Notes and Comment Blog

Our Banner: No Consensus for Loonies

Sep 5th, 2003 5:15 pm | By

Here’s an item for all you students of artful rhetoric: an article about pagans, Wiccans and other ‘alternative’ groups and the use they make of Stonehenge and similar sites. Pure wool from beginning to end – enough wool there to make jumpers for the entire Butterflies and Wheels staff.

Spiritual site-users, specifically Pagans and Travellers, have traditionally been negatively represented by the media…However, this report outlines the growing need for recognition of the rights of Pagans, who come from all walks of life…Pagan and other spiritual site-users believe that the spirits and energies of the land can be most strongly felt at sacred sites enabling connections to be made with our ancestors.

Yes, and? So what? What if I believe that the spirits and energies of [your choice of entity here] can be most strongly felt at the library, or the nearest art museum, or the theatre, or your living room, and so go there and carry on in a manner of my choosing? Will two Doctors at Sheffield Hallam University do research that outlines the growing need for recognition of the rights of me to do whatever I want to because I come from all walks of life? If so, why? And apart from that, apart from the consequentialist aspect of the question, what of the epistemological one? What about this fatuous nonsense that ‘spiritual site-users’ believe or claim to believe? Why the studied refusal to mention the nonsensicality of the belief?

Increasingly, they are campaigning to be able to engage with the sites in their own ways…Activities such as the lighting of fires and graffiti on the monuments, which have taken place as part of rituals, are in opposition to the preservation wishes of heritage managers. An extreme example of destructive behaviour was demonstrated by one such alternative group who decided that a stone circle was not positioned correctly and so they attempted to move it. Whereas Pagans are very active site users, heritage managers tend to promote a passive visitor experience, which includes accessing information on display and utilising the visitor centre. The research discusses how, for Pagan and spiritual site-users, the land isn’t something to visit or marvel at in this way, it is a living landscape and to be at the site is like ‘coming home’.

Sly, no? ‘Active’ versus ‘passive’ – now we know active is good and passive is bad, right? So obviously these energetic, lively, engaged, take charge Pagans are the Good People, and the spineless supine limp passive weak ‘heritage managers’, otherwise known as archaeologists and historians and tiresome pedantic people like that – they’re obviously the Bad People. The dear Pagans improve boring old places like Stonehenge by scribbling on them, setting fire to them and moving the stones around. Now that’s what I call initiative! Whereas the dreary old scholars just stand around and study the thing. Yuk, so left-brain, so linear, so Eurocentric and rational. And yet nobody represents them ‘negatively’ in the media.

The recent news that Stonehenge is to get a £57m makeover to improve its visitor centre and facilities is a step in the right direction, but further demonstrates this passive view of the visitor experience held by heritage managers. This research argues that although the views of heritage managers, archaeologists and spiritual site-users appear irreconcilable, the future of these sacred sites depends upon education, negotiation and consensus between all groups.

Why does the future of these ‘sacred’ sites depend on those things? Why is negotiation required? And especially why is consensus? Why can’t they just be ignored? Why can’t people who hold (or pretend to hold because it makes life interesting and gets them some attention even if it is ‘negative’) ridiculous unfounded ideas simply not be taken into account if their ideas entail destructive practices? What if a group decided it could only properly appreciate Shakespeare by eating the four remaining copies of the First Folio – would we have to negotiate and reach consensus, perhaps allow them to eat two, or chew all of them but then spit them out again? Or would we just tell them to go away. Let’s do more of that.

P.S. Thanks to PM, here is ‘sacred sites’ for your exploring pleasure.

Psychology and Psychiatry

Sep 4th, 2003 9:29 pm | By

We had a discussion/disagreement recently about the validity or otherwise of psychiatric diagnoses or labels, designer drugs, and the DSM [see Comments on the N&C ‘Opinion’ on 26 August if you’re interested]. I was browsing my disorderly collection of printed-out articles this morning and so re-read this article by Carol Tavris that I posted in News last March. What she says is highly pertinent to the discussion/disagreement. In fact, it raises a whole set of questions that are very much B and W territory: what is science and what isn’t, what is pseudoscience, what kind of evidence is reliable and what isn’t and why, what kind of harm can be done by taking shaky evidence as more reliable than it is. And perhaps above all, the strange way the less reliable, well-founded, evidence-based branch of a discipline has become dominant in the public realm while the more cautious, skeptical, research-based branch is comparatively ignored.

Yet while the public assumes, vaguely, that therapists must be “scientists” of some sort, many of the widely accepted claims promulgated by therapists are based on subjective clinical opinions and have been resoundingly disproved by empirical research conducted by psychological scientists…Indeed, the split between the research and practice wings of psychology has grown so wide that many psychologists now speak glumly of the “scientist-practitioner gap”…Unfortunately, the numbers of scientifically trained clinicians have been shrinking. More and more therapists are getting their degrees from “free-standing” schools, so called because they are independent of research institutions or academic psychology departments. In these schools, students are trained only to do therapy, and they do not necessarily even learn which kinds of therapy have been shown to be most effective for particular problems.

And so we come to the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that is, the ‘bible’ of US psychiatrists. The DSM is a product of the clinician side rather than the research side of this debate. There is a review-article here that discusses the same issues Tavris does while reviewing Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (which has a foreword by Tavris). The differences (in all senses) between clinical psychologists and research psychologists, what kind of evidence they rely on, which treatment techniques are effective, which are ineffective, and which are actually harmful, the importance of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. The book also discuss the controveries that can erupt over these issues. And the DSM.

These two drastically divergent conclusions demonstrate not only how varying standards of evidence can result in vastly different perceptions of treatment effectiveness, but also how some standards, such as clinical-anecdotal literature and clinical acceptance, are inappropriate measures. These conclusions also raise concern about relying on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), which is also based on practitioner consensus rather than empiricism (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994). This concern is reinforced in the chapter titled, “The Science and Pseudoscience of Expert Testimony,” by Joseph T. McCann, Kelley L. Shindler, and Tammy R. Hammond, which observes that the APA acknowledges that DSM-IV diagnoses do not rise to the standard of legal evidence (APA, 1994).

Well there you have it. All those syndromes and disorders in the DSM rely on practitioner consensus (sounds like what Susan Haack calls ‘vulgar Rortyism’) rather than empiricism, and the diagnoses do not rise to the standard of legal evidence. Just what I’ve long thought, so it’s good to see it said so explicitly. And the Candace Newmaker case is discussed too, not surprisingly.

Tavris is not alone among the contributors in suggesting that these practices are not only unscientific, but harmful; at worst, they can lead to inappropriate custody decisions and jury verdicts. Lilienfeld and his coeditors expand upon this concept in their opening chapter, identifying varying degrees of harm that may result from pseudoscientific techniques. Some treatments are truly dangerous, such as the “rebirthing” techniques that gained attention only after the suffocation death of Candace Newmaker; “memory recovery,” which caused many innocent people to be accused-and some convicted-of heinous crimes; and “critical incident stress debriefing,” which exacerbates the trauma it is purported to mitigate.

This is a large subject, and one we’ll be turning our attention to.


Sep 4th, 2003 8:23 pm | By

Erin O’Connor says some very interesting things in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. They’re things I’ve been thinking for some time myself.

But almost everyone agrees with the astounding premise that it’s reasonable to use the freshman reading program to stage a political debate…On both sides of the debate, a book’s politics are assumed to matter more than its scholarly merit or literary quality…The tacit assumption by both liberals and conservatives that Chapel Hill’s summer reading program is more about politics than about reading should give us pause. We ought to be asking what it means to read opinionated works as either a confirmation or negation of identity — but instead we are fighting endlessly about whose identity gets top billing when readings are assigned.

Just so. One of the things that has soured or curdled or at least altered my leftist views or commitments – I still have them, but they tend to be hedged about with sighs or snarls or rolled eyes these days – is just that claustrophobic idea that politics is the only way to think. That if one is not thinking politically one is not thinking at all, and then that politics boils down to identity politics. What a deadly combination. First, come up with a radically diminished impoverished and in many ways regressive idea of what politics is about, and then make everything be about (that version of) politics. Then run absolutely everything in life through that dreary wringer and see the result: we’re not allowed to read Shakespeare or Austen any more without getting an endless turgid point-missing lecture on their failure to be as right-on about Colonialism or queer theory as we are. Yawn.

Yes, they are exposing the program’s considerable liberal slant, but only on the way to revealing their own embarrassingly impoverished concept of reading…Both liberals and conservatives should remember that there is no book worth reading that is not somehow partial to something, and that there is no education worth having that does not involve exposure to partialities other than one’s own.

And even that there are partialities that have little or nothing to do with politics, especially with politics in the narrow boring parochial sense in which we’ve taken to defining it.


Sep 2nd, 2003 11:22 pm | By

I knew I was right to like ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’! [see N&C August 27 if you care] Drone about stereotypes all you like, but hey, if it pisses off Brent Bozell, it’s right up there with Euripides and Chekhov, as far as I’m concerned.

“I want to vomit,” L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which monitors TV content, wrote of Bravo’s smash “Queer Eye” in his weekly column last month. “Ever seen a show more dedicated to a ‘straight-bashing’ proposition? … Try this idea for a show and tell me how many seconds it would last in a Hollywood pitch session: ‘A team of five fabulous straight guys teach a masculinity-deprived gay man how to throw a football, hunt for game, drink something manlier than fruity wine coolers and appreciate the fiction of Tom Clancy.'”

Haaa! Suck it up, Brentster! You’re dead right, and that calls for champagne on the house. The dreary boring football-throwing game-slaughtering Tom Clancy-appreciating side doesn’t get to have a funny dishy silly giggly show on Bravo, oh isn’t that too bad. Well guess what, that’s because Tom Clancy is awful, hunting for game is boring and destructive, throwing a football is boring – in fact you’re kind of insulting your own sex with all those stereotypes, dude. Especially the Tom Clancy one – that takes more than being a straight guy, you have to be dead between the ears for that one.

And as an added benefit, Alan Wolfe seems to be irritated, too.

So how does marriage fit in? Not comfortably — at least not yet, says Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and the American Public Life. “Americans make a pretty sharp distinction between things in private and things in public, and right now the bottom line is that sexuality is nobody’s business, but marriage is public.”

As the director of the OB Margin for Noreligion and American Peculiar Life, I say anything that annoys Brent Bozell and Alan Wolfe has a lot going for it.

High what? What brow?

Sep 2nd, 2003 10:55 pm | By

Perhaps this is cruel, or petty, but I think it needs saying. Rather often, actually, because we have here one of those incomprehensibly inflated reputations that the world is better off for deflating.

If NPR is the Promised Land of high-brow book publicity, what do you call an author who snags not one shot at public radio’s upscale, book-loving audience, but a recurring gig to talk about a book that he hasn’t even written yet?

Listen, if NPR is the Promised Land of highbrow anything at all, what to call some author is the least of our problems. (Not to mention the slight oxymoron of ‘highbrow’ [what an obnoxious word] publicity, but never mind that.) NPR (the US’s National Public Radio, that is) is about as highbrow as ‘Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?’. People here only think it’s ‘highbrow’ because everything else on the radio is so much worse. But that is setting a pitifully low standard! NPR insults all our intelligences every time it opens its mouth. Highbrow, indeed! It’s about as highbrow as Fox is fair and balanced.

Broad Brush

Sep 2nd, 2003 7:39 pm | By

Well, clearly we at B and W take it as our self-appointed mission to say, with varying degrees of mockery and rudeness, when we think our fellow leftists are being silly, but there is a limit. Which is to say we try to do it with a certain amount of precision and accuracy – in fact accuracy broadly construed is the whole point of the enterprise: when ideology or political commitment is in conflict with the truth, it ought not to be the truth that gives way. That applies all around, not just to them there pesky leftist intellectuals. All of which is to say there is a very sloppy article in Prospect that doesn’t worry enough about precision and accuracy.

To look back at the responses which the murder evoked from the literary and political intelligentsia is to see something more than many clever and famous people making fools of themselves…But it was writers-with-a-W who really excelled…Imaginative writers are distinguished not by a sweeter character (too often very much not), greater intellectual honesty, or even deeper intelligence…If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero.

What on earth is he talking about? Writers? What writers? All writers? That’s a hell of a lot of people, not all of whom say the kind of thing he’s complaining of, to put it mildly. Does he mean fiction writers, or fiction-and-poetry writers? At times he seems to, with ‘imaginative writers’ (which is a silly phrase), but then at others he talks about the ‘ literary-academic intelligentsia’. Well which is it? Surely he doesn’t think the two are identical does he? Does he mean both? If so then why mention ‘imaginative writers’? And in any case, again, that’s much too broad a brush, because there are plenty of academics who don’t fit his category, and even some ‘imaginative’ writers as well. So what does he mean? Not really much, apparently. Some novelists and some academics, is what it boils down to; but then why not say that? Why on earth write the thing as if all ‘writers’ or all ‘imaginative’ and academic writers were guilty of saying stupid things about September 11? Anti-intellectualism perhaps? But if so, what in hell is an anti-intellectual piece of claptrap doing in a magazine like Prospect?

[Confusing me, for a start. There I was railing at the wrong magazine. Selective attention, or cognitive miserhood, or some other nice alibi for stupidity.]


Sep 1st, 2003 11:48 pm | By

As you may have noticed, I have a perennial or chronic or obsessive interest in the question of what one might call cultural influence. Or one might call it memes, or fashion, or groupthink, or conformity, or any number of things. And in being interested in that, I also become interested in the self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say, I’m interested in the way people (especially influential people) say things like ‘Most Americans believe in God/family values/the market’ and the statement becomes a little bit more true for having been said. I say Americans partly because I am one so I hear more of the American version than the UK one, and partly because I think there is probably more of that kind of thing here than there is there. It may be no accident (she said darkly) that the word ‘bloody-minded’ isn’t part of the American idiom. I think it’s one of those things like the apocryphal 900 Inuit words for snow, or however many it’s supposed to be. Sapir-Whorf. That we don’t have the word and so we can’t really quite imagine the state of mind. If people keep nagging us endlessly to have ‘faith’ or to admire dimwits in high office, well, there’s a bit of water on a stone effect. Drip drip drip. We like to think we’re terrifically independent and individualistic, but…that nice herd of sheep does look awfully cozy and happy and comfortable, I think I’ll just sidle over and kind of insinuate myself among them.

So when a lot of Deep Thinkers and think tank occupants and Religious Leaders and Senators and actors and suchlike important people make what seem to be simple factual descriptive comments on what a religious people we are, they’re not just describing or stating the facts, they’re also telling us to go and do likewise. Most people do and therefore you ought to too, obviously. Most people do and so who the hell do you think you are doing something different? Most people do and therefore they must be right, because most people are never wrong. Most people do and so you have to because this is a democracy, remember?

It’s not usually explicit, that kind of thing. But then that makes it all the more insidious. Perhaps if it were explicit, even we would be bloody-minded enough to resist. But since it’s not, the drip drip has its effect. We start to feel a little uneasy. ‘Who do I think I am? Can that many people all be wrong while I’m right?’ And so the statistics inch up and up, until pretty soon the opinion polls will be telling us that a full 99% of Americans believe in God and that last 1% will just have to move to a cabin in the mountains or emigrate or something.


Sep 1st, 2003 2:25 am | By

Well it’s shooting fish in a barrel, but I just have to say something. I know it’s an easy target, people getting university degrees in video games. But so what? Did I ever sign the International Agreement on Not Shooting at Easy Targets? Not that I remember.

And there is actually a serious point to the whole matter – which is that people seem to have no idea that there is, or there can be, or it is possible to imagine that there is, any difference between education as vocational training and education as a good in itself. If vocational training is the only purpose of education, then fine, teach people to design video games, there’s good money in it. But if it has anything to do with ideas about valuing understanding and knowledge as intrinsic goods for humans, then teaching people to design video games at university might not be such a brilliant idea. Maybe that would be a better subject for technical colleges. But meditation on such possibilities seems a bit scarce in video game circles.

More such research will boom, says Janet Murray at Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Communication, and Culture. ‘There is this critical need for the game designers of the future to be broadly educated in the liberal arts,’ she says. ‘It’s not surprising that several people working in game design at higher levels hold degrees in film.’

So…broadly educated in the liberal arts means having a degree in film? Not history, not philosophy, not French or German, but film? Will education in the future be carried on entirely by means of pictures? With the slight limitations that implies? One can’t help wondering. The fish are a little too comfortable in their barrel.

Shrill? Moi?

Aug 29th, 2003 8:31 pm | By

But then it’s the fashion, Humpty Dumptyism is. Or perhaps that’s wrong, perhaps it’s never not been the fashion, in which case it’s not the fashion, it’s just what humans do. No more a fashion than eating or breathing. But it’s hard to believe that it’s not at least a little more pervasive and evident and popular now in the age of mass media and incessant communication and non-stop information – not to mention democracy. Henry VIII and Louis XIV didn’t have a lot of need to persuade the farm laborers and weavers and sturdy beggars of their world to love and admire and vote for them, so that must have cut back on the amount of word play right there. And then there’s selling, too. If there’s not much to sell – ‘You can have the brown cloth or the other brown cloth’ – there’s not much need for advertising language, is there. No, surely it’s fair to say there’s more Humpty Dumptyism around now than there was in, say, 1479 or even 1979.

And I must say, I’m enjoying a good malicious laugh at Fox News and its version of the practice. Fair and balanced indeed – and thinking it owned the words! What next! I think we should start suing everyone who uses the words ‘butterfly’ and ‘wheel’ and ‘nonsense’. I don’t know which is funnier, Fox claiming to be fair and balanced, or Fox claiming that people would be confused about Franken’s meaning, or the mental picture of the courtroom squealing with helpless laughter as the judge questioned Fox’s lawyer, or Fox calling Franken ‘shrill and unstable’. Okay, I’ve decided: that last bit is the funniest. Fox calling other people shrill! No wonder the courtroom was falling about!

It’s good to have a source of laughter and derision from the right now and then, when the left seems to spend so much time making a fool of itself. The item about Brown University’s ‘Third World Training Program’ I posted yesterday is enough to make one want to join some third direction that hasn’t been named yet. Not mainstream, thank you very much, not moderate, no, it’s not radicalism I object to, it’s bloody silliness.


Aug 29th, 2003 7:36 pm | By

It’s interesting how willing people often are to redefine religion in order to defend it, and how thoroughly they’re willing to redefine it for that purpose. In fact they do such a thorough job of it that one would have thought there was nothing left that needed defending. Who would bother to argue against feelings of awe or wonder, or an appreciation of stories and myths and poetry? I certainly wouldn’t, in fact I think those are fine things. But they’re not what I take religion to be, and I don’t think they’re what people generally mean when they talk about religion, either. If that’s what religion means, then what do we call what I mean by religion, to wit: belief in the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe, and perhaps personal immortality for humans?

Richard Dawkins discussed this issue in his usual incisive way a few years ago in an article that is also included in his most recent book, A Devil’s Chaplain. I urge you to read the article, it makes my point for me. I feel like quoting the whole thing but will restrain myself.

If you count Einstein and Hawking as religious, if you allow the cosmic awe of Goodenough, Davies, Sagan, and me as true religion, then religion and science have indeed merged, especially when you factor in such atheistic priests as Don Cupitt and many university chaplains. But if the term religion is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for conventional religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer mat understands it today–indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else?

Just so. Very well, if I’m quite wrong about what the word ‘religion’ means, and it’s really just a word for some attitudes and emotions rather than a set of supernatural truth claims, fine. That’s not what I’m talking about then in the ‘Science and Religion’ In Focus. I’m talking about something else – you know – that familiar stuff about God and Jesus and Allah, prayers and the soul and heaven, resurrection and immortality and sin and atonement. I don’t know what the right word for that is if it’s not religion, and I’m not at all convinced that people who claim that’s not what the word ‘religion’ refers to are correct, but at any rate that is the subject I’m talking about.

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them? If we are allowed to relabel scientific awe as a religious impulse, the case goes through on the nod. You have redefined science as religion, so it’s hardly surprising if they turn out to ‘converge.’

Just so, again. It’s sheer Humpty Dumptyism, is what it is. ‘Religion is whatever I say it is for the purposes of this discussion so that I can claim that atheists and secularists are silly and shallow, dogmatic and ignorant, stubborn and perverse.’ Only in Looking-glass Land where words don’t mean what they mean.

Most People

Aug 28th, 2003 9:15 pm | By

And so back to this nagging question of majority opinion and how coercive it can be. One issue is what one might call mission creep – the way we extend democracy and majoritarianism from the political, electoral realm to other areas where it is arguably less useful, where it is in fact arguably harmful, such as opinion, education, culture. This creep or extension may or may not be a good idea, but the question whether it is or not doesn’t get enough discussion, because people don’t really notice when the extension is happening. The border between politics and everything else gets ignored: everything is political, and majority opinion is right and should be heeded in all areas of life, not just in who gets elected president or councillor. The erasure or at least re-positioning of that border is in many ways a good thing, because it is for instance a political question who does all the housework and why. But in many other ways that border-shift is a very bad thing, and in fact B and W was founded in order to point out some of the ways politics obscures issues instead of clarifying them. So in that sense it’s all one phenomenon we’re talking about here: using one kind of thought when another kind is what’s needed.

So with using the majority as a cattle prod to keep people in line. ‘Most people don’t think what you think, therefore what you think must be wrong.’ Well, no, not necessarily. It’s not completely unknown in history for most people to think things that are in fact not true. It’s not crystal clear that majority opinion is even able to choose the best person to vote for in any given election, so why would it be unerring on any other subject? ‘Two million people bought that book, therefore it must be good.’ Well, no, not necessarily. Maybe the book had a lot of publicity. Maybe it depends how we define ‘good’. Maybe the particular two million people who bought that book wouldn’t know a good book from a plate of chopped liver. ‘Most people around here believe in God.’ Well, maybe, but then they’ve been listening to people like you say that most people believe in God all their lives, haven’t they, so maybe that constant repetition has influenced what they believe, and furthermore maybe they feel embarrassed or ashamed to say they don’t believe what most people believe, so that it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Could that have anything to do with it?

How Does That Look?

Aug 28th, 2003 12:02 am | By

On a less frivolous note. There is this little matter of the Bush administration’s repeated, insistent attacks on the International Criminal Court, which I find massively depressing and disgusting. The Clinton administration wasn’t a great deal better, but I’m not sure they would have acted quite so aggressively as the Bush team, for instance actually bullying countries that don’t exempt the US from the Court’s jurisdiction. And I’m not sure they would have threatened to veto a UN resolution to protect humanitarian workers simply because it had the unmitigated temerity to mention the Court.

Yes I know the rationale: they’re afraid such a court would bring ‘frivolous’ prosecutions against US soldiers. Yes, but what if US soldiers do commit war crimes? What if there is another My Lai, for example? And then there’s the way the whole idea of international law is undermined if the most powerful country on the planet refuses to be subject to it. If we won’t, why should anyone else? And how do we think it makes us look to all those others? Like people who are planning to commit war crimes and want immunity in advance, is what it makes us look like. Appearances do matter.


Aug 27th, 2003 11:27 pm | By

Well which is it then? Is style, fashion, appearance, charm a frivolous self-absorbed trivial subject that people shouldn’t waste time on? Or is it fun, amusing, playful, campy, witty, and simply decently considerate of the people who have to look at us and live with us. Beats me. I don’t seem to have a coherent view on the subject. First I read this article which wonders among other things if too much concern with such things gets in the way of having a hungry mind.

Perhaps it doesn’t help either that the young are constantly presented with celebrity rather than excellence as their role model, with people who are rich and famous because they are cool, sexy or charming and who are not particularly gifted or talented, certainly not intellectually.

Then I read this one about ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ which after all of two and a half shows is already my favorite thing on tv. Well, style, fashion, appearance, and charm are what it’s all about. The whole premise is based on the notion that straight guys’ aesthetic cluelessness is not cute but either pathetic or Definitely Disgusting. I have a delightful time shrieking with laughter at the Five’s acidly disdainful comments on the poor shlubby guys’ clothes, furniture, housekeeping habits, kitchens, bathrooms, food, dishes, wall decorations, hair, skin, shoes, color sense, nails, tans, belts, bedspreads; and the cheerful dispatch with which they throw all the clothes on the floor, furniture out the door, food into the bin. Then when it’s over I look around at my…clothes, furniture, housekeeping habits, etc etc etc. I’m a good deal of a straight guy myself, if truth be told. I think I have some aesthetic sense, but I’m also not very dedicated about keeping things tidy, and I’m not a primper. The Five would have plenty of acid things to say about my clothes and nails and hair, I expect. So what am I laughing at?

Especially since I in fact do tend to think (and yes I know how Puritanical, judgmental, snobbish etc it sounds) it’s a stupid waste of time and attention to worry too much about one’s appearance. Even though I also realise how natural, understandable and in some ways useful or necessary it is. We all know about the endless studies that show how important appearance is, that show people think we are not only prettier if we’re prettier, but also cleverer, kinder, more competent, and better musicians. But I go on thinking it’s a waste of time anyway, because I’m a snobbish Puritan. But then I laugh like a drain at Queer Eye.

I’ve decided it’s the reversal. It’s amusing to see men being teased and mocked into paying as much attention to their appearance as women do. And that’s another reason I don’t agree with the New Republic article that Queer Eye is just the safe, tame version of gayness: I think it’s pretty earth-shaking to see straight men letting themselves be handled, mauled, flirted with and giggled over, and then happily set about baking marinated striped bass in their pretty kitchens. Now if five lesbians could start to teach straight women to be less girly, things could get interesting.


Aug 26th, 2003 9:42 pm | By

Now here we have a really fascinating article. It’s pertinent to a subject I’ve been worrying for days (and years and my whole life, really, but specifically for days here on B and W), the power and coerciveness of public opinion. We see that in politics, in ‘public relations’ and advertising, and we even (or perhaps especially) see it in the more mundane, secret, personal corners of life. In our friendships and romances, in how we feel at parties and meetings, at work and school, when we shop and see the doctor. Any time, in fact, that we’re not alone and unseen, public opinion is part of our landscape.

If you have diabetes or heart disease, you suffer regardless of who is watching you or how they perceive you. But the suffering that comes from being too short, too shy or too small-breasted is bound up with the way these characteristics are seen by other people.

Just so. We don’t mind from within being shy or short, we only mind insofar as we are consumer objects for other people. If other people prefer the tall and brash, the hip and the cool to short bashful geeks and nerds, and if we care what those Other People think of us, then we will do our best to stop being a short bashful geek and become hip and cool. But that transformation is so difficult – or it used to be, but now there is a pill. O brave new world. But do we remember to ask ourselves if we actually want to be hip rather than geeky? Or do we just go with the public opinion flow. And what of the loss involved when public opinion makes us all like one another, irons out all our oddities and wrinkles? And above all what of the anguish when the bullies still won’t leave us alone?

Kids pulled his tie so tight it nearly strangled him. They’d tease him about not having fancy gear. They’d call him ugly. He was buying ciggies and handing them out at the bus stop so that he’d be left alone. But after Christmas he tried to give up, and when he didn’t have cigarettes he’d get slapped across the face. No one wanted to play with him. No one wanted to be his friend. He got friendly with this one other lad and then he was accused of being gay. He just couldn’t respond in the way that other kids expected him to.

Be like us or else. Have the right gear, don’t be pudgy, don’t be clever or interested in politics. Don’t be shy or thoughtful or small-breasted or plain. So we mould and shape and form each other – distort and cripple and maim and stunt each other. It can be a high price to pay for fitting in and doing what the others expect.

Irritating Fella

Aug 24th, 2003 11:44 pm | By

But I already knew I disliked Alan Wolfe’s work – I just didn’t know quite how much. That’s how I found the comment about postmodernists, as a matter of fact: I was googling him to try to pin down exactly who he is and why he says such irritating things. Now I know he founded a Center for Religion, it all makes sense. I did a Note and Comment on an article of his a couple of months ago, one of the ones that disappeared when we had the server mishap, but I don’t think I’ll bother typing it back in, because the article in question is from the New Republic and it’s gone subscription. It was an irritating piece that kept telling us what ‘all Americans’ think, as if we all think exactly the same thing – but that, I am finding, seems to be Wolfe’s tactic of choice: to try to coerce all of us pesky dissenters and nonconformers into line by telling us that Everyone Thinks whatever it is so why the hell don’t we? For instance he does it in this article in Salon about the US ‘pledge of allegiance’, in which he complains about the atheists trampling on the wishes of the great, huge, vast, overwhelming majority.

Yet if society goes to the other extreme and bans from the public square any form of religious language, it violates the beliefs of all those who insist that religion is more than a matter of personal conviction, that faith is essential to how we Americans define ourselves collectively. In so doing, it may extend rights to nonbelievers or to those who believe in doctrines not widely accepted, but it does so at the cost of imposing a view of what America is about that others, in this case the majority of believers, do not share.

Well there you are then. ‘We’ Americans do this and ‘we’ Americans do that and if you don’t agree well then you must not be an American. You must instead be one of those horrible people ‘who believe in doctrines not widely accepted’. The nerve! How dare you have a view that the majority of believers do not share?!

Talk about coercive. Has the man never heard of de Tocqueville or Mill? Well of course he has, he’s not an ignoramus, but he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention. The tyranny of the majority holds no terrors for him. No doubt that’s because he believes the same things the majority of believers do, and bully for him, but truth isn’t decided by majority vote, and you’d think he’d know that. But never mind, he has a real clincher of an argument for us pesky atheists.

The only people excluded by the term are atheists. But since atheists define themselves against the religious beliefs of others, they should work to see the Pledge preserved, for without it, their very reason for taking public stands on these issues would be taken away from them.

Eh? I beg your pardon? I don’t ‘define myself against the religious beliefs of others,’ you ridiculous man. Why should I? I simply don’t share their beliefs. That doesn’t mean I need them in order to know what I think, and it certainly doesn’t mean I would feel a sense of loss if everyone were an atheist. He might as well say abolitionists should have worked to see slavery preserved, because without it, their very reason for taking public stands on these issues would be taken away from them. And what makes him think all atheists take public stands anyway? Oh never mind, he’s a believer, they’re impossible to argue with. And I haven’t even said why I was googling him, I haven’t commented on the irritating thing he said in his Afterword to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, which is what set me off. I’ll get to that later.

Category Mistake

Aug 24th, 2003 10:45 pm | By

Now wait a minute. There is a limit. I can make fun of postmodernism as well as the next person, but it has to be actual postmodernism, not just any old thing I don’t happen to agree with. There’s no shortage of real, avowed, self-declared pomos out there, there’s no need to start expanding the pool by calling people postmodernist who aren’t.

By ‘engaging big issues with the depth of insight that social science can offer,’ Wolfe said, the Boisi Center will stand in ‘a great tradition’ reaching back to pioneering sociologists such as Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Emile Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, scholars who treated religion prominently in their inquiries. In the process, he said, the center will stand counter to postmodernist trends in scholarship which, by viewing human society solely through lenses of economic materialism or race, sex and class, ‘reduce human beings to people without souls or without minds.’

That’s from a comment by Alan Wolfe about his directorship of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, a Center whose very name makes me want to rush hastily away and set up camp on the margin. But that aside, surely Wolfe knows that postmodernists aren’t the first people to think about human beings without thinking about their ‘souls’. And note the sly trick of conflating souls and minds, as if they were synonyms. Well, I suppose that’s the kind of thing people do who found Centers for Religion and Public Life.

And Another Thing

Aug 22nd, 2003 8:20 pm | By

The subject of yesterday’s Comment interests me perhaps out of proportion to its importance…but then again perhaps not. It does involve certain habits of thought and silly ways of arguing (what one might call bad moves) that one finds in a lot of fashionable nonsense. Or to put it another way, there is some fashionable nonsense going on in Colgan’s diatribe.

For one thing there’s the sly business of motive-questioning – which in fact in cases like this surely backfires on the perpetrator. What does it amount to saying, after all? ‘There can’t possibly be a legitimate reason for thinking and writing that my novel is bad, therefore anyone who does think and write so must have some invidious motive.’ Surely the flaw there is all too embarrassingly obvious. ‘Why can there not possibly be a legitimate reason for thinking and writing that your novel is bad? Why is it ruled out in advance that your novel is in fact bad? Because you’re perfect? Because you’ve been given some special dispensation (from whom, by whom?) that prevents you from ever writing anything bad? Or is it just because you’re you? If it is just because you’re you, do you not realise that you are the only person who is you, and that as a result that ‘reason’ has no force whatsoever with anyone else on the face of the earth? Because all the rest of us are ourselves, and don’t put your claims ahead of our own? Life is like that, and you might want to start noticing that about now.’

I once saw Woody Allen make the same embarrassing mistake – definitely a bad move. He was being interviewed on the US tv program ‘Sixty Minutes’, and the interviewer (Morley Safer I believe) remarked in passing, in asking a searching question about Allen’s subject matter, that many of his friends didn’t much like Allen’s movies. Allen ignored the substantive question and instead began urgently asking Safer why his friends didn’t like Allen’s movies. Safer tried to brush that aside and get to the question he asked (he said something like ‘They just don’t, they’re not to their taste,’) but without success, Allen wanted an answer, he wanted to know Why. And then he said what I thought was an extraordinary thing. I’m paraphrasing but not much, he said something very like ‘Since they’re your friends they’re obviously intelligent people with good taste, why don’t they like my movies?’ The brazen flattery was surprising enough, but the assumption behind the question is downright stunning. Intelligent people with good taste like Woody Allen’s movies – always, apparently, according to Allen. Their failure to do so is an anomaly that requires explanation.

Beware, oh beware, turning into a person so confident of her own brilliance that she can’t wrap her mind around the idea that not everyone will love her work. And beware the back to front thinking that results. ‘There can’t be a legitimate reason for criticising my work, therefore there must be an illegitimate one, so I’ll just work out what it is and then announce it.’ No; that is not the best way to approach the subject.

And then another aspect is the guilt-trip one. This business of people ‘looking down their noses’. When you don’t have a good case, resort to political accusation, is apparently the thought. These mean wicked people who dare to say a harsh word about popular novels, they are mocking The People’s pleasures, they are horrible sneering monocle-wearing aristocrats. It’s a useful tactic in a sense, it does often work, but it’s dirty pool all the same.

Who Is Rubbishing Whom?

Aug 21st, 2003 8:23 pm | By

Well we’ve seen this kind of thing before. For instance we heard it in a story also in the Guardian, and by the same reporter. Perhaps she specializes in silly self-flattering self-justifying whinges by bad novelists. What a dismal career choice.

But never mind that. The point is, what makes people think it’s a good idea to say things like this? Do they not realize how stupid and self-serving it makes them look? Yo! You wrote a novel, you got it published, you put it out there. Now people have a right and even a duty to say whatever they like about it. That’s how the system works. You do not have a right to prevent them. Got that? You do have a right to try to prevent them, to be sure. You do have a right to do what you’re doing – a legal right at least. To moan and bleat and fuss and make asinine accusations in the hope that your critics will stop pointing out how bad your novels are. But you don’t have a right to succeed, and that being the case, you might ask yourself if it’s really worth making a fool of yourself in the attempt.

She said female critics were most guilty of this damaging generalisation, and rose to the defence of Helen Fielding and her bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary, which she said had suffered “unjust attacks from people who haven’t even read it. It’s a terrific book and it has sold more than two million copies.

Ah. Well I’ve read Bridget Jones, so allow me to make a just attack on it. It is, as many people have pointed out, quite funny. But it’s also stupid and irritating in more ways than I want to take the space to go into here. The most obvious, of course, is the dreary portrayal at this late date of a supposedly adult woman with nothing at all in her head except her appearance and her quest for a man. Yes, granted, it’s just a piece of fluff, and as a piece of fluff it is amusing, but so what? Does it follow that it should be immune from criticism? I don’t see why. But hey, it has sold more than two million copies, therefore it must be of surpassing excellence, and it’s elitist and snobbish and pretentious and undemocratic and downright evil for anyone to say a harsh word about it. Popular taste never errs, everyone knows that.

And then Colgan has the effrontery to use words like insulting, derogatory, rubbishing, and condescending, when she chooses to refer to the female critics she is angry at as ‘hairy-leggers’. That’s a cute phrase, I haven’t heard it before. But what’s really interesting about all this is that it’s yet another example of the kind of pre-emptive attack that is such a feature of intellectual discussion these days. Rather than addressing criticisms on their merits, rather than answering the substance, the tactic is to try to forestall by means of guilt. ‘You can’t say that about me/us. It is racist/Orientalist/elitist/whateverist to say that about me/us, so you can’t. It may or may not be true, it may or may not need saying; never mind that; we are downtrodden victims and you are a privileged oppressor, so if you say our novels are crap, we will say you are jealous and wicked and hairy-legged, so sucks.’ But I guess that’s how it is with chicks who write chick-lit.

Doubtful Favors

Aug 21st, 2003 12:27 am | By

Here is Part III of the story of the professor of English at Brooklyn College who was prevented from continuing to teach because he refused to inflate the grades he gave his students. At least his account of the story. It is the account of one party in a dispute rather than an impartial account by a disinterested observer. I find it all too credible, but I also keep in mind that I don’t know the facts, that we haven’t heard from the others involved, that Frederick Lang could be telling us less than the whole story.

But then again quite possibly not, because what’s in dispute is not so much what happened as whether what happened is a good thing or not. It may well be that if we heard from Tremper she would say ‘Yes, that’s exactly what happened, and here’s why I did what I did.’ It may well be that she would defend with passion and zeal the idea that it’s cruel and elitist, excluding and Eurocentric, mean-spirited and racist to give bad marks to students who haven’t learned to write. It may indeed be that she thinks it is doing students a favor to give them automatic high marks.

But Lang is quite eloquent on his reason for not thinking that’s doing students a favor. No doubt he learned to be eloquent with the help of the demanding education he cites as his reason. No doubt he thinks teaching students to be eloquent is doing them a much, much bigger favor than one does by giving them meaningless high marks and no eloquence.

If I am as well educated as my record indicates, it is because I was held to the same standards as the students who were paying tuition at NYU and Columbia. Were I currently a student at Brooklyn College, I would receive high grades, but I would quickly realize that I was not being required to meet high standards. I would not study as hard, learn to write as well, or strive to distinguish myself. In short, I would probably graduate with honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, as I did at NYU, but I would not be nearly as well educated. In short, my personal, perhaps selfish, reason for refusing to inflate my grades is that I can easily imagine myself being victimized by the practice.

Pretty convincing, however partial.

Oh Yeah?

Aug 20th, 2003 11:53 pm | By

This is a rather strange piece of comment. I used to quite like Karen Armstrong’s books, though I found her a bit too woolly about religion even then, but I suppose now that I’m older and less forgiving I’m more aware of…well, special pleading.

The religions are all committed to the quest for truth, however uncomfortable…There is unanimous agreement that the religious quest cannot begin until we see things as they really are. We cannot function effectively while trapped in enervating structures of denial, and a church that ignores the suffering of those it has injured in order to shore up its own authority has lost its way. There can be no healing for either the church or its victims unless the hierarchy learns once again to speak the truth that sets us free.

Hmm. Is that really true? Is it even close? Are religions all committed to the quest for truth however uncomfortable? You could have fooled me. They seem to me to be very much committed to the quest for untruth. For comforting fictions, for ways of thinking about ‘uncomfortable’ facts that make them seem less uncomfortable, for ways of thinking about the world that allow religions to go on interpreting the evidence in such a way that they have things right and non-religious people don’t. That’s not exactly my idea of the quest for truth. It is in fact my idea of an enervating structure of denial. I suppose Armstrong must have in mind some special definition of ‘the quest for truth’ that makes it match up with what ‘the religions’ do – spiritual truth, emotional truth, poetic truth, something woolly like that – which is why I call it special pleading. But that’s a perversion of the word. And if that’s not what she means, I truly don’t understand her assertion. Uncomfortable truth seems to me to be exactly the thing ‘the religions’ are not at all committed to the quest for.