Notes and Comment Blog


Adventures in Amherst

Jul 14th, 2007 12:09 pm | By

I don’t usually do this, of course, but time is limited, as you know, so I’m just going to adapt a comment I left at Talking Philosophy. Someone had replied to Julian’s remark about being unable to blog much while here with the observation that they have the Internet in Buffalo…

They probably do have the internets in Buffalo, but we’re not exactly in Buffalo (Julian is a little shaky on geography*), we’re in Amherst, which is a suburb of Buffalo. Man is it a suburb. It’s the most suburban suburb I’ve ever seen. It’s like a Platonic suburb. All the roads are four-lane highways (at least) with a speed limit of 45 mph (at the slowest). Even the dang campus of the University (SUNY Buffalo, north campus) is full of 45 mph freeways – which seems very bizarre, to me, used as I am to the campus of the University of Washington where the speed limit is 15 mph. The shops are all chains, and so are the ‘restaurants.’ Still – joy is available – yesterday evening Jeremy and I took the now-familiar long walk up one mini-freeway (which goes under a real freeway, which roars so loudly overhead that we have to stop talking until we reach the other side) and along the one that has all the chain shops and eateries – he wanted a bit of electronic equipment, and he spied a Macy’s so we tried that but it seemed to be all clothes so that was no good and I was just saying why don’t we ask someone instead of walking around in here forever when we got to the far side which opened onto – you’ll never guess – a mall. Jeremy was in instant bliss. ‘I’m in heaven!’ he exclaimed rapturously. He likes malls.

Here’s something you don’t know about Jeremy, and neither did I. He’s a clothes horse. He’s a fashion idol. It’s just T shirts and jeans, but it’s a particular kind of T shirt and jeans. Very amusing.

Anyway, internet is patchy at the Center and non-existent at the guesthouse where we’re living, so we really can’t do much internets stuff.

*(joke!)

Julian did his lectures last week, Jeremy is doing his this week and next; I did the keynote address at the beginning. The three of us rented a car and drove to the Finger Lakes on Thursday; it was great fun, especially since we had the rare perfect weather for it – bright, clear, sharp, ideal for gazing at long blue lakes with rolling country around them. The last bit was slightly hairy, because we dawdled too long in Seneca Falls (the Stoical birthplace of US feminism) and we had to be back by 6:30 because Jeremy was scheduled to give Opening Remarks at the dinner that launched the second set of lectures. Jeremy doesn’t drive and Julian hasn’t driven a huge amount, especially on US freeways, so I drove, and I went 10 to 20 miles faster than I had in the morning, but the time still kept sliding away and our ETA kept changing – 6:00, Jeremy will still have time for a shower; oh dear, 6:10, Jeremy will have to swipe his armpits and let it go at that; uh oh, 6:20, we’re just plain going to be late, but they’ll be eating, the remarks come after the dinner, it’s okay – and then I took the wrong exit, and mass despair took over. But in the event Julian skillfully navigated us through some squalid bit of outer Buffalo and we weren’t late after all and Jeremy smelled like a rose (well not really) and all was well.

He’s been working on his lecture for today, with me kibbitzing (Julian’s in Toronto, and he’s going back to the UK tomorrow); he may use some of the thought experiments he’s done here; we’re talking about Jonathan Haidt on disgust and purity and so on. It should be a very interesting afternoon.



Reporting in

Jul 11th, 2007 5:12 pm | By

So this is the end of the first module (as they call it). Julian got a (partial) standing ovation – most embarrassing. We went out for a celebratory (or good-bye [to Julian and to Charles Echelbarger]) with Ibn Warraq and Joe Hoffmann and others. Jeremy wondered if he could ask skeptical questions about skeptics and humanists, and the consensus seemed to be that he could and should, though everyone for miles around urged him to be sweet about it. Two women came up at the end and said ‘We have some questions for you’ and I figured it was a delegation from Homeland Secuurity or Animal Control or similar, but it was just a survey about how wonderful everything was or wasn’t. It seemed odd that it took two people, but never mind.

My ‘keynote address’ went better than you might expect considering that it was me giving it, that is to say, it went well, and I didn’t fall down or cry or throw up or anything. Jeremy took pictures of me doing it. Perhaps he’ll stick them on here some time. We’ll see.



Just a note

Jul 8th, 2007 6:32 pm | By

I’m here. (Where? Here. Where I said I’d be. At the Center for Inquiry, in Amherst, outside Buffalo, New York.) Jeremy’s here, Julian’s here, Joe Hoffman is here, Paul Kurtz (of course) is here, Tom Flynn, Nathan Bupp, and others. It’s good fun. I’ll tell you more later.



A little peace and quiet

Jul 4th, 2007 11:26 am | By

B&W is going to fall silent or near-silent for awhile – until July 23d to be precise. I’m off to this Beyond Belief thing. I’d love to maintain B&W in the meantime but spyware ate my laptop two years ago, so I can’t, although Jeremy has kindly offered to let me use his when he’s not, so maybe I will be able to do a little.

So long!



Good news for a change

Jul 3rd, 2007 7:23 pm | By

So I flick to the World Service at 7 and hear that Alan Johnston was released an hour ago . Various people around here cheered rather noisily. I may have been one of them.

Barely had they told us that than he was on the line to tell us about it. It was horrible, ‘as you may imagine’ – in solitary confinement all that time with people who at intervals talked of killing him. He said at the very end they beat him – as they took him to the car to free him, apparently, they had to pound on him. It wasn’t nice.

And as he points out, he’s not the only one.

But anyway – he’s out. Yay.



Jesting bishops

Jul 3rd, 2007 9:38 am | By

Funny god these bishops believe in. Arbitrary, whimsical, cryptic, absent-minded, brutal, sloppy, and stupidly vicious. We’d better hope it doesn’t exist. Oblivion is vastly preferable to being bossed around by a petty shit like that for eternity. Funny that the bishops seem to find it attractive. (But not really funny at all of course, since it’s merely a projection of their own petty shitness.)

One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless…[Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle] expressed his sympathy for those who have been hit by the weather, but said that the problem with “environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate”.

Why yes, it is; clever of the bish to spot that, but therefore perhaps not all that clever to attribute it to a deity he probably wants people to love as well as fear. Typical enough, of the incoherence of church ‘teaching,’ but not all that clever all the same. Also a tad scientifically illiterate – he doesn’t mean ‘environmental judgment’ of course; the technical term is meteorological judgment.



Welcome to Dar ul-Harb

Jul 2nd, 2007 12:11 pm | By

Hassan Butt explains.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the ‘Blair’s bombs’ line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology…And as with previous terror attacks, people are again articulating the line that violence carried out by Muslims is all to do with foreign policy. For example, yesterday on Radio 4’s Today programme, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said: ‘What all our intelligence shows about the opinions of disaffected young Muslims is the main driving force is not Afghanistan, it is mainly Iraq.’

He did: here (fast forward ten minutes). He also said, to Ed Husain, ‘You’re absolutely right in what you say about the Wahhabi strand; the way you then demonize a whole load of genuinely representative Muslims is completely wrong.’ But Ed Husain wasn’t doing any such thing, as he kept trying to get Livingstone to see: he was distinguishing between Muslims and Islamists, while Ken was lumping them together.

Hassan Butt explains some more.

[T]hough many British extremists are angered by the deaths of fellow Muslim across the world, what drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world…The centuries-old reasoning of Islamic jurists also extends to the world stage where the rules of interaction between Dar ul-Islam (the Land of Islam) and Dar ul-Kufr (the Land of Unbelief) have been set down to cover almost every matter of trade, peace and war. What radicals and extremists do is to take these premises two steps further. Their first step has been to reason that since there is no Islamic state in existence, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr. Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world.

So when it looks as if the goal is not to extort some concession or change of policy but just to kill as many people as possible – it looks that way because that is how it is. We are all part of Dar ul-Kufr, and we all need to be killed.

I believe that the issue of terrorism can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism. (The Muslim community in Britain must slap itself awake from this state of denial and realise there is no shame in admitting the extremism within our families, communities and worldwide co-religionists.)

Yeah. Let’s do that.

Ed Husain has a very good article in today’s Evening Standard; Allen sent me a copy and also posted a useful chunk of it on the Letters page.

Being a big‑tent liberal is laudable; but to fail to discern the difference between Islam, the religious tradition, and Islamism, the extremist political ideology hell‑bent on destroying the West, is a disaster for us all. By confusing regular religious Muslims with fanatical ideologues, Ken blurs the lines between right and wrong, and allows radicalism to flourish within sections of London’s Muslim communities…While living in Saudi Arabia two years ago, I remember watching in horror television images of Ken walking around with Yusuf al‑Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, whose publicly stated attitude is that suicide bombers are martyrs. Yet it was Ken who said that “of all the Muslim thinkers in the world today, al‑Qaradawl is the most positive force for change”. By promoting these extremists, and their supporters, Ken gives them legitimacy. He helps set in motion the conveyor belt to terrorism.

Listen up, Ken.



The two cultures and how they met

Jul 1st, 2007 10:49 am | By

A beautiful piece (thanks to Allen Esterson for sending me the link). Studded with gems.

[Natalie] Angier’s book is called The Canon, and subtitled ‘A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’. It is not a long book and it contains, as the title suggests, a breathless Baedeker of the fundamental scientific knowledge Angier believes is the minimum requirement of an educated person…The result is the kind of science book you wish someone had placed in front of you at school – full of aphorisms that help everything fall into place. For geology: ‘This is what our world is about: there is heat inside and it wants to get out.’ For physics: ‘Almost everything we’ve come to understand about the universe we have learned by studying light.’…’Entropy,’ Angier writes, ‘is like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager.’ Entropy, unusable energy, leads to the law that states that everything in time must wear out, become chaotic, die. ‘The darkest readings of the Second Law suggest that even the universe has a morphine drip in its vein,’ Angier suggests, ‘a slow smothering of all spangle, all spiral, all possibility.’ No wonder CP Snow thought we should know about it.

One wants to rush straight out the door to find the nearest copy of that book, doesn’t one.

‘Science is rather a state of mind,’ Angier argues and, as such, it should inform everything. ‘It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing for granted.’ It would be hard to argue that this state of mind was advancing across the globe…Numbers of students still studying science at 18 are falling in Britain and America, perhaps because we are becoming generally less motivated to address difficulty. As a culture, we allow ourselves too many excuses. ‘Western parents are quite comfortable saying their children have a predilection for art or for writing or whatever, and allow them just to pursue that. In the Asian education system, if you are not good at something, it’s because you are lazy and you just have to work harder at it. Just because things are hard does not mean they are not worth doing.’

I did that. When I was in school, I did exactly that – I just decided early on that I was a literary type, and that settled the matter. A very stupid way to think. I was determinedly stupid in that way for years and years. I wish I could go back in time and kick myself really hard.

That idea of difficulty, I suggest, cannot really be helped in the States in particular, when all of the presidential candidates of one party stand up in televised debate and say they believe in ‘intelligent design’ and suggest that the world could well have been created by a bearded God a few thousand years ago. Angier laughs, somewhat bleakly. ‘I see all that as a macho kind of posturing. It’s like, I can believe the impossible: look, I can lift a tree! It is a Republican initiation ritual, like having a hook pulled through your cheek and not flinching.’ But no, she concedes, it doesn’t help much.

That’s good – believing the impossible as a kind of macho posturing; I like that.

[John] Brockman perceived a third way. ‘Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists,’ he suggested. ‘Scientists are communicating directly with the general public….Third Culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavour to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.’ Brockman’s cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chatrooms, has its premises on his website www.edge.org. Eavesdropping is fun. Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists who has contributed to Edge’s ongoing debates, suggests that the project is not so far removed from the ‘old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other’s concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists’.

Why one of the few novelists? Because most novelists go on thinking of themselves as literary types and refusing to take any interest in the other stuff. Chumps.

I wonder why there are still so few literary contributors to Edge, which has remained a predominantly scientific and philosophical forum. Is there not some evidence there that the divide persists? Brockman explains how Edge evolved out of a group called the Reality Club that held actual meetings with scientists, artists, architects, musicians. Ten of the leading novelists in America were invited to participate. Not one accepted.

Stupid. If someone invited me to participate in an actual meeting like that I’d be there so fast the chairs wouldn’t be set up yet. And that refusal is probably why most novels bore me rigid these days; why I give up on them after a few pages. I’ve gotten truly deeply bored with minute descriptions of daily life, and all literary novels are stuffed and clogged with details of Jennifer’s Mood As She Sorts The Socks. Life is short, there’s a lot to learn, and I just don’t care about Jennifer’s mood, I think she should get over herself and go learn some geology or something.

James Watson ends on a hilarious note.

‘I recently went to my staircase at Clare College, Cambridge and there were women there!’ he said, with an enormous measure of retrospective sexual frustration. ‘There have been a lot of convincing studies recently about the loss of productivity in the Western male. It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn’t have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don’t bother.’ Watson raised an eyebrow, fixed me again with a look. ‘What you have instead are characters out of Nick Hornby’s very funny books, who channel their intellect in pop culture. The hopeless male.’

You know, if you combined Nick Hornby and Ian McEwan, you’d really have something.



More on disgust

Jul 1st, 2007 9:45 am | By

More on that Jonathan Haidt interview. Tamler Sommers asked him:

Let’s take a more concrete question. Gay marriage. You brought this up in your talk at Dartmouth…You say that conservatives in America employ all four of the modules, whereas liberals only employ two. You said that liberals have an impoverished moral worldview, and that conservatives somehow have a richer moral life…You said that we as liberals have pared down our moral foundations to two modules, fairness and do-no-harm—whereas perfectly intelligent conservatives have all four modules…So if you take gay marriage…and you have people who have the intuition that gay marriage is really wrong, it’s impure Because they have that purity module that liberals lack. Do you want to say that in that culture that gay marriage is really wrong?

Haidt gives a highly unsatisfactory answer.

[C]onservative morality looks not just at effects on individuals, but at the state of the social order. The fact that acts that violate certain parts of the Bible are tolerated is disturbing to conservatives even though they can’t point to any direct harm. So I do understand the source of their opposition to it.

That’s incoherent. The state of the social order is one thing and violation of certain parts of the Bible is another, so why does he understand the source of conservatives’ opposition? And why does he understand it and why does he make a virtue of understanding it (so that understanding seems to shade into sympathy) ‘even though they can’t point to any direct harm’? The inability to point to direct (or, I might add, real, or genuine, or concrete, or specifiable) harm is not some trivial side matter, it’s the whole problem. If you can’t point to any real harm in X, then why do you want to forbid X? If you can’t point to any real harm in X, then you have to come up with a really good alternative reason for forbidding X, or else reasonable people will think you’re just trying to enact your ingrained dislikes into law, and that you shouldn’t do that.

Yet Haidt seems to be putting in a good word for exactly that.

And this is a difficult case, where it can’t work out well for everyone. Somebody has to give. If we were in a Muslim country, or a Catholic country where much of social and moral life was regulated in accordance with the purity and hierarchy codes, then it would be very reasonable to ban gay marriage. But we are not in such a country. We are in a country where the consensus is that we grant rights to self-determination unless a limiting reason can be found.

But why does that mean ‘it can’t work out well for everyone’? Why does Haidt think not banning gay marriage constitutes ‘not working out well’ for the people who want to ban it? They have a bogus, meritless, unreasonable, intrusive, meddling desire; they don’t lose anything by not getting their desire, because they wouldn’t gain anything by getting their desire, because the marriage of Dan and Stan is nothing to do with them. It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that allowing Jen and Pen to marry amounts to things not working out well for a bunch of strangers who want to tell everyone how to live. You might as well say my reading a book that someone in Nebraska doesn’t like the sound of means things have not worked out well for that person in Nebraska. That person in Nebraska should think about other things.

If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated—everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated…One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did this because they hate our freedom. That’s just idiotic. Nobody says: “They’re free over there. I hate that. I want to kill them.”

They do though. He’s just wrong about that, I’m afraid. I know what he means – I thought that was a stupid thing to say too, and I still do, because it’s simplistic and misleading; but as a matter of empirical fact it’s just not true that nobody says ‘They’re free over there. I hate that.’ Many people – men – do hate and do say they hate the way women are free over here. Women’s freedom is the first thing they do away with when they win the gun battles, and it is explicitly the freedom that they hate. There are people – men – to whom the freedom of women is absolute anathema. If Haidt doesn’t know that, he should find it out; it’s important.

BLVR: So what would the consequences be of everyone understanding that the other side is morally motivated? I guess we could just get down to the nuts and bolts of the issue at hand.

JH: We would become much more tolerant, and some compromise might be possible, for example, on gay marriage. Even though personally I would like to see it legalized everywhere, I think it would be a nice compromise if each state could decide whether to legalize it, and nobody was forced one way or the other by the Supreme Court.

That’s the same misunderstanding as the one about things not going well for everyone, but it’s worse. Allowing gay marriage is not forcing people who don’t like it – it’s not allowing them to force other people, which is a different thing. People who want to impose their ideas of purity and sanctity on everyone are trying to force; people who refuse to bow to their wishes are not. It’s strange and rather sinister that Haidt sees both sides as trying to force the other.



Beheading isn’t a haircut, either

Jul 1st, 2007 9:40 am | By

Why does the Guardian call female genital mutilation ‘circumcision’? It uses the word six times in this very short piece – even while admitting that it ‘involves the removal of the clitoris, and is also called female genital mutilation.’ Removal of the penis isn’t called circumcision, so why should removal of the clitoris be called that?! Because the Guardian is tho thenthitive, because the Guardian is staffed entirely by cultural anthropologists, because the Guardian thinks men matter and women don’t, or what? What is up with this relentless passion to euphemize things that should not be euphemized? Auschwitz should not be called a Polish spa, My Lai should not be called a prank, the Rwanda genocide should not be called a backyard barbecue gone wrong, and chopping off a girl’s clitoris, slicing away her labia, and then sewing them closed should not be called ‘circumcision.’



Farish Noor tells it

Jun 29th, 2007 12:57 pm | By

Our friend mirax sent the link to this splendid article by Farish Noor

I was on a BBC radio programme recently, in conversation with a certain Minister of a certain Religious Affairs Department of a certain Muslim country…But what irked me was the refrain of the Minister in question, who again and again repeated the same line: “A billion Muslims all over the world are outraged by this knighthood being conferred on Rushdie, who has insulted Islam and Muslims”.

Not exactly, Noor points out.

These were not spontaneous acts of public outrage but rather planned and orchestrated demonstrations calculated to have maximum mediatic effect. And what an effect it has had.

The reactivation of the demonised image of Rushdie has become a common tactic for Islamist movements worldwide, and it also helps that an overwhelming majority of the angered crowd have not even read his book The Satanic Verses, or any of his other works like Shame and Midnight’s Children for that matter! Now how does this expression of uninformed anger serve to improve the image of Islam and Muslims, one wonders?

Just what I keep wondering! I know it doesn’t work that way with Murkans – expressions of uninformed anger from Murkans never improve the image of Murkans. There seems little reason to think it works that way with any other identifiable group. (Elitists perhaps? Perhaps expression of uninformed anger improves the image of elitists? Shows they’re not such snobs after all? But then why are they elitists? No, it won’t work.)

When I hear the name Rushdie mentioned, I think of the same Salman Rushdie who was writing in the 1980s at the time when Britain was under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, she of the foreigner-hating-ways. For many a young Asian academic and student then, Rushdie was our spokesman, our voice of reason, whose powerful commentaries, op-ed pieces, public lectures, etc. warned of the dangers of racialised communitarianism in Britain. He was the spokesman for the downtrodden, the poor marginalised migrants, the minority communities of Britain…It was Rushdie who foregrounded and promoted the writing of Asian authors as English authors, so that their works would not be marginalised and relegated to the margins as ‘exotic’ literature from the Orient. Thanks in part of the efforts of Rushdie and others of his generation, literature from the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia has entered the mainstream…So in the opinion of this author at least Salman Rushdie deserves the knighthood he has been awarded, not only for his services as a writer, but also as a social critic, activist and public intellectual who gave many of us – foreigners in Europe then – a place and a voice. Good on you, Salman – We’re proud of you bro.

Beautiful.



Yuk is not enough

Jun 29th, 2007 12:21 pm | By

I found this quite unconvincing, so unconvincing that I looked for more on Jonathan Haidt, and found what I turned up unconvincing too. And not just unconvincing, but also unfortunate.

“Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wants to help liberal types like me understand why some people condemn homosexual relationships as immoral.” Imagine someone saying ‘Gay marriage will destroy society, because homosexuality is an abomination to God and will undermine marriage.’ Liberals think that’s a bad reason.

But Haidt, who works at the University of Virginia and specializes in issues of morality, says the conservative viewpoint isn’t just theta waves – it’s based on a moral compass that points in dimensions liberals simply don’t perceive.

I don’t think so. I think it’s based on a moral compass that is wrong. It’s not a failure to perceive, it’s a disagreement. In particular we disagree over god, and over what is or is not an abomination to any putative god, and over whether gay marriage will undermine marriage. There’s no sensory lack there; there’s disagreement, which is a different thing.

In Western societies, secular and liberal-minded people base their moral beliefs on fairness and the avoidance of harm…Most people set their moral compasses based on their sense of disgust. This is an additional moral dimension, which [Haidt] calls purity/sanctity.

You bet. Lots of people fret a good deal about purity and sanctity. We realize that – and we think it’s a mistake, usually a terrible mistake.

And Haidt and Rozin both say that widespread disdain for fundamentalists is misplaced. The moral compass of the religious right factors in that additional dimension of sanctity/purity, which is driven by disgust as well as religious teachings.

But that doesn’t make disagreement (or ‘disdain,’ if you insist on prejudicing the argument) misplaced. We understand that the moral compass of the religious right factors in disgust, and that’s exactly what we object to; they shouldn’t be disgusted, the disgust is irrational; and they certainly shouldn’t try to enforce their own disgust as a matter of law. If I want to eat slugs for lunch, what is that to them?!

Haidt says he was inspired by the University of Chicago’s Leon Kass, who headed President Bush’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. In an earlier essay, called “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Kass wrote that feelings of disgust come from “an emotional expression of a deep wisdom. . . . Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Well there’s your problem right there: don’t ever be inspired by Leon Kass. He talks terrible nonsense about instinctive revulsion that can’t be argued. Well yeah, like for people of other races, or women, or people with disabilities, or people of the wrong religion.

University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan disagrees with Kass’ use of intuition…”People used to think it was revolting when two people of different races got married,” Caplan says. Letting your sense of disgust guide your views on gay marriage, he adds, “is just bigotry and bias dressed up with the clothes of wisdom.”

Just so.

Haidt goes into more detail in an interview.

Haidt has devoted his career to the study of moral judgment and decision-making; his results are revealing and perhaps a bit unflattering. We tend to think of ourselves as arriving at our moral judgments after painstaking rational deliberation, or at least some kind of deliberation anyhow. According to Haidt’s model—which he calls “the social intuitionist model”—the process is just the reverse. We judge and then we reason. What, then, is the point of reasoning if the judgment has already been made? To convince other people (and also ourselves) that we’re right.

Well, we already knew that of course; we’ve read our Hume and our Damasio; we’ve taken the Taboo test (which was inspired by Haidt’s work); we know we react first and think afterwards. But I don’t agree with the last sentence, at least not unless it’s worded differently. What’s the point of thinking about our first emotional judgment? To try to figure out whether it’s right or not! To second-guess it; to think; to consider; to ask if we’re just shooting from the hip.

It’s an interesting interview – full of places where one thinks ‘No, not exactly,’ but interesting. But some of what he says…

What I want to say is that there are at least four foundations of our moral sense, but there are many coherent moral systems that can be built on these four foundations. But not just anything can be built on these four foundations. So I believe that an evolutionary approach specifying the foundation of our moral sense can allow us to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women are veiled and seem to us to lead restricted lives.

But I don’t want to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women seem to lead restricted lives. I think if they seem to lead restricted lives, they do lead restricted lives, and I know enough about the subject to know that when their lives expand, they tend to be overjoyed; therefore I have no desire to appreciate cultures where they don’t even have that option, where they can’t even sample expansion to see if they like it.

Liberals use intuitions about suffering (aversion to) and intuitions about reciprocity, fairness, and equality. But there are two other foundations—there are intuitions about hierarchy, respect, duty… that’s one cluster. And intuitions about purity and pollution, which generate further intuitions about chastity and modesty. Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second). Our morality is coherent. We can critique people who do things that violate it within our group. We can’t critique cultures that use all four moralities.

Oh yes we can.



No, we’re not jealous

Jun 28th, 2007 10:05 am | By

Not correct.

Having lost their own belief in progress and liberation, secular intellectuals are irked by their encounters with people who, on whatever basis, retain a vision of the good society and a commitment to realising it.

No; that’s wrong; that could hardly be wronger. That neatly gets the matter exactly backwards. It is because I have not lost my belief in (the desirability of) progress and liberation, because in fact that belief has considerably strengthened and sharpened as I’ve learned more about its pervasive enemies, I am, not irked, but repelled and horrified by my encounters with people who retain a vision of the bad society and a commitment to realising it.

They clearly feel rebuked by the undaunted practice of those who have not given up.

No. That’s not it. It’s not that they’re so dedicated and people like me are so indifferent. No – it’s that they want the wrong things, and they want them for people like me (atheist secular feminist women who cling to their own freedom and autonomy with bared teeth). I haven’t given up, and I don’t feel abashed or rebuked by the undaunted practice of misogynist theocrats.



Real men don’t eat quiche or coddle women

Jun 26th, 2007 10:31 am | By

So what matters to the rage boys? Putting women in their place, that’s what. Their place is either slavishly obedient, or dead; those are the choices; and it’s Rage Boy who gets to decide which rules women are required to obey.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Islamist terror groups were behind one murder, as well as a case where a woman was threatened and is in hiding…Nazir Afzal, the CPS’s national lead on honour crime, told BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme the threats to kill a woman known as Miss B, who is now in hiding, came from her family but originated in an Egyptian terrorist group. He said: “They told her husband that if he didn’t put his wife in her place then they would do it themselves.”

Because they don’t want any sissy rage boys in their outfit, the kind who are too wimpy and girly to be willing to murder their wives. What kind of Rage Boy Brotherhood would that be?! Who is frightened of rage boys who won’t even murder their own wives? Get real.

Mr Afzal said honour violence was not confined to fathers and grandfathers, but was carried out by younger relations too….”They get their identity and their ethnicity from these traditions. We know they are bizarre and outdated but they get their identity from those traditions and they feel very strongly that how you treat your women is a demonstration of your commitment to radicalism and extremist thought.”

Oh do they – how inspiring. What an interesting idea of ‘radicalism.’ There was a whiff of that in the sixties, too, but then that whiff is what blew into second-wave feminism; men who wanted to hang onto any idea of ‘radicalism’ dropped the whole ‘barefoot chick in the background’ routine pretty fast.

However, Reefat Draboo of the Muslim Council of Britain told the BBC she disagreed with Mr Afzal’s comments.

And the BBC asked someone from the MCB what she thought why, exactly? The BBC talked to someone at the MCB and no one else why? The BBC felt it had to ‘balance’ what Afzal said with what someone else said so it asked – the MCB and no one else, why? Because it always does? Because it’s so lazy it can’t be bothered to find a different organization or a more informed view? Draboo’s comment is supremely irrelevant, because ‘honour’ murder doesn’t have to be condoned by Islam for Islamist terror groups to approve of it. Why couldn’t the BBC get its feet underneath itself long enough to find someone with something of value to say? Because if it asks the MCB then Rage Boy may get a little peeved but he won’t go into full red alert fury mode? Or is it because it makes people at the BBC feel kind of vaguely sympathetic and diverse and right on to turn to the MCB all the time. Do they all have their heads wrapped in thick bales of attic insulation there or what?



Ask not why Rage Boy is in such a snit

Jun 26th, 2007 10:00 am | By

Is it a fatwah? Is it a copy of the Quran allegedly down the gurgler at Guantanamo? Is it some cartoon in Denmark? Time for Rage Boy to step in and for his visage to impress the rest of the world with the depth and strength of Islamist emotion.

Hitchens is talking about much the same thing as I was talking about a couple of days ago – this business of the depth and strength and profundity and vehemence of emotion, and the work it does – the way it impresses some people in the rest of the world and prompts them to reason backwards from the intensity of the emotion to the magnitude of the crime committed by the person or persons who ’caused’ the emotion. Look at Rage Boy: his staring eyes, his gaping mouth; he is clearly upset to the very depths of his soul; let us frown heavily on the source of Rage Boy’s rage, be it novel or cartoon or free woman walking abroad on the public highway.

The acceptance of an honor by a distinguished ex-Muslim writer, who exercised his freedom to abandon his faith and thus courts a death sentence for apostasy in any case, came shortly after the remaining minarets of the Askariya shrine in Samarra were brought down in shards…But what does “Rage Boy” have to say about this appalling desecration of a Muslim holy place? What resolutions were introduced into the “parliament” of Pakistan, denouncing such shameful profanity? You already know the answer to those questions.

Well…you see…er…Rushdie was living in London at the time! That’s it. He’s an apostate, and an Orientalist, and a leave-homer, and a neocon. Yes he is, don’t try to deny it! He’s a neocon, he is, he is! The people who blew up the Askariya shrine, say what you like about them but at least they’re not neocons. So of course Rage Boy’s reaction is not a bit disproportionate or just plain barking up the wrong tree, it’s a reasoned political analysis translated into a loud scream, and hence to be respected.

We may have to put up with the Rage Boys of the world, but we ought not to do their work for them, and we must not cry before we have been hurt. In front of me is a copy of this week’s Economist, which states that Rushdie’s 1989 death warrant was “punishment for the book’s unflattering depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.” There is no direct depiction of the prophet in this work of fiction, and the reverie about his many wives occurs in the dream of a madman. Nobody in Ayatollah Khomeini’s circle could possibly have read the book for him before he issued a fatwah, which made it dangerous to possess. Yet on that occasion, the bookstore chains of America pulled The Satanic Verses from their shelves, just as Borders shamefully pulled Free Inquiry (a magazine for which I write*) after it reproduced the Danish cartoons. Rage Boy keenly looks forward to anger, while we worriedly anticipate trouble, and fret about etiquette, and prepare the next retreat. If taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean living at the pleasure of Rage Boy, and that I am not prepared to do.

No, nor am I. If I’m going to consult anyone about how to live, it won’t be Rage Boy or anyone like him.

*So do I!



‘This is a man who’

Jun 24th, 2007 2:33 pm | By

I finally got around to watching ‘Question Time’ and Shirley Williams doing her party piece. The man in the audience asked the first question: is the knighthood given to Rushdie an insult to Muslims? SW was the first to answer: ‘I think it’s a mistake,’ she said. Then she went on. ‘This is a man who has offended Muslims in a very powerful way,’ she said in an unmistakable tone of indignation, then pointing out, absurdly, that he’d been protected for years at great expense to the taxpayer. Then she said it wasn’t Blair’s doing, it was the committee, and they should have etc etc etc. That’s when Hitchens said, quite rightly, ‘That’s a contemptible answer.’ Well so it damn well is.

‘This is a man who’ – in a tone of controlled anger. Excuse me? Excuse me? This is a man who wrote a novel, in part of which he expressed some ironic views about the p. M. What is wrong with that? What possessed Shirley Williams to say that as if he’d committed sodomy on Princess Beatrice’s pet rabbit? Would she say that about an academic – as it might be a well-known philosopher, such as her former husband – who wrote something critical about the p. M.? I certainly hope not, but perhaps she would. But what is her operating assumption there? That it is forbidden to write something critical about the p. M.? Well if so, that’s an end to scholarship of many kinds – comparative religion, history, politics, and quite a few related fields. Then perhaps she thinks it’s forbidden only for novelists? But if so, why? On what grounds? And where is that rule written down? Why haven’t all potential novelists (which would be all of us) been told?

Perhaps she thinks, as some cowering people said in 1989, that he ought to have known, or he must have known, or he did know. But if he ought or must have or did – again, so what? So.the.fuck.what? What follows from that? So does Irshad Manji know, so did and does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so do Maryam Namazie and Homa Arjomand, so does Ibn Warraq, so does the Council of ex-Muslims, so does Gina Khan, so does Necla Kelik, so do a great many people; and they bravely don’t let that stop them. What is Shirley Williams saying – that they ought to? That they ought to know that Muslim men (much more men than women) will be offended and therefore shut up? Does she really think anything so contemptible? Or has she just not thought it through.

What people apparently do with these ‘offended’ claims is reverse engineer: they reason backwards: they look at the magnitude of the ‘offence’ and then assign guilt accordingly – but that’s wrong. If that rule held no one would ever criticize or dispute or tease anything because of the risk of ‘offence’ out of all proportion to the intent and to the harm done. Instead what people should be doing is coldly examining the merit of the putative grievance, independent of the quantity of fuss made.

Human arrangements, practices, customs, habits, institutions have to be open to discussion – family and marriage included, George S to the contrary notwithstanding. ‘This is a man who’ is not an appropriate response to such activities. (As George S notes in his very next post.)



Oh do get it right for once

Jun 24th, 2007 11:29 am | By

Update. Oh never mind – don’t bother reading this. I’d take it down except that there are already comments. As Rowan pointed out, this is an old news item, and (worse) I’ve commented on it before. Well I never said I wasn’t predictable…

More from the inexplicably bad clumsy journalism file. The ruining your own story simply by wording the basic point badly file. The don’t you have any decent editors? file. The I’ve told you this before, do I have to keep pointing it out year after year? file.

‘Men cleverer than women’ claim. Academics in the UK claim their research shows that men are more intelligent than women. A study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology says that men are on average five points ahead on IQ tests.

On average. ‘On average’ doesn’t translate to ‘men are cleverer than women’ – obviously. As the article makes perfectly clear, it does translate to ‘there are more men with higher scores’ but that is decidedly not the same thing. As I’ve said before (so excuse the repetition if you remember the previous eye-roll) it takes only a few seconds’ thought to realize that ‘men are cleverer than women’ can’t possibly be right since it means that all men are cleverer than all women which means that the least clever man is cleverer than the cleverest woman, and that is obviously not the case.

It seems such a basic point, yet they keep getting it wrong. That’s not very clever of them.



Rod Liddle on Rushdiephobia

Jun 22nd, 2007 11:59 am | By

Gorgeous. Someone gets it.

The decision to knight the author Salman Rushdie has brought together, in angry concordat, almost the entire world…Rushdie is loathed — and not just by the mediaevally minded bigots of Islamabad, Tehran and the Finsbury Park mosque. He seems to be loathed by everyone else, too. No sooner had his knighthood been announced than the British Right waded into attack….We give him expensive police protection when the mad mullahs order his death and he repays us by continuing to speak his mind. Beneath all this is the usually unspoken intimation of racism: Salman — well, he’s a darkie, isn’t he? A chippy little wog. Comes from Bombay or Mumbai or somewhere ghastly like that…The British Left hates him, if anything, even more. It has long carried a torch for Islam, despite the misogyny, homophobia and authoritarian impulses of the ideology.

And the death penalty for ‘apostasy’ and the slight huffiness about blasphemy and a few other not obviously left-wing details. It’s the great central mystery of our time, as far as I’m concerned, this inexplicable torch carried for Islam. Stalin, Islam – gee, parts of the left just don’t seem to have very good taste, do they.

Like most haggard and tired former commies, I have little time for the honours system; it’s an infantile, reflexive thing on my part, I suppose. Certainly I will be the first to show up with my bucket of ordure when some tenth-rate, brain-dead pop star or footballer or soap actor has a medal pinned on him out of the government’s desire to kowtow to public sensibilities.

Or, now you mention it, some tenth-rate head of a certain Council who gave it as his opinion that death was too good for Rushdie.

But if we are to have the honours, I find it difficult to think of anyone more deserving of a knighthood than Sir Salman Rushdie. While the rest of us were still worrying about the Cold War, Rushdie was warning us about the war yet to come. He addressed the Islamic revolution with sophistication, philosophical elegance and great literary inventiveness. And he did so with enormous courage and candour. He is perhaps Britain’s only writer who has successfully examined the soul of Islam and, in so doing, examined the soul of the West too…He has witnessed the most wretched of little political weasels, the likes of Keith Vaz, marching through the streets at the head of a throng of howling Muslim maniacs, demanding his book be burned.

Yes but – but – but – but he caused offence to the Muslim community! Don’t you understand, Mr Liddle? He caused offence. He caused the ‘spiritual leader’ of Iran to call for his murder – don’t you see how wicked that was? Are you blind? Are you an Orientalist? Or what are you altogether?

You’re one of the few people writing in the mainstream rags who gets it, that’s what. Have a chocolate; you deserve it.



Sympathy for the community

Jun 21st, 2007 5:37 pm | By

More sinister crap.

Jack Straw today sympathised with the hurt feelings of the Muslim community over the knighthood awarded to the author Salman Rushdie – and disclosed that he too is no fan of Sir Salman’s writing.

Ah – he too. He too like…? He too like Ijaz ul-Haq who thinks strapping on a bomb is the right response to novels one is not a fan of? He too like Khomeini who thought novelists who write novels unworthy of fandom should be murdered forthwith? Is that what Straw meant? If not, what did he mean? Well, maybe nothing, since maybe it was the reporter who put it that way. But why say it at all? An effort to throw a bone to a dog? ‘Well, dear members of the community, I can’t quite promise to snatch back the gong, or extradite Rushdie to Iran, or have him arrested and executed, but hey, at least I am no fan of his novels, so is that any help? Please say it is – I do so sympathize with the hurt feelings of the Muslim community over the knighthood awarded to Rushdie, and I do so long to cuddle the Muslim community until it stops crying.’

Why does he sympathize with the hurt feelings of the Muslim community over the knighthood awarded to Rushdie? No, really; why? What business do they have having hurt feelings about it at all? Why don’t they instead have abashed embarrassed exasperated feelings over 1) the attempts to get Rushdie killed and 2) the grossly disproportionate reaction to one passage in one novel? Well, some of them probably do, but you’d never know it to listen to all the moaning about hurt feelings and outrage and hoof huffff foomp waha.

Mr Straw…condemned the idea that Rushdie should be the subject of a revived fatwa, or Islamic death sentence, for the offence he caused to Muslims in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. But, questioned by MPs about concern in the Muslim community and asked how the knighthood came to be bestowed, Mr Straw said that he found Rushdie’s books heavy going.

So the Times can’t get it right either. The Times too says Rushdie caused offence to Muslims. Can no one over there get it right? Is there not one journalist in the UK who can manage to mention Rushdie without saying he caused the offence and the fatwa and global warming? (Yes, Johann Hari; any more?) Is there not one journalist in the UK who can dredge up a little skepticism about ‘concern in the Muslim community’? Concern about what, they don’t ask sharply – so let us ask it. Concern about what? About the fact that someone once wrote a novel that said something about the prophet that they don’t like, and to this day that someone has not been murdered or executed and now he even has a K? Is that what the concern is about? But given how obvious the stupidity of such concern is, why are MPs asking questions about it? Why aren’t they instead making statements about how footling it is, and then moving briskly on to other business?

Of course I understand the concerns and sensitivity in the community. That said there can be no justification whatever for suggestions that as a result of this a further fatwa should be placed on the life of Mr Rushdie.

Well you shouldn’t, Mr Straw – you shouldn’t understand the concerns and sensitivity in the community. They’re bad concerns, they’re not worth understanding, they have to be resisted and disputed, not understood. They’re wrong. They’re coercive, and dangerous, and wrong, and the more people understand them and sympathize with them and weep salt tears over them, the more coercive and dangerous they will become.

The Satanic Verses was condemned across the Islamic world on its publication and led to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issuing a fatwa, encouraging Muslims to kill the author.

The Satanic Verses was condemned across the Islamic world without having been read by most of that Islamic world, and it did not ‘lead to’ Khomeini issuing a fatwa, Khomeini did that of his own volition. (Either that or a buttefly made him do it; anyway it wasn’t Rushdie.)

Isn’t it kind of common knowledge to everyone who’s ever had or met a toddler, that you don’t make a big sympathetic fuss over every single whimper if you don’t want to end up with the Spoiled Monster From Hell who weighs 800 pounds and won’t leave? I’d have thought it was. So why is everyone falling over each other in the rush to treat ‘the Muslim community’ like the most demanding petulant screaming toddler that ever was on land or sea? I leave it to your wisdom to determine.



Rushdie has time to reconsider, BBC points out

Jun 20th, 2007 1:55 pm | By

This is the worst yet. Tendentious manipulative hostile language in every line. It defies belief. The damn BBC seems to be convinced that Rushdie committed a crime.

Salman Rushdie’s knighthood has provoked protests around the Islamic world and a diplomatic row. So how was the decision made, and why did no-one appear to consider the consequences?

See? There it is again – the knighthood ‘provoked’ protests. No it fucking didn’t – some mindless zealots and some political thugs keen to distract attention from their own real malfeasance decided to make a fuss; Salman Rushdie’s knighthood didn’t provoke anything. And what does ‘consider the consequences’ mean? Predict that mindless zealots would blow their tops again and that therefore an otherwise reasonable and desirable act should not be performed, because it’s always good to do what mindless zealots demand? What a stupid question. Why didn’t the BBC consider the consequences of publishing this horrible article?

The lengthy process involved makes it all the more surprising to critics that little consideration was given to a likely backlash.

Somebody should get a damn good thrashing, yes? The critics are quite right, yes?

[I]n Sir Salman’s case it looks as if his cheerleaders were the English branch of Pen, an international writers’ group.

Cheerleaders. Girly, overexcited, useless – not sober adults who seriously think Rushdie is at least as deserving of a K as Iqbal Sacranie, who said death was too good for him, was.

His book, The Satanic Verses, was seen as so offensive to Muslims that he was forced into hiding, under threat of death.

Seen by whom? Forced by whom? Threat of death from whom? What’s with all the passive voice and the anonymity? The mealy-mouthed belly-up excusing of a dictator putting out a hit on a citizen of a foreign country? I don’t suppose the BBC talked about Pinochet in this hyper-tactful way; why does it talk about Khomeni this way?

And then we get to Conservative MP Stewart Jackson.

“Salman Rushdie was subjected to one of the most famous death sentences in the 20th Century. If the senior officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were not able to use their knowledge of the Islamic world to consider the likely ramifications of this decision, then I’m extremely concerned.”

It wasn’t a death sentence, because Khomeini had no jurisdiction over Salman Rushdie; it was a contract, a hit, an incitement to murder. It’s staggering to see a Tory MP dressing up a mob hit in that way.

His objections to Sir Salman’s knighthood do not stop there. “He’s only semi-resident in this country and his books are rubbish, tedious and without literary merit. There’s no question that we can rescind the award, it would make us look weak and it’s not for Britain to kow-tow to extremists but perhaps it would be appropriate for Salman Rushdie to make the decision not to accept this award,” said Mr Jackson. That seems unlikely given Sir Salman’s initial reaction that was he “thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour”. He does, however, have time to reconsider since he is unlikely to be formally presented with the award by the Queen until the end of the year.

Thus Jenny Percival makes it clear that she thinks he should damn well step up to the plate.

Foul stuff.