Notes and Comment Blog


Jan 16th, 2005 8:09 pm | By

Well this is good. Meera Nanda’s article in the New Humanist is apparently being widely read and discussed. Someone who edited it says so here:

It’s moments like these I like best about my job: getting some recognition, even from total strangers, for a piece I spent hours and hours editing: Meera Nanda’s piece on the intellectual treason of postmodernist scholars from the January 2005 issue of New Humanist is being picked up on various arts&ideas websites and personal blogs, people are reading it, some are even commenting on it. It’s good to see these ideas going beyond the narrow readership of NH – thanks to the internet.

There is another comment on the diffusion of Meera’s New Humanist article at A Voyage to Arcturus. Go, Meera!

An Open Letter and a Petition

Jan 14th, 2005 7:46 pm | By

A couple of signing opportunities.

Labour Friends of Iraq. This is an open letter to the Stop the War Coalition asking why they have not spoken out clearly and forcefully on the murder of Hadi Saleh, International Officer of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.

StWC leaders view the “resistance” as a legitimate national liberation movement. StWC leaders view as ‘collaborators’ the IFTU, all election workers, and all democratic parties participating in the January elections, whether Iraqi Communists, Kurdish Parties or Shia.

This view is quite wrong. The leaders of the ‘resistance’ are an amalgam of Baathists, Islamic fundamentalists, pro-al-Qaeda militants and criminals. There is nothing progressive about their political programmes. If they were ever to take state power then it would be a disaster for every worker, woman, lesbian and gay, Christian, Jew and democrat who would be left in Iraq. There would be years of unbridled reaction.

And the International Campaign against setting up Shari’a court in Canada. You already know what that is, so I won’t bother explaining.

Another Undeniable Fact Denied

Jan 12th, 2005 7:52 pm | By

Nick Cohen said something interesting in the Observer the other day:

To take it from the top, the scandal about Britain’s television stations and many of its other cultural institutions is not that they are run by people who are motivated by anything so high-minded as converting the public to a political philosophy, but that they are run by well-educated and very well-paid men and women from the upper-middle class who protect themselves and their privately educated children from competition by feeding the masses mush – the favoured policy of aristocracies down the ages. That they do none the less read liberal newspapers and pretend that their pursuit of profit and market share is a radical blow in the anti-elitist class struggle is merely a sign that they have fooled themselves along with everyone else.

Yeah. [waves small flag of indeterminate hue and pattern] That’s one of the things I always don’t get about this supposed anti-elitism thing. Why is it considered right-on and good and of the moral high ground to tell everyone that putative ‘high’ culture (which is a very debatable category anyway, and remarkably often consists simply of popular culture that’s older than immediately contemporary popular culture) is ‘elitist’ and therefore tainted and reprehensible? Why is it not considered far more elitist to withold putative ‘high’ culture from people who might well like it and get quite a lot out of it, might in fact have their lives changed by it? Ever seen Ken Branagh’s ‘A Mid-winter’s Tale’? That’s about having one’s life changed by ‘Hamlet,’ as Branagh in fact did. It’s about being perfectly ordinary, not an aristocrat or otherwise privileged or ‘special,’ being a lower-middle-class provincial teenager like millions of others (like Shakespeare himself in his day, like Marlowe, Jonson, Clare, Mary Anne Evans) and being shaken to the roots by a 400 year old play. Does that make Branagh an ‘elitist’? Should he have resisted the life-changing? Should he have told himself that Shakespeare was only for posh people and gone back to Reading and got a job selling paper? Should Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi? Should Keats have stuck to his pills, as John Gibson Lockhart advised him, and leave poetry to the well-born Harrow and Cambridge types like Byron? If not, why is it now considered elitist to think it’s worthwhile to offer people of any class or status a chance to read Lear and The Tale of Genji and the Iliad and Don Quixote?

Jonathan Rose has a lovely article on this at City Journal. (If you haven’t read Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, do yourself a favour and read it now. The article should inspire you in that direction.)

In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. It was, she asserted, an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.

Rose gives many examples of why that statement is flat-footed nonsense, and repulsively insular to boot.

For all his gentle liberalism, even E. M. Forster shared that class prejudice. In his 1910 novel Howards End, the pathetic clerk Leonard Bast tries to acquire a veneer of culture, but his efforts are hopeless…The reality was profoundly different. The founders of Britain’s Labour Party identified Ruskin, more than anyone else, as the author who had electrified their minds and inspired a vision of social justice. At the time, the brightest working-class boys often entered clerkdom, one of the few professions then open to them, and they often brought to their office an incandescent intellectual passion…None of this interested Forster or, for that matter, most literary scholars of the past 25 years. Some of the latter did investigate the responses of readers, but not “common” readers. The audience that mattered, wrote Cornell University deconstructionist Jonathan Culler, consisted of “oneself, one’s students, colleagues, and other critics”—all members of the academic club…As a result, academic literary criticism became ever more ingrown, disengaged from the general public, and fractured into several mutually unintelligible theoretical sects.

But no matter, because the struggle against ‘elitism’ is in great shape. People are being told to put down that book and turn the tv on, so the hell with the WEA and all its works. Right? Right.

Hand Waving

Jan 11th, 2005 10:40 pm | By

Some more on fine phrases and their relationship (if any) to parsnip-buttering.

Yet, as
we shall see, in the moment of ritual divination the exclusive dualisms
of subject and object, mind and matter, what is outside and up there
(including stars) and what is down here and inside (including genes), partially dissolve in awareness of
cosmic connection. Multiplicity remains, separation remains, but there
is also relatedness, there is participation. Bringing an anthropological
perspective to bear on the topic of astrological divination, we see the
true business of astrology as participation in the greatest dialogue of
all, the grand conversation of earth and heaven.

That sounds buttery, right? But what does it mean? Relatedness to what? Participation in what? Jupiter? One of its moons? One of the pieces of ice in the inner ring around Saturn? Or just everything? Every star, every planet orbiting every star, every moon orbiting every planet, every object on every planet and moon, every bit of cosmic dust…? That’s a lot of relatives. A lot of birthday presents and places at the table to worry about.

Conversation, whether mundane or cosmic, is a learned technique. As
individuals, we may well, and profitably, spend a lifetime developing
and perfecting our ability to communicate with our fellows in everyday
life. As for the cosmic dimension, for countless millennia humankind has
employed the species-level language of myth to construct a
trans-personal and trans-cultural world of the collective imagination.
In that perduring enterprise, it appears that women may well have played
a pioneering role.

Ooooh! Did we! Mega-cool. I knew women were good at something – I could just never quite figure out what, but now I know.

No but seriously. You do notice the hand-waving, right? The ‘exclusive dualisms’ of up there and down here (as in, stars and our little selves, and the funny idea that a star a few billion light years away from us is in a pretty thorough way ‘separate’ from us), relatedness, participation, dialogue, chats between earth and the rest of the universe. You do perceive the basic lack of meaning in that pseudo-profound jabberwocky, yes?

Here is Ivan Kelly in his excellent article ‘The Concepts of Modern Astrology: a Critique’:

Astrology as a discipline is a prime example of what happens when advocates consider only confirming evidence for their multitude of conflicting claims with little regard for contrary evidence, which is…’explained away’ …with slogans like ‘the complexity of astrology,’ and ‘astrology is another way of viewing the world.’..Criticisms and serious long-lasting anomalies can also be dealt with by hand-waving in another direction and the elevation of speculation to a futuristic higher plane…The obfuscations ‘orders of influence’ and ‘reflections…showing in their own ways’ are nowhere clarified, hence we are no further in our understanding after being told this than we were before.

Just so. Hand-waving, fine phrases – much the same thing. Astrologers (and other believers in, erm, alternative ways of knowing, as I’ve been discovering recently) have expansive vocabularies of obfuscatory, incantatory, cloud-assembling words and phrases to serve the hand-waving function.

A fourth popular response is to say that the phenomena astrology deals with are very subtle and elusive, and what is needed are more creative ways of investigating them…If scientsts had adopted similar attitudes in the face of negative studies and argument, physics would still be Aristotelian.

Yes and don’t forget the business about the narrowness of reductive materialism and its easy dismissal of, erm, very subtle and elusive somethings.

Finally, one can say that if researchers are obtaining negative results, they must be doing it wrong. They are using the wrong methodology, the wrong paradigm, or both…West (1991, 1996), for example, contends that scientific criticisms of astrology are irrelevant because astrology is ‘a system of magic,’ where magic is ‘the attempt to master the fundamental laws of resonance that have produced the cosmos.’ He is insufficiently explicit about this ‘system of magic’…

I love the academic way of putting things. “He is insufficiently explicit about this ‘system of magic’…” – which being interpreted means ‘have you ever heard anything so damn silly in your life?!’ The fundamental laws of resonance – how’s that attempt going, by the way? Making much progress?

Breathtaking Modesty

Jan 10th, 2005 7:46 pm | By

I’ve been reading the Introduction to Astrology, Science and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon, by Roy Willis and Patrick Curry. Patrick Curry teaches in the astrology programme at Bath Spa University College which you may have noticed in Flashback. The introduction is truly fascinating, in the way a gangrenous wound might be fascinating to its owner. I’ll quote from it a little, so that you can see what I mean.

Very little in the debate about astrology is entirely new. The word itself means the ‘word’ (logos) or ‘language’ of the stars, and is now customarily
contrasted, as a pathetic remnant of primitive superstition, with the academically respectable science of astronomy. This latter term means
‘measurement of the stars’, and accurately reflects Galileo’s famous contention that only that which can be measured is truly real. Quantity is primary, quality secondary. This book maintains the converse proposition, daring to privilege sensory quality over a row of digits, and is devoted to investigating and recovering a stellar language of apparently immemorial antiquity; a mode of communication that is part of our common heritage as human beings..This is a primal faculty that seems to be embedded in our genes, ironically the very entities now commonly presented, in the current version of reductive materialism, as the sole and invisible masters of our personal and collective destinies (cf. Dawkins 1989).

That’s in the first paragraph, and it’s admirably representative of what the introduction is like. The self-attribution of ‘daring’ for instance. Always check your wallet when academics start telling you how brave and daring and bold and fearless they are. The chances are good that that’s the preface to a piece of nonsense. And then that ‘row of digits’ – oh that’s clever. Original, too. I used to say things like that in the 4th grade (and the 7th, and the 10th, and the 12th) to explain why I was so stupid at math. I didn’t want to think it was just because I was stupid at math, now did I.

And then the absurdity about this ‘primal faculty’ that seems to be embedded in our genes. Eh? It does? It ‘seems’? To whom? You? And anyone else? You just made it up, that’s all. So where does the ‘ironically’ come in? First you invent the idea that chatting with the stars is ’embedded’ in our genes, then you say how ironic when genes are usually such a horrid reductivematerialist item on the scientistic agenda. And then what do you mean ‘sole’? And what’s ‘invisible’ got to do with anything? And what do you mean ‘destinies’? Nothing; you don’t mean anything; you just want to take a very hackneyed slap at a usual suspect.

Another bit. I’ll leave you to ponder its wonders for yourselves.

Here let us note certain fundamental consequences of our dialogical
reading of human nature. In its essential, necessary openness – the
inherent duality of dialogue which is also, and most fundamentally, a
many-voiced plurality – this reading permanently guarantees us against
any possibility of collapse into monolithic solipsism. However, it also
means we must perforce abandon for ever all ambition to theoretical
closure, the dream – or nightmare – of a final, all-embracing theory of
everything, the breathtakingly arrogant project so dear to materialist
and reductionist science.

Openness and many-voiced plurality, hurrah; materialist and reductionist science, boo. Isn’t rhetoric great?

Another Meek Christian Voice Heard From

Jan 10th, 2005 6:44 pm | By

Interesting developments. And people sometimes ask me, whether plaintively or (more often) crossly, why I insist on trying to argue with metaphysical beliefs, which is a futile and even meaningless thing to do. Well, this sort of thing is one reason. Because ‘metaphysical’ beliefs seem to be the kind that prompt people to feel outraged, ‘offended,’ attacked, insulted, disrespected, challenged in the very core of their identity. I think that’s not a mere coincidence, I think it’s kind of the whole point. When people can’t point to evidence in reply to critics and skeptics of their beliefs, what can they do instead? They can of course do nothing, or they can shake their heads over the benighted ways of the heathen and then go on with their lives. But they can also get very worked up. They can find the home phone numbers of BBC executives on the ‘Christian Voice’ website and use them to make threatening and abusive phone calls. And then other believers can express a certain amount of approbation .

And although I don’t have strong feelings about blasphemy myself – Catholics are used to being scoffed at, and learn to be robust about it – I am glad that many Christians did make their feelings known about the transmission. I don’t say I like to see Roly Keating, the controller of BBC2, having to flee with his wife and family from his home, lest he be subjected to threats or unpleasantness. But it is gratifying when the BBC panjandrums have their cages rattled a little.


There is a penalty to be paid if you insult Islam; you may, like Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, end up with your own mocking words pinned bloodily to your chest. But there is no penalty for insulting Christianity – Christians will meekly accept it all (which, inconveniently, is just what the New Testament commands). When Sikh militants successfully got Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti closed at the Birmingham Rep last month, it was certainly an encouragement to offended Christians whose anger against the desecration of their taboos has been simmering away over the years…There is still a big debate to be had on how a society combines freedom of speech with respect for the values of others. An artist has to push boundaries, and offend sometimes; but the artist also has to recognise that there will be consequences of his actions.

Yeah, like getting stabbed in the chest and then having Mary Kenny gloating over the fact. Now that’s what I call respect for the values of others!

Linked by Meaning in a Non-linear Fashion

Jan 7th, 2005 9:10 pm | By

Here’s something to make you think, to shake your comfortable old positivist assumptions down to their roots, to alert you to the fact that there are deeper levels of reality that you’ve been forgetting to take into account…

I am glad to see that this page is being read by the press. On 6th December, Catherine Bennett of the Guardian (UK national newspaper and dyed-in-the-wool astrological sceptic) writes: On the Astrology News website, there is already speculation that the tsunami “because it involves destruction originating from a submarine source … appears to fall in line with the mythological themes of Sedna”. Suggesting that the California Institute of Technology scientists whose decision it was, last year, to name the planet after the Inuit sea goddess, may be more competent in the divination department than all the UK’s astrologers put together. I suspect that Bennett writes about esoteric subjects without reading about them. She would benefit by studying the writings of Carl Jung. Jung’s notion of synchronicity is that there is an acausal (non-linear) principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. He claimed that there is a synchrony between the mind and the phenomenal world of perception. Though I am not sure if every coincidence has deep meaning, the naming of a planet is a significant and symbolic event that affects the world. As such, I cannot rule out a connection between the choice of the name and the nature of the planet.

An acausal principle that links events – how cool is that? And it’s non-linear, too, which is even cooler. Not that I have the faintest idea what the astrologists mean by that, and I bet they don’t either, but that’s exactly why it’s so cool. If we understood it that would take the mystification I mean mystery out of it, and that’s no fun.

So events are ‘linked’ (what does linked mean? linked how, linked in what sense, linked with what result, linked according to what evidence or logic?) if they have a similar meaning. Oh. What does meaning mean? What kind of meaning, and according to whom? They’re linked by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. Oh – but since we don’t understand what ‘linked’ means, and so don’t understand how they’re linked, and we don’t understand what ‘meaning’ means, and so don’t understand what meaning has to do with the non-understood ‘linking’ (except that we’ve been told that it’s acausal, which helps remarkably little, in fact hinders), the information that they are ‘linked’ in a non-understood way by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially…really doesn’t get us much farther. But it sounds kind of deep, maybe. Either that or kind of daft.

I’ll show you something that links though. Not sequentially, but by meaning. But I, pedantically or literally enough, will explain in what sense the two items ‘link’ – I will explain that they ‘link’ in my own mind because I see a connection between them, which I will endeavour to explain to that large majority of the world’s population that doesn’t share a brain with me.

The scientific profession possesses considerable cognitive authority in modern societies…Such authority is of course of inestimable value to individual scientists, and they have a vested interest in its maintenance. They can be expected to police the existing boundaries of science, to avoid the intrusion of whatever may detract from its reputation and to seek to dispel anything potentially disreputable which arises within it.

That’s from the opening of chapter 6, ‘Drawing Boundaries,’ of Scientific Knowledge by Barry Barnes, David Bloor and John Henry, page 140. Here is a bit from the end of the same chapter, page 168:

The boundaries of science are conventional. To reify those boundaries, and to see them as hard-and-fast divisions between inherently different subject areas or disciplines is simply a mistake. The demarcation of science from pseudo-science, or of science from scientism or even physics from chemistry, can be fully understood only in sociological terms…Scientific boundaries are defined and maintained by social groups concerned to protect and promote their cognitive authority, intellectual hegemony, professional integrity, and whatever political and economic power they might be able to command by attaining these things.

Both of those statements have some truth to them as far as they go – but they leave a lot out. They also seem to carry a wealth of implication, which is probably what Barnes, Bloor and Henry have in mind, given the leaving a lot out aspect. The link I see between the two sets of quotations is that the kind of rhetorical skepticism we find in the last two tends to work as an enabler of the woolly thinking in the first one – at least I think so. The knowing stuff about policing boundaries and dispelling the disreputable is very popular with astrology fans and New Agers of all kinds. In other words, sociologists of knowledge who write sly comments like that without qualifying them (except sometimes in other books or far distant chapters) are just promoting the fashion for childish irrationalism we see all around the place.

Kicking and Spanking

Jan 6th, 2005 7:00 pm | By

This is an odd piece – a mix of harsh but possibly true observations and macho unpleasantness. Of course the one so often does slop over into the other. I do that slopping often myself, at least so I’m told (and I’m sure it’s true). That’s what’s usually going on in disagreements over Richard Dawkins (and Christopher Hitchens, too: he attracts such Necker cube-like clashes of perception the way chocolate attracts, er, me). Many people think Dawkins is being rude, tactless, brutal, self-satisfied and the like, while others think he is being honest and fog-dispelling. I tend to the latter view, but then I’m an atheist myself, so what he says doesn’t get up my nose at the outset.

But this guy who doesn’t admire Susan Sontag…

The reverential tone of the obituaries served to confirm that self-proclaimed intellectuals, no matter how deluded or preposterous, exert a strange, intimidating power over non-intellectuals – especially if they employ that infuriating literary device, the epigram.

Well, yeah. One does know what he means – though actually I would say that it’s (some) intellectuals that the intimidating power is really exerted over, rather than non-intellectuals. It’s hard not to suspect that some version of that is what’s going on with the cult of Derrida. (I say ‘suspect’ because as I’ve mentioned several times, I haven’t read Derrida [apart from a few late articles], so I’m talking about the way his followers [and they are followers, all too often, rather than merely admirers or readers] talk and write about him, not what he said and wrote himself.) The admiration seems to be so out of proportion to anything anyone manages to articulate that one has to wonder – are they simply snowed by rhetoric? If they were snowed by substance, wouldn’t they do a better job of convincing skeptics?

But even though one knows what he means, one also wishes he had kept some thoughts to himself – or better yet not had them at all (in a perfect world).

But would that someone had treated Sontag in life as Dr Johnson had disposed of Bishop Berkeley’s contention that objects only exist because we see them: kicking a stone till he bounced off it, he snarled, “I refute it thus.”

To take the trivial point first, it’s well known that Johnson didn’t ‘dispose’ of anything, that idealism is not disposed of that easily, that Berkeley was not such a fool that he didn’t know what a stone was. But that aside – Johnson kicked a stone, not Berkeley. Here’s this columnist guy (an intellectual of some sort, presumably, or he wouldn’t have the gig) apparently wanting to kick Sontag herself. Or perhaps not – perhaps simply wanting someone to ‘dispose of’ her contentions by kicking stones with energy. But he phrases it so vaguely and ambiguously that we can’t really tell, and I suspect that’s deliberate. Especially given the way he follows it up.

If memory serves – and possibly it doesn’t, no doubt clouded by guilt that I failed to put the wretched woman over my knee and give her a sound spanking…

Oh please. Come on. Isn’t it time to wake up now? Time to get a clue? Time to, you know, not let one’s threatened guy syndrome hang out quite so blatantly? Don’t men realize what they sound like when they slaver over fantasies of beating up women? Well who knows – I suppose in their view and that of their fans they are doing what I take people like Dawkins to be doing: brushing away clouds of sentimentality and obfuscation and appeasment (as Salman Rushdie put it) to tell the plain truth. Being blunt, irreverent, disrespectful, amusing, and honest. But threats of violence (however ‘jokey’) don’t work that way. Except clearly some people think they do. Oh well.


Jan 6th, 2005 6:26 pm | By

Well said, Salman. In a sharp letter to the Guardian in reply to a silly comment of Ian Jack’s on Saturday (I saw the comment at the time, rolled my eyes and wanted to argue with it, but also wanted a rest from the sound of my own voice arguing), in which he mentions the ‘currently fashionable Blairite politics of religious appeasement at all costs.’

Should we now censor ourselves because the current potentates of the Islamic faith are more repressive than their predecessors? Do we have no principles of our own? The continuing collapse of liberal, democratic, secular and humanist principles in the face of the increasingly strident demands of organised religions is perhaps the most worrying aspect of life in contemporary Britain.

Well said, Salman (excuse the familiarity – I’m a vulgar Yank). Well said Salman and Kenan and Homa and Maryam and Azam and many more. Maybe before too long this kind of well-saying will reach critical mass and the fashionable appeasment thing will become much less fashionable. If everyone just keeps nagging away (despite getting tired of sound of own voice, as one does).

A Televisual Feast

Jan 4th, 2005 11:39 pm | By

If you listen to the most recent Start the Week – well you have to listen to a good bit of Ann Widdicombe, which I think is fairly unpleasant – but you could always fast forward. The last ten minutes or so you get Kenan Malik talking about Islamophobia and the religious hatred law. It’s good stuff. He thinks the idea of ‘Islamophobia’ is badly overblown and works to silence criticism of Islam and that that’s a bad thing. As you will have surmised, he also thinks the religious hatred law is a bad thing for the same sort of reason. He asks exactly the question I’ve been bleating and whining and braying for several months – why is it okay to say hard things about other ideas but not about religion?

And those of you in the UK will get to see his documentary on the subject on channel 4 at the end of the week. Wish I could.

“Everyone from anti-racist activists to government ministers wants to convince us that Britain is in the grip of Islamophobia.” But is this the reality or is hatred and abuse of Muslims being exaggerated to suit politicians’ ends and to silence critics of Islam, he asks. Malik, who grew up in the 80s – an era of real racist violence – shows how today there is very little statistical evidence to support the claims that Muslims are subject to either more physical assaults or to being targeted by the police.

See, silencing critics of immensely powerful institutions like religions is just not a very good idea. On Start the Week Malik talks about self-censorship, and he’s too right. There’s a lot of that around, along with a lot of other-censorship and attempted other-censorship. All of it unfortunate.


Jan 3rd, 2005 3:43 am | By

Much as I hate to, I have to disagree with Norm on this one. I think he’s misrepresenting what Dawkins said, with the annotation about the depth and finesse of the adolescent secularist. I don’t think Dawkins is making a shallow point at all, or that he’s expressing a flip certitude, or that he’s being callous about the deaths and griefs of others. On the contrary. (I say that partly because I remember his reaction to September 11 – there was certainly plenty of emotion behind that contribution.) The deaths and griefs are precisely the point. It cuts two ways, this business of clutching at God after a tragedy: yes some people get consolation from the thought of God, but at the price of getting consolation from exactly the guy who caused the tragedy. I think part of Dawkins’ thinking here is that that’s not really a consolation – that there’s a core of bitterness to it. Think of it this way: there you are, minding your own business, harming no one, and suddenly in comes a huge guy who beats you up, knocks your house down, kills all your relatives and friends, poisons your water supply, and trashes all the roads so that you can’t get help. A Job number, in short. Or a Banda Aceh number. You lie there on the ground crying, in pain and fear and agonizing grief. Then the huge guy comes and sits down next to you – and in desperation you crawl into his lap and he cuddles you and says ‘There there.’ And you feel ever so slightly consoled.

Is Dawkins really being so very brutal and callow to suggest that it actually might be more consoling to realize that nothing conscious caused the earthquake to happen? Epicurus wouldn’t have thought so, Lucretius wouldn’t have thought so. That was the very essence of Epicureanism: pointing out that fear of the gods was an unnecessary source of misery. Part of the core of bitterness in having to turn to God for consolation after a disaster is the knowledge that God let the disaster happen. Yes, people do it, and it no doubt works for some (if they can comparmentalize with enough rigour, so that they forget that the God they’re turning to for comfort is the same one who made them so unbearably miserable and bereaved), but why can’t Dawkins genuinely think that a naturalistic explanation of disaster is also comforting because it’s impersonal? And that is what he says, after all.

Of course, if you can derive comfort from such a monster, I would not wish to deprive you. My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him, and maybe there’s some dark comfort in that. But I was trying, however insensitively, to offer a gentler and more constructive alternative. You don’t have to be a believer. Maybe there’s nobody there to curse…Science cannot (yet) prevent earthquakes, but science could have provided just enough warning of the Boxing Day tsunami to save most of the victims and spare the bereaved…And if the comforts afforded by outstretched human arms, warm human words and heartbroken human generosity seem puny against the agony, they at least have the advantage of existing in the real world.

I don’t find that at all flip, or unattractive, or like an adolescent; in fact I find it rather moving.

A Grim Report

Jan 3rd, 2005 12:01 am | By

This is a depressing and disturbing article. And of course it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just France, obviously, it’s women all over the world, who have miserable coerced restricted cramped threatened lives. A thought we don’t like to dwell on, since there’s not a lot we can do about it. But a thought all the same.

Horror stories of what happened to girls who tried to fight their families circulated in the projects. Yildiz knew of girls who had been tricked by their parents into going on a vacation to Turkey or Algeria, only to find themselves being turned over to the families of their new husbands…The French press, with its need to reconcile political correctness and the reality of the new demographics, rarely raises one increasingly critical question: How many women in the country actually live in repressive conditions without access to the full rights guaranteed by the republic? If you ask the question at any of the tiny storefront agencies trying to help these women, you will hear a startling number: 70,000. The figure comes from the High Council of Integration, a government agency, and refers primarily to women in forced marriages.

And the French press doesn’t talk about it much? How very unfortunate…

Occasionally a murder case will make the news, but the grisly narratives of most of les femmes des quartiers slip under the radar of Le Monde and the serious talk shows. From time to time a memoir detailing a brutal gang rape in the cités may get published—Samira Bellil’s best-selling Dans l’Enfer des Tournantes is an example—but, for the most part, the life of the women of the cités remains a mystery, an unpopular cause largely ignored by politicians attempting to win the potentially immense Muslim vote. But it is these women who are on the fault line in Eurabia, a mere 30 minutes from the Louvre.Throughout Paris, women are caught in the maw of cultural relativism as the French hesitate to sound intolerant of another culture. “Given how these women are treated, why does no one make a fuss? There is the danger of being accused of racism.”

The article makes clear that a lot of this is also down to the French failure and refusal to integrate Muslim immigrants, and to the elitism of the culture as a whole, which is not interested in the plight of poor people and has no Oprah to draw attention to such subjects. All very depressing, as I said. Just thought I’d mention it.


Jan 1st, 2005 1:59 am | By

It can be very difficult to discuss these issues of ‘community’ and cherished beliefs, ‘offense’ and rights, fundamentalism and fuzzy language, without prompting impassioned if inarticulate yells about Robespierre and stigmatization and the like. It can also be very difficult to get a clear statment of why that is – but the thought bubbling away at the bottom appears to be that all this kind of thing is merely more or less covert racism. So it is heartening to read the letter to the Guardian from Pragna Patel, one of the founders of Southall Black Sisters.

As Asian women of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, we have been struggling for many years against attempts to silence our voices in relation to violence against women…We oppose the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred because it would lend to and encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions. We have no doubt that it would be used as a weapon to suppress dissent within our communities, particularly those who are more vulnerable and powerless. Until we see greater equality and increased accountability from within, we can no more rely on religious leaders than we can on the state that often appeases them in the name of multiculturalism. It is not just the freedom of expression that is at stake. As in the Rushdie affair, we support the right to dissent because of the ramifications for women in minority communities.

There it is. The benevolent people who urge ‘respect’ for the ‘cherished beliefs’ of ‘communities’ think they are siding with the oppressed and stigmatized, when in fact they are siding with the powerful within those communities against the ‘more vulnerable and powerless.’

Pragna Patel goes into the subject in much more depth in this article on ‘The Impact of Fundamentalism.

In the UK, Hindu revivalism has been quietly gathering strength — a result
of the multicultural politics, a largely de-politicising and
anti-democratic, homogenising process with the effect of co)opting certain
layers of the community, usually business and religious institutions and
individuals into the state apparatus by giving them a voice as ‘authentic’
representatives of their communities. In this way, more radical progressive
voices within the asian communities are isolated…The politics of multi-culturalism with its
tendency to construct Asians as religiously monolithic entities, have also
entrenched and perpetuated class and caste divisions, benefiting
fundamentalist projects in Asian communtities. Muti-culturalism has
therefore successfully avoided a challenge to the divisions of class, caste
and power.

Exactly. We saw that tendency only last week in the coverage of the protest against Behzti: the reports kept referring to the ‘Sikh community’ when they meant that segment of the Sikh community that was protesting against Behzti. Why should Sikhs (or Hindus or Muslims) be monolithic? Why are they so readily presumed to have exactly the same opinions on matters of controversy? Why do so few reporters even think to ask? Why is the coverage so formulaic and mindless?

In India
the impact of Hindu fundamentalism has been particularly devastating for
women, for example the revival of sati practices and the attempt to
universalise the Hindu personal laws are perceived to be integral to the
new Hindu identity. The VHP has been very vociferous in demanding that the
Hindu personal code should be applicable to all…The law in
Britain, in relation to marriage, divorce and child custody matters, has
become a particularly fertile ground for fundamentalists of all hues. Much
of the day to day casework of Southall Black Sisters and other Asian
women’s groups bears witness to these developments – where the law and the
welfare system have become effective arenas in which fundamentalists and
orthodox leaders attempt to assert the precedence of religious and
traditional customs over rights and remedies laid down in civil family law.

Patel is a lawyer, she does this casework herself, so she knows what she’s talking about. Good ‘community’ stuff – which so often boils down to men maintaining their control of women. So ten cheers for the Southall Black Sisters; let’s hope their work goes well and soon becomes unneeded.

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

Dec 29th, 2004 7:46 pm | By

I’ve been visiting the Other Side. Well not so much visiting it, I guess, as reading about it. Or researching it, you could call it. Sylvia Browne calls it researching, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t.

And never mind about shooting fish in barrels. Not that you would, most of you, but some of you would and do. Some of you seem to think that the targets are too easy and that there’s no reason to shoot at them. Well the targets are easy all right, I’ll give you that, but there is every reason to shoot at them. I’ll show you why.

So why this current interest and acceptance of the absolute truth that yes, there are Angels among us?…First of all, as the belief in Angels continues to grow, people are less and less reluctant to speak up about their encounters with them.

That’s Sylvia Brown, in The Other Side and Back (page 25). And she’s right. She’s wrong about nearly everything she puts on paper, but she’s right in that last sentence. As belief in angels spreads and gets entrenched and becomes commonplace and meets little opposition – so it spreads and gets entrenched and becomes commonplace even more, and meets even less opposition, and so people are indeed less and less and less reluctant, embarrassed, inhibited, ashamed about believing in angels and speaking up about their ‘encounters’ with them. And that’s a bad thing. A very, very bad thing. It may be getting to the point where we have to worry that bus drivers, airline pilots, dentists, engineers, pharmacists, grocers and countless other people we entrust with our bodies, our health, our food, our safety, believe in angels and listen to advice from their spirit guides. We really, really don’t want that. Trust me on this (or don’t – read for yourself) – we don’t want people who think the way Sylvia Browne does to have jobs of that kind. It’s hard to think of jobs that are harmless enough to entrust them to people who think like that, really.

I’m actually serious. I sound flippant but I’m serious. Browne does have a serious point there, and she is right. It’s a meme thing. A groupthink, conformity, culture thing. Humans do take their cues from each other, and it is becoming ever more Okay to believe and avow belief in ‘paranormal’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘supernatural’ or ‘metaphysical’ entities and events, as more and more people do exactly that. I don’t see any way to resist this dangerous and idiotic trend other than to resist it. Exposing it is the first step.

And then of course a lot of it is also extremely funny.

We on earth are stuck with our dimension’s annoying laws of time and space, laws that contribute concepts like ‘late’ and ‘crowded’ and ‘traffic jam’ and ‘stressed out’ to our vocabulary. The residents of The Other Side joyfully function without those restrictions and instead enjoy the freedom of such universal laws as infinity and eternity.

Cool. Einstein meets the tooth fairy and everybody’s happy.

And how is this for something to look forward to: All spirits on The Other Side are thirty years old…Spirits can assume their earthly appearance when they come to visit us, to help us recognize them, but in their day-to-day lives on The Other Side, not only are they thirty but they can choose their own physical attributes, from height to weight to hair color.

Eeyup, and they can choose their clothes, too, and their jewelry, their shoes, their accessories, their cars, their wine cellars. Yup.

And on and on it goes like that – just a description of anyone and everyone’s fantasy of a perfect world with everything good at hand and all limits and frustrations and undesirables erased – but described as if it were a real place, and as if Browne had the maps and guidebooks and lyrical travelers’ descriptions at her elbow. Of course, she says she does; she says her spirit guide Francine has told her all about it, and that she herself has then ‘validated’ what Francine tells her through ‘meticulous research.’ Right on page 13 she says that – ‘Typically, Francine gives me information about The Other Side, and I then validate it through meticuous research, including regressive hypnosis…’ Ah yes, that’s meticulous research all right. I tell you about a hitherto unknown alternate universe that my spirit guide has given me information about, and which I have validated through regressive hypnosis. Er, you ask, but how can you being hypnotized validate anything about the existence of a place outside you? Tsk – don’t be silly – that’s a physical question, and the information I’m giving you is metaphysical. Or something.

And yet, and yet – the description can be quite of the earth earthy, at times…

The Other Side is a breathtaking infinity of mountains and oceans, and vast gardens, and forests – every wonder of nature that exists here, its beauty magnified hundreds of times. The landscape is punctuated with buildings of brilliant design and variety – classical Greek and Roman architecture for the temples, concert halls, courtyards, sports arenas, and other public gathering places –

Hmm – sound a little like a mix of Disneyland, Celebration, Las Vegas, a wet dream of Prince Charles’, and Nazi Berlin? And now for the real estate agent’s patter:

– and homes designed to meet every entity’s personal preference, so that a stately Victorian mansion might share a neighborhood with a simple log cabin and a geodesic dome.

Yeah right. People are really going to want to go to The Other Side so they can live in a log cabin while other people whoop it up in a ‘stately Victorian mansion’ (a what?) just as if they were still on This Side. No. Look, if we’re just going to sit around dreaming up our fantasy places, let’s get it right, shall we? The deal is, I get to live in the biggest house in the place, and all the people who irritated me on This Side have to live in nasty little shacks nearby enough so that I can see them when I feel like gloating and far enough so that I can ignore them when I want to. That’s the housing set-up on The Other Side, obviously. Not to mention which, picture it, will you? These chaotic neighborhoods? Norman Bates’ house on one lot, Abe Lincoln’s on the next, a McMansion across the street, a yurt next to that, Trump Towers next to that, then a pueblo, then a Frank Lloyd Wright, then Castle Howard, then the Gherkin – oh gawd, I feel sick. The Other Side will be one long festival of nausea.

Okay, that’s enough meticulous research and regressive hypnosis for the moment.

Whose Community, Again?

Dec 28th, 2004 8:27 pm | By

Exactly. How very seldom this kind of thing gets pointed out:

Second, the promotion of religion in public life, especially under New Labour, has not only legitimised “rotten” multiculturalism – where culture has long given way to religion, particularly if it is capable of delivering ethnic minority votes. It has also created space in institutional forums that has been exploited by communities such as the Sikhs. While the sentiments of inter-religious dialogues are noble, the result is often to stifle dissent within religions and essentialise particular traditions as representing the Sikh, Muslim, Christian or Hindu way. In a highly plural and secular society, nothing could be further from the truth.

Just exactly so. All this pious invocation of ‘community’ and ‘culture’ on every hand works to confine people within those communities who don’t necessarily want to be confined there, and to shut them up when they don’t necessarily want to be shut up.

Behzti is not an aberration. While the gaze of the establishment has been fixed on using religions to deliver peaceful outcomes, it has overlooked the serious contestations within these traditions and the implications for multiculturalism. Marginal groups, like the Southall Black Sisters, have long complained of physical abuse within minority ethnic communities; only last week a Sikh father was sentenced for plotting to kill his daughter who, according to him, had brought disgrace on the family by marrying a Jew.

The ‘serious contestations within these traditions’ – that’s what I keep saying. Community, culture, tradition, religion – all those words function to obliterate differences, refusals, dissent, desires to escape and say no and decide for onself, hopes for autonomy and self-fashioning and adult independence and equality. They are profoundly, intensely conservative, coercive, confining words, all of them; they should be hedged about with enormous suspicion and caution at the very least, instead of invoked with aggressive piety and self-righteousness by people who take themselves to be progressive.

Salman Rushdie says cogent things too, not surprisingly.

‘It has been horrifying to see the response. It is pretty terrible to hear government ministers expressing approval of the ban and failing to condemn the violence, when they should be supporting freedom of expression.’ His outburst was sparked by the refusal of Fiona Mactaggart, the home office minister, to offer support for either the theatre or the author following protests by a violent mob last weekend…Mactaggart, whose constituency of Slough has a large Sikh population, refused to condemn the mob and told Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday that the play would be helped by the closure.

And Rushdie goes on to make a point that had occurred to me – the Behzti riot reminded me of the BORI riot last year. Remember that? When an angry mob sacked the Bhandharkar Oriental Research Institute because an American scholar of mythology had been disrespectful of Shivaji?

Mr Rushdie, who was born in India, said that the Sikh protestors had adopted the violent tactics used by Hindu nationalists on the sub-Continent. ‘This seems to be a trend that has come from India, where extremists have attacked a number of artistic and cultural events, with very little control. Works by some of India’s most revered artists have been attacked by Shiv Sena [an extremist Hindu grouping], and now the Sikh community here are travelling down a similar path,’ he said.

Indeed. And see this article by Latha Menon on the subject, with particular regard to historians and other scholars. A number of artistic and cultural events indeed, and institutions and processes as well. Not good. Not a thing to soothe and mollify and brush away under the cozy rubric of ‘community.’ Andrew Coates wrote about this last week:

As we have seen, a majority appears to align with Islamicists against secularism. The Anglo-Saxon “left’s” views correspond to an ideology resting on three sources. The first derives from straightforward British imperialism. That is the practice of separating “communities” on religious ground. Under the Indian Raj different religious groups had the right to distinct “personal law”. That is that the profoundly unequal relations between men and women under Hindu and Islamic “law” (with the notable contradiction of Sikh rules) were eternalised in jurisprudence. At present in Canada there are serious attempts to re-establish this state of affairs. “Community leaders” (not elected but given by their status as religious figures) are recognised by the state as those who determine “their” communities’ rules.

There you are again – another one of those words or phrases that need to be treated with extreme caution and alertness, and so seldom are – ‘community leaders.’ Those community leaders who met with the Birmingham Rep to try to get them to re-write ‘Behzti’ – who made them leaders? Who agreed that they were leaders? Who appointed them, who asked them? The papers and radio never said, at least not that I saw or heard. It just always seems to be taken for granted that people who present themselves as the voice of the ‘community’ are exactly that. Especially, I’m guessing (do correct me if I’m wrong), when those people are (as they so often are) men.

Peter Tatchell had good things to say the other day too.

Whatever happened to the principles of universal human rights and international solidarity? Is it really Islamophobic to condemn the stoning of adulteresses in northern Nigeria and the arrest and torture of gay people by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority? Can we remain silent when Muslims are suffering persecution at the hands of fellow Muslims? Is Muslim-on-Muslim oppression any less worthy of our concern?

So. Community me no community, at least not until some searching questions have been asked.

Disaster? What Disaster? Hey, What’s the Score?

Dec 26th, 2004 7:50 pm | By

Well happy Boxing Day. Nothing like a gigantic global disaster to perk things up.

I’ve just been ranting at Crooked Timber about the bizarre shortage of coverage on US television. Silly me, I thought that what with the number of countries affected, the vast geographic sweep from Somalia to Indonesia, picking up the Maldives, southern India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Thailand on the way, and the immense number of people known killed already which is sure to rise astronomically once the counting gets going – that even here in the notoriously uninterested provincial triviality-obsessed US, people would be mildly interested. But if they are, you would never know it from looking at tv news. India and Indonesia might as well be orbiting Zeta Reticuli. They might as well be a few billion light years away as opposed to a few thousand miles. Ho hum. Well hey, there’s snow in North Carolina today, so that needs a few minutes of air time too, along with this pesky little tsunami-thing over in Asia or Nepal or wherever it is. Have another beer.

Whose Community?

Dec 26th, 2004 2:07 am | By

Index on Censorship is a strange outfit. We’ve had occasion to notice that before, last month after the murder of Theo van Gogh, when Rohan Jayasekera was more critical of van Gogh than of his murderer. And now there’s a comment on the censorship of Behzti that also says some peculiar things – peculiar at least for an organization called Index on Censorship.

This in the subhead, for instance:

The decision of one group of Sikhs to lobby for changes to a play written and performed by members of their own community in their town is one thing. Their refusal to rule out violence and consequently force its closure is quite another.

They go on to condemn the censorship, which is good, but that beginning seems to me to have a highly dubious idea or two behind it. What does Index mean, ‘their own community’? And ‘members of their own community’? There seems to be an implication there that putative members of a putative community (and communities always are putative, you know – there are myriads of communities we can all belong to, or not; we’re not required to pledge allegiance to any of them) have some sort of obvious right to lobby for changes to a play written by other putative members of that putative community. Why? Is that the usual attitude to books and plays and movies and tv shows? Did the ‘community’ of office workers or Territorial Army sergeants or residents of Slough lobby for changes to The Office? If they had, would anyone have talked about their ‘own’ community that way? Would anyone have done anything other than fall about with scornful disbelieving laughter? Okay, not a perfect parallel, because of the religion factor. But all the same – that word ‘community’ (especially with the ‘own’ attached – that little word is always a signal of rhetoric in play) is used as a manipulation-device. It’s there to set us up to have a certain kind of reaction. And not particularly legitimately, in my view, not unless one accepts an extremely essentialist and coercive idea of ‘community’.

The cheering thing about the debate that preceded the opening of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s black comedy Behzti at Birmingham Rep theatre, was that it was held at all. Both sides – theatre and Sikh community – met to make their points before the show opened. Significant concessions were made by the theatre. A statement from the local Sikh community would be distributed at the venue; peaceful public protest would not be opposed; the programme would include positive messages about the Sikh faith.

Again, there is that silly word, unexamined, unexplained, imprecise. Both sides, theatre and Sikh community, met. The Sikh community was there? Really? All of it? Every Sikh and former Sikh and descendant of Sikhs in Birmingham and the surrounding area was there? Probably not, right? No, the people who did this lobbying were ‘representatives’ or spokespeople or the like. Well, how representative were they? Were they really speaking for the entire ‘community’? Does the ‘community’ speak with such a unified voice? The article doesn’t say. It just assumes it. Journalists and people who write for Index on Censorship (they above all) really really need to stop assuming that. What if these lobbyists were in fact a tiny minority of angry threatened men, as opposed to being the voice of the community as a whole? What then? What if most Sikhs were rolling their eyes and thinking ‘Don’t speak for me thanks’? We don’t know, and the article doesn’t say. The very word ‘community’ just paralyzes everyone’s thinking faculties. Everyone knows communities are monolithic, right? Everyone in them thinks the same, everyone in them has the same opinions, no one wants to escape the damn community? That’s how it is, right?


It’s a decent article, on the whole, it’s just that that vagueness about the ‘community’ starts things off badly, and that vagueness seems to be pervasive in journalism.

One place the question did get discussed though is Radio 3’s Nightwaves on Wednesday where the participants did point out that there weren’t any Sikh women in those protests at the theatre, and that what the riot in fact was, was a group of men silencing a woman. Not such a community project after all, perhaps.


Dec 22nd, 2004 8:25 pm | By

A self-referential moment. Beg pardon. But there’s some amusement value in it (well I think so at least). Plus of course there’s the flogging aspect, and after all, the less the book sells, the sooner I will have to go out and pluck chickens for a living, after which I will be far too tired and chickeny to mess around with B&W.

So there are some reviews. There’s this one at Mugged by Reality – which is quite funny because he quotes the outraged review at Amazon and then says this:

I actually came across the book by accident. I was perusing Harry’s Place and inadvertently clicked on the Amazon link in his sidebar.
‘Hmmm’, I thought as I scanned the synopsis, ‘that looks pretty groovy, I’ll put it on my Christmas wants list’.
However, reading the above review prompted me to rush out to buy the thing straight away.

That does make me laugh. The reviewer at Amazon does tip his hand a little – or apparently more than a little.

There’s also Backword Dave who finds himself reading the Morning Star.

One of the problems of being on the “left” is the feeling of “I ought to support them.” I see a lonely copy of the Morning Star on the last rung of the paper rack of my local shop and I feel that someone should buy it out of solidarity. (I never have.) Still, they give a very decent review to The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense.

And then there’s Jalan-Jalan, also reading the Morning Star.

I don’t normally read the Morning Star but a book review of theirs caught my eye which makes me feel glad that I read the Morning Star. It’s for the book, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense which I hope someone will give me as a new year present.

Well I hope someone does! As a matter of fact I hope a few thousand people do.

Whither Clarity

Dec 22nd, 2004 7:23 pm | By

Well here’s an oddity (the air is thick with oddities these days) – someone arguing for more clarity, an end to muddling through, an awareness of tensions and conflicts and the need for hard choices – and doing it by means of surprisingly muddled mushy unclear woolly language. That seems like a peculiar way to argue for clear thinking.

The conflict played out in Birmingham, and elsewhere every day, is between two values – one that liberals have cherished for centuries and another acquired much more recently. The ancient, almost defining liberal ideal is freedom: of expression, of movement, of protest. The newer value is an approach to society’s minorities that aims to go beyond mere tolerance, and reaches for understanding and sensitivity. Today’s good liberal aims to be both. Stop one in the street and ask if artists should have the right to say what they like, and the answer will be yes. Ask if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, and the answer will be yes again.

Bullshit. If Jonathan Freedland stopped me in the street and asked me if artists should have the right to say what they like, my answer would not be yes, and (I certainly hope) neither would a lot of people’s, good liberals and good radicals and possibly even some good libertarians. That’s a ridiculous way to frame the question; he just oversimplifies his own argument in order to make us see it in his terms. But his terms aren’t the right terms. And then if he asked me the second question, if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, my answer again would not be yes. It would be “What do you mean by ‘feelings’? What do you mean by ‘respected,’ what do you mean by ‘differences,’ what do you mean by ‘understood’? And what kind of feelings, on what subjects? And what kind of differences, about what kinds of actions and practices? And why Muslims or Sikhs or Jews? Why not everyone? What are you proposing – that Muslims or Sikhs or Jews ought to have their ‘feelings respected’ while atheists or Buddhists or non-adjectival people ought not to? Why are you asking me such an inane, meaningless question? What about you? Do you think chess players or runners or train-spotters ought to have their feelings respected and their differences understood?”

In other words, Freedland is doing what ‘good liberals’ so often do in this kind of discussion: he’s wrapping his meaning in layers of protective fuzz so that we won’t quite grasp what it is we’re assenting to. In a sense, of course, I think everyone’s ‘feelings’ should be ‘respected’ – in pretty much the most basic uncontroversial empty sense one can think of. Other things being equal, people ought not to be gratuitously or rudely challenged or insulted. As a rule, and depending on the situation, people ought to be treated politely and with forebearance. But those qualifications and stipulations are necessary. Once we get down to specifics, things are not so easy. Some ‘Muslims’ no doubt ‘feel’ that the impending stoning to death of Hajiyeh Esmaelvand is a fine thing and should proceed as scheduled. Do I ‘respect’ that feeling? No. Do I think it ought to be ‘respected’? No. So what is the point of even asking such a damn silly empty meaningless question then? Well, it’s what I said: to make the subject seem simpler than it is, even though the column as a whole is arguing for recognizing the very complexity the wording of those questions works to conceal. Why is that? Have people become so habituated to fuzzy rhetoric that they can’t notice it even when it is their very subject? If so – well, it’s unfortunate, that’s all.

I am having to make some of these awkward choices myself. All of my instincts set me against the government’s proposed move to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. An admirer of America’s first amendment, I start as an absolutist on free speech: let everyone say what they want.

Really? Are you sure? What if somone (part of everyone) wants to say ‘that playwright should be killed!’ Or that novelist should be killed, or that film-maker should be killed, or that apostate, or that whoring woman, or that daughter who dishonored her family by refusing to marry the man her parents told her to marry? Not to mention of course ‘those Croations should be killed,’ or those Kosovars, or those Tutsis, or those intellectuals, or those infidels.

No, he goes on to say that he’s not sure, because he approves of the results of the ban on incitement to racial hatred. But ‘let everyone say what they want’ just seems so simple-minded to begin with. Why begin from there? (Yes, I know free speech absolutists exist, I’ve been arguing with them for years. But I think that’s a simple-minded position to start from.)

If I don’t want the law which effected that change repealed, then logic demands I should want it extended to everyone who needs protection. If it’s good for black, Sikh and Jewish Britons, then it can hardly be denied to Hindus and Muslims. (To say the first group is racial while the latter is religious is to make a distinction that does not fit the real world.)

Everyone who needs protection is just everyone. Period. Just as with the silly question about whether we think Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected. Other things being equal, everyone has that right. Either everyone does, or no one does. Perhaps that would be the right answer to Freedland’s question for the good liberal in the street. [judicious stroking of chin] ‘Hmm…yes, Muslims Sikhs and Jews, fine, and possibly vegans as well, but not Hindus or Buddhists or Wiccans. That’s my considered opinion.’ Clarity and rigour, indeed. Hmph.


Dec 21st, 2004 11:42 pm | By

Just two or three more brief quotations from Wicca. My little solstice present for you.

To discourage a poltergeist from remaining in the house put up a list of chores and tell it that if it is to remain in the house it must earn its keep. If it does not, then you will bring in an exorcist.

Errm – okay. But – um – how do I tell it? Write it at the top of the list of chores? But how do I know if the poltergeist has seen the list of chores? Or that it can read? Should I tell it personally, by announcing it aloud? But how do I know where polty is, or if it’s listening? Do I wait until stuff is flying around the room and then quick like a bunny start shouting – ‘Oi, I’m putting up a list of chores for you to do and you have to do them if you want to stay in the house, because you have to earn your keep!’ (Keep? What keep? Does it eat the food? First I’ve heard of it. I thought it just threw things.) I wish these people would give proper directions. It’s like being told to make a Lady Baltimore cake by putting some flour and eggs and whatnot in a pan and baking it. But at least it does say how to threaten the little bastard. ‘If you don’t, I’m bringing in an exorcist! So if that bathtub is not clean enough to eat a Lady Baltimore cake off by this time tomorrow, you’re outta here!’ Because I really know where to find an exorcist, right? And then there’s the tricky business of deciding which chores to give the poltergeist. Making dinner? Hmm…no. Making the beds? No. Doing the laundry? Well…risky. You can see the problem.

Still practiced by some, alchemy can also be practiced to search for an elixir of youth, a universal cure for all disease , the attainment of eternal life, and other accomplishments.

Yup. It sure can. There is no gainsaying that. That is one true statement. Yes indeedy. That is one true, safe statement – alchemy can indeed be practiced to search for just about anything. A way to travel to the far side of the universe without spilling your coffee, a way to travel to 1600 and get Shakespeare to re-write Hamlet with a part for you in it, a way to turn diamonds into lice and bedbugs into Brazilian tapirs. You can practice alchemy to search for such things every waking minute for the rest of your life if you like. Have fun!

This is from an entry on dark side:

The side of life associated with death, decay, entropy…The dark, while unpleasant, is not inherently evil, though evil can take on aspects of that which is evil. For example, the television and movie characters, the Addams Family, were dark, though certainly not evil.

Uh – oh never mind.