Notes and Comment Blog


Flowery Shakespeare

Aug 19th, 2006 10:34 pm | By

John Sutherland on Shakespeare stuff. Harold Bloom, for instance. I like early Bloom, but I really hated his Shakespeare book.

…the Falstaffian Harold Bloom with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Before the Bard, Bloom argues, we were only semi-human. We didn’t know how to express those feelings that separate us from the brutes (so much for Dante and Chaucer).

Not to mention Homer, Euripides, Seneca, Montaigne, and quite a few other people. But one can go too far in the deflationary direction too.

Stanley Wells is the acknowledged dean of the reviser school….[Shxpr] was a “working man of the theatre” – arguably (but not in every respect) superior to Dekker, Middleton, Jonson et al, and no different in kind…If you brought Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare to the present in H.G. Wells’ time machine and asked him “what are you doing, Will?” he would never have said “inventing the human, dear fellow”. He would have said: “turning an honest penny. And, by the way, can I interest you in buying a few tons of malt which I’ve just bought on spec?”

He wouldn’t have said either (as Sutherland is pointing out). The inventing the human thing is very silly, but so is the turning an honest penny thing. If he had been merely turning an honest penny and nothing more, there are thousands of lines he would have written quite differently. The plays are riddled with vocabulary, images, thoughts, effects, speeches, fireworks, that he didn’t need just to get bums on seats or feet in the pit. They are full and overflowing with excess. It is quite possible that he could have made even more money if he had written more simply: then he probably could have written more plays. He wouldn’t have written ‘Troilus and Cressida’ at all; ‘Hamlet’ would have been half the length; ‘Lear’ would have had the happy ending Nahum Tate gave it; the Sonnets wouldn’t exist; and so on. Yes he liked making money, but that’s not all he liked.



Distortion

Aug 19th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

This is a rather uninformative piece about yet another Islamic group, this one called Tablighi Jamaat, which is ‘believed by western intelligence agencies to be used as a fertile recruiting ground by extremists.’ It looks as if the reporter, not surprisingly, wasn’t able to find out much. But one thing he did find out he doesn’t really seem to have noticed; at least, he doesn’t comment on it. It jumps right out at me.

Thousands of young Muslim men are attending meetings in east London every week run by a fundamentalist Islamic movement…On Thursday evening, the Guardian witnessed around 3,000 men from as far afield as Great Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight stream through the backstreets of Stratford to the meeting. There, at the gates of a seemingly derelict industrial site, men in fluorescent jackets waved those who are known to the Tablighi Jamaat hierarchy under a security barrier…Seconds later, the main man stood next to his red van in Islamic dress and a smart blue waistcoat as hundreds of men, many carrying suitcases and sleeping bags, filed past him…The English-speaking room heaved as a sea of faces, white, black and Asian, spilled into the hallway. Most were teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s dressed in Islamic dress, caps and beards. Some came in suits and ties, others in jeans and hoodies. There were old men too, who weaved slowly through to the front of the room, and a few young boys.

Well there’s part of your problem right there. Frankly it’s very difficult not to think that a lot of this just boils down to stupid guy stuff. To men segregating themselves and then egging each other on to do stupider and stupider guy stuff. It’s so difficult that I won’t even bother to try.

The Times also tells us a little about Tablighi Jamaat.

Some suspects, including Mr Sarwar, 25, joined Tablighi Jamaat, an international missionary sect encouraging followers to live like the Prophet, growing beards and praying five times a day. Volunteers are sent around Britain from mosque to mosque, bringing only a sleeping bag and provisions. By day they tour Muslim communities, knocking on doors to discuss faith with the men of the house and inviting them to evening gatherings.

To discuss ‘faith’ with the men of the house. See? Women aren’t even on the map, aren’t on the radar, aren’t anything to do with anything. They’re just furniture, cattle, household appliances. Well, that’s part of your problem right there.



More on Thinking v Faith

Aug 17th, 2006 7:40 pm | By

Stephen Law said the same things (as Anthony Grayling said, and as I said about that survey) back in June. They’re not very startling things to say, in fact they’re the good old bleeding obvious, but they’re not very fashionable at the moment, and they tend to get lost in all the droning about faith this and faith that.

“The liberal approach,” he says, “is entirely consistent with drilling and the instilling of good habits.” Indeed, thinking critically, challenging political or religious orthodoxies, is a highly disciplined intellectual activity…Many secular parents try to get their children into faith schools because they believe the discipline and order is better in a Christian environment. Law argues that this is a fallacy. In fact, many faith schools flourish by being selective. The authoritarian intellectual climate leaves children bereft of the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to deal with the modern world.

See that’s the problem. Even if it’s true that religious schools do better at discipline and order, that’s discipline and order bought at a very high price. If, for instance, that ‘discipline and order’ is achieved partly or wholly by means of intellectual authoritarianism, well, then it’s a case of getting the tools in order and then calling the job done. ‘Discipline and order’ in school aren’t the actual goal of education, they’re only a tool for the purpose of education. If discipline and order were the goal, it would be simpler just to gag the students and put them in irons for the day and let it go at that. The goal is education, including the use of a flexible mind. A mind that has been trained to accept assertions delivered by authorities as a matter of faith is not a flexible or a useful mind.

On one level, Law’s objective is simple – to insist on the value of clear and rational thinking. He says schools need to “teach young people to question underlying assumptions, diagnose faulty reasoning, weigh up evidence, listen to other people’s points of view”. It all sounds uncontroversial. But Law is convinced that basic Enlightenment values are under serious threat from the new authoritarians of New Labour and America’s Republican right. Blair’s faith schools, and conservative educationalists, are taking us back to the bad old days when children were told to take things on trust and never question authority…Law is profoundly opposed to moral relativism, and gets annoyed when people see it as synonymous with liberalism or a by-product of liberal modes of thought. One of his objectives is to “slay the dragon of relativism”. It’s not true, Law argues, that liberals regard all beliefs as equally valid . The disciplines of critical thought, the values of rational scientific inquiry, are non-negotiable elements in the true liberal world-view. They don’t just “believe in everything and nothing”. They believe only in what is reasonable.

Well, not in practice, probably, but in principle. Anyway the point is clear enough. Authority and faith and no questions, no good; critical thought and inquiry and questions, good. Don’t take my word for it: inquire.



No Thank You

Aug 17th, 2006 4:44 pm | By

Sarah Baxter makes some pointed comments.

The peace movement lost a foe in Reagan but has gone on to find new friends in today’s Stop the War movement. Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.” For Linda Grant, the novelist, who says that “feminism” is the one “ism” she has not given up on, it was a shocking sight: “What you’re seeing is an alliance of what used to be the far left with various Muslim groups and that poses real problems. Saturday’s march was not a peace march in the way that the Ban the Bomb marches were. Seeing young and old white women holding Hezbollah placards showed that it’s a very different anti-war movement to Greenham. Part of it feels the wrong side is winning.”

Baxter feels the same way:

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic. Nor would I have predicted that today’s feminists would be so indulgent towards Iran, a theocratic nation where it is an act of resistance to show an inch or two of female hair beneath the veil and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not joking about his murderous intentions towards Israel and the Jews.

No, nor would I. This is not the revolution I signed up for.

But where is the parallel, equally vital debate about how to combat Islamic fundamentalism? And why don’t more peace-loving feminists regard it as a threat? Kira Cochrane, 29, is the new editor of The Guardian women’s page, the bible of the Greenham years, where so many women writers made their names by staking out positions on the peace movement. She has noticed that today’s feminists are inclined to keep quiet about the march of radical Islam. “There’s a great fear of tackling the subject because of cultural relativism. People are scared of being called racist,” Cochrane observes.

Racist or cultural imperialist or colonialist or Eurocentric or hegemonic or microfascist or postpositivist or Orientalist or universalist or naïvely pro-Enlightenment or many more items – the vocabulary of guilt-tripping is quite extensive, and quite effective.

I prefer to take Islamic fundamentalists at their word when they spout insults about Jews being the descendants of “pigs and apes” and launch their chillingly apocalyptic tirades. Why? Because they not only talk centuries-old nonsense about the place of women in society, but they also purposely oppress the female sex whenever they are given the chance. As regards their treatment of women, there is no discernible difference between their acts and their words…The Middle East is engaged in a titanic struggle between modernity and theocracy. Whatever one’s views about the Iraq war or the conflict in Lebanon, it deserves more than slogans about “We are all Hezbollah now” and fury against Bush and Blair.

They may be Hezbollah now, but I ain’t.



This Year it’s Shappi Khorsandi

Aug 17th, 2006 4:13 pm | By

The Indy tells us in a sub-head that ‘This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe is taking place in a climate of heightened inter-faith sensitivity.’ What a revolting phrase, and what a revolting climate. What a revolting euphemism for a form of thought-control by guilt-trip.

But there are comedians there resisting the sensitivity thing. Go, comedians.

As so often, the bravest, smartest critic of Islamic fundamentalism in town is a woman the fundamentalists would love to claim as “one of ours” and enslave. Last year it was Shazia Mirza; this year it’s Shappi Khorsandi…Shappi is one of the millions of children of the Islamic revolution who – in the face of the Iranian mullahs’ theocratic repression – have become the most articulate, committed atheists in the world…While she is sympathetic to Muslims suffering from stupid social prejudice…she has lashings of righteous contempt for fundamentalists like “that 14-year-old girl who went to the High Court to fight for her right to go to school wearing her sleeping bag”.

Johann (for it is he, seeing the shows and telling us about them) ends on a cautious note: ‘But can the strain of witty atheism on offer on the Edinburgh Fringe ever douse the great fire of religion currently consuming whole continents? I hope – but certainly don’t pray – so.’



Truth in Fashion

Aug 16th, 2006 11:21 pm | By

Someone read (some of) Why Truth Matters about a month ago. Found it a bit of a drag in places, apparently.

…and now Why Truth Matters, a real headache-maker. There were some times I wondered “why am I reading this?” Passages like this one tended to blur the eyes and crease the forehead: “Although Montaigne might have found the Pyrrhonist epoche a satisfactory response to the problem of the missing criterion of truth, Rene Descartes did not. In Discourse on Method, he tells how in his youth he had been haunted by the spectre of uncertainty…”

Well…we did our best, that’s all I can say. Sometimes a little forehead-creasing is worth it. (Other times, of course, as in the case of Foucauldian nurses, it’s not.) And he apparently ended up liking it anyway, despite the eye-blurring.

‘Fascinating. A good book to get your brain thoroughly awake, and looking at the world you find yourself in. Not bedtime reading!’

Well good! Fascinating and brain-awakening and world-examining-getting; that’s my idea of high praise for a book.



Crap Thinking

Aug 16th, 2006 10:56 pm | By

Anthony Grayling talks about pretty much the same thing, also taking off from the survey that found all those creationists and IDers.

…a significant proportion of university entrants today are…less literate, less numerate, less broadly knowledgeable, and less reflective. At the same time education has been infected by post-modern relativism and the less desirable effects of “political correctness”, whose combined effect is to encourage teachers to accept, and even promote as valid alternatives, the various superstitions and antique belief-systems constituting the multiplicity of different and generally competing religions represented in our multicultural society…The key to the weakening of intellectual rigour that all this represents is that enquiry is no longer premised on the requirement that belief must be proportional to carefully gathered and assessed evidence. The fact that “faith” is enough to legitimate anything from superstition to mass murder is not one whit troubling to “people of faith” themselves…

Because they take faith to be a virtue. They take the ability to maintain one’s ‘faith’ and ‘beliefs’ in spite of conflicting evidence to be a sign of strength, and laudable strength at that. And that’s your problem right there – it gets you crap thinking. Thinking that makes a virtue of ignoring evidence is crap thinking.

“With faith anything goes”: here is why the claim that the resurgence of non-rational superstitious belief is a danger to the world. Fundamentalism in all the major religions (and some are fundamentalist by nature) can be and too often is politically infantilising, and in its typical radicalised forms provides utter certainty of being in the right, immunises against tolerance and pluralism, justifies the most atrocious behaviour to the apostate and the infidel, is blind to the appeals of justice let alone mercy or reason, and is intrinsically fascistic and monolithic.

It’s hard to argue right now that fundamentalism is not dangerous. So I won’t bother trying.

More regrettable still, though, is the fact that the civilised quarters of the world are not taking seriously the connection between the world’s current problems and failure to uphold intellectual rigour in education, and not demanding that religious belief be a private and personal matter for indulgence only in the home…As part of the strategy for countering the pernicious effects that faith and dogma can produce, we need to return religious commitment to the private sphere, stop the folly of promoting superstitions and religious segregation in education, demand that standards of intellectual rigour be upheld at all educational levels, and find major ways of reversing the current trend of falling enrolment in science courses. The alternative is a return to the Dark Ages, the tips of whose shadows are coldly falling upon us even now.

Well, that’s what I think. But I don’t have much faith it’s going to happen any time soon.



No Reason to Doubt

Aug 16th, 2006 9:39 pm | By

Not surprisingly, with all the faith-based whatnot everywhere, more than 30% of students in the UK believe in creationism or ‘intelligent design’. Wait, they can explain.

Chris Parker…believes God made the world…[U]ltimately, it is because: “As a Christian, I have believed in it for a long time and I have no reason to doubt it.”

Well, that of course depends on what you mean by ‘reason to doubt it.’ But that’s just it, isn’t it. ‘No reason to doubt it’ often means just no inclination to doubt it, no motivation to doubt it, no desire to doubt it, no intention of doubting it. In short, it doesn’t mean anything epistemic, it refers to desire and will and motivation, which is another matter. Faith-based people tend to think that desire and motivation trump epistemic issues, so that what one believes really has nothing to do with evidence; evidence is beside the point; evidence is supremely and thoroughly irrelevant; what is relevant is what one has believed for a long time and wants to go on believing. This is understandable on an emotional level, but it makes for crap thinking, and crap thinking, as we keep being reminded, is dangerous.

Kim Nicholas…agrees. “I have grown up in a family that goes to church and I have become a Christian,” she says…”If you have faith in God you can believe he has done it, whether there is evidence or not.”

Yes, you can. You shouldn’t (cognitively speaking), but you can.

Annie Nawaz…distinguishes between scientific and “natural” evidence written in stone in the holy books. “As a practising Muslim, the holy Qur’an – that’s our proper evidence,” she says. It does bother her when this conflicts with other kinds of evidence, but “it just comes down to the way you have been brought up and your beliefs and values and how strong they are”.

It comes down to whether or not your beliefs and values are strong enough to allow you to ignore the evidence that conflicts with your beliefs, and opt to believe blindly in a holy book. Some people consider that kind of strength a virtue and a gift; others consider it a vice and a plague.



Fascists and Bush and All

Aug 15th, 2006 1:06 am | By

Okay, time to stop messing around. I’ve been putting it off, but it can’t be shirked any longer. I have to make fun of the whole article, all of it, not just selected highlights. I have to be thorough.

…this fascism of the masses, as was practised by Hitler
and Mussolini, has today been replaced by a system of
microfascisms – polymorphous intolerances that are
revealed in more subtle ways. Consequently, although the
majority of the current manifestations of fascism are less
brutal, they are nevertheless more pernicious.

Less brutal (there’s the not killing millions of people by shooting or overworking or gassing them for instance) but more pernicious? Really? More pernicious in what way? They don’t say. They just get to the important part:

Therefore, we will use this term
as defined by Deleuze and Guattari, and now used by a
number of contemporary authors.

Ah. It’s used by a number of contemporary authors – so it’s okay then. There’s bravery, there’s rebellion, there’s independence of mind. But then what about ‘Because ‘regimes of truth’ such as the evidence-based movement
currently enjoy a privileged status, scholars have not only a scientific duty, but also an
ethical obligation to deconstruct these regimes of power’? What about privileged status, what about regimes of power? If Deleuze and Guattari and ‘a
number of contemporary authors’ have the power and privileged status to make it okay to use the word ‘fascism’ to refer to the evidence-based movement
in the health sciences, then…isn’t that a regime of power based on privileged status? Why is one kind okay while the other isn’t? Because – because our authors aren’t really thinking? Is that it? They’re just performing a ritual, that’s meant to look like (high-status) thinking, but isn’t? Could be.

There’s a longish sane part after that, where they at least could be talking sense. Maybe it’s true that the EBHS approach is too narrow and/or rigid; I don’t know. But then things go funny again.

We believe that health sciences
ought to promote pluralism – the acceptance of multiple
points of view. However, EBHS does not allow pluralism,
unless that pluralism is engineered by the Cochrane
hierarchy itself. Such a hegemony makes inevitable the
further ‘segmentation’ of knowledge (i.e. disallowing multiple
epistemologies), and further marginalise many forms
of knowing/knowledge.

Uh oh. Pluralism and the acceptance of multiple
points of view and multiple
epistemologies and many forms
of knowing/knowledge – that all sounds much too much like Sandra Harding on a bad day. It could (just) mean something sane but it could also mean ‘anything goes’.

As a response to this, a vigilant resistance must arise from
within the health disciplines themselves, and one way of
deploying such resistance is by using a tool called ‘deconstruction’.
Drawing on the work of the late French philosopher,
Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is notoriously difficult to
define because it is a practice, and not a fixed concept
based on abstract ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’.

Okay. Let’s not use it then. Let’s use something else, that’s not so terribly hard to define, because it has this problem with facts and evidence.

But no. No such luck.

In
a deconstructive vein, we must ask not only, ‘What constitutes
evidence?’ but also, what is the ‘regime of truth’ (Kuhn
would call this a ‘paradigm’ and Foucault an ‘épistèmé’) that
dictates when or how one piece of evidence shall count as
evidence, while another is denigrated or excluded altogether?

What indeed. What regime of truth is it that dictates that. It’s probably dressed up in a Nazi uniform and wearing those boots. Bastard.

We believe that EBM, which saturates health sciences discourses,
constitutes an ossified language that maps the landscape
of the professional disciplines as a whole. Accordingly,
we believe that a postmodernist critique of this prevailing
mode of thinking is indispensable.

See there’s your problem right there – it’s that ‘accordingly.’ That accordingly doesn’t belong there. The second sentence doesn’t follow from the first, so that accordingly has shoved its way in (or interpellated itself do I mean?) from some other pair of sentences one of which does follow from the other. In other words, that first sentence could be quite true (that’s some more of the sane part) without that second one following from it at all. One, maybe EBM is ossified, but two, why would a postmodernist critique be indispensable? Why not a nonpostmodern critique instead?

Those who are wedded
to the idea of ‘evidence’ in the health sciences maintain
what is essentially a Newtonian, mechanistic world view:
they tend to believe that reality is objective, which is to say
that it exists, ‘out there’, absolutely independent of the
human observer, and of the observer’s intentions and observations.
They fondly point to ‘facts’, while they are forced
to dismiss ‘values’ as somehow unscientific.

I guess that’s why the postmodern critique is indispensable: because it says stuff like that, and it knows where the box of scare-quotes is kept.

Along with Deleuze and Guattari, we understand such
fascist logic as a desire to order, hierarchise, control, repress,
direct and impose limits…In light of our argument, fascism is not
too strong a word because the exclusion of knowledge
ensembles relies on a process that is saturated by ideology and intolerance regarding other ways of knowing.

And it resembles George Bush, too. Why not, after all?

The all-embracing economy of such ideology lends the
Cochrane Group’s disciples a profound sense of entitlement,
what they take as a universal right to control the scientific
agenda. By a so-called scientific consensus, this ‘regime of
truth’ ostracises those with ‘deviant’ forms of knowledge,
labelling them as rebels and rejecting their work as scientifically
unsound. This reminds us of a famous statement by
President George W Bush in light of the September 11
events: ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’.
In the context of the EBM, this absolutely polarising world
view resonates vividly: embrace the EBHS or else be condemned
as recklessly non-scientific.

Bastards. Fascist Bush-like ostracising bastards.

Okay that’s better. I don’t like to leave these little jobs half-done.



Parasitical Pleasure

Aug 14th, 2006 9:55 pm | By

It was above all the theater, the vulgar “art”, the grand guignol productions of the beer halls and the street. It was the provocation, the excitement, the frisson which Nazism was able to provide, in the brawling, the sweating, the singing, the saluting. Nazism, whether one wore brass knuckles and carried a rubber hose or simply played along vicariously, beating up communists and Jews in one’s mind, was action. Nazism was involvement. Nazism was not a party; Nazism was an event.
Eksteins, M., Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, (Black Swan, London: 1990), 414.

Our office is in an incredible state. Dozens of people pass through every day and at any time there are 20 or 30 in the building. The sandwich bill alone adds up to £50 a day. There are people of all ages here, but especially young people who are outraged at what has happened….

Demonstrations can’t happen – or not on the scale we expect tomorrow- without this level of organisation and commitment. And movements only thrive when they begin to harness this energy and commitment in all sorts of different ways…

So this mood and involvement is something special again…Even at this last minute people are booking tickets on coaches, leafletting tubes and getting their friends and families to come. If we are right, this will be very large, and will catch the mood and the moment. A perfect storm is gathering, and the prime minister is at its centre.
Lindsey German,
Convenor, Stop the War Coalition

The point here, of course, is nothing as daft as the claim that the StWC are Nazis. It’s a point about the nature of mass politics; the psychology of mass political participation, if you like. Watching that morally bankrupt, anti-Israel march, it was striking that the marchers were having a party; and obviously a party that was parasitical on the suffering of the people of Lebanon and Israel. Read this, and tell me that Lindsey German isn’t just loving the whole thing.

Here are some people expressing their sorrow, anger and outrage at the events in Lebanon (and no, this is not selective photography).

This is Jerry (again), so don’t blame OB.



Deleuzoguattarian Foucauldianism

Aug 14th, 2006 8:27 pm | By

The Deleuzoguattarian deconstruction of the evidence-based hegemonic post-positivist paradigm is being discussed in other places. It makes a nice chain – I got it from Tom P (he emailed me about it) who got it from Ben Goldacre. Alun at Archaeoastronomy got it from me, Martin Rundkvist at Salto Sobrius got it from Alun, PZ got it from Martin, and Orac got it from Martin and PZ and is planning to take it on.

The main author has a profile here.

For several years, he has been a clinical nurse in forensic psychiatry (both in hospitals and in the community) as well as in public health. His research interests focus primarily on the issue of the power relationship between nurses and vulnerable clients. He is also interested in the control mechanisms used or deployed by nurses. Most of his work, comments, essays, analyses and research are based on the theoretical work of Michel Foucault.

So – pretty much everything he ever writes or says is based on the theoretical work of Michel Foucault? So Foucault is pretty much all he needs for this perilous and exciting journey through life? He finds Foucault sufficient for all his theoretical needs? Well, that would account for a certain…limited quality in the thinking in that article.



Halliday, Deutscher, Arendt

Aug 13th, 2006 10:31 pm | By

Another excellent article from Fred Halliday.

Amid the unconscionable violence, targeting of civilians, and appeals to unreason and ethnic identification that such modern wars entail, it is all the more necessary to retrieve the example of those who sought to defend core values that crossed boundaries of prejudice and narrow partisanship. I have already honoured one of those in this openDemocracy series of columns: the great French scholar of the Muslim world, Maxime Rodinson. Two more such figures were formative in articulating an internationalist position – one (Isaac Deutscher) within a Marxist framework, the other (Hannah Arendt) within a broadly liberal perspective.

And two very long-standing intellectual heroes and influences of mine.

Soon after the 1967 war, Deutscher gave an interview to three editors of the London-based Marxist intellectual journal New Left Review…In it, Deutscher struck a note that has diminished to near-invisibility in more recent debates, where claims of identity prevail over universal principle, where identification with one side or the other predominates, and where the atrocities and callous political blunders of each combatant readily find their intellectual defenders…Deutscher built on these premises an argument – couched in tones of anti-clerical, universalist disdain, something all too lacking in these days of grovelling before “identity”, “tradition” and “faith communities” – that was clear in its rejection of the invocation of the sacred, the God-given, in political debate. Deutscher rejected Talmudic obscurantism and bloodthirsty Arab calls for vengeance alike.

These days of grovelling before “identity”, “tradition” and “faith communities”…Oh yeah.

The work of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt…was not directly related to the Arab-Israeli question, but her liberal internationalist outlook does have immense relevance to it. This is especially true of Eichmann in Jerusalem…Much more controversial (and neglected) is Arendt’s critique of the legal and moral case made by the Israeli prosecutors against Eichmann. For, whereas the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals had been conducted under what at least purported to be some form of “international” law…Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted for the taking of Jewish lives and in a Jewish court. A case that in 1946 had been (if weak in some points of principle) confident in its universalist aspirations, had by the early 1960s been converted into something derived from the ethnicity of the victims. And this ethnicisation of the victims was, at the same time, deemed to convey a particular right, if not responsibility, on the state that lay claim to representing those victims, namely Israel. This was what Hannah Arendt identified.

Identified and sharply criticized, which is one reason I keep re-reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. She didn’t do any grovelling before ‘identity’ and ‘faith communities.’

There is an enormous historical regression involved here. It involves seeing membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, as conveying particular rights (or particular moral clarity) on those making such claims. In purely rational terms, this is nonsense: the crimes of the Israelis in wantonly destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure, and the crimes of Hizbollah and Hamas in killing civilians and placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, do not require particularist denunciation. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, humanity – and should be identified as such.

We’re in – we’re well and truly stuck in – a period of enormous historical regression. Here’s hoping we can claw our way out of it very soon.



You’ve Got Mail

Aug 13th, 2006 2:30 am | By

So there’s this letter from what the BBC calls ‘Muslim groups’. It’s bizzarre.

Prime Minister, As British Muslims we urge you to do more to fight against all those who target civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens. It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad. To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy.

The government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy – and then what? Tell itself that unless it obeys (obeys whom?), hundreds or thousands of people will be murdered, and therefore decide to obey (obey whom?) and – um – withdraw all its troops from Iraq (thus no doubt triggering a bloodbath) and send its troops to impose a ceasefire in Lebanon? Is that it? Is that what obedience (to whom?) would be? Or is it something else the government is supposed to do? But if so, what? Who, exactly, is issuing the instructions? Who is delivering the extortion notes, and what do they say? What exactly is the government supposed to do in order to mollify people who are eager to kill hundreds or thousands of people and cause them to decide not to murder all those people and to be good peace-loving citizens instead? Do the people who wrote that stupid letter know? Does anyone? There are those suicide tapes, of course – are they the instructions? Is that it, will that do? The government should study those tapes and do whatever Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer tell them they should have done? Except of course that was before the Lebanon problem – Tanweer said attacks would continue ‘until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ So would it be okay if the government pulled its forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq but did nothing about Lebanon, would that work? Well, is there anyone the government can ask? Not Khan and Tanweer, obviously, so…who? The suspects maybe? They probably know. But maybe they wouldn’t say. Maybe they’d say the wrong thing, and the government would do that, and then somebody else would murder hundreds or thousands of people anyway, and leave a suicide video saying ‘Ha ha, fooled ya, that wasn’t what you were supposed to do, ha ha.’

In other words what the hell do the people who wrote and sent that stupid immoral letter think they’re talking about? And since when do mass murderers get to decide what a liberal democracy’s foreign policy should be? Since when is it considered reasonable and responsible to look about and say ‘Oh, there are some loathsome thugs bent on killing a lot of people, let us hasten to find out what they want us to do and immediately do that in order to reward them and persuade them not to murder us after all.’

In fact the more you look at that letter, the more presumptuous and (yes) offensive it seems. I beg your pardon? You’re chastizing Blair for not guessing at what a bunch of murderers want and then doing that so that they won’t murder anyone?

Kim Howells and some other people find it irritating too.

Mr Howells denied there was a “rational connection” and said “no government” formulates policy based on a perceived risk from terrorists…”I think it is very, very dangerous when people who call themselves community leaders make some assumption that somehow that there’s a rational connection between these two things.”

And not just self-proclaimed community leaders but also a couple of MPs and three peers.

MP Sadiq Khan, who signed the letter, said British foreign policy was seen by many as unfair and unjust…The letter was also signed by MPs Shahid Malik (Dewsbury) and Mohammed Sarwar (Glasgow Central), and peers Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham and Baroness Uddin. Other signatories include the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, British Muslim Forum and the lobby group, the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain.

Another MP summed it up well.

Liberal Democrats deputy leader Vince Cable agreed there were links with foreign policy but voiced concerns the letter’s message might “give some comfort to the kind of people who say: ‘Well, change your foreign policy or we’ll blow you up'”.

Ya think?



Dry Bones

Aug 12th, 2006 9:41 pm | By

So the jargon has reached Kenya. The aggrieved irritated ‘uncomfortable’ fretful worried Christians know what to say.

Powerful evangelical churches are pressing Kenya’s national museum to sideline its world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man’s evolution from ape to human. Leaders of the country’s six-million-strong Pentecostal congregation want Dr Richard Leakey’s ground-breaking finds relegated to a back room instead of being given their usual prime billing…”The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact,” said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, the head of Christ is the Answer Ministries, the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya. “Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory.”

The C word, of course, but also the doctrine thing. ‘Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes.’ Well no, of course it’s not, and the doctrine of Goddesses is – whatever they feel like making up at any given moment. What of it? What’s anyone’s doctrine got to do with anything? The bones are there; that’s not doctrine, that’s bones; a doctrine that requires a museum to hide them in a back room is a pretty feeble doctrine, if you ask me.

Richard Leakey isn’t much impressed either.

Dr Leakey said the churches’ plans were “the most outrageous comments I have ever heard”…Calling the Pentecostal church fundamentalists, Dr Leakey added: “Their theories are far, far from the mainstream on this. They cannot be allowed to meddle with what is the world’s leading collection of these types of fossils.”

Well yes but you see, the museum murmured, you see it’s like this…

The museum said it was in a “tricky situation” as it tried to redesign its exhibition space to accommodate the expectations of all its visitors. “We have a responsibility to present all our artefacts in the best way that we can…But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists or researchers on the other, saying the opposite.”

Yes, but museums are not churches, and religious beliefs ought not to trump evidence-based findings in educational institutions like museums; on the contrary, in educational institutions like museums (and zoos, aquariums, schools, libraries), evidence-based findings ought to trump religious beliefs, and that’s that. Leakey won’t bring his bones into your churches, so you don’t get to tell the museums to hide the bones. But of course that won’t stop you.

And people wonder why I’m such a noisy kind of atheist. Pffffff.



Return of the Undead

Aug 12th, 2006 9:08 pm | By

Some rather disheartening boilerplate on the merits of multiculturalism and identity and groups and communities from – surprise surprise – a university chancellor.

At the end of the day, the hope of these two kinds of projects – internal multicultural dialogue and external multicultural collaboration – is that we all come to value diverse groups, not just diverse individuals.

Well, as always, that depends on which groups we’re talking about, and what we mean by ‘value’, and what aspects of those diverse groups we are expected and hoped to value. It also depends on what happens when valuing groups is in tension with valuing individuals. What about individuals who want to leave or dissent from or change their groups, for example? Are we expected to refrain from valuing them in order to value their groups instead – in order to value ‘their’ groups as static entities that must not change and must not respond to the wishes of, for instance, subordinated people within the groups? If so, why? Or to put it another way, if so, forget it.

The comments are worth reading, as the comments at Inside Higher Ed often are. See especially H E Baber’s.

More of the usual multicultural bs, in the usual long-winded, jargon-ridden style…It’s amazing that, resisting all empirical evidence, multiculturalists like the author of this article are still promoting the communitarian group identities line. Since the end of the Cold War every major armed conflict, from the Balkans to Sri Lanka to Darfur to the current war in the Middle East has been a tribal war between groups affirming their cultural/ethnic identities. Women and people of color with stature as public intellectuals, including Amartya Sen, Anthony Appiah, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have spoken out against this communitarian, multicultural ideology and in favor of cosmopolitanism.

Indeed they have. H E writes about multiculti at the Enlightenment Project sometimes. (B&W has published some of her E.P. articles.)

Bill Condon’s comment is also good. The comments on this article are better than the article.



It’s a Trick, Right?

Aug 12th, 2006 2:13 am | By

Ohhhhhhh lordy. Look at this. It’s called ‘Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism.’ Isn’t that just the best title? But the content is even better.

Drawing on the work of the late French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.

Microfascism! Yelp! What will happen when those evidence-based movement bastards turn to macrofascism? Will they get even more outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative on our asses? Or will they just kill us? Let’s ask Deleuze and Guattari; they’ll know.

The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure.

But what if it’s a Deleuzoguattarian ideology that is dominant, does it exclude alternative forms of knowledge and thus act as a fascist structure? I bet I’m not supposed to ask that question, am I. I have to go sit on the microfascist stool for four minutes.

Because ‘regimes of truth’ such as the evidence-based movement currently enjoy a privileged status, scholars have not only a scientific duty, but also an ethical obligation to deconstruct these regimes of power.

You understand, don’t you? It’s clear, isn’t it? Dominant ideology excludes alternatives and it enjoys (whee! woopah! heehee!) privileged status so it’s a regime of power and a fascist structure. The only liberatory and truly fair thing to do is to have evidence-free health science; that’s an ethical obligation.

This thing is so ridiculous that it’s hard not to suspect it’s another Sokal hoax. Hey – [tap tap] – are you another Sokal hoax? Hello?



Conflict and Consensus

Aug 10th, 2006 8:14 pm | By

I like William Empson. Don’t try to talk me out of it.

As a poet who had written anti-Fascist propaganda for the BBC during the war and had taught ‘English literature’ in China both before and afterwards, he didn’t want writers or readers to trade in emotive, ineffable or overly abstract (i.e. religiose) language. Literature was there to alert us, to make us think rather than assent; close reading was the preferred antidote to indoctrination. The consequences of listening or reading inattentively, and of not seeing how language can be used to sustain inattention and sponsor cruelty, were Empson’s abiding preoccupations.

Well, you probably won’t bother trying to talk me out of it, because you can see right there why I would like him, and how futile such an attempt would be. Anyone who isn’t keen on ineffable or religiose language is going to be someone I am going to like. (Emotive language is a little different. I like emotive language [used sparingly] as long as it’s clear that everyone knows that’s what it is. It’s emotive language that’s smuggled in that I can’t stand; emotive language that pretends to be neutral. I don’t know what Empson would have thought of that.)

There were two related things that Empson as a literary critic could not abide. One was submission to authority, and the other was torment, both the wish to inflict it and the wish to suffer it. Empson was criticised and indeed ridiculed for this hatred, which was directed mostly against Christianity and ‘neo-Christian’ literary critics, but these are things one is unlikely to be casual about if they matter to one at all.

Well, yes. If you mind them at all you tend to mind them a lot. Thus the Rapture-fans, who revel in the thought of being snatched up into the clouds to watch the left behind be tortured, repel me and shock me quite intensely, just as the students at Patrick Henry who sign up (literally sign up, in writing) to the doctrine that the unsaved will be tormented in hell for eternity, and then go cheerily about their business, repel me and shock me. It’s bad stuff. I don’t see any way to get around that.

Empson, who believed in the ‘straddling’ of contraries rather than their resolution, who found ambiguity in literature more truthful than conviction, could not avoid unequivocally taking sides when it came to the Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, and what he took to be the virtual fascism of the Judeo-Christian God. His letters, like all his critical writings, show that he was as unambiguous as he could be in his hatred of the haters of variety. He wanted a variety of sorts of feeling and an unendable clash of different philosophies. So by his own lights he couldn’t and didn’t create his own orthodoxy…‘What else does one write criticism for except to win agreement?’ he asks in a letter to Christopher Ricks, and yet the winning of agreement – or perhaps the winning of too much agreement, the way literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson.

Which is very like a running argument (or discussion) that’s been going on around here about consensus. Very like it indeed. Suggestive stuff.

Indeed, the thing Empson seems to have been most at odds with himself about was conflict…Empson believed that disagreement was often the more adequate response; to say where you think someone is wrong is to be on the side of variety…The possibility of disagreement was, I think, mostly evidence for Empson that one was not at anyone’s mercy. The writer could be at the mercy of his conflicts, just as the critic could be at the mercy of the text, or the institution that employed him. So the Empson who believed that the most morally disreputable thing a writer could do was suppress the conflicts that animated him, the Empson who preferred a clash to a consensus…

Was a very interesting fella.



More Wonkette Syndrome

Aug 8th, 2006 11:01 pm | By

And speaking of Wonkers, Ian B sent me a lovely little piece from the Wall Street Journal the other day, that’s more of the same kind of bowl of warm spit. Written by one Charlotte Hays – which sounds like a woman’s name to me. Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend. Does Charlotte Hays think she’d be writing for the WSJ without feminism? Hmm?

Perhaps the nicest thing about attending the National Organization for Women’s 40th birthday event last weekend was that I didn’t have to pack a lot of fancy party clothes – the dress code was strictly old feminist. The mindset was of the same vintage. Though there was a “summit” for young feminists on Friday before the conference got under way in earnest (and I do mean earnest), most of the 700 women in attendance were no spring chickens. They were joined at the Crowne Plaza by a handful of hen-pecked, middle-age men, always touchingly eager to demonstrate their ardent sympathy.

There’s lots more of the same kind of thing. Old, boring, old, boring, old, not hip, old, not as hip as I am, old, we’ve heard that before, yes that Equal Rights Amendment, yawn, 1982, yawn, old, I chose to get a bite to eat at Quizno’s instead. Stupid stuff. And the Wonkette shall inherit the earth.



Wonkette Syndrome

Aug 8th, 2006 10:46 pm | By

I wonder if Katherine Rake has been reading Wonkette.

Roll up, roll up, for a spot of that old favourite, feminist-bashing. Anyone can have a go, it’s easy. Trot out that readymade mythological figure of the dungaree-clad, scary, hairy and humourless feminist.

Don’t forget ‘fixated’ and ‘so angry’ – they go with the humourless bit. And as for rolling up – the comments are depressing. Actually they’re more like disgusting. And that’s at the Guardian! So men in the rest of the world are even more misogynist and contempt-filled – how encouraging.

And we now also have to contend with the hypersexualisation of our culture, a phenomenon that has developed and snowballed with hardly a murmur of dissent. Against a backdrop of ubiquitous images of women’s bodies as sex objects, rates of self-harm among young women are spiralling, eating disorders are on the rise, and plastic surgery is booming.

Well there’ve been quite a few murmurs of dissent from me, but I do my murmuring in such a quiet, genteel, whispery, mousy way that no one hears me, what with all that panting and grunting going on. I suppose it’s my karma.

I think there’s some tension there though, and I think it’s a tension you find in a lot of feminists. A bit of eating cake and having.

The stereotype of the mythological feminist, while ridiculous, is dangerous in that it gives the impression that feminism is first and foremost about how women should dress or whether they should wear make-up…Against a backdrop of ubiquitous images of women’s bodies as sex objects…

Well, which is it? It’s no good disavowing concern with how women should dress in one breath and then expressing concern with ubiquitous images of their bodies as sex objects with the other. The two are, unfortunately, linked. I myself have a Talibanish tendency to flinch when I see women ambling around the supermarket with their stomachs or buttocks or tits poking out, for precisely that kind of reason, a tendency which always causes me to ask despairingly why women can’t just wear clothes instead of either tents or bathing suits. I ask that question for feminist reasons, because I think it makes a difference to how everyone thinks of women – so I don’t think it’s much good pretending feminism isn’t concerned with that subject, even to suck up to the Wonkette crowd.



Karma, Meet Egolessness

Aug 8th, 2006 9:45 pm | By

Any Buddhists out there? I have a question. Or not so much a question as something I don’t get. (I know of at least one Buddhist out there. Maybe I’ll email her, or maybe she’ll say something here before I get around to it.) This morning I was reading a book about feminism and world religions – called Feminism and World Religions – and in the essay on Buddhism Rita Gross tells us that many Buddhists explain male dominance as a result of karma: everyone’s ‘current position’ is a result of karma from the past, so women’s inferiority results from ‘negative karma’ so they have to bear it gracefully, which will probably lead to the good karma of rebirth as a man. (She then says what’s wrong with that view – you don’t get to say ‘it’s your karma to be oppressed by me’ because that’s bad or ‘negative’ karma for you.) But on the next page she talks about egolessness and the non-existence of the ego, the self, the identity. That’s fine, I have no problem with that, it just sounds like dear Hume to me; but what I don’t get is how those two things can possibly make sense in combination. If the self doesn’t exist in this life, what sense can it possibly make to say that what we did in a past life belongs to us in this one? Accepting the (absurd, but never mind) idea of rebirth just for the moment for the sake of argument – what is it that is reborn if there is no self? I want to know. What is it that is reborn, and what is its relationship to its ‘karma’? It’s presumably not anything material; it’s not meant to be the same atoms or anything; but it’s also not the same person, because personhood is an illusion. So what is it?

This is a blindingly obvious problem, so surely it must have been discussed to within an inch of its life, but I seem to have slept through that class. Answers on a postcard please.