Notes and Comment Blog

The reading matter in pews is limited

Oct 13th, 2008 3:30 pm | By

Andrew Brown is also eloquent on the subject.

The whole point about the net is that, like books, it gives people a shared space and a shared experience that is not physical. If I sit in an internet cafe – or even, God forbid, an office – and talk to someone on the net, I am far closer to the person to whom I am talking than to the noble workers on each side of me, who would never dream of emailing gossip in the middle of a working day. When I read a book, I am communing with the author, and perhaps with all the
other readers, not with anyone else in the railway carriage.

This is one of the exciting things about books (and the net), and turning libraries into youth clubs is one way to make that fact harder to discover.

Learning outside school is an essentially solitary process, too. It requires concentration; it may not require silence all the time – I often find it helpful to read or work in a cafe – but when studying needs outside stimulus, you take the book away from the library, a service they already offer.

The libraries don’t need to provide the noise for you. Noise is easy to find; quiet is not, especially for people who don’t have money.

What is particularly cruel and futile about the Burnham plan is that it destroys the one thing that libraries offer which no amount of internet cafes, Starbucks or even skating can offer: the place where poor students can find the calm they need to try to teach themselves things that are genuinely hard to learn. Middle-class or richer children, or children at good schools, can always find a place to be quiet and study with concentration. But there must be lots of people for whom a library is the only free public space outside a church where you can hope for calm; and the reading matter in church pews tends to be depressingly limited.

Library students everywhere please take note. (They won’t though – they hated this article as well as the Indy one.)

Customers need change

Oct 13th, 2008 3:11 pm | By

Someone who works at a public library and is ‘studing an MSc in Information and Library Studies’ at a University was terribly irritated by that piece on libraries the other day.

The article is awash with dismay over the move to allow library users to eat, drink and, heaven forbid, actually talk. Interestingly, they talk about the ’silence rule’- a concept that is completely alien to either myself or just about any other person I have encountered who works in a public library.

Ah, is it indeed. Why?

Don’t bother asking; the library student never says. It’s such an absurd, outdated, stuffy, elitist, stupid idea that it’s simply self-evident what’s wrong with it. Which is interesting, because one would think (or hope, forlornly) that people who work in libraries would have at least a glimmer of an idea why people who frequent libraries would value silence while they do it. But apparently not.

If these people have their way, the public library would be nothing more than a physical manifestation of all that was bad about the 1950s. Time moves on, society changes, customers needs change. Libraries must, therefore, change.

Why? Again, the student doesn’t say. Society does change, of course, but why that means libraries now have to be raucous instead of quiet is not clear, nor is it clear why ‘customers’ need noise in place of quiet. But then of course we are not students of Information and Library Studies, so naturally we do not understand.

[O]ne thing is for certain, things need to move forward. There should not be enforced silence (we don’t and it certainly isn’t noisy, despite what the critics might assume), there should be an attempt to make the library a cool place to hang out…and, above all, the library should be open and welcoming to everyone, regardless of who they are. Elitism will kill the library service. Eradicating the old-fashioned perception of libraries might just save it.

‘It certainly isn’t noisy’ – well I wish that were the case in the public libraries I know, but it isn’t. I don’t ‘assume’ they’re noisy, I know damn well they are because I use them. I use them, but I don’t consider them ‘open and welcoming to everyone’ – I don’t consider them welcoming to people like me who want to be able to read and think in libraries. They are welcoming to people who want to make noise, they are welcoming to people who want to treat the library like an auxiliary living room or a part-time kindergarten, but they are not welcoming to people who want to use the library as a library.

Why does future librarian assume that being open and welcoming to everyone requires being noisy and raucous? Why does future librarian assume that everyone wants noise and raucousness all the time and everywhere? Why does future librarian not think it is possible to be open and welcoming to everyone by offering quiet in one place and noise in others? Coffee shops are open and welcoming to everyone but they don’t serve fish or provide Balkan dance troupes. Rock concerts are open and welcoming to everyone but they don’t provide quiet and desks and books. Why can’t libraries be open and welcoming to everyone in a library way instead of a different way? Library student doesn’t say, and neither do the three commenters, one of whom has worked in libraries for 25 years. Which is depressing for the future of libraries. Apparently what one learns when one studies ‘Library Studies’ is that libraries should be abolished while (inexplicably) retaining the old name.

I saw library student’s post via a post at Tom Morris’s place. He is eloquent on this subject.

Mill refuses

Oct 13th, 2008 10:58 am | By

On page 301 of C S Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion John Beversluis has a lovely passage from Mill. At the end Mill gives what I have long thought of as the Huck Finn response, but Huck seems to have derived it from Mill, so I will attribute it to Mill in future.

From Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy:

‘If in ascribing goodness to God I do not mean what I mean by goodness; if I do not mean the goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of an incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and venerate – and even must, if Mr. Mansel is to be believed, be in some important particulars opposed to this — what do I mean by calling it goodness? and what reason have I for venerating it? If I know nothing about what the attribute is, I cannot tell that it is a proper object of veneration. To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in words what we do not think in meaning, is as suitable a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood. Besides, suppose that certain unknown attributes are ascribed to the Deity in a religion the external evidences of which are so conclusive to my mind, as effectually to convince me that it comes from God. Unless I believe God to possess the same moral attributes which I find, in however inferior a degree, in a good man, what ground of assurance have I of God’s veracity? All trust in a Revelation presupposes a conviction that God’s attributes are the same, in all but degree, with the best human attributes. If, instead of the “glad tidings” that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive, exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government, except that “the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving” does not sanction them.; convince me of it, and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.’

That is (surely) the only honourable position to take. We should not call any being good, who is not what we mean when we apply that epithet to our fellow humans. If we do we simply risk approving tyranny and cosmic sadism. We should not risk that.

David gets jiggy

Oct 12th, 2008 6:14 pm | By

I read a funny story in II Samuel 6 today. (I was reading about what a shit god can be. There’s this bit in II Samuel 6 where David and some friends are transporting the ark of the covenant somewhere in a cart, and Uzzah put his hand on the ark to steady it because the cart was shaking – so god killed him. That makes a lot of sense – Uzzah tries to help and god kills him for it. Nice guy. David gets cold feet then and puts the ark in storage, not wanting to get smited, then he runs some experiments and confirms that god helps people who have the ark [apart from Uzzah, but that’s not explained] and hurts those who don’t [reason not explained] so David is happy again and throws a party.) David dances in his underpants in front of the ark and Samuel’s daughter Michal sees him from a window and disdains him in her heart. And she tells him so. ‘Some king you are,’ she says. ‘You danced in your underpants in front of your servants’ girlfriends. What a schmuck.’ David says ‘God likes me better than he likes your father so ha.’ And Michal never had any children, so that (it is implied) was God’s ha.


Oct 12th, 2008 6:05 pm | By

I’m writing a review of C S Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis. It’s a gripping read, at least if you’re interested in argument and belief and arguments for belief in god and the problem of evil and theistic epistemology and the difference between rhetoric and argument. Beversluis shows carefully and in detail what is wrong with Lewis’s various claims. It’s a gripping read if you’re interested in reasons for believing things, and if you’re not interested in that, you ought to be; everyone ought to be.

The most gripping chapter, in my view, is chapter 10, ‘C S Lewis’s Crisis of Faith.’ Beversluis argues (and shows, I think) that in his despair after his wife’s death Lewis (without admitting it) gave up his Platonist view of morality – that good is prior to god and good because it is good, not because god loves it – and was stuck with the Ockhamist view that the good is whatever god damn well says it is, no matter how horrible we think it is.

Beversluis points out (p. 291) that the Ockhamist view is philosophically untenable but also more compatible with the biblical God than the Platonist view is. There are a few people in the bible, like Job, who question god’s goodness from a moral point of view, but they’re ‘glaring exceptions to the standing rule that God is to be obeyed no matter what – that is, no matter how flagrantly his commands violate moral rules including the Ten Commandments.’ He cites some nasty examples (God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, but he doesn’t stop Jephthah from killing his daughter). Then he points out (p 292) that the Ockhamist god, ‘who is not good “in our sense,” is the god of ‘the vast majority of orthodox Christians, most of whom have never heard of the Platonist alternative and, when told about it, typically reject it out of hand. Orthodox Christians unhesitatingly believe that obedience to God is absolute and unconditional – that he is to be obeyed simply and solely because he is God.’

This is an interesting and deeply depressing thought.


Oct 10th, 2008 11:51 am | By

You may (or may not) have noticed that I’ve been posting more parochial US-political stuff than usual, lately, and you may (or may not) have wondered why. I mostly ignored the subject in 2004, and during the endlessly long primary process from 2006 on; why have I stopped ignoring it now?

Well, partly, frankly, just because I find Obama more interesting – more worth paying attention to – than any Dem candidate in decades. I think Obama is better than McCain on several dimensions – a better human being, a better candidate, a better potential president. A lot better. To that extent my posting could just reflect plain old political bias. But another part has to do with the flagrant dishonesty of the McCain-Palin campaign, which interests me. It interests me that Republicans pretty much always stoop to dishonesty, and Democrats don’t to the same extent.* Lots of Dems get angry at Dem campaigns because they don’t fight dirty enough. But – fighting dirty is a bad thing. The McCain-Palin campaign is a revolting spectacle. It interests me that there seems to be no braking mechanism, no floor, no point at which they just can’t stomach it any more. I realize they want to win, but I assume they also want to be able to live with themselves. Yet there is no floor. There is (as with good old Joe McCarthy) no shame.

However that may be – the prosecutor’s letter to the Times is interesting.

As the lead federal prosecutor of the Weathermen in the 1970s…I am amazed and outraged that Senator Barack Obama is being linked to William Ayers’s terrorist activities 40 years ago when Mr. Obama was, as he has noted, just a child. Although I dearly wanted to obtain convictions against all the Weathermen, including Bill Ayers, I am very pleased to learn that he has become a responsible citizen. Because Senator Obama recently served on a board of a charitable organization with Mr. Ayers cannot possibly link the senator to acts perpetrated by Mr. Ayers so many years ago.

He didn’t put that last very well – he meant something like ‘the fact that Obama served etc cannot possibly link him etc’ – but we get the drift. There are two issues here. One, Ayers has changed; he is not the guy he was in 1968. Two, Obama was a child when Ayers was the guy he was in 1968. It’s just not morally respectable to ignore those two facts in order to pretend that Obama is now a fan of what Bill Ayers was in 1968.

The thing is – I can perfectly well imagine conservatives and Republicans that I would disagree with but still respect. Well I should hope so – it’s not that hard! And it would be pretty absurd to be unable to respect anyone one disagreed with. But all the same, there it is; I can. But I can’t respect these people; it seems to me they have covered themselves in ordure. I find that interesting.

*Do correct me if I’m wrong – seriously.


Oct 9th, 2008 10:56 am | By

And another thing. That disdainful remark that ‘The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists’ is worthy of Sarah Palin. It strikes fear into our hearts because we think libraries should be places where we can read and think and study. We think that is what they are for, and that that ability is and always has been a good thing. We don’t think removing it is doing anyone a favour. We think there should be places where people can play and make noise and places where they can be quiet and think. We don’t think all places should be like libraries, we just think libraries should be like libraries. Why do people like Burnham think all places should be anti-libraries? Why can’t we have more than one kind of thing? Why can’t we have noise and clatter in these places and quiet in those? Why do we have to eliminate quiet and thought and study?

More noise please

Oct 9th, 2008 10:44 am | By

Libraries are ‘out of touch’.

Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, will today launch a consultation on changing the face of libraries which he believes are out of touch…Noise bans will also be reviewed…”The popular public image of libraries as solemn and sombre places, patrolled by fearsome and formidable staff is decades out of date, but is nonetheless taken for granted by too many people,” he will say, adding that the sector would have to “think radical” to modernise.

Too many for what? Why should the sector modernize? Why does Burnham (apparently) think it’s a bad thing that libraries are out of touch?

If you ‘save’ or ‘preserve’ or ‘rescue’ libraries (or anything else) by turning them into their own opposites, then what is it that you have saved or preserved? What, in short, is the point? What is the point of modernizing or transforming or changing the face of libraries by turning them into something altogether different? Why not just forget all about libraries? It would surely be cheaper.

In Camden, north London, the council will lift a ban on mobile phones in its libraries this month and users will be allowed to bring in snacks and drinks…A spokesman at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the Government wanted to transform the atmosphere of libraries to make them more similar to Waterstones stores.

Why? Why not have two different kinds of things instead of just one thing? Or why not save public money by selling libraries to Waterstones and letting them make the former libraries more similar to Waterstones stores?

[Burnham] suggested that the traditional “silence” in libraries be reviewed and opening hours extended. “Libraries should be a place for families and joy and chatter. The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists but libraries should be social places that offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home.”

Why? Why should libraries be a place for families and joy and chatter? There are already lots of places for families and joy and chatter (also families and irritation and chatter). There are shops and community centers and sports facilities and parks and living rooms and gardens and stadiums and McDonalds – there are lots and lots of places. Why do libraries have to stop being what libraries are good at being and be something else instead, when the something else is already abundant and easy to find?

The reason seems to be (at least I can’t think of any other) a vague background idea that libraries are a good thing and so people should be motivated to come into them. But the background idea that libraries are a good thing can’t have been thought about with any care, because the reason they are a good thing is that they provide things (books and a place to read and study and think about them) that are incompatible with motivating people to come into them by making them places where it is impossible to read and study and think about books. Do you see what I’m getting at here? You might as well try to motivate people to come into museums by filling them with mounds of rotting garbage. You might as well try to motivate people to go for hikes in the mountains by transforming the mountains into replicas of Las Vegas. You might as well try to motivate people to play tennis by removing the net and the boundary lines.

My library would bring a smile of delight to the Secretary of State for ‘Culture.’ We’re way ahead of him here in Seattle. My library is very much a place for families and joy and chatter; what it’s not is a place where it’s possible to read or think or study. It’s a fucking zoo. It’s one big room, divided into areas but with no walls, so all the noise is freely available for the hearing. The children’s section (which is surrounded by adult books) provides toys as well as books, including wooden toys, which fill the air with clatter. Everyone talks in an unsubdued voice, and many people talk in a frankly loud one. Children run around screaming with gay abandon. It’s like a pleasantly-run summer camp; what it’s not like is a library.

Everyone I know detests this situation, but we’ve all given up complaining about it. It’s official policy. This is all the more bizarre because there is a community center two blocks away, packed with recreational opportunities. Why the library too has to function as a day-care center and all-purpose rumpus room is beyond our understanding, but so it is. It is official policy. ‘Libraries should be social places.’

Local gossip

Oct 8th, 2008 4:04 pm | By

So didja watch the debate? I’m not a huge fan of ‘debates’ (they’re not real debates, of course), but I watched some of Biden-Palin (enough to see that she was doing much better than I’d expected or wanted) and I watched most of last night’s. I thought McCain was godawful. Awkward, stumbling, unconvincing, unimpressive – and nasty with it. ‘That one’ – it’s all over the place now, but why shouldn’t it be? His hostility and contempt are creepy. Of course, this is the guy who called his (second) wife a cunt in front of a reporter.

Anyway – this ‘Not Presidential’ thing really makes me sick. What is that supposed to mean? Too smart? Too poised? Too calm? Too knowledgeable? Too good at thinking on his feet? Too skilled at talking without a script? Too thoughtful? No, he can’t mean any of that, can he? So what does he mean? It’s very hard not to suspect that he means just what he appears to mean. It’s very hard not to conclude that there is no low too low – so hard that I have no intention of trying. I think he’s stopping as low as he possibly can, and that that’s very low.

The idea itself is completely stupid, you know. How many US presidents have been ‘presidential’? Very damn few. Truman? Nixon? Bush? Come on. Even some of the better ones haven’t been ‘presidential.’ Johnson was widely considered an embarrassing hick in the wake of the prince of Camelot, but actually he was a good one domestically – but he warn’t ‘presidential.’ Obama in fact strikes me as being more ‘presidential’ than anyone since Roosevelt. McCain, on the other hand, strikes me as a snake.

Freedom to believe or not to believe

Oct 8th, 2008 3:04 pm | By

The pope and Sarkozy have been dissing secularism lately. Agnès Poirier defends it.

To speak of positive secularism is to imply that there are two kinds of secularism, one good, the other bad. The supposedly good one, put forward by the Pope and his acolyte Nicolas Sar kozy, is a secularism that would allow politics to mingle with religions. One which would, for instance, turn a blind eye to sects and their actions, one which would accept that people be treated differently according to their faiths, one which would blur the frontiers between the public and private spheres…What the Pope and president pretend not to know is that there is no positive or negative secularism (laïcité in French). Secularism is neutral…Secularism abstains from favouring one religion over another, or favouring atheism over religious belief. It is a political principle that aims at guaranteeing the largest possible coexistence of various freedoms. From a strictly legal perspective, secularism is extremely positive: it creates a universal freedom to believe or not to believe, and protects individuals from any public interference in their belief, provided that their belief or lack of it does not disturb the peace. As the philosopher Catherine Kintzler wrote in the French weekly Marianne: unlike religion, secularism creates freedom. What religion has ever recognised the rights to believe and not to believe? What religion has promoted the physical emancipation of women? What religion accepts what believers would deem to be blasphemous words?

Of course, religion refuses to settle for freedom – it wants freedom (for itself) along with dominion.

Whole sections of the community

Oct 8th, 2008 2:49 pm | By

Oliver Kamm is brisk with Charlie Gere.

Charlie Gere…expresses unabashedly and succinctly a view that has increasingly made its way into the mainstream of public debate and ought to be derided out of it again…Of course it’s “not a problem” in public policy to offend anyone’s sensitivities, because people’s mental states are no business of government. If government set itself the task of alleviating mental anguish, then there would be no inherent limit to the powers that government might claim. The only proper response in public policy to those who say their deepest beliefs have been slighted and who complain of the offence they’ve been caused is: too bad, but you’ll live; and in the meantime there is no restitution to which you’re entitled, because you have suffered no injustice.

Well, quite. And as Kamm indicates, the idea that you have suffered an injustice, along with the effort to remedy that injustice, would entail massive interference with various freedoms and vocations that we all (probably including the offended among us) value highly. Anything that anyone says can be considered an offense to someone’s sensitivities, and the only way to be certain of never offending anyone’s sensitivities would be for no one to say anything ever, in fact would be for everyone to drop dead immediately. There’s such a thing as too much caution, and it leads to the dead end of doing and saying nothing at all.

Gere replies in the comments.

These limits [on speech] are cultural determined and in this case simply do not take into consideration matters of considerable sensitivity to Muslims.

No, nor on matters of considerable sensitivity to Mormons, or Raelians, or Branch Davidians, or Trekkies, or Wiccans, or anyone else, and thus people are allowed to say things without wondering whether the things might offend one or two or ten of a million groups or groupuscules. How odd that Charlie Gere apparently wishes it were otherwise.

In fact he later says he does.

[W]hat I want is something that is probably impossible, that is neither a PC dictatorship nor a situation in which the support of free speech risks alienating whole sections of the community.

He wants a situation in which the support of free speech stops short of risking ‘alienating whole sections of the community’ – which means (whether he realizes it or not) he really does want no one to say anything, at least anything more provocative than ‘the cat sat on the mat.’ All speech ‘risks alienating whole sections of the community.’

Passive violence

Oct 8th, 2008 11:39 am | By

Charlie Gere is back; he seems to be enjoying himself.

I unreservedly and completely condemn any form of violence committed by anybody who believes they have been offended. That of course includes those who are offended by criticisms of the freedom of speech.

Okay. Good. Gere condemns violence committed by people who are offended by criticisms of the freedom of speech. Well naturally; don’t we all. Only…can anyone think of any? I can’t. I can’t, with however much furrowing of brow, think of any violence committed by people who are offended by criticisms of the freedom of speech. Can you? Do let me know if anything comes to mind.

What seems to have happened is that “freedom of speech” – rather than the various freedoms and limitations of speech and the ongoing and indeed never-ending negotiations involved in their continued existence – just becomes a tenet of a western fundamentalism that thus shows itself to be little better than those fundamentalisms it is held to be superior to.

Well, no. Even though I do in fact agree that freedom of speech is often used in a too sweeping and absolutist way which does simply ignore the limitations which are universally (or all but universally) accepted; even though I have in fact engaged in arguments on just this subject over the years, and been rewarded with uncomprehending stares in return; I have to point out that the conclusion that Gere draws doesn’t follow. Free speech is not absolute or unlimited, but it doesn’t follow from that that free speech absolutism is a fundamentalism that is ‘little better than those fundamentalisms it is held to be superior to.’ It could be a fundamentalism and still be superior to other fundamentalisms. It’s not absurd to claim that some fundamentalisms are worse than others, and that some are better. An obstinate unquestioned belief that it is imperative to be kind is better than an obstinate unquestioned belief that it is imperative to be cruel. One could multiply examples indefinitely.

What other conclusion can one draw from Rohan Jayasekera, associate editor of Index on Censorship…describing Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker murdered recently in the Netherlands, as a “free-speech martyr”, and thus turning his murder into a form of passive violence on his behalf[?]

…What? Describing Theo van Gogh as a ‘free speech martyr’ is a form of passive violence? What the sam hill does that mean? What is passive violence? And what is violent in any sense about calling van Gogh a free speech martyr? (It’s rhetorical and sentimental, but that’s another matter.)

Is this a case of defining deviancy downwards or something? Playing with terms in such a way that party X is made to be Just As Bad as party Y even though that is in fact obviously not the case? Y murdered van Gogh for being ‘offensive’; X called van Gogh a free speech martyr; they’re both as bad as each other! Really?

Charlie Gere is probably a rising star. Fasten your seat belts.

Universal rights anyone?

Oct 6th, 2008 12:17 pm | By

Sami Moubayed on Aisha and ‘double standards’.

The book has so far appeared in Serbia, with a provoking illustration of Aisha on the cover (in Islam it is forbidden to portray the wives of the Prophet, known as the “Mothers of Believers”).

The fact that something is ‘forbidden in Islam’ doesn’t mean that it is forbidden in general, and in fact for the rest of us it is not forbidden to portray the wives of the Prophet, nor is it ‘provoking’ to do so. This seems to be widely misunderstood – but the fact is, the laws and rules and taboos of Islam are not binding on everyone in the world. We are allowed to ignore them.

It is equally startling how people like Sherry Jones would wish to add insult to injury, and bad feelings, with her book on Aisha.

No, actually, it is startling how uninformed Sami Moubayed is about the subject of his article; that is exactly what Sherry Jones does not wish to do. He might have found that out before saying that about her – especially since saying that could, in this ludicrous situation, put her in increased danger.

I cite the example of David Irving…Irving showed that Hitler was a rational, intelligent leader and human being whose main motivation was to increase the prosperity of Germany…By the 1980s, Irving was banned from entering Austria…He defied the ban and tried to go but was arrested in Austria. In court he tried to change discourse, but Austrian authorities did not believe him and at the time of writing he still languishes in jail.

No he doesn’t. He was released a few months into his sentence.

It is a funny world with funny double standards indeed. To make things easier for everybody – especially the oversensitive millions in all faiths – it is safe to say that critical issues such as the Holocaust and Islam become red lines that should not be crossed. In saying that, we can assume that Jones, Benedict and Irving all committed mistakes.

No. Not comparable. For the forty millionth time: Holocaust-denial is not comparable to (say) writing a novel about Aisha. That’s not to say that Holocaust-denial should be illegal, it is just to say that the funny double standards are not double standards. (The right double standard would be, for instance, to deny that a massacre happened at Srebrenica.)

Offending others for the sake of free speech should not be tolerated.

Yes it should. If not offending others becomes the criterion for free speech, as many have pointed out, there will be no free speech at all. That would not be a minor crimp, it would be obliteration.

Don’t ask, just believe

Oct 5th, 2008 10:05 am | By

Louise Antony has an excellent essay, ‘For the Love of Reason’ [pdf], in Philosophers Without Gods (OUP 2007), a book edited by herself; it takes off from the difficulties she had with various religious truth claims when she was a child, and with the way adults reacted to her difficulties and persistent questions. First up is Limbo – the unfairness of it – ‘original sin’ in particular: ‘this sin that Adam committed got “passed down”…’

I found it repugnant, the idea that a crime committed by one of my ancestors could sully my personal soul. It was an idea quite at odds with the liberal, meritocratic principles to which my parents seemed otherwise to subscribe. (p. 41)

She returns to this tension frequently – the way particular religious claims and also the refusal to question such claims were at odds with principles otherwise valued by her parents and by other people. It’s one that occurs to me often too, with some irritation.

But there was something that bothered me almost as much as Limbo itself: the way grownups reacted to my questions about it. First they’d offer a perfunctory, stock, and utterly impertinent response. “The souls in Limbo don’t suffer,” they’d all say. Huh? Maybe they’re not in actual pain, like the souls in hell, or even the ones in purgatory, but these poor souls are being deprived of the Beatific Vision…So the next move would be “but they don’t know they’re being deprived of anything.” Double huh. It’s OK not to share your chocolate with your sister as long as she never finds out you have it? This “ignorance is bliss” reasoning seemed specious to me even as a small child. And it was, once again, inconsistent with the messages I got in every other, non-religious context. My father, for example, was an elementary school administrator, and he was passionate in his support for public education. He would go on and on about the need to cultivate in children – to inculcate in children – the “desire to learn.” He would have been incensed had anyone suggested that as long as an illiterate child had no conception of the pleasures of reading, it was fine to leave well enough alone.

And rightly so. Well-spotted, young Louise.

Not many adults were willing to go on to round three. They would grow impatient. “Louise,” my mother would say, “you just think too much.” Sometimes they’d get positively angry. What was the matter with me? Why did I have to argue about everything? Didn’t I realize that some things just had to be taken on faith? (p. 42)

But that’s just it, of course. Young Louise’s questions were good questions, and she was right to be worried by them and by the feebleness of the answers to them, and the fact that no better ones were forthcoming; and ‘faith’ is exactly the wrong response to troubling questions of that kind. And, as she indicates, we know that in other contexts, yet we are told to ignore what we know in this context. So we are more or less bullied into believing in a moral monster who has total power over us.

None of the nuns or priests from whom I received religious instruction were of any help on the matter of Limbo, nor, for that matter, on any of the other issues that troubled me. There was also the Trinity: how could there be “three persons in one God”? I remember trying to wrap my childish head around this “holy mystery” [So she tried various analogies – a family, a clover, moods.] Finally Sister, clearly exhausted, told me that I’d never understand the Trinity because it was a mystery of faith. Mysteries of faith are, by their nature, incomprehensible. We must simply believe them. But how can I believe something I don’t understand, I asked? “Just memorize your Catechism,” was Sister’s reply. “Belief will come.”

Belief will come, independent of the understanding – dogmatic, unreasonable, authority-dependent belief, cut completely free from understanding and genuine explanation. In short a disabling of the ability to think. This is why some assertive atheists think that religion taught to children is a form of abuse.

What I got from all of this was that thinking was fine and good, but only in its place. A little learning might be a dangerous thing, but a lot of thinking was worse. Today I am a parent, and I know firsthand the tedium and frustration of dealing with a child who won’t stop asking “why.”…But with all that said, I still, to this day, resent the way I was made to feel as a child–that my questioning was inherently bad, that there was something wrong with me for wanting things to make sense. As I’ve said, the reactions of grownups to my questions about religion were doubly distressing to me because of their dissonance with the principles adults were explicitly promoting in other contexts….” My parents and teachers, counseling me about personal behavior, stressed the importance of doing what I knew was right, regardless of what other people thought. Why in religion was I supposed to dumbly accept whatever the authorities told me?

Why indeed? And there is no good answer to that question.

Oh dear, our mistake, so sorry

Oct 4th, 2008 5:32 pm | By

There’s been a lot of buzz about the New York Times article on a meeting of the SEC in 2004 that apparently did a lot to cause this little difficulty (you know, banks flopping, 700 billion public dollars tossed away in hopes of mollifying Wall Street, that little difficulty). It’s rather irritating to read.

[T]he five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks. They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments.

And they got what they wanted, and it all went blooey, and now we have to pay for it. Money that could have gone for a national health service or education will be pissed away on toxic debts. It’s regrettable.

Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments. The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

Ah – the very guy who demanded the 700 billion with no questions asked, no supervision, no amendments, and no delay. Interesting. He helped cause an economic meltdown, and now he’s landed us with a 700 billion dollar debt. And yet some commentators were surprised at the level of anger among the Amurican people. Because – why? We should think this is a success story?

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

And – whaddya know – they didn’t do a very good job. And the SEC didn’t do its job either. So – 700 billion thrown away in an afternoon. Oh well! Plenty more where that came from.

The commission’s decision effectively to outsource its oversight to the firms themselves fit squarely in the broader Washington culture of the last eight years under President Bush. A similar closeness to industry and laissez-faire philosophy has driven a push for deregulation throughout the government, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to worker safety and transportation agencies. “It’s a fair criticism of the Bush administration that regulators have relied on many voluntary regulatory programs,” said Roderick M. Hills, a Republican who was chairman of the S.E.C. under President Gerald R. Ford. “The problem with such voluntary programs is that, as we’ve seen throughout history, they often don’t work.”

Ahhhhhh yes – so they don’t! And there’s quite a well-understood reason for that, which can be summed up in the vulgar phrase about the fox guarding the henhouse. They don’t work because the people in charge of the voluntary programs have a vested interest in not making them work. It’s really quite simple. Too bad it took a total collapse of the global economy that we’ll be paying for for generations to drive that lesson home.

No wonder they are angry

Oct 3rd, 2008 2:11 pm | By

So, Charlie Gere.

I find Jo Glanville’s defence of the publication of Aisha, the Jewel of Medina as an act of courage on the part of the publisher ridiculous. Would she be so ready to describe as an act of courage a decision to publish a book denying the Holocaust, or advocating paedophilia, or race hate, or antisemitism, or violence against women? Probably not.

No, probably not, but what does that tell us? More than the trivial conclusion that Gere draws, which is that ‘there are limits to her conception of freedom of speech.’ Yes of course there are, but the point is not that there are no such limits, the point is that the limits should be as narrow as possible not as broad as possible, and that that entails making judgments about what kinds of limits there should be and what kinds of reasons should be offered and accepted for drawing those limits where we do. Gere’s question is useless for that purpose, because the examples he gives are all different in kind from the example of a novel about Aisha. A book denying the Holocaust is likely to be in the service of a larger and more dangerous – more genuinely harmful – agenda. A book advocating paedophilia could cause real harm to real children, as could a book advocating race hate or violence against women. A novel about Aisha isn’t like that. So it’s a stupid comparison. It’s one that Ahmedinijad (among others) is very fond of, but it’s stupid.

The issue with this book and others that have offended Muslims, including The Satanic Verses, is that their publication is liable to give Muslims the possibly correct impression that a culture riddled with its own shibboleths, taboos and areas of interdiction does not consider it a problem to offend their sensitivities, not least by trivialising their religion and their culture in works of fiction. This is far worse than being anti-Muslim. It treats Muslim sensitivities as being beneath consideration. No wonder they are angry.

See above. The shibboleths, taboos and areas of interdiction in question are not a matter of ‘offending sensitivities’ or of ‘trivialising’ someone’s culture or religion. Shibboleths of that kind are neither legally binding, nor generally respected, nor (on the whole) backed up by threats and violence.

A more reasonable question for Gere to have asked would have been ‘Would she be so ready to describe as an act of courage a decision to publish a book about Jesus’s love life?’ The first part of the answer would probably be ‘Well no, because there would be no need for courage because there would be no risk involved.’ The second part would probably be ‘But if there were risk involved because of firebombs shoved through the letter box at 2 a.m., then yes, I certainly would.’

In other words, directly advocating violence or crime against people is one thing and discussing a religion (challengingly or rudely or mockingly or however it may be) is another. It’s odd that a guy who does something called ‘Cultural Research’ is confused about this.

‘Salman Rushdie taught liberals to hate Islam’

Oct 2nd, 2008 12:51 pm | By


Before that January day in Bradford, the Left-liberal consensus was notionally on the side of the Muslim community, which in Britain is predominantly Asian. Since that day there has been a creeping racialist antipathy towards Muslims, by the Left. The grounds of their growing hatred are entirely spurious and are represented as religious. The very part of Muslim belief that trespasses on the territory of the secular liberal creed is identified, for that reason alone, as intolerable. That is to say, Muslims are denied the right to take offence when their most holy emblems are deliberately pilloried.

No they’re not – they’re denied the ‘right’ to do things like kill people or torch embassies or threaten people or plot to kill people. Those things are crimes, actually, not ‘rights.’ Of course all the rest of the passage is absurd nonsense too – but life is short, and I have places to go and things to see.

This line of artistic endeavour finds its ultimate expression in Theo van Gogh’s film Submission (a word translating “Islam”). Islam holds the text of the Koran holy, and insists on public modesty in the depiction of women. So why not, the film-maker thought, project the holy words of the Koran on to the exposed body of women? Tee-hee, he chortled in his Dutch way. So van Gogh was killed.

And…the religious columnist Christopher Howse apparently approves? At least, it’s difficult to spot any sign of disapproval in anything he says.

The secularist haters of Islam pretend that that they have a sacred principle of their own, which is freedom of speech, freedom to publish.

Yes, that’s right. We’re funny that way. Of course we wouldn’t (the sensible among us at least) call it a sacred principle, and we would agree that freedom to publish is not completely without limits, but we do have ‘a principle’ that we should be able to publish stories and polemics and disputes about religion and religions, in general and in particular, without being threatened or set on fire or blown up or shot or carved up. Does Christopher Howse not agree?

The fallacy of the too convenient

Oct 1st, 2008 12:24 pm | By

Susan Haack in Defending Science – Within Reason (p. 286) quotes (in order to dispute) Richard Swinburne:

If God’s existence, justice and intentions became common knowledge, then man’s freedom to choose [to believe or disbelieve] would in effect be vastly curtailed. (Swinburne, The Existence of God p. 244)

What I immediately wondered (not for the first time) on reading that is: why is that important? Why is it even meaningful? Why is belief an issue? And why, being an issue, does it become an issue of freedom? Why is it treated as a test?

We have all kinds of common knowledge – and that’s not seen as a problem. We don’t worry about our freedom to choose to believe or disbelieve various items of common knowledge; why is it different with God? That is, independent of the fact that God is hidden and is not common knowledge?

Given the fact that God is hidden – and that billions of people claim to believe in it anyway – it becomes very difficult to see how to separate the claim about freedom (and other similar claims) from the need to explain the brute inconvenient fact that God is hidden. In my case anyway, it is impossible.

In other words – God is hidden – and this obvious fact is slightly inconvenient (though not as inconvenient as it ought to be) for people who believe in it and want others to believe in it, and espcially for people who want to rebuff and reprove and correct non-believers. That means there is a need for some kind of explanation. What would such an explanation look like? Well, like what Swinburne says. Therefore…it seems likely that that is why Swinburne says it.

1) God is hidden. 2) Non-theists consider this a reason not to believe God exists. 3) Theists need a counter-reason. 4) Therefore theistic explanations of God’s hiddenness are rendered suspect by this motivation.

An explanation can be suspect and still be correct, of course – but to a non-theist all these excuses for God’s non-appearance do tend to sound awfully…carefully crafted to fit the disconcerting and undeniable facts. (We keep inviting God to dinner and it keeps not showing up.)

An argument like this would show its fragility quite readily in real life. ‘You skipped work today, you’re fired.’ ‘No, I was there.’ ‘No you weren’t!’ ‘Yes I was, it’s just that we kept missing each other.’ ‘Uh huh – that’s a little too convenient – you’re fired.’

An explanation that is too convenient in that way is suspect.

Beware of Catholic doctors then

Oct 1st, 2008 12:21 pm | By

The European Federation of Catholic Medical Associations issued a statement

at the conclusion of its 11th annual congress expressing its firm commitment to the defense of life in response to the threats of abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation, the creation of human embryos, and others…[T]hey stressed that ethical norms and principles precede civil laws, which should be influenced by natural law and the teaching of the Church. They went on to state that decisions about “the medical treatment for patients who put their trust in us should be guided above all by our conscience. Moral evaluation of medical practice should not be based on superficial opinions or the latest tendencies, but rather on the sensibleness of a conscience formed according to the objective ethical norms common to all people and constantly defended by the Church.”

What is the difference? What is the difference between ‘superficial opinions’ and ‘the latest tendencies’ on the one hand and objective ethical norms on the other? And how do the Catholic doctors know what the difference is? And how do they tell? How, exactly, do they distinguish between the two? What exactly is that silly line-up of bollocks supposed to mean?

What it appears to mean, to an outsider at least, is simply ‘norms that we don’t like’ on the one hand and ‘norms that we do like’ on the other hand, dressed up as something detectable with fine Catholic instruments.

After emphasizing the spotless moral character that a doctor should have, they noted that “the source and foundation of ethical norms is the inalienable dignity of the human person throughout his or her life, from conception to natural death.”

Natural death? So they’re putting their imprimatur on natural death now? So we are to take it that Catholic doctors from now on will refuse to treat any illness that could, if left untreated, cause natural death? That’s a little off-putting.

Why bother

Oct 1st, 2008 1:56 am | By

Kenan Malik reminds us of the wise and reasonable words of Khomeini when he put out the hit on Rushdie and his accomplices.

[O]n February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa. “I inform all zealous Muslims of the world,” he proclaimed, “that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents are sentenced to death.”

Note that – not just Rushdie, but also all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents should be murdered by religious zealots. What a nice guy. It’s a shame he never had a chance to meet Torquemada; they would have gotten along so well.

And of course it’s so sensible and fair – that all human beings in the world should be required to say nothing about Islam that fails to meet with Khomeini’s approval, on pain of death. Islam is not incidentally but centrally a set of laws and restrictions and limitations that control the lives of people who are subject to them (people who ‘submit’ to them), but people are not allowed to discuss those laws in a way Khomeini (and his successors) might not approve (and to be safe of course we should understand that as in any way at all, since we don’t know for sure what they do or don’t approve). So an intrusive controlling demanding religion full of sexist laws and arbitrary restrictions must be immune from criticism and discussion, because if we discuss it the wrong way we might be murdered.

[T]he argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised. “Self-censorship”, Shabir Akhtar, a British Muslim philosopher, suggested at the height of the Rushdie affair, “is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.”

What’s wrong with that idea? Anything?

Yes. What’s wrong with it is the implicit assumption that passionately held convictions deserve – perhaps even have a ‘right’ to? – forebearance and polite silence. But convictions aren’t things that need or ought to have forebearance and polite silence. Convictions that can’t survive the encounter with other convictions probably aren’t worth passionate tenacity; at any rate it isn’t possible to protect them without paralyzing mental life, and a universally paralyzed mental life is not a good thing.

Norm has more.

The liberal principle that we may interfere with the actions of another (only) to prevent harm to others does have its difficulties since, like many other conceptual boundaries, the boundaries of the concept of harm are fuzzy. But the principle, if it is one, that freedom of speech must be curbed to avoid offending people, is manifestly a qualification of the right of free speech that all but destroys the usefulness of the right. For there are no boundaries on what people can be offended by.

Quite. And if you broaden the meaning of ‘harm’ to include ‘offense’ then you make speech and its cognates unable to do what they are centrally for. A thought or an argument or an idea that can’t possibly offend anyone is a very bland mild tame idea, that makes nothing much happen. Ideas like that aren’t worth bothering with. We can’t have ideas that matter without the risk of offending someone.