Notes and Comment Blog

Oh No, What’s That?

Dec 15th, 2004 7:32 pm | By

And now for another little trip to la-la land. This time not an angel book, but Essential Wicca. Like the angel book, it is packed full of opportunities to squeal with undignified uncontrollable laughter. As in the angel book, they simply leap off the page. Here’s a bit in a chapter called ‘Working the Sacred’ where we are being told how to do a Working (here’s a hint: it takes place in a Circle, which is Sacred Space, and capital letters appear quite a lot):

It’s good to remember that little children and cats are generally much more sensitive to the psychic/spiritual world than most adults, so they may be a rough gauge of how things are going. If, for instance, your previously content sleeping pussy-cat takes off at a dead run for parts unknown, or every baby within earshot starts screaming, you might want to check what’s going on.

And that’s the end of the paragraph, and the next one changes the subject. One is left wondering (with the sweat beading on one’s brow) what kind of thing might be going on. But the book doesn’t say. It’s like that. It drops hints but then doesn’t go into detail.

Not to mention of course the other hilarities. Especially the cat thing. Notice the absence of dogs. Well fair enough. Dogs would just lie there happily snoring and farting while six kinds of devils turned up and started peeling everyone present with a very blunt carrot peeler. But what about parrots? Eh? The parrots I’ve known have been very god damn sensitive to the psychic/spiritual world. But they just get ignored in favour of those histrionic fakers, cats. I blame Andrew Lloyd Webber.

There’s more scary stuff. Really scary. It gets just a little more specific. This is on the next page (59) where we’re learning about pentagrams and elemental crosses.

You might not want to use a pentagram, because a pentagram can create a strong resonating signal on the astral plane. It calls attention to you for anything or anyone who cares to come and investigate.

Oh my god! Oh jeezis! Did you get that? Anyone or [shudder] anything! Ow, ow, ow, I’m really scared now. I won’t sleep for a month. I mean – damn – so there are anyones and anythings out there, all the time, and the reason they haven’t come in and yanked our heads off and eaten the rest of us on rye bread with mustard is because we haven’t called attention to ourselves? Yet? But we could anytime? Just by using a pentagram? Well hell on wheels. Life is even more precarious than I’ve always thought. (So what are these stupid people doing drawing pentagrams on the pages of their book then? Huh? I mean, brilliant! Tell us how to draw pentagrams and then in the next breath casually remark that if we use them we might call attention to ourselves for the benefit of who knows what ravenous dribbling Thing that’s lounging around in the munchosphere. Do these people have no sense of responsibility? Or is it that they’re actually working for the hungry creatures. That’s probably it. The warning is just a bluff, of course, as well as a way of protecting themselves against lawsuits by the very distant relations of the gobbled-ups. They know damn well that half the people reading this book will be using those pentagrams the very instant they see the warning. Oh well, maybe that’s good. If the gobblers are eating the pentagram users, that means they’re leaving the rest of us alone, at least for now.)

Dearly Cherished Beliefs

Dec 15th, 2004 6:35 pm | By

Polly Toynbee has a very good column today on the religious hatred law.

The natural allies of the rationalists have decamped. The left embraces Islam for its anti-Americanism. Liberals and progressives have had a collective softening of the brain and weakening of the knees. While they have a sympathetic instinct to defend harassed minorities, they prefer to abandon some fundamental principles and prevaricate over some basic freedoms than to face up to the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.

Exactly. What I keep saying – to the point of tedium. Mushy language about ‘the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion without fear’ is designed to do exactly that – to overlook and skirt around and pretend out of existence, ‘the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.’ Peacefully practicing one’s own religion to some people means peacefully bullying women into wearing the hijab, staying home, always being in the possession and control of a man. To others it means keeping lower castes in their place. To others it means an invisible guarantee that all their instincts are sound and all their decisions are right because God wants them to do what they take God to want them to do.

Iqbal Sacranie of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain said that linking the Prophet’s name with this crime “will have shocked Muslim readers” who are “calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs”. And there it is. He expects the new law to protect “cherished beliefs”, while David Blunkett in the Commons assured his critics it would do no such thing. Dead prophets and holy books would be as open to criticism and ridicule as ever. The law will protect the believers, not their beliefs.

And there it is indeed. That’s one problem with a law like this, even if it really is true that it might, carefully applied, prevent some incitement to group hatred that otherwise would go ahead. It reinforces the assumption of religious people that their ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ ought to have some kind of special immunity. Of course they have the assumption anyway, but the fact that the state agrees with them would just entrench it that bit more.

That’s what I keep getting at with those repeated questions about why religious ideas should have special protection or respect or tact or forebearance when other ideas don’t and shouldn’t. I’ve suspected all along that I knew what the answer was, but I wondered if other people would think so too. My suspicion is pretty much what Iqbal Sacranie said – that the beliefs are ‘dearly cherished’ and therefore they should be immune. That’s an understandable reason, but it’s also an absolutely terrible one. It’s a recipe for permanent blindness, illusion, submission to authority, and inability to think. Humans have to be able to think. It’s as simple as that. The reasons are blindingly obvious – things like nuclear weapons being only one.

And of course the ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ reason is a bad one also because it’s not consistently cited. Other dearly cherished beliefs are not respected, obviously, so it’s still not clear why some should be when others are not.

Foreign Dispatches has a post on Toynbee’s column and also on a couple of Crooked Timber’s comments on related matters.

Update: I re-worded that last sentence, since I put it clumsily.

Reporting In

Dec 15th, 2004 1:15 am | By

Things have been too quiet here. My fault. My computer went funny in the head again, and I’ve been busy whining at it and flinging it about the room until it came back to its senses.

I’ve just found what looks set to be an interesting new blog – belonging to a cancer surgeon with an interest in Holocaust denial (not a friendly or approving interest, I hasten to add) and alternative medicine. It’s always interesting to read informed commentary on alternative medicine, from people like, you know, doctors and researchers, as opposed to future monarchs and prating bystanders (by which I mean me).

More on Religious Hatred Law

Dec 12th, 2004 7:33 pm | By

There is this excellent column by Nick Cohen in the Guardian for instance. (Nick Cohen debated Julian Baggini on this subject at Open Democracy last summer, but the debate is now behind subscription.) He talks about the strange incident at Index on Censorship (which we also talked about quite a lot here) when the associate editor ‘piled blame’ on Theo van Gogh instead of on his murderer.

What was most telling was Index’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who worked with van Gogh on the film. I can remember when she would have been a liberal heroine…She overcame enormous handicaps to become a Dutch MP and, as free men and women are entitled to do, decided she didn’t believe in God. Needless to add her secularism made her dangerous enemies, and the police had to protect her from Islamists…In the 20th century, feminists had a little success in persuading Western liberals that women should be treated as independent creatures whose intelligence ought to be respected. But these small gains can go out of the window when brown-skinned women contradict the party line that religious fundamentalism is all the fault of poverty or racism or Bush or Israel and isn’t an autonomous totalitarian ideology with a logic of its own. Jayasekera dismissed Ali as if she was some silly geisha girl.

Just so. I keep marveling at the way atheist feminists from Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, are ignored in favour of the devout variety of ‘brown-skinned women’; I’m glad I’m not the only one.

MPs didn’t point out that when society decides that people’s religion, rather than their class or gender, is the cultural fact that matters, power inevitably passes to the priests and the devout for whom religion does indeed matter most. To their shame, many on the left have broken with the Enlightenment to perform this manoeuvre. They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into ‘the Muslims’. A measure of their bad faith is that they would react with horror if this trick was pulled on them, and they were turned into ‘the Christians’ whose authentic representatives were the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘Dr’ Ian Paisley.

What I keep saying. Just plain atheists from Iran and the rest are also ignored. (Amartya Sen talks about this too – the way people in the West think of India as all-‘spiritual’ all the time, and ignore the secular rationalist tradition in India which is actually quite strong.) Because – what? The Enlightenment is a bad smell now? (Horkheimer and Adorno have a lot to answer for.)

Madeleine Bunting sees things differently (now there’s a surprise).

For starters, “religious hatred” is not about having a laugh, or criticising aspects of a religion: it is far more grotesque, and we can’t pretend that we don’t know the difference

We can’t pretend we don’t know the difference. Really? Some people can, it seems.

Speaking on a BBC Radio 4 programme the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, argues that the proposed ‘incitement to religious hatred’ law is required to prevent Muslims from being hurt by ‘abusive’ speech and writing.

Dave at Backword Dave has a transcript of part of the interview:

Khalid Mahmood: Well this law is not just needed now. This law became a real issue when the Salman Rushdie affair came into light. And there’s a huge amount of hurt that was felt by a lot of the Muslim communities. And the fact that they felt that they had no recourse …

Interviewer [interupting] So if we had this law, we’d have been able to ban the “Satanic Verses”?

KM: Well, what the scholars who’ve looked at the book at the time wanted was some editing of the very, very few minimal [?] amount of paragraphs within that which were just purely abusive …

Int: But is there not a difference between being abusive about a religion and inciting hatred?

KM: Well no; those two things apply, because what you do is by abusing, by being abusive about it is you actually incite those people and therefore those people go out in the street and take action, and therefore you’re inciting so the one follows from the other.

Oh fine. The ‘scholars’ who looked at the book just wanted some editing, that’s all. So everyone will have to permit clerics and other such ‘scholars’ to vet all manuscripts and edit anything they consider abusive of their religion – according to Khalid Mahmood, that is. But then Khalid Mahmood is an MP. MPs make the laws. So it goes.

There are good posts on all this at Harry’s Place – here and here and here.

If Carl Sagan Had Lived Just a Little Longer?

Dec 12th, 2004 5:05 pm | By

So Antony Flew has changed his mind. Hmm. If Hume had lived to be 81, would he have done likewise? If Nietzsche had lived that long and hung onto his marbles, would he? If Bertrand Russell had lived to be 110, would he? In twenty years, will we be reading (those of us still alive) that Richard Dawkins has?

Who knows. And by the same token, maybe any day now we’ll hear that Billy Graham has finally seen the light, that Jimmy Carter takes it all back, that Jerry Fallwell has caught on at last, that George W Bush has realized it was all a drunken mistake, that Osama bin Laden has decided the hell with it and ordered a few pallets of whiskey. You just never know.

But it’s interesting that the headline writers put Flew’s change of mind so misleadingly. ‘Atheist Philosopher, 81, Now Believes in God’. Well, no, not exactly, as the article makes clear. Flew still doesn’t believe in ‘God’ in the sense in which most people understand (and use) the word – most people including atheists. That is, when that word is used in routine conversation, most of us including non-believers understand it to refer to a particular kind of deity and not just any and every kind of deity – in fact we understand it to refer to a fairly specific deity. A personal one, a person, a man, a vast (infinite) powerful all-knowing deity, who receives prayers and makes things happen in the world. That ‘God’ is a sort of literary character, and we all have an approximate idea of what he’s like. (Not as witty as Lizzy Bennett, not as interesting as Hamlet, not as irritating as Clarissa Dalloway.) That’s not the God that Flew has decided he believes in.

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God — more or less — based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday. At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe…Flew said he’s best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people’s lives. “I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

A person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, he supposes. Not exactly the guy who pointed the admonitory finger at Eve and Adam, or the guy who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. More like a purposeful intelligent Big Bang – like the god of the deists, as Flew points out.

Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before…But Aristotle himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact…It seems to me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about human behaviour.

And so on. But of course all the godbotherers will be jumping up and down anyway, rejoicing at another lamb gathered into the flock. Whatever.


Dec 10th, 2004 7:55 pm | By

A little more on this argument about the proposed religious hatred law.

There is for instance number 8 in the Home Office’s FAQ:

The Government is determined to protect both the rights of free speech, which have been long respected in this country, and the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion without fear.

That sounds unexceptionable, indeed benevolent, at first blush. But what about after a little thought? The difficulty is that leading ‘a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion’ covers a lot of territory. Rather too much territory. Which is not (contra at least one of our commenters) to say that the government therefore ought to interfere with that right; it’s simply to say that the idea itself might not be as benign as it first looks. That’s the thing about phrases like that – phrases that sound good and kind and caring and concerned: they set us all up to read and hear them as benign and helpful when in fact they may not be, or they may be so only partly, or with a lot of further qualifications. In short, there’s rhetoric afoot. There are several hurrah-words that are meant to make us think the idea is a hurrah-idea – that’s how hurrah-words work. Right, lead a life, peacefully, one’s own, religion. They’re all gathered together there to block any impulse we might have to say ‘Wait, hang on, what about – ‘ I mean to say – how can anyone object to protecting all those things? People peacefully leading their own lives and peacefully practising their own religion – you might as well offer to burst into their living rooms and strangle their puppies.

But, as I mentioned, in reality the phrase covers a lot of ground. Practising one’s own religion may include subordinating, exploiting, and harming other people. Sad to say, one of the things religions do is erect and justify systems for, precisely, the subordination and exploitation and harming of other people. This is not a secret. So issuing blanket ukases about the peaceful practise of religion is not always as benign as it may sound. People who’ve grown up around milder forms of religion may lose track of this fact – and then phrases like the one under discussion help the process along. Religion is ‘one’s own’ – so obviously it can’t harm anyone else, right? Because it’s ‘one’s own’. My opinions don’t hurt you, yours don’t hurt me; everybody’s happy. But religious beliefs are not always inert, to say the least; they influence and justify behavior and action. Some fathers and brothers (and sometimes mothers) think it is right to murder daughters and sisters who have, say, run away from arranged marriages or married the ‘wrong’ man. From their point of view, they are indeed practising their own religion. So the phrase is misleading. Maybe that doesn’t matter; it’s just one phrase, after all; but the whole discussion all too often relies on phrases like that. I think that’s worth keeping in mind.

Classy Cartoon

Dec 10th, 2004 2:16 am | By

Speaking of [I’d better not say what, it will spoil the joke] – Richard Chappell of Philosophy Etcetera has sent me a link to a good cartoon.

V a n t r ú

Dec 8th, 2004 5:22 pm | By

For our many, many readers who read Icelandic (hey, maybe we do have a lot, I don’t know: we have one more than I was aware of), here is a little treat – you can read one entry from the B&W version of the Fashionable Dictionary in Icelandic every day at Vantrú. Vantrú is, the editor tells me, a skeptical/atheist magazine, so all the more reason for our Icelandic-reading readers to hasten right over there and start reading.

Return of the Repressed

Dec 7th, 2004 6:31 pm | By

It’s back, as the saying goes. The incitement to religious hatred law.

The bill extends the offence of incitement to racial hatred, under the Public Order Act 1988, to religious hatred, so that multi-ethnic faith groups are covered, as Sikhs and Jews are at the moment. Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the bill closed a loophole which meant those who incite hatred against Christians and Muslims could not be prosecuted. “The law will not mean that comedians like Rowan Atkinson cannot take the piss out of religion,” he added.

Well why not? How do you know? How do I know? How do comedians like Rowan Atkinson, and bloggers like OB and journalists like Christopher Hitchens and science popularisers like Richard Dawkins and philosophy popularisers like A C Grayling and secularism popularisers like Ibn Warraq and Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian – how do any of us know? We don’t. That’s just it. We don’t know at all, and some spokesman just saying so doesn’t help. Sadiq Khan doesn’t know what sort of prosecutions would be brought under such a law, does he. How could he know? So where does he get the calm assurance of that assertion? Who knows.

And that word ‘loophole’ is deceptive, too. Loophole shmoophole. One might as well say a new law against incitement to political hatred ‘closes a loophole’ which means that those who incite hatred against socialists and libertarians cannot be prosecuted. It’s not a ‘loophole,’ it’s the essence of the thing. Just as it’s not a ‘technicality’ to say that the police can’t extort confessions by torture, so it’s not a ‘loophole’ to say that ideas must not be protected from criticism by threats of prosecution and imprisonment. In fact this new law would not so much close a loophole as create an absurdity, as Rowan Atkinson points out:

And a law that attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas, as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very peculiar law indeed.

There is nothing very reassuring in the explanatory notes that accompany the bill:

Explanatory notes accompanying the Bill say the offence would apply ”to the use of words or behaviour or display of written material, publishing or distributing written material, the public performance of a play, distributing, showing or playing a recording, broadcasting or including a programme in a programme service and the possession of written materials or recordings with a view to display, publication, distribution or inclusion in a programme service”. They add: ”For each offence the words, behaviour, written material, recordings or programmes must be threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up racial hatred.”

Must be threatening, abusive or insulting. Oh well that’s all right then! Because it’s well-known how calm and equable religious believers always are when non-believers challenge their beliefs. Believers will never see an ‘insult’ where other observers might see simply a difference of opinion. Oh hell no. And all those corpses littering the landscape, all those death threats, all those politicians under police protection, all those novelists and journalists who have gone into hiding – that’s just – um – a misunderstanding, which will never happen once this splendid law is in place and nobody is allowed to insult religion any more. Excellent.

Homa Arjomand Interview

Dec 7th, 2004 5:38 pm | By

For those of you who can get Ontario TV – Homa Arjomand of the campaign against Sharia courts in Canada is going to be on the interview show Person2Person today at 8:30 p.m. (20:30) Ontario time. The show repeats at midnight, then again tomorrow Wednesday at 3 p.m. (15:00).

Yet More Words

Dec 6th, 2004 9:38 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about one particular idea in the argument over that recurring (or ‘really tedious’) subject of the conflation of race and religion and how that conflation works to head off and prevent criticism. This idea:

whilst attacks on religions can be merely the stuff of enlightenment rationalism, they can also be the cover for nasty attempts to marginalise whole groups of people.

Well, yes, they can be, but then ‘attacks on’ or criticisms of pretty much anything can be that. Including, for example, attacks on atheism and secularism. I would in fact say that there is a concerted effort under way in the US right now to do just exactly that – to criticise or attack atheism and secularism in an attempt to marginalise atheists and secularists. And I would also say that it’s having considerable success.

In fact, surely one could argue that that’s one of the things religions have historically been most concerned to do: to marginalise people who don’t buy what they’re selling. Some religions and a lot of religious people have over time become much less keen to do that, but it’s obvious enough that in some parts of the world (including the US) that trend has been halted and turned around. That’s not a big secret, is it? Isn’t it pretty familar stuff, that that’s what religions do? Create ingroups and outgroups, Us and Them, Our Team and Other? The outgroup may be atheists, but it may just as well be other religions. (No! Really?) Sunnis and Shi’ites, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Catholic and Muslim, Hindu and Muslim – and on and on. They don’t always just calmly agree to differ and go their separate ways, do they. It would be nice if they did but they don’t. So where is the force in making some special claim that attacks on/criticism of religion or religions are peculiar that way?Surely that idea is in fact part of what inspired and motivated ‘enlightenment rationalism.’ Isn’t it? Enlightement rationalism isn’t just some whim, a hobby, something to do of an evening, a ‘lifestyle’ choice. There are compelling reasons for preferring rational thought to the certainties of faith, and the marginalisation of ‘whole groups of people’ is emphatically one of them.

And then, religions also marginalise whole groups of people internally, within the religion. That’s one thing religions are: codified systems for marginalising and subordinating large groups of people. For instance, half of the people in question: all the women and girls.

Which is not to deny the point. Yes, criticising religion does run the risk of diminishing the general respect for followers of that religion. But then, again, that’s true of any system of ideas. But the problem is more obvious in the case of Islam, because Muslims are the targets of hatred now, they are being marginalised. True. And therefore criticism should be carefully stated. But it shouldn’t be discouraged or, well, marginalised.

Only Be Sure Always to Call it Please ‘Research’

Dec 5th, 2004 9:56 pm | By

Ever read any books about angels? No? No, I hadn’t either, but I’ve read bits of one now, and I must say, if you’re looking for a good laugh, books about angels (if this one is anything to go by, at least) are pretty damn funny. Books about Wicca are quite mirth-inducing, too.

With the angel book, I keep opening it at random, and the first thing I read is so absurd I find myself cackling before I’ve read ten words. I’m beginning to think that every single line of the book is packed full of unintentional humour. Shall I give you a taste? These are just random, mind – I haven’t actually searched out the most risible stuff.

The first one actually isn’t entirely funny, but the basic failure to connect the dots that underlies it, is.

At the time of 9/11, there were many stories of people seeing angels, which of course shows that God sent his legions of blessed angels to escort those dearest of souls to the Other Side and to bring the rest of us a message of hope.

Oh dear kind sweet thoughtful God, sending his blessed angels. Um – why didn’t he just send his blessed angels to stop the God-lovers in the airplanes? Or stop them himself? Because he has a Purpose, which is Inscrutable to us mere mortals. Okay, but in that case, we don’t know anything about it, do we, so why make factual statements of that kind? Because it’s fun, obviously. But the idea behind it – well really. So – little Kevin likes to torture small animals to death, and then when he’s done it he sends blessed angels to escort the souls of his victims to the Other Side. Do we think well of little Kevin? Dear Violet likes to set fire to people’s houses in the middle of the night and watch while the residents are immolated, then in the morning she sends her blessed angels to smooth their way to the Other Side (where, who knows, what greets them may be serried ranks of Kevins and Violets, all grinning fiendishly). In other words, how people can unite the idea of a kind helpful deity sending angels with one who just got through allowing a slow-motion mass murder to happen in the first place, is simply…beyond my humble understanding.

The very next bit:

The Archangels can heal, and they can carry messages, and they can do one more thing as well. They can take us out of our bodies and take us away on an astral trip. To go on an astral trip…we can call on the Archangels to help us, because these messengers can be the ones who come forward and whisk us right up.

Oh! I didn’t know that. Dang, silly me, I just wasted all that money on a plane ticket. I didn’t know one could just call on an Archangel instead. Okay, I see – so if one wants to take a plane one visits Expedia or some such, and if one wants to take an astral trip, one calls an Archangel. Got it. Next time I’ll know.

Another bit, under the heading Angels: Fact and Fiction:

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a few myths about angels. Since we’ve spent so much time talking about what angels are, it’s equally important to go over what they are not.

First of all, contrary to belief, there are no dark angels.

Oh. You know, you’ll hardly believe me, but there’s no footnote for that statement. In fact there are no footnotes in the whole book. Nor is there an index, nor a bibliography. So one’s strong curiosity to know exactly how Sylvia Browne (for it is she) knows this, is doomed to remain unsatisfied. No doubt she has stacks of scholarly references, or perhaps notes of her extensive experimentation and research, but her citation method is a little primitive. Which is to say she left it out entirely. Odd that an angel didn’t remind her. Well, I say ‘entirely’ – but to be fair there is a kind of blanket citation at the beginning, in the ‘Author’s Note.’ She has a guide named Raheim, ‘from India’ (well of course – where would he be from, Trenton N.J.?), and another named Iena, an Aztec-Inca woman (another no-show for the Trentonians), and the two of them have ‘conveyed countless hours of information’ to her. So consider that one big mega-meta-footnote for all factual statements. Astral trips, no dark angels[1]

[1] Iena, Raheim

Kind of pedantic, isn’t it.

Who Lives Happily?

Dec 4th, 2004 6:22 pm | By

Here we go again, again, again. It’s odd that this argument never seems to do any work, it just keeps recurring. It’s like listening to someone with a car stuck in the snow late at night, somewhere far down the hill – you just hear that rrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrr over and over, as the wheels spin and never bite.

Chris at Crooked Timber links to an article in the Financial Times (by far the best he’s read on the subject, he says) on the anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands after the Van Gogh murder. All eager for the treat, I hastened to begin reading. Alas, one problem with the article leapt out at me in the first paragraph, and then kept on leaping – to such an extent that I paused in my reading to go report the fact at CT, which meant criticising the article before I’d read a quarter of it. Well I’m an impatient bastard, always have been. But also that was kind of the point. It’s such a glaring problem and it’s so obvious right from the beginning – and yet people either don’t notice it or think it’s right and good.

Here’s that first paragraph:

Six weeks before he was gunned down in the street, the Dutch controversialist Theo van Gogh (pictured) sat on a panel in Amsterdam in a hall full of Dutch Muslims. The panel was organised by a group called “Ben je bang voor mij?” (”Are you afraid of me?”), which tries to bring together white and brown Dutch people.

And then here are a couple more quotes.

Suddenly many Dutch people see their country as a riven place, where Muslims and white people cannot co-exist, and which may be on the brink of disaster…Most of the 14m inhabitants of Europe’s most densely populated country were then white, but the Muslim population was growing fast.

Spot the flaw? Of course you do. ‘Dutch Muslims…white and brown Dutch people’ ‘Muslims and white people’ ‘then white, but the Muslim’. The guy seems to think that Muslim and brown are exact synonyms. Or, worse, he knows damn well they’re not but he writes that way in order to manipulate his less attentive readers into thinking they are. With, no doubt, benevolent intentions. Muslims in Europe (and the US) feel threatened and under attack, and racists can and do use criticism of Islam as a tactic. But obfuscation doesn’t help – or if it does it does so at the price of obscuring or concealing other problems. Religion is not race, race is not religion. Religion is a system of ideas which can and must be open to criticism. Race is not. Religions tell people what to do. Religions tell some people they’re entitled to rule and dominate others, and tell other people they are required to bow and submit to the dominants. Race doesn’t do that; it can’t; it has no ideational content, any more than hair colour or length of leg or shape of ear lobe has. That’s why one has to be kept permanently wide open to criticism and disagreement, and why the other can’t be. (What are you going to do, argue with someone whose legs are too short? ‘If they were longer you could run faster!’)

Kuper does make an attempt at dealing with some of the content-specific issues later in the article, but he does a very superficial job of it, leaving out the most crucial aspects.

According to multiculturalism, a society consists of blocs of ethnic groups each living happily within their own culture…Today the concept is going out of fashion in much of Europe. Critics say it locks people up in a fixed, imagined idea of what “Moroccan” or “Muslim” is.

It’s not just a question of fashion, and critics say a lot more than that (the best critics anyway). ‘[E]ach living happily within their own culture’ is a terrible oversimplification, or in fact simply inaccurate. Many women and girls don’t live all that happily ‘within their own culture’. Cultures are not monolithic; they don’t necessarily treat everyone equally; people within them don’t have identical experiences of ‘their own culture’. A culture may work in such a way that a dominant group lives happily while everyone else is subordinate and exploited. Pointing out that unpleasant fact is way more than a matter of ‘fashion’ – in fact if it were more fashionable, maybe reporters would do a better job of noticing and mentioning it.


Dec 3rd, 2004 8:53 pm | By

Here’s the Economist getting into the act on the ‘US universities are leftist strongholds by a factor of 9 to 1’ issue, and like a lot of journalism that discusses the subject, leaving some important aspects out. At least I think so.

Evidence of the atypical uniformity of American universities grows by the week. The Centre for Responsive Politics notes that this year two universities—the University of California and Harvard—occupied first and second place in the list of donations to the Kerry campaign by employee groups, ahead of Time Warner, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft et al. Employees at both universities gave 19 times as much to John Kerry as to George Bush.

Yes but there might be reasons for that other than political allegiance. Surely. Come on, Econ – think. Think hard. What is it about people who work at universities that might make them prefer Kerry to Bush even if Bush were a Democrat and Kerry were a Republican? Can you really not think of anything? Because I can.

Which one, for example, has a well-known habit of ridiculing universities themselves? Which one chuckles fondly about the bad grades he got at Yale? Which one got into not one not two but three elite schools despite lousy grades, simply because of his family name? Which one had educational chances that other people would give an arm for, handed to him, and then squandered them? Which one got job after job after job despite a conspicuous lack of ‘value added’ because, again, of who his daddy is and nothing else? Which one, when asked how he can make decisions without knowing the facts, answers ‘My instinct’? Which one systematically makes a virtue of his own ignorance and lack of curiosity? Which one makes a virtue of making snap decisions and then refusing to think about them further? Which one ran on a campaign that seemed to delight in calling its opponent an elitist merely (to all appearances) because he’s knowledgeable and articulate?

Isn’t it blindingly obvious? Don’t academics (and journalists, public intellectuals, private intellectuals, nerds, bookworms, wonks, scientists, artists, teachers) have every reason to despise Bush and think he is destructive, even if they are Republicans? Not to mention people who are not sure they much want to live with a Christian-right agenda, despite not being either Democrats or liberals. The Economist article doesn’t breathe a word, not a syllable of all that. And it should. That’s a very important part of the subject.

And then there’s this:

Meanwhile, a new national survey of more than 1,000 academics by Daniel Klein, of Santa Clara University, shows that Democrats outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences.

Okay, but then why don’t you tell us what the numbers are in the business schools, science and engineering, medical school? If B-schools are mostly Republican, why is there never any hand-wringing about that? Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re packed to the rafters with liberals too. But then why doesn’t someone say so?

Revisiting Bad Writing

Dec 3rd, 2004 12:06 am | By

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mark Bauerlein’s splendid article on ‘bad writing’ and ‘theory.’ I only have a few minutes right now, so I’ll just quote a little by way of marking my place and then return to the subject tomorrow.

The cheap partisan spirit reinforces the point made by Dutton, David G. Myers, Katha Pollitt, and others that the jargon and bloat of theory prose excludes every readership but other theorists—a damning claim given that the theorists purport to labor for social justice. The theorists counter that the writing they do isn’t bad; rather, it’s challenging, and that challengingness is precisely what makes it valuable to society at large.

Yup, that’s how the theorists counter all right. But (one wants to ask, sternly) have they never encountered any writing that is challenging without being jargony and bloated? Do they honestly think that jargon and bloat are an essential part of challengingness? Come on, now – I said honestly. Really? Really? You’re not pretending? You’re not just pretending to think the two are inseparable because you really really want to go on using the jargon because it makes you feel so clever and impressive and scholarly and, well, theoretical? Hmm?

Given their vulnerability to the bad writing charge, the theorists would profit from a dose of humility or, even better, humor. One reason for the popularity of the Bad Writing Contest was its antic nature. The very idea of a scholarly journal singling out one sentence for a mock award brought snickers from every adult who’d ever endured a semester with an ideologically-rigid, self-involved literature professor. Dutton solicited nominations on the Internet, consulted experts, and broadcast the final tally as if it were a Hollywood press release. This was in keeping with academic celebrity culture, recast in a dunciad mode, and observers got the joke immediately.

Snicker! ‘Academic celebrity culture’? Why, what can he mean? Nobody would be so silly as to think that academics – especially ‘theorists’ of all people! – could possibly be ‘celebrities’ – surely? Yes? You astonish me. Whatever next. Superstar checkout clerks? Celebrity chicken pluckers? World-famous dog sitters?

Non-academic intellectuals aren’t as easily cowed as are professors, and they will hold up every such accusation as evidence of the elitist, smug world of the ivory tower.

Maybe that’s why I get so irritated when people call me elitist. Because to me ‘elitist’ means people like the ‘theory’ crowd, who really are smug. I’m not like that! Honest, Auntie Em; I’m not. Or if I am, I’d better sign myself into a work camp for some drastic re-education through labour, right smart quick. Picking cotton with my teeth, perhaps, would be about right.

To be continued.

Idea Density

Dec 2nd, 2004 8:29 pm | By

Update: A report on the nun study. It’s interesting.

Women who scored poorly on measures of cognitive ability as young adults were found to be at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and poor cognitive function in late life, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Kentucky. The ground-breaking study of nearly 100 nuns found that the complexity of the sisters’ writings as young women had a great deal to do with how they fared cognitively later in life. Of the nuns who died, 90 percent of those with Alzheimer’s disease confirmed at autopsy had low linguistic ability in early life, compared with only 13 percent in those without evidence of the disease.

And another.

Sister Nicolette’s autobiography, written when she was 20, was full of what Dr. Snowdon calls “idea density,” many thoughts woven into a small number of words, a trait correlating closely with nuns who later escaped Alzheimer’s. One sentence in Sister Nicolette’s essay, for example, reads, “After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent.” Compare that to the essay of another Mankato nun, who is in her late 90’s and has performed steadily worse on the memory tests. The nun, who sat quietly by a window the other day, wrote in her essay, “After I left school, I worked in the post-office.”

So all those people who try to claim that it’s actually better to be ignorant and incurious and that that’s why Bush is a better guy than Kerry, are not only being silly and anti-intellectual, they’re encouraging everyone to increase their risk of Alzheimer’s. So yaboosucks!

I know, I know. Don’t bother to say it. It’s chicken and egg, it’s causation and correlation. It’s not clear whether the cognitive ability and idea density are causative or just correlative, so it’s not clear whether anything we do deliberately will make any difference. I know. But still. It might. Why take that chance, hmmm?

Words, Words, Words

Dec 1st, 2004 10:35 pm | By

I knew there was a reason. I knew it, I knew it. Right – the next time someone tells me I’m an elitist and pompous and pretentious and a show-off and generally horrible and intolerable, merely because I accidentally use a word that one might not find in a five-year-old’s vocabulary – the very next time, I say, I will have an answer ready. It’s because I don’t yet have Alzheimer’s. Surely that’s a good enough reason! Surely even the most dedicated warrior for populism will recognize that not (yet) having Alzheimer’s is quite a sensible reason to use words one was foolish and malevolent enough to pick up by accident at some point. Surely. I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to pick up pretentious words, but now that I’ve done it, well – it’s nice to know that the Alzheimer’s scenario is postponed for awhile.

Scientists have discovered the very first signs of Iris Murdoch’s final illness within the text of her last novel. Her vocabulary showed signs of damage at least a year before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they say…Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, remarked: “There was something different about Iris’s last novel. It was moving but strange in many ways.” Now his suspicion that the degenerative disease had damaged her literary skills long before it became obvious has been backed by a statistical analysis. This reveals that while the structure and grammar of Murdoch’s writing remained consistent, her vocabulary dwindled and her language simplified.

There you are, you see. Her vocabulary dwindled. And joking aside, it’s actually quite interesting. Her vocabulary got richer as she got older, and then as she got older than that, it went in the other direction.

“The smallest number of word types occurred in Jackson’s Dilemma and the largest in The Sea, The Sea, and new word types were introduced at a strikingly higher rate in both earlier books compared with Jackson’s Dilemma,” he said. “Moreover, the vocabulary of Jackson’s Dilemma was the most commonplace and that of The Sea, The Sea the most unusual. “This suggests an enrichment in vocabulary between the early and middle stages of Murdoch’s writing career, followed by an impoverishment before the composition of her final work,” said Dr Garrard…”Her manuscripts thus offer a unique opportunity to explore the effects of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease on spontaneous writing, and raises the possibility of enhancing cognitive tests to diagnose the disease.”

It’s not only interesting, it’s also useful. So you see, having a very slightly (accidentally, humbly) enlarged vocabulary is not something to shout at people for, it’s something to say ‘well done, you’ll help medical research if you become ga-ga as you almost certainly soon will’ for.

Joking aside again, it really is interesting. That nun study fascinates me. Mental activity does ward off Alzheimer’s – it is somewhat protective against it. Learning is protective against it, apparently. Which is quite good. Gives people an incentive to do something that they might then find of value for additional reasons. Somebody ought to suggest to George Bush that he might try it.

Famous for Being Famous for Being Famous

Dec 1st, 2004 1:18 am | By

And now back to the cult. Because the cult is interesting, cultishness is interesting, and above all, this kind of hyperbolic giddy gushing cultishness in people who (to all appearances) pride themselves above all on critical thinking, on looking closely at rhetoric, on peering behind the screen, on criticising ‘philosophical presumptions,’ on knowing ‘how to read’ – is so interesting as to be almost hypnotic.

So, here we are at the London Review of Books and here is Judith Butler Superstar again, writing about Derrida again.

First there are two paragraphs of resounding banalities. Then we start the third:

It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; his international reputation far exceeds that of any other French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics.

Noooo, it’s not uncontroversial at all. As ‘surely’ Butler must know. Unless she just really never does read anything or talk to anyone at all outside the world of ‘theory’? But even then you would think whispers would have got through. So why does she say that? To try to convince, presumably. It is surely uncontroversial to say that up is down. Right. And then no sooner are we past the uncontroversial bit and the ‘one of the greatest’ bit, than we get to the real clincher – the obsession of the theory crowd – his reputation. Okay, so this is what I don’t get. Reputation. Fame, renown, notoriety, superstardom, being heard of. Wouldn’t you think that this whole business of ‘fame,’ of who decides it, where it comes from, how it is conferred, what we’re doing when we talk about it, why we think it matters, how we measure it, how we use it to impress or convince or flatter or self-flatter; what a contemporary obsession it is, how new the resources are for creating it, how that influences the way we think about various things; wouldn’t you think that sort of thing would be exactly the kind of thing that self-described ‘theorists’ would be keen to interrogate and examine and re-think? To be, in short, a little distanced and detached and critical and skeptical of? Wouldn’t you? Above all, wouldn’t you think they would be interested in how very socially constructed it is? How the opposite of self-evident or ‘natural’ it is? And above all above all, wouldn’t you think it would occur to her that that international reputation is in fact the creation of people like her endlessly talking about Derrida’s international reputation? They create his fame in the very act of talking about it so obsessively. He’s ‘famous’ in the sense that he gets mentioned a lot, by the people who mention him a lot, because he’s so famous. It could hardly be any more tightly circular and self-enforcing.

So there you have it – one of the great ironies of our time. People who think they’re experts on challenging ‘philosophical presumptions’ who yet go in for such gormless fame-worship and deification. Very odd indeed.

Redefining Atheism

Dec 1st, 2004 1:17 am | By

Okay, by way of a vacation from Butler and Derrida and the frenzy of renown – I’ll mutter a word or two about John Gray’s peculiar idea of what atheism is. I thought of doing it yesterday, but the review is so very full of strange assertions and idiosnycratic definitions that I felt slightly overwhelmed, so I put it off. It would take pages and pages to do it justice; I’ll just mention one or two points.

Generations of secular thinkers believed that as science advanced, religion would fade away. In fact, the opposite has happened. Religious faith is thriving, and the secular faiths of the Enlightenment everywhere are in retreat.

Everywhere? Everywhere? No they’re not. (And besides, what’s that ‘secular faiths‘ nonsense? Never mind; we’ll get to that. But it’s interesting that he just shoves that in there as if it were beyond dispute.)

Socrates couldn’t have been an atheist for he lacked the very idea of God. He belonged in a polytheistic culture, and the concept of a single, all-powerful deity later propagated by Christianity was unknown to him.

What? Hey – I’m an atheist, and I tell you what, I not only don’t believe in one god, I also don’t believe in two gods, and three, and many, and many many. In fact, there are many one gods I don’t believe in. In fact again, there is an infinite number of gods I don’t believe in. Monotheistic, polytheistic, all-powerful deity, weak silly deity – I don’t care, I’m impartial, I don’t subscribe to any of them. I think that probably applies to most atheists. Probably pretty much all of them. In fact some wag (Bertrand Russell? Mencken? Twain? I don’t know – some joker) pointed out that Christians are atheists about all gods except their own, and that atheists just add one more to the list.

As we know it today, atheism is a by-product of Christianity. It is not a world-view in its own right but rather a negative version of Western monotheism, and can have little interest for anyone whose horizons extend beyond that tradition.

Nonsense. Who’s ‘we,’ for a start? The ‘we’ who know atheism today is any atheist in the world, not just the ones who live within shouting distance of John Gray. What is he talking about? Does he think there are no atheists in other parts of the world? Surely he can’t think anything so bizarre. At any rate, atheism ‘as we know it today’ is not a by-product of Christianity, it’s just the absence of theism. Now, maybe what he means to say is that ‘the way the word is often used in the West’ or something similar – in which case there would be something to it, although not much beyond the obvious. Sure, atheism in places where the majority religion is or was until quite recently Christian will naturally have taken root where it took root, and thus it will often refer to that religion rather than others. But not always, and certainly not necessarily. And then there’s that stuff about its not being a world-view in its own right. Who said it was? Who said it needs to be? The name itself explicitly abjures that idea – it’s not-theism. Obviously not-theism is not by itself a world-view; it’s a more or less polite refusal of one. When theism shuts up and leaves it alone, atheism is quite content to shrivel and become as vestigial as the appendix. Atheists don’t particularly expect atheism to have ‘interest’ for people with wider horizons; it’s not about being interesting; it’s just about not being a theist. People will insist on adding all sorts of connotations to the word, but that’s their addition, it’s not the word itself. It’s surprising to see John Gray doing that.

In his view of science, however, Dawkins is simple-minded in the extreme. Like Karl Popper, he sees scientific inquiry in highly Romantic terms as the disinterested pursuit of truth. In reality – as has been shown by work in the philosophy and sociology of science over the past 30 years – it is an immensely powerful social institution in which authority is as important as critical discussion, if not more so. As the ultimate arbiter of our beliefs about the world, contemporary science has more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday. This may not bother Dawkins, but it plants a sizeable question mark over his view of scientific inquiry as the ultimate embodiment of rationality.

Oy veh. Yes, science is an immensely powerful social institution; Dawkins knows that perfectly well, and says as much. And yes, authority is important in science (though whether it’s ‘as important as critical discussion’ is undecidable, because the phrase is meaningless – how would Gray know? Has he counted?), as is also well-known, because scientific knowledge is so immense and ramifying, it’s not possible to test everything, so any given scientist will know some things via authority rather than investigation. But it’s not the same kind of authority as that of the Church. It’s not based on revelation, it doesn’t have holy books, no one is declared infallible, and everything is always subject to investigation, testing, peer review, checking and re-checking. So that ‘more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday’ remark is just sheer – well, crap, frankly. And Gray thinks Dawkins’ view of science is simple-minded while his is – what – sophisticated, nuanced, clever? Oy.

How Dare They

Nov 30th, 2004 12:15 am | By

Let’s take a look at a letter from Judith Butler to the New York Times on that UC Irvine site to apotheosise Derrida. The letter is quite short, but full of matter. Dense with significance. Significance oozes out of every word.

Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary of Jacques Derrida takes the occasion of this accomplished philosopher’s death to re-wage a culture war that has surely passed its time.

A culture war. That’s significant. That implies that the only reason to say anything critical about Derrida or his reputation and standing, is that one is a cultural warrior, i.e. a right-winger. That doesn’t happen to be true; it’s not even close to true; saying it is merely a rhetorical way of grabbing some kind of moral high ground and of pretending that any criticism of Derrida is necessarily political rather than intellectual. Off to a good start, right in the first sentence.

If Derrida’s contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, the theory of painting, communications, ethics, and politics made him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, it is because of the precision of his thought, the way his thinking always took a brilliant and unanticipated turn, and because of the constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility.

The ‘most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times’? One, no he wasn’t, and two, what does that even mean anyway? What the hell does ‘renowned’ mean? And why on earth are literary ‘theorists’ always so eager to boast about how famous they are? Why are they so obsessed with celebrity and putative ‘superstars’? Why do they try to impress and cow their critics with ridiculous announcements of their notoriety? Okay, and apart from that – precision of thought is not considered to be Derrida’s strong suit, and even if it were – would that have made him ‘renowned’? Does it make everyone who can do it renowned? Butler sounds as if she thinks Derrida was the only precise thinker around (or perhaps merely in Europe). She really ought to read a little more widely. And that goes triple for the last phrase. Why would a constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility make anyone renowned? Lots of people do that. They don’t get renowned as a result. Butler seems to be claiming that Derrida and his acolytes (like her, for instance) have some kind of monopoly on precision of thought and reflection on morals and politics. That’s just a little presumptuous, I think.

Why would the NY Times want to join ranks with American reactionary anti-intellectualism precisely at a time when critical thinking is most urgently required?

And there it is again. Same thing. Criticism of or disagreement with Derrida equals anti-intellectualism, despite the many many intellectuals who in fact disagree with and criticise his work. And Derrida equals critical thinking, so criticism and disagreement with him is some sort of harm to critical thinking. It’s the airless, parochial, blind arrogance of that kind of thing that amazes. The way literary ‘theorists’ seriously think they and their heroes were the first to raise questions that people have been raising ever since Socrates. The way they try to monopolize and the way they try to claim credit for everything. And the outrageous way they try to rule criticism and disagreement out of court. The way they try to declare it not just wrong or inaccurate but illegitimate, blasphemous, lèse majesté. But hey, Butler is a ‘superstar,’ so I really have no business criticising her.