Notes and Comment Blog


Blindness

Aug 14th, 2004 5:30 pm | By

Normblog pointed out a review by David Aaronovitch in the New Statesman the other day (read the NS item promptly because it will go subscription soon). It’s about a familiar but permanently mysterious fact of recent history: the willingness of the Stalinist and Leninist left to ignore or explain away or deny or justify mass murder. Thus it’s also about one of the starkest examples on record of the phenomenon B&W was set up to document and examine: the way ideology can distort the ability to think properly. B&W is primarily about the way ideology can warp judgments of the truth about the world, but moral judgments play a part in that process too. The denial of Stalin’s crimes was a moral denial as well as a factual one. In fact it was the usual sort of cover-all-bases defense of the desperate. I wasn’t even in the room, I didn’t break it, it was already cracked, everybody hated it anyway. There were no mass murders in the Soviet Union and they were a damn good thing.

How did it happen? Aaronovitch asks.

…for 20 years, this question has come to bother me more and more. Why did so many on the British left do it? Was it the case that they somehow didn’t know that the trials were rigged, the executed comrades were innocent, that the whole thing was a vast, foul set-up, until Nikita Khrushchev gave them permission to know in 1956?…And what now should we make of their credulity? Could such wilful blindness be repeated?

Any time, one can’t help thinking. Nothing easier. In fact one sees a fair amount of wilful blindness around even now.

What is revealed brilliantly through Beckett’s compassionate and well-researched account is this strange state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The communists looked at the beast, saw its claws and fangs, and loved it still, as people are required to love their own youth. They excused, explained, justified, denied, ignored, defended and forgot what everyone else knew.

Norm has a second post yesterday with a very good quotation on the subject from Maxime Rodinson, which I will just quote in my turn.

[T]he deeper reason for the delay in registering disillusionment is simply the visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made. Hence the reluctance to recognise the most obvious facts, the desperate paralogical guile to which one resorts in an effort to avoid the required conclusion…

Just so. Just so. We’ve talked about these things before, I think – quite often. How double-edged things like commitments and meaning can be – how destructive as well as beneficent they can be. How they can motivate courage, self-sacrifice, dedication, hard work, generosity; but they can also motivate fanaticism, cruelty, ruthlessness, lying, vindictiveness, hatred. Exactly the same ambivalence came up in that discussion of religion a few months ago, when Chris at Crooked Timber said the reason he couldn’t agree with my hostility to religion had to do with religion’s power to motivate. I saw his point, and agreed (and still do), but also pointed out, as did Norm, that it cuts both ways. I think it’s an unresolvable issue, really. I do think commitments are a good thing (though some commitments are vastly better than others, of course, and one can always judge among and between them), but I also think they are potentially and often actually terribly dangerous. There’s not even any need to name examples of highly committed, motivated people in the world today whose commitments are dangerous in various ways. People can be for instance deeply committed to taking away other people’s rights, to subordinating and exploiting other people, or just to getting rid of them entirely; to demarcating who is inferior and who is not and then acting accordingly. People can find that a very meaningful activity. Can and do.

This idea relates to the idea of utopia, I think. My colleague and I were talking about utopia recently (I forget why). I said a good word for the idea, and he commented that we may have a basic disagreement on the subject. Maybe, but maybe not. My good word for the idea is a very limited, hedged, cautious one. It’s the sort of good word I just said about commitments and motivation. Ideas of utopia can inspire – but they can inspire to appalling things as well as to good ones. It may be that the only disagreement we have is on how inevitable the appalling possibility is – and I’m not really even sure I disagree about that. It may be that I do think the road to utopia leads straight to the basement of the Lubyanka.



Goddam Godless Slackers

Aug 12th, 2004 7:32 pm | By

Okay, that was fun, picking fights with my colleague is good entertainment but it’s a luxury, a rare, truffle-like item that only occurs once every few years. Life is not all holiday, as Niall Ferguson has just been reminding us, so it’s time for me to get back to the hard graft of saying something substantive. Well no not substantive – I don’t know how to do that – but anyway not frivolously internecine.

Check out this piece of reactionary nonsense from the aforementioned Ferguson. I’d seen links to it here and there but didn’t bother reading it, because the links merely talked about Europe and holidays and laziness and how much better the US is – and I’ve seen that kind of thing often enough before, thanks, I don’t feel much need to read it yet again. But José del Solar informed me that there’s more to it than that, so I changed my mind.

No doubt Ferguson is just doing it to get a rise out of people like me – or doing it for other reasons too but confidently hoping also to get a rise out of predictable people like me. He must be, because it’s such a silly thing to say. Such a correlation not causation remark. He can’t mean it all that seriously…surely. Weber notwithstanding.

The article starts from the (as I mentioned) unoriginal observation that Europeans get longer holidays and better coverage for illness than Americans do. He regards this as a terrible vice in the Europeans rather than as a respect for people’s needs, and he regards the contrasting frenzied overwork of Americans as a splendid thing rather than as a horrible necessity caused by having ruthless bastards as employers, who are aided by lobbyists who prevent the government from enacting worker-protections by paying large ‘campaign contributions’ i.e. bribes.

This is the nicest bit:

In the U.S., of course, the approach is different. Workers who consistently miss work because they are feeling under the weather are given the chance to miss it on a permanent basis — by being fired.

He says that with approval, note, not with revulsion or even regret. A pretty sentiment. But then he goes from the ruthless to the peculiar.

You see, the most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity, both in terms of observance and belief…[M]ore than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more. I do not say this is the sole explanation for the fact that London today is lethargic while New York toils away as usual. But there is surely something more than coincidental about the simultaneous rise of unbelief in Europe and the decline of Weber’s work ethic.

And? What follows from that? Perhaps that godbothering employers think they have encouragement from a deity to gouge every bit of work out of their employees that they possibly can, while atheists have an idea that while the factory and office are great fun, still, there are other things it is desirable to do in life and a walk in the Alps might be nice at this time of year.



Now Wait Just a Minute

Aug 11th, 2004 6:29 pm | By

Well now really. I can’t just leave this sort of thing sitting there unopposed. It would be a dereliction of duty. I like jokes and provocations as well as the next person, but there is a limit. There are some things up with which I shall not put, to paraphrase Winny.

Or is the objection that he lacks self-knowledge; he should realise he isn’t very bright – if he isn’t – and, therefore, not have stood for the presidency? If so, let’s have a reality check here. Bloggers are hardly paragons of self-knowledge…And, anyway, since when does a lack of self-knowledge justify the kind of opprobrium levelled at Bush?

What have bloggers got to do with anything? Is that the opposite of Bush? Bloggers? You have Bush and his fans on the one hand, and bloggers on the other? Hardly. So why bring them up? Eh? But more to the point – bloggers are one thing, and presidents of the US are another. To say the least. What does it matter if bloggers lack self-knowledge or are not very bright? At least, what does it matter compared to the way it matters if the president of the US (the single most powerful human being on the planet, unfortunately) is? Bloggers don’t run anything, they don’t have the ability to launch nuclear weapons, they can’t start wars, they can’t nominate Supreme Court justices, their foreign policies don’t make anything happen (except possibly indirectly by helping to shape opinion). So the standards are simply different, that’s all. Very different indeed.

They make lots of linguistic errors, just like Dubya. Because that’s the way we speak. We start sentences, change our minds about what we want to say halfway through, alter tenses, don’t finish what we started to say, and generally talk in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper.

Give me a break. Watch any bit of old tv footage (or listen to old radio archives) of unrehearsed unscripted Clinton and then listen to Bush. Everyone knows there is a gigantic difference, and it is all too obvious what the difference implies. Clinton has a functioning brain and a lot of knowledge; when he is asked a question he can sort through his knowledge quickly and give a coherent, relevant, interesting, complicated answer. I’ve heard and seen him do it many times, and so has everyone else. (And by the way I’m not a total fan of Clinton, but I do think all presidents should be clever the way he is as a minimal qualification, not as a luxury item.) Bush can’t do anything remotely comparable, not even with a ‘cat sat on the mat’ type question, let alone one that relies on some knowledge. There are degrees in these things, and no doubt some philosophers and scientists do make lots of linguistic errors (though no doubt my colleague’s experience of the matter is skewed, because the people he interviews are rendered peculiarly unable to speak coherently by the very fact of being interviewed by my colleague, for what sinister or impressive reason I leave to your surmises), but some make more than others and some make fewer. People who run for president ought to be good at thinking and talking before they even think about running; it’s that simple.

However, I do agree with JS’s point [you know, the point he didn’t make, because it was in an email not in the N&C – that point] that it’s the system that’s at fault. It is indeed. It’s a frighteningly disfunctional election system for such a powerful country. There just isn’t any mechanism to eliminate the blindingly incompetent, for one thing. That’s not good.



Leave Dubya Alone

Aug 11th, 2004 4:19 pm | By

If I don’t dislike George Bush as much as the next guy, I certainly dislike him enough to have stayed up all night on US election night, worrying about chads, and hoping for a Gore victory.

But what I don’t get is how come he gets so much flak for supposedly not being very bright? If it’s true, how exactly is it his fault? Is it okay, then, to attack the intellectually challenged simply because they are intellectually challenged (Madeleine Bunting notwithstanding)?

Or is the objection that he lacks self-knowledge; he should realise he isn’t very bright – if he isn’t – and, therefore, not have stood for the presidency? If so, let’s have a reality check here. Bloggers are hardly paragons of self-knowledge (“Ooohh, I’ve just been promoted to a shiny new university position”. Yeah, right, nobody cares.). And, anyway, since when does a lack of self-knowledge justify the kind of opprobrium levelled at Bush?

And what’s with this business of the fact that he messes up his sentences? Let me tell you something – I’ve interviewed some of the world’s top scientists and philosophers (though admittedly “top philosopher” is something of an oxymoron). Guess what? They make lots of linguistic errors, just like Dubya. Because that’s the way we speak. We start sentences, change our minds about what we want to say halfway through, alter tenses, don’t finish what we started to say, and generally talk in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper. Hell, I even write in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper. Does that mean we’re peculiarly daft? Nope. Does it mean we’re necessarily unable to run a country? Nope.

So, if you want to attack George Bush, attack him for being a religious maniac; or for his stem-cell nonsense; or for cutting the taxes of the rich; or for coming from Texas; but not for getting his words mixed up or for his lack of intelligence. They’re cheap shots.

(The Texas thing was a joke.)



Open the Door

Aug 9th, 2004 10:16 pm | By

Thought for the day. It’s from Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backward again. I may even have quoted this particular passage before – but if I don’t remember, you won’t either, and nobody ever reads old N&Cs, so it doesn’t matter. And anyway this is worth quoting often. It’s from the Preface, page xii.

Having grown up in a provincial town in Northern India, I considered my education in science a source of personal enlightenment. Natural science, especially molecular biology, had given me a whole different perspective on the underlying cosmology of the religious and cultural traditions I was raised in. Science gave me good reasons to say a principled ‘No!’ to many of my inherited beliefs about God, nature, women, duties and rights, purity and pollution, social status, and my relationship with my fellow citizens. i had discovered my individuality, and found the courage to assert the right to fulfill my own destiny, because I learned to demand good reasons for the demands that were put on me.

There. I always think of Meera when people drone about the joys of community and tradition – usually people who want nothing to do with such joys themselves. The hell with tradition; give me liberation and emancipation, instead.



Name the Pseuds Contest

Aug 9th, 2004 2:08 am | By

I’m laughing maniacally again – and it’s Norm who’s made me laugh again. With his entry for the name the pseuds contest. Prof Ursula LeTofu Thinberry and Dr Doug D. Void. Yep, I like those very much.

There is also José’s entry: ‘Judith Lucelia Etchegaray’ and ‘Jacques Alain Babha-De Ritta’. I like those very much too. The competition for that copy of Of Grammatology is going to be fierce. Except from my colleague, of course; his silly suggestion I just pass over in silence.

Norm also made me laugh with his deeply profound ruminations on the meaning of the ‘cartoon’ and what its referent really really is.

I was wondering whether one might deconstruct the notion that the cartoon represents or refers to anybody at all. When I say I was wondering this, I don’t mean I actually embarked on such a deconstruction myself – heavens, no. Had I done so, I might have thought: maybe the cartoon is just a playful play on spontaneously playful playfulness and there’s no referent beyond it for it to be about. But I didn’t embark, and so I didn’t think. Perish the idea of my thinking it, and the idea of that idea. Perish the perishness even. I thought, instead: you can’t eat the meaning of cake, and you can’t shake hands with the concept of Richard Rorty while not eating it.

You can’t eat the meaning of meaning, either, I’ve noticed. Which makes one wonder what the politics of meaning was supposed to be about. I mean, if you can’t eat it, where’s the politics? Eh? I know. That’s a real poser, isn’t it. Thank you. I do my best.

Update: Another entry, this one from Nick S.: Temerety Twaddle and Joshua Brighton.



Beyond a Reasonable Certainty

Aug 9th, 2004 1:52 am | By

This story is interesting in more than one way.

Prof Southall accused Stephen Clark, a solicitor, of smothering his two babies on the basis of a 50-minute Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the case…The paediatrician said Mr Clark was a double murderer “beyond reasonable doubt”, although he had not read any of the papers in the case, spoken to the parents or seen post mortem reports.

Beyond reasonable doubt – because he watched Clark on TV. Hmm.

Prof Southall refused to apologise and repeated the allegation during the disciplinary hearing. Denis McDevitt, the chairman of the GMC panel, said he was “extremely concerned” by Prof Southall’s actions. “Your view was a theory, which was, however, not presented as a theory but as a near certainty,” he said.

What’s interesting about that (at least to me, at the moment) is the level of certainty involved. And not just certainty, but stupid certainty. Really, really stupid certainty. Which is the worst kind. Not certainty based on masses of compelling evidence, but certainty based on – nothing much. Based on someone’s confidence in his own judgment, apparently – which is exactly what makes it so stupid. Non-stupid people are aware that their judgment is fallible – and if they forget that in the grip of an idea or an obsession or a passion, then they become temporarily stupid. Stupid pro tem. It’s almost one of the first laws of non-stupidity – never forget that you can just damn well be wrong, easily, that anyone can be wrong at any time, and that humans are not particularly well equipped to be infallible.

If I’ve noticed it once I’ve noticed it a million times – it’s the thickies who get obstinately convinced that they’re right when they have no good reason to think so. It’s not always the obvious thickies – it can be your rich, plump, prosperous, ‘succesful’ thicky who gets like that. In fact I’ve known several of that type. The prosperity helps. Rich people think that their richitude is a sure sign of how clever they are, and then they expect an admiring world to gape in wonder at their every hackneyed opinion. Perhaps this Southall guy was one of those.

But certainty on the basis of no or little or flimsy or bad evidence is a mistake, and to be avoided. And what’s funny about that is that very often it’s the certainty-addled thickies who accuse people who know they don’t have certainty, precisely of having too much certainty. It’s very odd. People whose certainty derives from their close personal acquaintance with the deity, or from an inner knowledge that the deity is there, or from an intuition that the deity simply can’t not be there, or from ‘faith’ that the deity is there because the deity is kind and the world is kind – those are the very people who accuse funny rationalist types who go around asking, ‘But what’s the evidence for that?’ of having way too much certainty about their scientistic rationalist way of doing things. Eh? How’s that? Saying ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ equates to certainty? That’s odd – see, I would have thought it equated to pointing out a lack of certainty.

But there’s a lot of confusion about that. I’ve pointed it out before. It’s the same confusion as the one behind the way people translate ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ into a claim to have disproven something. I keep noticing – over and over – that scientists talk about evidence and then whatever fool journalist they’re talking to instantly translates that into proof or disproof. Oy. They’re not the same thing. It’s so basic – and so many people seem not to have noticed the difference.



Wardrobe

Aug 8th, 2004 3:43 am | By

Well I just thought I would link to this, simply because it made me laugh a lot. Yes it is, that’s a perfectly good reason.

The situation Norm complains of – having to buy three kinds of cat food, two of which his cat doesn’t like and won’t eat, because the kind she does like suddenly comes in a variety pack with two others instead of on its own – is a classic, a pure, a definitional example of what Kingsley Amis so rightly called sod the public. There’s a lot of it in the UK. I’ve always noticed that. There’s too much obsequiousness and groveling for the customer over here, perhaps (except of course when there isn’t), but over there – well. I could tell you stories. There was that salmonella sandwich at Salisbury station, for example – no I didn’t eat it, that was the point. But it’s a long story, I won’t tell it now (because I have to go, that’s why, I’m late already, I should have shut this wretched thing down ten minutes ago). I’ll just quote a bit of Norm’s post and urge you to read the whole thing.

OK, so we’re talking market transactions here, are we not? And if they can do it to us, can we not start doing it back to them? Otherwise, where’s it all going to end? I’ll get on the bus one day and be told ‘Sorry, mate, you can only get a ticket to Piccadilly if you also take the digital watch and prawn sandwich that go with it. That’ll be £17.50.’ Or you won’t be able to buy a copy of the Guardian without the ‘It’s all about oil’ badge and Madeleine Bunting knitted pantaloons.

[Mopping eyes] Oh dear, I do want a pair of those pantaloons. Especially after all the nice things my colleague has been saying about Bunting lately. I’d like to send them to Sandra-Carol Foo-Ko. I think they’d look nice with her frilly turtleneck and her heavily emboidered ethnic jacket-thing.

Nighty night!



The Cover

Aug 7th, 2004 1:12 am | By

Oh look. What fun. We’d noticed that the Amazon page for the Dictionary didn’t have a picture. But now it does. I clicked on the page in an idle moment (okay a lazy moment) to see, and idleness and laziness were rewarded, because there it was. So have a look. And no, that is not a portrait. Everyone I’ve shown the book to says in a surprised manner ‘But you don’t look like that.’ No, that’s true, I don’t. I don’t wear my hair in two bunches on the back upper corners of my head, for one thing. And everything else is different too. There is no resemblance. None. I don’t think the guy looks much like my colleague, either. It’s not a portrait, it’s a cartoon, and the cartoon refers not to the authors but to people who talk the kind of bollocks the Dictionary is full of. It’s a very amusing cartoon, too – once everyone is clear that it’s not a portrait of the authors. See, we’re not silly looking like that, we both look very untrendy without being dorky, very reasonable without being dull, very perfect without being irritating. You know the type – and that’s what we look like. Well I do anyway. The cover is artfully designed in such a way that the names are indeed under the person of the corresponding gender, so that it does in fact look as if the names belong to the silly people immediately above. But they don’t. Those two people have quite different names. Maybe we should name them. Maybe we should have a contest – ‘Name the pseuds on the cover of the Dictionary. First prize: a copy of Of Grammatology. Second prize: five copies of Of Grammatology.‘ Let’s see…hmm…Sandra-Carol Foo-Ko and Ian Butler. Yeah, that’s a start. Your turn.



Boiling

Aug 5th, 2004 1:42 am | By

Remember the lists of life-altering books? Way back last month – out of sight out of mind? I thought I would link to another, because it has The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart. As good a reason as any.

So once I started a book-related subject I thought I might as well continue with this article by Mark Edmundson. It says one or two things that I often say to myself (sometimes with oaths, sometimes in a kind of whining sniveling croon).

Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn’t quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don’t fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.

Yeah. We’re always hearing about the joys of community these days. But what about the joys of uncommunity, huh? What about the joys of just damn well thinking for oneself? We’re not supposed to say so, in these days when working people have morphed into ‘working families’ as if everybody walked around welded into a unit of no fewer than four at all times – but thinking for oneself has a lot to be said for it. And Edmundson says some of it.

When Walt Whitman picked up the work of his older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn. He had been a journalist; he had written some mediocre fiction — he looked to be someone who would never amount to much. After reading the great essays, Whitman purportedly said: ”I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”

I know exactly what he means. I’ve gone from simmering to a boil a few times. I suppose that’s what these lists of life-altering books are about – the ones that move us from the simmer to the boil.



The Guardian Newspaper is Dreadful

Aug 3rd, 2004 5:39 pm | By

I am constantly amazed at the stupidity of just about everybody who writes for the Guardian. Here’s one Madeline Bunting:

Over the course of the 20th century, as our technological ingenuity made war ever more brutal

What the hell is she talking about? Has she never heard of the Somme – more than 1 million dead in five months – or Paschendaele?

That was the bit which I found particularly irritating. But the whole thing is full of nonsense.

Among Saturday’s demonstrators were New Labour’s natural allies – fair-minded, decent people, the kind who don’t walk on the other side of the street.

Ridiculous. New Labour people are fair-minded, decent fellows. Not like those dastardly Lib-Dems. Okay, I accept that Tories are bastards.

They were beautifully British – patiently waiting when the march ground to a halt, politely apologetic if they bumped into you, and not overly friendly, the reserve only cracking briefly and occasionally.

Egregious rubbish. Absurd national stereotype.

We can now imagine, in a way that no previous generation has done, the families – just like our own – in a Baghdad suburb whose lives are now hanging in the balance.

The arrogance here is breathtaking. Our generation – I’m not quite sure which generation this would be – has an imaginative sensibility about suffering lacking in previous generations (because of Saving Private Ryan, it turns out). Bollocks.

A tragic end to a good prime minister who was swept to power on a promise that “things will only get better”.

Brilliant prediction! (No doubt whenever Blair decides he wants to step down, the (morally bankrupt) anti-war mob will claim that it was their doing; in which case: brilliant, necessarily true, prediction, Madeline!)

Why does the Guardian print this nonsense? It’s an embarrassment to the Left. I’ll tell you something about their working practices. About six months ago they rang me – could they speak to Julian B. said the voice:

No, he’s not around.

Oh, are you Jerry S?

Yup.

Well, you’ll do. Would you write something for us about the ethics of this guy who stole money from an enthusiastic cashpoint machine? We need it by tonight.

No I bloody won’t, said I.

They asked without knowing the first thing about me; I’m not a philosopher; I have no training in ethics; I have no interest in cashpoint machines; yet they would have published any old nonsense which I’d have put together. No wonder the Guardian is dreadful.



Save the Wild Rice!

Aug 3rd, 2004 3:32 am | By

It’s not only the Vatican, of course. Perhaps I was too hard on the Vatican? No. I wasn’t. (I mean, apart from anything else – was their Jesus a huge fan of marriage and having children and family values? No. Was ‘Saint’ Paul? No. So what are they basing all that on? I mean, they’re not even consistent!) But that doesn’t mean I can’t be hard on other god-botherers and spirit-annoyers, does it. No.

PZ Myers has an excellent rant at Pharyngula about the latter group.

The editorial page of yesterday’s Star-Tribune was full of articles on a ‘controversy’, the sequencing of the wild rice genome. I read them all through twice, and I still don’t see what the problem is…other than that usual bug-a-boo of foolish religion…If you’re like me, you’re saying, “umm, what?” right now. For religious reasons, the Ojibwe are asking us to preserve their ignorance and to be ignorant ourselves. It’s a microcosm of the history of the conflict between religion and science—with superstition mixing up a stewpot of ridiculous slop, science lifting the lid and looking inside, and the religious getting all frantic and huffy about it…

Yes but they do it in such a profound, beautiful, spiritual way.

Today the traditional teachings of Anishinabe communities and Western science and genetic research are at an impasse. A tribal nation seeks to preserve and protect a sacred gift from becoming the next genetically modified agricultural crop redesigned for those who see wild rice only as another cash crop in need of modification so as to improve yield, pest resistance, uniform maturation, resilience and creating seed that assures these “improvements.” To Western science, the mere thought that something spiritual might impede scientific research is absurd, unnecessary and only would serve as an unnecessary obstacle to inevitable progress. To Anishinabe people, the sacred relationship with the manoomin is central and cannot be ignored in any discussion on the natural gift as it has been given.

Notice the non-mention of the fact that the sacred gift in question is, you know, food, and that improved yield and pest resistance for a food crop really isn’t such a silly idea – not so silly that it’s necessary to put inverted commas on ‘improvements’. But as PZ points out, a couple of academics do an even better job of spirit-stroking.

Should wild rice be considered as a crop to be domesticated for purposes of economic development, or as a sacred gift from the Creator? Is research on the wild rice genome a sacred obligation of our research universities or a continuation of five-plus centuries of colonizing? Is the role of humankind to subjugate nature with dominion and control, or to more humbly live in harmony with “all that is”?

What a bunch of idiotic questions! What’s with all this ‘sacred’ crap? Is that the only adjective these guys know? And as for living humbly in harmony with all that is – right, next time your fridge is empty, you guys will smile beatifically and live in harmony with that, right? Next time you’re ten miles from where you need to be you’ll just sit down and hope the Creator will give you a lift, right? Next time you want to watch a movie you’ll see that there isn’t one magically projected on your wall but you won’t turn the tv on because that would be dominion and control – right? You guys have no truck with modern technology whatsoever, right? Even to write that article for the Star Tribune, right? You didn’t use a computer, you didn’t phone it in, you didn’t scratch it on a piece of birch bark. I suppose you told a squirrel and the squirrel told the Star Tribune – yes? Or do you perhaps get some benefit from all this subjugation of nature yourself, but then you make yourselves feel in tune with The Wise Ones or some damn fool thing by talking this kind of nonsense. You and the Vatican have a lot in common.



Darling Cardinal

Aug 1st, 2004 10:50 pm | By

Just a little more on the dear Vatican. Because they are such fun there, I can’t tear myself away from the subject. They say the most amusing things!

Among the fundamental values linked to women’s actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other”. Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands “for ourselves”, women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other. This intuition is linked to women’s physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities.

No it isn’t, no it doesn’t, no we don’t. I find myself reacting the way Kingsley Amis did when he read a Virginia Woolf novel – with every sentence he would simply contradict. ‘No she didn’t, no they weren’t, no it wasn’t.’ Well this is where difference feminism gets you, isn’t it. I hope Sandra Harding is very proud – because that pile of codswallop up there sounds as if Cardinal Ratzinger has memorized her books. ‘Fundamental values linked to women’s actual lives’ indeed. Speak for yourself, bub! You don’t know anything about my life, or the lives of nearly every woman on the planet, so how do you get to talk about our ‘actual lives’? Huh? And as for informing me what ‘deep intuition’ I preserve of what – well it kind of makes me want to shove your mitre down your throat, frankly. ‘Whether lived out or remaining potential’ – got that? We’re stuck either way. No matter what we do, we’re all basically mommies, even if we aren’t actually mommies. And that structures our personalities in a profound way. Oh yeah? Well how do you explain me then? Huh? A more malevolent, cold, ruthless, violent, feral personality you wouldn’t want to meet, and as for maturity – ! Don’t make me laugh. And I have zero sense of the seriousness of life and its responsibilities, thank you very much; I’m entirely frivolous, I wander around giggling insanely all day long, and if you put a baby in my hands I would immediately drop it on its head. So don’t talk to me about what structures my personality, Cardinal baby, because you don’t have a clue.

Whatever. Celibate priests telling women what to do – you’d think that sort of thing would have stopped by now, under the weight of ridicule if nothing else. But no. And then people wonder why atheists won’t just shut up. That’s one reason right there.



Atheists and Breeders

Aug 1st, 2004 1:41 am | By

Behold, it’s August. Well not really, not where I am. I’m kind of lying when I say that. It is August where B&W is (if B&W is where its database is), but it’s not August where I, typing these words onto this little computer screen, am. So if I (as opposed to someone else) say it’s August, I’m telling a falsehood, because where my body is, it’s 4:30-ish in the afternoon on July 31. But I’m also not telling a falsehood, because it is August in other places – but it’s not August for me, the one uttering the sentence. So is it a lie, or not?

Oh stop playing silly buggers. Anyway the point is it’s August or near enough, and that’s only a month to September, and in October the Dictionary is published. So that means it’s soon. Much, much sooner than if it were still July. And speaking of books being published – here’s another, this one not until May 2005. My colleague has been very busy. It’s a terrific book, too.

Now – I did summon you here for a reason. I just wanted to draw your attention to a few remarks about Francis Crick. One from the Telegraph obit:

In 1960 Crick accepted a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, on condition that no chapel was built in the college. When in 1963 a benefactor offered the money for one and the majority of college fellows voted to accept, Crick refused to be fobbed off with the argument that some members of the college would “appreciate” a place of worship; many more might “appreciate” the amenities of a harem, he countered, and offered to contribute financially. The offer was refused and he resigned his fellowship.

And the other from Matt Ridley’s article yesterday.

Throughout his life he was high on the drug called rationality. He could never get over how much could be deduced about the world if you stick to logic and eschew mysticism…He disliked religion even more than philosophy, but he wore his lifelong atheism lightly. His letter to Churchill suggesting that Churchill College build a brothel rather than a chapel (Churchill had written saying “no one will be required to enter it against his will”) was hilarious rather than offensive.

And then a passage from Crick’s own account of the matter:

I have no doubt, as will emerge later, that this loss of faith in Christian religion and my growing attachment to science have played a dominant part in my scientific career not so much on a day-to-day basis but in the choice of what I have considered interesting and important. I realized early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable…A belief, at the time it was formulated, may not only have appealed to the imagination but also fit well with all that was than known. It can nevertheless be made to appear ridiculous because of facts uncovered later by science. What could be more foolish than to base one’s entire view of life on ideas that, however plausible at that time, now appear to be quite erroneous? And what would be more important then to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs?

Refreshing, isn’t it, compared to the floods of sugary drivel people pour out on the subject. One gets so very tired of the latter kind of thing, over here in the land of the believers. P Z commented on that at Pharyngula today, in relation to something Kerry said:

And let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. America is not us and them.

Huh? Well if it’s not us and them, then why mention only people of faith, and not people of no faith (or as P Z put it, people of reason)? And why mention people of faith in that particular way, as if they were an excluded minority? What, have Democrats been excluding ‘people of faith’ all this time? News to me! Well of course we know why he said that, he said it because of all the drivel there’s been about how he doesn’t say ‘God’ every third word or whatever the hell the complaint is. But it’s irritating all the same.

But not as irritating as this crap:

The Pope will call on leaders of the Roman Catholic church today to attack feminist ideologies which assert that men and women are fundamentally the same. The Vatican is concerned that this belief is eroding what it regards as women’s maternal vocation.

Oh is it. Is it really. Well that’s good to know. Women’s maternal vocation. Just like that. So the idea is that all women without exception are obliged to whelp? Doesn’t matter whether they want to or not, whether they think they’d be any good at it or not, whether they have other plans or not, eh? Just, yo, you’re one of the ones with ovaries, so get to work, hon! Whereas people with dangly bits get to choose whether they whelp or not. At least, J-P seems to have chosen, doesn’t he? Or is it rude to point that out. But no doubt all this sort of thing is over my head.

In a letter to bishops on the participation of men and women in the church and the world, the Pope’s chief theological spokesman, the German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stresses, as the pontiff has done on several occasions, that the book of Genesis is unambiguous on this point.

Ah. Well in that case. If a three thousand-year-old story is unambiguous on what women are supposed to do, then who are we to argue. And it is quite wise

Recent decades have seen a plunge in birth and fertility rates, particularly in the Roman Catholic heartland of southern Europe, as women struggle to combine jobs with their traditional roles as mothers, homemakers and carers. Church representatives have argued that this is symptomatic of a breakdown in values, and particularly a greater selfishness among young couples more interested in consumer goods than creating life.

Oh right. Of course. It is very selfish of people to be more interested in doing what they actually want to do than in ‘creating life’. Any life? Tomatoes? Fruit flies? No, I suppose the dear Church representatives mean human life, of which there is such a terrible shortage on this planet. Actually that line of thought is not exclusive to celibate Catholic priests, I’ve seen it in other places lately too. There’s this peculiar bit of orthodoxy out there (orthodox in the sense that a lot of people seem to think it) that people who don’t have children are ‘free-riding’ on people who do. And what’s even more special is that they like to say so. It won’t be long before all childless atheists will be rounded up and interned, at this rate.



Identity

Aug 1st, 2004 12:43 am | By

Thought for the Day – or perhaps I mean Provocative Cryptic Assertion via Adapted Quotation for the Day. Identity is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I had this thought partly because of the ever-present dreary discussion of the Religion Question in US Politics (yawn). I’ve noticed that one ploy people resort to when anyone suggests that religion does not belong in the public sphere, is to conflate their religion with their ‘identity.’ It then occurred to me that that conflation, and confusion (because it is a confusion – religion is not ‘identity’), is what is going on – is the subtext, as it were – of the other side in the argument about Islamophobia we had a few days ago. (In many posts – Which Community?; More; What Liberals Can and Can’t Say; Stand Still, Dobbin; and Little Boxes, Little Boxes.) Not that I hadn’t realized it before, but it became a little clearer, a little more sharply into focus.

And it connects with something else I wanted to look at in the Mulholland post – which, again, may seem like more horse-walloping, but the ideas are Out There, so it’s better to get clear about what they are.

I think its a cop-out to argue that attacks on beliefs are different from attacks on inherited characteristics such as colour etc; the former acceptable under the rubric of ‘freedom of speech’, the latter unacceptable.

No. No, no, no. It’s not a cop-out at all, it’s of the very essence. It’s not a pretext or disguise for saying something else, it is the thing itself. (As a matter of fact, considered coldly, that sentence is a positively shocking thing for an academic – of all people! – to say. What in hell is their job if it’s not to ‘attack’ i.e. criticise and disagree with ‘beliefs’?) Beliefs are different from inherited characteristics, and the difference is one that makes disagreement (never mind ‘attacks’ – that’s just rhetoric) vital as well as possible. You can’t ‘argue’ with race or gender any more than you can with height or eye colour – or for that matter species. You can’t argue a dog into being a cat, now can you. (I know that, because I’ve tried.) But you can argue with beliefs, and you very often need to. It’s not just a matter of freedom of speech, either, it’s also freedom of thought. If you really think it’s taboo and somehow cruel and immoral to disagree with people’s beliefs, then you may well train yourself not to do so even in the privacy of your own mind.

And the ‘identity’ claim is one way to try to persuade or coerce us all to think exactly that. We all know it’s terribly wrong to mess with people’s ‘identity.’ We get told it all the time, for one thing. ‘Identity’ is one of the great cant-words of the day – one of those words that make one want to reach for one’s gun. (Which reminds me, someone actually said that on [I think] ‘Saturday Review’ a week or two ago. Exactly, I thought.) Just say your beliefs, your religion, are part of your ‘identity,’ and watch the atheists back off. Well – of course it depends how you define the silly word, whether that claim makes any sense or not. And people certainly do define it any old way that happens to be convenient – which is why I keep putting it in inverted commas: because it means so many things it doesn’t mean much of anything. But then…surely there is a choice that needs to be made. If we’re going to have expansive definitions of identity according to which it means whatever I do, think, believe, wear, eat, watch, listen to, like, dislike, sit on, put in my nose – then identity can’t function as a taboo or no-go area. Or if identity is going to function that way, then we need to stick to a very narrow definition of it, to cover what people are not what they become. To cover, in other words, things people can’t help rather than things that are chosen. To cover the physical, biological, genetic, and not the learned, acquired, added on. Otherwise, all of intellectual life will be full of taboos and unmentionables, and rational thought will come to a grinding halt. There are a lot of people who would like rational thought to come to a grinding halt, but we shouldn’t give them what they want. Rational thought requires the ability to consider and discuss cognitive matters on cognitive terms. Identity politics requires that people be allowed to draw magic circles around whatevery they decide to care about. The two are emphatically not compatible. I choose rational thought, thank you.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I’m going to do it piecemeal. That’s fair warning.



Another Other List

Jul 29th, 2004 8:20 pm | By

And here is Mark Pitely’s list:

1) Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – Julian Jaynes. Brilliant, eye-opening, and quite possibly wrong. It definitely changed by thinking, even my thinking processes.

2) How to Read a Book – Mortimer J. Adler. Fascinating. I love all of his library science efforts.

3) Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies – Douglas Hofstadter (et al). My coding and AI leanings are showing. Great stuff here that it lightyears ahead of the rest in AI. His methodologies and tactics changed my approaches.

4) Cybernetics – Norbert Weiner. Complicated and varying, even unfocused, but a glimpse of how his mind worked.

5) Blood Rites: Origin and History of the Passions of War- Barbara Ehrenreich – Her own ideas in here were so potent they changed the intended nature of her work. It taught me to rethink my views on pre-historic man.

6) A Perfect Vacuum – Stanislaw Lem. Mind-blowing reviews of fictional books by fictional reviewers that simultaneously attack modern literary movements one by one despite using their tools.

7) The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin. Science Fiction, yes, but as political study of anarchy and capitalism, it belongs with Brave New World and 1984 – except it is better written.

8) The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil. A meditation on the modern human condition.

9) Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle- Nabokov. Unbelievably high in content, feeling, beauty, style. Its existence raises the bar on everything.

10) Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte. People would come looking for me if I didn’t mention this book. No other author has had such a profound effect upon me.



Audience

Jul 29th, 2004 4:05 pm | By

Do excuse me – I just feel like making a small boast. Doing a little auto-back-patting. I won’t take long – and anyway there is a sort of point behind it.

It’s Normblog’s first birthday, by the way – and he chose the occasion to mention his favorite blogs, in which select group he included B&W. I blushed unbecomingly to see that. And the same day – the very same day, I tell you – a guest poster at Pharyngula (guests are posting there to keep things going while PZ is at a conference in Calgary or Saskatoon or Kamloops) told the world of his discovery of B&W – so that my face became even more frighteningly florid. But I couldn’t help it, I did like what he said –

a website devoted to rationalism called Butterflies and Wheels. It’s providing all sorts of new stuff I hadn’t seen or thought about and is really helping my research.

See? Providing all sorts of new stuff he hadn’t seen or thought about. Is that our goal or what. M’colleague and I were talking about this on the phone yesterday, as a matter of fact, in a different context – about whether it’s possible to change people’s minds or not. I’m a little more optimistic than he is. I certainly don’t think one can change people’s minds just like that, every time one opens one’s mouth, or anything – but I think it can be done. And surely one reason it can be done is that people haven’t already thought of everything, and some people are honest enough to realize that. One can simply point out things – facts, implications, evidence, verbal trickery – that people haven’t noticed before, and that may change their minds. May for one thing change their minds in the sense we were discussing in the post on the reading lists – the sense not of persuading them to think the opposite of what they thought before, but of expanding or refining or slightly altering what they thought before. Enriching or broadening it to take in more factors.

I get email that says the same sort of thing. That people are excited to find B&W because they don’t know of anything else like it – anything that has this particular point of view and this particular combination of subjects and material. So that’s good. Since being involved with B&W I’ve learned to feel slightly sorry for people who work for more general and miscellaneous publications – for magazines with no real point of view. Oh well, that’s not right, is it – the truth is I feel slightly sorry for people who work for publications that aren’t B&W. Ha! There’s modesty for you.

But I said there was a sort of point behind this, and that point is that it’s a good sign that people like B&W. That anti-rationalism isn’t quite as unopposed as one might think. That there are more than three or four people in the world who don’t like fuzz and wool and nonsense. So be of good cheer, even when the nights are too hot to sleep.



Another List

Jul 28th, 2004 10:13 pm | By

Good, here’s another list. I think it falsifies the one-item-in-common hypothesis. This is Phil Mole’s.

1) Bertrand Russell – Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays. This book really stimulated my own thinking about religion, and probably gave me the decisive shove toward atheism.

2) William James – Varieties of Religious Experience. After reading this, I became very interested in the psychological components of religious experience.

3) Stephen Jay Gould- An Urchin in the Storm. This is a collection of Gould’s book reviews. Reading this collection taught me a great deal about the art of the book review, not to mention the art of critical thinking.

4) C. Vann Woodward – The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Opened my eyes to the complexities of race in the Old South, and the complexities of race relations in general.

5) Voltaire – Candide. A hilarious expose of life’s absurdities.

6) Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel. Drew together information from countless sources and disciplines to present a novel and surprising view of human history.

7) Feodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov.

8. William Shakespeare – Hamlet.

9) Isaiah Berlin – Crooked Timber of Humanity. A great collection of essays about political and intellectual history, and the havoc caused through the quest for certainty.

10) Charles Darwin – Origin of the Species. Reading the book teaches you how to think about science.

Yup. Russell (Skeptical Essays), James, Gould, Diamond, all on my mega-list. I haven’t read the Woodward, but several books have had the same effect on my thinking. There’s David Olshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery, for instance – now there’s an eye-opener. Oy. ‘Hamlet’ is perhaps my single favorite piece of literature of all time. There’s something almost eerie about the way you can’t ever get to the bottom of it. Berlin is interesting, though I don’t always believe what he’s telling me. Darwin of course – which reminds me that I don’t think I have a Dawkins on my list – and yet he has certainly influenced my thinking. Ten just isn’t enough, that’s all there is to it. The only one I wouldn’t have is the Dostoevsky. I share Nabokov’s opinion of him.

Now. More readers will be inspired to send their lists.



List B

Jul 27th, 2004 10:40 pm | By

My colleague is, I believe, writing a list of books that have not changed his life, so while he is doing that I will go ahead and do the dull boring plodding literal humourless N&C I had in mind, which is partly an adaptation of my own list and partly a reaction to a new one as well as partly a reaction to Norm’s reaction. See how dull I am? Sigh. My colleague is the one who gets to make all the jokes around here, while I just trudge along, saying tedious flat-footed obvious things all the time. It’s so unfair.

Yes sure enough, there’s his list now, and it made me shriek with laughter. You see how unfair that is? I mean, what, was I behind the door when they were passing out the twisted senses of humour? Was I home with a cold that day? Huh? Oh never mind. Fine. I’m used to being dull and boring. Well I would be, wouldn’t I.

Okay that’s enough of that. I had someting terribly important and earnest to say. No I didn’t – I had an urge to go on messing around with the subject, that’s what I had. I felt like revising my list slightly, or making it a list of eleven. I also felt like explaining, and expanding, and urging other people to do a damn list so that Norm can have a shot at falsifying his hypothesis.

For one thing I wanted to note that I ran together the categories of books that changed my thinking, and favorites or best. Very sloppy. I meant, of course, something like: the ten books that did most to change my thinking. Anyway that list isn’t those ten books, at least not as far as I know. It’s just, as I said, some of the books that have changed my thinking quite a lot, but I don’t know how high on the meter they are.

Which raises the question of what we mean by changing our thinking. Jam Today said ‘Most books you read don’t change your mind. They confirm your opinions. That’s why you read them.’ But I see it a little differently. I don’t take ‘change our thinking’ to mean necessarily ‘turned our thinking upside down’. I think it can mean for instance augment our thinking – extend it, enrich it, add to it in some way, without necessarily causing us to have completely different opinions. A book can change our thinking simply by showing us what can be done with writing, for example. That’s a big part of the reason Hazlitt and Keats and Thoreau are on my list.

But the one I decided to add – I meant to have it in the original ten, then changed my mind for some reason, but on futher thought, changed it back again – because he in fact did do something to shape my thinking. I notice it when I read things like for instance this ridiculous article about how terrible science is and what a disaster it’s been – not just in some ways but overall. It may be partly due to number 11 that I think, when people talk that way, ‘Really? Are you sure you mean it? Do you really want to do without supermarkets and industrialized agriculture and transportation and appliances and factory-made clothes and hospitals and medicine? Really? Really? Have you ever tried living that way? Do you have any idea what it’s like? Do you really, honestly, want to grow and raise all your own food, make all your own clothes, have no recourse when you get sick? Are you sure? Or is that all just talk that you don’t actually mean a word of.’

Right, Orwell, obviously. He was good at that. He was good at nailing bullshit, stuff that people were saying because it was the right-on thing at the moment but that they didn’t actually mean. I left him off partly because he’s not always a very good writer, I’ve noticed lately. I think he’s a bit overrated now. His style could be quite tired and flat and even hackneyed. But his way of calling people on their poses has stuck with me for decades. I was addicted to the four-volume Collected Essays Letters Journalism and Shopping Lists or whatever it was called, when I was at university; read it over and over. And it did change my thinking, or perhaps prevent it from being changed too much in a fatuous direction.

So for a treat I’ll give you a little of that absurd article.

It is difficult for those of us steeped in the propaganda barrage of Big Science to even question such social norms as the mass-vaccination of children in the U.S. Mass vaccination of infants — a product of the “advancement” of technology — is such an “obvious” improvement that one rarely questions it any longer…And yet, legitimate alternative researchers are now linking childhood vaccination with a number of serious auto-immune diseases…Even so, it has been known for many years that a huge number of illnesses and deaths are “iatrogenic” casualties; they are caused by modern medicine’s normal “scientific” intervention into the disease and healing processes; more than one hundred thousand people die unnecessarily each year in U.S. hospitals of malnutrition caused by hospital diets, unnecessary pharmacological and medical interventions, and diseases contracted during their stay there. Yet still the Left promotes what can best be described as industrial medicine.

Okay – the question irresistibly arises – how clueless can you get? Has this guy ever heard of tuberculosis? (Orwell certainly had.) Cholera, typhoid, typhus, tetanus, diphtheria, syphilis, gangrene? Is he aware that a mere infection in a superficial cut could kill you before antibiotics? Does he have any idea how many lethal diseases there were kicking around in the world before about 1920? Does he not know the mortality statistics? Does he not wonder why the normal life span got so much longer in much of the world in the past century? Does he have any idea what he’s saying? So. Someone needs to have a little chat with him. Tell him for instance that antibiotics that worked against TB were developed just too late for Orwell. They were available while he was still alive, but his case was so far advanced that they didn’t do him any good. Tell him what a pleasant death Orwell had, then tell him about all the people who didn’t die of TB after 1954. Then let’s hear some more of his nonsense about ‘industrial medicine.’



Ten More Books

Jul 27th, 2004 9:31 pm | By

Okay, since people are very keen on listing books, I thought I’d offer up ten books which haven’t changed my life.

1. Thus Spake Zarathustra – haven’t read it (not sure I can spell it either).

2. A Critique of Pure Reason – nope, not read this either (pretty sure that’s all spelt correctly, though).

3. Capital, vol 1 – can’t really claim to have read this (have looked at it in a bookshop, though).

4. Capital, vol 2 – haven’t read it (but I have read Marx for Dummies).

5. On Liberty – I make a point of reading nothing written before 1893.

6. The Fountainhead – like I’d read that!

7. Economy and Society (Max Weber) – meant to read this, but never got around to it.

8. The Republic – see 1893 rule, above.

9. Phenomenology of Spirit – nobody has read this.

10. Of Grammatology – didn’t understand a single word of it.