Notes and Comment Blog


Two Observers

Jul 22nd, 2005 3:55 am | By

Ian McEwan, July 19.

Inevitably, we’re going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner.

So being ‘devout’ isn’t enough then? Huh.

I don’t buy the arguments in the Iraq war. What keeps getting forgotten here is that the people committing massacres in Iraq right now belong to al-Qaida…But the massacres in Iraq now are being conducted by al-Qaida against Muslims. I also think it’s extraordinary the way in which we get morally selective in our outrages. When there was a rumor that someone at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the lavatory, the pages in The Guardian almost caught fire with outrage, but only months before the Taliban had set fire to a mosque and destroyed 300 ancient Korans.

I didn’t know that – remind me to look into it. But the selectiveness of the moral outrage – oh yeah. Big time. All the guff about rage and alienation and disaffection – no, not offered as pure disinterested explanation, as one might offer overexposure to the midday sun to explain a sunburn – which never, ever gets rolled out for the BNP or Timothy McVeigh or murderers of doctors who do abortions – that guff. Why is that? I don’t know, but I hope people get over it soon.

Polly Toynbee, July 22.

The death cult strikes again, unstoppable in its deranged religious mania. This time no deaths but a savage reminder of the unknown waves of demented killers lining up to murder in the name of God…In the growing fear and anger at what more may be to come, apologists or explainers for these young men can expect short shrift. This is not about poverty, deprivation or cultural dislocation of second-generation immigrants. There is plenty of that and it is passive. Iraq is the immediate trigger, but this is about religious delusion.

Partly – I think. Religious delusion joined to testosterone-syndrome joined to a fascist love of violence for its own sake joined to thrill-seeking. But r.d. sure does its bit.

Enlightenment values are in peril not because these mad beliefs are really growing but because too many rational people seek to appease and understand unreason…Meanwhile the far left, forever thrilled by the whiff of cordite, has bizarrely decided to fellow-travel with primitive Islamic extremism as the best available anti-Americanism around. (Never mind their new friends’ views on women, gays and democracy.)

Exactly – except for the far left bit. I refuse to consider anyone who hugs talibanism as any kind of left at all. If that’s far left it’s so ‘far’ that it’s gone all the way around to the other side.

Bombs do change things, maybe not in the extremists’ favour. A great shift in attitude seems to have swept through many Muslim groups who signed the full-page newspaper statement yesterday headed “Not in Our Name”. Many were equivocators on the fatwa that had Salman Rushdie locked away for years.

And as ‘The World Tonight’ pointed out on Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday), if people who rush off to interview ‘the Muslim community’ would stop talking exclusively to men, that might help too. The Muslim women that reporter talked to had nothing but contempt and anger for the whole sorry mess.



Odds

Jul 20th, 2005 11:32 pm | By

Wait – what?

It is 97 per cent certain that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – based on sheer logic and mathematics, not faith – according to Oxford professor Richard Swinburne…This conclusion was reached after a complex series of calculations. In simplified terms, it began with a single proposition: the probability was one in two that God exists. Next, if God exists, the probability was one in two that he became incarnate.

A single proposition – that the probability is one in two that God exists. Um.

We talked (or wrangled) about this last year, when this article on a similar but not identical theme appeared.

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes’ Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being. Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil – including earthquakes and cancer.

Big assumption to start from, as we said at the time. A commenter knowledgeable (at least apparently, and as far as I could tell) about probability, said yes, it’s quite reasonable to take as a starting point a 50/50 shot of God, or the Easter Bunny, Spider-man, Attila the Hun, or anything else, existing if you don’t know better. If you don’t know better. If you start from zero, with no idea either way of the likelihood that the Easter Bunny does or does not exist. But we’re not starting from there, are we. So – why should the probability be one in two that ‘God’ exists? (Not to mention what exactly Swinburne means by ‘God’ in this, er, equation.) No doubt Swinburne says why in his book, but the probablity is 492 in 493 that I would be unconvinced. And then the business about becoming incarnate – please.

“Does he have reason to become incarnate? Yes, to make atonement, identify with our suffering and to teach us things, ” Professor Swinburne said. Even Jesus’ life is not enough proof, he said. God’s signature was needed, which the resurrection was, showing his approval of Jesus’ teaching.

Bollocks. He has reason to become incarnate so that he can have sex, and go hang-gliding, and eat peach ice cream, and get a new hairdo and a sweatshirt with the B&W logo on it. ‘To teach us things’ – well is it working? I’m not so sure. I think we must need somebody cleverer to teach us things, because the things we know seem to get us into some bad places. So skate off back to disincarnateland, Goddy baby, and let someone else take over.

Another item from the ‘Yes religion is mandatory, why do you ask?’ file.

The next big debate for Democrats concerns the r-word: Do they need to get — or at least start talking about — religion? A progressive evangelist and an aggressive secularist have at it.

Perfect, isn’t it? A ‘progressive’ evangelist and an ‘aggressive’ secularist. Good job, American Prospect! Don’t tip your hand or anything.

Absurdity and manipulation – whatever it takes to win, eh.



Acorns

Jul 20th, 2005 8:42 pm | By

The trouble with the ‘rage, injustice, grievance, violence inflicted on Muslims, marginalization’ approach is that it takes the action being explained too seriously, too politically, too as-if-rational-y, too as-if-adult-ly, and above all, as an instrument, a tool, a means, rather than as an end in itself, which is what it is. It is not a case of: bang: redress our grievances lest we do it again; it’s a case of: bang: hooray, ha ha, nyah nyah, take that, suffer, die, hooray. Period. The killing is the goal. 7/7 is not October 1917 or the Easter Rising, it’s Auschwitz and Rwanda and Srebrenica.

Along with a huge element of childish fun and games. It’s important not to overlook that. It’s necessary not to ignore the sheer and mere thrill element, the disaster movie element, the fire-crash porn element, the video game element, the macho element. Don’t think all that is not part of it, because it is. Everybody must know that, at some level (because it’s kind of obvious), but it doesn’t get mentioned much. Odd, that. It must be true. (It was true of many of the people – maybe all of them – who put together Little Boy and Fat Man, too. They were scared, they were overawed, they were worried, but damn, they were excited and thrilled too, and not just at the success of the physics, although that was part of it. They were thrilled about the great big bang and the fire. People like this stuff. It’s as well to remember that.) I’d be willing to bet (not that there is any booky I could place the bet with, because no way to confirm) that if there had been a way to achieve the same number of deaths instantaneously silently and painlessly – that way would have been rejected with scorn and derision. No – the bang and the smoke is part of the fun, and would not have been given up. The whole undertaking was an Excellent Adventure. I can do that, watch this, ooh let’s get rucksacks, ooh let’s do it at 8:50 just like 9/11, ooh people will see us on CCTV just like the guys at the airport on 9/11, ooh aren’t we cool.

This is Eichmann in Jerusalem stuff of course. The court, and people in general, wanted to see Eichmann as scary and grand and important, in proportion to what he wrought. But Arendt pointed out that he wasn’t. He just wasn’t. There is no proportion. There just isn’t. There is no mechanism that prevents terrible things happening for the most trivial of reasons, or wonderful valuable people from being casually killed by shallow petty unthinking people with nothing much in mind. It happens.



Narcissus Leaves the Pool

Jul 20th, 2005 2:56 am | By

I wrote that comment before I read David Aaronovitch’s piece which says some of the same things.

Mass murder, however, with your own slaughter centre stage, is a pretty extreme act. It is an act of such narcissistic destructiveness, displaying such an incapacity to empathise (you have to be there in the carriage with the Polish girls), that you’d imagine some warning signs, if only you could recognise them…It was also, in a psychological sense, a perverted act. The boys will have known (don’t the relatives remind us?) something of the wrongness of what they did, just as the Columbine school killers did. For whatever reason, however, the pleasure of contemplating the act was greater than the knowledge of its error.

Just so. It’s the narcissism that is so striking – and so oddly ignored by the people who babble about their ‘rage.’ It’s so me me me – I’m pissed off, I want justice, I’m upset, I want to do something, I want to make a difference. Well it’s not about you. Why should it be about you? Why should what you want outweigh all those other people? What makes you so damn special? And don’t tell me it was because they were so concerned about their fellow Muslims, because I don’t believe a word of it. I just don’t. I think it’s all about vanity and showing off. Get me I’m a martyr.

I blame the ideology and the psychology of Grievance — the pleasurable, destructive business of imagining that “they” are being bad to “you”, and of therefore calculating every event on that basis. We call it “nursing” a grudge for a reason. We take this aspect of existence and add to it, almost lovingly…It’s not me, it’s not us, it’s them. They keep doing bad things to us.

Go together, don’t they – narcissism and Grievance. They have to. Grievance-hugging goes with having a badly inflated sense of one’s own importance to the scheme of things.

The elected Government in Iraq, the Shia majority, the new fact of Kurdish rights in that country, don’t count. All these peoples are de-Muslimified for the purposes of victimology. And that happens because they simply don’t fit the narrative. The Sunnis of Iraq are imagined to be “us”, but the Shia and the Kurds aren’t. The bombed villagers of Afghanistan are “us”, the liberated women aren’t. The Kosovan Muslims aren’t, either, though you can bet they would have been had Nato not intervened to save them. As it is, they too have disappeared from Muslimhood…It simply is not an accident — in psychological terms — that anything that conflicts with the Grievance is discounted, and anything that contributes to it is emphasised…All populist right-wing movements, inciters to violence and hatred, are adept in the language of Grievance. The only way to fight it ultimately is to argue — again and again and again — that it just ain’t so.

Hanif Kureishi is not so skeptical. He thinks the rage is genuine.

The burning sense of injustice that many young people feel as they enter the adult world of double standards and dishonesty shock those of us who are more knowing and cynical. We find this commendable in young people but also embarrassing. Consumer society has already traded its moral ideals for other satisfactions, and one of the things we wish to export, masquerading as “freedom and democracy” is that very consumerism, though we keep silent about its consequences: addiction, alienation, fragmentation.

Oh, crap. Really – just pure unadulterated crap. Can’t you do better than that? Consumerism? ‘Damn, look at all these people with their Starbucks cups and their expensive undershirts – I think I’ll bomb them all into atoms.’

Burning sense of injustice my ass. Please. Rampant hormones and an insufficiently tamed ego do not add up to a burning sense of injustice – they add up to a tendency to posture at having such a thing. And as for consumer society – yes yes, I used to whinge about it a lot myself, but it has become way too clear to me that there are far worse things. I’ll take people buying stupid garments and kitchen artifacts they don’t need over religious bullies any day. Though to be fair, Kureishi does get there in the end.

If we need to ensure that what we call “civilisation” retains its own critical position towards violence, religious groups have to purge themselves of their own intolerant and deeply authoritarian aspects. The body hatred and terror of sexuality that characterise most religions can lead people not only to cover their bodies in shame but to think of themselves as human bombs.

David Goodhart also talked about grievance the other day.

But the overwhelming theme of public comment, even after the recent bombings, is one of Muslim grievance. Britain’s Muslims are among the richest and freest in the world and most of them are groping successfully towards a hybrid British Muslim identity, but when did you last hear a Muslim leader say so? Iqbal Sacranie is a capable leader who has helped to turn the Muslim Council of Britain into an effective lobbying body, but his organisation’s default position remains grievance. Here he is in the introduction to a recent booklet for British Muslims: “The unleashing of a virulent strain of Islamophobia, inflammatory media reporting and the misconceived wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have all contributed to the undoubted increase in prejudice we face.”

An undifferentiated rhetoric of grievance contributes to alienation, lack of integration and even indirectly to extremism. If you are constantly being told by even moderate Muslim leaders that Britain is a cesspit of Islamophobia and is running a colonial anti-Muslim foreign policy, you might well conclude, like one young Muslim quoted after the bombs: “I would like to give blood but they probably won’t want mine.”

Like so many things, Grievance gets a momentum of its own. Once it gets started, it’s hard to back away from it, because that seems conservative and ruthless and indifferent. But…there’s a price for that.



Not Prince Hamlet, Nor Meant to Be

Jul 19th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

All right, why did they do it? That’s the question people keep asking or rather answering. They did it because of rage, because of a sense of grievance, because of injustice, because all those people marched and no one listened, because of Fallujah, because of Afghanistan (but not because of Bosnia or Kosovo), because of exclusion and marginalization, because of the violence perpetrated on Muslims. But hey – maybe they didn’t. Maybe even apart from the fact that those are all contemptible ‘reasons’ – maybe they’re not reasons anyway. Maybe they’re only pseudo-reasons, like the ‘reasons’ people protest the G8 summit or the ‘reasons’ people toss a brick through Starbucks’ window and then run away. Maybe all that is bullshit and rationalization and above all camouflage.

Maybe the reasons were way more stupid and trivial and self-oriented than even the bogus reasons the Grievance-polishers have been trotting out. Maybe in fact rage at injustice doesn’t have a god damn thing to do with it except as window dressing. Maybe the real reasons are to do with wanting to make a mark, with fantasies about fame and glory and being Somebody. Maybe the whole thing is like that conversation in the back of the cab between Terry Malloy and his mobbed-up older brother in the expensive coat. ‘I coulda been somebody, I coulda had class.’

Maybe the guff about injustice and Grievance is merely an ingredient in a narrative of self in which the hero is a freedom fighter, a rebel, a guerilla warrior, another Che or Osama or Tupac. Maybe anything would have done – any ‘injustice,’ any ‘grievance’. Maybe it’s all just a combination of testosterone and a feeling of insignificance and stupid fantasizing. Maybe four guys just wanted to feel Special, and at this particular moment for those particular guys, the way to do that was to strike a blow for their ‘community.’ At another particular moment for another group of insignificant guys, the way to do that was to strike a blow for a different ‘community’ – by shooting Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and triggering The Great War. A few overexcited boys commit a murder, and tens of millions of people wind up dead.

Maybe there was a monstrous disproportion between the enormity of what they did and their own personal stature. Maybe all this handwaving about injustice is partly because we can’t stand the thought that it was all actually very petty and childish and narcissistic and stupid. Because what they actually did was so horrible, caused such wretched misery to so many people – we want to think there was something at least grand and significant – at least interesting – about the people who did it. A touch of Macbeth, a bit of Clytemnestra; a little tragic and operatic. But maybe there wasn’t. Maybe they were just about as grand and significant as some pimpled youth who gets drunk and drives a car at ninety miles an hour into another car, killing six people. Maybe they were just about as grand and significant as the non-entities who killed Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Rabin. Just four creeps who wanted to be a big deal, and had too little imagination to prevent them from going for it.



Virtue Trounces Vice Again

Jul 19th, 2005 4:22 am | By

This is funny. I know, I shouldn’t laugh, it’s serious, but it’s funny.

A statement that has warned against the dangers of allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia was released on the Internet on Friday…It said the enemies of Islam have portrayed the image of Muslim women being without rights and having “a broken wing,” saying that their homes are prisons, their husbands mistreat them, and their hijabs are a sign of backwardness. It said that they have come up with the terminology of “injustice for women” in our country and have used it in the media lately introducing the fact that they are not allowed to drive as a sign of injustice.

They did? Those bastards. How can they say a thing like that? How can they possibly get from the fact that women are not ‘allowed’ to drive in Saudi Arabia to the ‘image’ that those women don’t have rights? It’s insane! I’m sure if men were not ‘allowed’ to drive in Saudia Arabia while women were, no one would suggest that men were without rights as a result. And would they see that as a sign of injustice? Of course not!

The statement added that though it acknowledged that foreign drivers are an economic burden on the country, their presence does less damage than the economic burdens of allowing women to drive which are: The multi-ownership of cars in one family instead of just one being used by the driver; the replacement of a car by another one since women are known to like everything new and the burden of the government having to open special female sections in all Traffic Departments.

These guys should do stand-up, I mean it. ‘Women are known to like everything new’ – why those miserable lazy greedy gold-digging whores! No wonder they’re not allowed to drive – the empty-headed materialistic demanding cows. It’s quite true, too – I’m a woman and I buy a new car once a week, and as for my clothes – ! I’ve had to have a fourth closet built to hold them all. Obviously, because I’m a woman, see, and women are known to like everything new.

But the thing about the special female sections in all Traffic Departments is the clincher, of course. That would be a budget-buster, wouldn’t it, so obviously women have to be locked up to avoid that. The US is a rich country, so it can afford that kind of thing – special women’s buses, women’s supermarkets, women’s libraries, women’s post offices, women’s Starbuck’s, women’s Office Depots – all staffed by women, all equipped with special guy-catcher prongs in the doorway. It adds up, that kind of money.

It concluded by saying that no Islamic scholar or good figure in society has called for women to drive and that all those who have been calling for them to drive are people who tend to damage the image of Islamic women. One of the signatories, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghamdi, head of the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Al-Mikhwah in Al-Baha region, said a group of righteous people approached him and other sheikhs in the region to include their signature to the statement. “They showed us the statement and we read it and agreed with its contents. That is why we signed it,” he said.

Well, that explains that. Good to know that virtue is thriving over there.



Aporias and Avatars

Jul 19th, 2005 2:02 am | By

Tzvetan Todorov has a good essay in Theory’s Empire. I’ll give you a quotation from it.

The renunciation of judgment and of values leads to insurmountable aporias, as well. To make their own task easier, deconstructionists seem to have assimliated all values to religious values, thus rejecting the distinction between faith and reason, and they treat reason as an avatar – no more and no less – of God, thus wiping out several centuries of struggle with a single stroke of the pen.

Rejecting that distinction between faith and reason is – such a bottomlessly terrible idea.



Reform

Jul 17th, 2005 10:15 pm | By

It’s time to reform Islam, a lot of people are pointing out. (The other big religions could do with some reforming too, while you’re at it – though Islam’s need is obviously fairly urgent.)

Tariq Panja thinks UK mosques should do better.

The trouble for many young Muslims in Britain comes from the one-dimensional nature of Islamic instruction given in most mosques. Islamic consciousness comes from visits to the mosque and by going to madrassas to learn to read the Koran in Arabic. For many, though they can read the language, it is incomprehensible. Then there are the sermons delivered at Friday prayers, which are read in the language of the founders of the mosque. So in Beeston they are delivered in Urdu. The content rarely considers the lives of the scores of young men in the mosque. The result is a little like creating religious automatons, who go through the motions but have no concept of why they do what they are doing.

So ‘Islamic consciousness’ in that situation must be pretty empty of content.

Islam is a way of life. So in the home, parents – many of whom lack the education to explain to their children how to come to terms with their dual identities – simply demand that their children do certain things. Indeed, it feels as though there is a competition between parents to get their children to finish reading the Koran first. At a party, parents will say: ‘He’s only six; he’s finished the Koran’. So what? What has the child understood?

What have madrassa students who learn the Koran (in a language most of them don’t understand) and nothing else understood? Not much, it seems safe to say. Since they haven’t had an opportunity to learn or understand much, they probably don’t.

Boris Johnson is blunt.

That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem…Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers. As the killer of Theo Van Gogh told his victim’s mother this week in a Dutch courtroom, he could not care for her, could not sympathise, because she was not a Muslim. The trouble with this disgusting arrogance and condescension is that it is widely supported in Koranic texts, and we look in vain for the enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process of reform. What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s mediaeval ass?

Well, now; that’s when. Some people are indeed doing their best. Homa Arjomand, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Irshad Manji will all be speaking at a no sharia conference in Toronto in August. If people (and especially newspapers like the Guardian and broadcasters like the BBC) would pay a lot more attention to them and a lot less to Tariq Ali and Dilpazier Aslam…maybe reform would start to take hold.



Lose Ten Points

Jul 17th, 2005 9:33 pm | By

Open Democracy made en error – at least, one of its writers did, which comes to the same thing. It’s a fairly gross error, too. (I emailed them about it – I wonder if they’ll fix it.)

Coming from a sophisticated thinker, that is a surprising assessment of the man who declared during last year’s election: “I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy, but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.” For Ignatieff, Bush is a “gambler from Texas” because he is the first president “risking his presidency on the premise that Jefferson was right”.

Trouble is, if you follow the link, you find that Bush didn’t say that. I was a bit staggered by it (Bush says staggering things all the time, but that remark seems a tad incautious even for him) so was curious about the context so looked it up. Here’s the context.

When Bush appeared in person, moments later, he seemed surprisingly ordinary. “I’m here to ask for the vote,” he told the audience. “I believe it’s important to get out and ask for the vote. I believe it’s important to travel this great state and the country, talkin’ about where I intend to lead the country.” He made this sound like an original idea, and perhaps a controversial one, and the way he repeated the words “I believe” carried an air of defiant conviction: I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.

Oops. The bit that Mariano Aguirre put in quotation marks is not in quotation marks in the article, it’s in italics – while actual quotations are in quotation marks. Obviously the ‘I don’t give a damn’ (Gourevitch forgot the ‘Frankly, my dear,’ part) bit is authorial interpretation, is what Gourevitch takes to be the subtext of what Bush actually said. And since Aguirre is using the quotation that is not a quotation to raise an eyebrow (at the least) at Ignatieff as well as at Bush – that’s pretty sloppy. I thought you’d like to know that.



Basic Training

Jul 17th, 2005 7:28 pm | By

Here’s this one again. I’ve pointed it out before, but it’s a mistake that crops up all the time, so it bears repeating. This one is via the drink-soaked Trotskyist popinjays quoting Christopher Hitchens.

RR: I guess because I listen to the 9/11 Commission, and read their report, and they said that Saddam Hussein was not exporting terror. I suppose that’s how, Christopher…

CH; Well, I’m not sure that they actually did say that. What they did say was they didn’t know of any actual operational connection…which was the Iraqi Baath Party and…excuse me…and Al Qaeda. A direct operational connection. Now, that’s because they don’t know. They don’t say there isn’t one. They say they couldn’t find one.

There. It’s a really basic point – right up there with the distinction between proof and evidence. Saying you haven’t found something is not, repeat not, repeat not the same thing as saying that the something is not there. News flash – something can be there even if no one has found it yet. Especially if the search area is, instead of being the size of, say, your living room, the size of, say, Iraq.

Two of the other times I’ve pointed this out were: 1) a journalist interviewing a military journalist: mj said investigators have found no WMD, j said ‘You say there are no WMD,’ mj interrupted to say with suppressed fury, ‘No I didn’t say that, I said investigators hadn’t found any,’ j said ‘What’s the difference?’ !!?!! 2) a different journalist interviewing Hans Blix, who said ‘We haven’t found any WMD,’ j said ‘Can you tell us for certain that there are no WMD?’ Blix answered with exasperation, ‘No, of course we can’t.’ Journalist said ‘Why not?’ !!?!!

Really basic.

[Just to make clear – I can’t boast. Someone did a very basic ‘are you paying attention?’ test on me a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t. To put it mildly (and rude Someone did a lot of rude laughing at me as a result). Of course I didn’t know I was being tested, I thought I was just confirming that a message had been sent – but that’s the point. I guess. Anyway, I can’t boast. Not that I would anyway. I’m tremendously modest.]



Blair Hits the Bull’s-eye

Jul 16th, 2005 8:32 pm | By

Well I must say – I think Blair nailed it. And if the people who disagree with him are ‘left-wingers’ – well then I’m a right-winger, which is not what I think I am – but then why in hell are they ‘left-wingers’? What the sam hill is ‘left-wing’ about sympathizing with or understanding the point of view of or wanting to negotiate with extreme right-wing religious fundamentalist tyrants? What? What? What?

The greatest danger is that we fail to face up to the nature of the threat we are dealing with…But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it. This is the battle that must be won, a battle not just about the terrorist methods but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas. Not only what they do but what they think and the thinking they would impose on others…Neither is it true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them.

Well exactly. So what can people mean when they say we should negotiate? Negotiate what? Women’s right to leave the house, to go to school, to work? Even David Rieff, who said many sensible things, ended up saying political compromise and negotiation are inevitable. Compromise with what? You might as well try to ‘compromise’ with Hitler over how many Jews to gas. There is no compromise.

Rieff:

Terrorism can often be contained and even blunted by effective military and intelligence activities, but it can only be defeated by political compromise and negotiation…Sooner or later, such negotiations will have to start, as it is widely reported that they have already begun between the US and Iraqi authorities and the Ba’athist insurgents in Iraq. The alternative is treating the Islamic immigrant populations of Europe like a vast fifth column, and that choice would be a disaster for Europe and for the Islamic world. It is true that negotiating with mass murderers is the opposite of justice. But what adult ever thought history was just?

And the choice to compromise and negotiate with Islamists would not be a disaster for Europe and the entire world? Would not be the entry to a new dark age?

Back to Blair.

…the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations. We don’t have to wonder what type of country those states would be. Afghanistan was such a state. Girls put out of school. Women denied even rudimentary rights. People living in abject poverty and oppression. All of it justified by reference to religious faith.

And don’t forget the stonings – the stonings to death of women in front of their own children, children who were made to go up to the stoned woman to see if she was dead yet. And don’t forget the football stadium executions. And the beatings of women with car radio antennas, and the banning of kites and music. Yes, let’s compromise and negotiate with people like that.

It cannot be beaten except by confronting it, symptoms and causes, head-on. Without compromise and without delusion. The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature. It exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world, as if it is our behaviour that should change, that if we only tried to work out and act on their grievances, we could lift this evil, that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order. Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to.

There you go. ‘Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated.’ Exactly. It is odd how many people don’t seem to grasp that – which is odd since it’s all very explicit and out in the open. Do people think the jihadists are kidding or something? That it’s all a mask or a joke or a pretext?

We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism, but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is, the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.

I could do without the ‘true religious faith’ bit, but that’s a quibble, and anyway he has to say that. But it’s strong stuff, much stronger than I would have expected. It’s also dead right. Well done Tony.



Words 2

Jul 15th, 2005 8:58 pm | By

Another tendentious word, while we’re on the subject – another one that we’ve been hearing a lot lately (and hear a lot all the time anyway).

Community.

Yeah, so, what’s wrong with that? Well, it depends. It can be benign enough, if and when everything is going well. Except that condition never seems to apply, does it. And when things are not going well, community can decidedly cut the other way. Community works to exclude as well as include, as many people have pointed out; it fosters dislike or hatred of non-members as well as loyalty to and solidarity with members; and it can isolate. Trevor Phillips on yesterday’s The World Tonight talked about the way the multicultural emphasis on ‘difference’ works to drive people apart rather than bringing them together. I think both words do that. Every time the radio or newspaper refers to ‘the Muslim community’ it drives the nail in a little further – there is such a thing as ‘the Muslim community,’ it is in some way homogenous enough to be labeled a community (how? how can it be?), and for everyone in that putative community, their being Muslim is the most salient thing about them. Which, apart from anything else, is depressing for secularists and atheists (as well as converts to other religions) in that ‘community’ who really don’t want to be or to be called ‘Muslim’ at all, but who feel shoved back into that category by the constant iteration of the label.

The word is meant to be kind and caring and respectful, but it has some highly coercive, limiting overtones, along with a separatist one. Raise an eyebrow when you hear it.



Words

Jul 15th, 2005 2:05 am | By

There’s been a lot of discussion of the BBC’s policy on the use of the t-word. But that’s not the only tendentious word around. I was reading this article earlier today and I noticed another one.

Around this time, he was sent to Pakistan to visit relatives. He also went on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, grew a beard and began to wear robes. Despite becoming devoutly religious, he was arrested for shoplifting during 2004.

Can you tell what word I have in mind? I bet you can. I saw it in other articles too – it’s quite popular. ‘Devout.’

Devout. Hmm. That is one word for it, of course, but others come to mind. ‘Devout’ is not a neutral word – it’s a hooray word. It’s one of those words like ‘faith’ and ‘spiritual’ that are meant to convey, ever so subtly and covertly, that being religious is a good and virtuous thing – all by itself, not because of any further transformation in behaviour. Well, is it? No, not necessarily. It seems safe to say, not in this case! So why use words that imply that it is? Granted, I can’t think of any neutral equivalent for the word ‘devout’ – but then why do we need one? It’s a tautology anyway – religiously religious. It functions as an intensifier, but an intensifier with a lot of baggage. Why not just say ‘intensely religious’ or ‘very religious’? No reason, that I can see, other than to show a kind of reflexive ‘respect’ for religion – which is pretty stupid, in this context, frankly. Yeah, he became devoutly religious, and that’s why he blew up fourteen people. Fourteen people, including Gladys Wundowa, who had finished her shift as a cleaner at UCL and was on her way to a college course in Shoreditch – that’s ‘devoutly religious’ for you.



Apologists

Jul 14th, 2005 4:17 am | By

Norm on apologists.

Imagine a thought experiment, he gently urges.

On account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans who have been denied the right to remain in the UK. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this decision and they take out their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to halt the deportations, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen, even though (ex hypothesi) the government decision is part of the causal chain leading to the violence in question. It wouldn’t happen because the anger of the thugs doesn’t begin to justify what they have done.

I’ve been having a similar thought for days, ever since reading Tariq Ali. It’s July 7, 1944. Bombs explode on three tube trains at 8:50 in the morning, and on a bus an hour later. The perpetrators turn out to be fans of Oswald Mosley, would-be members of the British Union of Fascists. Diana Mosley writes an article titled ‘The price of occupation’ in which she says ‘But it is safe to assume that the cause of these bombs is the unstinting support given by the national government and its prime minister to the US-led invasion of Nazi Europe’ and ‘Most Londoners (as the rest of the country) were opposed to the anti-Nazi war. Tragically, they have suffered the blow and paid the price for the takeover of Churchill and a continuation of the war.’ Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to resist the Nazis, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? (If you go back five years from 1944, of course, you can indeed imagine that, which just goes to show that some people of left or liberal outlook can be – more than a little foolish.) But you get the drift. Nazi terrorists blow up tube trains because they’re really pissed off, and – ? And nothing. So they’re pissed off, so what? Anybody can be pissed off, anyone can have a ‘grievance,’ that doesn’t mean their cause is any good. People are always going to get pissed off when someone stops them doing what they want. But if what they want is to kill half the village, or torture children to death because they are ‘witches,’ or kill the whole village – then it is better to stop them, rather than attending a ten year anniversary of the mass slaughter they managed to pull off in full view of the UN.



Socially Acceptable

Jul 13th, 2005 8:41 pm | By

God almighty. There’s just no end to it. Hell and damnation.

A BBC reporter went to Angola to look into links between witchcraft, poverty and the spread of churches that mix ‘traditional African beliefs and evangelical Christianity.’

Stepping inside Mr Kitoko’s “clinic” was like entering Bedlam. Many of the so-called patients were chained to the walls and floor. A boy of 15 had been shackled here since January…In a darkened room, six men were chained to the walls and floor. A fight broke out over food. One man tried to stab another with a shard of glass.

And it gets much, much worse.

Lying on the floor of the main hall was the limp, bloated body of an eight-year-old boy. Domingo Jose was barely conscious, his face, belly, arms, legs, even his fingers gorged and inflamed. He was barely alive. Mr Kitoko took a large swig from a glass bottle and spat water into Jose’s face. The child winced, too weak to cry out. Mud was smeared on his belly. The priest grabbed and twisted at Jose’s groin.

The BBC crew tried to get help – but it took a few days for help to arrive.

On the dusty streets of the Palanca Township, we stumbled upon a small Pentecostal church. Entering a small concrete out-house, we found a shocking sight. Sitting on the floor was a terrified, near naked girl of eight, her head shaven. She cowered as her mother and a pastor shouted at her. This was an exorcism, the pastor told us. The mother’s marriage had broken down, it was the child’s fault as she was possessed with Kindoki. Something had been rubbed into the girl’s eyes as part of this ritual. Her ordeal had already lasted three days, and there was another 24 hours to go. The pastor dismissed the risk the child could die from such treatment. He said: “Why should the child die? If the child dies, it means the child is evil.”

Shit. It has everything, doesn’t it. The child is stripped, shaven, on the floor: humiliated. She has her mother and the pastor shouting at her – she’s rejected and reviled by her own mother and by the holy guy. And then the physical torture just for good measure. And she’s all of eight years old – just like the child in London who was tortured the same way. It’s enough to make you scream.

Angola has been wracked by nearly 30 years of civil war. Many children have been orphaned, cared for by aunts, uncles, the extended family. But they can’t afford to keep them. It is socially unacceptable to push a child out because of poverty. But if they are possessed, it’s a different matter.

Custom is a wonderful thing. It’s socially unacceptable to push a child out, but it’s just fine to chain him to a wall, strip her, shave his head, shout at her, spit in his face, rub peppers in her eyes. Humans, humans, humans – the things we come up with.



Hot Evangelical Fiction

Jul 13th, 2005 3:54 am | By

I love to read – don’t you? Don’t you just love a good book? I do. There’s just nothing quite like a good book. Except maybe a really good brownie, or a really good walk on the beach, or a really good – I’m sorry.

Yes, I just love to read, especially when I have something good to read. Like – oh – a nice evangelical novel. Yes indeed. You can keep your old Jane Austen and your Emily Bronte (what was her problem, anyway?) and your George Eliot and Tolstoy and Stendhal and all those old-fashioned foreign people. Give me some good evangelical fiction with lots of adventure and violence and scary people and Jesus. That’s what I like.

At first hearing, the above storyline sounds like the basis for some sort of souped-up action movie. You could even imagine the pitch needed to sell it to a studio boss: “It’s got serial killers and Nazis and lost treasure! It’s Silence of the Lambs meets The Odessa File meets Raiders of the Lost Ark!”.

Cool! I can’t wait to read it! I’m going to run to the grocery store right now and see if they got it on those metal shelves by the sunglasses display. I hope it meets a few more movies for good measure – the Lost Ark meets Night of the Jedi meets Blair Witch Project meets the Full Monty (you know, like, Jesus does a strip show at the end) meets Supervolcano (that would be so cool, all the bad people who don’t love Jesus could get chased by lava and all the good Jesusy people could all be in Lubbock that day) meets one of those angel movies – doesn’t matter which one.

Written with a certain punchy, wham-bam brio, Obsessed is designed to be a page-turner. But it is also a profoundly Manichean tract – something that its author openly admits: “To minimise the darkness is to minimise the light,” he said in a recent interview. “I can understand a non-Christian writer using a grey brush to paint evil. But Christian writers, of all people, should never underestimate evil.

You know, that is just so true. ‘To minimise the darkness is to minimise the light’ – that’s beautiful – don’t you think that’s beautiful? And so profound. Because if you don’t think that some people are just evil all the way through in every possible way, just evil evil evil, like they say mean things to the bread before they put it in the toaster and they slap the toilet paper before they use it just to be evil – if you don’t think that, then you don’t think some other people, and Jesus, are the opposite, just good all the way through in every possible way, like they smile at everybody and wear clean clothes and campaign to get rid of the income tax – just really good. You see? You can’t get the one if you don’t get the other one – that’s how it works. And the evil people are supposed to be burned up by lava.

The packaging for Dekker’s Obsessed is from the slick school of upscale airport fiction. And though his publisher, WestBow, is a division of Thomas Nelson Inc (one of America’s oldest religious publishers), there is nothing on the cover that hints at the novel’s pious subtext. Similarly, the jacket blurb eschews all mention of the author’s proselytising intentions, referring instead to a “story of passion, revenge, and an all-consuming obsession”.

Ooh – that sounds kind of dirty, doesn’t it. It makes me feel all kind of – where’d I leave my Bible.

The fact is, however, that in the past few years, Christian-themed fiction has become one of the fastest-growing sectors in the American publishing industry – with its own agents, its own star writers, its own bestseller lists, and, most tellingly, what is known in marketing parlance as “growing crossover trade”: an increasing number of “secular” readers reaching for novels by Christian authors.

Well now isn’t that just lovely? Those poor damned secular readers may get themselves saved after all because they’re reading about adventure and evil and, um, all-consuming obsessions. (Ooh, that makes me feel so – I’ll just think about Jesus.)

Says Kate Duffy, an editor at the New York publishing house, Kensington: “There are two types of books that are really selling in America these days: erotica and inspirational romance,” she says.

Ero – oh dear. I’ll just have a nice glass of iced tea and I’m sure it will go away.

Kensington, a one-time specialist in gay and lesbian titles (not to mention books for all those Wiccans who follow a “neo-pagan, Earth-centered religion” better known as witchcraft), is about to change gear and publish three romantic novellas by the king of apocalyptic Christian fiction, LaHaye.

A one-time specialist in what?? That’s disgusting! And the part about gay and lesbian is disgusting too! I don’t know where all these people get the

Start nosing around the burgeoning world of Christian fiction, and you begin to bump into other manifold curiosities – such as the discovery that “faith-based” writers (as they often like to be called) are now working in such hitherto non-evangelical genres as the detective story, science fiction, graphic novels and even the western.

Yee, ha! Saddle up, pardner – the Clancy boys are on their way to rob the train, and if we hurry we can bushwack ’em and get the payroll and give it to the church. Beam me up, Scotty – it was the butler with the candlestick in the library. Jesus saves.

A major publishing house such as Time Warner Books now has its very own religious imprint – Warner Faith – and its own “Faith Building Fiction” list, with Christian chick lit authors such as Lisa Samson, whose new novel, Songbird, is trumpeted on their website as a hot title this season (“One woman’s search for forgiveness and peace leads her down the path of pain and despair, only to find hope via God’s grace”).

Well that’s just real nice, but does she find any good – I’m sorry.

At the time, there were only a handful of pioneers in the field of evangelical fiction – for instance, Frank Peretti, who is often referred to as “the Christian Stephen King” (and who has sold more than 12 million books to date). His 1986 novel, This Present Darkness, follows a born-again Christian preacher and newspaper reporter as they uncover a New Age plot to take over the world.

Really? He is? See, where I come from, Stephen King is often referred to as ‘the heathen Frank Peretti.’ But the New Age plot to take over the world sounds real exciting. They’d do it, too; they’d take over the world as soon as look atcha.

None of those cited above is a “literary” author, but to merely write them off -with a sardonic metropolitan titter – as pulp fiction for the born-again brigade is to underestimate their growing influence.

A sardonic metropolitan titter? Hey, Bub, I don’t titter. That was no fucking titter, that was a Bronx cheer as loud and ungenteel as I could make it.



Institutional Factors

Jul 11th, 2005 10:50 pm | By

This morning I read Mark Bauerlein’s article in Theory’s Empire, ‘Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace’, originally published in Partisan Review. It’s great stuff.

When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith. When a critic submitted an essay to PMLA that criticized constructionists for not making arguments in their favor, the reader’s report by Richard Ohmann rejoined that since constructionism is universally accepted by academic inquirers, there is no need to argue for it anymore.

That’s either hilarious or infuriating, or probably both. Constructionism is universally accepted by academic inquirers!! Is it really!

No, it certainly is not, and the fact that someone doing a reader’s report on such a book thinks or claims to think it is, is…shocking, absurd, risible, maddening. Talk about groupthink.

Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry. It is the natural method of constructionist epistemology, the outlook that will not distinguish between a truth and its origination, which is to say the outlook that is not really an epistemology at all. It speaks an epistemological language, but it has no epistemological principles.

Just so. Evaluating concepts by their political implications: the very definition of unepistemology.

If constructionists mean by “truth” merely “what passes for truth,” then the contradiction disappears, but now we are no longer talking about truth in epistemological terms, but in historical terms, that which is accepted as truth in this or that time and place. The acceptance of something as true is one thing, the truth of that belief is another. Establishing the latter is a routine epistemological task. Documenting the former is a traditional historical endeavor, carried out by Gibbon as well as by Sedgwick.

‘If constructionists mean by “truth” merely “what passes for truth,”‘ – as they so often do, and as journalists and others writing about them also so often do – witness Morris Dickstein in that article a few weeks ago. I pointed out at the time that he was confusing the two – which people really ought to stop doing.

This polarizing, personalizing rhetoric indicates that social constructionism has an institutional basis, not a philosophical, moral, or political one. It tramples on philosophical distinctions and practices an immoral mode of debate…Instead, what has emerged from social constructionism is not a philosophical school or a political position, but an institutional product, specifically, an outpouring of research publications, conference talks, and classroom presentations by subscribers…In a word, it is the school of thought most congenial to current professional workplace conditions of scholars in the humanities.

And why? Because (in the US at least) academics have to publish a book within 3 1/2 years of being hired, or they won’t be tenured. Social constructivist books are easier to write than those that rely on evidence and time spent in archives. All a bit of a misunderstanding, it seems.



Quiet Please

Jul 11th, 2005 2:34 am | By

I listened to part of an Open Book on libaries earlier today. Michael Holroyd talked about how important the library was to him when he was a child – ‘It was a place of light.’ Yes – so it was to me when I was a child. I had two libraries: the public one, in an old brick colonial house painted yellow on Nassau Street, which had a wonderful library smell that I can conjure up whenever I think of it, and which fills me with an intense nostalgia; and the one at school, which was a series of three rooms (painted dark green I think) with arched doorways: it was usually empty (it was a tiny school), and it was a refuge.

Holroyd got his education in libraries, he said – he never went to university. Score one for libraries (score several, actually). Then Open Book interviewed some people in Waterstone’s or someplace to ask them if they use the library as well as bookshops. Some said yes, others said no. ‘Why not?’ Libraries not very good, small, not many books, rundown – and some closed altogether, the one in Deptford for example. Ah, thought I, already thinking of doing N&C on the subject (libraries are a subject that get me going), and Jeremy told me last year the one in Sutton was closed – I can say that. So, Open Book said, libraries often small, rundown, without many books – but now we will go to a library that is none of those things – the brand new central library in (wait for it) Sutton. So I snickered a bit. Well at least that explains why it was closed.

But then things got very bad. Very bad indeed; really terrible. There was a lot of stuff about how the new Sutton library has a machine for checking books in and out that makes a fart noise when the books are checked in, and a ‘Sound Shower’ you can stand in to listen to new music without having to wear headphones (and the sound leaks out a bit, Open Book noted). Then Open Book asked the librarian, ‘Does anyone ever ask people to ‘be quiet’ here?’ And she answered happily, ‘No, never. We encourage people to make noise.’

That’s when I put my fist through the wall.

See, we have the same thing here – everybody has it everywhere – it’s universal. It has been decided and decreed (where? by whom? when? why? why wasn’t I consulted?) that libraries must now be ‘welcoming’ which means – well I thought it meant allowing people to make noise, I didn’t quite realize it had got to the point of actually begging them to do so.

Because they have to be ‘attractive,’ you see. The librarian told us that (and we already knew it, having looked into this subject a bit over the years). And ‘attractive’ for libraries means (why? why? why?) ‘as noisy as possible’ rather than quiet so that you can read and think and browse the shelves without being distracted by people shouting and cell phones chiming – let alone study and do research and write and really think hard. What, in a library?! Are you mad?! That’s not what libraries are for!

Well what are they for then? No, seriously – what are they for? Borrowing videos and CDs, mostly, it seems, and you don’t need quiet to do that.

But all the same, I have some basic questions about all this. One – why is noise considered ‘attractive’? Why is it thought to make libraries more ‘attractive’ if people are not only allowed but encouraged to make noise there? Why isn’t that thought to make them unattractive as opposed to attractive? I ask because I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s certainly the effect this policy has on me. The louder a library is, the less attractive I find it, and that’s a fact. I don’t go into a library that sounds more like a rock concert and think ‘Wow, this is the most attractive library I’ve ever set foot in, I’m going to come here all the time.’ No. I think the opposite.

Two, why, even if it is true that some people find a loud library more ‘attractive’ than a quiet one, do the people in charge of libraries give them what they want instead of giving people who find a quiet library more ‘attractive’ what they want? Because there are more people in the first group? Because the second group is considered (I bet you can guess what word I’m going to use here) ‘elitist’? Because they think there is something old-fashioned and priggish and tiresome in liking quiet libraries? Because they think that quiet and reading and thought and study are horrible nasty regressive posh activities that ought to be stamped out in favour of nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting?

But even if they do think that – why can’t they let the nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting go on in the many many places that are intended and designed for nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting? Like playfields, parks, community recreation centers? Why do they have to take over the libraries too? Why can’t the libraries go on being what they were before: places where you go to find books, and read them, and use the reference books, and study and write? Especially for people who have no such place anywhere else? Why is it necessary to abolish libraries as places for quiet reading and thinking? Is reading and thinking such a sinister way of life that it has to be stamped out not just most places but everywhere?

Just the other day, someone I know told me she heard the young daughter of her gardener say she wanted to go to the library. ‘You want to go to the library!’ this acquaintance imitated herself exclaiming in amazement. ‘Shouldn’t you be asking to go swimming or something?!’ I don’t think she meant to sound scornful, but she certainly did. ‘Brilliant,’ I thought, ‘make the kid feel stupid and wrong and clueless; nice going. Just because you don’t like libraries doesn’t mean no one does.’

Same to those people who think cacophonous libraries are more ‘attractive’ than quiet ones, and that it’s worth attracting people to libraries that are really playgrounds. Just because not everyone likes to read and think doesn’t mean that no one should ever be able to.



Global Pincushion

Jul 10th, 2005 6:51 pm | By

Of course, it’s not just London. It’s never just London – or anywhere else.

It’s a suicide bombing in Iraq which killed more than twenty people, along with more bombings in Mosul and Kirkuk. It’s six Afghan policemen beheaded by suspected Taliban guerillas. It’s at least twenty people injured by a bomb in a litter bin in a tourist resort in Turkey. And this month is the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre when eight thousand Bosnian Muslims were killed and dumped in mass graves.

All part of the routine.



Literary Webs

Jul 10th, 2005 2:29 am | By

Now for another attempt to return to normal programming – at least for a moment.

I’ve been following several literary discussions lately. There is Daniel Green’s comment on that Judith Halberstam article – the one that Michael Bérubé commented on last month and I commented on the month before, at such length that I had to do it twice. That one – Daniel’s – ended with some comments that I’ve been musing about (on and off) ever since. About the distinction (and whether there is one) between literary and non-literary experience. Michael said one thing, Daniel said another, I said a third, Michael answered – and I’ve been trying to figure out what I think ever since. I’ve been thinking, to boil it down, about whether the pity and horror we feel at Cordelia’s death is in fact different from the pity and horror we feel at a comparable death in real life. I think it is. I think it hooks up to the way we feel about it in real life, but I think the feeling itself – the what is it like to feel this feeling – is different. Partly because Cordelia (and literary characters in general) is stripped down, as is the situation. Real life is so full of extraneous material, irrelevancies, and extra information, memory, experience, thoughts, that anything that happens there has to be different from what happens in literature, however detailed and encyclopaedic and complete it tries to be. Plus there’s the fact that reading novels and seeing or listening to plays is different from a lot of things we do in life. Plus there’s the whole question of rhetoric – of how Shakespeare got the effects he did with Cordelia. Plus more, but that will do to suggest the kind of thought.

Then Michael did a long post – an article, really – on Mark Bauerlein’s article here. That also prompted a lot of interesting comments, and Kevin Drum did a brief post on it, which brought a whole different crowd of readers. I was particularly interested by this comment of Michael’s:

And just to make my final point completely clear (because I didn’t quite nail it in the sixth comment above): the fact that Theory / anti-Theory so often appeared, when you and I were graduate students, as a struggle between the firebrands and the deadwood was not necessarily a good thing for Theory. I think it exempted some aspects of theory from skeptical scrutiny early on, and then led to a number of wagon-circling manueuvers in the 1990s as the P.C. nonsense and the various cults of personality took hold.

Exactly. That firebrands v. deadwood trope confused the issues all to hell, in my view. Which I said (sort of), and Michael’s answer clarifies things even further.

My recent thinking about this (still very much under construction) has been informed not only by challenges from the Valve, B&W, and the younger generation of the ALSC but also by my experiences over the past two years with the intro-to-grad-study course, about which I’ll say more in a separate post. (I’d place the second generation a bit later, Mark, but I’d agree that the discipleship—particularly around de Man, about which Guillory has written compellingly—was decisive.) So I’ve been trying to parse out just what in the anti-Theory response is a critique of (a) the celebrity phenomenon and its attendant wagon-circling, (b) the faddish leftism associated with theory, which is not identical to (a) but can go hand in hand with it, (c) the forbidding and/or unappealing prose of some theoretical modes, and (d) the actual arguments, point by point, of one or another theorist.

There you go; that’s just it. Items (a) – (c) can get so thoroughly in the way of (d) that one can’t even always find (d) – because one is so busy being distracted and irritated by (a) – (c).

This subject may begin to get somewhere. The Valve discussion of Theory’s Empire starts next week – July 12. Should be good.