Notes and Comment Blog

Who Was That Young Man?

Mar 22nd, 2006 7:58 pm | By

So that’s how it went.

On 3 September 2002, the first day of the autumn term, the respondent (then aged nearly 14) went to the school with her brother and another young man. They asked to speak to the head teacher, who was not available, and they spoke to the assistant head teacher, Mr Moore. They insisted that the respondent be allowed to attend the school wearing the long garment she had on that day, which was a long coat-like garment known as a jilbab. They talked of human rights and legal proceedings. Mr Moore felt that their approach was unreasonable and he felt threatened…The young men said they were not prepared to compromise over this issue.

Who was the other young man, and how was he explained to the assistant head teacher, one wonders. How was his presence explained? How was his interest in the matter explained? How was it made clear why it was any of his business what an unrelated thirteen-year-old schoolgirl wore to school? ‘This is a friend of mine’? ‘This is our imam’? ‘This is Knuckles’? ‘This is our “spiritual advisor”‘?

The school was anxious to establish contact with the respondent’s guardian and accordingly, on 4 September 2002, a member of the support team telephoned her house and spoke to a male member of the family who said that the respondent had seen her solicitor and was going to sue the school. On 5 September 2002 Mr Moore telephoned and spoke to the respondent’s brother. Mr Moore inquired why the respondent was not in school. The respondent’s brother told Mr Moore that he (the brother) was not prepared to let the respondent attend school unless she was allowed to wear a long skirt.

He didn’t say whether the other young man was prepared or not. The other young man seems to have disappeared from the story. I wonder what he thinks about it all.


Mar 22nd, 2006 7:53 pm | By

I’ve noticed something interesting. Ever read any Deborah Tannen? Differences in the way women and men use language? Women say ‘sorry’ a lot more than men do, that kind of thing? Somewhat worrying, a tad too similar to the Gilligan-Harding school of feminism which is too inclined to characterize women as big soppy soft-headed damp-palmed lachrymose huggy squishy melty getOFFme fools – but interesting all the same, and she is better at both gathering data and thinking about the data once she’s gathered. Anyway – differences in the way men and women use language. I think I’ve noticed a new one (new in the sense that I hadn’t noticed it before, though Tannen probably has). Here is my theory. [protracted pause to cough and clear throat] When men report on something they’ve done in collaboration with someone else they say ‘I’ve done this (with X).’ Women say ‘X and I have done this.’ I find that really profoundly interesting, and indicative of something or other. (Well, it’s fairly obvious of what, but it would be unkind to spell it out. snigger, snerk.) It reminds me of a guy I used to work with at the zoo. He once did a written report of something we had worked on together – and he used the pronoun ‘I’ throughout. ‘I did this, I did that.’ I pointed out to him that actually we had done this and that – and he was entirely uninterested. There’s something hilariously funny about that, in a tragic sort of way.

(And no, that still does not mean that Mileva Marić collaborated with Einstein!)

Lamentable Disrespect and Raving Lunacy

Mar 21st, 2006 11:07 pm | By

Charles Taylor joins the flock.

“The publishing of these caricatures shows a lamentable disrespect,” said Taylor, who elaborated on his views to an audience of nearly 200 people at an event organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. “Freedom of speech means you can’t outlaw the printing of these cartoons,” acknowledged Taylor, “but in order to get through this difficult time, we need an informal code where that kind of gratuitous insult can not take place.”

Well doesn’t that sound just like Jack Straw and Sean McCormack and Franco Frattini and the pope and Kofi Annan and that student union spokeswoman at the U of Cardiff – doesn’t that sound just like all of them saying No you may not say that. Not because it’s a lie, or fraudulent, or a falsification, or dangerous, but because – it shows a ‘lamentable disrespect’. Well does it? Does publication of these caricatures show a lamentable disrespect? Some people certainly think so; other people claim to think so because that sounds better than saying they are afraid of getting beaten up or killed; but other people again don’t think so, and think on the contrary that the very idea that it does is more disrespectful than the publication of the caricatures could ever be. But not Taylor, it appears.

Taylor questioned why the editors of the Jyllands-Posten didn’t consider the 100,000 Muslims living in Denmark before they printed the caricatures and the reactionary responses to them.

Um – because that’s not how editors do things? Because they don’t look at material they plan to publish and run through a mental list of the national population complete with figures for each, wondering what they will think of the material in question? Could that be why? Because if that were the way editors did things newspapers would be a little on the empty side? Would have, like, nothing in them? Does Charles Taylor not know that? And has he even looked at the dang cartoons? Has he even asked himself where the lamentable disrespect comes in?

Taylor defended his position against the printing and reprinting of the caricatures, and refuted [she means rebutted] the argument that printing them was somehow a defense of a free press. “Who can take away your press freedom? The German government can, not the government in Damascus. I don’t understand why [people here] are so hypnotized by this idea of press freedom. It’s just raving lunacy,” he said.

Is it. Valuing press freedom is raving lunacy. Is it indeed. Charles Taylor is a name philosopher. Dear oh dear.

There is a Limit

Mar 21st, 2006 10:47 pm | By

I admire freedom as much as the next person, but we all know there are limits, right? There is such a thing as too much. Liberty does not mean license. There are some things no one can be free to do. Cough at the opera, spit in the soup, wear black in summer, and – one other thing.

A man could be sentenced to death after being charged with converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under Afghanistan’s shariah laws, a judge said yesterday…The accused was charged with rejecting Islam…”We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law,” the judge said. “It is an attack on Islam.”

Well of course, and obviously an attack on Islam has to be against the law, and not only that, it has to be a capital crime. Obviously. Because otherwise – well exactly.

Shariah law states that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be sentenced to death, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Repeated attempts to impose a jail sentence were barred.

Well good. Super. None of that panty-waist bleeding-heart Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging dewey-eyed sympathetic hand-holding poppycock about not killing people for changing their religions. Good for them! How refreshing! They stick to their guns in these Shariah places. Submit to Allah or we’ll kill you. What could be fairer than that?

The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, said he had offered to drop the charges if Mr Rahman converted back to Islam, but he refused. “He would have been forgiven if he changed back. But he said he was a Christian and would always remain one,” Mr Wasi said. “We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty.”

Of course he must. Because they are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against their laws. QED. Good night and good luck.

That’s That Done

Mar 20th, 2006 10:26 pm | By

Very good, it’s set up now. I actually got the actual update, so I can tell that it’s working. And people are accepting the invitation or signing up for the first time. Very good. Greetings.

Go here if you want to sign up.

A good day then. That update has been bugging me for six months. How glad I am to have a decent substitute at last. And it was a good day even before that. Someone emailed to give his opinion of the book, and it was – well, you get the idea. People rushed from all directions to apply ice to my head to prevent swelling.

Weekly Update

Mar 20th, 2006 7:02 pm | By

So – after a considerable wait, Google accepted the mailing list and I have – I think – sent out the first update since October. But I think people have to click a link in an email message from Google in order to be added to the new list, so the update probably went to no one at all. And I haven’t even received it myself, despite being thoroughly added, so maybe it doesn’t work at all. So if any of you are on the old list and get an update or alternatively don’t get an update, it would be helpful if you would let me know.

Update (on update – how confusing). No don’t bother yet. They’ve sent me a message saying I don’t have permish, despite having sent me an earlier message saying I did have permish. No doubt we’ll work it out before too long.

Women Say No

Mar 20th, 2006 5:32 pm | By

The Times notices something that astute, attentive readers of B&W (and you all fit that description) have known for a long time.

Sitting in the airy living room of the spacious modern [house] where Sultan and her husband live, it is hard to believe this small, neatly dressed woman could be at the centre of an international firestorm. Just as improbable is that the most important and controversial critics of Islamic fundamentalism, violence and intolerance are, like Sultan, women, mostly from Islamic countries.

Well it’s not very improbable to us, is it; we’ve known that for years. Years.

They include Ayaan Hirsi Ali…Irshad Manji…Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam and Muslim academic and author, who has infuriated traditional Muslims by leading Friday prayer for Muslims in New York, a role traditionally taken only by male imams. Other Muslim women in the front lines of the clash with Islamic governments are as diverse as Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani village woman who was brutally gang-raped in 2002 as reprisal for an alleged transgression by her 14-year-old brother [which he didn’t commit – OB], and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003 for her defence of the rights of women and children in fundamentalist Muslim Iran.

Yes; and there are many many more, as you know. Maryam Namazie, Azam Kamguian, Homa Arjomand, Azar Majedi, Marjane Satrapi. The women of ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises’. Mimount Bousakla, the Belgian MP. Serap Cileli, Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates in Germany.

When a broader German public began concerning itself with the parallel Muslim world arising in its midst, it was primarily thanks to three female authors, three rebellious Muslim musketeers: Ates, who in addition to practicing law is the author of “The Great Journey Into the Fire”; Necla Kelek (“The Foreign Bride”); and Serap Cileli (“We’re Your Daughters, Not Your Honor”). About the same age, all three grew up in Germany; they speak German better than many Germans and are educated and successful. But they each had to risk much for their freedom; two of them narrowly escaped Hatun Surucu’s fate…Taking off from their own experiences, the three women describe the grim lives and sadness of Muslim women in that model Western democracy known as Germany.

Of course it’s not really improbable at all that the most important critics of Islamic fundamentalism and violence should be women, since they’re so often at the sharp end of it. Not always. The turning point experience for Wafa Sultan was not gender specific –

…her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said. “They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, ‘God is great!’ ” she said. “At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point.”

But most of them are. Women have every reason to join the resistance.

Location Location Location

Mar 19th, 2006 7:55 pm | By

Addendum. It occurred to me earlier that much or all of this disagreement or confusion over terms may be simply geographical, or geographico-political. All three of the people who think I’m confused are in the UK. I wonder if this has to do with the difference between having a written consitution and bill of rights, and not having either. In other words, the UK doesn’t actually have an explicit written constitutionally protected right to free speech or a free press. As a consequence of that it also doesn’t have a Supreme Court. As a consequence of that, the gummint can pass laws that would be unlikely to pass over here (although items like the Patriot Act may raise doubts about that). The House of Lords may amend such laws in a more free speech direction, but not in deference to a written explicit constitutional right. It may be that the legal right is more taken for granted here, with the result that there is less need to be expansive about it. Or, maybe not – since as I’ve mentioned, lots of people over here think the First Amendment is very expansive. Still, it’s a thought.


Mar 19th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

Norm and Eve have further thoughts. Norm starts:

Like Holocaust denial in general, falsifying evidence to the purpose of Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence. You are free, consequently, to do it.

Legally free; but not necessarily free tout court.

In a subsequent post, Ophelia says that in her view falsification of historical evidence should not be a criminal offence. Legally, then, one can do it, though this doesn’t make it morally right or admirable; it is (wherever it is), like Holocaust denial in general, a liberty right. That Ophelia endorses this legal state of affairs entails that she thinks falsifying historical evidence not only is a liberty right but it ought to remain one. From this it follows that she thinks it is part of a morally acceptable legal state of affairs that a person who falsifies historical evidence to propagate the lie that the Holocaust didn’t happen is behaving within their rights, albeit also behaving vilely.

Within their legal rights, but not necessarily within their rights in all senses. Again, I just remain unconvinced that the word ‘rights’ is universally understood to mean legal rights and nothing else. I remain unconvinced that it’s a peculiar or outlandish or unusual idea that one can have a legal right to do something without having a moral right. Not all moral issues are or should be or can be settled by the police. Not all moral issues are criminal or legal matters. That may be a very colloquial usage – and I’m not one to claim that every colloquial usage is necessarly sensible or informative; but if this one is a colloquial usage, I think it does point to a distinction that makes sense. It makes sense if only because we want to be able to think that people don’t have a (moral) right to do immoral things, without feeling obliged to call the police every few days. The colloguial (if it is colloquial) usage ‘You have no right to treat me this way’ does not translate ‘I am going to have you arrested for treating me this way’. It translates to a sort of intensifier of ‘ought’. There are mild oughts – you ought to be better-tempered – and there are stronger oughts – you ought not to call me a bitch every time you’re in a bad mood – and there are stronger oughts again – you ought not to call your child ugly and stupid every time you’re in a bad mood. It’s not against the law to call your child ugly and stupid, but my guess is that a lot of people would agree that it’s so cruel and destructive that no one has a moral right to do it, in spite of having a legal right. (And if there is enough of it, social workers may intervene, and children may be taken away, without anyone’s going to prison. [A friend of mine is a family court judge; she has to read piles of briefs that reach from the floor to her knees in one evening sometimes; there is a world of fuzzy territory here.] It’s not a criminal offence, but it can sometimes be forcibly prevented.) So – I think it’s a morally acceptable legal state of affairs that a person who falsifies historical evidence to propagate the lie that the Holocaust didn’t happen is behaving within their legal rights – but not moral rights.

Whatever may be your rights, you will not be a reputable figure within the community of historians, to say nothing of other scholars and people more generally.

This is all I’m saying. I’m saying that cashes out to historians not thinking historians have a moral, or epistemic, or vocational, or scholarly right to falsify, despite having a legal right. I’m saying you won’t hear historians saying ‘Irving has a right to falsify the evidence’ just like that, with no qualifications. At least, I don’t think so! I should offer a challenge. Somebody find me a historian saying that! It will be like one of those thousand dollar challenges, only without the thousand dollars.

This is merely to confuse the issue of legal and moral rights, which protect people against coercive interference in what they choose to do, and the standards applied to the conduct of certain activities by those who have a concern for them and/or the rules governing some competitive endeavours.

Well – hasn’t that been my whole point all along? I thought it had. I thought the difference between legal rights and moral rights was exactly what I’ve been talking about the whole time. Standards and rules are the kind of thing I’ve been talking about from the beginning, in disagreeing with unadorned unqualified unhedged claims that Irving has a right to falsify the evidence.

And Eve:

The moral right to free speech isn’t a right to have your views disseminated or published or agreed with; it’s just a right to say what you choose, without others forcibly preventing you.

Right; that’s what I said. “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.” When I said that, she hadn’t said ‘forcibly’ prevent; now she has; so that answers my question.

I think we all mostly agree on the basics, it’s just that I keep thinking qualifications are being left out. If we can stipulate legal rights and forcibly prevent, I think we’re saying much the same thing. Although I find Sunstein’s chapter interesting, and it connects in an interesting way with Rawls’s idea of political liberalism and also a book by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson on Democracy and Disagreement, so I might go on talking about those sometime.

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!


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.