Notes and Comment Blog


Twinned With

Mar 19th, 2006 6:31 pm | By

Now, this is nice. At least, I like it. It’s the Amazon page for that book, but the nice thing is that it’s paired with a book by Dawkins. Good company they’ve put us in. (Yes, of course I check, why do you ask? And the answer is no; hasn’t sold a copy in days, or is it weeks.)



Yaller Flars

Mar 19th, 2006 6:24 pm | By

March is a good month. Don’t you think? I love March. March and October, they’re the best. Although April has a strong claim, despite the cruelty thing. But March is special. I think it’s the daffodils. I have a really slightly insane passion for daffodils – especially the way they’re planted in the UK, in those great blankets covering whole sections of parks and gardens. We don’t do that here, unfortunately. No blankets. But there are a lot of them, just in smaller batches, so I trudge around the place gazing fondly at clumps of them next to trees and on parking strips. I took a trip to London in March about ten years ago and people laughed at me when I showed them my pictures. ‘They’re all of daffodils!’ everyone exclaimed, falling over laughing. ‘Every single one is of daffodils!’ I looked and was much abashed to see that it was true. Kew with daffodils, Hampton Court with daffodils, York with daffodils, Cambridge with daffodils, Kenwood with daffodils, Burleigh with daffodils. Very King Charles’s head, it was. I felt slightly silly. But I was pleased to have so many pretty pictures of daffodils, all the same!



Slavoj

Mar 18th, 2006 6:24 pm | By

How sensible of Slavoj Žižek. Better than sensible, even.

…only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe’s greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

Of course this is the cue for thousands of parrots and robots and zombies to come clattering and squawking and staggering up to intone ‘Stalin Hitler Mao Pol Pot’ at us – but atheism wasn’t the essence of Communism or Nazism the way Christianity is to Christianity or Hinduism is to Hinduism, so try something else for a change.

Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted…This argument couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted.

There’s another in the eye for the robots.

[T]hose who displayed the greatest “understanding” for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe. These weird alliances confront Europe’s Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the “godless” atheist liberals…

And the best bit –

Respect for other’s beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple “regimes of truth,” disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth. What, however, about submitting Islam – together with all other religions – to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

That’s downright quotable. And it’s exactly why I’ve been sneering so heavily at all the nonsense talked about ‘respect for others’ beliefs’ throughout this cartoon thing (and a lot longer than that, but it all got ratcheted up with the cartoon thing). Nobody with any sense should want either to be patronized or to be truth-relativized. Think about it, believers.



Peer Review

Mar 18th, 2006 5:23 pm | By

Just a little more of this (as Don called it) labyrinthine topic, then I’ll talk about different, straight up and down topics. I just want to say just this one more thing, as an old friend used to say on the phone when we were fifteen. (She’s a public radio producer now, so she has to do that fund-raising stuff; she’s in the middle of it right now, it’s ‘Pledge Week’. Terrible.) Just this one more thing on the moral right and people ought not to prevent us.

Lies and falsifications are generally (and certainly in the case of Holocaust-denial) morally wrong. And it does seem puzzling, even paradoxical, to say that we can have a moral right to do that which is morally wrong. Nonetheless it’s true that we do: we sometimes have the moral right to act – that is, people ought not to prevent us from acting – in ways which are undoubtedly morally wrong…I have the moral right to do what I please (within the law) with my own money; nonetheless it’s morally wrong of me to give none of it to charity.

But surely that definition of a moral right to act – that people ought not to prevent us from acting – can’t apply to falsification of history or other scholarship, because in fact people ought to and do prevent us from acting in that way. They do it via peer review. That is, surely, exactly the point of peer review: to prevent both mistakes and falsifications. Not every scholarly book gets peer reviewed, but a lot do, and if falsifications are detected, they are prevented – and they ought to be prevented. So if that is what a moral right is, then falsification of scholarship appears not to be a moral right. (And even without that, I take it to be a different kind of moral right from the moral right not to give money to charity. That seems to me to be almost definitional – almost inherent in the meaning of the words. ‘Falsification’ carries with it a meaning of wrongness; ‘charity’ carries with it the meaning that it is voluntary rather than coerced; so surely the wrongness of falsification is considerably less debatable than the wrongness of not giving money to charity.)

Even if the institution of peer review didn’t exist – suppose X knew that Y’s manuscript was full of falsifications, and told Y’s prospective publisher so, with documentation, and Y’s publisher dropped the book. Would it be wrong of X to prevent Y from publishing the book in that way? I say no; on the contrary. (Of course it might be unkind, in a sense disloyal, and so on, if the two are friends – but loyalty often conflicts with responsibility or public duty; that’s not news.) It shouldn’t be a police matter, but it should be a publisher matter. The police shouldn’t (and generally don’t) do the preventing, but someone should. In the same way – if any colleagues had known Jayson Blair was faking his reporting, they would have prevented him, by telling his editors. Did he have a moral right to fake his reporting, would it have been true at the time that the colleagues ought not to prevent him? Again, I say no. Newspapers don’t (to the best of my knowledge) have a moral right to tell lies, and neither (to the best of my knowledge) do reporters. So I don’t see how falisification can be that kind of moral right. In fact the more I think about it the less I can see it.



Dragged Away Kicking and Screaming

Mar 17th, 2006 8:11 pm | By

Enough of all this pallid nerdy arguing and wondering and marching back and forth. I have been persuaded. much against my better judgment, that what I really want is a very long walk on a mountain trail. I don’t think it is, I think I’ll cry and whine and ask to be carried and say my foot hurts and ask for ice cream and say my face is cold and ask for a cookie and say why aren’t we there yet and ask for brandy and say I want to go home right now. But I have acquiesced, despite the insufficiently theorized nature of this proposed very long walk and the absence of coffee houses and bookshops on this much-advertised trail thingy. I have acquiesced, I have bowed, I have given in, I have said oh all right. I’m told we will see eagles and lions and orcas and lyre birds and stoats and wildebeest, and I must say I do like the sound of that. Not as much as cookies and brandy and coffee, but enough.



Moral Philosophy

Mar 17th, 2006 7:40 pm | By

Eve Garrard comments at Normblog on this whole incompletely theorized thing we have going here (though not in those terms, which I have only just this second dragged in). Her comment is interesting, and it helpfully omits the part about being puzzled as to why I keep etc etc (yes, I am having fun with that, why do you ask?) – but it still isn’t quite what I’m talking about, at least I think it isn’t.

It’s very hard to see why we would think that Holocaust-denial ought to be legally permissible unless we think that there’s a moral right in play, that people have a moral right to speak their minds, even if what their minds contain is false and indeed disgusting. But this is what Ophelia jibs at – given that Holocaust-denial involves lies and falsifications, why should we think we have a moral right to engage in it? How can we have a moral right to lie, falsify the evidence, play fast and loose with the truth?

That isn’t exactly what I jib at. Because I don’t think Holocaust denial does necessarily involve lies and falsifications. It can involve error, self-deception, misinterpretation. It can also involve, no doubt, transient lies in speech rather than in print, and it can involve minor infrequent lies in print – lies that are unsystematic enough to fall short of unmistakable deception and falsification. But I take systematic falsification to be a different matter – and, again, I think it is telling that people mostly don’t defend Irving’s right to engage in systematic falsification; at the very least I wonder why that is, and if it doesn’t hint at something.

This is not an unreasonable question. Lies and falsifications are generally (and certainly in the case of Holocaust-denial) morally wrong. And it does seem puzzling, even paradoxical, to say that we can have a moral right to do that which is morally wrong. Nonetheless it’s true that we do: we sometimes have the moral right to act – that is, people ought not to prevent us from acting – in ways which are undoubtedly morally wrong.

Hmm. Which people and in what sense of ‘prevent us’ I wonder. In the examples Eve gives, I’m not sure it’s true that people close to us ought not to try to prevent us by persuasion, for instance. But no doubt she means forcibly prevent, which is another matter. Anyway, this is Eve’s field, and it’s certainly not mine, so I’ll take her word for it. It’s like that comment Jon Pike made in reviewing Honderich in Democratiya – ‘there is a standard, ordinary language distinction between having a right to do X and X being the right thing to do.’ I’ve been keeping it in mind throughout this discussion. But I don’t think it applies to falsification on the scale Irving practiced it – or at least I’m not convinced that it does. I’m just not convinced that he does have a moral right to deliberately falsify the evidence on the scale he did (remember what Lipstadt said: every single footnote had something wrong with it). I don’t think it should be a police matter, I don’t think it should be an imprisonable offence, but I’m still not convinced it’s a free speech right or a moral right. I think it’s something in between those (something not fully theorized, perhaps).



Oh So That’s What That Is

Mar 17th, 2006 6:31 pm | By

I’m going to do a Cool Hand Luke on you. What we have here is an incompletely theorized agreement.

From ‘Incompletely Theorized Agreements,’ chapter 2 of Legal Reasoning and Political Conflict by Cass Sunstein, pp 35-37.

Hence the pervasive legal and political phenomenon of an agreement on a general principle alongside disagreement about particular cases. The agreement is incompletely theorized in the sense that it is incompletely specified. Much of the key work must be done by others, often through casuistical judgments at the point of application.

Well there you go. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not so odd – and in fact it happens all the time. That’s what Sunstein means by referring to a ‘pervasive legal and political phenomenon’ – that you see a lot of it. It’s all over the place. It’s not rare. It’s not astonishing or peculiar or inexplicable; it’s pervasive. Pervasive, I tell you! So all these people knitting their brows in puzzlement and surprise and puzzlement at my persistence in seeing problems and ambiguities where they see simplicity and everything being settled, are puzzled at the unpuzzling. In fact, I should be the one who is puzzled at their puzzlement. I’ll do that: I’ll be puzzled. ‘What ho,’ I’ll say, ‘have they never read Cass Sunstein? Whence comes all this perturbation and surprise? This sort of thing is the merest commonplace; it is pervasive.’ Then I’ll polish off that glass of whiskey and demand another, and a pizza while you’re at it.

Abstract provisions protect ‘freedom of speech,’ religious liberty,’ and ‘equality under the law,’ and citizens agree on those abstractions in the midst of sharp disputes about what those provisions really entail.

Don’t we though. That’s all I’m saying. We agree on the abstractions and then immediately proceed to have sharp disputes about what those provisions really entail – disputes which aren’t always and necessarily easily resolved or settled. Disputes which one party can declare settled but which the other party (or parties) can still, however unaccountably and puzzlingly and brow-knittingly, obstinately declare not settled, still open, still unresolved, in fact perhaps of their nature not resolvable to the satisfaction of all people (even all reasonable people, sensible people, paying attention people). The other party remains at liberty (freedom of speech!) to say no, not settled, there are still tensions and competing goods, and I’m not going to say there aren’t, not if it was ever so.

I’m not even being inconsistent. Incoherent, no doubt, unclear, as one reader mentioned, but not inconsistent. I’ve always said I’m not a free speech absolutist; I think it’s a very great good, and certainly a much greater good than the protection of notions such as the holy, the sacred, blasphemy, heresy, orthodoxy, taboo; but I don’t think it trumps everything; there are some cases about which I’m simply ambivalent, I’m uncertain, I’m torn. I’m incompletely theorized.



Not Barking in the Night

Mar 17th, 2006 2:39 am | By

Some more house-circling, since Jonathan asked me a question, which seems eccentric after wondering why I keep talking, but never mind.

Jonathan points out that Norm does mention the point about falsifying the evidence; true; a fair cop; I should have looked harder and qualified what I said. But, he only mentions it, he doesn’t address it, and since it’s most of what I’ve been wondering about, I still say he’s been talking past me rather than ‘settl[ing] things pretty definitively’.

Ophelia also stands by her view that Holocaust denial shouldn’t be a criminal offence – from which the inference is surely unavoidable that this is a liberty right that she not merely notes as a legal fact but also endorses. Yet she resists the conclusion that Holocaust denial, falsifying the evidence and so on, is then covered – as she appeared originally to deny, or at least to question – as protected free speech (this, of course, provided it does not breach laws against incitement).

But my whole point has been that Holocaust denial and falsifying the evidence are two separate things, not more or less the same thing along with ‘so on’. Or at least, in the questions I’m asking, they are. I did say that, after all.

But on the other hand, that still leaves out what I’ve been wondering about, which is the fact that Irving did more than just write and publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated – he also falsified the evidence

And (er) so on, for the rest of the paragraph. So Norm mentioned falsifying the evidence, but he didn’t address it, which is what I said in the latest post: ‘Well, he’s no doubt settled what he was talking about, but he hasn’t settled what I’ve been talking about, because he’s barely mentioned it, and he hasn’t addressed it.’ The ‘barely mentioned’ referred to the mention that Jonathan quoted, and the ‘hasn’t addressed it’ referred to just that. I separated the two, for instance by saying that Irving did more than just deny the Holocaust, he falsified the evidence. So a mention of the falsification that runs it together with denial and with so on is just what I’m taking issue with.

Now that I’ve started I’ll just say a little more, since I was meaning perhaps to comment on Norm’s post (not really answer, since I think he’s said all he wants to) anyway. The comment is what I’ve said: I think mere denial is one thing and falsification is another. I don’t think denial should be a crime (although I think it tentatively, and I don’t therefore think Germany and Austria shouldn’t make it a crime – I suspend judgment on that – because they have understandable reasons to do so), but it doesn’t follow that I think falsification of evidence shouldn’t be a crime. I don’t know what I think about that; but I do think they are separate questions. I mentioned that commenters mostly don’t mention the falsification aspect. You get people saying Irving shouldn’t go to jail for an opinion, however offensive it is; you don’t get (so much) people saying Irving shouldn’t go to jail for lying and falsifying evidence. Why is that? One reason, I’m guessing, is that it’s pretty hard to think of any situation in which saying something ‘offensive’ is against the law (except the UK’s blasphemy law – ?) but it is not hard to think of situations when lying is against the law. Vendors can’t lie, you can’t lie in a contract, perjury is against the law; there are all sorts of situations in which falsifying records would be obstruction of justice or fraud and be against the law. So – it’s not self-evidently absurd to think that there is an issue here. Have I been clear enough about it this time? I’m saying that falsification of evidence is not identical or equivalent to saying or writing an offensive opinion.

Jonathan asked:

Perhaps Ophelia might explain what the salient difference is between denying that the Holocaust took place, which is what Norm has been talking about in all his posts, and “falsifying the evidence” about it?

Denial can be a mere opinion, an intepretation of the evidence; it doesn’t entail lying; it needn’t involve perjury. Falsification does entail lying. That’s why millions of dollars were spent on examining Irving’s books – to find evidence that he had falsified, and thus lied, rather than merely been mistaken. That’s what the 2000 trial showed about Irving: he wasn’t just wrong, he wasn’t just wrong and malevolent; he falsified the evidence, and that was not ‘free speech’, it wasn’t protected. That’s the salient difference. I’m not saying therefore he should be in the slammer, I’m just saying there’s an issue. I can’t help suspecting that the reason we don’t hear people defend his right to lie all that much is that they don’t entirely believe in such a right. I don’t entirely believe in it myself – I have grave doubts about it.



Because I Just Got a Real Estate License, That’s Why

Mar 16th, 2006 8:47 pm | By

Hmm. I had moved on to other things for the moment, while still planning to say another word or two later if I got around to it. But I’ll say another word or two now, out of irritation. There’s nothing like irritation to cause one to say a word now rather than later. (See, this is where misanthropy comes in. Lycanthropy too, if you argue with wolves. That’s a swell movie with Kevin Bacon – Argues With Wolves.) I’ll tell you why, since you ask.

I’ve been following with some interest the discussion between Norman Geras and Ophelia Benson about David Irving’s imprisonment. Norm’s most recent post seemed to me to settle things pretty definitively…The best sense I can make of Ophelia’s position, which she has reiterated in a further reply to Norm, is that she thinks that Irving deserves all the moral opprobrium, short of legal sanction (which she says she disapproves of), that comes his way…But that doesn’t touch Norm’s point, as he makes clear here. Which is why it seems odd to me that Ophelia should have chosen to go round the houses again – especially as the clearest bit of the new post just restates Norm’s view for him.

Because it’s my Notes and Comment, that’s why (at least, unless and until its owner closes it down, it is). Because I can go around any dang houses I want to go around; because I can bore up one side and down the other if I want to; because I can talk about dust, or shopping lists, or plumbing, or philately, or Akron, or macadam, or laundry, or weeds, or nail clippings, or bus schedules, or any boring thing I think of, that’s why. Because nobody has to read it, that’s why. Because I like going around houses, and around and around and around, and anyone who doesn’t like going around houses doesn’t have to go, so why bother complaining if I like to? Hah?

And since I’m irritated, I’ll point out that in fact some of the things I’ve been talking about have still been left unaddressed and unmentioned by Norm’s definitive posts, and that I’ve mentioned them again, and that this last most definitive post still didn’t mention them. So I’m not so sure things have been settled pretty definitively. Not the things I was talking about anyway…crooning and mumbling away to myself while I went wandering blamelessly and innocently around all these tiresome houses. The main thing that still hasn’t been addressed, that seems to be an elephant in the living room, is the fact that Irving lied and falsified the evidence. I’ve only said that about four times now, but that aspect keeps getting left out so I trudge around the houses again only to have the point about lying and falsification (oh look, it’s not four times, it’s six) left out yet again. And then I get chastised for going around the houses yet again when Norm has definitively settled the matter. Well, he’s no doubt settled what he was talking about, but he hasn’t settled what I’ve been talking about, because he’s barely mentioned it, and he hasn’t addressed it.

And I am not convinced. All right? That’s the reason for all the house-traipsing; I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced people actually think Irving has a right, whether a liberty right or a moral right or a natural right or an inalienable right, to lie and falsify the evidence. And if people do actually think that, I find it odd that they don’t say it more often. That’s where all this started. I wondered why commenters – in newspapers and the like – who talked of Irving and free speech didn’t mention the lying and falsification question. I still wonder. I suspect it’s because they’re not convinced Irving or anyone has such a right any more than I am, but they’re also not sure what they think about that or how to address it, so they don’t, they just cover it up, instead, and talk about the much easier issue, of what is ‘offensive’ or outrageous or the like in what Irving says. Except Lipstadt and Evans, of course. They’re sharply aware of that aspect, and don’t leave it out, but other people do.

So. That is a house that remains insufficiently explored, let alone settled, as far as I’m concerned, and I might go around it yet again at any time, so consider yourselves warned. If you don’t want to go around the houses again, then don’t join the tour.



Yes Yes and Black is White and Gray is Red

Mar 16th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

John Gray is naughty. He’s not Leon Wieseltier, he’s not Steve Fuller, but he’s doing the same strawmannish kind of arguing. Why do people do that? It’s odd. Why do they attack things people don’t claim? If the claims haven’t been made, what is the point of attacking them? I mean, what do they get out of it? What is their aim? Wouldn’t you think the point would be to say what is wrong with what the person did actually say, so as to alert readers to that and persuade them of what’s wrong with it? What’s the point of saying what is wrong with things the person didn’t say? It just seems like a waste of time and effort.

Typically, philosophers take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, and condemn them for failing to meet standards of proof that are applied in other areas of human life, above all in science.

That’s just wrong, and crudely wrong. It’s not a matter of ‘standards of proof,’ it’s a matter of evidence. Gray must know that; it’s very basic. So why does he get it wrong? What’s the point? And philosophers don’t typically take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, they typically point out that that is what they are, giving evidence (not proof, evidence) to show that that is true. So right from the start we have Gray misdescribing two central issues. That doesn’t bode well.

One cannot make a sharp distinction between natural processes and supernatural agents unless one presupposes a view of the world something like that presented in the biblical creation story, and the distinction is not found in most of the world’s religions. For example, in animism – which must rank as the oldest and most universal religion – spirits are seen as part of the natural world.

Huh? Why can’t one presuppose a view of the world not at all like that presented in the biblical creation story, and not see ‘spirits’ as part of the natural world because there is no evidence for them?

More fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that belief is the core of religion. This may seem self-evident to many philosophers, but in fact belief is not very important in most religions…For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief. In fixating on the belief-content of religion, Dennett emulates Christianity at its most rationalistic and dogmatic.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t ‘believe’ that. I can believe that religion has always been about practice as well as belief, but not rather than. Not around these here monotheistic parts, anyway – and monotheism does take in a fair bit of the planet. Godbotherers do have beliefs about that god. Gray should ask some one of these days.

Wolpert interprets religion as a type of adaptive behaviour in which our beliefs are shaped by our practical needs. Like Dennett, he seems ignorant of the vast range of religious traditions in which belief is peripheral. Again, he thinks of religion as having to do with supernatural phenomena, writing naively: “Religion is concerned with the supernatural, and this involves forces and causes beyond our normal experience of nature.”

Naïvely. What planet does Gray live on? I’d be quite happy to live there too, it sounds much safer than this one, but I have no idea where it is. (Naïve of me, no doubt.)

[I]t is not supernatural belief that is hard-wired in humans: it is the need for myth, and it fuels secular belief as much as traditional religion…Myths are not primitive scientific theories that belong in the infancy of the species. They are symbolic narratives that give meaning to the lives of those who accept them. The chief difference between religious and secular believers is that, while the former have long known their myths to be extremely questionable, the latter imagine their own to be literally true.

Oh, come on. The Iliad is a symbolic narrative that gives meaning, so is Hamlet, so is Wuthering Heights. Religion is something else, and the people who ‘accept’ religion – and there are a good few of them around – do not in the least know their myths to be extremely questionable, which is why they’re always whanging the rest of us over the head with them. This whole silly trope ‘religion is myth is narrative is questionable and tentative and not believed and it is atheism or ‘secular belief’ that is the real religion and that is truly certain and dogmatic and believed without question’ – is false, and endlessly triumphantly smugly recycled as if it were both true and original. How irritating it is. I said Gray isn’t Wieseltier or Fuller, but he does border on arguing in their style here. Very tiresome.



Not so Fast

Mar 16th, 2006 5:52 pm | By

It’s great that the Home Office is taking on forced marriage. But in looking at their page on the subject, I was unable to help looking at things in the margin of that page, which prompted feelings of dread and nausea and revulsion. So I clicked one of the links and the feelings got worse. Is this just me? See what you think. The page in question is called (the nausea begins already) ‘Faith Communities’.

Multi-cultural communities are often multi- faith communities and this should be fully recognised in policies aimed at promoting diversity. Fostering understanding and respect between different faiths is vital in practically implementing community cohesion strategies.

Partly it’s just the language. It’s the irritating insistence on repeating the words ‘community’ and ‘faith’ as often as is humanly possible, or indeed oftener. As if anyone might be in danger of not getting the idea, that we’re supposed to think both are good things, really good things, really really good things. And then there is the absurdity of insisting on community and diversity at the same time. Well which is it?! But more basically there is the peremptory expectation of understanding and respect between different ‘faiths’. They don’t get it, do they. ‘Faiths’ are just the things that are not good at mutual ‘respect’ and ‘understanding’ because part of what is supposed to be respected and understood, part of what is supposed to be held as a matter of ‘faith’, is who the Big Guy is, who the Big Guy’s prophets or children or PR agents are, what the Holy Book is; and the ‘faiths’ in question have different answers to those questions. So hammering away at ‘faith’ at the same time as expecting them to understand and respect each other is – ludicrous, frankly. It is only to the degree that the ‘faith’ becomes attenuated and weak and not really doctrinally or dogmatically adhered to that mutual respect and understanding become possible.

And that of course is quite apart from the way that the whole idea simply ignores the existence of the faith-free, and of secularists. And then there’s the thing about community cohesion strategies. Oh how that does make the fjords seem to glimmer invitingly in the distance – the welcome antidote to and refuge from mandatory cohesion. I so don’t want to cohere. You know? Not unless I choose to anyway. Not unless I’m allowed first to consider (quietly, in a corner by myself somewhere, in silence and calm, without any social workers or parish outreach personnel or community cohesion officers gripping me by the back of the neck and squeezing) exactly what it is I’m expected to cohere to. Not unless I have time and ability and suitable conditions to examine every line of the contract before signing it. But that’s just what that passage doesn’t mention. It’s all very unconditional and demanding. It’s like conscription rather than like joining a club. As a matter of fact it’s like forced marriage as opposed to the voluntary kind. Ironic that the HO is opposing forced marriage on one page while demanding rhetorically-forced community cohesion on another page. The problem is the same. No, I want to see if I can stand the prospective spouse first; I want to be able to say no. No, I want to see if I can stand the prospective community first; I want to be able to say no.

And it’s the same with respect and understanding, as well as cohesion. All three of them are things that really shouldn’t be expected or demanded ahead of time, sight unseen, no matter what the content. They all ought to be things that are in our own gift to bestow or withold as we choose. We really have to be able to choose our friends and the people we respect because we actually do respect them, as opposed to having them thrust upon us by the Home Office or by the district nurse.



Gremlin

Mar 16th, 2006 5:23 pm | By

Just to let you know, a system crucial for B&W’s functioning seems to have shut down completely, so if it all freezes or disappears, that’s why – it’s not because I’ve run off to the fjords.

Meanwhile I’ll just keep going as long as it works. Who knows, maybe that will be years!



Take That, Leon

Mar 16th, 2006 1:58 am | By

Now this is satisfying. A lot of people telling the infuriating smug NY Times what a crap review that review by Wieseltier was. It would be all the more satisfying to see Wieseltier admit as much and express remorse and embarrassment at the horrible juvenile abusive spittle-flecked tone of it – but this is satisfying all the same.

Sam Harris:

Wieseltier writes with triumphal smugness about the “excesses of naturalism” that apparently blight Dennett’s work. He might as well have pointed out the “excesses of historical accuracy” or the “excesses of logical coherence.” If utter naturalism is a sin, it is one only from the point of view of religious faith — a faith that has grown ever more blinkered in Reason’s glare.

A philosopher at Duke:

There can be few better examples of the sort of protectionism about religion that Daniel Dennett wrestles with in “Breaking the Spell” than Leon Wieseltier’s shallow but interminable ad hominem rant…Nothing makes plainer the extent of Wieseltier’s protectionism about religion than his willingness to pay the price of treating science as just another optional philosophy…[I]t is a symptom of the millennial protectionism that Dennett so patiently and eloquently urges us to forgo at least long enough to examine religion as a natural phenomenon.

Dave Barash:

Asking Leon Wieseltier to review Daniel Dennett on religion is like asking Karl Rove to review Ralph Nader on politics. Wieseltier is one of those who, in Dennett’s terms, has “belief in belief.” Such individuals are hardly likely to provide a balanced — or even interesting — assessment of what it takes to break the spell that holds them in thrall.

And I love this one – Philip Blond and the millions like him, please note:

In his review of “Breaking the Spell,” Leon Wieseltier couldn’t resist the reflexive accusation that building a worldview on a scientific base is reductive, and as is often the case, he trotted out the existence of art to capture our sympathies. As a composer, I am weary of being commandeered as evidence of supernatural forces.

Ha! Yeah. That’s only a sample; read them all; very satisfying.



Out of Order

Mar 15th, 2006 10:42 pm | By

Not a good day. A frustrating day, a malfunctioning day, an irritating day. Email problems – or perhaps correspondent problems. It can be so hard to tell. When someone ignores several emails, you may decide ‘well, I guess I can take a hint (however belatedly)’ and stop emailing, but then when the same person emails on unrelated subjects, you think ‘Hmm, did my emails not get through?’ so you ask – only to be ignored again. Then you scratch your head until the blood drips onto the floor and the cat squalls in alarm, wondering whether what we have here is an email problem or an irritating correspondent problem. This causes bad temper and a strong desire to be in Norway wandering among the fjords.

Actually I always have a strong desire to be in Norway wandering among the fjords, but it becomes stronger and sharper when I’m being frustrated and irritated by either 1) email or 2) paralyzed correspondents, or perhaps both. That’s when I start to think dreamily about dear little huts with one chair and one cup and one plate, 749 miles from the nearest neighbour. You didn’t know that about me, did you? You thought I was very gregarious and friendly and even-tempered – and so I am, most of the time, but I have this side, this element, this aspect that is all misanthropic and hostile. Normally, though, I’m very warm and mellow and approachable. Well okay not really warm and mellow and approachable, but frigidly civil, at least. Not savage. Not violent or explosive. Not the type to shout horrible names and fling dishes around the room. Tame, anyway. Sort of.

Other things are malfunctioning too, of course (well they always are, aren’t they). People asking me if I want to do huge time-consuming jobs for them, and when out of politeness (see? I’m lovely, really) I say okay, they drop the job in my lap with a great thud and say ‘no hurry’ as if the whole thing had been my idea. Very peculiar. People beseeching me to go to a (ohhhhhhhhhh) class reunion. People wearing those ridiculous woolly boots when it’s fifty degrees outside. (It’s worse in California. There they wear them when it’s seventy degrees. Why don’t their feet explode?) People building things and cutting things and polishing things and kind of shaking things up and down and bouncing them around, on all sides of me. Seriously – this neighbourhood is in a permanent state of construction and renovation. Wallop wallop wallop on this side, nerrrrr on that side, mutter mutter shout laugh mutter chat in front. I really ought to move my desk out onto the street, it would be quieter.

So that’s this day’s malfunctions. Therefore tomorrow will be much better – that’s a law of nature.



Eloquence

Mar 14th, 2006 6:33 pm | By

Thought for the Day. Via Deborah Lipstadt’s blog History on Trial, from a correspondent

Although I am not anti-semitic, your Jewish greed is overbearing and crippling.



No in Between?

Mar 13th, 2006 10:58 pm | By

More on free speech and the discussion with Norm, who has said more on the subject.

If the law does not prohibit people from doing something, then legally – and assuming no restraints created by voluntary contracts etc – they have the right to do that thing. It is what is sometimes called a ‘liberty right’, as opposed to a ‘claim right’…If (where) Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence, consequently, Irving and others have a liberty right to say, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated.

Sure. I’ve stipulated that more than once – though without knowing the term ‘liberty right’, which is useful. But on the other hand, that still leaves out what I’ve been wondering about, which is the fact that Irving did more than just write and publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated – he also falsified the evidence – and according to Richard Evans (who spent 18 months with two research assistants looking into the matter), he did so very extensively. I don’t even know if Irving in fact has a liberty right to do that or not, but I think and assume he does. I don’t think it is actually against the law to falsify evidence in scholarly or would-be scholarly books. But doing so can probably get one in trouble in certain legal contexts – a libel trial being one. (I think there are some relevant differences between US and UK law here – whether or not it’s libelous to express an opinion that someone is dishonest, wicked, an exploiter, a purveyor of unhealthy food…Let’s not get into that, or we’ll be here all month.) But either way – whether Irving has a liberty right to falsify evidence or not – I think the fact that that is what he did is a major part of the issue, and should be included in discussions of it.

One might concede, of course, that this is (wherever it is) the legal state of affairs, and go on to argue that it’s a morally bad one: the law should be changed. But as Ophelia herself has repeatedly said that she’s not arguing for criminalization, that can’t be her view.

Eh? It can’t? Yes it can, surely! That colon there – I dispute that colon. I dispute the colon between ‘it’s a morally bad one’ and ‘the law should be changed’. Because we don’t think everything that’s morally bad should be against the law. Do we? Have I missed the boat here? Have I been spending too long on planet OB and missing what the rest of the world thinks? I could have sworn it was common knowledge that there are lots of things that are morally bad that nevertheless should not be agin the law. Rudeness, meanness, selfishness, egotism, lack of consideration – we think those are morally bad but not police matters – don’t we?

If she thinks Holocaust-denial shouldn’t be a criminal offence, then it follows that, according to her, Holocaust deniers should have liberty rights to say, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated.

Sure. Again, I’ve said as much – saying ‘legal right’ for ‘liberty right’. In other words, I see that my agreeing (without much enthusiasm) that Holocaust-denial shouldn’t be a criminal offence forces me to agree that deniers should have rights, in the thinnest possible sense of rights, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated. But, also again, what about rights to falsify the evidence? Are we including falsification of evidence in this liberty right? I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think about that. (I don’t think falsified evidence should be taught as genuine evidence in state schools, I can say that much.) But I think in order to discuss it we need to include it. We need to mention it.

In the next bit I think Norm misrepresents what I’m saying a little (not intentionally, of course). He quotes something I said but starts after the part where I talk about falsification, so that it looks as if I’m saying publishers should shut Irving up, full stop, when in fact I’m saying publishers should refuse to publish falsifications.

He says my attempt to talk about rights other than legal rights (or liberty rights) won’t do the job.

None of the points Ophelia makes by way of trying to establish some conceptual ground in between something’s being a criminal offence and its being a right succeed in doing so…But to disapprove of something, think it wrong, decline actively to protect it is perfectly compatible with still holding it to be a right.

A legal (or liberty) right, yes – but any kind of right? Is a legal right the only kind there is? Isn’t there a pretty common ordinary language usage in which a right is – pretty much whatever we think it is? For instance when we shout at each other ‘You have no right to talk to me that way!’ Or when we earnestly tell each other ‘My boss had no right to make me work Saturday on such short notice.’ Or when we darkly mutter that oil companies have no right to you know the rest. Come on, sure there is, I didn’t just make that up. People say things like that all the time. They don’t think they’re citing case law!

In a subsequent post, Ophelia brings forward in support of her argument that we hold the press and broadcast media to certain standards that restrain them from hate speech, abusive and foul language, and deliberate lying. I don’t think the example is to the point.

No, but it wasn’t meant to be to the same point; it was meant to be to a different point. That post was more relevant to the Motoons debate than the Irving debate. I’m just all over the map, that’s what I am.

We agree on the substance, Norm and I do, but there are some wrinkles in the language that need ironing out.



Science Fuller Religion

Mar 13th, 2006 12:15 am | By

Good, someone else besides Richard Dawkins and PZ and me who thinks science and religion are not compatible.

At an August 2005 City College of New York conference featuring a panel of Nobel Laureates, one scientist created a stir by arguing that belief in God is incompatible with being a good scientist and is “damaging to the well-being of the human race.”…Hauptman: The only significant negative reaction came from Cornelia Dean, a reporter from The New York Times. I was later told by several of the other Nobel Laureates that they agreed with me, but for reasons of their own, they just did not respond…[O]bviously this view is unpopular in this overly religious society. People who are outspoken about it are more than just regarded as cranky, they are deeply disliked…I spoke out because of this frustration I have only lately begun to feel about the religiosity in our society.

In other words the pressure of public opinion and social conformity silences a lot of people. I think it is really necessary to resist that pressure and that trend. That’s why I keep yapping about it – I’m applying social pressure from the other direction. (Not that that’s much use, with the NY Times doing its bit for the wrong side.)

The interviewer asks if he thinks there is a relationship between being a good scientist and being a religious skeptic.

What are religions based on? They are not based on evidence but on faith. On the other hand, a good scientist insists that, before one assents to a claim, there must be good evidence for that claim…I think we would be better off if scientists were more open about their lack of belief in God.

So do I. I’ll tell you who doesn’t, though, and that’s Steve Fuller. He would accuse Hauptman of ‘demonizing’.

The contributors to this volume consist of some veterans of the Science Wars over the past fifteen years, including the editor, Gerald Holton, and Paul Gross. Some pieces demonize the quite different senses of “fundamentalism” on offer in contemporary Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism – each of which supposedly threatens the future of science.

Gosh, why would anyone think Christian, Islamic or Hindu fundamentalism would threaten the future of science? There’s no possible reason, therefore those horrid blood-spattered veterans of the ‘Science Wars’ have to resort to demonization. Some people will stop at nothing!

While it is relatively harmless to insist that mastery of a scientific specialty requires training in certain techniques, it is more problematic (pace Kuhn) to insist that all such specialists share the same disciplinary narrative – and still more problematic to require that they pledge allegiance to the same philosophical world-view, say, what the US National Academy of Sciences calls “methodological naturalism.” It makes for bad philosophy, bad science, and bad politics. Yet, we seem to be sliding down this slippery slope, which in the past has led to loyalty oaths and in the future could lead to the genetic profiling of people as unfit for scientific endeavors because of their propensity to belief in, say, the supernatural.

‘Disciplinary narrative’ – right. It’s just a story. And methodological naturalism is a ‘philosophical world-view’ coercively forced on all aspiring scientists. That’s a line that the defense (the ID side) tried to push at the Kitzmiller trial, the one where Steve Fuller covered himself with glory by helping his side to lose the case (by giving his ‘expert’ testimony that ID is indeed religion, when the defense was trying to claim that it wasn’t – boy, I bet they were sorry they’d invited him to the party). Barbara Forrest wouldn’t play.

Q. And methodological naturalism is a convention that’s imposed upon scientific inquiry, is it not?

A. Forrest: No, it’s not a convention that is imposed upon scientific inquiry. Methodological naturalism is a methodology. It’s a way of addressing scientific questions. It reflects the practice of science that has been successfully established over a period of centuries. It’s not imposed upon science. It reflects the successful practice of science.

So now Fuller is setting the record straight, now that there’s no pesky judge to interfere.

Perhaps the volume’s strongest suit is that it does not feature arguments to the following effect:…(b) That the research and educational agendas of democratic societies should be turned over to scientific specialists, by virtue of their superior knowledge, so to prevent society from egregious error…To this reviewer, the absence of (b)-style arguments is the surest sign that the contributors, despite their uniformly establishmentarian scientific sympathies, are still republicans – and not authoritarians. It will be interesting to see whether a successor volume still holds fast to this ideal, since some contributors seem to be chomping at the bit to grant authorized scientists unilateral control over the science curriculum.

How dare they. How dare they want to grant ‘authorized’ (what does that silly dig mean?) scientists ‘unilateral’ (what does that mean?) control over the science curriculum? How dare they not want to include lots of those unfairly ‘demonized’ fundamentalists along with lots of clued-in sociologists of science and lots of, um, baseball players? How dare they not want to hand control over the science curriculum over to The People at large, to do with it as they will? Is this a democracy, or is it not? It is a democracy. Therefore all curricula should be under the control of unauthorized democratic unauthoritarian non-specialists, because that’s democratic and the other thing isn’t. Scientific specialists who have (ew, ew, ew) ‘superior’ knowledge (can’t you just see them, those bastards, sitting around their labs in their horrible white coats fawning on each other for having so much ew superior knowledge and specialistism?) and establishmentarian sympathies are bad, bad, bad people who don’t belong in a democracy, they should all be locked up in missile silos or something, we hates ’em.

Forrest’s effectiveness was reflected in the presiding judge’s interpretation of the US Constitution’s separation of Church and State doctrine in Puritanical rather than Whitmanesque terms: He went beyond ruling that a religiously inspired viewpoint should not dominate the public school curriculum to pronouncing that no such viewpoint whatsoever should ever be introduced into scientific matters. Why science, as opposed to other subjects in the curriculum, should be treated so preciously remained unaddressed. However, it would make sense if a certain self-consciously non-theological conception of science were treated as a secular religion of a civic republican polity, as Dewey seemed to wish for the United States.

Oh, gawd, what a pile of steaming ordure. What a horrible, sly, insinuating, eelish way of deploying rhetoric instead of argument he has. How annoying he is. How I wish he would give it all up and become a church warden instead.



The Marshy Ground Between

Mar 12th, 2006 8:15 pm | By

And more again. It seems worth trying to figure all this out and get clear what we’re talking about (I think discussions about free speech tend to be surprisingly unclear). With clarity goes honesty, rather than the hypocrisy that cartoon-offended Muslims accuse defenders of ‘blasphemous’ cartoons of, in some ways with justice.

To repeat, or restate. I’m claiming that disputes like the ones over the prophet cartoons and over Irving and Holocaust denial are not simply a matter of Free Speech full stop, or of Free Speech unless there is imminent danger of physical harm. They’re also not a matter of either-or, all or nothing; not a matter of: either criminalization or unqualifed Right; it’s a matter of what lies between: of the broad marshy territory of oughts and shoulds, practice and custom, the tacit, the unwritten, the familiar, the accepted, codes of ethics, morality, implicit agreement. Also of vocational norms – which are very strong, often constraining (for good and ill), and enforceable by firing. Just ask Jayson Blair!

It’s important to keep all this in mind – because if we don’t we will just fall into the hypocrisy, double standard trap – of protecting this free speech but not that, and of failing or refusing to give any arguments for doing so. What it amounts to is that we do have (mostly tacit, implicit, customary, intuitive, so hidden and unnoticed and unaware) principles of selection.

One: consider: we don’t actually think newspapers or broadcasters have a ‘right’ to for instance replace the word ‘black’ with nigger, or ‘woman’ with bitch or cunt or ho, or ‘Arab’ with raghead. We don’t think people should be either arrested or imprisoned for doing so, and we don’t think they have a ‘right’ to do it. (That is, we think they have a narrowly-defined legal right, but not any other kind of right.) You don’t (well, maybe among shock jocks you do, but apart from that) hear people resoundingly defending that right. It’s a legal right, but in practice, it’s not a real right, because no one to the left of Fred Phelps would want to exercise it. Imagine Anderson Cooper or Andrew Marr getting a memo from the brass telling them to make such a vocabulary change. Imagine the New York Times or the Telegraph suddenly adopting such a practice – every article and comment full of whores and niggers and kikes and faggots and kikes and towelheads. What would we think? ‘They have a right to do that, and that is all there is to it, there is nothing more to be said’? I don’t think so!

Two: consider again: we also don’t think newspapers and broadcast media have a right to tell us a pack of lies in reporting the news – I don’t mean differences of interpretation, getting it wrong, selection, I mean gross blatant whoppers. Telling us China has invaded Taiwan, an earthquake has killed ten million people in Argentina, India has nuked Islamabad, Mugabe has resigned, the genocide in Darfur has ended – when none of them are true. We don’t necessarily think they should be arrested or imprisoned (though we may wonder, if the false reports do enough damage – retaliatory nuclear strikes, for instance) – but we don’t think they have a right to do that. In fact we think they have no right to do that, and we’d be outraged. We’d all be running around telling each other ‘They have no right to do that!’ I can hear us now.

These fences are perhaps invisible because they’re generally so well heeded. We don’t think about newspapers telling huge whoppers, because they don’t. (Well, except items like the National Enquirer, but that’s a different genre. Again, the convention is generally understood. Serious broadsheets don’t tell gross lies; tabloids need some caution.) But the fact that we’re not aware that we don’t think the Times has a ‘right’ to lie doesn’t mean we think it does have that right. (In fact the more reputation a newspaper has, the greater its [implicit, moral] obligation to tell the truth – because it’s what we expect, so it has the power to do more damage by lying, because we’ll believe the lies. Authority and reputation entail increased responsibility.)

So – the point about all these people who say ‘of course free speech, but‘ – is not that there never is any but, or that there never is any but except in cases of imminent danger – it is that they have the wrong but. There are buts and then there are buts, and there is no alternative to evaluating them on the merits. To judging each but, each exception, each ‘ought’, on the merits, on the substance, as opposed to waving the Free Speech flag and thinking that does the job. It doesn’t.

And by the way Holocaust denial is not the right retort to Motoons. That would be Mosestoons or Jesustoons. Holocaust denial is parallel to denying what happened in Gujarat, Bosnia, Chechnya.



What Trumps What

Mar 11th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

Another thought or two on free speech and lying.

Part of what I think I disagree with is Norm’s implication that there are only two possibilities, protection of lying as free speech or criminalization of it.

Now, even though Ophelia puts the point interrogatively and not as a conclusion, one can only assume she does so to leave open the possibility that falsehood, lying and such shouldn’t be protected under norms of free speech, and therefore may in certain circumstances be criminalized.

I’m not sure that ‘therefore’ is a therefore. I’m not sure that failure or refusal to protect X translates to a belief that X should or may be criminalized. It seems to me it can fall well short of that. Are we (logically, or morally, or both) obliged to protect everything we don’t think should be a crime? Surely not. Surely there’s a whole mess of things, a whole choppy sea of them, that we disapprove of and think wrong and wouldn’t dream of actively protecting, without therefore thinking they should be felonies, or even the equivalent of parking tickets.*

And I suppose this is how I look at the whole issue. I don’t see it as all or nothing, as free speech or nothing, as a blanket endorsement of free speech or a blanket criminalization of everything that’s not an explicit right. I suppose I look at it in a ceteris paribus way, and I often think other things aren’t equal. I suppose I see blanket or unconditional endorsements of free speech as a pre-emptive move similar to that executed by words like ‘respect’ and ‘blasphemy’. I think I’m going to write a book about this.

It’s not that I don’t think free speech is a good, and a tremendously important good at that, it’s just that I think 1) that it’s often a competing good and 2) that the things it competes with have to be evaluated on their merits rather than just dismissed by the trumping-power of free speech and 3) that as Stanley Fish and Onora O’Neill (among others) point out, pretty much everyone else thinks that too. If that’s true, if pretty much everyone else does think that too, then the blanket endorsement of free speech would seem to be functioning as a rhetorical tool.

Dave put it neatly in comments:

This is, of course, why politics is inevitable. There is no foundational response to the issue, other than to continue the clash between differing viewpoints over what constitutes a ‘correction’ and what a ‘falsification’, and to hope that those who defend freedom do not sell the pass one day…

There is no foundational response to the issue. Free speech is one good, but truth, accuracy, scholarship, reliable scholarship, the reliable universality and intercommunicability of scholarship and research and knowledge, methodological reliability, evidence, standards, trust – are also goods. It is by no means self-evident that free speech should protect a putative right to falsify history at the expense of all those very real and important goods. Research, inquiry, the steady accumulation of reliable, warranted knowledge would become impossible if everyone came to believe that free speech meant the right to simply invent one’s findings – to cheat, as Robert Pennock called it during the Kitzmiller trial. But – that doesn’t cash out to saying that scholars who lie should be hauled off to prison.

Onora O’Neill put it this way:

Yet even committed liberals don’t seriously think that rights to free speech are unlimited or unconditional, although they seem to be unsure about which limits should be set. They are often torn between an aspiration to justify free speech as minimal and uncontroversial, and a contrary belief that free speech matters because it is not minimal but powerful…Rights to free speech have always been seen as limited by other serious considerations, and must often be so restricted if we are to respect other rights. Nobody thinks that a right to free speech confers an unconditional licence to intimidate, to incite hatred, to defraud, to deceive or the like, and nobody thinks that the law should protect speech acts that harm, injure or put others at risk.

That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think Irving should be in prison (although I have to admit I don’t think it with much intensity or passion or even conviction, and I don’t mind much that he is there, especially after listening to Radio 4’s documentary on the trial last week) but I don’t think he has a right to falsify published history, either.

It’s all about lying, after all. Irving accused Deborah Lipstadt of lying by accusing her of libel – he was accusing her of lying about him, and he wanted the accusation to have an effect: the pulping of her book. He lost the case because he was shown to have lied extensively himself. His right to free speech didn’t trump that verdict – so in that sense it was not protected. It lost out to other, competing rights. Lipstadt won the case not because she had a right to free speech, but because the evidence showed that she told the truth and Irving lied.

Another distinction that I think helps to disentangle this is that between speech (such as speech to political meetings and rallies) and published writing. But that’s enough for now.

*Mind you, a lot of people do make exactly that translation, as I’ve remarked before. They do, oddly, hear strongly-worded disapprobation of, say, a certain kind of tv show or movie or book as a demand for censorship of same. But those are confused people, who are beside the point for the purposes of this discussion.



Must not Strive Officiously to Keep Alive

Mar 10th, 2006 7:01 pm | By

Norm wrote a post a few days ago on lying as speech, taking off partly from some of my posts on Irving. I’ve been wanting to consider the subject a little more.

I think we may be talking about slightly (or perhaps not so slightly) different things.

Now, even though Ophelia puts the point interrogatively and not as a conclusion, one can only assume she does so to leave open the possibility that falsehood, lying and such shouldn’t be protected under norms of free speech, and therefore may in certain circumstances be criminalized.

Hmm. No, it’s not really criminalization that I’m talking about. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but I’m not sure I therefore think his falsehoods should be protected. I’m not talking about criminalization so much as about right, and rights. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but do I therefore think he has a right to falsify history? No, I don’t – at least not a moral right, and that’s part of what I’m saying – that the fact that falsification of history should not (on the whole – there could be exceptions) be an imprisonable offence does not necessarily mean that it’s a right in all possible senses. Is that incoherent? I don’t think so. Look at the Dover school board – they found via Judge Jones’s decision that they don’t have a right to force science teachers to teach religion in the classroom, but they didn’t go to prison.

I cannot imagine there would be an argument for innocuous falsehoods, even where these are deliberate, to be criminalized. Surely people must still be allowed to maintain that the world is flat (whether knowing this to be false or not), to claim – at Hyde Park Corner – Napoleon as a direct blood ancestor when he is not, and to assert that the Romans had mobile phones though no trace of these has survived. The examples may be frivolous, but the point isn’t; it’s that what matters in the present context is not any old false or lying claims for which there is no evidence, but falsehoods which could do grave harm.

Why Hyde Park Corner, I wonder? Why the stipulation, between hyphens, as an afterthought, of Hyde Park Corner? It’s interesting, because I agree with Norm if he really does mean ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and not in textbooks or history books by reputable (trusted) publishers. But if he means ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and in textbooks and history books by reputable (trusted) publishers, then I don’t. But he probably doesn’t mean that, or he wouldn’t have stipulated Hyde Park Corner. But this is just where the difficulty (or one of them) comes in. The park soapbox doesn’t matter much, because it’s wide open (like the internet), there are no filters, anyone can stand on a chair and say any old fool thing, and most hearers know that. But in textbooks and history books (for instance) readers don’t know that. So do people have a ‘right’ to falsify the evidence – by mistranslating, dropping a few zeroes from numbers, that sort of thing – in history books? I don’t think they do. And, actually, I’m not sure anyone thinks they do. It’s not usually considered a violation of rights when copyeditors and fact checkers and researchers correct mistakes in manuscripts is it? (Assuming they actually do correct mistakes as opposed to inserting mistakes of their own, which can happen, she said through gritted teeth.) And then consider science. Scientists tend to be really quite harsh about falsification of evidence. Really very sharp indeed, when it comes to their attention. They don’t think their colleagues have a right to fake their experiments, do they? No. In fact fakery is a firing offense, even though not (usually) one that gets you sent to prison.

So – given that Irving was found by the judge at the libel trial to have not merely got things wrong but to have faked the evidence – it’s not clear to me that he does really have a meaningful ‘right’ to do that, even though a prison sentence is probably the wrong way to deal with the matter.

Yet, if rights of free speech on scientific, historical and other such matters are not to be held to cover the assertion – even deliberate – of untruths, then it assigns the task of determining truth to some political authority, and that is surely a danger of its own kind. There is truth and untruth, to be sure, but in the domain we are discussing, the (always provisional) finding of truth is left to processes of free enquiry, the standards set by communities of scholars, public debate and criticism. It is an open-ended and democratic search, and it countenances opposition to and denial even of the most established results. Stipulation of the truth by a political or legal authority does not fit in well with this and it has a bad historical track record.

Yes, ideally, but what about for instance public hearings about textbooks, at which religious campaigners attempt to insert ‘corrections’ that have no scholarly basis? It is in fact a political authority that makes the decision. The issue of falsifications and inaccuracies in books becomes a matter of political or legal authority when state schools are involved – that seems to be inevitable.

Perhaps the relevant distinction is between prevention and punishment. I don’t think Irving should be punished, but I do think he should be prevented, at least from publishing (by publishers rather than by cops). So in that sense, I don’t think he does have a right to protected free speech. I don’t think we’re obliged to make any affirmative efforts to see that his falsifications get placed in the permanent record. I don’t think he should be forcibly silenced, but I don’t think he should be officiously handed a megaphone, either.