Notes and Comment Blog

The whore of Babylon on a bike

May 18th, 2007 4:56 pm | By

I like it when people fix little problems that most of us don’t even notice.

Iran plans to make special bicycles designed for women that will be compatible with Islamic regulations and not expose their body movements while riding, the newspaper Iran reported. The new bicycle would have a cabin to cover half of a rider’s body…Women in Iran are obliged to wear scarves and long gowns to hide their hair and body contours. Female athletes must also follow this rule and participate in sports wearing scarves and gowns. The clergy considers women’s body movements made while riding a bicycle to be provoking to men and not compatible with social rules.

I know what they mean, don’t you? Women’s body movements are provoking to men – and they keep doing it. Ever noticed that? They just never stop. They keep making body movements – the sluts. They walk here and there – they cough – they breathe. They eat food – they laugh – they turn the pages of books. They type, they drink coffee, they put their socks on. How are men supposed to be able to go about their lives with all that going on?! Women should either hold completely still – or be completely covered up – or ideally both.

That of course is especially true of any movement involving the arms, because of course movement of the arms reminds everyone of sex. Also especially true of movements of the head, because sometimes the head moves around during sex, also because you can put things in it. And triply or quadruply true of the – gulp – the – gasp – the – choke – legs. The legs the legs the legs. Legs, legs, leggggs – oh god help me. Legs. You know. Sex. Sex has legs in it. Because they’re up around you, and because of what’s between them. Actually legs should be against the law, if you think about it. Really. Legs – they’re filthy, they’re obscene, they’re disgusting. They should all be cut off! At birth! Women’s anyway. Not men’s of course. No need for that – just poke women’s eyes out, instead. Cut off their legs, poke out their eyes, make them wear tents when they walk around and little houses if they’re ever insane enough to try to ride a bicycle. The little house will of course make that impossible, so no more problem. No more women on bicycles with their legggggs going up and down, up and down, up and down – ohhhhhhh.

Uh, excuse me. I – um – I have a chill. I have to go now – time for prayers.

Falwell changed his mind – once

May 17th, 2007 10:10 am | By

Fresh Air replayed an old interview with Jerry Falwell yesterday, in which Terri Gross asked one very good question, in fact the crucial question. Unfortunately it went right past or over Falwell; he either pretended not to get it, or really didn’t get it. Gross made one attempt to press the point, to straighten him out and thus get him to answer the real question rather than a bogus one, but it didn’t work, and she didn’t press it further. I wish she had, because it’s absolutely central. I wish everyone would press this question. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, it’s the same question (in a different form) that Dawkins asked of the homophobic preacher in ‘The Root of all Evil?’, and he too did not press it, and again, I wished he had, for the same reason. We’ve got to learn to keep pressing this question until we get a real answer – we’ve got to stop accepting non-answers and letting it go at that.

What question. This one. She asked if he ever had any doubts, then to explain her meaning further she pointed out that he had opposed the Civil Rights movement until about the mid-60s, when he changed his mind. He cut in to say that God had taught him; Gross cut in to say that she wasn’t asking him to defend his former views, that wasn’t the point, the point was that they had been one thing and then he changed his mind, so did not that lead him to think he could be wrong about something in the same way now? A blindingly obvious and essential question – and it simply went right past him and flopped harmlessly into the dust. It was immensely frustrating – because it gets to the heart of what is wrong with people like Falwell, and what is dangerous about their influence and power, and what is wrong with theocracy in general – and he not only didn’t answer, he seemed not even to understand it.

It’s so basic. If you got it wrong about Civil Rights, if God showed you that you’d been wrong and you changed your mind – how can you possibly know that you’re not wrong about (say) homosexuality or feminism now? What possible conceivable reason can you have for thinking you know that? What is it about what you know now that makes it fundamentally different from what you knew in 1959?

Nothing, Dr Falwell. Not one thing. What you think you know and what you think your God wants you to say is just your own entrenched opinion, just a human opinion like any other, mine, hers, his, theirs; it’s not God’s, it’s not God-endorsed, it’s not cosmic, it’s not Absolute, and it’s certainly not immune from error. That’s why people like you, who apparently can’t even allow that idea house room, are so damn dangerous. That’s why we hate you and fear you: because you’re not just wrong, you’re impervious to correction or argument or persuasion, and not only that but proud of it. Despite knowing and acknowledging that you have changed your mind in the past, you dress up your current opinions as God’s laws and make a virtue of refusing to doubt them. You’re a horror show, you and your gang.

George misses Jerry

May 16th, 2007 12:14 pm | By

This is distasteful.

Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom…Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God…

Well, that’s one (major) reason atheists of the assertive type (for want of a better term) (even Anthony Gottlieb calls us ‘militant’ atheists, which I think is both pejorative and inaccurate, and unbecoming to a philosopher) get exasperated with theists of the assertive type. We don’t think grown-up people ought to ‘call upon’ people to believe in God, because there is no good reason to think ‘God’ exists, so calling upon us to believe in God amounts to calling upon us to abandon rational thought, and we don’t think that is a good or justified call.

Then there’s the alliterative faith, family, and freedom triplet; Bush’s idea of virtue. He said something similar at Miami Dade College a couple of weeks ago; similar but with an important difference:

At Miami Dade, you know firsthand the contributions that immigrants make to our country. You see every day the values of hard work, and family, and faith that immigrants bring.

Freedom swapped for hard work. Well duh – that’s what immigrants are for: to work hard at crap jobs for crap pay with crap benefits and crap protections; naturally Bush talks up hard work when talking to an audience of immigrants, despite not being famous for working hard himself. Hard work, family, and faith: the ideal package for a docile labour pool. And the core duo, faith and family, are the basic reactionary program: one the enemy of free independent critical thought, the other a code for hostility to freedom, independence and autonomy for women. No doubt it never crossed Bush’s mind that there is a tension between the valorization of ‘faith’ and freedom; that faith in some ways limits and interferes with freedom; and especially that some people who ‘live lives of faith’ and ‘call upon people to believe in God’ decidedly use ‘faith’ as a weapon to smash any freedoms they don’t like. But it should have. It’s ludicrous to say Jerry Falwell cherished freedom.

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this [9/11] happen.’

AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.

I listen to feminists and all these radical gals. … These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home.

Timothy Noah issued a slightly less emollient press release.

God, they say, is love, but the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died May 15, hit the jackpot trafficking in small-minded condemnation…On news of Falwell’s death, McCain said in a statement, “Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Nonsense. He was a bigot, a reactionary, a liar, and a fool.

And public officials should not be pretending otherwise. Fred Phelps is not a peppery but essentially decent guy; Pat Robertson is not a lamp unto our feet; and Jerry Falwell was not a man of distinguished accomplishment. Tell the truth, you schmucks.

Steely resolve

May 15th, 2007 11:16 am | By

The Wolfowitz Matter is fairly enthralling. The level of narcissism and self-absorbtion that must be involved rivets the attention.

Wolfowitz effectively blamed Riza for his predicament as well, saying that her “intractable position” in demanding a salary increase as compensation for her career disruption forced him to grant one to pre-empt a lawsuit…The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said some board members hope a strong statement of dissatisfaction would persuade the Bush administration to withdraw support for Wolfowitz. But the White House views the stakes as larger than control of the World Bank, said a senior administration official, with U.S. resolve and power on the line — in particular the longstanding right of the United States to name the head of the institution.

‘Resolve’ – they’re big on resolve in this administration. Well they would be, wouldn’t they – given how incompetent they are, given their inability to take advice or listen to people not in the magic circle, given their insistence on putting political hacks with no relevant experience in crucial, often highly technical jobs – how could they not value ‘resolve’? That way stupid, venal, greedy, mindless mistakes become tests of character, which they always pass with flying colours simply by being obstinate and refusing ever to admit error. What a good wheeze. Merit, ability, experience, knowledge, good judgment, all go out the window, because all that matters is resolve and power. Great! Terrific! They can’t find their own rumps in the dark, but they’re resolute and thuggish; perfect! Just what one wants running 1) the US and 2) powerful international institutions. Spiffy.

“Mr. Wolfowitz placed his own personal interests in opposition to the interests of the institution,” the report found. “In so doing, he undermined the legal safeguards the institution had in place to protect itself from the harm it has unfortunately now come to experience.” The report reserved its sharpest judgment for the public struggle Wolfowitz has waged to save his job in recent weeks, criticizing the bank’s probe in the press. “It has turned an internal governance matter into an ugly public relations campaign,” the report said, asserting that in unleashing “public attacks,” Wolfowitz “denigrates the very institution he was selected to lead.”

Well but that’s because it’s not about the World Bank, it’s about Paul Wolfowitz. Let’s get our priorities straight, shall we?

Oh, no one, it’s just God

May 14th, 2007 3:34 pm | By

There’s some funny stuff in this piece by Anthony Gottlieb on the new atheist books.

In some religious research, it is not necessarily the respondents who are credulous. Harris has made much of a survey that suggests that forty-four per cent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to judge mankind within the next fifty years. But, in 1998, a fifth of non-Christians in America told a poll for Newsweek that they, too, expected Jesus to return. What does Harris make of that? Any excuse for a party, perhaps…Harris takes at face value a Gallup poll suggesting that eighty-three per cent of Americans regard it as the Word of God, and he, like Dawkins and Hitchens, uses up plenty of ink establishing the wickedness of many tales in the Old Testament. Critics of the Bible should find consolation in the fact that many people do not have a clue what is in it. Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

Cool. Bible is Word of God, but who cares what’s in it? That’s the spirit! So if God actually dropped in for a beer and a handful of Doritos, nobody would look up from Maximum Exposure to say ‘how do’ and ask what the divine plan actually is? If God parted the heavens and announced in a loud voice that it was time to listen up and take heed, everybody would just say ‘yeah, yeah’ and take no further notice? If there were a CD with what eighty-three per cent of Americans regarded as the actual voice of God singing ‘It Had to Be You,’ would they not bother to listen? What a very pleasing thought.

And there’s a dreamy incoherence in their conviction that moderate forms of religion somehow enable fundamentalist zeal and violence to survive. Are we really going to tame the fervor of an extremist imam’s mosque in Waziristan by weakening the plush-toy creed of a nondenominational church in Chappaqua?

Well if you put it that way…

Oh who cares about TB, big deal

May 13th, 2007 3:33 pm | By

Joan Smith considers the Shambo question.

The temple has been served with a notice insisting that he be put down, prompting outrage among representatives of the country’s Hindus, who consider cattle sacred and claim that slaughtering the infected animal would be an affront to their religion. “It strikes at the very core of our beliefs,” said Ramesh Kallidai, the secretary general of the Hindu Forum of Britain…[I]n 1935, when a voluntary testing scheme was introduced for cattle, 50,000 new cases of human TB were recorded annually in this country and 2,500 people died from a form of the disease passed on through cow’s milk. That’s why testing was made compulsory in 1950, along with a raft of other measures designed to prevent transmission between cattle and humans. The low incidence of the disease in recent years is in large part due to the measures adopted in the past century.

So there you have it: ‘the very core of our beliefs’ versus the public health. The public health should trump the beliefs.

One of the myths promulgated by believers – a sacred cow, if I might use that term – is that there is no conflict between science and religion. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this sorry tale demonstrates, and I’m beginning to wonder whether there are any limits at all on the demands by different faith groups for special treatment.

I can answer that. No, there are no such limits. Fasten your seat belts.

Created partition and called it peace

May 13th, 2007 3:21 pm | By

Nick Cohen takes a critical look at sectarianism.

The old sectarian leaders [Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley] looked like a pair of exhausted warlords, who, after 30 years of a pointless conflict, were content to settle for a division of the spoils. There was no hint of a common political culture, no shared understanding of the principles of secular democracy, just a truce between bosses in which each left the other free to run his fiefdom and the quangos and ministries which went with it. A bus ride through Belfast should convince doubters that the Good Friday Agreement created partition and called it peace. The walls that went up to separate Catholics from Protestants in the Seventies have not been torn down. There are more of them now than ever. Catholics travel for miles to avoid a Protestant leisure centre and Protestants go out of their way to avoid a Catholic newsagent.

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Just like Baghdad, and Darfur, and Kashmir, and Kano, and Trincomalee, and Istanbul, and all the other dulcet harmonious fragrant bits of the globe where people devotedly hate each other for being in the wrong Whatever?

Mutual loathing ought to have been combated by breaking up Northern Ireland’s segregated schools…For all the praise given to them, just 5 per cent of Northern Ireland’s pupils attend integrated schools today…[T]he overwhelming majority of Ulster’s children can go from four to 18 without having a serious conversation with a member of a rival creed. They mingle only when they reach the workplace because, oddly, the religious discrimination on which the education system rests is illegal at work.

Yeh that is odd – because whatever it is that makes religious discrimination a bad idea at work – bad enough to make it illegal – is also what makes it a bad idea at school; only more so because children are more credulous than adults.

Down with sectarianism, up with universalism.

Closely watched by the outside world

May 13th, 2007 11:51 am | By


The South Asia Media Commission has condemned the harassment of Tasneem Khalil, an investigative journalist in Bangladesh, and sought an explanation and apology from the authorities…The four men took Khalil, 26, to the Sangsad Bhavan army camp, outside the parliament building in Dhaka. He was released on Friday night after more than a daylong grilling…“We are very much worried about Tasneem Khalil’s safety. He is being harassed too often,” N Ram, the chairman, and Najam Sethi, the secretary general of the commission, said in a statement welcoming Khalil’s release. “The Bangladeshi military should desist from such arbitrary actions which are being closely watched by the outside world,” they said in the statement issued by SAMC coordinator Husain Naqi.

Yes they are – by Human Rights Watch, by Reporters Without Borders, by the Committee to Protect Journalists, by too few (in this case) mainstream media outfits, and – by internet busybodies like us: by Sunny and Sonia and others at Pickled Politics, by Richard at Philosophy Etcetera, by Cam at Sculpin, by John at Obscene Desserts, by Harry’s Place, by Drishtipat, and by many more. This is good. I have no idea if it made any difference or not – for all we know the military always intended to administer a daylong grilling and then let Tasneem go – but as a general principle it seems useful to focus laser-like attention on this kind of activity. Whatever theocracies and military dictatorships may say about their indifference to what the rest of the world thinks, it seems reasonably safe to assume they would prefer to fly under the radar.

I’m a little uncertain about the politics of linking to a Pakistan paper on this subject, given the history between Bangladesh and Pakistan (just as I’m cautious about using Indian media as sources on Pakistan, and vice versa), but it was the only paper I saw that had the report, and the South Asian Media Net looks legitimate and useful. But do take all that into account.

How does she know?

May 12th, 2007 4:20 pm | By

I saw a few minutes of a Bill Moyers tv thing last night that included some chat with a fresh-faced young person who had just graduated from something called (unpleasantly) ‘Regent University’ – it’s apparently run by Pat Robertson, and includes John Ashcroft on its faculty. The fresh-faced young person told the camera that she believes in Absolute Truth. ‘Not grey, not relative, Absolute Truth, which is God’s truth.’

Nothing surprising there, of course, but all the same I wondered (as I often do) how she knows. How does she know? How does she know what God’s truth is?

She doesn’t, of course, but that’s what’s interesting, because she thinks she does. Why does she think that?

Largely or entirely because she’s had little opportunity to think anything else, I would guess. But all the same it is a little bit interesting that it tends not to occur to people to wonder how they know what they think they know. I don’t think it occurred to me much when I was her age (and I had much better opportunities that way, I imagine). On the other hand it could be argued that it ought to have occurred to her, because she was full of her plans to go out and tell everyone else what she knows, and urge them to know it too, and persuade them to be like her by her example of being good and living a good life. She had missionary plans, teaching plans, evangelical plans; therefore, perhaps, she had some duty to think about the material she was planning to teach, and whether she had any real reason to think it’s true, and any real right to try to get other people to think it’s true. Perhaps she had some duty to wonder, if God’s truth is Absolute then God must want us to know what it is, and if God wants us to know what it is, why doesn’t God tell us all what it is in such a way that we cannot make a mistake? A duty to wonder not in the sense of trying to think of the most plausible explanation that will leave her idea of God intact (God wants us to be free; too much evidence might be bad for us; God wants to woo us; God has told us but we turn away because we are evil; the fool hath said there is no God), but in the sense of really thinking about the question. It is a real question. If it’s so absolute, and it belongs to God, why doesn’t everyone know it, with no questions at all?

I have no immediate plans to enroll at Regent University in order to find out.

What matters, and why?

May 12th, 2007 10:44 am | By

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose a 24 hour period during which every heterosexual copulation on the planet resulted in conception and then, 48 hours later, spontaneous abortion. Would that be a tragedy?

Then suppose a 24 hour period during which every infant born between 48 and 72 hours earlier, died. Would that be a tragedy?

It seems to me that people who think an embryo is just as important as a neonate would answer yes to the first. But what I wonder is, why? Why would that be a tragedy? More particularly, to whom would it be a tragedy? Can something be a tragedy to no one and still be a tragedy?

The problem is that no one would know about the first event. (Bracket people who are trying to conceive and fail on this particular occasion, for the sake of argument, because that’s a separate issue.) No one would know it had happened, including, obviously, the microscopic cluster of cells it happened to. If no one knows about it, and it has no effect on the outside world (thus being unlike a tree falling in the forest unheard by any humans), in what sense can it be a tragedy?

Tasneem Khalil

May 10th, 2007 5:47 pm | By

Update: There are reports that Tasneem has been released, but so far they seem to be reporting each other, all reporting something Human Rights Watch said. It’s not absolutely clear how HRW knows – although Tasneem works for them, so they probably do know. Still, I’ll feel happier when some major media report it. But it’s the middle of the night everywhere but Seattle; no doubt by the time I get on the computer tomorrow there will be lots of major media reports.

This is terrible. I know Tasneem – well not know, exactly, but we’ve swapped emails, he’s a fan of B&W and sends me links to his excellent articles; I think of him as a friend in Bangladesh. I also think of him as a brave, at risk friend in Bangladesh, and sure enough, they showed up at midnight and took him away. This is not good. Bangladesh does not have a good record on this kind of thing – which is exactly what Tasneem has been reporting on – which is why they showed up at midnight and took him away. Make noise. If you have any way to make noise (blog, newspaper, captive audience, etc), make it. Spread it around. I was alerted by an email from Tasneem’s wife (sent to a bunch of people); I forwarded it to a few people who can make noise; I even took the liberty of forwarding it to Amartya Sen. No, I don’t know him, but I was pretty sure he’d be interested, so why not.

Hm – I know what I could do. I could break protocol and tell everyone on the B&W mailing list – that’s over a thousand people, many of whom are journalists or academics or BBC producers with inside knowledge of silencing by oppressive regimes (well not many of those that I know of, only one). Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. You do something too if you can.

Misogyny’s last hideout

May 9th, 2007 11:25 am | By

It’s hard not to suspect that the real reason abortion is such a hot issue in some places is that it offers what looks like a respectable or decent pretext or excuse for pushing women around and telling them what to do, when none of the other pretexts for doing that retain a shred of respectability. Abortion is the one ‘reason’ for bossing and controlling and confining women; for, in short, taking away their autonomy. It’s the last resort – it’s what’s left when all the old ‘traditional’ unreasonable ones have been shown up and knocked down and got rid of. When they can’t be defended any more, there is one last way: abortion. Hooray hooray, there is still one way we can tell women, forcibly, with the full power of the law: No you are not equal, no you may not decide your own fate, no your life is not in your hands, no you are not a person like other persons (you are a vehicle for other people, instead), no you do not belong to yourself, no you may not make the most basic decisions about your own life, no you do not have autonomy, no you are not free. No. You are subordinate; you are an instrument; you belong to everyone; you are in our power; we can control you; we can tell you what to do; and we damn well will.

And as a delightful fun bonus, we can express contempt for you, we can scorn you and hate you, we can talk about prom dresses and dirty weekends, we can pretend you are of your nature stupid and childish and trivial. And we can do it all in the glow of self-righteousness and moral superiority and tender caring concern for tiny helpless creatures. We can talk contemptuously about women who get abortions so that they can wear a bikini, a new dress, tight jeans, Jimmy Choo shoes; or so that they can go away for the weekend, so that they can go to the prom, so that they won’t miss that hot date, so that they won’t be feeling queasy for the company picnic, so that they won’t get zits. In short, we can mine a rich vein of misogynist sexist contemptuous trivialization of women and women’s autonomy and women’s right to autonomy. We can do an anti-thought experiment. Don’t even think about having any claim to your own life, your own right to make decisions about your own life, your independence, your freedom, your room to breathe, your adulthood, honey, because if you try it we’ll all get together and point out what stupid shallow trivial childish girly frivolous things you want it for, which is to say, we’ll all get together and point out what stupid shallow trivial childish girly frivolous kinds of human beings you all fundamentally are, thus convincing everyone that you have no right to autonomy and to make your own decisions, because you’re too stupid and too weak and too shallow and too likely to murder the baby just because you feel like going to the movies.

That kind of thing is frowned on in most polite discourse, but the fatwa against abortion makes it acceptable. It’s not misogyny, it’s concern for the baby, whose ruthless frivolous heartless mother wants to kill it because it might mess up her hairdo.

To the extent that that’s true, opposition to abortion is pure whited sepulcher. Something very nasty dressed up as something very nice.


May 8th, 2007 12:09 pm | By

Update. I tweaked this a little to make it clearer that it was the idea behind the law I was criticising and not the lawyer.

Irrelevant? Really?

The right to life of Miss D’s unborn child continues until it is dead, the High Court heard yesterday. The courts cannot engage in “a measuring exercise” about the capacity of the child prior to birth, a lawyer representing the unborn said. “This is a live foetus, that is the beginning and end of it, and the fact it has no brain and cannot survive after birth is irrelevant,” James Connolly, SC, said.

He’s the lawyer who is arguing for that side, so he has to say something, but the idea behind what he says is peculiar. The fact that it has no brain and cannot survive after birth is irrelevant. Is it? To whom? On what grounds? How could it be irrelevant to, for instance, the person who has to give birth to it? How could that be anything other than, precisely, relevant? About as relevant as any fact could be.

Mr Connolly, who was appointed by the Attorney General last week to represent the rights of the unborn in the D case, said the right to life of Miss D’s baby was entitled to protection under the Constitution. The Constitution, he submitted, did not permit the courts to measure the quality or duration of life of an unborn. Miss D’s baby has the same rights between its birth and its death as any other child under the Constitution.

Did he say that? Or did the reporter get it wrong? If he did say that, it must have been a slip, because ‘Miss D’s baby’ is not born yet, and that is the whole point.

This business of refusing to measure quality or duration of life is the heart of the matter, of course. It’s interesting because it can sound like the moral high ground, but in fact it’s cruel and punitive and coercive. It’s cruel to say ‘No you may not measure or evaluate your quality of life and decide to end it if it is nothing but intolerable suffering with no hope; no, you must stay alive whether you want to or not because we say so.’ It’s also cruel to say ‘No you may not evaluate the quality of life of your foetus; no, you must let nature take its course so that you can watch it die as an infant rather than ending its futile gestation because we say so.’ It’s a live foetus, and that is the beginning and end of it; life life life, that’s the only issue. Bullshit. Dandelions are alive, fleas are alive, bacteria are alive; so what? Cells are alive; so what? Life is not the only issue; sentience and consciousness are a huge part of the issue, and it’s just theocratic willfullness and tyranny to brush them aside in order to sashay around on the putative moral high ground.

One is the act, the other is the agent

May 7th, 2007 11:27 am | By

Hmm. I’ve spotted a possible addendum or amendment that could make the apparent disagreement disappear like a popped soap bubble. I think getting it right – the gerund, the activity, the verb – is praiseworthy; but that doesn’t mean I think people who get it right are necessarily praiseworthy for doing so. I don’t really think that, I suppose – I just think they ought to, we ought to, as we ought to be civil and considerate as opposed to rude and troublesome. Maybe that was the point. I can buy that. Sure – I get it! The smugness and self-congratulation comes in if people preen themselves on simply doing the right thing. Now that, I think, is a reasonable point, and rather interesting.

Getting things right, or trying to

May 7th, 2007 11:05 am | By

I’ve been pondering the connection (if any) between getting things right or getting at the truth, and merit. The pondering was prompted by this post at Talking Philosophy and specifically one part of the overall argument:

I don’t think that getting things right – in the sense of believing or accepting something to be true, rather than finding out that something is true (yes, I know – the distinction is complex) – is praiseworthy. Or, at least, I don’t think it is praiseworthy enough to justify the cloying smugness that some people – and groups – manifest when they think that they have got things right.

I saw the point of that at first (and perhaps still do in the sense that I’m not sure anything is praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, because cloying smugness just isn’t a good thing), but I also had some reservations.

The first is that in fact getting things right even in the first sense is praiseworthy in many contexts. Not necessarily praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, but if that standard is applied too broadly then the point becomes kind of not a point – it becomes just a matter of pointing out that cloying smugness is bad, which few will dispute. It seems fair to assume that there is a question about amount of praiseworthiness here, and that that is the issue, and worth talking about. And my claim is that getting things right, even if it is just belief or acceptance of existing findings, is praiseworthy in many situations, and that its opposite is dispraiseworthy, and in fact wrong. Think forensics, research, engineering, law, medicine, agriculture, education, to name just a few – in all of them, the goal is to get things right and avoid getting them wrong, and doing that always involves quite a lot of acceptance of existing findings. It’s true enough that that’s pretty much a default position, and not really something to glory in (‘Hey, get me, I’m following the rules!’), but it is better than the alternative. Given that there is such a thing as getting it wrong, and that there are such things as lying and cheating and concealment, I think it’s worth hanging on to the awareness that getting it right really is better than getting it wrong, and in that sense praiseworthy. After all, there are entire professions (of sorts) which do not value getting it right, and they can do a great deal of damage. Think advertising, PR, lobbying, political spinning. They don’t rule out getting it right, but getting it right is not their goal and it’s not essential; it is expendable. If we think lies told by PR firms or advertisers or presidents are a bad thing, then we think getting it right is praiseworthy. That’s a very minimal sense of praiseworthy, but perhaps worth keeping all the same.

My other reservation is that I think it’s often not so much that skeptics think they are praiseworthy as that they are reacting to claims by believers that they are despicable. There is an idea among believers that belief and ‘faith’ are necessary for morality as well as various other valuable qualities (wonder, awe, reverence, gratitude) and that non-believers are at the very least handicapped in certain ways. Non-believers get tired of hearing this, and we sometimes (or often) react with vehemence or sarcasm or disdain or all those; this can look like smugness. It can also be smugness; I don’t deny that; but I think there are sometimes reasons other than (or in addition to) pure narcissism for the smugness. I think it’s often reactive.

A fun outing

May 6th, 2007 11:36 am | By


Cellphone videos have appeared on the Internet showing an Iraqi mob stoning and kicking to death a 17-year-old girl after she offended her minority community by eloping with a Muslim man…In the video – on the Kurdish website Jebar.Info and rapidly spreading on the Internet – Aswad is shown lying in the road as men kick her and throw a large lump of rock or concrete at her head. Her face is drenched in blood but uniformed and armed officers of the Iraqi police stand by and do nothing to prevent the attack…At one point she struggles to sit up and cover herself, but a man kicks her in the face knocking her violently back to the ground…Members of a large crowd can be seen filming the murder on their cellphones, some of them shouting or kicking out at the cowering victim. Nobody tries to help her.

What a lovely, lovely, heartening story. How pleasant it is to know that a mob of men can stand around watching and even fucking filming a slight thin teenage girl being kicked and bludgeoned with rocks, and 1) not help her and 2) join in.

No actually it isn’t pleasant. It’s both horrifying and terrifying. It’s despair-inducing – to know that people can and do let stupid, trivial, unimportant rules or traditions or loyalties or ideologies override what ought to be natural pity and revulsion and fellow-feeling to the point that they can take pleasure in battering people to death.


May 3rd, 2007 12:47 pm | By

From Why Atheism? by George Smith (Prometheus 2000) p. 17:

If most Christians (and other religious believers) dismiss atheism outright, this is not because they have examined the arguments for atheism and found them wanting, but because they do not take atheism seriously enough to examine its arguments in detail. Atheism, in their view, lacks credibility, so they have no motive to examine it further. To portray atheism as utterly lacking in credibility has long played a crucial role in religious propaganda. Atheism must be rendered unthinkable, because doubt, if left unchecked, can easily propel the believer down the path of deconversion (the process by which a religious believer becomes an atheist)…To say that atheism is credible is to suggest that the atheist may be right; to say that the atheist may be right is to suggest that the Christian may be wrong; to say that the Christian may be wrong is to suggest that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge; to say that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge is to suggest that each and every tenet of Christianity should be reexamined in the light of reason.

That would explain a lot. That would explain the way theists fail to engage with the arguments that atheists actually make, and it would explain the way they pretend atheists make silly futile claims that they don’t actually make. That would be because theists aren’t paying attention to what atheists say at all, they’re just ignoring all of it and proceeding on their own pre-ordained track, like a runaway train ignoring all signals because the engineer has stepped outside for a sandwich.


May 3rd, 2007 11:12 am | By

What is the morality behind forcing a girl or woman to carry to term an anencephalic foetus that will die within days of birth?

Doctors have told the girl that her four-month foetus will not live more than a few days beyond birth. She is in the care of Ireland’s health service which has issued an order stopping her from going to Britain…Miss D was informed last month that her foetus has anencephaly, a condition which means that a large part of the brain and skull is missing. Babies with anencephaly live a maximum of just three days after birth.

What is the principle at work here? I don’t understand it. I don’t even begin to understand it. Ireland’s health service wants this teenager to carry the foetus for another five months so that she can give birth to it the usual painful way and then watch it die? Because…what? God is punishing her and we mustn’t interfere with God’s punishments? But then there wouldn’t be such a thing as Ireland’s health service at all. No, I don’t begin to understand it. It just looks like stark sadism and cruelty.


May 2nd, 2007 4:10 pm | By

There’s an irony in all this – or maybe it’s two or three ironies. Steven Poole said yesterday in a comment on his post at Unspeak:

In exciting news, the cudgels of anti-anti-anti-intellectualism or whatever have been taken up by Ophelia Benson, scourge of what she is pleased to call “fashionable nonsense”, who takes me, mystifyingly, to be saying It is forbidden to criticize Zizek. Oh well. I suppose she was not sufficiently delighted with my review of her recent book.

Mystifyingly? But what else can ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman’ mean? If it doesn’t mean that, what is the point of such tendentious language? (From someone who has written a book about, I take it, tendentious language! There’s one of the ironies.) But that’s not the main irony; the main irony is related to the last sentence. Disregard the resort (as with Johann Hari) to an unwarranted and of course ill-mannered speculation about motivation, in order to consider the substance. In fact I quite liked his review of Why Truth Matters, and I was ‘sufficiently delighted’ with it. (And I didn’t need a fanciful motivation for commenting on his substance-free invective-heavy post on Hari’s article; I simply thought it was bad, and bad in an interesting and noteworthy way; that’s motivation enough.) It wasn’t entirely accurate though. It wasn’t so inaccurate that I decided to wait almost a year and then comment on a blog post of his by way of revenge, but it did contain an inaccuracy. It’s this:

Sadly, the authors also follow a modern tradition of lumping Jacques Derrida in with a bunch of his inferiors and slapping him around too, without showing persuasively that they have actually read much of the man’s work.

The inaccurate part is that we didn’t slap Derrida around, we slapped around some of his fans, which is a different thing. And where the irony comes in is that what we slapped his fans around for is for doing exactly what Poole did in this post: treating criticism of the hero as in some way illegitimate, and doing it not by offering evidence that the hero is better than the critic thinks, but by dragging in irrelevancies. In fact one irony here is that he ought to be right: that ought to be why I wrote the comment on his post yesterday, because it does tie up neatly with the mistake he made in his review of WTM: he was wrong about what we said, and he had made the same kind of mistake we were criticizing, himself. Very very neat. But in fact that’s not why. I remembered he’d written a review, and that it was favourable in parts, but I didn’t remember the details. If anything I felt more benevolent than not, because the review was more good than not. But that’s not the point: the point is that he apparently missed the point of what we said about Derrida’s fans, and that that makes sense because he argues the same way himself. Interesting.

If you’re curious about which fans of Derrida we slapped around, you can revisit this – it’s Judith Butler’s letter to the New York Times protesting against ‘Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary’ of him. I’ve commented on it before here, but it was years ago – before we wrote WTM. Oh look – she cites ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism’ too. There’s even more irony than I thought. Well there you go: criticism of Derrida and Zizek is impermissible and ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism.’ Why? Well, according to Butler at any rate, it has to do with fame. Derrida is too damn famous to be criticized by some mere reporter (cf. Poole’s scornful repetition of ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari’).

If Derrida’s contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, the theory of painting, communications, ethics, and politics made him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, it is because of the precision of his thought, the way his thinking always took a brilliant and unanticipated turn, and because of the constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility.

Uh huh. And if his contributions didn’t make him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, what is that because of? Who knows. But the inconsequentiality of the argument and the air of high dudgeon in the whole letter are, shall we say, not unfamiliar. That’s the irony.

Reason crash

May 2nd, 2007 3:02 pm | By

This is really tragic. Those poor sad deprived confined young people.

At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, “There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.” Across the country, on secular campuses…chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember…A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually…

That’s terrible. Almost 80 percent! Almost 80 percent of first year students can’t think straight. Well we knew US high schools are mostly not very good, but all the same, that’s pretty shocking.