Notes and Comment Blog

Free Exercise 2

May 5th, 2006 8:40 pm | By

A further thought on The Righteousness of Blasphemy.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas. Here’s why.

Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines.

Actually I’m not sure that’s quite true (unless I misunderstand what Peter Fosl means by ‘formally’ and/or ‘discourse’, which is quite possible). In the US, for one thing, the free exercise clause of the Constitution results in the fact that, in a legal sense, there is something special about religious doctrines: they have special protection. This is unfortunate, I think, but it’s a fact. How that clause should be interpreted in practice is a highly contested issue, as we saw last month in Free Exercise. Different courts decide differently, and things change as circumstances (and attitudes) change.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle.

But that doesn’t detract from the basic point – although some religious people would argue that indeed it does: that the right to free exercise of religion does indeed entail protection from ridicule, jokes, searching questions, and blasphemy. There is a large strain of thought that thinks the right to free exercise of religion requires interfering with all sorts of other rights and the free exercise of all sorts of other activities. Some people think they can’t freely exercise their religion in Arkansas if there is an atheist freely talking in Seattle. And at the moment the tide is running more in their favour than in that of the atheists.

Oh Look, it’s the Pontiff

May 5th, 2006 5:34 pm | By

Actually of course it’s quite funny in a way. I keep laughing about it. I find myself having written a book (a whole book, mind you, not just an article or a wee pamphlet) about why truth matters with someone who isn’t quite sure Afrocentric history shouldn’t be taught in universities. There is something very funny about that, in a banana peel kind of way. Especially since there is a whole thick section of Why Truth Matters that talks about Afrocentric history, in some detail. And it doesn’t talk about it from the point of view that it’s kind of a good thing, or that it has its virtues; rather the contrary. So apparently the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke. It’s kind of like having written a book about the faults and errors of the Catholic church with someone who turns out on closer inspection to be the pope. Oh, oops! My mistake!

Yup. Pretty funny.

Doing My Bit

May 5th, 2006 2:28 am | By

Oh come on, Todd, tell us what you really think.

Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of “No Child Left Behind” while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a “Christian nation.” When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings…his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.

Yeah, so? You got a problem with that? You a Naleetest or something?

In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists’ resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics.

Hey Todd! [jumps up and down, waves, whistles] Over here! One dissenting intellectual* doing her best to stand for reason and asking how it came to pass and exploring the subject and studying contrary tendencies. That’s me, you’re describing me.** I just thought you’d like to know – there are some like that.

Among the topics they might explore: the academic left’s ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory” from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification.

Nope, not me, I do that other thing you said: I explore the tropism for foreign saviors, the reliance on intricate jargon, the commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory”. That’s what I do – down the nights and down the days, that’s what I do. Little children flee from me, because I try to tell them about the hybridity of the subaltern, and it makes them cry.

It don’t pay well, but it’s steady work.

*or pseudo-intellectual, or would-be intellectual, or crawling toadying lickspittle, or pathetic pretentious ignorant Shakespeare-reading snob.

**except probably for the intellectual part, on account of I’m not qualified.

Charlie Brown and Lucy Go Another Round

May 4th, 2006 9:05 pm | By

The HERO interview is kind of a risible train wreck. It starts off by referring to ‘The [B&W] site’s editors Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’ which of course is nonsense: there’s only one editor, and I’m it. JS has nothing to do with the content. (That’s not HERO’s fault: it no doubt got that from the Why Truth Matters jacket, which calls both of us editors of B&W. I wanted to correct that, but I was overruled.) So it starts off with an inaccuracy, and then proceeds to serve up a series of clashing replies, where I say something and JS says the opposite. (Maybe that’s a good thing – maybe it’s interesting and piquant. Maybe readers will think ‘how did these people ever manage to collaborate on a book, and what can it possibly be like?’) It ends with a grand flourish as JS cheerily disavows everything the book is about. Makes for quite a surrealistic read.

But, as I say, who knows, maybe that’s brilliant; maybe something so ludicrous and shambolic (and slightly sadistic) will make people eager to read the book. Maybe it’s postmodernism, its hour come round at last.


May 4th, 2006 5:10 pm | By

More than one identity again. More than one community again. Things aren’t quite that simple again. Take a closer look again.

But speaking of a “Muslim community” is as misleading in the Balkans as it is in Western Europe…In Albania — declared the world’s first atheist state in 1967 – Islam is the dominant religion, but the majority of the population is secular…Kosovo, apart from the Serb minority and a few pockets of Roman Catholicism, is almost completely Muslim, but pronouncedly secular.

But there are people who would like to change that.

Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, has been actively promoted within the region’s Islamic communities over the past 15 years, both by (mainly Saudi) humanitarian groups and by locals returning from religious studies in the Middle East.

An unhappy development.

But while these streams may be radical, they’re also marginal. In Albania, as well as in Macedonia, the overwhelming majority of Muslims practice their faith in a peaceful and tolerant manner. Perhaps due to the communist heritage, religion for many is more a matter of preserving their tradition than devotion with political implications.

Read the rest. It’s a long and interesting article.

Not so Much Roasted as Fried

May 4th, 2006 4:44 pm | By

So Bush wasn’t all that pleased and flattered by the attentions of Stephen Colbert. Huh. I thought he was supposed to have such a great sense of humour – I thought he was supposed to be such a kidder. (He was awfully funny about Tanya Faye Tucker pleading for clemency, and there was that great joke about Trent Lott’s front porch. He’s a funny guy. Gets it from his mother, apparently – those jokes about the good life at the Houston astrodome were real thigh-slappers.) But apparently he looked more as if he had a mouthful of bleach.

Mr. President and first lady, my name is Stephen Colbert and it’s my privilege tonight to celebrate this president. He’s not so different, he and I. We both get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.

Well, I think that’s funny. I’ve heard more than enough drivel like that to find mockery of it pretty funny. Bush needs some vitamins or something.

I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world…But I just have one beef, ma’am. I’m sorry, but this reading initiative. I’ve never been a fan of books. I don’t trust them. They’re all fact, no heart. I mean, they’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen.

Yep. Anti-gut, that’s what they are.

The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

That one’s more like straightforward reportage than a joke.

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

May 4th, 2006 12:39 am | By

Another one of those too-easy marks, but I can’t let it go. I never can. I’m bad that way. [voice rising to a shriek] I just can’t let anything go! It’s Giles Fraser daydreaming again.

What is fascinating about the ill-fated combination of the BNP and Christian Voice is that it demonstrates how deeply resistant Christianity is to all forms of racism. It has not always been apparent that this was the case. After all, Christianity had a hand in slavery and apartheid.

Sorry, people of Putney, but I find that hilarious. It has not always been apparent that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. Why? Because it had a hand in slavery – meaning, for not just a few minutes or a week or two or fifty years but centuries, official Christianity and most of its practitioners slept soundly every night and ate a good dinner every noon despite the presence of slavery in their midst, sometimes so in their midst that it raised and cooked the good dinner and generated the wealth that paid for the fluffy pillows and the houses that sheltered them. But nevertheless it was (because it is) the case that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. This tranquil ability to live happily and prosperously right alongside it and often right off it, with whippings and overwork and broken-up families all complete, was a mere appearance, you see; the resistance was the reality. A deeply buried, hidden, undetectable reality, to be sure, kind of like the structure of the atom, but a reality all the same. Only for a long, long, long time, while generations of slaves were born and lived crappy lives and died, this hidden fact was not apparent. These things take time, you know. The apparent does not always become apparent just right away – sometimes it takes thousands of years. But finally the mills of god deliver the goods, and they do it right around the time that modern compassionate vicars who think slavery is a bad idea are on hand to look at the view. Then lo! the vicar looks at the view, and he sees the Christianity of his own day, and he sees a religion that is deeply resistant to all forms of racism – not just at the moment, contingently, but of its essence, and for all time – only not in a way that is apparent.

But Christianity also played a decisive role in the dismantling of both. For every bigot wanting to exploit Christianity in the service of racist ideology, there is a Wilberforce or a Tutu reminding Christians of what’s in the Bible.

Oh well that’s fine then. Christianity propped slavery up for a few centuries, and then finally when it got its wits together, it inspired a tiny minority of Christians to think slavery was a bad idea. And as for the second sentence – bullshit! Are there in fact as many Tutus as there are racist bigots? Of course not. Racist bigots are a dime a dozen, and Tutus are not. So what does he mean by saying their numbers are exactly equivalent? Nothing, he just wasn’t thinking, that’s all; he wanted to say what sounded good and he didn’t think about his own meaning.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say it’s not admirable and moving when religion does stiffen people’s resistance to racism and other injustice. It’s just to say that ‘apparent’ lack of resistance to racism is something more than mere appearance. It’s the genuine article.


May 2nd, 2006 9:27 pm | By

This is very funny. At least I think so. Apparently what it is, is a blog set up by an English teacher at a small US college (or perhaps university), where students are supposed to post as part of their coursework. Actually that’s not funny; given the level of difficulty of what they’re doing and the fact that this is a college or even a university, it’s bottomlessly depressing; given the fact that some of them are seniors and juniors, it’s – oh never mind. Anyway, their first assignment was to post urls of five misleading websites and explain why they are misleading. Well (you’ll have realized where I’m going with this) – guess who made the cut! I’m so proud. The others are just obvious choices like weight-loss sites and diploma mills and sites that give you free money, but with the last item we hit pay dirt – we hit a really, genuinely, bafflingly misleading site. Misleading not because it pretends it can make you lose 200 pounds in a week or because it’s going to tell you how to make millions of dollars with just a spoon and a Jack Russell terrier – no, that’s kid stuff, this site is misleading because for one thing what the hell is the name supposed to mean?! What butterflies? Where? I don’t see any fokkin butterflies! And what’s with the wheels bit? And what is all this stuff, and what are they trying to do, and where am I?

This site is misleading because its title is butterflies but it talks about issues other than butterflies. The information doesn’t seem legitimate. Topics aren’t clear to me. It seems that this website is based on opinions and not real facts. Not sure what this website is trying to accomplish. The look of the website isn’t appealing and not very clear as to where I should go. It has links to other sites but I don’t know if I would trust the information given.

Very true. Why do people do that? Have titles with words in them but talk about issues other than those words? And information that doesn’t seem legitimate? It’s puzzling.

Mind you, it’s also puzzling that a bit of writing that brief and with such short, clause-free sentences (and such minimal research and sub-minimal thought) should constitute an acceptable assignment in a college English class, but so it is.

The Royal George

May 2nd, 2006 1:42 am | By

Okay, what does Bush mean by it?

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution…Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush’s assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ”to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ”execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional.

Because – why? Because he’s a constitutional scholar? Because even if he’s not a scholar he knows more than most people about what’s constitutional and what isn’t? Because he knows anything at all about what is constitutional? Because it says in the Constitution that if a president ‘believes’ a given law is not constitutional he can just ignore it? Because the US president has unlimited, monarchical powers? Because magical powers to interpret the Constitution correctly pass to the new president the moment CBS news says who won Ohio? Because presidents who are elected because their father was president sometime in the previous decade have special rights to ignore laws whenever they dang well feel like it? Because presidents who have signed more death warrants than anyone else in the country are empowered to bypass laws? Because presidents who are in office when people fly airplanes into buildings are permitted to tear up all laws that they find pesky?

No, none of those reasons, I don’t think, on account of how none of those are true. So, why, then?

Far more than any predecessor, Bush has been aggressive about declaring his right to ignore vast swaths of laws — many of which he says infringe on power he believes the Constitution assigns to him alone as the head of the executive branch or the commander in chief of the military. Many legal scholars say they believe that Bush’s theory about his own powers goes too far and that he is seizing for himself some of the law-making role of Congress and the Constitution-interpreting role of the courts.

Well that certainly is what it sounds like.

Bush administration spokesmen declined to make White House or Justice Department attorneys available to discuss any of Bush’s challenges to the laws he has signed. Instead, they referred a Globe reporter to their response to questions about Bush’s position that he could ignore provisions of the Patriot Act. They said at the time that Bush was following a practice that has ”been used for several administrations” and that ”the president will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution.” But the words ”in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution” are the catch, legal scholars say, because Bush is according himself the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution. And he is quietly exercising that authority to a degree that is unprecedented in US history.

Gee – here was I thinking the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution was supposed to be a Supreme Court thing, not a president thing. I must have done more sleeping in government class than I thought.

Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said the American system of government relies upon the leaders of each branch ”to exercise some self-restraint.” But Bush has declared himself the sole judge of his own powers, he said, and then ruled for himself every time. ”This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy,” Fein said. ”There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.”

There’s something deeply enraging about the whole thing. Who does that man think he is? (God’s chosen, I know. Don’t remind me.)

Blasphemy Rocks

May 1st, 2006 1:30 am | By

Someone should have said this long ago.

Something terribly important has been missing from discussions orbiting around the Mohammed cartoons…What’s been missing has been an acknowledgment that blasphemy isn’t just something that must be tolerated. It’s something that possesses a special political value of its own. Blasphemy, in short, is a good thing. It’s something admirable, noble, and, yes, even respectable.

Actually…now you mention it…somebody ought to start a magazine called Blasphemy. And mean it.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas…Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines. Like other ideologies, religion instructs and even commands people about what they should value and how they should conduct themselves…Many clerics actually tell their congregations how to vote. It’s simply not acceptable for a participant to enter public debate, have such a powerful effect upon it, and then claim immunity from the sort of treatment to which other participants are subject.

Exactly! They don’t get to mix it up so thoroughly in public debate and then demand immunity. They don’t get to dive head-first into the profane and then demand (with threats and menaces) to be treated as sacred.

The article is in an Open Debate at TPM: you can reply to it, and Peter Fosl will reply to three of the best, which will (I think, although it doesn’t say that on the page) be published in the magazine.

One for the Dictionary

May 1st, 2006 1:14 am | By

Here’s something I’d like to know. Why do people keep calling Galbraith an ‘unapologetic’ liberal? Why is being a liberal something one is expected to apologize for?

Gustave et Marcel

May 1st, 2006 12:58 am | By

Those French – they’re witty bastards. Flaubert for instance. I picked a Penguin selection of his letters off a shelf this morning, for no particular reason, I just caught sight of it and felt like browsing in it – I opened it at random – at a letter to Louise Colet in which he talks about Musset, with whom Colet had just begun an affair. (Page 185)

I have been thinking a great deal about Musset. And I think that in the end it is all just Affectation…Men sentimentalize over everything, and most of the time the poor women are taken in by it. It was only to make a good impression on you that he said: ‘Try me. I have left Italian women gasping’ (an idea of Italian women that is connected with the idea of a volcano; you always find Mount Vesuvius between their legs. Nonsense! Italian women are like Eastern women: drowsy, languid, voluptuous things; but never mind, it is a received idea), whereas in fact the poor lad may simply be having trouble satisfying his washer-woman. It was so as to look like a man of passion that he said: ‘I am one of the jealous kind, I would kill a woman, and so on.’ He hasn’t killed George Sand.

And it goes on like that, and there’s a lot more like it in other letters. He was a funny, rude, caustic bastard.

And then there’s our friend Marcel, who was also a funny bastard, in his own way. Behold Albertine.

As soon as she entered my room, she would spring on to my bed and sometimes would expatiate upon my type of intellect, would vow in a transport of sincerity that she would sooner die than leave me; this was on mornings when I had shaved before sending for her.


Here’s a bit more Gustave. (Page 188)

They are all essentially the same, all the people who tell you about their lost love, their mother’s grave, their father’s grave, their sacred memories, who kiss medallions, who weep in the moonlight, who go into raptures when they see children, swoon at the theatre, look thoughtful when they stand by the Ocean. Fakers! fakers! triple charlatans! who use their hearts as trampolines in order to reach up to something.

Dear grenouilles.

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

May 1st, 2006 12:57 am | By

I like this item of Julian’s, too. He asks what is meant by ‘being religious’.

Yet logos and mythos do not exhaust the meanings of religiosity. There is a third sense, one which I believe is more important and more widely held. This is the idea of having a religious attitude. Attitudes are…deeply important to how we live, for they determine our entire orientation to the world around us. Among the primary religious attitudes are those of awe, reverence, gratitude and humility. What each have in common is that they capture a sense that there is something greater than us, which commands us, and which we cannot control. And it is the perceived absence of these attitudes in atheism that lends it the reputation for arrogance. Yet although religion arguably allows for a more natural expression of these attitudes, they are compatible with even the most naturalistic cosmology.

Indeed. Although I think it’s fair to say that the reason atheism is widely thought to lack those attitudes is that the atheist versions are not personal, are not about an agent or a loved mega-person, and as such, are considered too thin, too impoverished, too abstract, cold, unemotional – unloving, perhaps. I can see why theists would think that – but I think it’s wrong. Just for one thing, I think that view underestimates the intensity of the love it’s possible to have for places, for landscapes, for nature, for the world or the cosmos. They should read some Wordsworth: that might enlighten them. Or Proust. Or they could listen to Gene Sparling’s account of finding the Ivory Bill. No thinness in any of those.

A theist, for example, has a clear object for their feeling of gratitude: the creator God. But an atheist can clearly have a sense of their own good fortune and an understanding that any period of prosperity may be impermanent. Likewise, a theist feels awe and reverence for “creation”, yet as even the atheist Richard Dawkins has described in his Unweaving the Rainbow, almost identical emotional responses to the natural world can be shared by materialist scientists.

Exactly. That’s why I quoted a bit of Unweaving the Rainbow to end Why Truth Matters

To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposed to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected…The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.

Along with something Matt Ridley said at Spiked:

The one thing I would try to teach the world about science is that science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth, started by the Romantic poets, that science gets rid of mysteries was well nailed by Albert Einstein – whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets. Isaac Newton showed us the mysteries of deep space, Charles Darwin showed us the mysteries of deep time, and Francis Crick and James D Watson showed us the mysteries of deep encoding. To get rid of those insights would be to reduce the world’s stock of awe.

There you go. We do awe.


May 1st, 2006 12:01 am | By

The Archive

Interrogations Archive

Stepping Sideways

Apr 29th, 2006 11:15 pm | By

Phrasemaker, Scruton, isn’t he.

Freud, who assumed the mask of the objective observer, who presented his results as the inescapable conclusions of arduous empirical study, who repeatedly claimed that his psychological discoveries would one day be grounded in biology, is now widely accepted at mask-value…Someone must have reminded him that not all children are boys; but he had an easy way with his critics, which was to throw the Greeks at them. Thus was born the Electra complex, conjured from a thigh-bone of Oedipus…At every point where scientific method might impose its logic on the argument, Freud stepped sideways into metaphor, asserting with dogmatic intransigence that this is how things are because this is how they must be.

Stepping sideways into metaphor – perfect way of putting it. That’s quite a familiar dance step these days, beloved of bishops and postmodernist theologians alike, not to mention astrologers.

And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell. Freud suffered from the ‘charm of disenchantment’. Like Marx he was irresistibly drawn to explanations that demean us, and which turn our world-view upside down – or set it, as Marx insisted, ‘on its feet’.

Yeah. I used to suffer from that charm too – I’m sure most of us did. Although I wouldn’t say ‘explanations that demean us’ – I don’t think that’s quite accurate (though it’s close). I think it’s more a matter of trying to see past explanations that sentimentalize or prettify us, to get at the uglier (more demeaning) truth underneath. Of course that’s not always mistaken, to put it mildly (advertisers aren’t actually always in the business because they want to educate us); but it’s also not always the case that the most repellent or unnerving explanation is invariably and necessarily the right one. Freud often does seem to be convinced that the most irritating intepretation he can come up with is indeed necessarily the right one. Probably because of his toilet training.

Astrology Not Nonsense After All

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Okay and now that we’ve got it straight that I have no choice but to go on being smugly complacently in favour of rational inquiry as opposed to the other thing, let’s drop in on the Independent and see what it has to say about astrology.

The massive power of waves and the tides that cause them are, it is universally accepted, a direct consequence of the gravitational influences of the Moon and the Sun upon Earth. We also know that the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour and has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance, hence the word lunatic. Is it, astrologists argue, therefore completely impossible that the other planets also exert influences on our lives and personalities, to greater or lesser degrees and in varying combinations?

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anything quite as ridiculous as that, at least in a respectable newspaper. (Okay, not counting Bunting.) Note the discrepancy between ‘it is universally accepted’ in the first sentence and the much vaguer ‘we also know’ in the second. Who’s we, bub? And what do you mean ‘know’? And once we’ve got that clear – what on earth do you mean by ‘the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour’? You mean like wolves howling at it? Or you mean like the moon turning bats into vampires? And then when we’re clear about that, what in the sam hill do you mean by ‘has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance’? Eh? What do you mean ‘linked with’ for a start? You mean correlated with? You mean somebody has said ‘Hey, Clara went barking mad when the moon was almost full, and that other woman across town went a little funny during an eclipse’? Saying the moon has ‘long been linked with’ women’s ‘mental disturbance’ is perfectly compatible with simply saying that a lot of people who didn’t know much about either the moon or women’s brains have made random speculative correlations between the moon and women flipping out – which isn’t saying much. (Neither is ‘hence the word lunatic’. We know whence the word lunatic, you prat, that doesn’t constitute evidence that the moon does in fact make women go crazy, it just constitutes evidence that people thought the moon made people go crazy.) And then the descent into complete raving in the last sentence. Who knows whether it’s ‘completely impossible’ or not, but that’s not the issue; the issue is that there’s no reason to think so. Woolly thinkers always babble about proof and certainty and completely impossible, when those are not what’s at stake. Anyway – how did Terry Kirby get from the waves and the tides to ‘influences on our lives and personalities’? (By sly stages, that’s how. Waves and tides, to animal behaviour, to aspects of our lives such as menstruation and mental disturbance, to influences on our lives and personalities – as if they were all pretty much the same kind of thing. Well they’re not. If Kirby knows of some evidence that gravity influences our personalities the same way it influences the tides, I’d be curious to see it.) And then there’s ‘the other planets,’ meaning in addition to the moon and the sun. Err…

And that, having been around in various forms since the ancient Babylonians first began to describe celestial omens 4,000 years ago, astrology deserves more respect than the derision commonly accorded it by the rational scientists and the established churches[?]

Well there’s a stupid ‘argument’. Lots of things have ‘been around’ for four thousand years or more, but that doesn’t automatically mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ – why would it? Stupid ideas don’t become less stupid as they get older; often the contrary is true, as better information becomes available. The four humours were around for a long time too; does that mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ now?

Marlene Houghton, an astrologer for more than 30 years, puts it another way. “Astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science.”

Yupuhuh. Also known as the easy out. Astrology is a ‘metaphysical doctrine’ – okay, but then if it claims that distant planets do in fact ‘exert influences on our lives and personalities’ then it is making non-metaphysical truth claims, and doesn’t get to wiggle out of noticing disconfirming evidence with handwaving about metaphysical doctrines. That is, in the vernacular, cheating.

I’ve never seen astrology as a prop or a belief system but, as Ms Chalklin says, simply a tool to better understand the ups and downs of everyday life and help explain something about ourselves and the people we meet. It’s not rocket science, in fact, it’s not science at all. Whether you are an Aries or a Pisces, it is ultimately about people and what makes us what we are.

But if it’s a crap tool with all broken teeth and twisted prongs and dull blades and bent shafts, then what’s the point of it? How does it help anyone better understand the ups and downs of anything if it’s a great whirling cloud of vapor? How does it explain anything about ourselves and the people we meet when in fact it doesn’t explain anything at all because it’s pure raving nonsense?

Ah, the hell with it. With people like that around and the Indy publishing them, I’ll just have to go on being smug and complacent, I can’t possibly do anything else.

No Remedy

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Sastra makes a relevant point, or set of points, in a comment on ‘No Exit’.

Bottom line, science is the method you use when you want to force yourself to seriously consider the possibility that you might be wrong. It’s designed to eliminate bias and test views as much as possible. It’s structured to force a change of mind. If that is allowed to pass as just a “different kind of dogma,” then being undogmatic would mean refusing to consider the possibility you might be wrong, embracing your biases, and not testing your beliefs. Don’t change your mind. Stay firm. Otherwise, you might be in danger of the smugness of scientism.

Just so, and that’s where the regress comes in, and I just can’t see any way out of it. For one thing, as Sastra indicates, taking things on faith itself involves a kind of smugness. In fact you could say that it doesn’t involve smugness, it is smugness. The refusal to consider disconfirming evidence (and that is what faith is, by definition) could be seen as the very essence of smugness. Again, I reach a dead end where I just don’t see what the alternative can be. Making a virtue of refusing ever to change one’s mind, no matter what, is not an anti-smug stance.

But then it’s smug of me to say that. We’re saying (we have a consensus) that rational inquiry and science, which always include the possibility that we might be wrong, are better forms of inquiry than their opposites, which exclude the possibility that their practitioners might be wrong; we’re saying this method is better than that method; therefore there is a potential for smugness. Sure; there is; but the remedy for that can’t be to take up a much smugger, more self-protective way of thinking. I don’t know what the remedy is, other than the usual ones of trying to be vigilant, aware, self-critical, and so on; but I’m pretty convinced of what it’s not.

No Exit

Apr 27th, 2006 9:08 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about consensus and complacency. I know of people who think that B&W has too much in the way of consensus and thereby risks smug complacency. That’s true enough, but I don’t quite know what can be done about it, or even if anything should be done about it (that’s what I’ve been thinking about). It seems to me that as soon as I try to figure out what (if anything) can be done about it, I immediately get into a regress, which engenders feelings of deep hopelessness and futility (along with hunger). It may be that from a moral point of view, feelings of hopelessness and futility (and hunger) are preferable to smug complacency; but from other points of view, I’m not sure they are.

Here’s why I get into the regress. It seems to me that B&W’s* only really basic commitment – and thus all it can really risk being complacent about – is to rational inquiry. To rational inquiry of whatever kind; to using whatever tools and methods are needed to investigate whatever particular question needs investigating – including whether or not B&W is smug and complacent, and whether consensus on the need for and value of rational inquiry necessarily leads to smug complacency. And right there, two seconds into the inquiry, we smack into the regress, and I don’t see how we can get out of it. How can we tell whether or not B&W is smugly complacent except by trying to find out? By trying to find out by inquiry? But if we do that we’re just displaying the consensus again, smugly and complacently. But what else can we do? What is there other than rational inquiry? Faith? Revelation? Authority? Intuition? Blind commitment? Hunch? Insight? Mystical experience? But those simply don’t seem the right (the most reliable, the most testable, the most likely to be accurate) way to find out the truth of the matter. No doubt it’s smug and complacent of me to say and to think that – I can see that in a way it is by definition – but I still don’t see any good alternative. To rely on faith or revelation would be credulous and reckless and fundamentally incompetent, in the sense of using the wrong tools for a particular job.

So I seem to be stuck. It seems to me that B&W is not (necessarily) smug and complacent, because the basic idea it is committed to is, to the best of its (my) knowledge, the only one that’s a valid option – so it’s a forced choice – so not really a source of smugness. We don’t really feel smug when we pick up a garlic press instead of a chainsaw when we have some garlic to squash. Not unless we’re terribly hard up for reasons to feel smug (in which case no one should begrudge us, because really, how sad, don’t you think?).

It’s as if someone said, ‘what colour is that shirt?’ You have two choices – you can guess, or you can look. You think you’re more likely to give an accurate answer if you look. Is it smug and complacent to think that?

The other issue is that in a world where lots of people guess, and not only guess but make a virtue of guessing, and chastise people who look instead of guessing – the result may well be that the people who look will feel superior to the guessers (and, as a matter of fact, the guessers will feel superior to the lookers). If that is the sense of smug and complacent that is meant, it’s true enough: no doubt that is a risk. But how can it be helped? What is to be done? Should we start arguing in favour of guessing in order to avoid feeling superior to guessers? (What of the risk then of feeling superior to lookers? Should we just alternate every few minutes? But then wouldn’t we get dizzy and start dropping things?) But is that a good reason to do that? If we think rational inquiry really is the best way to find out things (and we think finding out things is worth doing) then is it sensible to do the opposite simply to prevent ourselves from (possibly) feeling superior? Isn’t that doing a large bad in order to prevent a comparatively trivial bad?

And the logic of doing things we don’t actually believe in in order to avoid smugness is tricky – because anything can prompt such feelings – so at that rate we should never do anything. Never learn anything, acquire any skill, form any opinion – we should be so humble and self-abnegating that we don’t exist at all. Which seems safe, but a bit pointless.

*I keep saying B&W, which is a bit absurd, because B&W c’est moi, there isn’t anyone else here – so why don’t I just say ‘I’? It seems coy to say B&W if I mean me. But I don’t really mean me, I mean B&W, so that’s what I say. B&W seems like something bigger than mere me – which it is, actually, because a lot of other people write for it, and I assume they do that because of the nature of B&W, which is created partly by those very people who write for it, in a continuing expansive process. Okay that’s why I say B&W. Though it’s also because it was two people when it was founded, so I formed the habit of thinking of it and referring to it that way; it’s taken me a long time to break the habit of using the plural first-person pronoun.

Women Out of Control

Apr 27th, 2006 2:00 am | By

Well you can see their point, of course. Men in shorts darting around kicking a ball – I mean to say. If they let women in to watch that kind of thing, not much football would get played, know what I mean? I mean, whoarrrr, right? Obviously. So if they let women in, then all they would get is, the men would come running out and do a spot of kicking and in thirty seconds flat each man would have forty or fifty women on top of him, and those shorts would be nowhere to be seen. Whoarrrrrrr.

That’s how it is here of course. In the West. There’s no such thing as football here, there are just these abortive occasions where men in shorts start to play football and then before you can say ‘Play ball!’ there’s just a lot of rutting going on. Not all that sporting. But you know how women are – one look at men’s knees and they can’t keep their clothes on. I think there used to be football, once upon a time, but I suppose that was before the Pankhursts or Betty Friedan or something.

It’s the thing about the other men in shorts that I don’t quite get.

Women can watch football broadcast on Iranian television and they can attend basketball and volleyball matches even though they too involve men dressed in shorts.

The thing about television seems quite cruel. It must drive them almost insane, poor things. Do they try to hump the television itself, I wonder? But it’s the part about attending basketball and volleyball matches that I really don’t understand. Why is that allowed? Why is it okay to have basketball and volleyball matches interrupted and ruined by throngs of whimpering women dragging the players’ shorts off? What’s the deal – Iranians like football but not basketball and volleyball? So they want football to go ahead and be played all the way to the end without being sidetracked to a copulation-fest, while with basketball and volleyball they figure it’s okay either way? That must be it, but I think it’s a little unfair to basketball and volleyball. But I prefer football myself, so I guess I can understand it.

Members of the clergy say it is wrong for men and women to look at each other’s bodies, even if they have no intention of taking pleasure from it.

Well of course it is. And what do they mean about no intention of taking pleasure from it? What planet is that supposed to be on? The one where women go to soccer matches and tennis matches and squash tournaments and swimming competitions and volleyball and basketball games and marathons and bicycle races with no intention of taking pleasure from slavering over men’s bodies? The one where women don’t even notice those tight tight tight lycra shorts? That planet? Haaaaaaa –

Sorry, but you have to admit, that’s funny.

One MP said, if the reformists had tried this, there would have been suicide bombers protesting on the streets of Teheran.

Protesting? Suicide bombers protesting? In the sense of blowing themselves up? Or just in the usual sense of marching and setting fire to things? But if it’s that – do suicide bombers announce themselves beforehand? Do they have like suicide bomber clubs, or uniforms, or regalia of some sort? Banners, maybe? I’d have thought they didn’t, I’d have thought the idea was to conceal the fact that one was a suicide bomber until the very instant when that fact was made apparent by an explosion. Because, see, if you go around beforehand saying you’re a suicide bomber and protesting things, there is some remote chance that someone might stop you going on being a suicide bomber.

But, maybe not, with everyone so busy keeping women out of football stadiums. First things first, ya know?

A Dialectic

Apr 25th, 2006 7:11 pm | By

One good Radio 4 idea-discusser reviews another. (I like Laurie Taylor. For one thing, he reviewed the Dictionary of FN in the Times Higher. He didn’t think much of it, but he did think some of the jokes were funny – that’s good enough.)

I’m also put off by the assumption that anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly join Bragg in his latest popularising endeavour is something of a spoilsport or a dangerous elitist…No one can doubt Bragg’s populist spirit. One of the chief pleasures of In Our Time on Radio 4 is the sound of him trying to persuade the assembled academics to speak more plainly about their specialist subject. Whether the topic of the day is quantum mechanics, Goethe, or the rise and fall of Charlemagne, there’s nearly always a magic moment when Melvyn grumbles that a distinguished professorial guest is departing from the order of play or becoming too interested in matters that are not central to the main story. Such episodes perfectly capture the dialectic between Melvyn’s healthy and commendable populist belief that every topic can be successfully brought to heel and his guests’ equally well-grounded insistence that matters are, on the whole, looking at it from both sides, taking everything into account, rather more complicated than their host would wish them to allow.

Yeh. That’s an interesting and tricky dialectic. I spend much of my life encountering it these days. Jeremy and I were always wrangling over it while writing Why Truth Matters, and I always have to keep it in mind while working on The Philosophers’ Mag. The basic issue JS and I kept disagreeing over is whether it makes people feel stupid and frustrated to read something they don’t entirely understand, or whether it makes them feel insulted and frustrated to have something they do understand explained to them. That’s why it’s a dialectic. I tend to think that a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does not necessarily make people feel stupid and frustrated but rather challenged and stimulated; I think he tends to think I go too far in that direction, and also that the risk isn’t worth it. I suppose the problem is that what a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does is make some people feel challenged and stimulated while it makes other people feel stupid and frustrated. But the trouble is that there has to be a cutoff point somewhere – it’s not possible or practical to explain absolutely everything, or else no one would be able to write anything at all, since every word would need explaining, as would the words that did the explaining, so that progress would be impossible. But how does one figure out where the cutoff point is? It’s pure guesswork, pure intuition; seat of the pants stuff. Nobody knows. We just do our best, that’s all. And argue over words like ‘quotidian’.