Notes and Comment Blog


The Whole Child Learns to Feel

Dec 1st, 2005 12:15 am | By

So, not content with our current level of credulity and vacuity and inability to think or judge or question or analyze or reflect, with, not to put too fine a point on it, our score on the stupidity meter, some parents are going to considerable trouble to do better – so that in a few short years no one at all will any longer be able to see what’s wrong with The World According to Bob Jones University Press ‘textbooks’.

Reporter Suein Hwang interviewed white parents who are pulling their kids out of elite public high schools, schools known for sending graduates to the nation’s top colleges. They are doing this, writes Hwang, because the schools are too academically rigorous, too narrowly focused on such subjects as math and science. Too Asian…White parents are putting their kids into private schools or moving to areas where the public schools are whiter, less Asian and less demanding. Where sports and music also are emphasized, and educators value, as one parent put it, ‘the whole child.’

Yes – the whole child. One not all warped and distorted and tipped over on one side by excessive book-thumbing. One not all nerdy and squinty and pencil-necked because of too much reading and not enough tv-watching. One not all defiant and rebellious like that horrible Mark Twain or all presumptuous and disrespectful of authority like that (pencil-necked) Emily Dickinson. We want our kids to be normal, by god – we want them to be ignorant and gullible and thoughtless and inarticulate like that nice fella in the White House. We want them to be ordinary, and humble, and modest, and average, so they can run for president when the time comes.

I sent that link (which Eric Berman sent to me) to Allen and he sent me this one in reply.

According to the Government, parents increasingly can no longer be trusted to teach qualities such as self-worth, restraint, friendliness, empathy and resilience to their children, so schools must assume the burden…Dinah Morley, the deputy director of the Young Minds charity, agrees. “Schools can no longer see themselves as just a place for learning,” she said. “They have to do the nurturing that so many kids are missing out on.”

Note that ‘just a place for learning’. Interesting, isn’t it. As if it were kind of small-minded and parochial of schools to think of themselves as ‘just’ – mere, only – places for learning. As if they really ought to pull their socks up and realize that they have better things to do, because learning is such a trivial, fussy, silly, time-wasting activity.

Actually that is exactly what a lot of people think. I once heard a teacher of my (very short-lived) acquaintance say that schools aren’t just for teaching ‘information,’ as she chose to call it, but at least as much for teaching social skills. The hell they are, I wanted to tell her, rather loudly and impolitely, but I didn’t. (Because I’m no slouch in the social skills department myself, unless I’m in a bad mood or feeling slightly irritable.) But I took note of her opinion, and began that very day to plot the resistance.

The guidance demonstrates the extent to which “emotional intelligence”, a term coined in 1995 by American psychologists to describe the ability to perceive, access and regulate emotions, is regarded by the Government as education orthodoxy. Education inspectors at Ofsted now routinely monitor schools and nurseries for how well they promote pupils’ emotional and social development.

You know…even apart from the ‘no thank you I’d rather be doing something else’ aspect, it just sounds so – revolting. So intrusive, so get away from me, so who do you think you are. It sounds almost Christian in its intrusiveness. The bastards are closing in on us – the Zeal-of-the-land-busy types from one direction and the brow-moppers and hand-holders from the other. We’re going to have Pat Robertson shouting damnation in one ear and some creepy empathist whispering damply in the other. It’s hell on earth, I tell you!

Not every one is convinced, however. Teachers complain that they are not paid to be psychologists, academics are worried that subject content is losing out to indefinable “skills”, while traditionalists think the responsibility lies with parents.

Ya think? Ya think teachers aren’t shrinks, and time spent on bedwetting won’t be spent on reading, and maybe parents should be doing the touchy-feely stuff?

“It is one thing to be sensitive to some students’ lack of confidence, or to refer individuals to a support service. It is another when students must fill in questionnaires about emotions and self-esteem and review these with classmates and teachers. Not only is it intrusive, but it elevates emotional needs as a concern and sidetracks teachers.”

Exactly. Never mind the whole child, never mind emotional literacy – stick with the kind of literacy that people need in a world full of graduates of Bob Jones U.



Abomination

Dec 1st, 2005 12:14 am | By

Sometimes the contempt and disgust (and dread) just become overwhelming. This California lawsuit by a gaggle of Christian high schools against the state university system for not crediting some of their courses is one of those times.

Among those courses are “Christianity’s Influence in American History” and “Christianity and American Literature,” both of which draw on textbooks published by Bob Jones University of Greenville, S.C., which describes itself as having stood for “the absolute authority of the Bible since 1927.”

‘Textbooks.’ ‘Bob Jones University.’ The ‘absolute authority.’ Of ‘the Bible.’ One doesn’t know where to direct the most rage and hatred, the profoundest disdain and incredulity. So let’s read some passages while we try to figure it out.

“United States History for Christian Schools,” written by Timothy Keesee and Mark Sidwell (Bob Jones University, 2001), says this about Thomas Jefferson. American believers can appreciate Jefferson’s rich contribution to the development of their nation, but they must beware of his view of Christ as a good teacher but not the incarnate son of God. As the Apostle John said, “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (I John 2:22).

That’s a history ‘textbook’. Well, look, you might as well use a ‘textbook’ that says ‘American believers can appreciate Frederick Douglass’s rich contribution to the development of Their Nation [cue pledge], but they must beware of his view of Bugs Bunny as a good role model for mischievous children but not the incarnate son of the Easter bunny’ and then gives a quote from The Wizard of Oz. And then pitch a fit and file a lawsuit when the University of California won’t credit courses in which such a ‘textbook’ features.

Or what about this half-witted bilge about the Progressive movement?

On the whole, they believed that man is basically good and that human nature might be improved. … Such a belief, of course, ignored the biblical teaching that man is sinful by nature (Ephesians 2:1-3). Progressives therefore also ignored the fact that the fallible men who built the corrupt institutions that they attacked were the same in nature as those who filled the political offices and staffed the regulatory agencies that were supposed to control the corruption.

So woe unto you, ye generation of vipers, if you think the evil corrupt sinful fallible froth froth gummint can ever possibly conceivably ever ever do anything to control corruption – oh no oh no, I say unto you, even as seven times seven, only the sinful by nature fallible bidness community can ever control the corruption of the sinful by nature fallible bidness community. Yea verily even as the fox alone can guard the henhouse, even as the prison guard alone can control the prison guard, even as the Christian alone can chastise the Christian, so no gummint nor political officeholder nor regulatory agency nor reformer can ever guard or control or chastise the bidness community, nay even as the Gadarene swine remove the mote from his eye, amen.

“Elements of Literature for Christian Schools,” by Ronald Horton, Donalynn Hess and Steven Skeggs (Bob Jones University, 2001), faults Mark Twain for calling God “an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master.” Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.

Not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth – like the kind the people of ‘Bob Jones University’ engage in? As these books – so redolent of honest questioning and truth-seeking – make so abundantly obvious? The deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel – one who should have been tortured and thrown into prison if not executed, no doubt.

Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her “religious” views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle “the one thing needful.” A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

Well how dare she. She had a presumptuous attitude. She had a ‘veiled’ (the sly, deceitful thing) disrespect for authority (authority like yours, no doubt). She viewed ‘salvation’ as not a certainty – in other words she lacked your pea-brained flat-headed aggressive hostile impervious impenetrable moronic dogmatic mindlessness. Well shame on her.

“Physics for Christian Schools,” by R. Terrance Egolf and Linda Shumate (Bob Jones University, 2004), addresses the question, “What is Christian about physics?” First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. … Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today. Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God’s Word.

So – you shouldn’t believe secular physics. So if the mood should strike you, you should feel free to take a shortcut from the roof to the ground by stepping off. Your lack of confusion and powerful faith in God’s word will cause secular physics to be suspended for your sake, and you will reach the ground as healthy and happy as you were when you stepped off the roof. We see this every day. Amen.

If these people would just shut up and go away – would settle together in some religious colony in the Arctic circle or somewhere – it wouldn’t be so bad. But of course they won’t. They want to force this shit on all the rest of us. I wish I were more confident that they’ll never succeed.



Imagine

Nov 29th, 2005 11:13 pm | By

Alienation is it. Here’s some alienation for you.

The family and friends of an 18-year-old girl, doused with petrol and set alight in broad daylight by the man she refused to marry, led a silent march through a Parisian suburb yesterday. Chahrazad Belayni is currently fighting for her life in intensive care after suffering severe burns on 60 per cent of her body. She is being kept in an artificial coma…She knew her assailant. He was a former workmate of Pakistani origin who was angry about her refusal to marry him. The man and a suspected accomplice are on the run.

Gee – what a loving gesture. Hard to imagine why she didn’t want to marry him.

Several hundred people marched to the town hall yesterday behind a smiling portrait of Chahrazad and a banner calling for “justice, liberty, respect”. “We are here to denounce this horrible act,” said the girl’s brother, Abdelaziz, who criticised the lack of public outcry following the attack. “We are here, not to call for revenge but that justice is done. We are here to denounce all violence against women: women must be able to say No or Yes”.

Say it, Abdelaziz. What a welcome change from the brothers who kill their sisters or slap them around. Let’s just all keep patiently talking and marching and persuading until all brothers see things that way and wouldn’t dream of slapping a woman, let alone dumping gasoline on her and setting her on fire. That’s not so much to ask – that’s not insanely utopian – and it’s certainly not ‘racist’ or Islamophobic or anything like it. You’d never know it to hear some fools talk, but it’s not.

The march was co-organised by Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Whores, nor Submissive), an association that tackles growing violence against women, mainly in France’s suburbs. “We are here to tell Chahrazad’s parents that they are not alone in this fight. It is not just a family problem. It is a problem for the whole of France,” said Fadela Amara, founding president of the organisation.

Say it, Fadela. They are not alone in this fight. Not just a family problem, not just the whole of France, it is a problem for the whole world. Women are neither whores nor doormats; we’re people.

Ni Putes ni Soumises has more than 6,000 members and 60 local committees campaigning against the repression of girls in largely Muslim housing estates, where the choice is either to adhere to strict clothing and behavioural codes or be considered to have loose morals. Yesterday’s march was, it said, a “tribute to all the victims of machismo”. Ms Amara said the organisation was overwhelmed by calls for help from women suffering from violence or forced marriages, and asked the government to give more concrete help, notably through campaigns in schools. The French minister for social cohesion and sexual equality, Catherine Vautrin, described the attack on Chahrazad as a “horrible illustration” of male violence against women, which claimed the lives of 163 women in France in 2003 and 2004.

Let’s hope Chahrazad survives – and can have a decent life in spite of the scars. Let’s hope Ni Putes Ni Soumises has such success that it’s no longer necessary, and evolves into a giant book discussion group. Let’s hope branches of Ni Putes Ni Soumises are formed in countries all over the world – including the UK, Canada, the US – until they too are no longer needed. Let’s hope that in much less time than we think, the situation will change and it will become simply unthinkable for men to attack women, all over the planet.



Fine Careless Rapture

Nov 29th, 2005 2:01 am | By

Tribulation. Got that? Think about it.

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Don’t mind me, it’s just this rapture site I’ve been looking at. It’s inspiring – is that the word I mean? No, not quite. It’s – baffling? No, that’s not it. Hilarious? Pathetic? Oh, it’ll come to me.

Okay so down to business. What, you’ve been wondering, is wrong with homosexuality? The FAQ section has a whole page all on its own to answer that important question, so I hustled right along to it, excited and hopeful that I would finally learn just exactly what it is that gets Christians (and other religious zealots too) so frantic with rage about homosekshality while other, one would think more pressing and significant, human wrongdoing is neglected. What, oh what is it, I muttered to myself as I clicked.

A whole lot of things, but mostly this: It’s an abomination to God.

Oh. That’s it. Period. Flatline. Dead end. That’s all there is. No, no, don’t get all excited – he doesn’t say what ‘a whole lot of things’ refers to – he doesn’t say what those things are. Nope. Not so much as a hint, not even about one of the things – just one measly little thing, wouldn’t you think he could –

I’m sorry. But anyway, he doesn’t. No, it’s just that it’s an abomination to God.

Poor God. So that’s what he’s up to up there? Sitting around chewing his fingernails and fretting and making his stomach hurt because of all these rampant prancing queers? So why’s it such an abomination? Why does it bother him so much? Why isn’t he more worried about stuff like torturing children in the belief that they are witches or possessed by demons? Or marrying off little girls to strangers as punishment for something their fathers or uncles or younger brothers did, or as it sometimes turns out didn’t do after all? Or blowing people up to make a point, or ruining the lives of everyone in entire countries out of religious zeal or eagerness to fill one’s pockets with money? Why does he have such odd priorities?

Do you suppose it could be the guy who runs this rapture site who thinks homosexuality is an abomination, and that he’s just saying it’s God who does? That’s a very suspicious thing to think, isn’t it. Or maybe it’s somebody he knew when he was a little boy, and he somehow got that person mixed up with ‘God.’ Maybe that’s it.

Anyway – the great ‘why’ remains unanswered. He has a whole page to do it in, but he never gets there. He has some words on the page, but they don’t say anything except it’s an abomination. Abomination, Bible quotations, Sodom, abomination, Bible quotations. That’s it. So the great mystery – what? what? what is it? what is the problem? why is it such a big deal? why does it worry you so much? why is it worse than murder, torture, cruelty, exploitation? what is wrong with you? – remains a mystery.

However the guy does have a practical side – he does think ahead. (Whew!) He has an answer for the question ‘How do you plan to maintain this site after the rapture?’

I have no master plan for maintaining Rapture Ready all the way through the seven-year tribulation. After the big event takes place, I expect RR to last several months. After all, the internet was designed to survive a nuclear war. It should be able to survive the great catching up of all believers. It is unlikely any one domain will be able to service the massive traffic surge that will be directed at all prophecy sites. The best hope for achieving enough bandwidth to allow for millions of people to view Rapture Ready’s content is for tribulation saints to mirror the site dozens of times.

So he’s quite sensible after all! Except for maybe just this one thing about being so obsessed with homosekshuality. Other than that he’s got his Arkansas (yes) feet on the ground.

Dang, I’m glad he’s in Arkansas. That’s a good two thousand miles from here, I think – maybe more. That’s very good. He probably won’t be knocking on my door or throwing stones at my window any time soon. I’m really pleased – well, relieved – about that.



Human First

Nov 28th, 2005 2:06 am | By

You should listen to Radio 4’s Inside a Muslim School . It’s rather horrible.

It’s about a very small school in Blackburn, mostly girls with a few boys in the primary grades. The headteacher (who is a man) explains the dress code:

According to the Islamic principle, women should not show their hair. So if the hair is not covered properly, then we will ask them to do so. That’s why they have to wear scarves.

And outdoors, ‘veils’ as well, we find out later – although a lot of girls don’t. But right off the bat they get this nasty, creepy, prying, domineering, bordering on prurient stuff of a Boss Man telling little girls that their nasty dangerous hair is showing, and to cover it ‘properly’. I don’t think that’s good for the way they think about themselves.

We hear a recitation in Arabic, and a lesson in which a teacher tells the students what the Koran thinks of homosexuality (it’s against it), and a teacher telling the credulous reporter that of course the students are taught to ‘question’ everything. Oh yes? Such as why anyone should care what the Koran thinks of homosexuality, or why the headteacher has nothing better to do than tell young girls he can see their hair?

The head says something interesting:

The only restriction is that, because of the Islamic principle, I can’t be very open with my female staff, like you would in any other school.

Oh is that all. The only restriction – as if that’s a small thing. As if it’s a minor point, that relations between adults who work together should be so warped and impoverished by ‘the Islamic principle’ – or what it’s taken to be. As if the free unafraid between-equals open interaction between adults were not one of the best aspects of modern life.

Mind you, he does at least notice it, and think of it as a restriction. But the school is all about restriction – that seems to be the point. There’s more to Islam than that, but you’d never know it.

The credulous reporter does point out that the school is not well-equipped, that there is no science lab and that ‘the school regards music as unIslamic’ (another pretty, enriching thought). And there’s a very interesting bit where she talks to a girl who left and went to a state school to do A-levels. She did not like al-Islah, and she loved the state school. But al-Islah was a friendly place, wasn’t it, the reporter urges – warm, safe? Safe, yeh, the girl said – and you could hear the thought ‘safe and suffocating, safe like a shroud’. But she didn’t like it, no. She wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

And one can easily tell why, throughout the show. It’s that creepy note of suspicion, of over-supervision, of surveillance as Lucy Snowe disdainfully calls it in Villette, of coercion and overprotection, of more concern with ‘Islamic principle’ than with intellect.

Another girl says they were taught they were Muslim first, and she doesn’t want to be taught that. ‘I’m a human first,’ she says – and one wants to cheer, and give her a full scholarship to Cambridge. Her mother is Muslim, but she never taught her they were Muslims first.

That’s the problem* with ‘faith schools,’ isn’t it: that’s what they teach. The credulous reporter keeps using the maddening phrase, too – ‘faith school’ this and ‘faith school’ that. She also refers to state school as a place where there are people of all different faiths. Period. As if there were no people of zero ‘faiths’ in the UK. I thought it was only in the US that people assumed that, but apparently not.

*Well, one of the problems.



When is Free Speech Unfree?

Nov 26th, 2005 8:03 pm | By

This question does keep coming up. And up, and up. When is free speech free speech and when is it incitement to murder? (That’s only one version of the question, of course. It can be phrased other ways. When is free speech protected as such and when is it not because it is incitement to violence? That’s another version. There are more.)

Scott Jaschik has an article at Inside Higher Ed where the question seems to be in play, although it’s not absolutely clear whether the people involved in the matter actually phrased it that way. It’s also not clear whether that was avoidance or just lack of clarity – confusion, in short.

An adjunct English instructor at Warren Community College in New Jersey resigned a few days ago, after an email he sent to a student who was organizing a pro-war lecture set off a controversy.

Daly’s e-mail said that “real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors and fight for just causes and for people’s needs.” He also wrote to the student, head of the campus chapter of Young America’s Foundation, that “I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like yours won’t dare show their face on a college campus.”

Stark enough. Does saying ‘real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors’ constitute free speech – protected, protectable free speech – or does it constitute advocacy of murder? Or are the two the same? Ought advocacy of murder – in certain circumstances, or in any and all circumstances – to be considered free speech and protected as such? And does saying ‘until groups like yours won’t dare show their face’ constitute a threat, or is it clear that he means ‘dare’ in the sense of ‘for fear of shame and embarrassment’ rather than ‘for fear of being attacked’?

In interviews conducted as conservative groups organized a campaign to have him fired, Daly stood by the substance of his e-mail…But Daly said that since she had sent her e-mail from a personal account, and he had replied from a personal account, there was no reason for the college to be involved. He also said in an interview on Sunday that he was not advocating a literal revolt by soldiers, and that he would have replied with a different tone had he realized he was communicating with a student.

Enter mitigating circumstances. He thought he was sending a personal email. Casual conversation is subject to different norms from publication. On the other hand email to strangers perhaps falls somewhere between those two categories. Or perhaps not. Using threatening language to a stranger is different from using it to a friend; whether or not the threat applies to a third party also changes things; whether the more clearly threatening language applies to a distant third party while the more ambiguous language applies to a group that the stranger belongs to, also changes things. Complicated, isn’t it. As the president of WCC said.

Austin called the First Amendment “the most precious freedom all Americans share,” and said that he was “committed to working unceasingly” to protect the freedom of speech of students and faculty members at the college. But he said that he also had an obligation to enforce state laws and college policies “to ensure that all members of our college are free and encouraged to exercise their right to free speech without fear of intimidation or retaliation.”

There seems to be a real knot here, one that it’s hard to cut through. Daly seems to be in trouble (and hence to have resigned his job) merely for something he said in what he thought was a personal email. But the wording of his email was at least arguably somewhat intimidating, and intimidation is not a trivial matter. (Ask any civil rights worker or union organizer.) Threats and intimidation are where free speech law and practice and theory get very, very tricky.



The Wisdom of Solomon

Nov 26th, 2005 2:14 am | By

Who’s Deborah Solomon? I don’t know, apart from the fact that she writes for that monument to mediocrity, the New York Times. She says dumb things in this article on Lynne Truss’s new book on rudeness.

To be sure, most people, regardless of the precise elasticity of their flesh, would like to live in a world where everyone respects one another. Yet Americans have always harbored a suspicion of manners, which evoke visions of English history at its most hierarchical and hoity-toity – of dukes, earls, lords and viscounts tripping over one another in phony displays of deference and veneration. Who would want to live with all that kneeling and curtsying, all that monarchy-mandated fawning? Not the American revolutionaries, who believed that a fluid class democracy should subscribe instead to “republican manners” and promptly did away with titles.

Manners evoke visions of hoity-toity hierarchies, of earls and dukes, of kneeling and curtsying? What is she, an idiot? What’s kneeling got to do with anything? What have dukes? Manners is about things like not pushing in front of people, not grabbing things, not making a noise when people are asleep or studying nearby, being grateful when people do something kind, doing something kind yourself now and then, helping people when they need help – it’s about being considerate, and attentive, and observant, and kind, and helpful, as opposed to being selfish and mean and careless and greedy. Dukes and kneeling are neither here nor there. It’s imbecilic to think they are.

In our own time, the belief that manners reinforce social inequalities was key to the upheavals of the 60’s, when the shaggy-haired counterculture broke every rule in Emily Post’s book of etiquette.

What belief? What belief? What belief? What cretin ever believed that? Manners don’t reinforce social inequalities – low wages reinforce social inequalities, along with signs saying ‘Whites Only’ and landlords who don’t rent to coloureds and people who go out on Mississippi back roads at night with guns. Does Deborah Solomon think racial segregation and union-busting are now or have ever been carried on in a polite manner? Does she think the goons who beat up the Reuther brothers did it in a ducal manner? Does she think the white people who expected black people to yield the sidewalk to them were polite about it? Does she think the white folks were polite to Rosa Parks that day? What can she be talking about?

But bad manners are not necessarily all bad. In 1996, in an essay titled “Seduced by Civility,” the critic Benjamin DeMott defended rudeness not only as a basic right but also as a necessary inducement to change and social progress. Indeed, who wouldn’t rather live with incivility – with the curse words in rap songs and the excessive chatting in movie theaters – than with inequality?

Eh…what? Those are the choices? Those are the only alternatives? You can have civility, or you can have equality, but you can’t have both. The one displaces the other. Kind of like the way you can be on top of Mt Everest or you can be in Fulham but you can’t be in both places. But – why would that be? Why would it be at all, even a little bit? Why would it be even microscopically true? Why wouldn’t it in fact be the opposite of the truth? Why isn’t it far more likely that equality goes with the idea that everyone should be treated politely, not just the rich or the white or the elaborately-dressed? Because…the same idea works if everyone is treated rudely? Is that it? Is that the idea? If so, it’s a hateful idea. To repeat – manners aren’t just some posh frill, they’re not about spoons, they’re about treating people decently. They’re basic. Arguably the same idea is behind manners as is behind equality – simply that people should be treated decently. Treating people badly on principle is not a good plan; I’m against it.

In her new book, Truss remains mostly silent on the subject, forgoing social analysis in favor of groaning about the status quo.

Forgoing social analysis. Of the kind you just did? That kind of social anlysis? Gee, I wonder why.

And finally – as she winds things up – the coup de grâce.

For what are manners, anyhow, but a distancing device, a mechanism for widening the spaces between people?

How true! How true, how wise, how deep. What, indeed, are manners, anyhow, but a way of shoving people back as hard as you can. Yes sir. The way to pull people close to you and give them a great big fuzzy hug is to run over them as they cross the street, push them when you want to get past, elbow them aside when you’re in a hurry, park your car in the middle of the sidewalk and then laugh when they fall down as they try to maneuver around it in the ice and snow, blow smoke in their faces, bump into them in crowded shops and then call them names for being in your way – and so on. Yes indeed – there’s intimacy for you, there’s closeness and trust and narrowing the spaces between people.

I tell you what – I just crossed Deborah Solomon’s name off the guest list for my next dinner party. Thank you.



M. Arouet

Nov 25th, 2005 9:27 pm | By

Voltaire. The Philosophical Dictionary. Good read.

What can be said in answer to a man who says he will rather obey God than men, and who consequently feels certain of meriting heaven by cutting your throat? When once fanaticism has gangrened the brain of any man the disease may be regarded as nearly incurable. I have seen Convulsionaries who, while speaking of the miracles of St. Paris, gradually worked themselves up to higher and more vehement degrees of agitation till their eyes became inflamed, their whole frames shook, their countenances became distorted by rage, and had any man contradicted them he would inevitably have been murdered.

Sound familiar at all?

There is no other remedy for this epidemical malady than that spirit of philosophy, which, extending itself from one to another, at length civilizes and softens the manners of men and prevents the access of the disease. For when the disorder has made any progress, we should, without loss of time, fly from the seat of it, and wait till the air has become purified from contagion. Law and religion are not completely efficient against the spiritual pestilence. Religion, indeed, so far from affording proper nutriment to the minds of patients laboring under this infectious and infernal distemper, is converted, by the diseased process of their minds, into poison. These malignant devotees have incessantly before their eyes the example of Ehud, who assassinated the king of Eglon; of Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes while in bed with him; of Samuel, hewing in pieces King Agag; of Jehoiada the priest, who murdered his queen at the horse-gate. They do not perceive that these instances, which are respectable in antiquity, are in the present day abominable. They derive their fury from religion, decidedly as religion condemns it.

The ‘respectable in antiquity’ thing is irony. Very Gibbonesque – which is to say, Gibbon’s irony was very Voltairean. Gibbon is a good read too.



A Happy Tune

Nov 24th, 2005 10:58 pm | By

Time for some heavy-duty mocking and sneering. At the Guardian’s ‘Islam Awareness Week’, for a start.

Religious hate crime is on the increase in the UK, according to the latest Crown Prosecution Service statistics – a worrying trend that the government is attempting to tackle in its Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which creates the new offence of incitement to religious hatred…Much of the Islamophobia experienced by young British Muslims is the result of a legacy of ignorance about the beliefs and practices of Islam.

No doubt. But, sadly, some of it – depending on how the Guardian is defining ‘Islamophobia,’ of course – could also be the result of knowledge about some of the beliefs and practices of Islam. Especially if by ‘Islamophobia’ the Guardian means simply dislike or disapprobation of some of the beliefs and practices of Islam, that could well be the result of knowledge rather than ignorance. This article seems to assume that more knowledge of beliefs and practices of Islam will necessarily lead to increased admiration of them. But that is merely an assumption.

The article points us toward this site where we find this lovely page on ‘Family Life’.

It is usual for the men to meet at cafes or meeting places and women to meet together at one of their homes. It is rare for men and women to meet publicly. In the home visitors will be met by the man of the house, women stay in the background.

Ah. In other words, it is usual for men to be able to go out in the world and to go wherever they like, and it is usual for women to be confined at home. Men act like grown-up people, women act like stupid frightened children. That is usual.

On the seventh day of a baby’s life his or her hair will be shaved off and the equivalent weight of gold given to the poor. An offering follows. Two sheep if it is a boy and one if it is a girl.

Because, of course, a boy is worth twice as much as a girl. Obviously.

They are expected to work hard in school, can be treated quite strictly, (especially the girls), and expected to spend time with their families.

A sinister note.

Arranged marriages are usual with in a muslim community. Most young people are happy that their parents will make a good choice for them.

Ah. Asked them, have you? Asked, especially, the women? Asked them with no men present? (No, of course not, because you can’t, so that’s out.) How exactly do you know, then? And why do you even think it’s likely?

It is very unusual for a Muslim man to have more than one wife. He is able to have up to four but he must be able to provide fairly and equally for all of them. Occasionally it might happen that if a Muslim man’s wife cannot have children or she becomes very ill and needs looking after, then the man will take a second wife but it is not common.

Oh is that how it works! Occasionally if a woman becomes very ill, her husband will take a second wife to look after the first one – I see! I didn’t realize that. What a charming custom. One wonders what the second wife gets out of it, but it’s certainly nice for the first one.

Once a Muslim lady become a wife her first responsibility is to look after the home and family.

And of course because of the arranged marriage thing, along with the being worth only one sheep instead of two thing, and the not being allowed to go out thing, a Muslim lady doesn’t really have the option of not marrying at all, so if she happens to be a person who doesn’t in fact want to look after a home and family, well that’s just too fucking bad, isn’t it.

Divorce is not really acceptable to Muslims. It is considered to be the worst possible occurrence, it is distasteful and only allowed only in extreme circumstances though of course it is a legal option even if not a cultural one. If she is divorced a woman becomes the responsibility of the men in her family.

And on those vanishingly rare occasions when divorce does happen, it is made beautifully easy because the man has only to recite the talaq three times and hey presto that is the divorce. (This rule does not apply to the woman.) The men in the family of a divorced woman are not always best pleased to see her, and are sometimes apt to kill her in a fit of temper when they think she might have done something to their honour by being a divorced woman. If she doesn’t have any men in her family, she starves, of course. And quite right too.

So there you are, children; now all your nasty Islamophobia will go away, won’t it. A little knowledge works wonders.



If They Could They Would

Nov 24th, 2005 9:30 pm | By

Hey, happy anniversary, Origin of Species. It was published on this date in 1859.

Susan Jacoby writes in Mother Jones:

When the Supreme Court…ordered two Kentucky counties to dismantle courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the Court majority was wrong because the nation’s historical practices clearly indicate that the Constitution permits “disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.” The Constitution permits no such thing: It has nothing to say about God, gods, or any form of belief or nonbelief – apart from its absolute prohibition, in Article 6, against any religious test for public office and the First Amendment’s familiar declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” From reading Scalia, a Martian (or polytheist) might infer that the establishment clause actually concludes with the phrase “free exercise thereof – as long as the faithful worship one God whose eye is on the sparrow.” The justice’s impassioned dissent…is a revealing portrait of the historical revisionism at the heart of the Christian conservative campaign to convince Americans that the separation of church and state is nothing more than a lie of the secularist left.

Yet another reason truth matters. Historical revisionism is a fine thing – it is, as Eric Foner points out, what historians do – if it gets things right, but if it gets them wrong, it’s horrid. The kind that tells the truth about what happened at Nanjing and Auschwitz, in Armenia and Bosnia, is good; the kind that tells lies about it is bad. It’s no good pretending there is no difference, or that the difference doesn’t matter.

The revisionist script goes something like this: The founders were devout men who based their new government on Christian teaching (the religiously correct invariably use the term “Judeo-Christian”); they were unconcerned about religious interference with government and cared only about government interference with religion; and, last but not least, there was no tension between secularism and religion in the nation’s halcyon early decades, because everyone accepted God as the source of civic authority.

That bit about caring only about government interference with religion, not religious interference with government, is why we so often hear that fatuous (and ominous, and irritating) parrot-cry that Joe Lieberman is so fond of: ‘The founders gave us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.’ Well at least that has the virtue of honesty – at least we know where we are with that. No, you don’t get to have freedom from religion, the government can force it on you if it feels like it. Sit still and be quiet.

Confronted with the Constitution’s silence on divine authority, revisionists repeatedly fall back on the specious argument that since everyone took God’s omnipotence for granted in the 18th century, there was no need for the framers to make a special point of mentioning the deity. If that were true, there would have been no bitter debates in the states about the nonreligious language of the Constitution…It is ludicrous to suggest that men as precise in their use of words as Adams and Madison would, perhaps in their haste to get home to their wives, have simply forgotten to mention God.

Besides which it’s not even true that everyone took God’s omnipotence for granted in the 18th century. There have always been atheists, and there were more of them than hitherto usual in the 18th century.

Arguments relying on custom, bolstered by personal religious belief, have great potency when presented to a public with a shaky grasp of even the most fundamental facts of American history…”Oh! Lord!” Adams complained in 1817 to his old friend and rival Jefferson. “Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland, Pensilvania, New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would.” If they could they would. Wherever and whenever they could, they did – and that is why the revolutionary generation bequeathed the unique gift of a secular Constitution to future Americans.

Let’s hope we can hang on to it.



Simulate This

Nov 23rd, 2005 7:52 pm | By

Mick Hartley commented on a review of Postmodern Psychoanalysis Observed yesterday. The review says some odd things.

A key tenet of postmodernism is that both internal and external reality are social constructions, reflecting (among other things) an individual’s cultural background, his language and his past and present experience. In the empirical setting, postmodernism has led to a resurgence of constructivist research and an emphasis on cultural relativism in any discourse.

Tenet. A key tenet. What is a tenet, anyway? Just kind of like an attitude? A hunch? A wild surmise? An ‘as if’? A sillybuggers idea that you know isn’t true but like to mess around with anyway? Something you like to say to make people roll their eyes and ask to see your travel papers? My Concise Oxford says it’s a principle, dogma, doctrine. Yeah, dogma – that fits. Because really – external reality is a social construction? Just like that? The objections to that are too obvious to be worth making – along the lines of ‘Okay, let’s see you jump off that building then.’ (Dawkins made the familiar observation about social constructionists at 30,000 feet.)

It may be that what the reviewer means, and what some postmodernists mean, is that our ideas or knowledge or beliefs about external reality are social constructions – but then they really need to say that, don’t they. And it may also be that the reviewer and some postmodernists mean that external reality itself is a social construction – in which case they’re barking mad and not worth reading. And a third possibility is that they mean the first but say the second in order to confound and mislead the general public, in which case they’re posing irresponsible frauds and still less worth reading.

In clinical setting, postmodernism has led to greater focus on narrative truth and skepticism regarding the relevance of objective research methods to all important psychological and psychopathological issues.

Oh, has it. Has it indeed. How very convenient. Skepticism regarding the relevance of ‘objective’ research methods – because subjective, i.e. evidence-free hunch-based inner-knowledge-driven ‘research methods’ are so much better. Because ‘narrative truth’ i.e. whatever story anyone feels like telling is so much better than plain old non-adjectival truth. Narrative truth, story truth, fun truth, what I like to say truth, ego-puffing truth, dramatic truth, exciting truth, colourful truth – all so much better than the plain unadorned kind. Hooray for postmodernism.

So to Baudrillard.

All of our values are simulated. What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.

Really!? Is it! Nothing to do with – oh, let’s see – the freedom to talk to other people, even strangers, even people of (breathe deeply now, stay calm) the opposite sex? The freedom to work? The freedom to walk about in the world? The freedom to go to school, even to university, even to graduate school or law school or medical school? The freedom to read? The freedom to write? The freedom to say ‘No’ to a marriage to someone one doesn’t want to be married to? The freedom to walk around in the world with one’s entire head even including the face and the whole of the neck naked and unclothed and bare? The freedom to write poetry? The freedom to have a book of poetry published? The freedom to write a book of poetry and have it published and succeed and win a prize? The freedom to write a book of poetry and have it published and succeed and win a prize and not be murdered for it? Is that a simulation? I don’t know – I have all those freedoms, myself, and I have to say I don’t regard them as simulations. I might, if I didn’t know there are other people in the world – women, actually – who don’t have all those freedoms – who don’t in fact have any of them, not one – and who end up as bleeding heaps of flesh as a result – but I do know that, so I don’t.

So I think Baudrillard is a damn fool for saying that. (It looks as if the interviewer thought so too. Good on her.)



At the Libre Pensée

Nov 22nd, 2005 11:23 pm | By

Just one more thing. The first three paragraphs of this review of biographies of Rousseau and Voltaire in the Nation. They’re good.

After all, the great battles of the Enlightenment had burned out long before. Religious intolerance and fanaticism were no longer matters of major concern. Indeed, for many of my French fellow students, the great enemy was the Enlightenment itself. Every week they would cram into a crowded lecture hall at the Collège de France to hear Michel Foucault, then in the last year of his life, explain how the eighteenth century saw the imprisoning of the Western world in a straitjacket of mental discipline. They struggled to grasp the quicksilver sentences in which Jacques Derrida deconstructed the criteria of rationality and truth that eighteenth-century philosophy had taken as axiomatic. They spoke derisively of an Enlightenment that had culminated not in modern democracy but in Auschwitz.

Yes and I kept asking plaintively ‘So what would you like instead? What do you want instead of the Enlightenment? What do you propose to use instead of rationality and truth?’ And by gum – you’ll be amazed to hear this – answer came there none. So I sat down and folded my hands and waited patiently for B&W to come into existence.

Today, things look rather different. Pace Foucault, enlightened psychiatrists and prison reformers do not seem particularly dangerous compared with suicide bombers and book burners. In the twenty-first century the Enlightenment appears anything but the triumphant imperial “project” denounced by vulgar postmodernists. Its heritage is fragile and endangered. Admittedly, its works remain in the “canon”–but perhaps only because they go largely unread in certain quarters. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, for instance, a public university system asked all entering students to read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, with its deep, deliberate offensiveness toward Christianity.

No need to wonder – the merde would hit the fan, that’s what.



Crime and Punishment

Nov 22nd, 2005 10:22 pm | By

So, another village council in Pakistan is having some fun with the local female population.

A village council in Pakistan has decreed that five young women should be abducted, raped or killed for refusing to honour childhood “marriages”.

Really…what can these people be like? I can’t entirely get my head around it. What can men be like who solemnly get together and decide that five young women should be abducted, raped or killed? Why don’t they embarrass themselves? Why don’t they sicken themselves and each other? I can understand how people can do horrible things in a temper – but this calm cold-blooded judicial-seeming official-like ‘decreeing’ business – this monstrous business of punishing other people – and weaker, more defenseless other people at that – for something done by different people entirely – it’s so brutal and disgusting and contemptible and just plain chickenshit one wonders how they can stand themselves. I mean, what’s the deal? A man does something, but they don’t punish him, because what? he’s a man and he might slap them, so they punish various women who have nothing to do with it instead, because the women won’t slap them, because they know they would immediately be torn into shreds and fed to the dogs?

The women, who are cousins, were married in absentia by a mullah in their Punjabi village to illiterate sons of their family’s enemies in 1996, when they were aged from six to 13. The marriages were part of a compensation agreement ordered by the village council and reached at gunpoint after the father of one of the girls shot dead a family rival. The rival families have now called in their “debt”, demanding the marriages to the village men [be] fulfilled.

Yes, well, that’s fair.

Amna Niazi, the eldest of the five at 22, is taking a degree in English literature, while both her sisters want to attend university. Their fathers are supporting them and have refused to hand them over…The women have said they will commit suicide if their fathers obey the council. Speaking at their home in Sultanwala, a remote cotton and sugar-cane growing village, Amna said: “It is a great injustice that should be ended. Why should we pay for a crime committed by someone else? We will commit suicide if it happens. We would be treated like animals by them. Our misery would never end as this is just another way of using us as tools in the feud.”

You know – sometimes I get a feeling that a lot of men in Pakistan don’t much like women.



Hacker and Lost Emails

Nov 22nd, 2005 9:47 pm | By

So now I’ve got one with the big flower or shell-shapes against the glass doors, on my desktop. Mick takes a good picture.

I’ve only just realized there may be another problem with the hacker and the email. My old editor-at-B&W address isn’t working – I assume it’s been disabled with the rest of the email – and it doesn’t tell you it isn’t working. I didn’t know any of this until a few days ago when I sent myself a test mail and used that address (because it comes up first in the address list) – and it never arrived. It didn’t tell me it had failed, it just didn’t arrive. So it’s only now occurred to me that some readers may have been emailing me at that address – in which case I don’t know it and they don’t know I don’t know it. If so – boy I hope they read this particular comment, and I’m really sorry, and they should re-send, and I’m not ignoring them.

Damn hacker. I don’t think one single person has bought the Dictionary since hacker struck, and now I’m being inadvertently rude and ignoring people’s emails.



Nature and Art

Nov 22nd, 2005 6:34 pm | By

Gosh, Xmas has come very early this year. Kind Mick Hartley sent me seven blisteringly gorgeous pictures from Kew. Really – when I saw the second I kind of squeaked – the fifth made me exclaim aloud – and the sixth and seventh made my eyes feel all funny. I have to say, I think this is one of the best art ideas of all time. Tracy Emin can keep her old unmade bed; give me Chihuly curled fluted curved shell-like flower-shapes in iridescent colours posed against a pair of glass doors in the Temperate House.

I immediately stuck one on my desktop – looking across the Palm House pond toward the museum, with the glass bobbling things in the foreground and the boat full of multicoloured objects just barely visible in the back, and the fountain and the museum and the trees – and I just keep gazing fondly at it, with my mouth hanging open foolishly.

You have until January 15th. You’re silly if you miss it.



Philip the Spy

Nov 21st, 2005 10:50 pm | By

Philip Pullman is eloquent on identity and related subjects. He makes the point that ‘What we do is morally significant. What we are is not.’ Which relates to what I (and other people) keep saying about the religious hatred bill: that religion is not the same kind of thing as race, because it’s not what you are, it’s what you do (and doing includes thinking). Yes, it’s not always easily voluntary, but it’s still not as unchosen as ‘race’ is.

At its extreme, it can lead to a sort of cognitive dissonance, when people claim an inner “identity” that has nothing to do with their actions: “Yes, I murdered my wife and children, but I’m a good person.”…So “being”, in the eyes of many people, apparently has its own moral quality, which may be good or bad, but which is resistant to any form of change except the miraculous (being born again). “Being” trumps “doing”.

Probably that guy in Herat thinks he’s a good person.

It’s hard to convey the sheer bafflement and distaste I feel for this attitude towards “identity”. I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internal, and double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike “identity”, must include what we do. And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest (“gay”, “black”, “Muslim”, whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It’s crowd-thought.

That’s exactly what it is – in more than one way. It’s a crowd way to think, and it’s about thinking of oneself as part of a crowd.

For myself, I like it best when I have no such simple and public “identity”. I don’t know what I “am”, and I don’t especially want to. But I know full well that I am free to feel anonymous and invisible, which I like feeling…

Oh, yeah. Same here. I like to go out in the world, to walk to and fro in it, like a spy. Unnoticed, unseen, unwatched.

There’s a great deal more – it’s a long piece, and very good. I have to go, I have some spying to do.



Dead Poets Society

Nov 21st, 2005 10:20 pm | By

This is an absolutely horrible story.

She risked torture, imprisonment, perhaps even death to study literature and write poetry in secret under the Taliban. Last week, when she should have been celebrating the success of her first book, Nadia Anjuman was beaten to death in Herat, apparently murdered by her husband…“She was a great poet and intellectual but, like so many Afghan women, she had to follow orders from her husband,” said Nahid Baqi, her best friend at Herat University…Herat, in particular, has seen a number of women burn themselves to death rather than succumb to forced marriages. Anjuman’s movements were being limited by her husband, her friends believe. She had been invited to a ceremony celebrating the return to Herat of Amir Jan Sabouri, an Afghan singer, but failed to attend. Her poetry alluded to an acute sense of confinement. “I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow,” she wrote in one “ghazal”, or lyrical poem, adding: “My wings are closed and I cannot fly.” Afghan human rights groups condemned Anjuman’s death as evidence that the government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to address the issue of domestic violence.

I don’t think domestic violence is really the right term for it. It doesn’t really cover it. It suggests (to me anyway) mostly sporadic, exceptional violence against a background of at least some basic rights and freedoms. What women like Nadia Anjuman face is more systematic institutionalized coercion and subordination against a background of no rights at all. Of being forcibly married, then told what to do and kept in confinement by a man who owns her whom she didn’t want to marry, and then murdered by him.

Women were banned from working or studying by the Taliban, whose repressive edicts forbade women to laugh out loud or wear shoes that clicked. Female writers belonging to Herat’s Literary Circle realised that one of the few things that women were still allowed to do was to sew. So three times a week groups of women in burqas would arrive at a doorway marked Golden Needle Sewing School…Once inside the school, a brave professor of literature from Herat University would talk to them about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other banned writers. Under a regime where even teaching a daughter to read was a crime, they might have been hanged if they had been caught.

Teaching a daughter to read was a crime. Because…? What? Because if a daughter knows how to read she might pick up a book or newspaper that has some semen on it and it would accidentally fall into her and get her pregnant? What?

One of them, Leila, said that she stayed up till the early hours doing calculus because she so feared that her brain would atrophy. “Life for women under the Taliban was no more than being cows in sheds,” she said.

Well, I guess that’s why. Because a woman with an atrophied brain is like a cow in a shed. She doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t talk back, she doesn’t run away. Makes life easy.



His Majesty’s Dog at Kew

Nov 21st, 2005 9:35 pm | By

I saw about fifteen minutes of a thing on tv last night about the Chihuly glass exhibition at Kew. It made me long to be in London and be able to go see it. Really long. Any of you been?

I love – really love – the Palm House and the Temperate House anyway. And with – well, look.

And look. You can see why I want to go.

All of you who can, go, and take pictures, and send them to me for Xmas. Have fun, now.



More Straw

Nov 20th, 2005 11:45 pm | By

Nicholas Buxton. Why don’t I beat up on Nicholas Buxton a little. I’ve never heard of him before, but I think he’s silly, or else slyly rhetorical (it can be so hard to tell which). More of the same old gabble – why atheism is wrong and confused and befuddled.

It is a secularist article of faith to maintain that religion will soon be eliminated as a by-product of “progress”.

No it isn’t. Next?

No but really – how stupid. Of course it isn’t!

Atheists complain that religion proposes unprovable accounts of life and death. But this is uninteresting.

No we don’t.

What a berk. We criticise religion for not proposing but dogmatically asserting and shoving in all our faces accounts of various things that are not supported by evidence and are highly implausible. That’s quite a different matter from ‘complaining’ about ‘unprovable’ accounts of anything.

Death is obviously a fact, but how we make sense of that fact is not the sort of question that could be subject to “proof” any more than a painting could be judged “wrong”. Insights into human nature derived from the plays of Shakespeare may be equally “unprovable”, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful, useful or true. The atheist’s first mistake, then, like the fundamentalists they often object to, is that they completely miss the point.

Oh, Christ. No kidding, no kidding, and no we don’t, because we know all that, you fool. God I hate it when people put quotation marks on their own wildly erroneous versions of what other people say or think. He’s the one who says we say ‘unprovable’ when we don’t and then he drops in all these bogus citations of ‘unprovable’ with the quotation marks as if he’d gotten that from somewhere other than his own stupid assertion! What a mess of an ‘argument’.

Faith has nothing to do with certainty: it is not a set of closed answers, but rather a series of open questions with which to engage.

Oh really. Maybe in the circles you hang out in, but not in all circles where ‘faith’ is considered a virtue. To put it mildly.

I recognise that life’s potential for meaninglessness requires us to give it a meaning it would not otherwise have. This is the function of religion.

No it isn’t. One, it may be one of the functions of religion, but it’s not the function of religion, and two, it’s not the function or a function of religion alone. Other ways of thinking also give life a meaning it would not otherwise have.

The alternative is nihilism. If we truly believed that life was meaningless, we would have no reason to get up in the morning – ultimately, the most rational thing to do would be to jump over the edge of a cliff.

Oh, please. Why would that be rational? ‘Hey ho, life is meaningless. Whaddya know. Well, here I am, I’ve just finished writing this book, I’m going to Italy tomorrow, next year I’m going to China, I’m learning to play the cello, a friend is coming over for dinner tonight and afterwards we’re going to the theatre, this afternoon I’m going to go for a walk in the mountains, I have a bowl of fresh peaches for breakfast, the coffee smells good, the Trout Quintet is playing on the radio, it’s a gorgeous day, oh look, there goes a bald eagle – but life is meaningless, so obviously the most rational thing to do is go jump over the edge of a cliff.’

Without religion’s insight that human beings are essentially flawed, we lose all checks on our hubristic pride, and risk making a false god of our own scientific genius, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that society advances in tandem with science.

Oh? That depends on what you mean by ‘society advances’, I suppose. If you want to live in a world without antibiotics, anaesthetic, dentistry, electric light, efficient heating, sewer systems, public transport, efficient agriculture, abundant cheap books and music – well, go ahead, but I think of all those things as social advances. That does not however mean that I make a ‘false god’ (whatever that means) of our own (our own? certainly not mine!) scientific genius.

Can religious arguments really be as deeply unimpressive as the ones we keep seeing in the newspapers? Can they really not do any better than this? Surely that’s not right. Surely they can say something persuasive and somewhat sensible. Surely…



The Community Community

Nov 20th, 2005 7:45 pm | By

I said it first, I said it first. Okay no I didn’t, because people don’t write Observer columns in ten minutes – but I said it before I saw this.

…and so, it was reported, there was great excitement in ‘the HIV community’, just as a subsequent debunking of the claim led to equal disappointment, also in ‘the HIV community’. Now, given that there are 40 million people in the world with HIV infection, you might think it improbable that, for instance, an orphaned baby in Malawi is doing a lot of communing with a drag queen in Chelsea or a junkie on the streets of Chicago. But never mind; the merry shorthand that parcels them together went unchallenged, as it always does.

This is what I’m saying.

Not an eyebrow was raised when a recent BBC broadcast, reflecting upon violence in Birmingham, included three phrases used within the same minute: ‘the black community’, ‘the Asian community’ and – or should we say but? – ‘white people who live in the area’.

Yes it was, yes it was – my eyebrow shoots up and down like an elevator at lunch hour. I did do some eyebrow-lifting about ‘community’ talk and the Birmingham riots.

The word trips lightly off the tongues of politicians, police and media. We have ‘the Muslim community’, ‘the gay community’, ‘the international community’ (fabulous oxymoron that it is, but it was used twice on yesterday’s Today programme)…If there is any rational intent behind the abuse of the term, it’s probably that it’s meant to sound warm, cuddly and inclusive…In fact, it is the antithesis of inclusive; it is the wholly artificial creation of a single entity by those who, almost by definition, live outside it.

Yes, but it’s then picked up by the people who live inside it. It works as a kind of crowbar or grappling hook to extract ‘respect’ and unctuous attention from those who live outside it.

By the same token, I suggest that there might be a man or a woman, somewhere in, say, Bradford, with four drops of two-generations-old Pakistani blood in their veins and whose self-perception is that they are, first and foremost, superb doctors or great golfers or even – imagine the thought! – British. But if they live within a stone’s throw of the murder of a police officer, and any among this weekend’s vox-popping cameras catches them in the street, you can bet your last rupee that their broadcast views will be introduced with: ‘Members of the Asian community are concerned…’ Thus are brown citizens categorised, with the gabbiest among them – often with no other discernible qualification, let alone election to office – equally carelessly branded ‘community leaders’.

Well exactly, exactly, exactly. People can be (and are) first and foremost anything and everything, and they don’t always feel like being grabbed and bundled into the ‘Asian community’ box. And as for the unelected unqualified ‘community leaders’ – well, we know. We’ve discussed this quite a lot.

Officials, reporters and commentators would, no doubt, feel uncomfortable with stark words like ‘black’ or ‘brown’ which, in truth, are often all they really know of their subjects (although, as noted, there seems to be no difficulty with ‘white people who live in the area’). Nevertheless, they need to find a better way to ease their discomfort than by enrolling complete strangers into ‘communities’ to which they may have no wish to belong and which might not, even, exist.

Well said.