Notes and Comment Blog

Must not Strive Officiously to Keep Alive

Mar 10th, 2006 7:01 pm | By

Norm wrote a post a few days ago on lying as speech, taking off partly from some of my posts on Irving. I’ve been wanting to consider the subject a little more.

I think we may be talking about slightly (or perhaps not so slightly) different things.

Now, even though Ophelia puts the point interrogatively and not as a conclusion, one can only assume she does so to leave open the possibility that falsehood, lying and such shouldn’t be protected under norms of free speech, and therefore may in certain circumstances be criminalized.

Hmm. No, it’s not really criminalization that I’m talking about. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but I’m not sure I therefore think his falsehoods should be protected. I’m not talking about criminalization so much as about right, and rights. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but do I therefore think he has a right to falsify history? No, I don’t – at least not a moral right, and that’s part of what I’m saying – that the fact that falsification of history should not (on the whole – there could be exceptions) be an imprisonable offence does not necessarily mean that it’s a right in all possible senses. Is that incoherent? I don’t think so. Look at the Dover school board – they found via Judge Jones’s decision that they don’t have a right to force science teachers to teach religion in the classroom, but they didn’t go to prison.

I cannot imagine there would be an argument for innocuous falsehoods, even where these are deliberate, to be criminalized. Surely people must still be allowed to maintain that the world is flat (whether knowing this to be false or not), to claim – at Hyde Park Corner – Napoleon as a direct blood ancestor when he is not, and to assert that the Romans had mobile phones though no trace of these has survived. The examples may be frivolous, but the point isn’t; it’s that what matters in the present context is not any old false or lying claims for which there is no evidence, but falsehoods which could do grave harm.

Why Hyde Park Corner, I wonder? Why the stipulation, between hyphens, as an afterthought, of Hyde Park Corner? It’s interesting, because I agree with Norm if he really does mean ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and not in textbooks or history books by reputable (trusted) publishers. But if he means ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and in textbooks and history books by reputable (trusted) publishers, then I don’t. But he probably doesn’t mean that, or he wouldn’t have stipulated Hyde Park Corner. But this is just where the difficulty (or one of them) comes in. The park soapbox doesn’t matter much, because it’s wide open (like the internet), there are no filters, anyone can stand on a chair and say any old fool thing, and most hearers know that. But in textbooks and history books (for instance) readers don’t know that. So do people have a ‘right’ to falsify the evidence – by mistranslating, dropping a few zeroes from numbers, that sort of thing – in history books? I don’t think they do. And, actually, I’m not sure anyone thinks they do. It’s not usually considered a violation of rights when copyeditors and fact checkers and researchers correct mistakes in manuscripts is it? (Assuming they actually do correct mistakes as opposed to inserting mistakes of their own, which can happen, she said through gritted teeth.) And then consider science. Scientists tend to be really quite harsh about falsification of evidence. Really very sharp indeed, when it comes to their attention. They don’t think their colleagues have a right to fake their experiments, do they? No. In fact fakery is a firing offense, even though not (usually) one that gets you sent to prison.

So – given that Irving was found by the judge at the libel trial to have not merely got things wrong but to have faked the evidence – it’s not clear to me that he does really have a meaningful ‘right’ to do that, even though a prison sentence is probably the wrong way to deal with the matter.

Yet, if rights of free speech on scientific, historical and other such matters are not to be held to cover the assertion – even deliberate – of untruths, then it assigns the task of determining truth to some political authority, and that is surely a danger of its own kind. There is truth and untruth, to be sure, but in the domain we are discussing, the (always provisional) finding of truth is left to processes of free enquiry, the standards set by communities of scholars, public debate and criticism. It is an open-ended and democratic search, and it countenances opposition to and denial even of the most established results. Stipulation of the truth by a political or legal authority does not fit in well with this and it has a bad historical track record.

Yes, ideally, but what about for instance public hearings about textbooks, at which religious campaigners attempt to insert ‘corrections’ that have no scholarly basis? It is in fact a political authority that makes the decision. The issue of falsifications and inaccuracies in books becomes a matter of political or legal authority when state schools are involved – that seems to be inevitable.

Perhaps the relevant distinction is between prevention and punishment. I don’t think Irving should be punished, but I do think he should be prevented, at least from publishing (by publishers rather than by cops). So in that sense, I don’t think he does have a right to protected free speech. I don’t think we’re obliged to make any affirmative efforts to see that his falsifications get placed in the permanent record. I don’t think he should be forcibly silenced, but I don’t think he should be officiously handed a megaphone, either.


Mar 10th, 2006 5:13 pm | By

This is an immensely irritating article. Very typical, and symptomatic, and all the more irritating for that.

More than half of Americans believe there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion and that the faith encourages violence against non-Muslims, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll yesterday…Analysts blame the surge on a confluence of factors…above all, the riotous protests across the Muslim world against Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Analysts ‘blame the surge’ on ‘riotous protests’ in which a lot of people were killed – killed dead, over some cartoons, the most ‘offensive’ of which was faked. Well, yes, that probably was a factor. In other words analysts ‘blame the surge’ on real events, and people’s awareness of those real events. Well – is that not allowed? Are people not allowed to observe real events and draw conclusions from them? What are we supposed to do? Observe real events and decide on principle not to draw any unpleasant conclusions from them? Are we supposed to observe Fred Phelps and his followers (one of whom gave an interview on the World Service last night that was quite astonishing) and not draw any conclusions about them?

But nearly half of Americans, 46%, said they held unfavourable attitudes towards Islam – compared with 24% in January 2002. The Post quoted analysts as saying that the demonisation of Islam by politicians and the media during the past four years had led to an erosion of tolerance.

So, there’s our answer: yes, we are supposed to observe real events and not draw particular conclusions from them. There are conclusions we’re not supposed to draw, no matter what the evidence for them. There are certain conclusions that are ruled out in advance. There are certain conclusions that are ‘demonization’ and the opposite of ‘tolerance’ (and, no doubt, ‘respect’), and they are forbidden. The only permitted conclusion, apparently, is that all religions (or ‘faiths’) have exactly, and I mean exactly, the same ratio of good to bad, the same number of faults and virtues, the same moral value. That is simply a revealed truth, and it cannot be gainsaid by any amount of actual real-world actions or speech, any amount of facts and evidence. No number of beheadings of schoolgirls, stonings to death of women buried up to the neck while their children are made to watch, exploded tube trains and buses and pizza restaurants and discos, death threats, ‘honour’ killings, riots, fires – no such number is permitted to be taken into account. No. It is simply Forbidden to think that it might possibly conceivably actually be a mere fact that there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion and that Islam does encourage violence against non-Muslims. But what if it is in fact true? If it is in fact true, don’t we want to be able to take that in? Do we want to be forbidden to take it in by being told it is ‘demonization’? I would say no. Again, consider Fred Phelps. I don’t want to be told to ‘tolerate’ Fred Phelps – I want to reject him and everything he says. That principle applies across the board. We need to be able to judge religions and the ideas that animate them, and to say they are bad and harmful if they are in fact bad and harmful. It’s no good assuming anything is good or harmless without looking first. The use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ in the title of course sets the tone, by right from the outset (‘Islamophobia’ is the first word in the piece) telling us what to think: telling us to equate opinions critical of Islam with the loony-sounding ‘Islamophobia’. It was Islamists who came up with that idea, telling followers to use the word whenever possible; it’s pathetic that the Guardian helps out. It’s worse than pathetic.

James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, told the Post he was not surprised by the poll’s results. Politicians, authors and media commentators have demonised the Arab world since 2001, he said.

And here we just descend into hopeless confusion and inanity. The survey was about Islam, remember? Not Arabs? Islam? What’s the Arab American Institute got to do with anything? What’s ‘the Arab world’ got to do with anything? What are we talking about? Anything? Everything? Whatever comes to hand? Is this just a none-too-subtle ploy to equate criticism of Islam with racism? Similar to the ‘Islamophobia’ ploy? Either that or hopeless confusion. Anyway, classic.


Mar 9th, 2006 7:37 pm | By

Dworkin also good. I don’t agree with all of it, but there’s plenty of welcome clarity.

Freedom of speech is not just a special and distinctive emblem of Western culture that might be generously abridged or qualified as a measure of respect for other cultures that reject it…Free speech is a condition of legitimate government…So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness…Whatever multiculturalism means – whatever it means to call for increased “respect” for all citizens and groups – these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.

Yes, what does it mean to call for increased ‘respect’ for all groups – and ‘cultures’ and religions and practices and beliefs? It means complete and total abdication of judgment, as far as I can tell, and that seems like a bad idea. It’s disrespectful to people who recognize the need for judgment.

It is often said that religion is special, because people’s religious convictions are so central to their personalities that they should not be asked to tolerate ridicule of their beliefs, and because they might feel a religious duty to strike back at what they take to be sacrilege…But religion must observe the principles of democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one’s religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

That’s the basic point. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone – about anything, actually, not just what can or cannot be drawn or eaten or worn or read, but about anything. Religion is the wrong tool for legislation, so it can’t be treated as universally applicable.


Mar 9th, 2006 7:16 pm | By

Wole Soyinka asks: who is really bringing Islam into disrepute? He mentions the riots and death fatwa over the ‘Miss World’ contest and a journalist’s comment in Nigeria two years ago.

Predictably, I denounced the murderous orgy. To my astonishment, some liberal voices of the Western world, always liberal with the blood of others, and liberal in defense of the aggressor, chose to concentrate on the “impropriety” of importing “Western decadence” to the pristine innocence of and polluting her cultural values…The core of the main discourse was nearly lost – the sanctity of human lives over and above the claims of any icons of faith, however universally revered. Through such distractions is impunity born, and the law of the mob and its manipulators tacitly endorsed by the appeasers of the world.

As we have been seeing for the past several weeks – impunity is born, and the law of the mob and its manipulators is tacitly endorsed by the appeasers of the world. The more violent the protests are, the more bashful mumbling there is about respect and sensitivity. I wonder – were there a lot of liberals wandering around German towns the day after Kristallnacht, saying everyone should be sensitive and respectful about Nazis’ feelings and beliefs?

The Danish government, thank goodness, declined to assume the burden of guilt by succumbing to the call to apologize for the conduct of one of its citizens, an individual who at no time was accused of being its official, representative or spokesman, but a free agent in his own cause, however censurable. The proposition that a government should act as monitor for individual choice within a free society is repugnant.

The Danish government has done some apologizing now, unfortunately – perhaps understandably, in the circs, but unfortunately.

Even more determinedly, however, must we reject the attempt of any sectional authority or quasi-state to foist its will on those who do not subscribe to the mandates of its beliefs, cultures and values.

That’s exactly what we must reject. We must not embrace it or applaud it or sympathize with it or march beside it, we must reject it. Will-foisting is held in oddly high esteem at the moment, and that is a catastrophe. That’s a giant step down the road to theocracy, and we must reject it.

What the atavists of religion have done is to expand the “territory of insult” into a limitless one…More to the point, they have raised questions about the followers of the Prophet and their understanding of the world’s complexity.

And not only their understanding of the world’s complexity, but their priorities, and their compassion – as Soyinka also notes.

Is it in the midst of this rampaging, racist obscenity called Darfur that the world is being invited to shift even its hazy focus, close down shop on vital concerns, wallow in an orgy of remorse, while the United Nations suspends its operations on behalf of traumatized humanity, all on account of some obscure cartoonist possessed by the Muse of irreverence? Clearly the world is askew, but not in the way some see it.

Spot on. Stonings and beheadings, fine; cartoons, the end of the world. Disrepute.

Kitchener Poster

Mar 9th, 2006 6:01 pm | By

Your time has come at last. Remember last November I did a post called Things Fall Apart about the way bits were dropping off B&W which I couldn’t fix, and great crowds of you came surging forward to offer to help? Yes you do. Come on, of course you do. You said. Come back here right now –

No but really, it’s not much. I promise. It’s just to do with the update, and sending it out. I still keep getting sad emails from people who really liked reading the update every week, and passed it around to other people and discussed it, and miss it terribly. Each one is like a stab from a serrated dagger. So I’m going to send it out by hand. That means I have to put it together by hand, which means a lot of extra copying and pasting, which takes up some time; and after all that, I have to send it to about a thousand addresses, about fifty at a time. That’s twenty sends. If just a few of you dear loyal fans would help with the sending, that would cut down on the extra pasting and clicking at my end, thus freeing up more time for me to write hectoring nagging screeching N&Cs. The webmaster is going to send me the list of addresses, and I hope to send the first resurrected update on Monday, so if any of you would like to volunteer (you there in the back, creeping out the door, I see you, we all see you), email me to that effect. Love and kisses.

More Swinny

Mar 7th, 2006 10:35 pm | By

I mentioned that interview with Swinburne in What Philosophers Think.

It’s based on a discussion of a paper he gave at a Congress, about God and evil. He says the usual sort of thing –

…it’s a good thing that humans should have free will, not just free will to choose between alternative television channels, but free will to choose significantly between good and bad – good and evil in the terms of the paper. But, they can’t have that unless there is the actual possibility of them bringing about evil The possibility of evil occurring unprevented is the necessary condition for them having a free choice between good and evil.

That’s the same problem we had with his discussion with Dennett. Why is it a good thing that humans should have free will? We don’t even agree that it’s a good thing (for the universe, or the planet, or other biological systems, or anyone or anything other than humans themselves, which doesn’t seem to be what he means, or surely he would have said that, instead of saying ‘objectively’) that humans exist, so why would it be a good thing that, existing, humans should have free will? Why should that be any more of a good thing than that humans should have moles, or teeth, or calf muscles? Never mind – it gets more interesting, when the discussion turns to ‘natural evil’.

Human suffering as the result of disease – very frequent, not the result of free choice, or at any rate not the result of free choice unless there are bad angels at work causing it. That is possible, but it’s not something I would wish to promote very strongly. That sort of suffering is necessary because it gives the sufferer the opportunity to either be sorry for himself or to deal with it courageously. If he didn’t suffer he wouldn’t have the opportunity to deal with his suffering in either a courageous way or in a self-pitying way. It also gives other people – friends, spouse, children etc. – the opportunity to be sympathetic, to try and help him, for showing sympathy, feeling sympathy and doing something about it or not to bother. That is to say this is the grit that makes possible the pearl of different kinds of reaction. If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity, or nearly as much opportunity, to show courage, patience and sympathy. Of course I’m not suggesting that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum in order to give us endless opportunity, but I do think the world would be a poorer place if we didn’t have some opportunity to show ourselves at our best in this kind of way.

Actually, that is exactly what you’re suggesting, you simp. You can’t help suggesting that, because of what you’re saying. Because look – if the suffering as a result of disease is not real suffering, if it’s trivial, if it’s a mere mild lassitude or a slight ache in the calf muscle, then courage is beside the point, it’s not needed. For the courage to be actual courage, as opposed to just dramatizing, or downright joking (like howling the place down when you bump your elbow slightly, to make the dog look puzzled), it has to be real suffering. Right? So – the worse the suffering is, the more courage is needed, and the more courageous the courage is. So, if you’re fool enough to think the courage is worth the price of the suffering, then you do indeed think the more the merrier, or ‘that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum‘. That’s exactly what you are saying in that revolting passage. You might as well say people should whip their children every few hours so that the children can bear it courageously and the parents can show them sympathy. It makes just that much sense.

We’ve seen this argument before. Some rabbi on Thought for the Day – I think arguing against the legal right to die, on the grounds that he wouldn’t have wanted his father to have had that option, because then he would have missed the opportunity to show his father compassion – during his suffering. So he wanted his father to suffer so that he could show him compassion – badly enough that he was glad his father wasn’t able to choose whether to suffer (and get the compassion) or not. Excuse me, but I think that’s disgusting.

Then there’s a really dreadful passage about being of use to others. ‘I brought out several examples of that, of which, of course, the most striking would be the person who dies for his country in a just war.’ Julian asks about suffering that seems to be of no use to anyone, and cites the Battle of the Somme as an example.

Well, that particular soldier’s life is also of use…someone sent him there, some general high up has taken a decision about this matter…Innumerable people, through negligence, through stirring up hatred, through not bothering, have contributed to war. It’s a great good for them that they are allowed to make big differences to things, and they can only make big differences to things if there are going to be possible victims.

That’s – beyond disgusting. That’s blood-curdling. That’s enough to make you run screaming from the room. As Julian (more politely) notes.

Swinburne had already said that his argument wouldn’t convince the committed atheist and wouldn’t make much difference to the committed believer. Reconciling God and evil is of most value to the undecided or unsure. Leaving the interview, I was unsure as to whether the very precise reconciliation Swinburne describes will have the effect of clearing the way for belief in God or making the very idea of God a more chilling one.

More chilling!

Resisting Obscurantism

Mar 7th, 2006 7:10 pm | By

And André Glucksmann says what badly needs saying.

Offence for offence? Infringement for infringement? Can the negation of Auschwitz be put on a par with the desecration of Muhammad? This is where two philosophies clash. The one says yes, these are equivalent “beliefs” which have been equally scorned. There is no difference between factual truth and professed faith; the conviction that the genocide took place and the certitude that Muhammad was illuminated by Archangel Gabriel are on a par. The others say no, the reality of the death camps is a matter of historical fact, whereas the sacredness of the prophets is a matter of personal belief.

Thank you. Finally! No, evidence-based facts are not the same kind of thing as religious beliefs. They are, in fact, in crucial ways opposites, diametrically opposed, incompatible. It’s about time we got that straight.

This distinction between fact and belief is at the heart of Western thought…Civilised discourse analyses and defines scientific truths, historic truths and matters of fact relating to knowledge, not to faith. And it does this irrespective of race or confession. We may believe these facts are profane or undignified, yet they remain distinct from religious truths. Our planet is not in the grips of a clash of civilisations or cultures. It is the battleground of a decisive struggle between two ways of thinking. There are those who declare that there are no facts, but only interpretations – so many acts of faith. These either tend toward fanaticism (“I am the truth”) or they fall into nihilism (“nothing is true, nothing is false”). Opposing them are those who advocate free discussion with a view to distinguishing between true and false, those for whom political and scientific matters – or simple judgement – can be settled on the basis of worldly facts, independently of arbitrary pre-established opinions.

And not only can be, but have to be, on pain of being consigned to the horrible mental prison where intensity of belief determines what is true.

A totalitarian way of thinking loathes to be gainsaid. It affirms dogmatically, and waves the little red, or black, or green book. It is obscurantist, blending politics and religion…It is high time that the democrats regained their spirit, and that the constitutional states remembered their principles. With solemnity and solidarity they must recall that one, two or three religions, four or five ideologies may in no way decide what citizens can do or think.

Damn right.

Remember, the Pope is a Catholic

Mar 7th, 2006 6:48 pm | By

Julian has a good thing in the Guardian. Makes a change from Andrew Brown.

In order to be a distinct belief system, a religion has to have specific doctrines. That automatically creates two types of dissenters. Heretics are those who claim to be of the same conviction, but who disagree on some fundamentals…Apostates reject the religion altogether…In public life, we allow heretics and apostates their sinful ways. But within religious institutions, to grant the same liberty would be absurd. For example, you can’t have a Pope who thinks the Bible is a good book, but is no more the product of divine authorship than The Da Vinci Code.

Just so. That’s similar to the point Edmund Standing makes in ‘Misdirected Outrage’: that if a religion teaches something, then that is what the religion teaches, and it’s no good pretending it doesn’t.

Either choose the human rights culture born of the rejection of the old discriminatory approaches of religion, or choose the moral order of Allah, the divine dictator. Allah is not a proponent of human rights. Allah does not believe in the right of the individual to choose how to live. Anyone who thinks that Islam and homosexuality can be reconciled is living in a fantasy world. Take a look at what the Qur’an has to say about homosexuality. This is what Islam teaches. Don’t like it? Then get out.

This confusion is behind (or at least enables) a lot of the soft squashy but relentless pressure to ‘respect’ religion at the moment: the mistaken idea that religion is compatible with human rights. But it isn’t. That’s why we hate it, that’s why it’s coercive, that’s why it can’t be argued with or reasoned with, that’s why it has to be kept out of public policy: because it rests on divine dictatorship. It’s really really important to keep that in mind, especially when the ‘let’s be nice to religion because that’s where the votes are’ crowd is writing its wrong-headed polemics.

Back to Julian’s piece:

This matters to more than just believers. The idea of a secular state is currently under fire as people call to bring religion into more areas of public life, such as education. But if more institutions become the domain of religion, questions of heresy and apostasy will become relevant to all who use those institutions, and work for or with them.

And what a nightmare world that would be. Wouldn’t you say? Questions of heresy and apostasy muddying things up in what should be secular institutions? Let’s not go that way.


Mar 7th, 2006 2:51 am | By

A little more on Swinburne, just for drill.

Why do all particles behave in exactly the same way as each other, so as together ultimately to produce human life? This enormous coincidence in particle behaviour requires explaining. I’ve got a good theory which explains it; you haven’t. And if you are really telling me that the production of humans is not, objectively, a good thing, I find myself wondering if you really mean something so implausible.

He’s got a good theory to explain it. His good theory to explain it is a big person (where? where is this big person? outside the universe? on one side of it? or all sides, going all the way around? a big round person with the universe at the middle of it?) who is perfectly this that and the other, that no one can see or smell or talk to, that doesn’t take phone calls or answer letters, but does answer prayers, sometimes, maybe. That’s a good theory? It’s not just a tiny bit, erm, implausible, on the face of it? I have to be honest: it seems very implausible to me. Not just mildly implausible, but very implausible. A big person, wot made the universe, in order to make yooman beings. Nope – don’t buy it.

Okay, next bit. (And what’s that we’re always being told about how uncertain and modest religious believers are? Not if Swinburne is anything to go on they’re not.) It’s implausible to say that the production of humans is not objectively a good thing. But why are they a good thing to anyone but themselves? Well, maybe not quite only themselves. I can see why rats would be pleased, and pigeons, and flies, and various types of virus and bacteria. And of course wheat and soybeans and potatoes are delighted – it’s worked out terrifically well for them. I do quite see that. But that’s not objectively – that’s just to a few species (and who knows how many naysayers there are even there, eh? maybe lots of pigeons and rats would really have preferred to go it on their own and let things fall out as they would), it’s not objectively. How can the production of humans be objectively a good thing? What ultimate, general, non-personal, non-local good does our existence do? How is Jupiter, or Alpha Centauri, or the next galaxy over, better off for the existence of humans?

Is this the best theists can do? I suppose it must be. Since I don’t think they have any good arguments, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the arguments they do give seem awfully thin. But – then why do they get to be Topp, and publish books, and so on? It seems a little strange.

More Lowering the Tone

Mar 6th, 2006 6:47 pm | By

I don’t like Andrew Brown’s tone. I’ve said so before and I say it again. It’s an unpleasant tone – sneering, nose downlooking, insinuating, and sloppy about the facts (or interpretations of the facts). It’s the kind of tone that failure to grovel to religion seems to bring out in a lot of people at this particular historical moment.

The faults are visible right from the beginning.

Hell hath no fury like a philosopher scorned – even one who doesn’t believe in hell. Two of the leading philosophers of evolution have been caught in an email slanging match that has been printed on the blog of their mutual enemy William Dembski, a supporter of the rebranded creationism known as intelligent design.

That’s a snide and not very accurate way of putting it. It’s not a slanging match, it’s Ruse being unaccountably rude to Dennett; ‘caught’ is an odd word to use of both since the bad behavior is all Ruse’s; the email exhange didn’t just happen to be posted on Dembski’s blog, Ruse sent it to Dembski, apparently without permission.

There is a poetic justice to this, since the row started with an argument over how to combat creationism.

No, there is not a poetic justice to this, there is a breach of manners at the least, and the ‘row’ isn’t so much a row as an ambush.

When a long piece about the struggle against creationism in the New York Times Book Review suggested there was some truth to Ruse’s belief that “evolutionism” is being pushed by people like Dennett as a substitute for religion, Dennett was aggrieved, denouncing Ruse’s ideas as “a transparent example of a well-known cheap trick”.

That’s a misleadingly evasive account. Very. This ‘denouncing’ of Ruse’s ideas was in a letter to the Times that the Times did not in fact publish, and at the time Ruse sent the first (according to Brown, ‘teasing’) email to Dennett, it hadn’t been published anywhere. That ought to be relevant in a statement that makes it sound as if Dennett’s ‘denunciation’ of Ruse were public knowledge before the email exchange. (As a matter of fact, the only place Dennett’s letter to the Times has been published is right here at B&W, so that’s where Brown saw it, but he doesn’t mention the fact. Sloppy. The date on it is after Ruse sent the email exchange to Dembski. Sloppy to glide over that.)

Dennett had more cause for complaint when, three weeks later, the NYT Book Review printed a rude review of his book Breaking the Spell. After reading the review, Ruse, sitting in Florida, could not resist sending a jeering email to Dennett. This was not, he now says, a very Christian thing to do. “But it was funny.”

A review so rude, so downright vulgar, as to be somewhat shocking. And – Ruse thinks a jeering email on the subject is funny? He really is more daft than I had realized.

What Dennett thinks of all this I do not know, since he has not replied to my email. Ruse is unrepentant. “Let’s face up to it: all Dan was doing was slagging me off.”

All Dan was doing where? In a letter that the Times declined to publish? In their email exchange? If the latter, so what? If the former, again so what, since it hadn’t been published? In short, what is Ruse’s grievance? That Dennett disagreed with him 1) in a then unpublished letter to the Times and 2) in an email exchange that Ruse instigated? And therefore it’s fine that Ruse sent the exchange to Dembski? Notice that Brown never even mentions how ethically dubious that is, in fact he doesn’t even mention the matter of permission. Notice also the vulgar abuse that Ruse descends to in the rest of Brown’s quotation from his email, drawing level with and then passing Wieseltier.

Not an edifying spectacle.

Esther Goes to High School

Mar 5th, 2006 10:02 pm | By

The Little Professor has been watching the dramatization of Bleak House.

I battered my head against the wall when Esther described Ada’s and Richard’s lodgings as a “damn poky little place.”

Oh, ya. I know that battering. It happens when it becomes suddenly abruptly clear that the people doing the dramatization simply don’t realize that people a century ago didn’t do everything exactly the way we do. That things were, you know, different then? Not the same? Otherwise? Dissimilar? Not identical?

I can think of a few examples that made me want to batter. The tv dramatization of Middlemarch, when disagreement first started to surface between Dorothea and Casaubon – and the way it surfaced was that Casaubon said something unpleasant and Dorothea immediately shouted at him at the top of her voice. That’s not quite how it was written, and not quite how a person like Dorothea would have behaved in 1830. The movie (originally tv) dramatization of Persuasion, when Anne shouted at her father at the dinner table. Not how written; not how a person like Anne. The movie dramatization of The Wings of the Dove, when Kate and Milly wander up to the roof of the country house at dawn in their nightgowns – their thin, limp, transparent nightgowns – and are joined by a man and all three stand around chatting idly for quite a long time. Err – no. Later in the same movie, when Milly says irritably, ‘Do I look like I could climb up the stairs of a church?’ and we’re suddenly violently shunted from Henry James world to a high school lunchroom circa 1999. The perky way Elizabeth 1 hops into bed with Dudley and Viola de Lesseps hops into bed with Shakespeare. The way Marguerite de Valois in the movie dramatization of Dumas’ novel ran down the stairs of the palace and into the street, grabbed the first man she found, and humped with him against a wall – a scene not found in the novel. That kind of thing. Just, a weird deafness for the difference of the past.


Mar 4th, 2006 6:38 pm | By

I’ve been wanting to mutter a few words about this exchange between Dennett and Swinburne. Actually it’s Swinburne I want to mutter about.

…if there is a God of the traditional kind – omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and perfectly good – we have every reason to expect that he will bring about the existence of good things; and one especially good thing is the existence of embodied creatures such as ourselves who have a choice between good and evil and can influence the world and each other in various ways.

Why is that an especially good thing? Why is it a good thing at all? In what sense is it a good thing? Above all, to whom is it a good thing? I can see why it’s a good thing to us, that is to say, in our view: because it’s about us (‘such as ourselves’ – Daisy, he means you and me!). We think it’s an especially good thing that there should be embodied creatures who can influence the world and each other in various ways and compose music and invent new video games, because we are those very creatures (what a coincidence! these creatures Swinburne talks about turn out to be none other than human beings! what a small world, eh?). We think creatures that do things that humans do are an especially good thing because they do the things we do – so how could they not be? But Swinburne, I take it, is claiming to go beyond that merely parochial point of view, and talk about things more in general – and in that case I don’t understand what he’s getting at. What’s so good about it? Who is there to think it’s an especially good thing, other than more of us? I look around, I flip through the catalogue of other solar systems and galaxies, I ask flies and fir trees and bits of plaster, and I can’t find anyone else who thinks it’s an especially good thing. So what does Swinburne mean? Just – ‘we think it’s a good thing because here we are and our preference is to go on being here so we think it’s a good thing that we are here’? No, surely more than that. But what? Why is anybody or anything anywhere in the rest of the universe supposed to give the smallest tiniest damn whether we have a choice between good and evil or not? And if no one and nothing else does, in what sense is it an especially good thing?

And besides that – if there is ‘a God of the traditional kind – omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and perfectly good’, then why did it, why would it, create or arrange the emergence of creatures like us instead of better creatures? Why would it take so long to do it? Why would it waste so much material, create or generate so many stars and planets and so much space between them, just to get inadequate patchy bloodthirsty creatures like us? Why such a massive to-do for such a derisory product? Why not something better? Why all the extinctions? Why all the suffering? If we have ‘every reason to expect that he will bring about the existence of good things’, then why the hell didn’t he (and how does Swinburne know he’s a he, anyway?) bring about the existence of more of them? Why not lots and lots and lots more good things and much fewer bad ones? Why don’t we have every reason to expect that? I would really like to know. The whole idea seems remarkably lame, to me.

Mark Fournier has some comments on Swinburne in a similar (but different) vein. I love this bit:

All those billions of years, all of those trillions of stars, all that space, just so that the Almighty could gather to himself a handful of syncophants. Hardly seems worth the trouble, if you ask me. And why does a Being so Great crave the adoration of some great apes from the unfashionable arm of a rather low-rent galaxy?

Really. None of it seems worth the trouble, and wouldn’t you think the Being would want some more glam adorers?

Manifest, Evident and Clear

Mar 3rd, 2006 8:26 pm | By

And another thing. About that passage from Locke’s Second Treatise and how essential Christianity or theology is or is not to ideas of democracy and equality before the law. Let’s have another think about that passage.

To understand political power aright…we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom…A state also 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.

One interesting thing is that the edition I have, unlike the one Jonathan quoted, doesn’t capitalize nature, but does capitalize Lord and Master. But what strikes me about that passage on further thought is that Locke isn’t citing the Lord and Master to ground the assertion about the natural state of freedom and equality, but rather to note an exception to it. He’s not citing the L and M to say he, as it might be, endowed us with certain inalienable rights, but rather to say that he may take them away if he so decides. He says we (I take the liberty of including women with men) have freedom and equality in nature, unless – unless, mind you – the L and M chooses one person and puts him on Topp. So – I don’t see why that particular passage is a good illustration of the statement that the principle of human equality is an axiom of theology. The axiom of theology in that particular passage seems to be an exception to equality rather than equality itself.

And then a second point is that the whole passage seems more deist than Christian, and it was the Christian antecedents I was raising questions about. (It’s also interesting that in the next paragraph Locke quotes a long passage from Hooker. I’ve read more Hooker than Locke, eccentrically enough. But I like Elizabethan prose.) Anyway – Jonathan was right to take me up on what I said, because I put it too sweepingly – answering ‘Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God’ with ‘No it doesn’t. Or at least no one knows if it does or not.’ That’s too sweeping if Stephen Beer means his own statement less sweepingly than the way I read it. If he means merely that the Christian view that all have equal worth before God is one thread in Western liberal democracy, then I don’t dispute that. I took him to be saying something more like ‘Western liberal democracy wouldn’t exist were it not for the Christian view that all have equal worth before God.’ I think he probably was implying that, but I can’t be sure of it, so no doubt the rules require me to plump for the charitable reading. (Then again, it was a mildly polemical piece, taking issue with something Ian Buruma had said, so the truth is I still think he was implying what I thought he was implying. But [slaps self] I should read charitably.)

All this of course leaves unanswered the pressing questions of how we recognize that ‘manifest’ declaration of the Lord and Master’s will, and how we distinguish the evident and clear appointment from the usurpation. (Which must have been a question that vexed Locke, since he wrote the treatise while everyone was more and more fretful about the Duke of York and his succession and how to shunt him aside without doing anything quite so ill-mannered as beheading him. It was all very worrying. And that was even without the dear Duke of York telling everyone what was what about rights and alternative medicine and carbuncles.)


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.