Notes and Comment Blog


Influenza

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.



Pedantry

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.



Redefine

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.



Appearance

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.



Opinion

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.



A Meeting of Minds

Aug 18th, 2003 8:58 pm | By

There is an interesting convergence on Arts and Letters Daily today: one article about Ibn Warraq and his disavowal of Islam, and one by Christopher Hitchens taking issue with Edward Said, especially his new preface to Orientalism. This pairing interests us at B and W, of course, because we have a fascinating article by Ibn Warraq critiquing Edward Said’s Orientalism, and also because we admire Christopher Hitchens’ writing, particularly the anti-godbothering variety. So there we all are.

I’ve been wondering for some time what Hitchens’ opinion of Orientalism is now. I know they are friends of long standing – the friendship was Htichens’ defense, or at least reply, when Martin Amis shouted at him for insisting on quarreling with Saul Bellow over Israel, despite Amis’ multiple advance warnings to refrain from doing exactly that. ‘But Edward is a friend of mine,’ Amis reports Hitchens as saying, in Experience, to Amis’ fury (‘I’m a friend of yours too!’). But I also know, as who doesn’t, that Hitchens’ views on some things have changed since September 11. I also know, what is probably less common knowledge, that there is a highly enthusiastic blurb for Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am not a Muslim by Christopher Hitchens on the back cover (‘My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am not a Muslim…’). I’ve been wondering, ever since we published ‘Debunking Edward Said’, exactly what Hitchens thought of Said’s best-known book. The answer turns out to be, not altogether surprisingly, that he has some reservations.

When he addresses the general Arab audience, he makes admirable use of this duality or multiplicity. In his columns in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram he is scornful and caustic about the failures and disgraces of Arab and Muslim society…Every year more books are translated and published in Athens than in all the Arab capitals combined. Where is there a decent Arab university? Where is there a “transparent” Arab election? Why does Arab propaganda resort to such ugliness and hysteria?…He is a source of stern admonition to the uncritical, insulated Arab elites and intelligentsia. But for some reason-conceivably connected to his status as an exile-he cannot allow that direct Western engagement in the region is legitimate.

Hitchens also mentions point-missing on a heroic scale, as well as pointing out many ways he considers Said got things right, and a certain amount of sly wit.

To the extent that American academics now speak about the “appropriation” of other cultures, and seldom fail to put ordinary words such as “the Other” between portentous quotation marks, and contest the very notion of objective inquiry, they are paying what they imagine is a debt to Edward Said’s work.

Yes. If I’ve seen one capital-O Other decorated with quotation marks, I’ve seen a million. What is it about American academics that makes them as slavishly sheepishly fashion-following as any pathetic junior high school girl in her little Britneyesque midriff-baring shirts? Now that would be a good subject for a book.



Non Sequitur of the Year

Aug 17th, 2003 11:23 pm | By

I’ve just done a study, one which involved reading one article from the THES and coming to a conclusion about it. My conclusion is that the guy doing the study the article discusses is, well, over-interpreting his evidence just a tiny bit. What did he find in his pioneering research which involved watching a popular quiz show on tv and seeing what kind of people won? He found that non-academics (or ‘housewives’ and workers, as the article oddly called them) did better than academics. Uh…gee…really? Could that be because shows like Wer Wird Millionär? don’t usually ask qestions about quantum mechanics or the Duhem-Quine thesis? On account of how most of the people who watch them aren’t academics themselves? Is this a big surprise to anyone? But the industrious researcher draws a rather sweeping conclusion from his study.

The study was in its early stages and the number of cases he had studied so far was not enough to reach final conclusions, Professor Prinz said. He plans to study more contestants and other quiz shows. “The results I have so far achieved are not conclusive, but they do prove that popular culture is just as valid and important as a good formal education.”

The results are not conclusive but they do prove something. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction right there? But never mind that. The point is – have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your life? Because I haven’t. Was the poor guy misquoted? That can happen, of course. Journalists will do that. But then again, if he’s silly enough to bother studying a quiz show in order to inform the world that many of the questions come from ‘showbiz, sport and pop’ then he probably did say it. So let’s ridicule him. Right, here we go. The fact that popular culture enables one to answer questions posed by a popular culture quiz show proves that popular culture is just as valid and important as a good formal education?? Full stop? Just as ‘valid and important’ (whatever on earth that means) for all purposes? Such as for instance detecting circularity in one’s own conclusions? Or asking oneself whether the ability to answer silly trivial short-answer questions posed by a tv quiz show is exactly what a good formal education is designed to do, and if so why and if not why not? Or asking oneself what one means by ‘valid and important’ and why one thinks answering questions on a quiz show is ‘valid and important’? Oh well, perhaps the Times Higher was just having a little August joke with us, and Professor Prinz is a hoax.



On Their Own Terms

Aug 14th, 2003 8:25 pm | By

‘On their own terms’ again. Such a handy phrase that is (see ‘Dyslexia in Excelsis’ below). It’s behind so much woolly thinking – the notion that if we’ll all just see all ideas and truth claims ‘on their own terms’ then no one’s self-esteem will be damaged and all will be well. Of course the idea doesn’t apply everywhere – which is indeed the oft-noticed contradiction in relativism, which is the same as the old Cretan liar’s paradox. Relativists want everyone to think that relativism is non-relativistically true. Same thing with ‘on their own terms.’ We’re not supposed to take, say, skepticism about taking things on their own terms on its own terms. But religion, now that’s another story. And if we have to hem and haw, shove inconvenient things under the sofa, change the subject, rush quickly past sensitive topics, and omit vital bits of information, why…it’s all in a good cause. Protecting religious fanaticism, what could be a better cause than that?

Witness this touching article about fundamentalist Jews and Muslims transcending their many differences because of the one core thing they have in common: unwavering belief in a lot of nonsense. The article is remarkably uncritical oh excuse me ‘non-judgmental’ about it all. But at one point that amounts to downright evasion.

When the Farm Animal Welfare Council recently proposed banning the traditional Muslim and Jewish methods of animal slaughter, where the animal is not stunned before it is killed, the two bodies co-operated in their response. Iqbal Sacranie, the Muslim Council’s secretary general, who also describes relations as “reasonably good”, reels off several other examples of Muslim-Jewish unity, including sitting together on government committees on inner-city regeneration.

Notice how briskly, even indecently, we rush away from the subject to talk about something completely different. What did the two communities say in their response? Who knows. We can guess, but clearly the author of the article doesn’t want to get explicit about it. Why is that? Could it possibly be because what they said was disgusting? Could that be it? Could the author be worried that if it were put down in black and white on the page that these nice religious people we’re being invited to approve of so warmly were insisting on their ‘right’ to go on slaughtering animals in an inhumane manner, we the readers might be a little repelled by that? Might that lead us to stop taking them on their own terms and start taking them on our own terms, where religion should not trump preferences for humane treatment of sentient beings? Who knows. I don’t know, I don’t know that that’s what happened. But I can’t help wondering.



Holistic, Sacred, Communal Bilge

Aug 14th, 2003 2:01 am | By

Ah well. Sometimes I worry about the possibility of becoming ever more reactionary and bilious as the days thunder past, but then other times, other times, I just throw up my hands and give in to it. There is just no alternative. For instance when reading the cringe-making ‘Mission Statement’ on the Web site of what sounds like the most cringe-making educational institution one could possibly imagine. The kind of place that makes one want to, I don’t know, dress up as a combination Wall Street shark and Ramboesque thug and roam about kicking small children and grinding the faces of the poor.

We teach of the need to heal from the traumas of living in less than a just, sacred and sustainable world; to resist the further destruction of people, planet and the more than human world; to create alternatives which inspire us to live differently in the world; to change consciousness from an objectifying and reductionist paradigm to one that is holistic and systemic; and finally of the need to overcome the fallacy of the isolated, autonomous individual and recognize the communal and ecological self.

Oh lordy. Doesn’t it just make you want to round up a crowd of your noisiest most obnoxious friends, if not that nice group of slit-eyed punks you passed on the corner, and go there and stand around and point and laugh? And then beat them all up? Doesn’t it?

It ought to be illegal to say stuff like that. But sadly it’s not. A dreadful teasing friend of mine found the Web site of my old school once and had himself a fine old time quoting bits of it to me and falling to the floor laughing. But that’s none of my doing – they didn’t talk like that in my day, I can assure you! No nonsense about forming our holistic spiritual beings, thank the goddess. I learned of the school and Mission Statement from the interesting blog Critical Mass, though for some reason Erin O’Connor passed up the chance to make fun of the loathsome fools.



Shadows on the Cave Wall

Aug 12th, 2003 8:56 pm | By

This article has a lot of food for thought, about how science works and the vexed relationship between theory and experiment.

It was not theory but experiment that plucked the quark idea from near oblivion. Aided and abetted by theory, experiments made quarks real, transforming them from a wayward hypothesis into concrete objects of experience. Experiments are what ultimately discarded the science fashions of the sixties and turned quarks into hard scientific fact.

It’s interesting to think of science and physics as being centers of fashion. Who knew that quarks were a fashion until experiments provided evidence that they were actually there, were not just Platonic physics, as Riordan calls it, but ‘hard scientific fact’? Well of course in a sense anybody who’s read Thomas Kuhn knew, that’s who, but you have to admit, paradigm sounds a good deal more serious than fashion. But the point is, whether paradigm or fashion, if the experiments don’t support them that’s what they stay, and otherwise they become knowledge.

One of the great strengths of scientific practice is what can be called the “withering skepticism” that is usually applied to theoretical ideas, especially in physics. We subject hypotheses to observational tests and reject those that fail…[G]ood experimenters are irredeemable skeptics who thoroughly enjoy refuting the more speculative ideas of their theoretical colleagues. Through experience, they know how to exclude bias and make valid judgments that withstand the tests of time.

There you are, they reject those that fail. No pausing to worry about the poor little theories’ self-esteem, just Here’s your hat and there’s the door, good bye. Mathematical beauty is all very well, but Riordan points out that it’s not an adequate standard for science.

Without such a rigorous standard of truth, science will have little defense against the onslaughts of the creationists and postmodernists, for whom it is just one of many ways to grasp the world. How could we ever hope to defend science against such attacks if it were based only on the opinions of its leading practitioners? Mathematics is not enough, no matter how beautiful. Even Einstein, who helped foster this theoretical style, insisted his ideas had to have observable consequences. The essence of scientific truth rests in the requirement that it should have strong accordance with the natural world that exists outside our minds and beyond human artifice.



Whose Culture?

Aug 11th, 2003 9:51 pm | By

And here we have an exhilarating opinion piece. Exhilarating I suppose because the things it says are both so obvious and so non-trendy. (Though there’s some danger in that line of thought – or perhaps I just mean some discomfort. The woods are all too full of people who are all to willing to make you a present of their bravely unfashionable opinions. You know the kind of thing. Defiant racism and sexism, defiant urges to trample on people, defiant calls to get rid of the minimum wage. Go away.) But that being said, the fact remains that this is great stuff, and should be said more often and more loudly, especially to people who don’t know it yet:

The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture…What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite. For example, the interests of the Brahmin priests and Thakurs cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society. Similarly the Islamic message cannot be identical for the decadent class of landlords and the landless tenants and rural proletariat, but since official religion is always defined by the rich and powerful the voices of the oppressed classes and sections of society within a culture are seldom heard and rarely allowed to assert an alternative interpretation.

Just so. All that guff about Eurocentrism and respecting the Other and what a bad idea the Enlightenment was really just plays into the hands of the rich powerful male Other, not the society as a whole.

Thus if this observation be granted that cultural relativism is a poor and unconvincing basis for objecting to modern human rights, we need to establish on what basis can a non-Western culture retain its historical identity while simultaneously incorporating and internalising modern human rights within its modern identity? Undoubtedly outmoded religious practices will have to be discarded and the core universal ideas of each culture retained.

How promising that does sound.