the group, “Freedom From Religion Foundation,” and the group’s Web address.

Well quite. That’s bound to be illegal. You can’t have people saying ‘Imagine no religion’ in a freedom-loving liberal democracy, now can you. I mean to say.

Judy Rooze, administrator of First Baptist Church of Rancho Cucamonga, which is two blocks from the billboard, was relieved it was coming down. Rooze said it was unsettling. “I understand people have freedom of speech, but this is taking it too far,” she said. “It’s very jarring.”

Well this is what I’m saying. You can’t have people saying things that are unsettling. Dear god no. I’m all in favour of free speech but obviously that doesn’t include things that are unsettling. Have some common sense. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded unemployment office and you can’t say things that are jarring, either. I don’t know what gets into some people.



Johann does a bit of lèsing the majesté

Nov 20th, 2008 12:44 pm | By

Johann don’t want no activist King Chuck, for very good and compelling reasons.

Charles says the “responsibility and authority of his position” – and the “wisdom” it entails – requires him to “speak out” and “pressure” our elected representatives. A bevy of fawning pundits have responded by crying – yes!…Charles’s position stems from one thing and one thing only: he emerged from Elizabeth Windsor’s womb 60 years ago. That’s it. He has no “responsibility.” He has no legitimate “authority.” He has no more right to “speak for the nation and to the nation” – and pocket £7m a year for the bother – than you, me, or the next person you see at the bus stop.

Well exactly, and obviously; yet the man seems to be weirdly oblivious to this glaring fact. One can see how he would get to be that way, of course, what with all the ridiculous ‘specialness’ that surrounds royals – but if he were actually as clever as he thinks he is, he would have been able to figure it out at some point before age 60.

If not for that fortuitous journey through a royal womb, Charles Windsor’s “wise” arguments would be gathering dust in the reject bin at certain newspapers’ letters pages. If his advocates didn’t keep praising him as “a public intellectual” I wouldn’t be rude enough to point it out, but Charles Windsor is a strikingly stupid man. Every time he has been put into a competitive situation where he is judged according to objective criteria, he has been a disaster…And what of his arguments? They are garbled, uninformed, cliché-ridden repetitions of what the last person who spoke to him said. His very sympathetic biographer Dimbleby admits that his staff “were uncomfortable with his tendency to reach instant conclusions on the basis of insufficient thought”…What do these “interventions” really consist of? Charles Windsor scorns modern science, attacking it for its “lack of soul” and for “playing God”. So he uses his position to attack qualified life-saving professionals who earned their position, like the General Medical Council – and says he knows better.

Precisely. That’s the bit that really gets up my plebeian nose – the thinking he knows better than people who have actually done the training as opposed to simply reading an article in Quacks’ Gazette.



‘Justice’

Nov 20th, 2008 12:19 pm | By

‘This is Islamic justice, British style’.

The woman in black wanted an Islamic divorce. She told the religious judge that her husband hit her, cursed her and wanted her dead. But her husband was opposed, and the Islamic scholar adjudicating the case seemed determined to keep the couple together. So, sensing defeat, she brought our her secret weapon: her father. In walked a bearded man in long robes who described his son-in-law as a hot-tempered man who had duped his daughter, evaded the police and humiliated his family. The judge promptly reversed himself and recommended divorce. This is Islamic justice, British style.

Well obviously ‘justice’ is the wrong word there. Obviously that word should be in scare-quotes, or followed by ‘hahahaha,’ or a headline in The Onion. ‘Justice’ you call it – when men get together and decide a woman’s fate while ignoring the woman herself; when ‘the Islamic scholar’ is determined to ‘keep the couple together’ no matter how disgustingly the man treats the woman; when the woman is doomed to a life of degradation and loathing unless she has her father handy and he sides with her. That’s not justice. That’s a bad cruel joke, that’s what that is.

But Shariah has been rejected in the West as well. The Canadian province of Ontario had allowed rabbinical courts and Christian courts to resolve some civil and family disputes with binding rulings under a 1991 law. But when the Islamic Institute on Civil Justice there tried to create a Shariah court, it was attacked as a violation of the rights of Muslim women. As a result, Ontario changed the entire system in 2006 to strip the rulings of any religious arbitration of legal validity or enforceability.

Yeah – thanks largely to the tireless efforts of our friend Homa Arjomand.

“We always try to keep the marriages together, especially when there are children,” said Hasan’s wife, Shakila Qurashi, who works as an unofficial counselor for women. If the husband beats her, she should go to the police and have a divorce, Qurashi said. “But if he’s slapped her only once or something like that,” she said, “and he admits he has made a mistake and promised not to do it again, then we say, ‘You have to forgive.’ “

Bastards.



Run out and buy a Denali

Nov 18th, 2008 3:10 pm | By

Congress is having fits trying to figure out what to do about the big 3 US carmakers. Let them sink? Give them billions and billions and billions of dollars? Retool them to make buses and repair bridges? No that last one isn’t a real proposal, at least not that I know of. Barbara Mikulski’s is real though.

Mikulski did not call for the $25 billion worth of federally guaranteed loans that Reid is seeking. Instead, she offered her own proposal costing $8 billion: tax breaks for those buying cars between now and the end of next year.

That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in – a day or two anyway. What a good idea! Give people tax breaks to encourage them to buy bad dangerous oversized gas-guzzling pedestrian-flattening planet-destroying cars!

Yes I know thousands of jobs are at stake, but other things are at stake too, and as everyone keeps awkwardly noticing, the US car industry is flailing partly because it makes such bad stupid cars. I think we should go all free market on their ass and say the invisible hand has spoken, go make tinker toys.



Herding atheist cats

Nov 18th, 2008 9:47 am | By

You don’t say.

Atheists “are talking to a very small slice of the population,” said Mathew Staver, a leading Christian conservative and law-school dean. “In some ways, they’re really just talking to themselves.”

Well no kidding. And what does Mathew Staver think theists are doing? In some ways, all groups are just talking to themselves; and in other ways not. But at least atheists aren’t also just talking to an imaginary friend, and we’re also not constantly invoking an imaginary friend when talking to other people, unlike some people I could name.

In rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an “Imagine No Religion” billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: “Why Do Atheists Hate America?”

Let’s sponsor a giant sign asking: ‘Why do theists ask such stupid questions?’

“Atheists can act very much like Christian fundamentalists from time to time,” said James Webb, president of the Community of Reason in Kansas City, which includes both believers and skeptics. “It’s important not to be in-your-face with people.”

Well, it depends what you mean by ‘in-your-face’; it also depends on how in-your-face theists are being; it also depends on what theists are doing to people. It depends on a lot of things. Sometimes it’s important to be in-your-face with people.

[L]eading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion — making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement. “A pastor can say to his flock, ‘All rise,’ and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting,” said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. “A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing….That’s why it’s hard to say where we’re going as a movement.”

And that’s why atheists are a more fun group. (Plus I don’t think one third will rise; I think none will rise. Who would say ‘all rise’ and apropos of what? The entry of the judge? No. The entry of the Head Atheist? That’s a somewhat anomalous concept, and even if it weren’t, who rises for the Head Atheist? Even if Dawkins parachuted in for a surprise guest visit, I don’t see anyone saying ‘all rise’ – and I can imagine no response to such a suggestion but noisy hoots of laughter.)



‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered’

Nov 17th, 2008 10:57 am | By

You know, human rights are risky. Equality is risky. Freedom is risky. That is to say, movements to gain or restore or promote those things are risky. Tyrants and exploiters and authoritarians don’t just smile politely and go home – they fight back. Being tyrants and exploiters and authoritarians, they fight dirty. That’s why they’re being fought in the first place. So people who are attempting to promote or gain more equality or rights have to consider the fact that they may be putting other people at risk, because they usually are.

The Civil Rights movement (in the US in the 50s and 60s) had that problem. We tend to forget this now, but it was a huge issue at the time. Plenty of black people in the South were deathly afraid of the whole thing, and with good reason. So there was a moral issue: is it right to put other people in danger in struggling for rights? Is it right to take risks of that kind, risks that are risks to non-participants as well as participants?

There’s no slam-dunk answer to that. There are a lot of ifs. If one knew for certain ahead of time that the struggle for civil rights would trigger a genocide, then the answer would probably be no (or no, not yet). If one thought it very likely that there would be reprisals – some people would still say no, others would say yes, and that’s what happened, and few people (as far as I know, and die-hard racists apart) now think it wasn’t worth it.

Why? Why is it worth it?

Perhaps because, as La Pasionaria said, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

That’s a very rhetorical slogan, and yet, it’s not just rhetorical. It’s not good to live on your knees. It’s worth some risk in order to bring about a situation in which no people are made to live on their knees.



Trust me, I’m a prince

Nov 17th, 2008 9:57 am | By

Charles’s vanity and delusion are being taken out for an airing again. He

has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown.

What knowledge and experience? What knowledge and experience does he have that would be ‘wasted’ if he didn’t use his accident of birth to publicize them? His knowledge and experience about GM crops? About alternative medicine? About architecture? What special unique irreplaceable knowledge and experience does he have on those subjects?

None, right? Do correct me if I’m wrong – but as far as I can tell, the answer is none. He has strong opinions on the subjects, but so do lots of people. He has perhaps spent lots of time or some time reading and otherwise gathering information about them – but so have lots of people. What he has not done is get systematic training in any of them, which lots of people have done – so why does the world need his amateur ‘knowledge’ when it already has access to professional knowledge? What is this special irreplaceable knowledge and experience he has that it would be a pity to waste if he became king?

There isn’t any. His status doesn’t replace professional training, and his amateur dabbling doesn’t either. Nobody needs Pris Chos laying down the law about GM food or homeopathy because there are already thousands upon thousands of people who can do that much better than he can. I’m a great fan of autodidacticism, being an autodidact myself, but that doesn’t mean that I think the world needs amateur agronomists or amateur medical researchers. If Charles really wanted to be an influential expert in one of these fields he should have gotten the appropriate training to do so. It’s incredible arrogance and the most literal kind of elitism to think that his royal birth somehow makes that supererogatory.



Karen Armstrong squares the circle

Nov 15th, 2008 2:05 pm | By

It’s not a newsflash that Karen Armstrong is not one of the clearest thinkers in the world – but nevertheless the opening sentence of her sermon on compassion at Comment is Free set me back a little.

The practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions – but sometimes you would never know it.

But sometimes you would never know it – good one. Did she write this while taking a bath and watching Celebrity Big Brother, or what? But more to the point is the fundamental and pathetic incoherence of the basic thought: the practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions, and yet oddly enough in real life the very opposite is enacted daily and hourly. Hum hum hum. So in what sense is it central then? Eh? Eh? If sometimes we would never know it, how does Armstrong know it? If sometimes we would never know it, in what sense is it fucking true?

It’s not true. It’s flattery. It’s a greasy smear of flattery for a nasty institution that perpetrates stupid or vicious cruelties everywhere you look.

Instead, religion is associated with violence, intolerance and seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy.

It seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy because it is. Armstrong perhaps wants to persuade it to better by heaping coals of fire on its head – but she shouldn’t talk nonsense in the process.



Any freedom from religion on offer?

Nov 14th, 2008 5:30 pm | By

So the whole UN really is infected with this ‘defamation of religion should be banned’ virus.

United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann said on Tuesday that the world body should ban defamation of all religions and disagreed that such a move would impinge upon freedom of speech. “Yes, I believe that defamation of religion should be banned,” he said in response to a question at a press conference to highlight the interfaith conference at the UN headquarters. No one should try to defame Islam or any other religion, he said, adding: “We should respect all religions.”

Well now how would you go about banning ‘defamation’ of religion without impinging on freedom of speech? How would anyone? You might as well say ‘Yes, I believe that defamation of capitalism [or socialism, or monetarism, or economics, or photography, or mushrooms, or rabbits] should be banned’ and disagree that such a move would impinge upon freedom of speech. It makes the same amount of sense. And another thing – there is a difference between saying that no one should try to X and saying that X should be banned – a big and very important difference. It’s more than a little depressing that a guy (a priest, as he is) who is UN General Assembly President doesn’t get that distinction, or perhaps doesn’t think it matters. It’s a little depressing that the UN General Assembly President thinks the UN should ban kinds of speech that the UN General Assembly President doesn’t like.

So much for Austin Dacey’s recent work at the UN. So much for other protests.

But oh well, not to worry – King Abdullah is on the case.

Maybe King Abdullah, by articulating the central Muslim value of religious pluralism on the world stage, will find the citizens of his Kingdom demanding that he implement it at home.

The central Muslim value of religious pluralism? The…what?

Where? Where is that the case? Where is religious pluralism a central Muslim value? Malaysia? No. Pakistan? No. Somalia? No. Afghanistan? Now you’re just being silly. Saudi Arabia? Be serious. Where, then? And if the answer is ‘nowhere,’ what reason is there to think that religious pluralism is in fact a central Muslim value? There could be such a reason, or reasons; it could be the case that it is such a central value but that the ruling elites have all turned their backs on it; but I want a reason to think so before I will go ahead and think so.

Just to make the confusion complete, Bush tells us that ‘Freedom is God’s gift to every man, woman, and child.’ No it isn’t. It isn’t God’s gift to me, for instance. Some people choose to attribute freedom to God, but that doesn’t make the attribution accurate. It’s irritating that Bush blathers about religious freedom and in the same breath imposes his imaginary God on all of us. It’s not just believers who want and who get to have freedom; atheists are entitled too, but you’d never know it to hear the godbotherer in chief.

German minister of state Hermann Groehe defended the right to convert to another faith — a right not recognized in some Muslim countries. “It is unacceptable that up until now laws in some countries threaten those who want to convert with the death penalty,” said Groehe, without naming any countries.

Yes, but again, it’s not just conversion from one religion to another religion that is threatened (and sometimes rewarded) with the death penalty, it is also rejection of religion itself – yet Bush and Groehe are not reported to have mentioned that.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Muslim Pakistan said there was “nothing more un-Islamic” than discrimination, violence against women and terrorism, but also denounced hate speech against Islam in countries he did not identify.

Ah…there is nothing more un-Islamic than violence, is there. That would explain why Zardari’s wife was murdered by…You Know Who.



Two blogs

Nov 13th, 2008 6:00 pm | By

As you may have seen, Edmund Standing has started a blog, amusingly called ‘I kid you not’ as a compliment to Sarah Palin. Okay not a compliment exactly. Palin has been saying things again, as Edmund notes.

Then there’s the whole down to earth ‘mom next door’ persona. Palin, it should be remembered, proudly announced herself to the Republican National Convention as ‘just your average hockey mom’…So, we have a woman who calls herself ‘average’, thinks some ‘God’ or other gives her career guidance, is completely ignorant of evolutionary biology and the history of the world, and conducts political interviews while cooking moose for her ‘guy’…And this woman wants to become President of the most powerful nation on earth. Sam Harris had it nailed just prior to the election when he rightly noted that average isn’t good enough.

No it damn well isn’t – and one of the many joys of the recent election is that for once (and very very belatedly) that particular bit of nonsense not only didn’t work, it did a great deal to destroy the Republican ticket. It pleased ‘the base’ but it was finally one too many for the undecideds and independents and Republicans with enough nous to walk and chew gum at the same time. It wasn’t only Sam Harris who noted that average isn’t good enough, too – Jon Stewart has noted the same thing on more than one occasion, and John Cleese (yes, really) had a good time noting the same thing on Olbermann a couple of days before the election. Yes really – I was so wound up about the election by that time that I was reduced to watching little bits of Olbermann and Maddow. Anyway Cleese said what I always say, which is that I want somebody who’s so smart I’d be scared to open my mouth in his or her presence. I don’t want average, I want stellar. Average is easy to get, stellar isn’t; let’s go for the rare and the best.

Another excellent blog is Richard Wilson’s ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’, which is the title of his book, which I’m reading.

Check them both out; tell your friends.



Religious obligation

Nov 12th, 2008 4:18 pm | By

This is a familiar subject, but you know how it is – there’s always more to say.

About what? About religious law, religious obligation, religious duty, religious requirements, religious teachings, religious commandments.

Motl Brody of Brooklyn was pronounced dead this week after a half-year fight against a brain tumor, and doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington say the seventh-grader’s brain has ceased functioning entirely. But for the past few days, a machine has continued to inflate and deflate his lungs. As of late Friday afternoon, his heart was still beating with the help of a cocktail of intravenous drugs and adrenaline. That heartbeat has prompted Motl’s parents, who are Orthodox Jews, to refuse the hospital’s request to remove all artificial life support. Under some interpretations of Jewish religious law, including the one accepted by the family’s Hasidic sect, death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning. That means Motl “is alive, and his family has a religious obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment to keep him alive,” the family’s attorney wrote in a court filing this week.

In other words, poor Motl Brody is a corpse, and the corpse is kept breathing by a machine, but ‘some interpretations of Jewish religious law’ say that in fact he is alive because of this machine-made breathing.

His brain has died entirely, according to an affidavit filed by one of his doctors. His eyes are fixed and dilated. His body neither moves nor responds to stimulation. His brain stem shows no electrical function, and his brain tissue has begun to decompose…Jeffrey I. Zuckerman, the attorney for Motl’s parents, says they have been “utterly shattered” by the hospital’s actions. He stressed that the family’s demand for continued life support was based on their obligations under religious law, not an unrealistic hope that their boy will recover…”We respect the family’s beliefs, and have tried since the patient’s arrival in June to work closely with them in a spirit of mutual respect,” the hospital said in a written statement.

What’s interesting here (as often before) is the special status of putative ‘obligations under religious law’ and the deference that is automatically given to them even when there is the attempt to disregard them. The hospital is perhaps socially required (so to speak) to say ‘we respect the family’s beliefs’ even though the beliefs are grotesque enough to ‘oblige’ the family to keep a corpse with a decomposing brain breathing on ‘life support.’ What’s interesting is that there is no other kind of law (at least none that I can think of) that would work that way. What other kind of law could a lawyer cite in this situation? ‘His family has a [____] obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment’ – what could you put in that space that would work? I can’t think of a damn thing, can you? Only ‘religious’ law and ‘religious’ obligation can get people to ‘respect’ and defer to this kind of perversity. And the parents in question are apparently being downright truculent about it.

Motl’s mother and father, Eluzer and Miriam Brody, haven’t been to the hospital since July. The medical center says its requests to speak directly with them have been rebuffed, and in recent days, hospital employees “have been inundated with harassing and threatening calls” regarding the case.

So Motl suffered without his parents from July to November, yet those same parents think they have a ‘religious obligation’ to keep his corpse artifically breathing while his brain rots away. Baffling.



Respect us or we’ll smash your art

Nov 11th, 2008 12:34 pm | By

Hey don’t forget, if that smelly guy grabs your jacket, give him your cashmere sweater too. If somebody belts you in the face, say thank you. Forgive people seventy times seven. Be generous, and more than generous. Like those super-nice people who worry about art works.

Christians have warned of a backlash of art world vandalism, following a decision to halt a private prosecution of a Gateshead gallery which exhibited a statue of Jesus with an erection…Christian Emily Mapfuwa…said the show…was offensive to her faith and instructed her lawyers to seek a private prosecution against the gallery…Mapfuwa’s supporters warned [the CPS decision] could lead some people to destroy similar art works. Her solicitor Michael Phillips said: “Although it is right to say that there was no actual disorder, there was potentially such disorder, which was evidenced to the CPS in the witness statements provided. In particular one witness felt like smashing the object. The decision is simply not in accordance with the facts and is unsustainable.”

Ah. Christian Emily Mapfuwa was offended so she instructed her lawyers to seek a private prosecution against the gallery; a witness felt like smashing the object, therefore the gallery was guilty of creating a risk of disorder. So…any time anyone is ‘offended’ by something, if a witness can be found to testify to feeling like smashing the object, it will then become the case that the ‘offensive’ something is at fault. Then no one anywhere will ever be allowed to say anything ever. Sounds promising.

Christian Voice national director Stephen Green said…”[T]here were those at the Baltic Centre who wanted to take matters into their own hands and I have warned Anita Zabludowicz that her statue will not survive being put on public display again. If the CPS wanted to give the green light to blasphemous art their decision may paradoxically have the opposite effect. With the threat of destruction hanging over it, the Zabludowicz statue is now locked away by its wealthy owners and is unlikely to see the light of day again. The same will go for any other blasphemous works of so-called art. Put simply, Christians won’t tolerate insults to Jesus Christ. However, I do hope that the art world will discover some respect for Christian religious beliefs and for the person of Jesus Christ.”

To put it another way, the CPS wanted to go on allowing free expression in the usual way and Stephen Green and other Christians are determined to use threats of violence to prevent that. ‘Respect’ is unlikely to be what the art world will be discovering more of as a result.

Mediawatchwatch, from whom I lifted this story, has pungent commentary.