Notes and Comment Blog

Chatting With Bari

Nov 10th, 2007 10:13 am | By

A self-appointed ‘community spokesman’ does some speaking.

Sir Salman Rushdie should never have been knighted, he says. “He caused a huge amount of distress and discordance with his book, it should have been pulped.”

Ah. So any book that causes ‘a huge amount of distress and discordance’ should be pulped? That might include a lot of books, yeh? Plus Bari isn’t altogether consistent.

According to a recent report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, the bookshop at the east London Mosque, which Dr Bari chairs, stocks extremist literature. “The bookshops are independent businesses,” he says. “We can’t just go in and tell them what to sell…”

Or that their books should be pulped? Hmm?

His passion is to integrate Muslim and British cultures – he says integration must go both ways. “Everybody can learn from everyone. Some of the Muslim principles can help social cohesion – family, marriage, raising children with boundaries, giving to the poor, not being too greedy.”

‘The Muslim principles’? So Bari thinks family, marriage, raising children with boundaries, giving to the poor, and not being too greedy are ‘Muslim principles’ which no one else ever thought of and which are a monopoly of Islam? If so he’s wrong. Islam doesn’t even have a monopoly on using ‘family, marriage’ as code for ‘subordination of women’ – that’s practically universal. Christian apologists do the same thing, of course: talk about forgiveness or peace or ‘family values’ as if they were exclusively Christian. They’re not.

Abortion should also be made more difficult. “By the time a foetus is 12 weeks old our religion says that the child has got a spirit.” Homosexuality is “unacceptable from the religious point of view”.

There’s that ‘child’ again – the one the Vatican likes to talk about, the one anti-abortion campaigners like to talk about – you know, the twelve-week-old child that has ‘a spirit.’ But what ‘our religion’ says about a foetus is irrelevant, because it’s mere assertion. It might be accurate or it might not, but ‘our religion says’ is worthless as a general principle.

Is stoning ever justified? “It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances,” he replies. “When our prophet talked about stoning for adultery he said there should be four [witnesses] – in realistic terms that’s impossible. It’s a metaphor for disapproval.”

Oh is it?! Is it really?! Tell that to Malak Ghorbany. Tell it to the women in Iran and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have in fact been stoned to death. Metaphor! Metaphor!? Yes it’s a metaphor just the way the death penalty in Texas is a metaphor.

For an antidote, see Gina Khan on the MCB (and other things).

Fiction and unreality

Nov 7th, 2007 5:22 pm | By

The post on fictional characters has spawned a lot of offspring – Norm’s, George Szirtes’s, Mick Hartley’s, Tom Freeman’s.

The subject is related to one that Jean and I talked about a little today – when you’ve been in the blogosphere, have you been to a real place? When you interact via a blog, is that really interacting? Jean has a related post at Talking Philosophy.

I think Internet interaction is decidedly real interaction, but only for the people for whom it is so; that could be everyone, for all I know, but I don’t think it necessarily is. But I think it is so, at least, for people for whom language, thinking, writing, talking are important – or perhaps not so much important as essential. Jean points out in the post that blogging is addictive; so it is, and why? Maybe partly for the same sort of reason we get involved in fictions. Distance in one case, fictionality in the other; either way it’s not about real, fleshy, breathing people in the room with us, and yet it yanks us in just the same. George’s ‘guess is that the imagination does not distinguish carefully between the real and the imagined.’ It may be – in fact there’s evidence to suggest that it is – that the mind does not distinguish carefully between the imagination and memory, either. When you think about someone who is ten miles away at the moment, is that a memory or an imagining? A lot of both, usually, isn’t it? And are we always sharply aware of the boundary between the two? More like never, I would think.

A rule is a rule

Nov 7th, 2007 10:40 am | By

We haven’t had a round of spot-the-community in a long time, so let’s have one now. Let’s look at the way the peculiar insistence on describing everything as a ‘community’ and everyone as a member of a ‘community’ can cause reporters to write what ends up being just plain inaccurate.

There’s a piece in the Independent about an Evangelical Chistian reverend who has been appointed to a human rights outfit.

Secular groups have asked for the removal of the Rev Joel Edwards, a vocal campaigner against legislation banning discrimination against the gay community, from the post of commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

But the legislation doesn’t ban discrimination against ‘the gay community,’ it bans discrimination against gay people; particular, individual, gay people, in particular individual situations. Why say ‘the gay community’ instead of just ‘gays’ or ‘gay people’? Is the need to say ‘community’ so ingrained now that journalists think it’s somehow rude to refer to people in any other way? But if so, why?

And there’s the piece in the Times telling us that Jehovah’s Witnesses say Emma Gough did the right thing.

To agree to a transfusion would have been a transgression comparable to adultery or sexual immorality, a spokesman from the central office of the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses told The Times yesterday.

The…wot? The central office of the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses? There’s a central office of something called the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses? It’s not just the central office of Jehovah’s Witnesses UK or British Jehovah’s Witnesses? But then why isn’t ‘community’ capitalized? Probably because it isn’t called that; the word ‘community’ is just some kind of bizarre honourific now, applied to everyone with a lavish hand.

Terry Lovejoy, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness community in Telford, said: “We are trying to help them through an intense period of grief and mourning.”

What we are not doing, of course, is re-thinking the ‘community’s position on blood transfusion.

At the central office for Jehovah’s Witnesses in London, Paul Gillies, its spokesman, said: “If someone did [have a blood transfusion] they would be saying they don’t really believe in one of the central tenets of the faith…It says to abstain from adultery, to abstain from blood, to abstain from immorality,” he said…“If someone said, ‘Don’t drink alcohol’ and I injected it into my arms instead, that would just be a way round the law’.”

Yes but did someone say ‘Don’t drink alcohol even if a drink of alcohol would save your life?’ Do you recognize any kind of hierarchy of commands and laws and duties? Do you see any difference between, say, ‘please don’t leave your dirty dishes on the table for me to clean up’ and ‘don’t commit mass murder’? Do you see any difference between ‘don’t cross the street in the middle of the block’ and ‘don’t cross the street in the middle of the block even if you’re running away from a tsunami’?

I gotta go, I have a pile of old ‘Watchtowers’ that needs reading.

Why do atheists get crabby?

Nov 6th, 2007 11:28 am | By

I trust you enjoyed Greta Christina’s ‘Atheists and Anger’. I know I did.

I’m angry that atheist soldiers – in the U.S. armed forces – have had prayer ceremonies pressured on them and atheist meetings broken up by Christian superior officers, in direct violation of the First Amendment…I’m angry that atheist soldiers who are complaining about this are being harassed and are even getting death threats from Christian soldiers and superior officers…I’m angry that the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, said of atheists, in my lifetime, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”…I’m angry that women are dying of AIDS in Africa and South America because the Catholic Church has convinced them that using condoms makes baby Jesus cry…I get angry when advice columnists tell their troubled letter-writers to talk to their priest or minister or rabbi…when there is absolutely no legal requirement that a religious leader have any sort of training in counseling or therapy…I’m angry at preachers who tell women in their flock to submit to their husbands because it’s the will of God, even when their husbands are beating them within an inch of their lives…I get angry when other believers insist that the cosmic shopping list isn’t what religion and prayer are really about; that their own sophisticated theology is the true understanding of God. I get angry when believers insist that the shopping list is a straw man, an outmoded form of religion and prayer that nobody takes seriously, and it’s absurd for atheists to criticize it.

That’s just a small sample. Later there’s a long series of epistemic anger-sources, many of which we’ve discussed here (not surprisingly, all this stuff being in our faces, so to speak). One of my favourites (but I like them all) is:

I get angry when believers say at the beginning of an argument that their belief is based on reason and evidence, and at the end of the argument say things like, “It just seems that way to me,” or, “I feel it in my heart”… as if that were a clincher. I mean, couldn’t they have said that at the beginning of the argument, and not wasted my fucking time?

And then it winds up by pointing out that anger is necessary for reform and change, also something we’ve discussed here. Angry atheists unite.

It’s not about you

Nov 5th, 2007 12:01 pm | By

Religion. Respect. Gotta respect it – religion. Religion, respect, they go together.

A young Jehovah’s Witness has died just hours after giving birth to twins. She had signed a form refusing blood transfusions, and her family would not overrule her. Couldn’t doctors have intervened? If they had, they [might] well have been charged with a criminal offence, and would not have had a legal leg to stand on in court. The UK places great emphasis on respecting the religious convictions of patients – and increasingly the doctors who treat them too. There is nothing medics can do when an adult refuses treatment on religious grounds, says Vivienne Nathanson, head of ethics at the British Medical Association.

Is there anything patients can do when an adult doctor refuses treatment on religious grounds? Sometimes. That dentist who refused treatment to a woman because she wasn’t wearing a hijab got a mild rebuke. But maybe in a few years that will be seen as insensitive – to the dentist. Or maybe not; who knows.

Jehovah’s Witness liaison committees, who advise both doctors and patients on alternative treatments, are now firmly established in many UK hospitals. “We are ever more favourably received – doctors are increasingly sympathetic to needs of the community,” says David Jones, a member of the committee for North Bristol NHS Trust. “We have drawn up detailed care plans for everything from heart surgery to giving birth, including ways to stem postpartum haemorrhage. All hospitals should have access to these.”

Isn’t that heart-warming? Doctors are increasingly sympathetic – isn’t that kind? They’re are increasingly sympathetic to the ‘needs’ of the ‘community’ – the needs of the community to adhere to a ridiculous meaningless arbitrary outmoded pettifogging bit of nonsense from Leviticus. And in order to exercise all this extra and increasing sympathy, doctors and nurses have to absorb piles of detailed care plans that wouldn’t be necessary if the ‘community’ didn’t ‘need’ to adhere to its outmoded bit of nonsense. What a pathetic waste of time and resources, which could be used in better ways. It’s revolting – that smug self-centered self-congratulation on the ability of the ‘community’ to force (by moral pressure) busy doctors and hospitals to pay lots and lots and lots of pointless extra attention to them. I might as well go drop in at the local primary school and demand that everyone there pitch in to make me a ten-course dinner but make sure it’s kosher and haram and vegan and Scientology-appropriate. I’m special, I deserve to usurp everyone’s time and attention, right?

[O]ther countries are not quite as tolerant of mothers’ religious convictions…A young woman in Dublin lost a lot of blood after giving birth to a healthy baby a year ago. A Jehovah’s Witness, she too refused a transfusion. But an emergency ruling permitted the hospital to carry out the procedure, arguing that the right of the newborn baby to have a family life overruled the mother’s right to refuse treatment.

Well, what about that? Why don’t UK hospitals take that into account? Why doesn’t the baby’s need for a mother have to be at least weighed against the mother’s ‘religious convictions’? (Yes, I know, I’m always talking about women’s autonomy, and that’s why I think women should be able to decide not to bear a child they don’t want, but I also think that if they do decide to bear the child, they take on certain responsibilities. That in fact is one reason I think they should be able to decide not to – the responsibilities are very large and potentially very intrusive. Frankly I think they make ‘religious convictions’ look horribly trivial and selfish.)


Nov 4th, 2007 11:17 am | By

Peter Cave has an entertaining new book of philosophical puzzles, Can a Robot be Human?. The pieces are cross-referenced; one interesting pairing is of a chapter (2) on the way we feel real emotion about fictional characters and their situations, and another (8) on love, what selves are, what stories we tell ourselves about people we love.

It is very odd, and even somewhat mysterious, what powerful emotions we can feel about fictional characters. The oddity becomes more obvious if you try to imagine animals doing it. The idea is absurd – yet we’re so used to doing it ourselves that we forget how odd it is. What’s that about, do you suppose? Other minds, probably. Right? Must be. The social animal thing. Our brains would have been too expensive to have evolved if they didn’t have a huge payoff; the payoff is social collaboration; for that we need a working theory of mind. So we have this hypertrophied faculty of thinking and feeling about the interior worlds of other people – so hypertrophied that it works even (or especially) on people who don’t actually exist. Page 9:

The most rational of people can be moved by fictions yet, even when moved, know full well that they are seated in a theatre, reading a book, or watching television. Or do they? Perhaps, one way or another, they suspend their belief in the stagy surroundings, suspend their memories of the tickets they purchased or block out the sound of the book’s rustling pages. Perhaps they fall for what is being represented as real, as being, indeed, all for real. Remember, though, they cannot be taken in that much; if they were, they would be warning of danger…

It is a peculiar mental state. Peculiar and delicate. It is easy to be jostled out of it – to be deeply in it one moment and the next to remember that you’re sitting in a chair holding and looking at a rectangular box-shaped object packed with slices of paper with black marks on them in rows. But then it’s easy to jump right back into it again. Story-telling seems to work that way. Peter Cave suggests that romantic love does too. Page 44:

When we attend a play, we can lose ourselves within the action. Despite awareness of the theatrical surroundings, we cannot help being moved by the characters on stage. My suggestion is that such fictionalism spills over those in love, generating an erotic fictionalism. When in love, we often cannot help feeling, and believing in, the eternity of that love, despite knowing that, transient and fickle creatures that we are, things may be so very, very different later on; even as early on as the following morning.

Indeed. You’re so wonderful. Oh wait, no you’re not. Human life in eight words.

Submit, and what’s for dinner?

Nov 3rd, 2007 10:55 am | By

Oh the joy of learning at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. How the world opens up before the eager student, how the riches of human knowledge spill out before her excited gaze.

It offers for instance ‘classes in homemaking.’

The academic program, open only to women, includes lectures on laundering stubborn stains and a lab in baking chocolate-chip cookies. Philosophical courses such as “Biblical Model for the Home and Family” teach that God expects wives to submit graciously to their husbands’ leadership.

So that all female students will realize they mustn’t get married? Does it work? What are the stats?

Seminary President Paige Patterson and his wife, Dorothy – who goes by Mrs. Paige Patterson – view the homemaking curriculum as a way to spread the Christian faith. In their vision, graduates will create such gracious homes that strangers will take note. Their marriages will be so harmonious, other women will ask how they manage.

Yeah? You think? You sure other women won’t ask how ‘Mrs. Paige Patterson’ can stand the boredom, the dependency, the servility, the official inferiority? If they can even stand to go in Mrs Man’s house at all, that is.

[G]uest lecturer Ashley Smith, the wife of a theology professor, laid out the biblical basis for what she calls “the glorious inequalities of life.” Smith, 30, confided that she sometimes resents her husband…But then she quoted from Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” And from Genesis: God created Eve to be a “suitable helper” for Adam. “If we love the Scripture, we must do it,” said Smith, who gave up her dreams of a career when her husband said it was time to have children. “We must fit into this role. It’s so much more important than our own personal happiness.”

Oh, you bet; ‘fitting into’ a role laid down for us by a few guys a few thousand years ago is much much much more important than our own personal happiness. Naturally. One’s own personal happiness is important only for men, women are just tools. Well done Ashley Smith; enjoy your glorious inequalities.

Pik and Ab

Nov 1st, 2007 1:13 pm | By

A pleasing fantasy.

[I]t would be a simple matter to send out for professional reinforcements, thus demonstrating to King Abdullah that, whatever the Prince of Wales may have told him in the dunes, our shared values do not, currently, feature male supremacy. Instead of Prince Charles fawning on the airstrip, one pictures, say, Sandi Toksvig, heading a welcoming party composed of adulterers, gays, Jews, Catholics, apostates, immodestly dressed women and a variety of other law-abiding sinners who would be dead, or at least severely incapacitated, if they lived in King Abdullah’s country. After inspecting a battalion of beautifully turned out slags (replacing the Welsh Guards), he and his companions would be driven – by women drivers of Filipina extraction – to a special performance of the Vagina Monologues, after which a female journalist (replacing John Simpson), would explore the extent of our shared values on behalf of the BBC.

Then some rather pointed questions.

From Prince Charles, with his history of woman trouble, one has come to expect this creepy respect for an absolute ruler with 30 wives. From Howells, who presumes, no doubt, to be a progressive politician, the reflexive, Foreign Office cringe is more disturbing. What if the more persecuted half of the Saudi population were black? Would he have talked about “shared values” in the days of Pik Botha? Is it because only half its population is oppressed that we share values with Saudi Arabia, but none with Burma?

Umm…yes. It’s democracy, you see. Women are only half the population and they’re oppressed in so many places – that it would be undemocratic to make an issue of it. Colonialist and undemocratic. Pik Botha different, Pik Botha bloody Boer, King Ab not a bloody Boer.

Of course Howells is not alone in considering the complete subjugation of Saudi women to be a kind of quirky, cultural difference, rather than an outrage…With the advance of young British veil wearers, proudly declaring their right to be invisible and their love of extreme modesty, this and many other forms of faith-related female subjugation have become complicated areas for liberal protest. If, as we’re often told, many British Muslim women love their jilbabs, how can we be sure Saudi women do not also rejoice in their coverings, accepting, in the same dutiful spirit, total exclusion from civic life and physical chastisement by their devout partners? How can we be sure their would-be liberators are not – like women who adorn themselves and women who cut their hair short – just a few more Women Who Will Go to Hell?

We can’t, so let’s talk about something else, shall we?

Just ask a pundit

Nov 1st, 2007 10:12 am | By

So as part of this here ‘Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’ the very scholarly and thoughtful Ann Coulter spoke at USC.

“There’s always a conflict of interest when people who hate America are asked to lead it,” Coulter said about the Democrats’ midterm election victory…Organizers of the week, both at USC and across the country, said the goal of such speeches is to increase discourse on an issue of national importance.

By inviting Ann Coulter? She’s a (bad) stand-up comic; she doesn’t do discourse, she does silly trash-talk.

Though organizers praised Coulter for her brash personality and bold, attention-grabbing statements, some critics say these characteristics are a detriment to promoting thoughtful discourse on controversial issues…Some attendees said Coulter’s polemic remarks are appropriate for a political pundit. “She’s not a centrist,” Ceren said. “Her job is not to persuade; it is to speak to the faithful … Her job is to express a conservative viewpoint.”

Her ‘job’? She doesn’t have a job, at least not at USC she doesn’t. And what’s a political pundit? And what makes her one? She’s not a ‘pundit,’ she’s just an entertainer.

And a somewhat confused one.

Coulter, self-admittedly notorious for making controversial and offensive remarks,…addressed the threat of religious fundamentalism….Coulter has recently been in the press for comments on converting Jews to Christianity that many interpreted as anti-Semitic. Coulter told CNBC anchor Donny Deutsche that Jews need to be “perfected” by becoming Christian.

Well, that’s the threat of religious fundamentalism dealt with then.

All religions are good and kind

Nov 1st, 2007 10:06 am | By

On the one hand, it’s a very good thing that Cherie Booth QC is saying that culture and religion cannot be used as an excuse for discriminating against women. (Mind you, she could have waited for JS and me to write our book saying that and then used the opportunity to plug our book, but never mind.) On the other hand she says some absurd counter-factual things in the process.

The human rights lawyer, wife of former PM Tony Blair, said all the major world faiths shared “an insistence on the dignity of all God’s people”.

The hell they do. They share the opposite, that’s what they share. Yes, Christianity too – there are places where it decidedly fails to insist on the dignity of Jews or women. All the ‘holy books’ have passages commanding the smiting of those other people over there; none of them forbids slavery; all of them carve up the world into the good people who Believe and the bad people who don’t. If all the major world ‘faiths’ did share an insistence on the dignity of all God’s people, then why did the first genuine idea of human equality coincide with the Enlightenment? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, did it take so long? Why have all theocratic societies throughout history been so extremely hierarchical?

In a speech, she said discrimination on religious grounds was a “distortion” of the true message of some faiths.

No, it isn’t; it’s obedience of the literal, written-down message of all ‘faiths.’ It’s no good divining what the ‘true message’ is by matching it up to what you want it to be; it is what it is, and that doesn’t happen to be egalitarian or rights-based.

“It is not laid down in the Koran that women can be beaten by their husbands or that their evidence should be devalued, as it is in some Islamic courts,” she said.

Uh…yes it is. Has she been reading a prettied-up version? Is she just deluding herself?

II.282 “Call in two male witnesses from among you but if two men cannot be found, then one man & two women whom you judge fit to act as witnesses; so that if either of them commit an error the other will remember.” IV.34: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. God is high, supreme.”

And then there’s Sharia.

“It is important for judges and political leaders to remind everyone that the philosophical purpose of the Sharia is to protect and promote human welfare.”

No it isn’t. It is important for judges and political leaders to remind everyone that Sharia is a nightmare and we want none of it.


Nov 1st, 2007 10:04 am | By

Check this out.

In the past few years, the students and faculty of Columbia University have found themselves in the midst of a culture war. They’ve seen their Middle East Studies department targeted as “anti-Israel”…And at the start of this school year their own president, Lee Bollinger, seemed to pander to this right-wing pressure by slamming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the name of “the modern civilized world.”

That’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s in The Nation, of all places. Apparently Esther Kaplan, who wrote a book called With God on Their Side: George Bush and the Christian Right, thinks that it’s ‘right-wing’ to be critical of Ahmadinejad. Because…what? Ahmadinejad is a lefty hero, another Che or perhaps Trotsky?

Maybe not, maybe it’s just that she thinks ‘slamming’ Ahmadinejad is part of the Cheney war-juggernaut. But if that is what she thinks, she could have said that; what she did say looks more as if she thinks only right-wingers are critical of Ahmadinejad.

This week they’ve got David Horowitz…His “Islamofascism Awareness Week” descended this week on dozens of college campuses across the country…At Wednesday night’s Oppression Panel, some eighty students and assorted gadflies had the chance to see a self-satisfied panel of Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Muslim), Phyllis Chesler (The Death of Feminism; The New-Anti-Semitism) and the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?) apply Horowitz’s patented PC-bashing technique.

Self-satisfied yourself, Kaplan. I consider Ibn Warraq a friend, and self-satisfied is one of the last things I would call him. But wait – there’s more.

Thus we had Warraq telling us that it was Edward Said, by means of his book Orientalism, who “encouraged Islamic fundamentalism” by teaching “an entire generation the art of self-pity.”

And? That’s wrong because…? Don’t wait too long for an answer, because there isn’t one. Edward Said is an icon, and that’s all there is to it; he is Not To Be Criticized.

That these self-annointed opponents of Islamofascism claim to speak on behalf of women, gay people and Jews only deepens the Horowitzian irony.

Well here’s some irony for you – has Kaplan ever read a single word Ibn Warraq has written? She can’t have, or she wouldn’t sneer such an ineffable sneer at his speaking on behalf of women, gay people and Jews.

The Nation is often clueless (or worse) about this stuff. That’s unfortunate.

I share values, do you share values?

Oct 30th, 2007 11:13 am | By

Okay what about dear Saudi Arabia with whom we share all these ‘values’? What about all these ‘values’ that we share? Which ones are those then? People are asking.

As Gordon Brown faced mounting criticism yesterday over the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells called for Britain and the Saudi monarchy to work more closely together on a basis of “shared values”…The statement by Mr Howells drew an angry reaction from the Labour backbenches. “I am astounded that a government minister can identify shared values with a regime that is world-renowned for its abuse of human rights and civil liberties,” said John McDonnell, the left-wing MP co-ordinating protests at the Saudi embassy tomorrow.

Well there’s always money. And monarchy. Will those do?

Perhaps not.

A dossier on executions, prolonged detention of peaceful critics without trial, and discrimination against women was issued yesterday by Amnesty International who said that it was “extremely concerned” at the extent and severity of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. This year, at least 124 people have been executed, the majority by beheading, said the group.

Well how about ‘faith’ then? That’s a shared value, surely.

Maybe not.

Material urging hatred of other religions can be found in mosques across Britain, most of it linked to Saudi Arabia, according to a new investigation…Researchers uncovered propaganda calling for homosexuals to be murdered, women to be subjugated and denouncing Jews and Christians as the enemies of Islam…Many publications urged British Muslims to segregate themselves from non-Muslims and for “unbelievers” to be regarded as second class. Most of the material is produced by agencies closely linked to the Saudi regime, according to the investigation. It included virulently anti-Semitic propaganda produced by the Saudi ministry of education. Some of the literature discovered espoused the creation of a separate state for Muslims, governed by sharia law.

McDonald’s? Starbucks? Oil? Sunshine? There must be something…

At the Baltimore Aquarium

Oct 29th, 2007 12:03 pm | By

From Tea, in comments on ‘Contemplative wonder is doomed, doomed, I tell you’.

I went to the Baltimore aquarium last week, and I saw a most amazing species of fish (whose name I unfortunately don’t remember at all). It took me a while to actually see it: the tank looked like it contained nothing but water and some algae-covered rocks. An employee approached me and asked me if I can see the fish. “No”, I replied. “It’s right here”, he said, pointing his finger at a rock. “Where?” “Right here.” I just couldn’t see it – until I noticed that the rock blinked at me slightly with its big black eye. It was truly amazing – I still couldn’t tell where the rock ended and the fish began, its “skin” looked exactly like the algae leaves that surrounded it. I had to be dragged away from the tank after 15 minutes or so, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. Of course I’ve seen examples of mimicry many times before, but I was usually able to figure out which were the real plants, and which the animals pretending to be plants. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. AWEsome.

Now, if someone were to tell you that this fish was created by a guy with considerable talent in making sculptures that look exactly like rocks, that would be hardly awe-worthy, and there would certainly be little left to wonder about. You might be a little more amazed upon being told that this guy can also breathe life into such “sculptures”, but your amazement would vanish as soon as you’d learn that this guy also happens to be omnipotent. There’s nothing very wonder-inspiring about intelligent beings creating things they have always been able to create with ease.

However, learning that this incredible thing happened through the process of natural selection – now, that is truly amazing. That is the reason why I had to be dragged away – it just blows my mind that such stuff comes into being without an omnipotent guy creating them on a whim. Instead, it just slowly evolves from next-to-nothing, and that without any intelligence and omnipotence behind it – and yet, there you go: a fish that looks exactly like a rock. If you ask me, very few things are more awe-inspiring than that. I still can’t fully wrap my mind around it; I keep “wondering” about it. On the other hand, there’s no place left for wonderment when a guy who can create anything happens to create something.

Contemplative wonder is doomed, doomed, I tell you

Oct 28th, 2007 12:23 pm | By

I’m told by more than one witness that Mark Vernon is a nice guy (and I don’t doubt it) – but he does talk the most godawful crap.

Do you need to be religious to truly experience wonder at the world? This question lurks behind much of the ongoing debate about atheism. If everything can be explained by science, what is worthy of awe?

That’s a ridiculous question, and also a sinister one. It’s ridiculous because of its gormless assumption that explanation is for some reason inimical to awe. But why should it be? Think of the first atomic bomb, dropped in the desert at Alomogordo. The physicists and engineers watching knew how it worked, obviously; they could explain it; but they were certainly awed by it. The question is sinister because of its primitive fear of explanation. I don’t think the world is in need of people urging us to remain ignorant. Ignorance is easy, and there will always be plenty of it; I can command whole oceans of it myself; explanation is harder, and needs all the encouragement it can get.

For some atheists modern science can ask all questions worth asking and find answers: there are still mysteries in the world, but they are more like puzzles that can and one day will be explained by natural processes. The wonder that someone with such a belief might feel at these things could be said to be instrumental…This wonder is different in quality from contemplative wonder, which does not undo but lets be. It involves a conception of science that extends knowledge but admits its limits. Some things are beyond its comprehension and remain intrinsically mysterious. Consciousness, morality and existence itself are obvious candidates – the things that the artistic, religious and moral imagination are so well equipped to ponder.

Contemplative wonder does not ‘undo’ but lets be. Well, fine, Mark; if you want to contemplate, go ahead; but your desire to contemplate doesn’t necessarily translate t a general rule. And then, what do you mean ‘the artistic, religious and moral imagination are so well equipped to ponder’ morality and existence? That they’re all able to just sit down with slack jaw and stare? Maybe they are, but so what? Or do you mean (in contradiction to your ‘does not undo but lets be’) that they are well equipped to ponder such things to some purpose? If so, leaving aside your self-contradiction, I would love to know how they are well equipped to do that, and to what purpose. What can the ‘religious imagination’ tell us about morality or existence by way of its ponderings? I realize it can make up fictions and then dogmatically assert them and demand allegiance to them – but that doesn’t seem to be what you have in mind.

[Bacon] also knew that this magisterium of experiment did not overlap with the magisterium of religion, which “extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value”, in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous formulation.

Famous and profoundly mistaken. Religion has no genuine ‘magisterium’ because it doesn’t go about the work in the right way. Religious morality is command morality, derived from revelation and authority; it is fundamentally worthless.

It is when you deny the separate domains of these magisteria that you erode the capacity for contemplative wonder. When scientific knowledge is thought to be effectively without limit there is nothing much to stop contemplative wonder dissolving into instrumental wonder too. This must be what people sense when they fear that science is unweaving the rainbow. The worry is that it leaves nothing sacred.

And if it’s not what people sense when they fear that science is unweaving the rainbow, you’ll do your best to talk them into fearing it. Not a good or wise thing to do.

Jean has an eloquent comment on the subject.

Solidarity and its enemies

Oct 26th, 2007 11:10 am | By

Haleh Esfandiari and Robert S. Litwak point out some ironies of Ahmadinejad’s visit.

While in New York, President Ahmadinejad, at a dinner arranged by the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, met with American scholars who work on U.S.-Iranian relations and with representatives of nongovernmental organizations. Yet the Iranian president failed to explain why he was inviting comments from this group even as his government was curtailing the activities of Iranian NGO’s and preventing their members from attending workshops outside Iran. The Ahmadinejad government’s broad crackdown on Iran’s civil society, described by some observers as a cultural revolution, has essentially criminalized the activities of academics, journalists, and activists for women’s rights and human rights.

And labor unions, I believe; in other words all the engines of reform and improvement. And, very unfortunately, all such groups (except probably unions, which is perhaps why they weren’t mentioned) are suspected of entanglement with Bush administration plans for regime change via ‘velvet’ revolution – which makes international support very tricky. I’ve mentioned before that I worried about this to Maryam Namazie when she interviewed me for her radio programme last year. It’s a terrible (though unsurprising) situation when international solidarity risks compromising people.

Women’s bodies are always the issue

Oct 26th, 2007 11:04 am | By

Polly Toynbee went to the abortion rights meeting. ‘Some of us had to pinch ourselves, time-warped back to old 1967 arguments against women’s same old enemies.’

Joining the Catholics and evangelicals, that pathetic weather-vane windbag, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has now dithered his way into the debate…His contribution was yet another intellectual contortion to mollify his church’s woman-hating, gay-bashing, Daily Mail wing…Women’s bodies are always the issue – too unclean to be bishops, and dangerous enough to be covered up by Islam and mikvahed by Judaism. All the Abrahamic faiths find the key to morality in keeping women and their fertility under control. So it will be that 26 male bishops in the Lords will help decide on this law.

Naturally. Maleness and faithyness join up to tell women what to do, as they always have. Women don’t belong to themselves, they belong to the fetus, the family, the husband, the father, the community, the god, the clerics; anyone and everyone except themselves.

Clerical fascism

Oct 25th, 2007 5:39 pm | By

Hitchens says why it’s valid to compare fascist and jihadist ideology even though ‘it’s quite the done thing, in liberal academic circles, to sneer at any comparison between fascist and jihadist ideology.’

Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. (“Death to the intellect! Long live death!” as Gen. Francisco Franco’s sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined “humiliations” and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression – especially to the repression of any sexual “deviance”—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.

He left out the fact that both are obsessed with purity, which is important, because that obsession is probably foundational to some of the other obsessions, and to the overall strenuosity and humourlessness of both.

He points out that there are also differences; but the commonalities are decidedly worth paying attention to.

Bless this carbolic to our use and us to thy person

Oct 24th, 2007 4:15 pm | By

Dang, I’m always falling behind in my saint-memorization. I don’t know who the saints are. I don’t even know who all those crazy saints all over California are! I haven’t got a clue. Saint Rose – who? Saint Clement? Saint Diego? Saint Joe? Saint fucking Barbara? I don’t know these people! I’ve heard of Saint Francis, I can deal with that all right, but all these other ones – I suspect some map-makers just took them out of the Oakland phone book one day. And I’d never heard of Padre Pio – I’m happy to say. Padre Pio, indeed; the very name makes the toes curl. Yuk.

And for good reason, it turns out; the guy flounced around the place saying he had ‘stigmata’ when he only had them because he kept dumping carbolic acid on his hands. And for that they made him a saint? Well jeez – I have this fingernail that I squashed in a car door when I was ten and it’s had a slight flaw in it ever since – can I be a saint? I’m bad-tempered and slothful and occasionally violent, but can I be a saint anyway?

Oh never mind, I wouldn’t want to dress properly for it. But Padre Pio did, and now this book has spilled the beans about the carbolic. (Maybe he didn’t really dump it on his hands. Maybe he needed it just to give his comb a really good cleaning.) The Catholic Anti-Defamation League isn’t taking it lying down though – it’s saying the writer is ‘spreading anti-Catholic libels,’ the bastard.

Pietro Siffi, the president of the League, said: “We would like to remind Mr Luzzatto that according to Catholic doctrine, canonisation carries with it papal infallibility.”

Well quite! Canonisation carries with it papal infallibility, and therefore, if any evidence turns up later that the saint actually wasn’t all that saintly, well, it’s too late, because the papal infallibility works at the sub-atomic level, you see, to transform the saint retroactively into an infallibly saintly…person. So the evidence is beside the point, because the infallibility, like, trumps it. The infallibility is like an ace and the evidence is just like maybe a seven. ‘We would like to suggest to Mr Luzzatto that he dedicates his energies to studying religion properly’ – so that he would know stuff like that.

Family Values American Values Family Family

Oct 23rd, 2007 4:39 pm | By

Oh look, Theocracy in America.

A collection of major Religious Right groups is seeking to flex some muscle this weekend, screening Republican presidential hopefuls and demanding they show fealty to the fundamentalist political agenda. The so-called “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the Family Research Council Action, Focus on the Family Action, the Alliance Defense Fund, American Family Association Action and Gary Bauer’s American Values group. Every major GOP presidential hopeful is slated to appear. “This may be the biggest collection of theocrats in one room since the Salem Witch Trials,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Their goal is simple: to consolidate their power within the GOP and elect a president who is in their pocket. They want to ramp up their efforts to run everyone else’s lives according to a narrow and rather hateful definition of Christianity.”

Well if they can’t run everyone else’s lives, where’s the fun in belonging to one of those crapulous outfits? Who would want to hang out with the Family Focus on Family American Values Defense Action Focus Action Group if there were no opportunity to tell other people what to do? What else are they going to be doing? Having interesting conversations? Boogying? Drinking and telling jokes? Humping? Seems unlikely! No – the only fun those people know of is the fun of Coercion and Regimentation, with a little Exhortation and Excoriation thrown in. Poor bastards.

Wrested from the bitter reactionary grip of religion

Oct 21st, 2007 4:49 pm | By

We had a good time (I did anyway) with Roger Scruton’s review of Anthony Grayling’s new book, so now let’s have a different but related kind of good time with another look at Anthony Grayling’s review of John Gray’s latest book. I flagged it up here last month but it’s so relevant to the Scruton review that I feel like flagging it up again.

Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism. Let us further ask how Gray imagines that these values are direct inheritances from Christianity – the Christianity of the Inquisition, which burned to death any who sought to assert just such values. Indeed, the history of the modern European and Europe-derived world is precisely the history of liberation from the hegemony of Christianity. I shall be so bold as to refer the reader to the case for this claim in my forthcoming full-length discussion of it, Towards the Light.

The very book Scruton tried so hard to patronize the other day.

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects…They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal…Most of what was achieved in the history of the West from the 16th century onwards – most notably science and the realisation of the values listed above – was wrested from the bitter reactionary grip of religion inch by painful and frequently bloody inch. How can Gray so far ignore this bald fact of history as to make the modern secular West the inheritor of the ideals and aspirations of what it fought so hard to free itself from (and is still bedevilled by)?

Having a book contract probably helps with the ignoring.