Notes and Comment Blog

Hitchens on the road again

Aug 29th, 2007 9:09 am | By

Some good lines in Hitchens’s account of his book tour. First stop was Little Rock:

At the end of the event I discover something that I am going to keep on discovering: half the people attending had thought that they were the only atheists in town.

Just so. That’s why some atheists think there really is a need for atheists to be ‘militant’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘strident’ or, to put it in less vituperative language, articulate rather than silent and active rather than passive. That’s why some atheists think there really is a need for atheism to become public, talkative, unembarrassed, unapologetic, taken for granted, normalized, quotidian, rather than private, silent, ashamed, secretive, and weird. We think that because of all those people in Little Rock and Dallas and Jackson, Tennessee, who think they are the only atheists in town, and feel isolated, outnumbered, and intimidated as a result. We think we need to speak up more so that all those people in small towns and less cosmopolitan cities can become aware that they are neither alone nor abnormal.

To the New York Public Library to debate Al Sharpton, a man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you can shove the word “Reverend” in front of your name…In the evening to debate with Marvin Olasky at the L.B.J. Library. Olasky is the man who coined the term “compassionate conservatism” and helped evolve Bush’s “faith-based initiative.”…My challenge: name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.

Well, yes. We’re always hearing that Christianity teaches compassion or that Islam teaches charity – as if nothing else did. Why is that?

At the airport, strangers approach to say, “Thanks for coming to take on the theocrats.”…Again I notice two things: the religious types are unused to debate and are surprised at how many people are impatient with them, or even scornful.

Another reason for atheists to speak up more – or to be more ‘militant.’

Jerry Falwell—another man who managed to get away with murder by getting himself called “Reverend”—dies without being bodily “raptured” into the heavens. Indeed, his heavy carcass is found on the floor of his Virginia office.

Maybe it’s an imposter?

At one point I ask [Reverend Mark Roberts] if he believes the story in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about the graves opening in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and the occupants walking the streets. Doesn’t it rather cheapen the idea of resurrection? He replies that as a Christian he does believe it, though as a historian he has his doubts. I realize that I am limited here: I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position, but this is something I can’t imagine myself saying, let alone thinking.

Well it is difficult. As a Christian I believe it, as a historian I have my doubts – how does that work? Do you set up an imaginary door inside your head, and believe or doubt according to which side of the imaginary door you’re on? But if so, how do you avoid being aware of what you think on the other side of the door? But then that is what puzzles me about the religious mind: few believers really act as if they believe all the time, so why doesn’t that fact interfere with their belief? Well, maybe it does, far more than the usual polls would lead you to think; hence all those atheists thinking they’re the only ones in town.

Protected opinion

Aug 25th, 2007 2:25 pm | By

Peter Irons crushes Stuart Pivar and his lawyer. First he does a quick rundown of his cv (modestly referring to ‘several books and law review articles’ – some of those books are pretty well thought of), then explains why: ‘I mention this background, quite frankly, to impress you with my credentials in this field, which are substantially greater than those of Michael J. Little.’ Ouch.

He points out that he was a close friend of Steve Gould’s, and adds that ‘if Steve were still alive, I think he would have a viable defamation action against you for your false statements about his views.’ Ouch.

He points out that the complaint Little filed is very badly drafted, ‘with no legal merit whatever.’ Then he closes in.

On a substantive level, the complaint will never survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be based.”…As Mr. Little should have known, by due diligence, Professor Myers’ characterization was protected opinion, not a false statement of fact. As such, it is immune from defamation actions.

You know, I’m very glad to know that. I suppose I’ve always assumed it, without thinking much about it, and that’s why Pivar’s lawsuit made my jaw drop. If people can be sued for calling someone a crackpot, then nobody can write anything; we’d all be completely paralyzed by self-censorship. I’m glad to know that people can’t be sued for calling someone a crackpot, that that is protected opinion. I like that phrase – it imparts a little glow of beneficence. (I can hear a faint rustling in the distance, far far away, of people gathering their notebooks and microphones for the campaign to pass a law against Incitement of Crackpottery Hatred. Let’s just hope it takes them many years to cover the distance, so many years that by the time they get here the survivors are past speech.)

[A] case Mr. Little should have discovered by due diligence, is an opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Dilworth v. Dudley et al…written by Chief Judge Richard Posner, one of the most highly respected federal appellate judges…Judge Posner wrote that the term “crank” is an opinion and “is mere ‘rhetorical hyperbole.’ … To call a pereson a crank is basically just a colorful and insulting way of expressing disagreement with [the author’s] master idea, and it therefore belongs to the language of controversy rather than to the language of defamation.”

More little glow. Another phrase I like. The language of controversy rather than the language of defamation. Just so. We’re allowed to engage in controversy! We may want to flounce off and never speak to someone again, but we don’t get to sue people just for calling us cranks. Good.

Then things get really funny.

First, your complaint alleges that your Lifecode book, in both the 2004 and 2007 versions, was published by “Ryland Press, Inc.” My research has turned up no such publisher anywhere in the world…I also talked with Terry Krohn at Axiom House, which advertises your second Lifecode book; he told me it was not published by him, that he listed it as a favor to you, and that it had no sales to date. It would be impossible for you to prove even one dollar of damages, let alone $15 million. Finally, you and Mr. Little are subject to monetary sanctions under Rule 11 of the FRCP; I’ll let Mr. Little explain that to you, since he is presumed to know of this potential consequence of filing a meritless suit.

And that it had no sales to date…That’s beautiful, isn’t it?

The Rapture is not a viable exit strategy

Aug 24th, 2007 2:42 pm | By

The Pentagon is now a minor branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems.

Last week, after an investigation spurred by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Pentagon abruptly announced that it would not be delivering “freedom packages” to our soldiers in Iraq, as it had originally intended. What were the packages to contain? Not body armor or home-baked cookies. Rather, they held Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic and the apocalyptic computer game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” (derived from the series of post-Rapture novels), in which “soldiers for Christ” hunt down enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers.

Oh well now wouldn’t that have been a good idea. Clever old Pentagon. What’s it doing, trying to get somebody else to throw a loaded passenger jet at it?

The packages were put together by a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Operation Straight Up…[T]hanks in part to the support of the Pentagon, Operation Straight Up has now begun focusing on Iraq, where, according to its website (on pages taken down last week), it planned an entertainment tour called the “Military Crusade.” Apparently the wonks at the Pentagon forgot that Muslims tend to bristle at the word “crusade” and thought that what the Iraq war lacked was a dose of end-times theology. [T]he episode is just another example of increasingly disturbing, and indeed unconstitutional, relationships being forged between the U.S. military and private evangelical groups.

Oh I don’t know – if you’re going to have a giant military, it probably ought to be kind of devout, don’t you think? Better safe than sorry, right?

The extent to which such relationships have damaged international goodwill toward the U.S. is beyond measure…[A] leading Turkish newspaper, Sabah, published an article on Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, who is the U.S. liaison to the Turkish military — and who appeared in the Christian Embassy video. The article described Christian Embassy as a “radical fundamentalist sect,” perhaps irreparably damaging Sutton’s primary job objective of building closer ties to the Turkish General Staff, which has expressed alarm at the influence of fundamentalist Christian groups inside the U.S. military. Our military personnel swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the Bible. Yet by turning a blind eye to OSU and Christian Embassy activities, the Pentagon is, in essence, endorsing their proselytizing.

Oh, relax. Lighten up. Soon enough our military personnel will be wearing an oath to defend the Bible, not the Constitution, and that’s as it should be. If you’re not good, you’re evil – understand?

We’re going to have people saying unpopular things

Aug 23rd, 2007 12:24 pm | By

One of these again.

J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist…Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist at the University of Michigan, sent out an e-mail message comparing Dr. Bailey’s views to Nazi propaganda…Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey’s thesis in the book, “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.”

Oh no, not that. If he does that then nothing is too bad to do to him.

Dr. Conway, the computer scientist, kept a running chronicle of the accusations against Dr. Bailey on her Web site…The site also included a link to the Web page of another critic of Dr. Bailey’s book, Andrea James, a Los Angeles-based transgender advocate and consultant. Ms. James downloaded images from Dr. Bailey’s Web site of his children, taken when they were in middle and elementary school, and posted them on her own site, with sexually explicit captions that she provided…Ms. James said in an e-mail message that Dr. Bailey’s work exploited vulnerable people, especially children, and that her response echoed his disrespect.

Nice, huh?

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

For science, for free expression, for research, scholarship, inquiry, thought – the whole shooting match. Not good.

Judgements by default

Aug 22nd, 2007 5:12 pm | By

Silencing by libel suit – it’s everywhere. Deborah Lipstadt pointed out one branch a couple of weeks ago.

Now the Saudis have silenced another book. This one is by J. Millard Burr, a former relief coordinator for Operation Lifeline Sudan, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Robert O. Collins, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. They have written a number of books on Darfur and Sudan. Their most recent book, Alms for Jihad, was published by Cambridge University Press. The authors explore how…”The Saudi royal family played a pernicious role, founding and promoting charities to spread militant Sunni Islam…” The British lawyers for Khalid bin Mahfouz and his son Abdulrahman bin Mahfouz wrote Cambridge University Press saying they intended to sue the Press and the authors for defamation against their clients.
Cambridge University Press contacted the authors, and they provided detailed material in support of their claims made in Alms for Jihad. Nonetheless, Cambridge University Press decided not to contest the argument and next week they will apologize in court.

So much for freedom of information, so much for the public’s right to know, so much for freedom of speech and the press.

Bin Mahfouz apparently has amassed a number of judgements by default, in other words the case was not tried on its merits. Everyone just caves, pays a fine, and gets out of Dodge as fast as they can. Cambridge Press had pretty deep pockets but it too folded. And now I return to the main point: Why [hasn’t] this pattern of silencing by the Saudis of authors who are critical of them been the topic of an article in the mainstream press?

Why indeed.

More on the frivolous lawsuit

Aug 21st, 2007 6:04 pm | By

Very interesting. Panda’s Thumb comments on Pivar’s poxy lawsuit

The suit has been discussed on several web sites already, including Scientific American, the Lippard Blog, Overlawyered and PT contributor Timothy Sandefur’s personal blog Positive Liberty. The consensus seems to be that the suit has no legs, but of course if this is a nuisance suit, ultimate success in front of a judge is not the goal.

And Peter Irons comments on the comment – Peter Irons, author of A People’s History of the Supreme Court from which I have derived material for comment here, I think possibly more than once.

Since this is all out in the open now, I thought I’d comment as a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues, including defamation. First, this is a patently frivolous lawsuit, and will not survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Rule 12(b)(6) is the death sentence for cases like this, which never come to trial. I’m sure the Seed lawyers are now drafting a motion to dismiss, which will almost certainly be granted…Yesterday, I had an interesting half-hour phone conversation with Pivar’s lawyer, Michael J. Little, who was quite candid with me…The bottom line is that, since Pivar’s lawyer himself has little (no pun intended) hope the case will survive a motion to dismiss, PZ has nothing to worry about…I have learned a lot more about Pivar, including his alleged “friendship” with Steve Gould (who was my close friend from our college days in the 1950s until he died in 2002), but I won’t post it here.

Well let’s hope Pivar has to pay large court costs, that’s all – in fact what the hell, let’s hope a pro bono lawyer or two persuades PZ to counter-sue and Pivar has to give him a very very very lot of money and also go on Oprah to apologize to the nation and the world.

Silencing critics

Aug 21st, 2007 3:30 pm | By

This libel suit against PZ is terrifying – not just for people who write, but for people who read too. If suits like this are possible, then no one can say anything. Magazines of any substance will disappear, newspapers will become even more vacuous than they already are, books will become anorexic and very very dull. How can it be possible to sue someone for an unfavorable book review? Why wasn’t Stuart Pivar politely but firmly escorted out of the building and told not to return?

Note this bit from Blake Stacey:

Down in the comments, my Pharynguloid pals and I started noticing that the laudatory quotes Pivar had stuck on LifeCode couldn’t be traced back to their purported sources. In particular, an endorsement from Neil deGrasse Tyson turned out to be a chimera: the first part from an unrelated NOVA interview, and the second completely fabricated…PZ makes note of the puzzling endorsement situation. He says that he’s written several of the people whose names Pivar invoked, and Neil deGrasse Tyson had written back: “Tyson replied, and has said that part of the quote is an out of context reference to a completely different subject, and that another part is a fabrication. He has asked that Pivar remove his name from his website, which he has not done. Tyson’s name is also prominently used on the back cover of his book — I don’t see that going away, either.”

Isn’t that charming – and that’s the guy who’s suing someone for writing a critical review of his book. What’s the thinking here – that because Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘endorsed’ the book on Pivar’s website therefore a critical review must be not only libel but assault? That fabricating endorsements is okie dokie but saying a book is not good is libelous?

Tim Sandefur gives some legal analysis here.

Pivar (who appears to be a serial abuser of the courts) is demanding damages due to a book review Myers wrote in which he called Pivar a “classic crackpot.” Well, I’m here to say that Pivar is more than a crackpot. He’s a crackpot, an idiot, a moron, a fool, a bully, and an abuser of the legal system who deserves to be sanctioned for filing a frivolous and baseless case for no reason other than to infringe on PZ Myers’ constitutionally protected right of free speech.

He goes on to say that you can’t sue someone for libel for expressing an opinion (as in calling someone a fool) and that Pivar is a public figure and ‘a public figure cannot sue for libel except under very rare circumstances that are not present here. By publishing a book—especially a book with crackpot notions on scientific matters—Pivar has become a limited public figure at least, and has no grounds to file a lawsuit like this.’

Let’s hope the case gets thrown out before the ink is dry on the parking ticket and that it won’t cost either PZ or Seed a lousy rusty dime.

Freedom of speech means you must shut up

Aug 21st, 2007 12:22 pm | By

And while I’m at it, why don’t I just quarrel with Michael Shermer’s piece too. He doesn’t resort to the childish abuse of ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine,’ but there’s plenty to quarrel with all the same.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance…Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

Oh really. Such as abolitionism for instance? Anti-war movements? Anti-imperialism movements? Some anti-something movements fail, others don’t. And the ‘new Atheists’ aren’t merely against something anyway, so it’s just more straw. (People do produce a remarkable amount of straw on this subject.)

Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested.

But…they do. What’s he talking about? Of course they champion science and reason. Does he mean to the exclusion of criticizing religion? But what if they think (as they do) that religion competes with and/or damages science and reason? Are they forbidden to discuss that? If so, why? How can that possibly be justified? Especially when that’s not usually said about other ideas – champion birdwatching but don’t criticize destruction of habitat; champion feminism but don’t criticize sexism or subordination; champion education but don’t criticize ignorance. That’s childish; it’s self-helpish nonsense.

Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

That’s the worst one of all, because it implies that criticism is incompatible with the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose – which is a stark contradiction, apart from anything else that’s wrong with it. But it’s also just damn silly, and an attempt at silencing or impeding free inquiry and criticism and thought. It is, frankly, deeply obnoxious to pretend that the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose somehow entails the silencing of people who think and believe differently and want to say so. It’s a completely inane thing to say, because it tells us to shut up so that other people can talk without hearing anything they don’t like. The logic is ridiculous, and the political import is revoltingly craven.

The Parochialist Noise Machine

Aug 21st, 2007 11:17 am | By

How nice – Matthew Nisbet has trotted out the old ‘atheists should be quiet’ number again, and nearly all the comments point out how absurd that is, and why. Good.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, echoes the very same warnings about the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign emphasized here at Framing Science…He argues against the irrational exuberance of the New Atheist Noise Machine…

No he doesn’t, because he doesn’t call it ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine’ – that bit of creepy snide namecalling is Nisbet’s contribution. It pisses me off, that kind of thing, because apart from anything else, what about the Theist Noise Machine? Eh? Why do Nisbet and Greg Epstein and the rest of the atheist-‘bashing’ hacks make such a (noisy?) fuss about atheism when the Theist Noise Machine has been deafening all of us for years?

Most importantly we alienate many moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with us on most social and scientific topics.

There it is again – that horrible blinkered parochial miniaturized view of the world which sees everything as a matter of US electoral politics. What does he mean ‘most importantly’? Is he so provincial and so one-eyed that he fails to realize that some people are interested in things other than US politics? Can he fail to realize that some people find US politics itself so provincial and narrow and childishly personal as well as greasily pragmatic that they turn away from it in revulsion?

Well, yes, apparently. He replies to a series of unconvinced comments with an even more parochial bit of wisdom:

The New Atheist Noise machine risks alienating the swing voters, moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with atheists on most issues.

Risks alienating the swing voters – there speaks the voice of truly infatuated narrowness of mind. What is he even talking about? Are ‘the new Atheists’ running for office? Are they working for Obama or Edwards? Are they even thinking about ‘the swing voters’? Of course they’re not, and why should they be? What do ‘the swing voters’ have to do with anything? And what is the logic of this way of thinking? That no idea should be discussed or advocated in a book if there is a chance that it might ‘alienate the swing voters’? (Alienate them from whom, anyway? What are they going to do, blame the Democratic Party for the books by four atheists? Why would they do that?) That all ideas and all books should be anodyne and empty because otherwise the ‘swing voters’ might be alienated? But if that’s the idea – then why bother? Why are we supposed to care who ‘wins’ if the price of ‘winning’ is that nobody ever expresses an idea that the swing voter might not like? What are we aiming for here, a thought-world that’s safe for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?

Deference to authority

Aug 20th, 2007 5:44 pm | By

Stephen Law asks a crucial question:

[M]y greatest concern is that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question, a question about the kind of religious education schools offer: to what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

How about deference to authority and downright obedience of existing rules (no hitting, no knifing the teacher, no breaking windows – you know the kind of thing) in combination with no suppression at all of independent, critical thought about the rules? How does that sound? Obey the ones that are in place, and by all means think about them, discuss them, analyze them, along with other moral and religious matters. Sound reasonable?

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale. Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. The other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”. Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

Which suggests the idea that secularism and independent critical thought go together, and theocracy and authoritarianism do the same. That’s probably obvious enough, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools. Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel. I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.

I’ve already got it.

Eight things

Aug 19th, 2007 4:01 pm | By

Jeffrey at Silence and Voice tagged me a few days ago. You’re supposed to list eight random facts about yourself and then tag eight more people. Let’s see…

1) I was born in Manhattan. 2) I just went for a 2 1/2 hour walk. 3) I’m wearing jeans and a blue, green and white striped T shirt. 4) I don’t like talking about myself. 5) I have a low boredom threshold. 6) My face looks sullen or even furious when it’s merely neutral. 7) I hate wearing hats. I do it, when it’s sunny or raining, but I hate it and pull the hat off in the shade or under a roof or overhang. 8) I like elephants.

So, eight people…Chris Dillow. Shuggy. Rosie Bell. Cam. Jean Kazez. Potentilla. John. Maryam.

So contract killing is legal in India?

Aug 19th, 2007 11:32 am | By

But why aren’t these guys just summarily arrested without bail as a threat to public safety? You can’t put out public hits on people! Can you? Except in failed states, and in violent hidden enclaves (where ‘public’ is only semi-public). You can’t just get together in a cozy pally group and say ‘Kill this person and we’ll give you a lot of money’ and be reported in the newspapers as saying that and just go chuckling about your business – can you?

Muslim clerics in Kolkata issued a “death warrant” against controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen on Friday, threatening her life if she did not leave the country where she lives in exile. The threat came after a meeting of dozens of clerics from prominent mosques in Kolkata – where the writer lives – who said she had invited their wrath through her “repeated criticism” of Islam in her books and speeches. While one prominent cleric said Nasreen had a month to leave, another said she had 15 days. Anyone who killed her would get a cash reward of 100,000 rupees ($2,400), they said. “Anyone who executes the warrant will also be given additional rewards,” said Nurur Rehman Barkati, a cleric of one of the biggest mosques in Kolkata.

So there they all are, with names, mosques, amounts offered all given. So why aren’t they all occupying a Kolkata jail cell? Why isn’t their ability to offer anyone a monetary reward for murdering a novelist severely compromised by their occupation of a room nine feet by six with bars on the window and door? Why don’t ‘clerical’ thugs who put out hits on people get instantly busted for incitement to murder?

Answers on a postcard.

“Truth” v truth

Aug 19th, 2007 10:42 am | By

Chris Dillow reviewed Why Truth Matters the other day. He said nice things about it, but he also made some claims that I respectfully disagree with – claims that are mostly about truth rather than about the book, so I hope my respectful disagreement doesn’t look too self-serving.

Many interesting “truths” might be merely fashionable beliefs; if the last 500 years are any guide, today’s “truth” is the next century’s nonsense.

Yes but the subject isn’t “truth” but truth. That is of course part of the point – that “truth” is one thing and truth is another, and that conflating the two is one way of claiming that truth doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist or is merely a rhetorical pat on the back. We’re not pretending to say why “truth” matters, but why truth matters. Truth is not mere belief, fashionable or otherwise.

One [problem] is their attempt to privilege truth because of its links with what makes humans unique.

We’re not attempting to privilege it, we’re attempting to explain why it matters, having already conceded that we don’t have a knock-down argument for that. We don’t really think there is such a knock-down argument; we say it comes down to preferences; then we try to explain possible reasons for the preferences.

Animals can grasp reality, in some senses, better than us: if you want to find the truth of where a mouse is, a cat is better than a human. Where humans are unique – insofar as we know – is in being able to problematize the truth, to tell stories, to mix myth with “reality.” It’s postmodernism that’s uniquely human, not the notion of an external truth.

Well, no. Reality isn’t the same thing as truth. Animals may well be able to grasp some particular bit of reality in a particular place at a particular instant better than any human could with the aid only of human senses – but that’s not the same thing as saying animals can ‘grasp’ or find or think about truth better than we can. Sure humans are unique in being able to tell stories, but they are also unique in being able to think and talk about truth. Both abilities depend on language (cognitive scientists think that animals can’t fantasize or imagine at all because that ability depends on concepts which depend on language). Both postmodernism and the notion of an external truth are uniquely human – along with a great many other things.

More seriously, Benson and Stangroom duck the real problem presented by relativism and scepticism. It’s trivial that “fire burns” is a universal truth. But what about “humans have rights”, or “democracy is the best government”? Are these universal truths? If so, how can we tell.

No. That’s the facts-values gap, the is-ought gap. The claim that humans have rights or that democracy is the best government are claims about values or oughts, not about facts; they’re ethical claims, not ontological claims. We don’t duck the problem, it’s just that it wasn’t the subject of this book.

Vast numbers of claims – “this £20 note is more valuable than a piece of paper”, “it’s 10 past 11”, “I have a right not to be tortured” – are “true” only because others agree that they are. Such “truths” are social constructs. Benson and Stangroom don’t adequately tackle the many problems this raises, not least for liberal interventionism.

Again – just a question of subject matter and space. Note (again) the scare-quotes on “true” – the subject of this book wasn’t “truth” but truth, so “truths” that are social constructs weren’t the subject matter of this book; the distinction between the two was part of the subject matter and it does get discussed, for instance in chapters 2 and 4.

The Tao of lawn-mowing

Aug 18th, 2007 2:54 pm | By

Another way to be silly.

[S]ome credible scientists contribute (knowingly or not) to fuelling irrational, mystical tendencies in public life. The fact this is so often done in the name of making science attractive to non-scientists only makes the damage harder to repair…The genre originated with the publication in 1975 of Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, which suggested that the equations of quantum-field theory were somehow related to ancient, mystical Indian texts. This book struck me then (and still does) as a monumental joke…What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an illusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science – and The X-Files is science-fiction.

It’s all wrapping and shroud and insinuation, ambiguity and exoticicism and the paranormal – aimed at people who get little thrills of significance from ambiguous paranormal exoticism wrapped in illusory insinuating shrouds. There are a lot of people like that.

[T]he idea of an association between science and mysticism is now promoted by respected scientists rather than by journalists or charlatans – guaranteeing it more credibility than these earlier authors ever had…[F]or a well-known physicist to use science to feed the popular hunger for re-enchantment is – without doubting the sincerity of his beliefs or his project – to lend credibility to irrationalism…Scientists should challenge the indulgence of mysticism in their own backyards. For example, the journal Science devotes one-and-a-half pages to a review of The Physics of Immortality which offers no critical perspective on its fundamental thesis, and neglects to point out that its dozens of pages of equations (incomprehensible for most readers) are mere “fluff” that have nothing to do with the soul’s immortality; they serve only an attempt to “blind the reader with science”. It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions…The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Not even Karl Rove.

Taner Edis

Aug 17th, 2007 10:06 am | By

So Steve Paulson asks Taner Edis how he would assess the state of scientific knowledge in the Islamic world.

Dismal. Right now, if all Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth, the rest of the scientific community would barely notice. There’s very little contribution coming from Muslim lands…Especially in military and commercial areas, they have put their emphasis on applied science rather than basic science. So there are lots of medical doctors and engineers in the Muslim world. But the contribution to scientific research is much lower.

Does it matter? Can’t they just import basic science from the rest of the world?

It permanently locks the Muslim world into a subordinate position in those aspects of modern life that depend on creativity in technology and science. And this is a huge swath of modern life…This is not a controversial statement in the Muslim world. Even the most conservative Muslim realizes that the Islamic world is at a severe disadvantage right now in science and technology. The West has done a much better job. And somehow, Muslims are going to have to do better.

This bit is really interesting and suggestive.

It was harder for science to achieve intellectual and institutional independence. This was not restricted just to science. In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

Intellectual independence…It’s probably hard to exaggerate the importance of that for both personal flourishing and for healthy public goods of all kinds.

One of the features of medieval Islamic science that some modern Muslim thinkers want to revive is the way of perceiving the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place. This tends to work against the independence of science from religious institutions. It’s precisely this autonomy that helped science make the breakthrough in the Western world. In the Muslim world, this is still a relatively controversial concept.

If you see the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place, then you can’t have real intellectual independence – not if you take that idea seriously. If the universe is a God-centered place, then God calls the shots.

They talk about the ‘scientism’ charge – “There are a lot of people in the United States…who also complain about what they call “scientism” — the idea that science explains all there is in the world.”

You can find Muslim thinkers making similar pronouncements. “Scientism” and “reductionism” have become stock accusations in religious circles. I don’t know if there’s much more content here than saying, “I don’t like naturalistic ideas.”

Snicker. Yeah.

Why infidelity is essential

Aug 15th, 2007 2:04 pm | By

I’m reading Infidel. I’m going to have to treat you to some samples.

This one is on p. 94. She’s been taking classes at school with a very strict Muslim teacher (though one who urges the children to think, rather than merely shouting dogma at them). She has noted that ‘Something inside me always resisted the moral values behind Sister Aziza’s lectures: a small spark of independence.’ She was troubled by the gap between the demands of the Holy Writings and the reality of daily life; she had asked how a just God could want women to be treated so unfairly; she had noted that she continued to read novels.

A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings I felt when I read those books. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an indivuidual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind.

Devastating final sentence, don’t you think?

He dies without seeing peace in Somalia

Aug 15th, 2007 11:00 am | By

Hell and damnation.

Press freedom groups worldwide expressed horror at the “savage” killings of two prominent Somali journalists on 11 August 2007…Six journalists have been killed in Somalia so far this year, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). “This wave of attack of killing and injuring media people is an intentionally organised mission to silence [the] journalistic voice in Somalia,” the union said…CBC News said HornAfrik has criticised both the government and the militant Islamic opposition, and has been shut down several times in the past few months. Reuters said the station was shelled in April, apparently from Ethiopian positions…In 2002 Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) gave its International Press Freedom Award to Sharmarke and HornAfrik’s two other founders, Ahmed Abdisalam Adan and Mohamed Elmi. All three had fled Somalia and come to Canada as refugees, but later returned to Somalia to start the station. The CJFE award recognised HornAfrik, the first independent radio network in Somalia, for persisting in the face of intimidation and threats…Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) urged Somalia’s transitional government to thoroughly investigate and punish those responsible for the killings.

They were all three safe in Canada, but they all went back to nightmare Somalia to try to make things better – and Sharmarke and Elmi were murdered for their pains. It’s appalling.

From the Globe and Mail:

Somali associates of the two HornAfrik journalists expressed outrage, saying both deaths were part of a deliberate campaign against the media. “This wave of killing and injuring media people is an intentionally organized mission to silence journalistic voices in Somalia,” the National Union of Somali Journalists said…The men came to Canada as refugees from the civil war in Somalia. After some calm returned to the African country, they opened HornAfrik, the first independent radio network in Somalia, in December of 1999. Reuters journalist Sahal Abdulle, next to Mr. Sharmarke at the time of the blast, was lightly injured in the head and face…”Ali was a good friend. I have known him a long time. He was committed to getting the truth out. He came back from Canada to promote democracy and give Somalis a voice. Today, he paid the ultimate price,” Mr. Abdulle added.

From the Globe and Mail again:

I have long feared the arrival of news that one of “my journalists” had been killed…Unidentified men pumped bullets into Mahad’s head Saturday morning as he entered CapitalFM’s studios, where his talk show had enormous popularity for challenging human-rights abusers and warlords and extremists…HornAfrik is a beacon of media courage and integrity in Mogadishu and all Somalia…I have learned how absolutely critical a reliable, responsible news media is to stabilizing conflict-stressed states. My respect for media workers in those places is now boundless…Among the tributes to him flowing this week between trainers and African broadcasters who were at Bujumbura, Niyoyita Aloys of Burundi recalls that “at the airport, he told me he believed one day Somalia would recover peace. He told me he was not afraid of warlords. Unfortunately, he dies without seeing peace in Somalia.”

As Ross Howard implies in that comment about how critical a reliable news media is, it’s all part of the same picture – liberalism, the rule of law, human rights, peace. When it breaks down, it breaks down; you lose the whole damn thing, and life turns to shit. I’m reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and she lived through just this breakdown in Somalia. Some of it is hard to read – because it was so incredibly hard to live through.

‘We are all Hrant Dink,’ they said in Istanbul. We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Mahad Ahmed Elmi, we are all Ali Iman Sharmarke. We are all Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we are all Salman Rushdie, we are all Ibn Warraq, we are all Taslima Nasreen, we are all Tasneem Khalil. Back off – we’re connected.

The West Midlands Censorship Bureau

Aug 13th, 2007 5:48 pm | By

So the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service issued a joint statement condemning Undercover Mosque and announcing that the West Midlands Police had referred the documentary to Ofcom. The cops wanted the programme makers prosecuted for stirring up racial hatred. They seem to be slightly confused.

[T]he real story should have been about the alarmingly censorial and quite possibly libellous attack on investigative journalism. No matter, on Radio 4’s PM programme, it was Dispatches’ commissioning editor Kevin Sutcliffe who was subjected to a grilling, while Abu Usamah, one of the subjects of the documentary, was portrayed as a harmless victim…[H]ere is Usamah spreading his message of inter-communal respect and understanding, as captured in Undercover Mosque: ‘No one loves the kuffaar! Not a single person here from the Muslims loves the kuffaar. Whether those kuffaar are from the UK or from the US. We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kuffaar. We hate the kuffaar!’

Who? The kuffaar – you know – everyone except ‘the people of Islam.’ You know, some five and a half billion people. We hates ’em! Because they are – kuffaar.

[L]et’s ask what conceivable context could make these quotes acceptable or reasonable? Was he rehearsing a stage play? Was it a workshop on conflict resolution? Or perhaps it was the same context in which a spokesman from those other righteous humanitarians, the BNP, might attempt to aid community relations by repeatedly stating that his followers ‘hate Muslims’.

Oh but that’s completely different. Hating the kuffaar is completely different from hating Muslims. It’s all about community cohesion, don’t you understand?

‘We hate the kuffaar’ is not a statement best designed for community cohesion, but whose fault is that – Abu Usamah’s for saying it or Channel 4’s for recording him?

The latter, of course. Duh.

Apparently what happened is, the police and the CPS tried to find out if prosecutions for crimes of racial hatred could be brought against the imams, decided they couldn’t, and by way of compensation, shopped Channel 4 to the broadcast regulators instead. That’s not actually their job, but never mind.

They had concluded that comments had been “broadcast out of context” and so they and the CPS had complained to Ofcom.They did not acknowledge, by the way, that at several points in the programme, the organisations and individuals concerned are given a right of reply, or that several moderate Muslim experts explain on air why they think the remarks shown are extreme. Do the West Midlands police side with Islamists against moderates?

Oh no no no no; good heavens no. Unless of course it seems like a good idea for community cohesion.

Let us, however, take the context point seriously. The context is, according to many of the preachers, that they are talking not about Britain now, but about the Islamic state that they seek…[E]ven if we accept that it is true, is it reassuring? The Islamic state envisaged by most of those featured is not an ideal, imaginary kingdom of heaven where the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

No it certainly is not. It’s an imaginary kingdom of hell where the lion shall persecute the lamb forever and ever amen.

Another Swift, another Pope, another Wilde

Aug 12th, 2007 4:13 pm | By

Good grief, as if I don’t have enough to do, now I’m having to fend off the ravings of a reader who seems to have suddenly gone stark raving mad. Although there was, to be sure, always a whiff of madness…But now it’s more like an old overfull garbage can at the end of a hot August day. He’s pissed off because I wrote something (something very brief) about Ehsan Jami the other day; he’s been bombarding me with emails telling me how awful he thinks Jami is; the one he sent today was so rude and condescending and aggressive that I became irritated as well as bored, and told him to stop lecturing me. He sent an even ruder (and longer) reply, to which I replied sharply and, I would have thought and expected, terminally; now he’s sent me a sarcastic apology, and guess what the basic premise is? That I’m an overbearing woman who expects men to grovel at her feet. Honestly! This loon sends me a stream of scolding emails and when I tell him to knock it off, he plays the Angry Male card! It strains credulity.

I can’t resist giving you a sample, it’s so ludicrous. I don’t have permission, but he doesn’t have permission to keep pestering me, either, so the hell with permission. Read and admire.

And really, very humbly grovelling of course, touching the forelock, mistress, speaking for myself (if I may, with your permission), my gifts are not fit for being thus in public and so in private, as your magisterial self, if I may say so without seeming presumptuous, of course, can do so well. Us mere male servants, mistress, with your permission, find this almost impossible to do. It is a major weakness of mine, if you excuse my impertence of speaking of myself. A mere simpleminded male such as I has the shortcoming of saying what he thinks, presumptuous as that is, IMHO…However, if I DO make a sincere, humble effort, mistress, you see that even such a one as me, can be brought, humbly of course, to reason, and to adopt the proper position of a mere male when faced with a proud female, such as you, of such commanding presence also: cowering, crouching, crawling in sincere and humble supplication, thanking the powers that be for her kind attention…So it is truly most remiss of me to have doubted the noble words of the public spokeswomen of Ayaan the Blessed. And therefore I must most humbly beg for forgivenness, for daring to presume that one as I (a mere male, and a Dutch one at that, o horror) could possibly see (if I may breathe it: Dutch) things more clearly than you or Her, mistress, for stealing your time, for defiling your mood, for being the suffering subject of my tedious rudeness and relentless unpleasantness. I merely thought, humbly, that such a one as I – humbly begging forgiveness for the mere presumption mistress! – could conceivably be perhaps, humbly in supplication and on my bare knees, be able to, by the merest accident of time and place, of course without any reflection on my baseness, moved by the merest waft of coincident conjunctive chance of time and place – well, I beg forgiveness – … if truth matters, see things a bit more clearly, perhaps?

Pretty good, don’t you think?

Good people here, bad people there

Aug 12th, 2007 3:49 pm | By

Shiraz Maher escaped from Hizb ut-Tahrir

Islamism transcends cultural norms, so it not only prompted me to reject my British identity but also my ethnic South Asian background. I was neither eastern, nor western; I was a Muslim, a part of the global ummah, where identity is defined through the fraternity of faith. Islamists insist this identity is not racist because Islam welcomes people of all colours, ethnicities and backgrounds. That was true, but our world view was still horribly bipolar. We didn’t distinguish on the basis of colour, but on creed. The world was simply divided into believers and nonbelievers.

Identity defined through the ‘fraternity of faith’ is not racist, good, but it does divide the world simply into believers and nonbelievers (or infidels, kufr, apostates, heretics, misbelievers, traitors), which is at least as bad. Dividing the world into just two is both dangerous and malevolent for an obvious reason: it means that the not-us part is seen as The Enemy. That potential always exists for any kind of evaluation or preference or allegiance, but it’s a lot weaker when the allegiances are multiple instead of single. Beware the people who divide the world in two.