Notes and Comment Blog

Just the One

Jul 26th, 2004 10:24 pm | By

Update. Norm comments on this post which itself is a comment on a post of his which itself was a comment on the death of Paul Foot. So? Nothing. I just like to follow trains of thought. Anyway, he notes that there is only one book in common between our two lists. Yes. But it would have been a bit boring to repeat the same list, wouldn’t it. Although I didn’t actually look at his list again before doing mine, so I didn’t make a systematic effort not to repeat his. But I did remember that he had Mill, and I rejoice to concur with the Normblog reader. I said my list isn’t definitive, isn’t exactly a top ten list or list of favorites – more like a sampling from a much larger list of favorites. (For instance, I love literary biographies and biographies of philosophers; I could give a list of at least 20 or 30 in that genre, all of which are favorites. Maybe I will, sometime.) But Mill is the exception. (Well, and so are Montaigne and Hazlitt.) Mill really is a favorite. I couldn’t leave him off in order to have a non-duplicative list. So I didn’t. And I thought it would be tidy to have one overlap and the rest different.

List, List, O List

Jul 25th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

Speaking of Keats and Wordsworth and Bronte – speaking, in short, of books – I was going to do that Ten Books that changed my thinking list. So now I will. It’s not a literary list – more of an argumentative list. And it’s also not really a top ten or ten best or ten favorites list. It’s not definitive. That list would have to be much longer, and more fluctuating. But this is a sample of that list.

1. Montaigne’s essays.

2. Hazlitt’s essays. That’s cheating in a way, because they’re not all in one book (whereas Montaigne’s are). But just think of them as one huge super-book.

3. Keats’ letters.

4. On Liberty. Same what Norm said. I’m really, really partial to Mill. It seems we all are. That contest or quiz or whatever it was that people were chatting about last week (I didn’t look at it myself), the one about ‘which philosopher are you?’ The people I saw who’d taken it – Anthony at Black Triangle and – was it Norm? – both had Mill at the top. Martha Nussbaum in a recent interview when asked who her favorite philosopher was, said Mill. I should just throw in his autobiography and On the Subjugation of Women for 5 and 6, but that would be a little dull. Take all three as one book then, and throw in his essay on Coleridge, and –

5. Walden. A more rhetorical On Liberty.

6. The Flaubert-Sand letters.

7. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

8. Eichmann in Jerusalem.

9. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition.

10. Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice.

Devils, Traitors, Landscapes

Jul 25th, 2004 9:17 pm | By

Whew. That’s better. The weather has changed. It’s been blisteringly hot for three days, the kind of hot where it’s still blistering after sunset, and still hot at midnight, and still very warm at dawn – in other words, the kind of hot where it never gets a chance to cool off. That’s rare around here. (I know, I’m spoiled.) Most of the time even in summer it cools off sharply around 8 p.m., and a breeze kicks up, and you can go for a nice sunset walk and cool off. Except for a few days here and there every summer. The statistical average here is, I once heard, to get three days per summer when the temperature is over 90 degrees. We’ve just had two of them, and very nasty they were. So it was very pleasant to wake up to clouds and nice cool air. Yesterday the air smelled foul, dry and hot and exhaust-laden; today it smells damp and faintly of trees. Offshore flow, it’s called. It blows from the west and the ocean, rather than the east and the desert. Offshore flow is a beautiful thing.

So. Now that I’m not all hot and cranky, a few items. There is this profile of Numero Uno atheist Richard Dawkins, for instance. Not a very good piece, actually; it looks as if someone cobbled it together in a hurry because of the Prospect poll. Well that’s all right, I guess, they were just providing some background; that’s a service. But the sub-head is really silly: ‘Now the scientist who calls himself the ‘devil’s chaplain’ has been voted Britain’s top intellectual …’ But he doesn’t call himself that, and if you know where the phrase comes from, that’s an absurd thing to say. It’s a quotation from Darwin, in a letter to a friend –

What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.

The point is that natural selection is hideously cruel. That’s not Dawkins’ self-description as a sort of anti-priest, it’s Darwin’s sardonic view of the idea that nature or its putative designer is kind and benevolent.

Jonathan Derbyshire has an interesting comment on the Observer piece, and a comment in it about Dawkins’ hatred of Bush.

The formulation is apposite: like many soi-disant “public intellectuals”, Dawkins doesn’t so much have a politics as a pathology – “hatred” of Bush and Blair. Those “streams of anti-war letters” are mostly lacking in the reasoned argument for which his scientific work is justly celebrated.

Hmmyes, I suppose. I’ve only seen one or two of those letters, but those were thin on argument. But I detest Bush so much myself, I may have a touch of the same pathology. Be that as it may, I was interested that Jonathan quoted from Julien Benda, La Trahison des clercs. I’ve thought of that book and phrase several times lately.

Les hommes dont la fonction est de défendre les valeurs éternelles et désintéressés, comme la justice et la raison, et que j’appelle les clercs, ont trahi cette fonction.

To bluntify it a bit: people whose job it is to defend eternal disinterested values like justice and reason, ‘intellectuals,’ have betrayed that job. He’s right you know. We keep running into it. People whose job it is to defend reason and critical thinking, arguing that we shouldn’t use them on other people’s cultures, for instance. I do keep finding myself thinking that intellectuals just aren’t doing their job. They’re doing some other job, instead. And it is a betrayal. It’s like all those Democrats who changed party after they’d been elected as Democrats after the Republicans took Congress in 1994. I simply couldn’t believe that when it happened – it’s an outrage! People vote for a Democrat who wins and they find themselves lumbered with a Republican anyway? It ought to be illegal. And it’s the same thing with intellectuals. Being woolly and sweet and understanding and nonjudgmental just is not their job.

And finally, for dessert, I liked this brief comment by Eve Garrard at Normblog. I’m a landscape junky myself. Always have been – I mean literally always, from the age of three if not earlier. I know that because when I was three we moved from a house in the country to one in town, and I spent the next five years driving my mother and brother and sister crazy, asking ‘when are we moving back to the country?’ I pined, I longed, I yearned. I still remember the day we moved back when I was eight – the bliss of it. One result is that I’ve always known exactly what Wordsworth and Emily Bronte and Thoreau, for example, were talking about – known it on my pulses, as Keats would say.

For this group, landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; it’s a haunting passion (as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted); it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word – as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length.

I suppose ‘haunting passion’ is Wordsworth? Tintern Abbey or the Immortality Ode perhaps? I ought to know but don’t. But I do like Wordsworth a hell of a lot more than I would if I didn’t know what he meant. I love the Prelude, and I wouldn’t if it weren’t for that. Twelve long books of what Keats called ‘egotistical sublime’ (though he didn’t mean the Prelude, since he hadn’t read that, since it wasn’t published until 1850) – yes, but if you’re a landsape junky – well, you get the idea.

A Brilliant Site

Jul 25th, 2004 2:48 am | By

Well. Aren’t I stupid. How did I manage to miss this? The link is right there on Ibn Warraq’s site. I just didn’t do enough exploring. Well, I’ve done it now, so don’t you miss this one. It’s loaded with great stuff. Look at the articles page for instance. Read There’s no such thing as Voluntary Hijab!. If only I’d had that article to cite during all those arguments about the hijab last winter, with all those people who simply couldn’t see any reason at all why someone might support the ban. Seeing the reasons but still not agreeing I could have understood, but that’s not how it went. It was weird. But none of that crap on this site. Yeah!

The veil is not just another kind of clothing; opposing it is not just defending the right to freedom of clothing even though it is put forward as such. It is not something that a woman decides to put on for a change one day and to take it off the next. It is not a costume put on a young girl who is going to a costume party! Veiling young girls teaches them that they belong to an inferior sex and should be ashamed, and that they are sex objects and must limit their physical movements. By the same token, young boys are taught they belong to the ‘superior’ sex, and that girls are inferior and sex objects. An unbridgeable gap is thus created and institutionalized between the two sexes at the expense of young girls’ deprivation and young boys’ ’empowerment’.

Visit, read, wish them good luck.

New RSS feed

Jul 24th, 2004 8:25 pm | By

Since people kept asking for a RSS feed, I’ve put one together. But it’s kind of at a beta-testing stage, since I programmed it – using Perl – without the faintest real idea about what I was doing. If (when) people find problems with it, if they could email me at j e r r y at b u t t e r f l i e s a n d w h e e l s dot com that’d be very useful.


Little Boxes, Little Boxes

Jul 23rd, 2004 11:31 pm | By

What was that we were saying about identity, and groups, and being forced into those groups by other people? We were saying a lot of things – so let’s say a few more while we`re at it.

I’ve been re-reading Meera Nanda’s marvelous (albeit horrifying) book Prophets Facing Backward. If you haven’t read it – you’re missing something. I thought a couple of quotations would be apropos. Page 16:

Holist views of nature and society in which the collective is held to be larger than the individual, the orgnaism more than the sum of its parts, are eminently suited for illiberal and totalitarian philosophies. Such philosophies can mobilize individuals to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of the collective good, and to even accept the indignities meted out to them in the name of their duty and destiny.

Can’t they though. And this is one reason – one of many – I’m ever more wary of communitarianism, identity politics, group rights, and ideas about the need to respect groups simply because they are groups. I’m also ever more surprised that these ideas have become so deeply entrenched on the left. I’m not as surprised as I could be, because I used to see more merit in them than I do now (or rather I used to be less aware of the demerits), but I’m still surprised, especially considering all the hideous experiences we’ve had with group hatreds over the last dozen years or so.

Another. Page 27:

Postmodern critiques…seemed to satisfy these intellectuals’ nationalistic and populist urges to resist the West and at the same time, to affirm the traditions of the West’s ‘victims,’ lumped together in one big mass without adequate consideration for internal class and cultural contradictions as ‘the Third World people,’ the ‘subaltern,’ or simply the ‘other.’

Just what I’ve been saying. Of course, when groups are being attacked as groups, then it may make practical sense to defend them the same way, but that’s a different matter from according immense groups consisting of billions of people automatic respect, or affirming their traditions, or really saying much of anything about them at all except that they should be treated decently (or if you prefer to phrase it that way, that they have human rights).

One thing I notice about all this identity-hugging is that people have a tendency to force others into identity boxes whether they want to be put there or not. One of our regular readers, wmr, commented on this under ‘Stand Still, Dobbin’:

IMO, the problem with group identification occurs not when one links oneself to a group, but when others insist on identifying one with some group. “The Metaphysical Club” tells of a talented black student who considered himself primarily a philosopher. Unfortunately, everyone else considered him a black first and foremost. He did not prosper.

And Vikram Chandra has a long, fascinating, irritated essay on the subject in ‘Boston Review’ in 2000 called ‘The Cult of Authenticity.’

I noticed the constant hum of this rhetoric, this anxiety about the anxiety of Indianness, this notion of a real reality that was being distorted by “Third World cosmopolitans,” this fear of an all-devouring and all-distorting West. I heard it in conversations, in critical texts, in reviews. And Indians who wrote in English were the one of the prime locations for this rhetoric to test itself, to make its declarations of power and belonging, to announce its possession of certain territories and its right to delineate lines of control…My purpose is also to give you some sense of the texture of the world in which I live and write, and therefore also a sense of the sheer effort it takes to sustain and drive this censorious rhetoric about correct Indianness, and a sense of the galloping vastness of its elisions. This rhetoric lays claim not only to a very high moral ground but also a deep, essential connection to a “real” Indianness. Despite all their demurrals about not essentializing Indianness, and their ritual genuflections in the direction of Bhabha and Spivak, the practitioners of this rhetoric inevitably claim that they are able to identify a “Real India,” and so are able to identify which art, and which artists, are properly Indian.

It’s all so dreary, so imagination-choking, so thought-smothering, so limiting. Don’t write that, because it’s not authentic. Don’t name your character that, because you’re ‘signalling Indianness to the West.’ Don’t be cosmopolitan, be whatever Identity you were born. Don’t expand, don’t change, don’t grow, don’t learn, don’t become different, don’t leave home, don’t go out into the wide world. Don’t you dare. And this is supposed to be progressive?

Cool, They All Melted!

Jul 23rd, 2004 2:08 am | By

I can’t resist adding another example – because it seems to me to be so grotesque. It’s from a column by Nicholas Kristof, whom Brian Leiter calls ‘one of the leading “no ideas and the ability to express them” columnists at the New York Times.’ (How convenient to happen on that description just after I read the Kristof column. Doncha just love it when things fall into your lap like that? Serendipity?) The column is a brief look at one of the Rapture books, a phenomenon I’ve talked about here more than once. It starts with a pretty passage:

Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again.

Then there’s a bit more:

In Glorious Appearing, Jesus merely speaks and the bodies of the enemy are ripped open. Christians have to drive carefully to avoid “hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses. The riders not thrown,” the novel says, “leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated. Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they too rattled to the pavement.”

Nice, right? The kind of thing one feels really pleased to know that other people are reading and enjoying. Yes indeed. Kristof is critical, to be sure, but…note what he also says:

I had reservations about writing this column because I don’t want to mock anyone’s religious beliefs, and millions of Americans think Glorious Appearing describes God’s will.

Pardon me for a moment while I let fly with a stream of oaths. I mean, really! This is where this kind of thinking gets you. Millions of people think that kind of shit is God’s will – and we don’t want to mock them, or alternatively point out that it’s completely disgusting to believe and relish that? I hasten to point out that he does come down on the right side immediately after saying that – ‘Yet ultimately I think it’s a mistake to treat religion as a taboo, either in this country or in Saudi Arabia.’ – but why say it at all? Maybe the Times told him to say it – in which case my oaths are directed at the paper, not the individual. I don’t care which it is; the point is the deed, the thought and the expression of it, not who did it. Millions of people think the Rapture books describe God’s will. So what? So what, so what, so what? If they think that, and enjoy the thought, there is something hideously wrong with them, and no one should have a fraction of a second’s inhibition about saying so as loudly as possible.

You know what? I really hate knowing that millions of my fellow Americans read and enjoy that stuff. The god-bothering is bad enough, but then when the god-bothering combines with that kind of slavering lust for other people’s torture and instant elimination – it’s beyond a joke. It’s al Qaeda-ish, and it’s disgusting.

It’s odd, the Rapture series is one of the very first things I wrote about for N&C. Because there happened to be an interview with one of the ‘authors’ on ‘Fresh Air,’ so I commented on it.

And speaking of comments, I am going to do the Ten Books list. I haven’t forgotten. Things have been busy.

Stand Still, Dobbin

Jul 22nd, 2004 8:12 pm | By

You don’t mind if I go on thrashing the equine do you? No, of course you don’t, because you’re used to it. I repeat myself a lot. But then arguments are like that – they go on and on, inconclusively, cumulatively, incrementally. Who knows if one is making any progress or not? But if one thinks there is a point worth making or defending, one goes on.

Marc Mulholland has a new post on all this today. A much politer post than I deserve, too. But I still disagree with much of what he says. For instance:

Some of the criticisms raised deny the reality of group identities, asserting in classical liberal fashion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals (and their families?). I disagree.

One, again, there is a mixing of terms going on. ‘Group identities’ are one thing, and society is another. Two, there is a big difference between wanting to know exactly what is meant by ‘group,’ and denying the reality of ‘group identities’. Three, there is also a big difference between pointing out that groups can contain other groups with power differences and conflicting interests, and denying the reality of group identities. Not that he was necessarily referring to what I said – but I think what I said is a closer match with that paragraph than what Norm said.

Another instance:

I though it need not be said in so many words, but apparently it does. Respecting a culture does not imply valuing equally its every manifestation. Islam, as a ramified mode of human expression, deserves respect. The stoning of women does not. Liberal democracy is a valuable and honourable tradition. Bombing Dresden was a disgrace.

But I still don’t agree. I simply don’t think that all ‘ramified mode[s] of human expression’ deserve respect. (I’m also, again, not sure what that means, but never mind that for now.) Some just don’t. The Mafia, for example. Nazism, for another. Talibanism, for a third. The Interahamwe, for a fourth. Apartheid, for a fifth. And so on. I just don’t think there is a category ‘ramified mode of human expression’ that automatically deserves respect simply because it is a member of that category. Humans can be sadistic murderous thugs, and they can also be sheep-like obedient soldiers who do the bidding of sadistic murderous thugs, so I don’t see that human modes of expression get to be ‘respected’ without further ado.

This part is interesting –

But I believe that group identification – be it nation, religion, football team, Group Blog or Senior Common Room – is a necessary and constitutive part of human nature.

I know what he means, and I used to believe that myself, but I’ve gotten a lot more suspicious of it in recent years. Partly because of some of those modes of expression I mentioned above. The ’90s were not good years for group identification. Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars, Hutus, Tutsis – they taught us to be wary of those group identificactions, it seems to me. I have a lot to say about this, but I’ll save it for another post.

I do take his point here though:

It was because one’s life was shaped by the question of identity, sharpened by a conflict. Ethnicity determined where one could safely walk, how one would interact with others (there is an anthropological term for this process of identifying ‘strangers’ – “telling”), how one would interpret rhetoric and so on.

Sure. But that seems to me to be all the more reason to be wary of identity and identity politics, not all the more reason to embrace it, still less to try to enforce and protect it via demands for a priori ‘respect’.

What Liberals Can and Can’t Say

Jul 21st, 2004 9:51 pm | By

Is it unconscionable if we:

a) Talk about homophobia in the black community?

b) Think that honour killings may not be entirely a good thing?

c) Find mutilation rather distasteful?

d) Don’t much like the idea of Shari’a?

e) Think that Russians sometimes get things wrong?

f) Think that maybe there is an argument to be had about the headscarf ban?

g) Suspect that Islam and women’s rights are not perfect bedfellows?

Answers on a postcard.


Jul 21st, 2004 7:32 pm | By

People have been pointing out in comments that there were a good many items in Marc Mulholland’s post that I neglected to mention. True enough. I was short on time, for one thing, and I think I have a sort of built-in idea of the maximum desirable length for a comment here. I don’t like article-length blog posts, on the whole. So I didn’t dispute everything I could have disputed.

And perhaps I didn’t stipulate as much as I could have either. I could have made the same stipulation that Norm does in his post on the subject

There’s a central point in what Marc is saying which I would not contest, and this is that in the tense political climate we all now inhabit, it is important to avoid doing anything to feed ethnic or religious prejudices and hatreds. In so far as Muslims are on the receiving end of these, they must be defended – as would go for any other group.

Sure. Of course. But then it becomes all the more important to get clear about exactly what we’re talking about – about what we mean by ‘groups’ and ‘communities,’ for example. Something Chris Bertram said in comments may illustrate the point:

Perhaps if Mulholland had made his point using the example of true generalization about African-Americans made by certain types of conservative Republican it would have been clear to you.

Yes but that’s not a good analogy, because it’s a different kind of thing from what Mulholland is talking about. What kind of true generalization could one make about African-Americans, after all? Seriously. I can’t think of any – apart from the definitional one: that they are Americans who are at least partly descended from Africans. Go beyond that and there just aren’t any true generalizations available. And the same is true of Muslims, especially given the way the term is usually used, so that it includes secular and atheist ‘Muslims’. It would be pretty risky to generalize even about what all Muslims believe, just as it would be risky to generalize about what all Catholics believe. But Mulholland doesn’t talk only about Muslims or Catholics in his post, he also talks about Islam and Catholicism – and that’s a different subject. Note, just for one thing, that there is no equivalent word that one can use in the case of African-Americans. There is no religion, ‘African-Americanism.’ And if there were, people being what they are, not all African-Americans would agree about it; hence the epistemic as well as moral and political riskiness of saying what all Xs believe. But it is possible to talk about the tenets of Catholicism or Hinduism or Islam. There is still room for debate, but at least there is something to say. Mulholland neglected to make this distinction in his post; I think that’s where a lot of the muddle starts. So, of course I agree with Norm’s point, but (as Norm goes on to point out) Mulholland said far more than that.

The fact that every outlook is an outlook, has a genesis and a social and cultural milieu, no more means that all such outlooks should be taken as equivalently valuable, than does the fact that different explanations of empirical phenomena (like the movement of heavenly bodies or the causes of illnesses) have a genesis and a ‘sociology’ mean that all of these, these would-be explanations, are equivalently valuable. Marc needs to resolve for himself the tension between his seemingly pejorative ‘ahistorical “rights”‘ (with the rights in scare-quotes) and his more favourable ‘generally accords with universal values’. Meanwhile, there are many who will feel that, however the conception of universal rights has made its way in the world historically, it’s a damn sight better as the basis of a political order than are alternative conceptions of things which allow for brutal invasions and oppressions of the human person…Avoiding Islamophobia and every other kind of such phobia has got to be consistent with criticizing various cultural and religious outlooks for the ways in which they victimize or oppress human individuals.

That’s what I’m saying.

Jonathan Derbyshire also has a skeptical post on Mulholland, along with the SWP’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with fundamentalist Islam. (And to think that I used to be a sort of wannabe Trot myself. Well, I have a thing for the Old Man, I admit it.) Jonathan also links to a review of a book on relativism which I haven’t read and clearly need to immediately.

Now, back to the Mulholland piece for a moment. One thing I wanted to comment on yesterday and didn’t, was the question of truth.

Islamaphobia is often defined as slanderous untruths. I think there is an excessively narrow definition of Islamophobia at play here. It is not right that simply stating ‘the truth’ is sufficient to clear one of Islamophobia…If ‘truth’ about a community is expressed intemperately and one-sidedly, and that community is already under a burden of suspicion and disadvantage, then one must conclude that this is a freedom of speech exercised in such a manner to oppress and marginalize the group. I think its a cop-out to argue that attacks on beliefs are different from attacks on inherited characteristics such as colour etc…

Well, again – inevitably – we’re back with definition problems. What does he mean by ‘”truth” about a community’? If he means some statement about all Muslims, then is such a truth even possible? Again, I can’t think of any that wouldn’t be just tautologous. All Muslims are Muslims (and even that would depend on a very broad definition of Muslim, to include some sort of ethnic component, which of course is tricky since Muslims come from all over the globe). Or does he mean (as seems more likely) factual statements about what some Muslims do? But then – what? He wants truths like that to be concealed? So that, even if it is true that, say, a given Muslim man murders his daughter, that fact should be hushed up or played down, in order to avoid Islamophobia? Well…just for one thing, what about the daughter? And what about all the other daughters? They’re part of the ‘community’ too. Maybe they would find it ‘daughterophobic’ to play down daughtericide, and maybe they would have a point. And that’s just for one thing. I think the idea that ‘simply stating “the truth” is [not] sufficient to clear one of Islamophobia’ is a pretty risky idea, both epistemically and morally.

Which Community?

Jul 21st, 2004 1:54 am | By

I’ve just been chatting with my colleague on the phone, and along with other things we discussed, we agreed that this post is a lot of nonsense – and nonsense of a kind that leaves us shaking our heads (yes, both of them) in baffled amazement.

Islamaphobia is often defined as slanderous untruths. I think there is an excessively narrow definition of Islamophobia at play here. It is not right that simply stating ‘the truth’ is sufficient to clear one of Islamophobia…One must take the content in the whole. If the overall impact is intemperate and insinuating, the overall conclusion is that it is oppressively anti-pluralistic. One must also take into account the context. If ‘truth’ about a community is expressed intemperately and one-sidedly, and that community is already under a burden of suspicion and disadvantage, then one must conclude that this is a freedom of speech exercised in such a manner to oppress and marginalize the group.

Um – really? Always? Is that a good general rule? I suppose it depends (as it so often does) what you mean by ‘community’ – and that’s probably exactly why the word was used. Because of course we all know that communities are good things, warm fuzzy kind loving things, so obviously any community that is under ‘a burden of suspicion and disadvantage’ is being unfairly persecuted in some way. Stands to reason, doesn’t it. So even if one tells the truth about a community, if one does it the wrong way, then one is oppressing and marginalizing the group. ‘The group’ – that’s another one of those words. Kind of dodges the question, doesn’t it. Suppose the truth that is being told about this community/group is that it treats some of its members like dirt, that it not only oppresses and marginalizes them, it beats them and when angry enough, kills them. Then is one really oppressing and marginalizing the whole group by telling the truth even in an intemperate way? Or is one in fact ‘oppressing’ or rather exposing and with any luck stopping part of the group, to wit, the perpetrators?

Yes. The problem (one problem) with that whole absurd quotation is that not all communities are in fact good or benign or harmless, even to all of their own members. Is that really a big news flash? If they are engaged in oppressing and marginalizing, battering and murdering, coercing and depriving, people within that very community (or outside it) then the truth should be told about that. Yes, intemperately. And there are communities and groups like that in the world. So as a generalization that paragraph just won’t wash. (The rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘group’ is yet another example of what Julian was talking about in that Bad Moves I commented on last week – language that is ‘the means by which question begging occurs.’)

But cultures must be respected as rounded expressions of full humanity, just as we expect our cultures to be treated so. By all means, condemn what one wishes in whatever culture, but liberals must remember that we are a world not of human atoms accorded rights defined by ahistorical reason, but organic and evolving communities deserving of respect by virtue of their framing of human existance. To serve liberalism by highlighting all that is wrong with Islam is to whip up prejudice and is thus unconscionable.

Well, again – what does ‘respected’ mean? And what on earth does ’rounded expressions of full humanity’ mean? Nothing, would be my guess – just a formula to elicit some kind of right-on emotion. But if it does mean anything – again, the question arises: what if these ‘cultures’ deprive some of their members – as some cultures certainly do – of the ability to develop their own expressions of full humanity? Must such cultures then be ‘respected’? If so, why?

Mullholland has a lot to say about the silly assumptions of ‘liberals’ but he makes some silly assumptions himself, such as the assumption that communities and groups are single entities that all feel and think alike, that all have the same interests, that all feel oppressed and marginalized as one by the truth-telling of outsiders. But communities aren’t like that. Even ‘groups’ of two people aren’t like that, not all the time, and whole communities certainly are not. Susan Moller Okin put it this way in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?:

Most cultures are suffused with practices and ideologies concerning gender. Suppose, then, that a culture endorses and facilitates the control of men over women in various ways (even if informally, in the private sphere of domestic life). Suppose, too, that there are fairly clear disparities of power between the sexes, such that the more powerful, male members are those who are generally in a position to determine and articulate the group’s beliefs, practices, and interests. Under such conditions, group rights are potentially, and in many cases actually, antifeminist. They substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men and boys, and to live as freely chosen lives as they can. Advocates of group rights for minorities within liberal states have not adequately addressed this simple critique of group rights, for at least two reasons. First, they tend to treat cultural groups as monoliths–to pay more attention to differences between and among groups than to differences within them.

You could say that.

Funniest Book Review Ever

Jul 20th, 2004 12:00 am | By

Since OB was talking about books below, I thought I’d just quickly flag-up the funniest book review I’ve ever come across.

It’s here.

I vow that if I ever get a review like this, I’ll frame it and stick it by my bedside table. Along with the letter from the guy from Australia who wrote to tell me that one of my books was “A disgrace to publishing”!*

*I should say I haven’t actually framed the letter because I lost it, but otherwise I would have done…

Oh That Old Thing

Jul 19th, 2004 8:02 pm | By

This again. Will it never go away? (No, of course not, because it serves a purpose, however wrong-headedly.) The old ‘atheism is a belief just as theism is’ number. This time it’s in a thread on secularism at Harry’s Place, in which Harry points out how indispensable active secularism has become.

Once was a time when the National Secular Society gave the impression of being one of those curious leftovers from the 19th century, membership of which was the preserve of eccentrics who enjoyed rehashing their Oxbridge debates about theology. Sadly, given the times in which we live, it is now a much-needed organisation and one which I intend to join and urge others to do so. The weekly round-up of articles, Newsline has become essential reading for any secularist who is concerned with issues such as the Blunkett proposal, faith schools and other examples of creeping clericalism.

Very good, but in the comments Peter Cuthbertson of Conservative Commentary insists that secularism itself is a belief system. But it isn’t. It’s not about beliefs, it’s about what to do. There are plenty of believers in various religions who are also secularists. I know several myself. Then farther down, the claim becomes one about atheism as a belief – partly in order to separate that from the claim about secularism. But atheism is not a belief either, it’s the absence of one, as I tried to argue in terms you’ve all heard a million times already, so I won’t bother repeating them here. I’m just noting the oddity of the fact that people can so easily accept that not believing in X amounts to a belief as opposed to, precisely, a non-belief. Not believing in X doesn’t entail believing in something else to take its place. I don’t believe in gremlins. That doesn’t mean I’m committed to a belief in, say, rmlniges instead.

I think part of what’s going on is some kind of fancy footwork about what kind of ‘belief’ is meant. Some kind of secret elision of the difference between warranted belief and just plain belief; between believing something because there is evidence for it, and belief that’s independent of evidence.

Ten Books That Shook the World

Jul 19th, 2004 6:34 pm | By

Now that’s an idea. There are all these lists all the time – Prospect’s list of the top intellectuals, the BBC’s list of Favourite Reads or whatever it was called, Norm’s lists of everyone’s favourite movies, three novels (was it?), rock groups (that last one actually incited my colleague to vote, though he usually thinks he’s too good for such frivolities) (that’s a tease, obviously), and so on. Now Norm has a new list, just his own this time, of

10 great books of my life (sort of). Though I’ve been thinking about the list for some time, I protect myself against assault by saying that these are not necessarily what I judge to be the 10 most important of the works that I’ve read in my life (on whatever criterion, or set of criteria, or scale). But they’re all ones which have had a marked and lasting influence on the way I think about the world.

What a good idea. I want to do that. Let’s do that. I’ll do one, or perhaps I’ll do several (on account of how I’m terrible at making up my mind, I’m mushy and vacillating and unstable and fickle and undiscriminating, I like everything, or not everything but a lot of things), and if you feel like it you can do yours in comments or by email.

And while you’re at it, check out a new blog by Jonathan Derbyshire. He’s a colleague of my colleague’s and his colleague (if you see what I mean) – that is to say, he’s Reviews Editor of TPM. There’s a delightfully eclectic note to the blog, with a post on Jeeves and Wooster cheek by jowl with one on secularism. I love eclecticism (see above about fickleness and mushiness which is actually eclecticism, breadth, wideness of views, love of variety and multiplicity, etc.).


Jul 17th, 2004 11:35 pm | By

Interesting. I was about to type up a quotation from Simon Blackburn for something I’m working on, and before doing so thought I might as well check our Quotations in case we already had it there (then I would only need to copy it instead of typing). We don’t, but we do have one that is pleasingly relevant to the subject we’ve been discussing lately, along with Brian Leiter. So I thought I would put it here. It’s from Prospect, April 2003.

It is not the slavish remnant of a religious worldview to admit that the person who has gone and looked is more of an authority than one who has not. It is not just convention which dictates that years of surveying, or years in the archive or laboratory give you a better title to be listened to on your subject than years spent ignoring the issue.

And I also thought I might as well give you the quotation I typed up. It’s from the ‘Postmodernism’ entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

While the dismantling of objectivity seems to some to be the way towards a liberating political radicalism, to others it allows such unliberating views as the denial that there was (objectively) such an event as the Second World War or the Holocaust…The postmodernist frame of mind…may seem to depend on a cavalier dismissal of the success of science in generating human improvement, an exaggeration of the admitted fallibility of any attempt to gain knowledge in the humane disciplines, and an ignoring of the quite ordinary truth that while human history and law admit of no one final description, they certainly admit of more or less accurate ones…

Good stuff.

What Dictionary?

Jul 17th, 2004 11:03 pm | By

Ah good. Amazon has corrected the little oddity whereby it named the alphabetically first author of the Fashionable Dictionary and disappeared the alphabetically second one. I filled out the correction thing last week, but it looks as if Amazon has also heard from the publisher, because the jacket flap copy is now on the page, which it wasn’t last week. So here is the page. You can order your copy or copies right now, thus making a first printing of fifty thousand copies necessary. Or at any rate you can admire the page, and the jacket copy, and the presence of two names instead of just one, and the mention of B&W. Or you can just roll your eyes and ignore me, but I had to mention it. Of course I did.


Jul 15th, 2004 7:13 pm | By

This is a nice bit of dovetailing, of convergence, of two minds with but a single thought, of – okay, we get the idea. Brian Leiter was talking about different examples of exactly the same kind of thing I was talking about two days ago, in ‘Close Reading’. The Little Professor noticed the parallel. Leiter’s post is really interesting; it touches on several issues I have on my sort of mental list of things to discuss sometime. It quotes Andrea Lafferty, director of something called ‘the Traditional Values Coalition’ (oh please) saying ‘There’s an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American.’ Well – uh – yeah. Because they probably do, ya know? Seeing as how the ‘average American’ has a very good statistical chance of thinking the sun travels around the earth. But, you know, that there’s against the law around these parts, thinking you know better than the average American. The average Lithuanian, now, that’s okay, and as for the average Frog – ! But I’ll stop ranting for a moment and let Leiter take over.

In fact, of course, scientists do know quite a bit better than the “average American” about the matters for which their scientific expertise equips them. Those with knowledge, surprisingly, know more than those who are ignorant. Is that arrogance? As Chris Mooney remarked, ‘science is not a democracy,’ and in a democratic culture, that inevitably becomes a cause of resentment, as Ms. Lafferty’s comment attests.

Which might be a good reason to stop having a democratic culture. Maybe it’s time to learn to separate a democratic political system from a democratic culture? Or if not, if that’s too drastic – at least learn to think a little more clearly on the subject. First step: read Tocqueville and Mill. Try to get your mind around the idea that the majority is not automatically right about everything, that sometimes (often, in fact) minority ideas are better than majority ideas, and (most difficult of all, it seems) that knowledge really is better than ignorance, that people who know something really do know more than people who don’t, and that on any particular subject that is likely to be a minority situation.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much room for compromise in this domain. Knowledge and competence can not become meek and abashed merely to avoid offending the vanity of the undereducated, the parochial, and the unworldly. The Enlightenment dream was to extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible. In the United States, that Enlightenment project has been stymied: at the highest echelons of the culture, the material and institutional support for the pursuit of knowledge and competence is unparalleled, yet the fruits of these labors are often either regarded with suspicion and resentment in the public culture at large–or simply go unrecognized and unnoted altogether.

Exactly so. And often in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘anti-elitism,’ too, which is hugely ironic, not to say pathetic. What’s really anti-elitist is to ‘extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible,’ not to prevent that extension by discrediting, mocking and despising those secular blessings.

Good Moves

Jul 14th, 2004 2:27 am | By

That’s quite amusing. I wrote the comment below before I read Julian’s new Bad Moves, which also has partly to do with Prince Charles’ medical expertise compared with that of mere, you know, medical experts.

The strict dietary regime in question is the Gerson Therapy, which eschews drugs in favour of coffee enemas and fruit juices. It has the support of well-known medical experts such as Prince Charles, interior designer Dudley Poplak and Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. Their opinions, of course, carry more weight than those of the American Cancer Society, which warns that the treatment could be dangerous.

Pure coincidence, that. And then he goes on to make an excellent point about language that helps question-begging to do its thing.

Begging the question – assuming what needs to be argued for – is often a result of a careless use of language. More specifically, we often use “success” words where more neutral vocabulary is needed. For example, we say learned French when really we only studied it and never developed any real competence…The unjustified use of success words is not the same mistake as begging the question, but it is often the means by which question begging occurs.

Ain’t it though. Another example I notice a lot is saying someone realized or understood or recognized or saw something when the something in question is precisely what’s in dispute. ‘She realized that logic is a patriarchal imposition.’ Oh yeah? How do you ‘realize’ something that isn’t true, huh?

I suppose you do it by scrupulously avoiding logic because it’s a patriarchal imposition. How useful language can be!

Close Reading

Jul 13th, 2004 11:48 pm | By

I re-read an article yesterday or Sunday that I kept wanting to do a comment on as I read it. Line by line, even word by word, in places. I wanted to comment not just on the article as a whole, but on each bit of sly rhetoric as I read and noticed it. Not a macro-comment but a micro one, not an overall comment but a close-up.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

But that’s all a digression. The article in question is from Lingua Franca, July-August 1996; it’s the response of Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, editors of Social Text, to the Sokal hoax. ‘Mystery Science Theater,’ they call it with the masterful irony Ross is famous for. Now, it may seem slightly in the breaking a butterfly on a wheel department, to bother with an ephemeral article from nearly ten years ago. It may even be in that department, as well as seem to be. But the kind of rhetoric it resorts to is still around, and still percolating through the larger culture, and then this article is such an egregious example of it, that I think it’s worth a look anyway. Or maybe I just mean that I feel like it. So. There are several bits I want to look at; this one is near the end. (The article, alas, is apparently no longer online, at least all the links I found were dead, so I’m quoting from the version published in The Sokal Hoax by Lingua Franca Books, University of Nebraska Press, pp. 54-8.)

Our main concern is that readers new to the debates engendered by science studies are not persuaded by the Sokal stunt that this is simply an academic turf war between scientists and humanists/social scientists, with each side trying to outsmart the other. Sadly, this outcome would simply reinforce the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters that affect all of us. What’s important to us is not so much the gulf of comprehension between ‘the two cultures,’ but rather the gulf of power between experts and lay voices.

There are several things to say about that passage; I’ll just mention one for now. Consider ‘the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters.’ What does ‘speak their minds’ mean, for a start? Surely we all have a right to speak our minds on scientific matters – don’t we? I don’t know if we have a credentialed right or not, but then I don’t know what that phrase means, either. That’s just it. It’s supposed to imply a lot, without actually saying it, because if it said what it means too plainly, it might be too obvious how silly it is – so that’s where meaningless phrases come in handy. What they seem to mean is something more like ‘only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters and be listened to.’ Which is another matter. I can ‘speak my mind’ all I like, on the human genome project, on virology, on GM crops, on anything I like; so can you, so can anyone. But that doesn’t mean we’ll say anything valid, or true, or useful, or worth paying attention to in any way, does it. And it seems reasonable to think that ‘professional scientists’ are more likely to be able to say valid, true things about ‘scientific matters’ at least in their own fields than non-scientists, doesn’t it. Which is not to say that scientists and only scientists should be the ones to discuss the consequences of science, but then that’s not what the passage says either.

And then consider ‘the gulf of power between experts and lay voices’. Ah yes, that gulf. Like the gulf between, say, cancer researchers and Prince Charles? Researchers who know something about autism and the MMR vaccine, and Juliet Stevenson? That gulf? No, not that gulf. That’s not the one they mean, but it ought to be. The result of hand-wringing over this ‘gulf of power’ between people who know something about a subject and impassioned people who know nothing about it but want to ‘speak their minds’ is – that we get science according to celebrities and journalists in place of science according to ‘experts’. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes.

A Quick Twirl

Jul 11th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

Another miscellany, because there is an ever-growing backlog of items I want to point out and perhaps say a few words about – and I only have six hands you know. Be reasonable. I’m going as fast as I can, here, but I can’t do everything. And besides I have this mosquito bite or spider bite or moth bite or whatever the hell kind of bite it is just right at the bend of my elbow, on top where it gets maximal chafing from my sweatshirt, and it itches, dammit! It’s been itching for days and days and days and days. Normally bites stop itching after a few days, am I right? But this one just keeps on going, like the Eveready battery rabbit. Nasty thing. So naturally this interferes with my ability to write an individual N&C for every item I see. Besides I have burnout. No I don’t, that’s a joke. P Z Myers mocked bloggers who whinge about blogger burnout at Pharyngula yesterday.

There is another excellent post at Black Triangle on quackery and suckery. Anthony also quotes from an article which is one of the items in that backlog I mentioned, about Prince Charles and his presumptuous advice on medical matters. The doctor who gives the Prince what-for makes exactly the point I made about both P.C. and Juliet Stevenson a few months ago – the fact that they and people like them abuse their fame and influence. They ought to recognize that they are famous out of all proportion to their actual importance, for one thing, and that they are famous for things that are entirely separate from any kind of medical expertise, for another, so they really ought, morally speaking, to use immense caution before making the world a present of their opinions on such subjects. In cases where people can do real harm by getting things wrong, celebrity non-experts ought to think and think and think again before going on Radio 4 or talking to journalists about what vaccinations to get and how to cure cancer.

Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. Furthermore, your public utterances are worthy of four pages, whereas, if lucky, I might warrant one. I don’t begrudge you that authority and we probably share many opinions about art and architecture, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies. There is no equivalent of the GMC for the monarchy, so it is left either to sensational journalism or, more rarely, to the quiet voice of loyal subjects such as myself to warn you that you may have overstepped the mark.


And speaking of Stevenson, it was the MMR ‘debate’ she was opinionating on, and Harry’s Place has an interesting post on a Washington Post article on that subject. There’s a fair bit of silly verbiage at the beginning of that article, talking about Wakefield’s charisma and so on, but it settles down after awhile, and it does make the point that media coverage of this kind of thing tends to be grotesquely distorted – to pretend that it’s a 50-50 thing, that expert opinion is split, when that’s not the case at all.

And finally I thought this post at Brian Leiter’s about the state of Nietzsche scholarship was worth a read. I haven’t the slightest idea whether he’s right or not, but the look at the way institutional necessities can distort things is interesting.

Leiter thinks I’m a prat, by the way. But I’m not sure he’s chosen a very good example of my prat-hood. He just doesn’t like an article I linked to in News, that’s all. But I didn’t write it, after all, I only linked to it, and I don’t invariably agree with every single word of every article in News. If I had to go by that standard, our front page would be a tad dull.

So why are they posting prominent links (this used to be on B&W’s front page) to tabloid trash like this, which misstates Foucault’s views from top to bottom, and offers no rational criticism of any view he actually held, while offering up a series of fallacious arguments (ad hominems primarily–you would think Ms. Benson of B&W might notice that references to Foucault’s homosexuality do not refute his ideas).

Huh? Of course they don’t, but who says I think they do? The author of the article itself doesn’t even think they do, as far as I can see, and even if he did it wouldn’t follow that I do. A small point, but then I specialize in making small points.