Notes and Comment Blog


Mar 3rd, 2006 7:31 pm | By

What was that we were saying about violence and intimidation and threats and silencing? What was that Garton Ash was saying?

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: “We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life.”…If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way.

I meant to talk about this yesterday along with the rest, but went on a different tack and forgot to return to it. But what a particular group is saying is not just all that, but also ‘We feel so strongly about this that we don’t care that we are a tiny fraction of the population and not in any sense representative of anyone but our impassioned selves, we are going to force our view of What Is Right on everyone, because the fact that we feel strongly about this means that we are right about it, therefore all the rest of you don’t count, you have to do what we say.’ They are, in short, unaccountable. They can’t be negotiated with or talked to or persuaded or outvoted; they can only be submitted to. They give us two choices: submit, or be assaulted and damaged in whatever way we see fit. That won’t do. That is not how human beings want to live, and it won’t do. (It’s probably not how bears or elk want to live, either, but they have no choice in the matter; we do.) It won’t do. It’s unacceptable. It’s all wrong. We all know that. We don’t want violent, threatening, bullying, damage-inflicting people telling us what to do; we want the rule of law, and the right of appeal, and the absence of random violence, instead. Therefore – the intimidators must not succeed. The more they torch buildings and kill people, the less they should succeed. And if they do succeed, if targets of intimidation do decide that they are not willing to risk the danger for themselves or the people who work for them, then that decision has to be called what it is, so that everyone will hate it and wish it hadn’t happened and resist its ever happening again, rather than being called respect or sensitivity, so that people will like it and be glad it happened and hope it goes on happening.

The conviction of the six Shac members is therefore a good thing. Here’s why.

During the three-week trial, defense lawyers acknowledged that a Web site run by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty posted home addresses and other personal information about animal researchers and others. But the activists said they were simply trying to shame their targets into dissociating themselves from the company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, and they disavowed any involvement with the vandalism, death threats, computer hacking and pipe bombs against those on the Web site. Although federal prosecutors presented no evidence that the defendants directly participated in the vandalism and violence, they showed jurors that members of the group made speeches and Web postings from 2000 to 2004 that celebrated the violence and repeatedly used the word “we” to claim credit for it.

Posting home addresses is not a way to shame people, it’s a way to threaten them and put them at risk. It’s a way to try to force them to submit, by a tiny group that no one elected or appointed or has any way to call to account. It won’t do.

Taboo or not Taboo

Mar 2nd, 2006 7:38 pm | By

There was that other demo in Oxford.

Standing at the corner of Mansfield Road, I was proud of the demonstrators who were reminding my university what, at best, it is still about: the pursuit of truth and the defence of reason. Protests against student loans or higher rents – these we expect. But here were students turning out on a chilly Saturday morning to stand up for science.

Yeah – well it’s becoming more and more clear that we all really need to stand up for those – science, the pursuit of truth, the defense of reason. If we don’t they’re going to be eroded more and more, as we’re told to be sensitive and respectful and spiritual and so shut up and obey.

For a few minutes, Mansfield Road, Oxford, was at the front line of a new struggle for freedom that is being fought in many different places and guises. These days, the main threats to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association no longer come from the totalitarian ideological superstate…[T]he distinctive feature of this new danger is the creeping tyranny of the group veto.

That’s one of the by-products of communalism. Or maybe not so much a by-product as a central goal.

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: “We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life.”…If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies.

Damn right they will. Violence and threats have that effect. They work. Theo Van Gogh has been definitively silenced. There’s no magic mechanism that keeps force and bullying and murder from doing what they’re meant to do.

But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom.

Which is exactly why I disagreed with Stanley Fish about taboos. Taboos are bad because they are not reasoned; that is what makes them taboos; therefore they should not be enshrined in law.

If you agree with me so far, and believe that reason requires consistency, then you should want David Irving let out of his Austrian prison and Ken Livingstone let off with a rap over the knuckles. Why? Because the fateful tendency in all this is to reject everyone else’s group taboos while obstinately defending your own.

But that’s where I get off the train. Not because I think Irving should be in prison – I don’t think he should, although I’m not sure what I think about the Austrian law – but because I disagree that what’s operating with respect to Irving is a taboo. I disagree that the cartoons and Irving are exactly comparable. I don’t think reason does require consistency if consistency requires the ignoring of salient differences (which it doesn’t, because that wouldn’t actually be consistency). I think the discussion about Irving is a different discussion from the one about the cartoons (as I’ve said to the point of tedium), and I think it’s not useful to mash them together by calling them both group taboos.

What is sauce for the Islamist goose must be sauce for the fascist gander. What Irving says is horrible, an insult to the Jewish dead, survivors and relatives, but on any reasonable assessment it does not result in a significant threat to the physical safety or liberty of living human beings.

Well, that’s the problem – I’m not confident of that. Genocides have happened too often and too quickly lately for me to feel confident of that. Garton Ash may be right, but I disagree about the ‘on any reasonable assessment’ part. Especially given what just happened to Ilam Halimi, I don’t think anyone can be all that sure that no one listening to Irving will be pushed over that final edge, that no one listening to Irving will be inspired to find a Jew to torture to death. So I think worries about Irving are more than just taboos. Actually animal rights people and anti-abortionists could say the same thing – they also have reasoned arguments. Taboo isn’t really the right word for what Garton Ash is talking about here. But the point about the group veto doesn’t depend on the taboo idea, and it’s a good point.

Rebel Man

Mar 2nd, 2006 6:52 pm | By

Your boy Chuck is funny, isn’t he – I mean really, really, fall down and roll around funny. Like a John Cleese routine. He just cracks me up. I mean you have to admit, there is something hilariously funny about one of the richest and most overprivileged men on the planet thinking (and even talking) of himself as a ‘dissident’. Aw, honey, won’t they listen to you then? Are you all excluded and ignored and not paid attention to? Aw, diddums, that is such a shame. Of course there’s that architect whose career has never been the same – but never mind, never mind, never mind, if you want to call yourself a dissident, you go right ahead. I have every sympathy. I do love a good pout; I’m a world-class pouter myself; so if you want to spend a few decades pouting at public expense, why that’s just fine, all part of the job. Victoria pouted, the dear Duke of Windsor pouted, so you just carry on, you lovely man. Nobody understands you, nobody appreciates you – it’s shocking, isn’t it?

You have to admit. There was that time he made a fuss about unqualified people expecting to be promoted. I did find that, coming from him, irresistibly funny. And then there’s all the pontificating about ‘alternative medicine’ and Gerson therapy, for which he gets plenty of attention and publicity, because he is the Air to the Phrone, while medical dissent from his pontificating doesn’t get nearly the same attention. Does that make him a ‘dissident’? Does someone who gets respectful attention as well as plain attention out of all proportion to his intrinsic merit, deserve to be called a dissident? I wouldn’t have thought so, myself. I would have thought otherwise. But there, I don’t understand the whole monarchy thing, so don’t listen to me.

But there is something ever so slightly disquieting about the fact that the future king, however limited and notional his remaining power may be, feels a need to whine to a government minister about the Human Rights Act. There’s also, actually, something more than slightly sickening about it. More than a whiff of let them eat cakeism.

Prince Charles wrote “rubbish” on a letter defending the Human Rights Act, a leaked copy of the document showed today. The letter was part of an exchange between the prince and the former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg about a perceived rise in litigiousness in British society…He expressed concern that the Human Rights Act risked promoting an “American-style personal injury ‘culture’.”…The prince underlined a statement beginning: “[I see the challenge we face as ensuring that] as we become a society more based on responsibilities and rights …” According to the Times, he dismissed the claim with the handwritten comment: “But this is rubbish – we’re a society based on rights alone.”

Huff huff huff, chummhaw – that won’t do at all old boy, not at all, riffraff and ordinary people mustn’t have all these bloody rights, they’ll only use them to put coal in. Oh, he’s a trip, that prince. I saw him interviewed by a US journalist recently, and his air of barely controlled disdain was something to behold. He actually used that phrase ‘people like you’ – you know, peasants, underlings, inferiors, commoners, vulgar little men from that vulgar big country. Every inch a dissident.

More Fish

Mar 1st, 2006 11:21 pm | By

It’s funny about that article of Stanley Fish’s, because I don’t always disagree with him on the subject. I agree with much of what he says in the article ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech’. This for instance –

In saying this, I would not be heard as arguing either for or against regulation and speech codes as a matter of general principle. Instead my argument turns away from general principle to the pragmatic (anti)principle of considering each situation as it emerges. The question of whether or not to regulate will always be a local one, and we cannot rely on abstractions that are either empty of content or filled with the content of some partisan agenda to generate a ‘principled’ answer. Instead we must consider in every case what is at stake and what are the risks and gains of alternative courses of action. In the course of this consideration many things will be of help, but among them will not be phrases like ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘the right of individual expression,’ because, as they are used now, these phrases tend to obscure rather than clarify our dilemmas. Once they are deprived of their talismanic force, once it is no longer strategically effective simply to invoke them in the act of walking away from a problem, the conversation could continue in directions that are now blocked by a First Amendment absolutism…

I like that, it’s pretty much what I keep saying when people ask me indignantly what I mean by approving of Irving’s imprisonment when I haven’t done any such thing, I’ve only asked some questions. I’m trying to discuss the subject rather than just saying ‘freespeech’ and walking away. That’s not interesting, and it doesn’t tell us anything, and it ignores the problems, so I don’t see the point. But the NY Times article is another matter. Maybe it’s just that Fish writes in a different voice for the Times compared to the one for the Boston Review.


Mar 1st, 2006 10:22 pm | By

Tooting Station (not Pootergeek – Tooting, Pooter – get it straight, can’t you?) seems to be reading Why Truth Matters. He quotes a passage from it and then quotes Amartya Sen in that article we’ve been reading here. He doesn’t say anything about hating WTM.

A couple of days ago I saw this guy who went to Waterstone’s in Piccadilly to browse because it was raining (I’ve done that! Gone to that same Waterstone’s to get out of the rain – that was one very rainy day) – went there to browse, I say, and he bought one book. Just the one. Discerning fella.

Ahistorical? Moi?

Mar 1st, 2006 8:04 pm | By

I dropped in at Jonathan Derbyshire’s blog just now and realized I must not have done so for awhile, because I hadn’t seen a post from January about something I said. He quotes me disputing in my usual intemperate way the idea that ‘Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God’ and then asks, ‘I wonder, has Ophelia ever read Locke?’ No, of course not; I haven’t read anything. Well, I may have read a few words of Locke here and there (on calendars, jam jars, the sides of buses, that kind of thing), but not actually read. Reading makes my head hurt.

So there’s this thing in the Second Treatise, chapter 2, about the state of nature which is one of

equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

Jonathan adds that ‘Jeremy Waldron makes clear in his remarkable book God, Locke, and Equality that the principle of human equality articulated in the Second Treatise…is an axiom of theology’, and that ‘it is simply ahistorical to deny that our (liberal) conceptions of equality and human dignity have Christian antecedents.’

But is it? I’m not convinced. I don’t deny, in the passage Jonathan quotes, that the Christian ‘view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality’ were around; what I deny is that it’s possible to know that that particular source was an inescapable source. Maybe it was. Maybe every single person born after Locke’s Second Treatise was steeped in it and had no other source for the idea of equality – but I don’t quite see how anyone could be sure of that. And beyond that, it seems to me inherently unlikely that the idea of human equality is such a far-fetched, odd, unthinkable idea that without Locke, no one would have imagined it. It seems to me that people have a noticeable tendency to develop ideas of equality all on their own, merely by the experience of being treated as unequal. The Thersites effect, one might call it. These things do come up. Seneca talked about a kind of equality; so did Montaigne; at least as possible ideas, if not as desirable goals. So, I don’t deny that Christianity was one antecedent, but I do deny the version that apologists give us, which is that it was the necessary antecedent, that (by implication at least) without it we wouldn’t have the idea at all. I’d need more than the existence of one book by one philosopher to convince me of that, I think.


Mar 1st, 2006 7:34 pm | By

Stanley Fish likes to play Confuse a Cat sometimes. So it seems at least.

This is what it means today to put self-censorship “on the agenda”: the particular object of that censorship – be it opinions about a religion, a movie, the furniture in a friend’s house, your wife’s new dress, whatever – is a matter of indifference. What is important is not the content of what is expressed but that it be expressed. What is important is that you let it all hang out.

My wife’s new dress? But I don’t have a wife. Does he think only men read the NY Times? Does he think women are too busy buying new dresses to read it? Strange guy. But never mind that; the point is, he’s wrong. He may be right about the editor of Jyllands-Posten, but he’s certainly not right about everyone who opposes the pressure to ‘respect’ religious zealots who make death threats, torch embassies and kill people over cartoons about a long-dead prophet. To some of us, the content of what is expressed and the content of the pressure not to express it are important.

The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously…It is in the private sphere – the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship – that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior. But in the public sphere, the argument goes, one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection. You can still have them and express them – that’s what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies – but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable.

Has he been reading Stephen Carter? That sounds exactly like Carter’s claim that the separation of church and state ‘trivializes’ religion. And then why is he calling it a ‘religion’? Has he been reading Wieseltier? And why does he sound so disdainful throughout? Of course ‘in the public sphere…one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection’. You bet they must! The alternative is theocracy, in which laws are decided by revelation and authority via one holy book (which it is taboo to disagree with, much less make fun of). So what’s up with the disdain?

What religious beliefs are owed – and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate – is “respect”; nothing less, nothing more. The thing about respect is that it doesn’t cost you anything; its generosity is barely skin-deep and is in fact a form of condescension: I respect you; now don’t bother me. This was certainly the message conveyed by Rich Oppel, editor of The Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, who explained his decision to reprint one of the cartoons thusly: “It is one thing to respect other people’s faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos.” Clearly, Mr. Oppel would think himself pressured to “accept” the taboos of the Muslim religion were he asked to alter his behavior in any way, say by refraining from publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet. Were he to do that, he would be in danger of crossing the line between “respecting” a taboo and taking it seriously, and he is not about to do that.

Yes – and? What’s wrong with that? Again, what’s up with the disdain? We shouldn’t respect taboos. Taboos are irrational Forbidden Things, they’re often harmful, any benefits they may have can be obtained without the taboo (if they apply to poisonous foods, for instance, we can just point out that the foods are poisonous, rather than declaring them taboo); there’s no reason to respect them and plenty of reason to resist being ordered to respect them.

This is, increasingly, what happens to strongly held faiths in the liberal state. Such beliefs are equally and indifferently authorized as ideas people are perfectly free to believe, but they are equally and indifferently disallowed as ideas that might serve as a basis for action or public policy. Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism’s museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give – ask for deference rather than mere respect – it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

Yes, and? ‘Faiths’ can be strongly held and still be 1) dead wrong and 2) harmful, and because they are ‘faiths’ they are removed from rational criticism. That’s why they are disallowed as a basis for public policy. That is why we are not prepared to give them deference (or respect either, some of us). What else does Fish expect? Sheer abdication? Why would he expect that?

This is itself a morality – the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

Well what a revolting thing to think. Really. What with genocide in Darfur and schools incinerated in Afghanistan, people who think cartoons are the most important issue on the agenda are not my idea of morally admirable. Maybe Fish has been out in the sun too long.

No Communalism

Mar 1st, 2006 6:28 pm | By

So – we were talking about communityism and communalism? Well how appropriate then that today I get an email from someone at Friends of South Asia and the Coalition Against Communalism. Communalism is just the kind of thing I’m against, so I’m pleased to hear from coalitions against it. That’s one of my ‘communities’ – the anti-communalism community, the anti-forced-community community.

The subcommittee of the California State Board of Education mostly listened to sense, although it made (it seems to me) at least one big mistake, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The committee sought to find middle ground in the contested space of ancient history and religion. For instance, it changed some language that referred to a ‘caste system’ to a ‘class system.’ This angered those who say that social stratification is a part of the larger South East Asian culture, and is not intrinsic to the Hindu faith — as well as those who say that ‘class system,’ as the term is commonly used in America, inaccurately suggests social mobility in the rigid class-based society of India.

That’s depressing. Class isn’t the same as caste, for the reason indicated, so that’s one whitewash that made it in. That’s unfortunate.

According to Charu Bhare, a science and math teacher in the Cupertino school district, ‘How it is taught degrades the Hindu philosophy and faith, and all that is pride that we teach our children.’ The academic community and its defenders did not prevail on every point, but scholars who attended the hearing were relieved that many changes were not made. ‘We have been greatly concerned over claims that equitable portrayal would prevail over historical accuracy,’ although academicians sought to be respectful of the faith, said Lawrence Cohen of the University of California-Berkeley. ‘It is a slippery slope.’

The ‘academic community’ – there it is again. You got your Hindutva community and you got your academic community, and the two communities duke it out for who gets the prize. Why not just call them scholars or academics? Why label them a ‘community’? So they would sound warmer and more respectful? Probably. However that may be, Lawrence Cohen reveals the ever-present and ever-growing problem: that assumption that everyone is required to be ‘respectful’ of the ‘faith’. We ought not to be required to be that. The ‘faith’ or its adherents (its ‘community’) ought to be respectful of the evidence, but scholars ought not to be respectful of evidence-free ‘faith’. That is how that ought to work, but in fact it works the other way around. (You won’t see a word about anyone from the Hindutva side saying they sought to be respectful of the evidence or scholarship. Not a syllable.) That is bad. Irrationalism and antirationalism ought not to have a presumptive advantage over rationalism. This isn’t golf, the side with no evidence and no argument ought not to get a handicap.

However. There were some exhilaratingly sensible people there.

‘History is not written to make us feel better,’ said Simmy Makhijani of San Francisco. The inferior status of women and the ‘untouchables’ of India should not be ignored, she said, because it is uncomfortable. ‘It is important to recognize inequities, and combat them – to challenge injustices in the system.’

The Sacramento Bee also has a good account.

“Why should history be written to make us feel better?” said Simmy Makhijani, a student at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. The subcommittee voted to recommend changes that Department of Education staff developed in consultation with three scholars – including Harvard University’s Michael Witzel, who opposed the Hindu groups’ proposed changes in November in a strongly worded letter to the board. According to the department, some of its changes reflect “agreement or compromise” between Witzel and Shiva Bajpai, the California State University, Northridge, historian who recommended most of the Hindu groups’ suggestions to the Curriculum Commission last fall.

I’m not sure which version of what Simmy Makhijani said I like best, so I include both. It’s too bad Michael Witzel had to compromise with Shiva Bajpai, but – it could have been worse.

Gender and caste discrimination. The Hindu groups suggested removing passages that described systems of gender and caste discrimination among ancient Hindus. The subcommittee’s action would preserve some mentions of discrimination while removing especially harsh language and making some descriptions more precise.

Especially harsh language – such as the word ‘caste’? But if the word is accurate, it’s somewhat beside the point that it’s harsh, isn’t it. ‘Slavery’ is a harsh word to use of the system of labour on Mississippi cotton plantations in the 1850s, but it is after all accurate. That harshness has sometimes been muted with words like ‘servant’ or ‘work force’, but what is the benefit of that? It may make the descendants of the slaveowners ‘feel better’, but at the expense of telling the truth. And it won’t make the descendants of slaves ‘feel better’, so why sacrifice truth to mollify one group and neglect another? Same with caste, I should think. See the Friends of South Asia press release:

Parents, students, working professionals, faculty, first and second generation immigrants, and representatives of many community groups eloquently stressed the importance of presenting children with accurate, scholarly information on all aspects of ancient Indian history. Some of the most moving testimony before the SBE came from individuals who had personally experienced caste oppression. Representatives of Dalit organizations urged the SBE to restore references to Dalits and the caste system, which had been deleted from the textbooks on the HEF’s and VF’s recommendations. “The caste system is the single most important repressive social phenomenon that has been unique to Hinduism for over 3,000 years and should therefore find a place in the textbooks,” reminded Rama Krishna Bhupathi of FOSA and a Dalit himself. Speaking for the Federation of Tamils of North America, Thillai Kumaran, a concerned parent who stated his lower-caste origins during his testimony, strenuously objected to the textbooks’ suggestion that the caste system is no longer relevant in modern India. “Hinduism continues to affect the social status of people in India, and has condemned millions of Dalits as social outcasts,” he said. Hansraj Kajla, also a parent and representative of the Guru Ravi Dass Gurdwara (a Dalit group), suggested that the deletion of references to the caste system and the word “Dalit” in the textbooks was tantamount to “wiping out the histories of more than 160 million people in India.”

That press release is quite something. They have good writers at FOSA.

Speaking from her experiences of learning about caste and gender oppression in middle school, Veena Dubal, a joint law and doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, explained, “Like many of my European-American classmates whose ancestral histories could be traced to a time before women and people of color were given independent legal identities and allowed political participation… I was painfully embarrassed to read about the injustices committed in my parents’ homeland. Yet it was precisely these lessons that taught me about the necessity for universal civil liberties and human rights.” Simmy Makhijani, who also remembers facing racism and sexism in American classrooms while growing up, challenged the attempts by HEF and VF to sanitize Indian history.

The meeting seems to have been quite a good seminar in history and truth, and what they can teach us.

Limited Horizons

Mar 1st, 2006 2:42 am | By

Yet more on Sen on multiculturalism – it’s a very rich article, and I prefer not to write enormously long N&Cs. They seem to have a built-in ideal maximum length, so I preferred to break things up.

That’s a fancy way of saying I have a short attention span and can’t write more than four or five paragraphs at any one time. After that I have to go outside and play.

On ‘faith schools’ –

Many of these new educational institutions are coming up precisely at a time when religious prioritization has been a major source of violence in the world (adding to the history of such violence in Britain itself, including Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland – themselves not unconnected with segmented schooling). Prime Minister Tony Blair is certainly right to note that “there is a very strong sense of ethos and values in those schools.” But education is not just about getting children, even very young ones, immersed in an old inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take.

That’s just it. Unfortunately, a lot of people, including a lot of people who have children, think education is indeed just about getting children, especially very young ones, immersed in an old inherited ethos, and that it is decidedly not about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take. (No, what you do when you have to take new decisions is you ask WWJD or WWMD. You don’t reason. You apply the rules, you do what the community does, you don’t reason.) There’s no getting around the fact that ‘faith’ and ‘faith schools’ can be and often are in tension with reason and its cognates. That’s one towering reason that ‘faith’ should not be treated with extra ‘respect’ or sensitivity or tact or caution or forebearance or any of the other precautionary items were always being told to treat it with. ‘Faith’ needs more criticism and confrontation, not less.

The Bangladeshi community, large as it is in Britain, is merged in the religious accounting into one large mass along with all the other co-religionists, with no further acknowledgment of culture and priorities. While this may please the Islamic priests and religious leaders, it certainly shortchanges the abundant culture of that country and emaciates the richly diverse identities that Bangladeshis have. It also chooses to ignore altogether the history of the formation of Bangladesh itself. There is, as it happens, an ongoing political struggle at this time within Bangladesh between secularists and their detractors (including religious fundamentalists), and it is not obvious why British official policy has to be more in tune with the latter than with the former.

No, it’s not. In fact it ought to be the other way around. (I read a couple of horrific first-person accounts of what happened in Bangladesh in 1971, the other day, in Ibn Warraq’s Leaving Islam. It wasn’t secularism that caused all that.)

Indeed, official British policy has for many years given the impression that it is inclined to see British citizens and residents originating from the subcontinent primarily in terms of their respective communities, and now – after the recent accentuation of religiosity (including fundamentalism) in the world – community is defined primarily in terms of faith, rather than by taking account of more broadly defined cultures. The problem is not confined to schooling, nor to Muslims. The tendency to take Hindu or Sikh religious leaders as spokesmen for the British Hindu or Sikh population, respectively, is also a feature of the same process. Instead of encouraging British citizens of diverse backgrounds to interact with one another in civil society, and to participate in British politics as citizens, the invitation is to act “through” their “own community.” The limited horizons of this reductionist thinking directly affect the living modes of the different communities, with particularly severe constraining effects on the lives of immigrants and their families.

Sigh. Exactly. It is so confining. Limited horizons and constraining effects. Limited horizons and constraining effects are not good things, not even for immigrants, not even for ‘communities’. Which would you rather be – Amartya Sen or Tariq Ramadan? Salman Rushdie or Iqbal Sacranie? Azam Kamguian or Shabina Begum? Maryam Namazie or Yvonne Ridley? Which has the more open horizons, the more freedom from constraint?

The disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity and giving priority to the community-based perspective over all other identities, which Gandhi thought was receiving support from India’s British rulers, may well have come, alas, to haunt the country of the rulers themselves.

So get over it, as soon as possible.

Hurrah for Disempowerment

Mar 1st, 2006 2:40 am | By

Heinz Schlaffer takes on some more theist misrepresentation – the familiar old ‘we are a beleaguered minority’ schtick. Would that it were true.

What? Belief is being ostracised? But it’s en vogue! Whether or not God exists can’t be decided intellectually; but it can be observed that he’s back in fashion among intellectuals…Literary historians like George Steiner and Roberto Calasso read the fictions of the poets as factual proof of the existence of saints…In the institutions of liberal culture, religious statements are being treated as a novel charm, and increasingly gaining the power of conformity.

This is what I keep saying (and tiresome people who disagree with me say Nuh uh). Religious, or ‘spiritual’, statements are being treated as fun new items on the menu, and are gaining the power of conformity. This is not a good trend.

Because such simplifications dominate intellectual discourse today, it’s necessary to recall the historic reasons and the ongoing achievements of the Enlightenment critique of religion – reasons and achievements which may be forgotten and rendered banal today but have not been opposed or nullified. It is still generally taught that scientific discoveries since the 16th century have demonstrated numerous “truths” of Christian teachings to be errors, for instance that the earth is the centre of the cosmos…For as long as it was possible, the church tried to repress the new appearance of the visible realm. When it was forced to give up its fight, it returned to the invisible, to those “truths” that are less easily subjected to verification.

That’s where the fluffy nonsense about non-overlapping magisteria comes from – from the fact that the church lost that particular fight, so has fallen back on the kind of whimsical speculation that can’t be falsified. Okay, they can do that, but intellectuals shouldn’t label that a ‘magisterium’ when it’s just mental invention. Intellectuals shouldn’t take it seriously.

“How far we are from this gloomy world,” the new belief-seekers and belief-finders will say of this historic review and glance at the current situation. They are right, because it was only after Christianity had been disempowered by the Enlightenment that it became civilised, friendly and modest enough that its adherents could find joy in it and its opponents no longer had to fear it. It isn’t Christianity that forms the basis of modern Europe but rather the disempowerment of Christianity, the Enlightenment.

And what a good thing it does, and let’s hope it can survive the current upsurge of the other thing.

It isn’t Christianity that forms the basis of modern Europe but rather the disempowerment of Christianity, the Enlightenment. We don’t have the popes, monks and priests to thank for democracy, equality in the law and individual freedom, tolerance and the right to criticise, but Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. The world in which we live is the enlightened world in which even those who oppose it would like to live.

If it had been up to the popes, priests and monks, we still wouldn’t have individual freedom and the right to criticise. We’d have bags of solidarity and community, and no freedom or rights. You can keep that world.

The Archive

Mar 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

That’s Not What He Said

Feb 28th, 2006 6:50 pm | By

Theists have a nasty tendency to tell whoppers about atheists. There’s the standing canard that atheists are necessarily immoral; and then there’s the great sea of misquotation, misrecollection, misrepresentation. Theists make a lot of these little careless errors. Like one in this review of Dennett’s new book. (It’s actually a rather interesting and witty review, so the careless error stands out.)

One savors the irony that these lines come from the same man who insisted in an op-ed article for the New York Times two years ago that society should start calling atheists “the Brights” because they’re so much smarter than theists. Right.

The hell he did. Not even close. I was sure of that even without reading it, but I made sure, and he didn’t. Look for yourself. The closest he comes, and it’s pretty damn distant, is ‘Don’t confuse the noun with the adjective: “I’m a bright” is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.’ That’s actually a disavowal of ‘they’re so much smarter than theists’, so not close at all.

Mind you, I hate the ‘brights’ thing, I think it was a terrible idea, partly precisely because it was obvious that the disavowal would never work. You might as well call yourself a ‘smart’ and then try to claim that it means fashionable, or a ‘wise’ and then try to claim that it means a potato chip. Jeremy wrote a very good article on the subject in 2003, which I’ve just read again, and he makes the same point (minus the slapstick). But all the same, that doesn’t make it okay for hostile witnesses to say that Dennett ‘insisted’ that society should start calling atheists “the Brights” because they’re so much smarter than theists, when Dennett in fact said the opposite.

Theists have a nasty tendency to fight dirty. They ought not to do that. If they have a good case, they should make it.

Boxes Without Doors

Feb 27th, 2006 6:15 pm | By

More on Sen on multiculturalism. It’s a terrific article; don’t miss it.

Being born in a particular social background is not in itself an exercise of cultural liberty, since it is not an act of choice. In contrast, the decision to stay firmly within the traditional mode would be an exercise of freedom, if the choice were made after considering other altenatives. In the same way, a decision to move away – by a little or a lot – from the standard behavior pattern, arrived at after reflection and reasoning, would also qualify as such an exercise. Indeed, cultural freedom can frequently clash with cultural conservatism, and if multiculturalism is defended in the name of cultural freedom, then it can hardly be seen as demanding unwavering and unqualified support for staying steadfastly within one’s inherited cultural tradition.

No, it can’t – but in practice multiculturalism is defended sometimes in the name of cultural freedom, but other times in the name of other things – anti-racism, or identity, or authenticity, or (undefined) diversity, or all those patched together as needed. So these terrible stultifying confining effects are overlooked, as so often happens when definitions change at convenience. That’s the work definition-changing does – it promotes confusion in the service of obscuring important problems.

there is another momentous issue here, which concerns the role of religion in categorizing people, rather than other bases of classification. People’s priorities and actions are influenced by all of their affiliations and associations, not merely by religion. The separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was based on reasons of language and literature, along with political priorities, and not on religion, which both wings of undivided Pakistan shared. To ignore everything other than faith is to obliterate the reality of concerns that have moved people to assert identities that go well beyond religion.

Exactly. That is exactly why all this ‘the Muslim community’ crap drives me straight up the wall – it simply assumes that all Muslims (and even ex-Muslims) are Muslims before they are anything else, and that’s an absurd thing to assume. It’s not respectful or sensitive, it’s confining and coercive – it seals off all the exits.

The people of the world cannot be seen merely in terms of their religious affiliations – as a global federation of religions. For much the same reasons, a multi-ethnic Britain can hardly be seen as a collection of ethnic communities. Yet the “federational” view has gained much support in contemporary Britain. Indeed, despite the tyrannical implications of putting persons into rigid boxes of given “communities,” that view is frequently interpreted, rather bafflingly, as an ally of individual freedom.

Guardian please note; Madeleine Bunting please note; BBC producers who keep booking Iqbal Sacranie to speak for ‘the Muslim community’ please note.

But must a person’s relation to Britain be mediated through the culture of the family in which he or she was born? A person may decide to seek closeness with more than one of these pre-defined cultures or, just as plausibly, with none. Also, a person may well decide that her ethnic or cultural identity is less important to her than, say, her political convictions, or her professional commitments, or her literary persuasions. It is a choice for her to make, no matter what her place is in the strangely imagined “federation of cultures.” There would be serious problems with the moral and social claims of multiculturalism if it were taken to insist that a person’s identity must be defined by his or her community or religion, overlooking all the other affiliations a person has, and giving automatic priority to inherited religion or tradition over reflection and choice. And yet that approach to multiculturalism has assumed a pre-eminent role in some of the official British policies in recent years.

Home Office please note; student unions please note; everyone everywhere please note.

Secluded Boxes

Feb 27th, 2006 5:11 pm | By

Amartya Sen on multiculturalism. Right at the beginning – in the second paragraph – he asks the questions that seem so obviously necessary to ask, but that seem completely ignored in the way that people generally talk (or prate, or babble, or rave) about multiculturalism. As Sen remarks, ‘There is no way of escaping these rather foundational questions if multiculturalism is to be fairly assessed.’ Just so, which is why it so seldom is fairly assessed, why it is instead simply assumed to be a good even without precise specification of what it means.

One of the central issues concerns how human beings are seen. Should they be categorized in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to have been born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender, language, literature, social involvements, and many other connections? Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and associations, whose relative priorities they must themselves choose (taking the responsibility that comes with reasoned choice)?

See – that is so basic, and so important, and yet it is so widely ignored or obscured, with the result that people (certain people, and not others) are incessantly pressured to put their unchosen identity first and put the chosen ones way, way behind the first. And this is taken to be, assumed to be, kind and caring and progressive, when in most ways, frankly, it is the opposite.

Why isn’t this more widely appreciated? I always wonder. I can see why multicultural identity politics seem at first blush like a good way to resist racism, but I have trouble seeing why the terrible coercion and confinement of them don’t become apparent with a little further thought. You wouldn’t think it would need much further thought. We know it of ourselves, I think – that we don’t want to be permanently stuck doing whatever it is that our ancestors had always done, that we don’t want to be obsessed with our religious backgrounds, that we do want to be able to choose and decide for ourselves what interests us most, what is salient to us, what keeps us energized and motivated. If we do know that of ourselves, why do we not know it of other people?

I will argue that the real issue is not whether “multiculturalism has gone too far”…but what particular form multiculturalism should take. Is multiculturalism nothing other than tolerance of the diversity of cultures? Does it make a difference who chooses the cultural practices – whether they are imposed on young children in the name of “the culture of the community” or whether they are freely chosen by persons with adequate opportunity to learn and to reason about alternatives?

Yes. It makes a huge difference. Huge. We know that for ourselves, don’t we? Practices that are imposed are imposed, and we want the freedom to reject them if we think good. If we want that freedom for ourselves, are we really sure we have good reasons for not wanting it for other people? Can we articulate them? What – immigrants, because they are subject to racism and hostility, shouldn’t be free to reject cultural practices that were imposed on them in childhood? That seems like a harsh remedy, and also one that’s not likely to work all that well.

The vocal defense of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this (a common enough occurrence) is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to plural monoculturalism, that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal defense from alleged multiculturalists, on the ground of the importance of honoring traditional cultures – as if the cultural freedom of the young woman were of no relevance whatever, and as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.

Exactly. Those secluded boxes. We don’t want to live in secluded boxes ourselves, do we – so we should think long and hard, and then think some more, before shoving other people into them.

The Briar Patch

Feb 26th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

This is a surprising news item.

Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett are two of the most prominent philosophers writing about issues related to evolution. It seems they have been engaging in a bit of e-mail correspondence on the side. How do I know this? Because Ruse inexplicably sent the entire correspondence to William Dembski. I say this is inexplicable because there is no indication that Dennett consented to have his private e-mails made public. For Ruse to make public e-mails that were intended as part of a private correpsondence is an incredible breach of professional ethics.

Especially since, as you discover if you look at the correspondence, it was Ruse who initiated it. So – he asked Dennett a leading question, got an expected answer, retorted unpleasantly, got a brief polite ‘think again’ reply – and sent the whole thing off to Dembski?! That sounds almost like a set-up. How very strange – especially since it’s so public.

Close (not to say fanatical) readers of B&W may remember that I’ve done quite a few N&Cs disagreeing with things Ruse has said in interviews and articles – ten of them, in fact, along with one by Jeremy, so many that I did an In Focus to put them all in one place along with those articles and interviews. The first N&C is more than two years old – Ruse has been saying odd things for quite awhile.

I feel somewhat vindicated in all this disagreeing now. (Besides, there was that time my disagreements with Ruse and with Dylan Evans seemed to have inspired Salman Rushdie to talk about them in an article in the Star, which was interesting.) It’s not just my imagination that Ruse has taken an odd path. Dennett says as much in his letter to the Times.

The suggestion by Michael Ruse that this activity of extending the reach of science is tantamount to turning science into a religion is a transparent example of a well-known cheap trick: when you don’t like the implications of some science, and can’t think of any proper scientific refutation, call it ideology – then you don’t have to take it seriously!

It is a very, very, very familiar, stale trick – a variant of the ‘atheism is religion’ trick. And at least in the articles and interviews I’ve seen, Ruse doesn’t back it up convincingly. So now he resorts to sending his correspondence with other people to William Dembski – not a terribly impressive move.

Statements Aspiring to the Status of Facts

Feb 26th, 2006 5:56 pm | By

Ah. Someone finally points it out.

The notion of free speech, at its best, speaks to freedom of conscience – the idea that there’s no opinion or worldview whose expression should be proscribed. But it is ever more subject to be hijacked by the muddy notion that it protects all statements aspiring to the status of fact – be they truthfully believed or cynically falsified. Should we, necessarily, protect the statement “nobody died at Belsen”, any more than we regard as free speech a false claim in an advertisement for a vitamin supplement? I’m not sure.

Precisely. Neither am I. Furthermore, I am pretty sure that it’s not helpful to ignore that aspect of the issue when discussing the free speech problem. Irving doesn’t just have an opinion or a belief about the Holocaust, he also falsified the evidence. Should falsification of evidence be protected free speech? In certain situations it emphatically isn’t; in others it’s not approved but it’s also not subject to imprisonment. But either way it’s more than mere opinion. (Truth matters.)

The Usual

Feb 26th, 2006 5:34 pm | By

Here it is again.

A virulently anti-Semitic film about the Iraq war has provoked a storm of protest in Germany after it sold out to cheering audiences from the country’s 2.5 million-strong Turkish community.

The Turkish community – as if they all live together in a rather large and crowded village somewhere. How much does this insistence on ‘the ___ community’ foster audiences that cheer anti-Semitic movies, one wonders. Talk of ‘the community’ and celebration of Hate Week are cheek by jowl.

At a packed cinema in a largely Turkish immigrant district of Berlin last week, Valley of the Wolves was being watched almost exclusively by young Turkish men.

So – yet again, as with the riots in the banlieues, as with 7/7, as with so many things, we’re not actually talking about ‘the community’ at all, we’re talking about a very specific fraction of it, which cannot be taken to represent the rest of it – which is more likely to bully and oppress at least half of the rest of it than it is to represent it. Young men represent young men, especially when they have grown up in religions that teach and mandate the inferiority and subordination of women. So blithering about ‘the community’ is doubly inaccurate, and also damaging. (If the audiences consisted almost exclusively of Turkish women, would they be referred to as ‘from the country’s 2.5 million-strong Turkish community’? I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling they wouldn’t – I have a feeling they’d be seen as a special case. But if they are, men are. It is not true that men can speak for everyone while women can speak only for women – but too many people still seem to think it is true.)

Kenan Kolat, the head of Germany’s Turkish community, insisted that a ban on the film would make matters worse.

The head of Germany’s Turkish community? It has a head? Is he elected? What is his title? Is everyone able to vote for him? Or is he ‘the head’ in the same way that Iqbal Sacranie is ‘the head’ of the UK’s ‘Muslim community’ – to wit, no way at all except anointment by mass media.

And of course there’s the obligatory confusion to sum up.

Alin Sahin, the film’s distributor in Germany, argued: “When a cartoonist insults two billion Muslims it is considered freedom of opinion, but when an action film takes on the Americans it is considered demagoguery. Something is wrong.”

Yes, something is wrong; the comparison of unlike things is wrong. Mocking a belief is not the same thing as insulting the people (two billion now?) who hold the belief. Demanding that everyone accept that it is will be the death of thought – and in no long time, too.

Bad Language

Feb 25th, 2006 10:49 pm | By

I suppose you saw that shockingly bad review by Leon Wieseltier of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in the NY Times last Sunday? It’s so awful I keep blinking with surprise when I read it. It’s not just that it’s incompetent, as Brian Leiter points out, it’s that the tone is so unpleasantly abusive, spittle-flecked, bad-mannered. It is, to use a pompous term that nevertheless seems to fit, inappropriate.

For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book…In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it…Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!…Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name…Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume’s heir…In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism…What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken.

It’s downright childish. It’s embarrassing. And that’s even apart from the substance; just the stupid schoolyardy ‘he thinks he’s such a big deal’ taunting makes Wiesltier look – completely ridiculous, and loutish besides. What can he have been thinking? Did he have a fever? And what was the Times thinking?

Affirmation is not Denial, and Vice Versa

Feb 25th, 2006 7:19 pm | By

And then, more straightforwardly, there’s more of the confusion about free speech, in which people compare unlike things and then stand back triumphantly and say ‘See?’ No, we don’t see, because the two cases are different, not the same, so there’s nothing to see.

In the past few months, Europe has been flexing its muscles as a guarantor of freedom of expression – both in the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, and before that in its criticism of the trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for raising the subject of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in the early 20th century. What a delicious irony that a Europe so sniffy about Turkish justice when it came to Pamuk should end up jailing another writer for three years for delivering his opinion on a different act of genocide.

No, that’s not a delicious irony, or even a nasty one that tastes like burnt okra, because the Pamuk and Irving cases are different. Different. Can you say different? I knew you could. Pamuk was on trial for saying a genocide that did happen, did happen; Irving was sentenced for saying a genocide that did happen, did not happen. There are two differences there. One, Pamuk was telling the truth, and Irving was lying, and two, denying a genocide that did happen is a kind of threat to the survivors, whereas asserting a genocide that did happen is not. Which is not, repeat not, to endorse either the Austrian law against Holocaust denial, or the sentence; it is simply to say that the two cases are not only not parallel, they are on the most crucial issues, opposites. So it seems very silly to try to treat them as parallel.

Here, Then There, Then Somewhere Else

Feb 25th, 2006 6:14 pm | By

Lot of people around saying weird things today. Is there something in the water?

Andrew Brown for instance. He seems to change direction with every paragraph, and much of what he says in the process seems snide and silly.

It is hard being an atheist with a sense of proportion. No one in this country will persecute you and it’s not really very hard to disbelieve in God, but the temptation to strike attitudes in front of the universe persists…Thus, Daniel Dennett writes early in this book: “I for one am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasoning certainty that you have all the answers” – and he’s not talking about Richard Dawkins.

Oh, ha ha, that’s so amusing. But what is so dang arrogant about Dawkins? He’s sometimes blunt (and a good thing too), but arrogant? Not particularly, not unless you simply assume that it’s arrogant to think there’s not much reason to believe religion gets things right. But why assume that? And why call Dawkins arrogant when one could call Ted Haggard arrogant instead? But there’s this dopy truism that Dawkins-is-arrogant, so it has to be trotted out to strike attitudes whenever religion is criticised. Temptation to strike attitudes yourself.

So, after the preliminary pep-talk to the choir, he gives a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon: apparently this programme comes as a tremendous shock to those Americans who have never heard of Hume, William James, or even Terry Pratchett.

Yes – and? Your point is? Surely not that such Americans don’t exist? So what, then?

Dennett understands there are vast differences between primitive or animist religions and the sophisticated beliefs of a modern Jesuit.

Sophisticated – hmm. Sophisticated in what sense?

Richard Dawkins might regard Romney’s professed beliefs as evidence of simple insanity. Dennett sees that their status is more complicated and interesting than that.

Did Richard Dawkins once give Andrew Brown a decayed olive at a dinner party or something? What’s his problem? What’s with all the straw man stuff? Dawkins might regard Romney’s professed beliefs as delusional (and so would I), but as evidence of simple insanity? That looks like a silly spiteful canard, to me.

Few of us in this culture are in favour of fanaticism; but it is obviously possible to be a fanatical atheist, so it turns out to be fanaticism that’s the problem, not religion.

Uh – what? Where does that ‘so’ come from? For that matter, what does that entire sentence mean? It seems to say three quite random unconnected things, while pretending they are somehow linked. The ‘but’ doesn’t make any more sense than the ‘so’ does. Well, who knows, maybe Brown has been chatting with Michael Ruse.