Notes and Comment Blog

Everyone for Miles Around is Offended

Aug 4th, 2006 1:19 am | By

And then there’s the tragic clash of world views (or Weltanschauungen as we call them in old Stuttgart) between the Gay Police Association and ‘Christians’ i.e. some Christians.

An advert placed by the Gay Police Association (GPA) that claimed a 74 per cent rise in homophobic incidents due to religious belief has caused widespread offence among Christians…The GPA advert has also prompted a police investigation. The Metropolitan Police says the inquiry “centres on whether the advert constitutes a faith crime”.

A – what? A what crime? A faith what? I know about the religious hatred bill and all, but so do you guys now have something called a ‘faith crime’ that the police investigate? Seriously? For real? Isn’t that just a little…alarming? Isn’t that like Rowan Atkinson’s and Salman Rushdie’s worst nightmare come true true true? Are you all sure you’ve panicked enough?

“The suggestion is that if you get rid of faith, you get rid of homophobic attacks,” believes the Reverend George Hargreaves, leader of the Christian Party, who also sits on a number of Metropolitan Police committees and steering groups. “I believe this whole matter has left us with evidence that the Gay Police Association is Christianaphobic, and I therefore think an investigation is the right course of action. I also believe that the chairman of the Gay Police Association, Paul Cahill, should resign.”

Other than that, of course, the Rev George is as liberal and broad-minded a fella as you’d want to meet – all he wants is for the police to investigate ‘Christianophobia’ and for somebody to resign (as chairman? as cop? he doesn’t say). Modesty itself.

The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) is among the faith-based organisations that are questioning the rise in incidents that the advert refers to…”The incidents need not be criminal offences and may be lawful expressions of opinion, such as an opinion that adoption by gay couples constitutes a risk to the welfare of children.”

Uh…or such as that the Bible fosters homophobia – that kind of expression of opinion. So if yours isn’t theirs isn’t, and if theirs is yours is. You don’t get to make it that yours isn’t but theirs is. Nuh uh.

Cahill says the purpose of the advert was not to cause offence, but to raise awareness…Among other people who were offended by the advert was Dr John Dubbey of Norwich, who believes proof is required to back up the GPA’s statistics.

Come on, Cahill, you know nobody cares what the intent is; if offence occurs, then it is offence, and people are offended, and intent to raise awareness is entirely beside the point. It’s a faith crime to offend people. Like Dr John Dubbey of Norwich. Dr John Dubbey of Norwich is offended – along with other people. People were offended, Cahill, don’t you understand? Offended! They were offended! And there you are swanning around talking about awareness. You should not only resign, you should go on a pilgrimage to someplace nasty and rub dirt on your head.

Meanwhile, J Hale of Sutton says: “We were horrified when we saw a copy of the advert. It does not take into consideration my human rights to religious freedom and to freedom of conscience as a Christian. It is an affront to what I believe in to see the mockery behind the portrayal of the Holy Bible and, presumably, the blood of Jesus Christ, and the words that accompany it.”

Um – who’s J Hale of Sutton, and who cares what it says, and why? And who’s ‘we’? And where did J Hale say all this, and to whom, and when, and why? And why is the Indy collecting what it says? Besides – Sutton – I ask you. Who cares what people in Sutton think?

Time for a Spot of Fractal Maneuver

Aug 3rd, 2006 7:38 pm | By

Okay a great tidal wave of opinion, by which I mean one person, has demanded a post on the contribution of high theory to the Israeli military. I never resist surges of opinion; I splash about in them like a happy little child playing in the surf. By which I mean, that is quite an intriguing piece, isn’t it.

The Israeli Defence Forces have been heavily influenced by contemporary philosophy, highlighting the fact that there is considerable overlap among theoretical texts deemed essential by military academies and architectural schools.

Oh, that fact. Well, one can see that both military academies and architectural schools have a genuine and keen interest in the subject of buildings – but one can also see that it’s a fundamentally different kind of interest. One is up the other is down; one is together the other is fissile; one is assemblative the other is disassemblative; one knits the other unknits; one constructs the other – okay you get it. But anyway it appears that there is more to all this than the theoretical and practical differences between piling bricks on top of one another and knocking them all to the ground.

…the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. If, as some writers claim, the space for criticality has withered away in late 20th-century capitalist culture, it seems now to have found a place to flourish in the military.

Oh dear – has the space for criticality withered away? The way the state was supposed to but didn’t so much? I didn’t know that. Here I’ve been dancing around in my little space for criticality (as well as nagicality and mockicality and derisionicality) in blissful ignorance, unaware of the walls creeping ever closer. But that’s how it goes, innit – late coughcough capitalist culture makes the space for criticality wither away the way it always does, the pesky thing, but happily the military comes along and saves it and gives it a place (or a space) to flourish. That must be ironic. Or do I mean de-centered.

Kokhavi, commander of the Paratrooper Brigade…said…’We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps.’

The hermeneutics of alleys and doors and windows. Cool.

Kokhavi’s intention in the battle was to enter the city in order to kill members of the Palestinian resistance and then get out. The horrific frankness of these objectives, as recounted to me by Shimon Naveh, Kokhavi’s instructor, is part of a general Israeli policy that seeks to disrupt Palestinian resistance on political as well as military levels through targeted assassinations from both air and ground.

Uh…yeah. And this came as a surprise to you? You’re taken aback by this horrific frankness? Uh…what did you think the objectives were then? To enter the city in order to teach members of the Palestinian resistance how to embroider? Are you sure you have a firm grasp of what words like ‘military’ and ‘battle’ and ‘weapon’ mean?

In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Way cool. That’s what I call a rich, well-rounded life – combining warfare with referencing the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Doncha think? It’s kind of like Socrates fighting at Potidaea, or those Renaissance men who wrote poetry with one hand and stabbed cardinals in the back with the other. Exciting and erudite both at the same time.

I asked Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that ‘several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us…allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise. It problematized our own paradigms.’

I love the smell of problematized paradigms in the morning.

That’s not even halfway down the page – there’s a lot more. Read it all.

Arranged Marriages

Aug 3rd, 2006 12:14 am | By

There were some very interesting (and alarming) comments (by one ‘tarxien’) on this post by Sunny on the Brick Lane fuss by (the comments say) a GP who has seen some distressing examples of arranged marriage.

There is a very fine line between ‘arranged’ and ‘forced’…This is an issue I feel strongly about because as a GP working in Tower Hamlets and south London I have seen many desperate, depressed women in ‘arranged marriages’. None of them could be called ‘forced’ in that the women were not tied up and raped as has happened in some cases but you cannot ignore the emotional pressure that is put on young women by their families (i.e fathers in most cases). Once married these women have no realistic way out if they are not happy. Their own family disowns them once they are married. I could tell some shocking stories but space prevents me.

Then later:

Some of the worst cases of abuse I have seen in my practice are precisly where, either a British bengali woman has been forced or shall we say ‘persuaded’ to marry a man from Bangladesh who does not speak English or understand British traditions of womens’ rights or alternatively where a Bengali woman has been brought to Britain as a wife to a British man. The woman does not speak English and is extremely isolated, separated from her family and culture, often with a man who despises her for her ‘backwardness’.
In both cases it is the women who suffer. Obviously there are cases where the marriage works I would not dispute that. But there are a lot where it does not. There is usually a feeling among professionals – doctors, social workers etc, that we cannot intervene because it is a ‘cultural ‘issue and would upset the community.
I cannot begin to describe the frustration I have felt in having to walk away and leave these women knowing that their life is intolerable. One woman told me clearly that, after 15 years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse from a man who told her on their wedding night that he had only married her to obtain a British passport, that she was waiting until her daughter was old enough to look after herself and she would then take poison. She had tried leaving but her own family refused to take her in and told her to go back to he husband or the family would be disgraced. Shortly after this the family disappeared and I do not know what happened to her.

Do any of you know of any good books or articles on this? I’d like to know more.

Oxygen of Publicity

Aug 1st, 2006 9:30 pm | By

How come novelists are so violent? Why are they always running around swinging baseball bats and roughing people up? Are they on steroids or what?

Novelists Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and Lisa Appignanesi have attacked community groups, the police and the media after Ruby Films decided to move shooting of an adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane out of London’s Tower Hamlets area last week.

Wow. That seems like a lot of people for three unathletic novelists to attack. Did they draw blood?

The criticism follows a march organised by the Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane yesterday which drew no more than two women and 70 older men. Threats of violence and book-burning failed to materialise.

Ohhhhh, I see – Richard Lea means they criticized all those people, but he chooses to call that ‘attacking’ them. Hmm. Odd choice of word. Maybe that’s because it was the Guardian that made the protest of a few guys sound like the outrage of the whole ‘community’? Or maybe not, maybe it was just an odd choice of word with no sinister motivation.

“After the damp squib of the anti-Monica Ali protest in Whitechapel on Sunday”, said Rushdie, “it is clear that, as many of us suspected, there are no strong feelings in and around Brick Lane about the proposed film of Ms Ali’s eponymous novel.” He called for “all those who over-reacted in this matter”, including the police, the film company, Channel Four, the news media and “the censor’s friend” Germaine Greer to “admit their mistakes, so that the film can be completed, and we can move on.” “We cannot allow small numbers of ‘offended’ traditionalists the power of censorship,” agreed Appignanesi. “Mr Salique’s campaign, the media and the police’s willingness to accept him as a representative, are shaming to the proud history of Brick Lane…”

In other words, stop cheering on tiny groups of male ‘protesters’ who want to silence novelists and playwrights especially when they’re women.

Natasha Walter seconds the motion.

But there can be no justification for trying to suppress fiction because it has not measured up against some irrelevant yardstick. What Germaine Greer meant when she said that, because of the novel’s supposed inaccuracies, “the community has the moral right to keep the film-makers out” is a mystery. Some people may have the power to do so, but nobody has the moral right to stamp on the cinematic recreation of this humane tale.

Not even if they’re offended? Hm. What a thought.

The bad thing about this controversy is not only that one side is barking up the wrong tree, but also that the media have followed the barking of certain voices to the exclusion of other voices in this community…Journalists and commentators have to think again about why we choose whom we do to represent a community.

And, I would add, whether calling anything and everything a ‘community’ doesn’t help along the very line of thought that is the problem here: that ‘communities’ are monolithic and united and cemented together by communal solidarity so that whatever noisy chump pipes up with the loudest voice can properly be assumed to be speaking for the whole ‘community’ because otherwise – um – someone with an even louder voice would be piping up?

Pola Uddin, the only Bengali woman in the House of Lords, was indignant when I asked her why we weren’t hearing more women’s voices in this debate: “Our voices aren’t sought! The media are not interested in in us.”

That’s for sure. The media are interested in wheeling out Bunglawala every thirty seconds, not in going looking for some pesky woman to talk to. Why is that?

People on the left should not feel that in order to support marginalised communities in their fight for more social justice we have to align ourselves with their most reactionary elements. That’s why we need not get caught up in the rhetoric of a clash of civilisations to go on supporting core values of tolerance and freedom of expression. These values are supported by people within every community, as well as by people who understandably feel they have no community that can speak for them, and so would rather speak for themselves.

Well said.

Follies of the Wise

Aug 1st, 2006 12:31 am | By

I’m reading Frederick Crews’s Follies of the Wise, which is terrific; don’t miss it. I thought I would give you a bit that resonated strongly with me.

When I began distancing myself from Freudianism around 1970, it was because of a growing, and personally vexing, sense that psychoanalytic ‘knowledge’ is acquired and certified by fatally lax means. I realized at that juncture that my deepest loyalty was not to any particular doctrine but to empirical rationality itself – the ethos that characterizes not just science but every investigative discipline worthy of the name. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by irrationalist movements that make a strong appeal to educated people who ought to know better. [page 344]

Well. It may be obvious why that resonates with me. It’s a pretty succinct and eloquent statement of the point of B&W. First the fact that my deepest loyalty is not to any particular doctrine but to empirical rationality itself, and then the fascination with educated people who ought to know better (and who teach other people, so ought to be especially careful and responsible) playing with irrationalist movements and failing (often flatly and explicitly refusing) to give their deepest loyalty to empirical rationality itself. That’s B&W, in a nutshell.

That has prompted me to ponder a little the question of why my deepest loyalty is not to any particular doctrine but to empirical rationality itself. It’s perhaps a slightly strange way to assign one’s deepest loyalty – loyalty usually seems like the kind of thing that is owed to more passion-inspiring entities than empirical rationality. It usually seems like the kind of thing that goes with inspiring doctrines but not so much with methods of inquiry. And yet deepest loyalty is the right phrase; that does describe it; it’s cognitive but also emotional; the two are thorougly entwined. So the question is why is that? I’ve come up with one version of an answer; I might write a book around it; but I’m not sure I’ve completely explored the question. We’ll see.

Rank Superstition

Aug 1st, 2006 12:18 am | By

Did you enjoy the Times article about the study that found – o wonder – that churchgoers are superstitious? Were you dumbfounded, gobsmacked, astonished, staggered, amazed, knocked for a loop – in short, were you surprised? I can’t say I was. What surprises me is that anyone thinks there’s a tension between the two. I know people do think that (there was that hilarious item a few months ago about some cardinal at the Vat complaining about that very thing – about people believing all sorts of bizarro superstitious nonsense) but it still surprises me that they do. It seems to me that they’re not quite thinking things through if they think that. They’re not asking themselves why it’s sensible to believe one superstitious thing and absurd to believe another. (I know, I know, I know – that helpful nag who likes to tell me I’m secular religious or similar without ever explaining what he means by that is, if he bothers to read this, triumphantly telling himself that I am riddled with superstitions but just don’t know it. Let the court so stipulate.) What exactly is the criterion by which they know superstition from superstition-free religion? Just that they’re – you know – different?

According to a study, nearly all churchgoers admit to practising superstitious behaviour such as crossing their fingers for luck, touching wood for protection or throwing spilt salt over their left shoulder…The Christian Church has always been highly antagonistic towards superstition, believing it to be irrational and linked to paganism. Through the Dark and Middle Ages, anyone suspected of using traditional charms to secure good or bad luck for themselves or others would usually be burnt at the stake or drowned. The victims were nearly always women.

I don’t think that’s accurate. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Gledhill seems to be conflating the witch trials in the 15th-17th centuries with the sanctions on using charms from the 4th century onwards. I really don’t think everyone suspected of using a good luck charm in that period was killed – there’d have been no one left. But never mind that; the real question is what ‘the Christian Church’ (the what?) means by ‘irrational’ and at exactly what place on the map it draws the line between the rational and the irrational.

The research was carried out by a team at the University of Wales, Bangor, led by Leslie Francis, Professor of Practical Theology and the country’s leading exponent of the sociology of religion…In the paper, to be published in the Journal of Implicit Religion, the authors say that the findings contradict the hypothesis that Christian teaching precludes superstitious beliefs.

Well…how could it? Unless you simply take the resurrection as not a superstitious belief – by defining it that way. But that would be a rather glaring bit of special pleading. So…how else is it done?


Aug 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

The Interrogations Archive

Where’s My Chalky Makeup?

Jul 30th, 2006 8:04 pm | By

I had one or two things in mind to talk about before I tottered over to the computer, but they done got swept out of my mind and displaced from the agenda by reading this review by Simon Blackburn of several books on truth one of which was a book on truth that I take a particular interest in, owing to my fondness for the fly-specked lightbulb on the cover. It’s a funny thing…I’ve noticed it before…and probably mentioned it before…it’s a funny thing, but the reviews of this book 1. keep rolling in and 2. keep being surprisingly favourable. Or not at all surprisingly, you may want to urge, battering down my native modesty and diffidence. But – well, they’re not just favourable, they’re – you know – surprisingly favourable. Surprising kind of meaning very as well as surprising.

Oh well – I won’t go on. I’d like to, but I won’t. You get my drift, I daresay. I really am surprised. It’s the old Groucho Marx joke – you know the one.

So anyway here’s what the professor of philosophy at Cambridge said about the lightbulb book:

Postmodernism is often billed as attacking truth and science. This is how it is presented in the valuable little book Why Truth Matters, by the editors of the sceptical website, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. They mount a spirited counterattack, reminding us – in the way that Cambridge philosopher GE Moore was famous for doing – that if it comes to a battle for hearts and minds, basic convictions of common sense and science beat philosophical subtleties hands down. Where Brian King horrifies us with his liars, Benson and Stangroom reveal a parallel rogues’ gallery of social constructivists, who look at how individuals and groups participate in the creation of their own perceived reality. These “rogues” include the feminist Sandra Harding and the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, but the doyen must surely be the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour. Latour’s confusion of words and things led him to the precipice of denying that there could have been dinosaurs before the term was invented. Presumably a similar argument would show that nobody before Crick and Watson had DNA. Why Truth Matters is an excellent example of philosophy done well but also, and not coincidentally, made accessible and exciting. Truth matters, it tells us “not in a dull perfunctory dutiful sense, but in a real lived felt sense – ‘on the pulses’ as Keats put it”.

So you see what I mean. Surprising.

Jew Boy in Delaware

Jul 29th, 2006 8:43 pm | By

Okay. Another biscuit has been decisively expropriated. Words once again fall down on their duty and decline to give me the aid and sustenance I requested. My usual simple credulity is unable to encompass this particular manifestation. In short, I am stunned. And disgusted.

After the graduation, Mrs. Dobrich asked the Indian River district school board to consider prayers that were more generic and, she said, less exclusionary. As news of her request spread, many local Christians saw it as an effort to limit their free exercise of religion, residents said. Anger spilled on to talk radio, in letters to the editor and at school board meetings attended by hundreds of people carrying signs praising Jesus. “What people here are saying is, ‘Stop interfering with our traditions, stop interfering with our faith and leave our country the way we knew it to be,’ ” said Dan Gaffney, a host at WGMD, a talk radio station in Rehoboth, and a supporter of prayer in the school district.

No, actually, that’s not what people there are saying. What people there are saying is, ‘Stop trying to use a public facility that is by law open and free to all citizens in a more constitutional manner and instead put up with using it in an unconstitutional manner that we here, the majority who claim to have been here longer than you the outsiders and Jews have, prefer and want to impose on everyone including you you Jews because these are our traditions and our faith and those are two holy sacred words that stand for two holy sacred things that no outsider Jews are going to interfere with so stop interfering with them or else get out and actually we’d prefer you to get out because we don’t like Jews and if they get pushy we call them things like Jew boy.’ That’s what people there are saying.

More religion probably exists in schools now than in decades because of the role religious conservatives play in politics and the passage of certain education laws over the last 25 years, including the Equal Access Act in 1984, said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a research and education group. “There are communities largely of one faith, and despite all the court rulings and Supreme Court decisions, they continue to promote one faith,” Mr. Haynes said. “They don’t much care what the minority complains about. They’re just convinced that what they are doing is good for kids and what America is all about.”

Yes. And that’s why people like me hate them and fear them. I do fear them. I wish I thought there’s no reason to, but I can’t manage it. They keep gaining more and more power. And they’re not nice people – but they think they are the very nicest people – even as they call other people Jew boy. That makes them scary. They’ll be banishing or killing people next, all the time thinking they’re just the nicest folks you’d want to meet.

Until recently, it was safe to assume that everyone in the Indian River district was Christian, said the Rev. Mark Harris, an Episcopal priest at St. Peter’s Church in Lewes.

No it wasn’t. The rev may have thought it was, but it wasn’t; it’s never safe to ‘assume’ you know what everyone thinks, and Christianity isn’t a genetic attribute, it’s what you think; you can’t just ‘assume’ everyone thinks it simply because you live in a small coercive narrow-minded parochial intolerant place.

“We have a way of doing things here, and it’s not going to change to accommodate a very small minority,’’ said Kenneth R. Stevens, 41, a businessman sitting in the Georgetown Diner. “If they feel singled out, they should find another school or excuse themselves from those functions. It’s our way of life.”

And they’re just a bunch of Jews, so that settles that.

Mrs. Dobrich…described a classmate of his drawing a picture of a pathway to heaven for everyone except “Alex the Jew.”…A homemaker active in her children’s schools, Mrs. Dobrich said she had asked the board to develop policies that would leave no one feeling excluded because of faith. People booed and rattled signs that read “Jesus Saves,” she recalled. Her son had written a short statement, but he felt so intimidated that his sister read it for him. In his statement, Alex, who was 11 then, said: “I feel bad when kids in my class call me ‘Jew boy.’ I do not want to move away from the house I have lived in forever.” Later, another speaker turned to Mrs. Dobrich and said, according to several witnesses, “If you want people to stop calling him ‘Jew boy,’ you tell him to give his heart to Jesus.”

Notice, depressingly, that Mrs Dobrich herself doesn’t seem to get it – she doesn’t want separation of church and state, she doesn’t want secular schools, she just wants a little less detail and specificity. Notice that she originally asked the ‘school board to consider prayers that were more generic and, she said, less exclusionary’ – rather than asking them to drop prayers in school altogether. Notice that she wants policies ‘that would leave no one feeling excluded because of faith’ but apparently doesn’t mention feeling excluded because of no ‘faith’. Notice what a horrible clash of tyrannical certainties it all is. Why can’t they all just shut up about their ‘faith’ until they get home, why can’t they just go to school to learn stuff and do the praying in their living rooms?

But no. That’s not how that works. It works the other way. Hosannah.

The only thing to flourish, Mrs. Dobrich said, was her faith. Her children, she said, “have so much pride in their religion now. Alex wears his yarmulke all the time. He never takes it off.”

Peachy. One fanaticism creates another.

All Together Now

Jul 28th, 2006 8:35 pm | By

Here’s another odd or at least interesting comment. From an article on global happiness and what seems to cause it and why Denmark is Topp.

Adrian White from the University of Leicester in the UK used the responses of 80,000 people worldwide to map out subjective wellbeing…He said he was surprised to see countries in Asia scoring so low, with China 82nd, Japan 90th and India 125th, because these are countries that are thought as having a strong sense of collective identity which other researchers have associated with well-being.

A strong sense of collective identity is associated with well-being? Well, if researchers have found that (but have they found it, or merely done the associating themselves? hard to tell) then perhaps it is. But it seems a peculiar idea. You could have a strong sense of collective identity as a pack of losers or failures or victims or starving downtrodden forgotten human refuse. Would that be associated with well-being? Or you could have a strong sense of collective identity as a pack of delusional unthinking ignorant fundamentalist god-besotted fatuous arrogant buffoons who elect such another to be the most powerful human being on the planet. That can happen. It happens to me whenever I read or hear an acid comment about Americans on the BBC or the Guardian. It irritates me, because it’s not as if he was elected unanimously, after all, but however much it irritates me, one, I understand the feeling of shock and disdain all the same, and two, facts are one thing and perception is another and that is the way a lot of people think of Murkans – Lionel Shriver just yesterday for example: ‘Apologies for the condescension, but honestly: when even the American public (more than two-thirds of whom support this research) achieves a consensus on an issue, it can’t be too hard to resolve.’ (Geddit? If even the notoriously dumb American public can figure it out, it can’t be too diffy.) That’s the perception, and I’m a Murkan, so when I read that that becomes my collective identity and I have a strong sense of it. But it’s not much associated with well-being.

In short, I can see how such a sense would enhance well-being under certain circumstances, but I can just as easily see how it would do just the opposite – and that’s before we even consider the claustrophobia of the idea. So – I thought it was odd or anyway questionable.

What Does That Mean?

Jul 28th, 2006 7:55 pm | By

Wait – what does that mean?

Islamic tradition explicitly prohibits any depiction of Allah and the Prophet.

That doesn’t make any sense. In fact it makes non-sense. How can ‘tradition’ ‘explicitly’ prohibit anything? It can’t: that’s why it’s called tradition to distinguish it from law. Law can, obviously, explicitly prohibit things, but tradition can’t, it can only implicitly prohibit them. Tradition isn’t written down or codified; it’s fuzzy; it’s implicit; it has blurry edges. It’s the very opposite of explicit.

We can probably figure out what happend with that goofy sentence. I think when the Motoon fuss started a lot of media reports claimed that the Koran explicitly prohibited any depiction of A and the P, but then a lot of other people pointed out that actually the Koran doesn’t, that it’s a tradition rather than a Koranic law. So the reporter decided to split the difference – don’t say it’s the Koran, lest people write in and say ‘can’t you get it right?’ – but still say it ‘explicitly prohibits’ because that sounds so much sterner and more binding and holy and thus more of an outrage and provocation and offense for people to do, and there is (it appears) a journalistic impulse to do that – to emphasize the bindingness and the outrage – so as to – to – to distance oneself from those naughty people at Jyllands-Posten, I guess. That’s all interpretation; I don’t know that that’s why that silly sentence is there; but if that’s not why, then why? Would the BBC say for instance ‘Christian tradition explicitly prohibits gay marriage’? I wonder. I seriously wonder. I have to doubt it. (Do search for such a thing if you’re so inspired; do let me know if I’m wrong.) Because the BBC probably doesn’t approve or even sympathize much with fundamentalist Christian urges to push gay people around, but it may sympathize just a little bit with the putative horror of depictions of the Prophet on the part of Muslims. So it phrases the matter just…ever…so…slightly oddly.

Respect Me or I’ll Shoot This Dog

Jul 27th, 2006 6:09 pm | By

I like this one. Oxymoron in action; very droll.

But the lead convener of the Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane, officially launched yesterday, vowed to continue with the protest irrespective of where the movie is filmed. Abdus Salique threatened to burn Ali’s book at a rally on Sunday which is expected to be attended by hundreds of protesters…[H]e added: “[If] she has the right to freedom of speech, we have the right to burn books. We will do it to show our anger. We don’t like Monica Ali. We are protecting our community’s dignity and respect.”

Heeheeheehee. Yup, that’s what you’re doing all right, protecting ‘your community’s’ dignity and respect by standing around talking idiotic threatening drivel to a Guardian reporter. Yup, that’s dignity and respect-protection all right; you bet. Good move. Everyone’s way impressed with your dignity.

He continued: “It is not just filming [in Brick Lane] which is the problem. We don’t want a film which degrades our community.”

No, because you want to do the degrading yourself. Very enterprising.

Much more refreshing is the letter to the Guardian from PEN members Lisa Appignanesi, Hanif Kureishi, Anthony Lester QC, Salman Rushdie and Gillian Slovo.

Your article (July 18) about Brick Lane residents’ response to the filming of Monica Ali’s novel gave the mistaken impression that there was a united Bangladeshi community in the area threatening protest and keen to stop the production of the film of this supposedly “insulting” novel. Your readers may wish to know that there is no such united and censorious front. There are many differing Asian voices in the area. Few of them are as punitively adamant as the chair of the Brick Lane Traders’ Association, who, according to Asians in Media, leads a small minority of Sylheti traditionalists and has overblown the size of local protest.

It’s what Sen is talking about, in a way – this pretend unity which is a mere pretense. Hearing twenty people squawk and calling that ‘the Bangladeshi community’. There are many differing Asian voices in the area, and everywhere else; people don’t have to and generally don’t want to speak as a bloc. Not every ad hoc group is a ‘community’ much less the ‘community’. It’s more dignified and respect-worthy to realize that.

More Sen

Jul 27th, 2006 5:38 pm | By

Harmonic convergence time. I mentioned I’m reading that book of Amartya Sen’s (very slowly, you’ll notice as I give page numbers, but that’s because I’m reading other things too, also because I want to read it slowly – okay it’s because I don’t read well). It’s all, so far anyway, very ‘aha’ kind of reading (which is why I want to read it slowly) – just ‘aha, aha,’ every sentence, with no anecdotal stuff in between to give you a chance to read without going ‘aha’. In other words it’s one of those books that says very eloquently exactly what you already think so you keep sort of twitching like something in a cruel electric experiment. I knew it would be that kind of book, but it is, all the same. I gave an especially violent twitch while reading what he says about ‘faith’ schools in the UK, and resolved to do another N&C quoting that part. And while doing News found this article in the Telegraph.

[Sen] felt that Tony Blair’s government, for which he had voted, had unwittingly made two serious policy blunders – increasingly encouraging a society in which the ethnic minorities and especially Muslims were defined almost exclusively by their religion and endorsing the establishment of faith schools…Although he wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools “are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it’s not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it’s dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it’s being defined by its ‘community’, which is primarily religion.

Well, see, that’s exactly one of the bits I was going to quote in here. Because I think he’s right, right, right, and I think everyone should listen and heed. Page 13:

Despite our diverse diversities, the world is suddenly seen not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations. In Britain a confounded view of what a multiethnic society must do has led to encouraging the development of state-financed Muslim schools, Hindu schools, Sikh schools, etc, to supplement pre-existing state-supported Christian schools, and young children are powerfully placed in the domain of singular affiliations well before they have the ability to reason about different systems of identification that may compete for their attention.

Which is exactly what Richard Dawkins says – very rightly, in my view – about children and religion: they have it forced on them long before they have the ability to reason about the subject, and the subject needs to be reasoned about. That’s what Sen is arguing (to a chorus of ‘aha’s from me): that it is both possible and necessary to reason about what we consider our identity, what we want to make a priority and what we don’t, what matters more than what. That it is crucial to be aware that it is a choice, and that it is a choice that can be reasoned about: our freedom and our ability to reason are both important here, and are both available to us, but only if we are aware of them and do make use of them. ‘Faith’ schools work to entrench the opposite idea: that we don’t get to choose, and that it’s not a matter of reason or choice but one of inheritance.

“We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups,” he said. “We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues – and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything.” He argued: “Of course, this policy immediately has the effect of making some people extremely privileged – those who speak in the name of religion. There may be some moderate people but mostly they are extremists who appeal by saying, ‘Forget everything else, you are a Muslim’…This is a point of view that Islamic terrorists share with western theorists who define human beings only in terms of their religion because both agree that if you are Muslim, then that is your primary identity.”

He’s talking at the Institute of Public Policy Research, the Asia Society, the Nehru Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I’d go if I were in London.

Sen on Identity and Violence

Jul 26th, 2006 11:30 pm | By

Now for what I was planning to do this morning before I got all, erm, anxious. I’m reading Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence – as is Sunny – and I wanted just to quote some.

“Given our inescapably plural identities, we have to decide on the relative importance of our different associations and affiliations in any particular context. Central to leading a human life, therefore, are the responsibilities of choice and reasoning. In contrast, violence is promoted by the cultivation of a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique – often bellligerent – identity that we are supposed to have and which apparently makes extensive demands of us (sometimes of a most disagreeable kind). The imposition of an allegedly unique identity is often a crucial component of the ‘martial art’ of fomenting sectarian confrontation.” p. xii

“With suitable instigation, a fostered sense of identity with one group of people can be made into a powerful weapon to brutalize another…The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.” p. xv

“What we need, above all, is a clear-headed understanding of the importance of the freedom that we can have in determining our priorities. And, related to that understanding, we need an appropriate recognition of the role and efficacy of reasoned public voice – within nations and across the world.” p. xvii

Truth Does Matter

Jul 26th, 2006 10:55 pm | By

This is absolutely fascinating.

When the University of Colorado moved last month to fire Ward Churchill, there was not much of an organized defense among professors – even among those in the academic left. That may be changing, although some believe it shouldn’t change and risks devaluing what the academic left stands for.

Sound belief. Because if the academic left turns out to stand for left more than for academic, then it does indeed risk devaluing what the academic left stands for. If you’re an academic (as opposed to an advertiser, or a public relations expert, or a movie-maker, or a novelist) you’ve undertaken a commitment not to let your leftism or rightism trump your academic responsibility, which is first of all to get at the truth as best you can. It is certainly not to claim that fraud and plagiarism should be overlooked if they are detected under unfortunate circumstances.

The debate might be summed up in an analogy offered by one of the faculty panels that reviewed Churchill and found that he committed, intentionally, all kinds of research misconduct. Committee members said that they were uncomfortable with the fact that Colorado ignored serious allegations against Churchill for years, and took them seriously only when his politics attracted attention. The panel compared the situation to one in which a motorist is stopped for speeding because a police officer doesn’t like the bumper sticker on her car. If she was speeding, she was speeding — regardless of the officer’s motives, the panel said. A group of professors…have joined forces to say that the officer’s motives do matter, and may matter more than the speeding. And they are organizing a petition drive, drawing support from some big-name academics, against Churchill’s dismissal.

Very few big-name academics, though. At least so far. But there is one big name that got my attention: Andrew Ross. Ross makes a cameo appearance in Why Truth Matters, saying some – hmm – provocative things about the truth-value of science.

Others on the left disagree. Campus Progress, published to provide a liberal take on issues for college students, came out against Churchill last week, releasing an article that said: “Progressive advocates of academic freedom should not rally to Churchill’s side. They should oppose the targeting of professors for their beliefs, even vile ones like Churchill’s. But the charges against Churchill justify his termination because fraud and plagiarism, as much as censorship, threaten academic integrity.”

Just so. And having scholars get up a petition that makes fraud and plagiarism a matter of academic freedom does not do much to protect academic integrity.

“I support his right to academic freedom, but not his right to plagiarize, not his right to create a fraudulent identity, nor his right to do faulty research,” said Oneida Meranto, a professor of political science and director of Native American studies…[S]he is also among a number of Native American scholars who for years have been complaining about the quality of Churchill’s scholarship. But the left, and specifically the white left in academe, didn’t much care about all of these problems until some saw him as an academic freedom case, Meranto said. There are academic freedom issues in his case, she said, and she’s not entirely comfortable with the way it has been handled. But she added that she would “not support Ward Churchill – the man or the myth” and that it was unfair for “academic freedom absolutists” to portray Churchill as a cause around which others should rally.

There you go. She doesn’t support his right to plagiarize, nor his right to do faulty research. Nor should she, nor should the rest of the left.

So long as it’s this hot

Jul 26th, 2006 6:30 pm | By

Never mind. I thought B&W was about to be closed down due to circumstances beyond my control.

Life is precarious you know. You never know when that piano is going to fall on your head.

Not That Kind of Faith, the Other Kind

Jul 26th, 2006 1:20 am | By

And then this review of books on science and religion. This ploy again:

Nowadays, when legislation supporting promising scientific research falls to religious opposition…scientists have to be brave to talk about religion. Not to denounce it, but to embrace it. That is what Francis S. Collins, Owen Gingerich and Joan Roughgarden have done in new books, taking up one side of the stormy argument over whether faith in God can coexist with faith in the scientific method.

Stop right there. That’s the same equivocation Mary Gordon used at that ‘Faith and Reason’ conference.

Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen.

Faith in God is not the same kind of faith as faith in ‘the scientific method’ just as none of Gordon’s cited versions of faith are straightforwardly ‘belief in the unseen’. There is an immense amount of evidence that ‘the scientific method’ works, so belief that it works is not the same kind of belief as belief that God exists, for which there is no real evidence at all. It’s sly and tricksy to pretend the two things are the same kind of thing.

PZ has a great post on the review at Pharungula.

More Godbothering

Jul 26th, 2006 1:06 am | By

Creeping theocracy, chapter 472. There’s the court-stripping, and that park in San Diego for instance.

Perhaps you noticed an interesting confluence of events on Wednesday, July 19. On that day, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have authorized the expanded use of federal funds for stem-cell research, the House of Representatives voted to enact legislation depriving the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear any case challenging the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the House voted to purchase a municipal park in San Diego on which a 29-foot-high cross stands.

Impressive stuff, isn’t it. Very grown-up, very rational, very sane.

In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a “conflict between science and ethics.” But what, exactly, is the “ethical” side of this conflict? Clearly, it derives from the belief that an embryo smaller than a period on this page is a “human life” – indeed, a human life that is as valuable as those of living, breathing, suffering children…What the President describes neutrally as “ethics” is simply his own, sectarian religious belief.

Yeah, that’s a good one – ‘a conflict between science and ethics’ when he means ‘a conflict between science and my irrational conviction.’ But it’s typical of course. Religious believers have a real knack for assuming they are the only people who ever think about ethics and morality. Hence the feverish need to buy little parks on the opposite edge of the country, just in case we run out of 29-foot crosses some day.

Well No Kidding

Jul 25th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

There’s an oddity in that piece in the Indy yesterday about Stephen Hawking’s rebuke of the reactionaries on the stem cell question.

President Bush and some religious authorities, notably the Catholic Church, argue that the microscopic, four-day-old embryos from which stem cells are derived are potential human lives.

Is that right? I don’t think it is. Because surely everyone argues or rather simply takes it for granted that any embryos, four day old or four second old, are potential human lives. We know that – that’s not disputed. What’s disputed is what follows from that; what’s disputed is whether potential human lives should be as protected as actual human lives. So – why did the reporters put that ‘potential’ in there? To make Bush and the Catholic church sound more rational and reasonable than they are? To make people who disagree with them sound less rational and reasonable than they are? A little of both? Don’t know, but it’s odd.


Jul 25th, 2006 6:46 pm | By

I’m not in a position to dispute the substance of this snide review of Hirsi Ali’s book due to the small inconvenience that I haven’t read the book that the snide review is a review of. But what I can do (and will) is point out the snideness, and the markers of same. (Now, you’ll be thinking, ‘But OB, you go in for a certain amount of mockery yourself on occasion, so do you not pause to murmur to yourself about stones and glass dwelling places?’ Fair point. Yes, I do pause, but not for long, for the simple reason that I have invincible Feelings of Superiority – I’ve been told that on very mediocre authority. No actually that’s not why my pause is briefer than that of a hummingbird; the reason is rather that there is a considerable difference between Notes and Comment and the New Statesman. I curb my mockery when writing for publication in places other than Notes and Comment. Also, frankly, I do a better job of it. Dispute me if you will.)

Snideness. Markers.

It’s obviously what I’ve been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader – armed with Enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom – swooping into my harem and liberating me from my “ignorant”, “uncritical”, “dishonest” and “oppressed” Muslim existence. At least that is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I’ve been waiting for.

Secular crusader, the stamp of the liberal establishment (what the hell is that? and what rock concert does it get you into?), swooping, my harem – and a very odd conjecture as to what Hirsi Ali thinks presented as a fact.

She soon became a prominent and controversial politician, a brown face made welcome by her shrill denunciations of Islam…However, the publication of The Caged Virgin couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hirsi Ali, a woman who has built her career on portraying herself as a victim.

Shrill – cf. ‘strident’. And as for the career built on self-portrayal as victim – I would have thought the career was built on a considerable amount of courage along with refusal of victimhood.

Now that doubt has been cast on the personal history Hirsi Ali relies on to give her arguments authority, her new book reads more like a whimper than a bang.

Shrill…victim…whimper. It’s all belittling stuff – and sexistly belittling at that; it’s unfortunate when women use sexist rhetoric and epithets against other women. It’s a wonder Alam doesn’t call her a bitch.

Hirsi Ali is not breaking new ground. Others, such as the controversial Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, have been here before, except their work is meatier, making reference to classical texts and engaging in important historical debates.

That’s not so much snide as, in my view, mistaken, even if it’s true. Hirsi Ali doesn’t have to be breaking new ground; she could be just publicizing existing ideas and research, for instance that of Mernissi and Ahmed; more people (at least in certain places) will read her book than will read theirs; there is a place for polemics and simply making existing material more widely known.

These brave women sadly do not have the luxuries of monetary resources, bodyguards, spin-doctors and PR agencies that she takes for granted.

That she takes for granted? Really? Does that seem likely, given Hirsi Ali’s history? She started out doing menial work in the Netherlands, after all. And as for bodyguards – she wouldn’t need them if it weren’t for the death threats, so it’s a bit much to throw them in her face.

It’s all rather nasty, and rather long on sneering and short on substance. Geoff Coupe (who alerted me to the review) has a good comment here – and he has read the book, so is in a better position to argue.

I can well imagine that if, as Hirsi Ali did, I worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and refuges for battered women, then I might see the world through a jaundiced eye, but that does not remove the reality of those observations and experiences. One chapter entitled ‘Four Women’s Lives’ gives the stage to others to tell their story. One of the strengths of Hirsi Ali’s book is that she does provide the source references to her claims – although Alam sneers that: “she provides little evidence to back up her claims that the Muslim woman is a caged virgin – sexualised, segregated, denied human rights – and that Islamic theology is responsible for this”. Really, I wonder whether we’ve actually read the same book.

Anyone want to write a review for B&W? Geoff?