‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered’

Nov 17th, 2008 10:57 am | By

You know, human rights are risky. Equality is risky. Freedom is risky. That is to say, movements to gain or restore or promote those things are risky. Tyrants and exploiters and authoritarians don’t just smile politely and go home – they fight back. Being tyrants and exploiters and authoritarians, they fight dirty. That’s why they’re being fought in the first place. So people who are attempting to promote or gain more equality or rights have to consider the fact that they may be putting other people at risk, because they usually are.

The Civil Rights movement (in the US in the 50s and 60s) had that problem. We tend to forget this now, but it was a huge issue at the time. Plenty of black people in the South were deathly afraid of the whole thing, and with good reason. So there was a moral issue: is it right to put other people in danger in struggling for rights? Is it right to take risks of that kind, risks that are risks to non-participants as well as participants?

There’s no slam-dunk answer to that. There are a lot of ifs. If one knew for certain ahead of time that the struggle for civil rights would trigger a genocide, then the answer would probably be no (or no, not yet). If one thought it very likely that there would be reprisals – some people would still say no, others would say yes, and that’s what happened, and few people (as far as I know, and die-hard racists apart) now think it wasn’t worth it.

Why? Why is it worth it?

Perhaps because, as La Pasionaria said, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

That’s a very rhetorical slogan, and yet, it’s not just rhetorical. It’s not good to live on your knees. It’s worth some risk in order to bring about a situation in which no people are made to live on their knees.

Trust me, I’m a prince

Nov 17th, 2008 9:57 am | By

Charles’s vanity and delusion are being taken out for an airing again. He

has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown.

What knowledge and experience? What knowledge and experience does he have that would be ‘wasted’ if he didn’t use his accident of birth to publicize them? His knowledge and experience about GM crops? About alternative medicine? About architecture? What special unique irreplaceable knowledge and experience does he have on those subjects?

None, right? Do correct me if I’m wrong – but as far as I can tell, the answer is none. He has strong opinions on the subjects, but so do lots of people. He has perhaps spent lots of time or some time reading and otherwise gathering information about them – but so have lots of people. What he has not done is get systematic training in any of them, which lots of people have done – so why does the world need his amateur ‘knowledge’ when it already has access to professional knowledge? What is this special irreplaceable knowledge and experience he has that it would be a pity to waste if he became king?

There isn’t any. His status doesn’t replace professional training, and his amateur dabbling doesn’t either. Nobody needs Pris Chos laying down the law about GM food or homeopathy because there are already thousands upon thousands of people who can do that much better than he can. I’m a great fan of autodidacticism, being an autodidact myself, but that doesn’t mean that I think the world needs amateur agronomists or amateur medical researchers. If Charles really wanted to be an influential expert in one of these fields he should have gotten the appropriate training to do so. It’s incredible arrogance and the most literal kind of elitism to think that his royal birth somehow makes that supererogatory.

Karen Armstrong squares the circle

Nov 15th, 2008 2:05 pm | By

It’s not a newsflash that Karen Armstrong is not one of the clearest thinkers in the world – but nevertheless the opening sentence of her sermon on compassion at Comment is Free set me back a little.

The practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions – but sometimes you would never know it.

But sometimes you would never know it – good one. Did she write this while taking a bath and watching Celebrity Big Brother, or what? But more to the point is the fundamental and pathetic incoherence of the basic thought: the practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions, and yet oddly enough in real life the very opposite is enacted daily and hourly. Hum hum hum. So in what sense is it central then? Eh? Eh? If sometimes we would never know it, how does Armstrong know it? If sometimes we would never know it, in what sense is it fucking true?

It’s not true. It’s flattery. It’s a greasy smear of flattery for a nasty institution that perpetrates stupid or vicious cruelties everywhere you look.

Instead, religion is associated with violence, intolerance and seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy.

It seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy because it is. Armstrong perhaps wants to persuade it to better by heaping coals of fire on its head – but she shouldn’t talk nonsense in the process.

Any freedom from religion on offer?

Nov 14th, 2008 5:30 pm | By

So the whole UN really is infected with this ‘defamation of religion should be banned’ virus.

United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann said on Tuesday that the world body should ban defamation of all religions and disagreed that such a move would impinge upon freedom of speech. “Yes, I believe that defamation of religion should be banned,” he said in response to a question at a press conference to highlight the interfaith conference at the UN headquarters. No one should try to defame Islam or any other religion, he said, adding: “We should respect all religions.”

Well now how would you go about banning ‘defamation’ of religion without impinging on freedom of speech? How would anyone? You might as well say ‘Yes, I believe that defamation of capitalism [or socialism, or monetarism, or economics, or photography, or mushrooms, or rabbits] should be banned’ and disagree that such a move would impinge upon freedom of speech. It makes the same amount of sense. And another thing – there is a difference between saying that no one should try to X and saying that X should be banned – a big and very important difference. It’s more than a little depressing that a guy (a priest, as he is) who is UN General Assembly President doesn’t get that distinction, or perhaps doesn’t think it matters. It’s a little depressing that the UN General Assembly President thinks the UN should ban kinds of speech that the UN General Assembly President doesn’t like.

So much for Austin Dacey’s recent work at the UN. So much for other protests.

But oh well, not to worry – King Abdullah is on the case.

Maybe King Abdullah, by articulating the central Muslim value of religious pluralism on the world stage, will find the citizens of his Kingdom demanding that he implement it at home.

The central Muslim value of religious pluralism? The…what?

Where? Where is that the case? Where is religious pluralism a central Muslim value? Malaysia? No. Pakistan? No. Somalia? No. Afghanistan? Now you’re just being silly. Saudi Arabia? Be serious. Where, then? And if the answer is ‘nowhere,’ what reason is there to think that religious pluralism is in fact a central Muslim value? There could be such a reason, or reasons; it could be the case that it is such a central value but that the ruling elites have all turned their backs on it; but I want a reason to think so before I will go ahead and think so.

Just to make the confusion complete, Bush tells us that ‘Freedom is God’s gift to every man, woman, and child.’ No it isn’t. It isn’t God’s gift to me, for instance. Some people choose to attribute freedom to God, but that doesn’t make the attribution accurate. It’s irritating that Bush blathers about religious freedom and in the same breath imposes his imaginary God on all of us. It’s not just believers who want and who get to have freedom; atheists are entitled too, but you’d never know it to hear the godbotherer in chief.

German minister of state Hermann Groehe defended the right to convert to another faith — a right not recognized in some Muslim countries. “It is unacceptable that up until now laws in some countries threaten those who want to convert with the death penalty,” said Groehe, without naming any countries.

Yes, but again, it’s not just conversion from one religion to another religion that is threatened (and sometimes rewarded) with the death penalty, it is also rejection of religion itself – yet Bush and Groehe are not reported to have mentioned that.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Muslim Pakistan said there was “nothing more un-Islamic” than discrimination, violence against women and terrorism, but also denounced hate speech against Islam in countries he did not identify.

Ah…there is nothing more un-Islamic than violence, is there. That would explain why Zardari’s wife was murdered by…You Know Who.

Two blogs

Nov 13th, 2008 6:00 pm | By

As you may have seen, Edmund Standing has started a blog, amusingly called ‘I kid you not’ as a compliment to Sarah Palin. Okay not a compliment exactly. Palin has been saying things again, as Edmund notes.

Then there’s the whole down to earth ‘mom next door’ persona. Palin, it should be remembered, proudly announced herself to the Republican National Convention as ‘just your average hockey mom’…So, we have a woman who calls herself ‘average’, thinks some ‘God’ or other gives her career guidance, is completely ignorant of evolutionary biology and the history of the world, and conducts political interviews while cooking moose for her ‘guy’…And this woman wants to become President of the most powerful nation on earth. Sam Harris had it nailed just prior to the election when he rightly noted that average isn’t good enough.

No it damn well isn’t – and one of the many joys of the recent election is that for once (and very very belatedly) that particular bit of nonsense not only didn’t work, it did a great deal to destroy the Republican ticket. It pleased ‘the base’ but it was finally one too many for the undecideds and independents and Republicans with enough nous to walk and chew gum at the same time. It wasn’t only Sam Harris who noted that average isn’t good enough, too – Jon Stewart has noted the same thing on more than one occasion, and John Cleese (yes, really) had a good time noting the same thing on Olbermann a couple of days before the election. Yes really – I was so wound up about the election by that time that I was reduced to watching little bits of Olbermann and Maddow. Anyway Cleese said what I always say, which is that I want somebody who’s so smart I’d be scared to open my mouth in his or her presence. I don’t want average, I want stellar. Average is easy to get, stellar isn’t; let’s go for the rare and the best.

Another excellent blog is Richard Wilson’s ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’, which is the title of his book, which I’m reading.

Check them both out; tell your friends.

Religious obligation

Nov 12th, 2008 4:18 pm | By

This is a familiar subject, but you know how it is – there’s always more to say.

About what? About religious law, religious obligation, religious duty, religious requirements, religious teachings, religious commandments.

Motl Brody of Brooklyn was pronounced dead this week after a half-year fight against a brain tumor, and doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington say the seventh-grader’s brain has ceased functioning entirely. But for the past few days, a machine has continued to inflate and deflate his lungs. As of late Friday afternoon, his heart was still beating with the help of a cocktail of intravenous drugs and adrenaline. That heartbeat has prompted Motl’s parents, who are Orthodox Jews, to refuse the hospital’s request to remove all artificial life support. Under some interpretations of Jewish religious law, including the one accepted by the family’s Hasidic sect, death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning. That means Motl “is alive, and his family has a religious obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment to keep him alive,” the family’s attorney wrote in a court filing this week.

In other words, poor Motl Brody is a corpse, and the corpse is kept breathing by a machine, but ‘some interpretations of Jewish religious law’ say that in fact he is alive because of this machine-made breathing.

His brain has died entirely, according to an affidavit filed by one of his doctors. His eyes are fixed and dilated. His body neither moves nor responds to stimulation. His brain stem shows no electrical function, and his brain tissue has begun to decompose…Jeffrey I. Zuckerman, the attorney for Motl’s parents, says they have been “utterly shattered” by the hospital’s actions. He stressed that the family’s demand for continued life support was based on their obligations under religious law, not an unrealistic hope that their boy will recover…”We respect the family’s beliefs, and have tried since the patient’s arrival in June to work closely with them in a spirit of mutual respect,” the hospital said in a written statement.

What’s interesting here (as often before) is the special status of putative ‘obligations under religious law’ and the deference that is automatically given to them even when there is the attempt to disregard them. The hospital is perhaps socially required (so to speak) to say ‘we respect the family’s beliefs’ even though the beliefs are grotesque enough to ‘oblige’ the family to keep a corpse with a decomposing brain breathing on ‘life support.’ What’s interesting is that there is no other kind of law (at least none that I can think of) that would work that way. What other kind of law could a lawyer cite in this situation? ‘His family has a [____] obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment’ – what could you put in that space that would work? I can’t think of a damn thing, can you? Only ‘religious’ law and ‘religious’ obligation can get people to ‘respect’ and defer to this kind of perversity. And the parents in question are apparently being downright truculent about it.

Motl’s mother and father, Eluzer and Miriam Brody, haven’t been to the hospital since July. The medical center says its requests to speak directly with them have been rebuffed, and in recent days, hospital employees “have been inundated with harassing and threatening calls” regarding the case.

So Motl suffered without his parents from July to November, yet those same parents think they have a ‘religious obligation’ to keep his corpse artifically breathing while his brain rots away. Baffling.

Respect us or we’ll smash your art

Nov 11th, 2008 12:34 pm | By

Hey don’t forget, if that smelly guy grabs your jacket, give him your cashmere sweater too. If somebody belts you in the face, say thank you. Forgive people seventy times seven. Be generous, and more than generous. Like those super-nice people who worry about art works.

Christians have warned of a backlash of art world vandalism, following a decision to halt a private prosecution of a Gateshead gallery which exhibited a statue of Jesus with an erection…Christian Emily Mapfuwa…said the show…was offensive to her faith and instructed her lawyers to seek a private prosecution against the gallery…Mapfuwa’s supporters warned [the CPS decision] could lead some people to destroy similar art works. Her solicitor Michael Phillips said: “Although it is right to say that there was no actual disorder, there was potentially such disorder, which was evidenced to the CPS in the witness statements provided. In particular one witness felt like smashing the object. The decision is simply not in accordance with the facts and is unsustainable.”

Ah. Christian Emily Mapfuwa was offended so she instructed her lawyers to seek a private prosecution against the gallery; a witness felt like smashing the object, therefore the gallery was guilty of creating a risk of disorder. So…any time anyone is ‘offended’ by something, if a witness can be found to testify to feeling like smashing the object, it will then become the case that the ‘offensive’ something is at fault. Then no one anywhere will ever be allowed to say anything ever. Sounds promising.

Christian Voice national director Stephen Green said…”[T]here were those at the Baltic Centre who wanted to take matters into their own hands and I have warned Anita Zabludowicz that her statue will not survive being put on public display again. If the CPS wanted to give the green light to blasphemous art their decision may paradoxically have the opposite effect. With the threat of destruction hanging over it, the Zabludowicz statue is now locked away by its wealthy owners and is unlikely to see the light of day again. The same will go for any other blasphemous works of so-called art. Put simply, Christians won’t tolerate insults to Jesus Christ. However, I do hope that the art world will discover some respect for Christian religious beliefs and for the person of Jesus Christ.”

To put it another way, the CPS wanted to go on allowing free expression in the usual way and Stephen Green and other Christians are determined to use threats of violence to prevent that. ‘Respect’ is unlikely to be what the art world will be discovering more of as a result.

Mediawatchwatch, from whom I lifted this story, has pungent commentary.

Victory to the elitists!

Nov 9th, 2008 4:58 pm | By

Of course one reason I was so pleased about the recent election is that it’s such a nice victory for elitism. About time.

Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.

Damn straight. A blatant, unashamed, undisguised, unapologetic intellectual, who doesn’t pretend to be thicker than he is in order to reassure the envious or the threatened or the hostile. Staggering, isn’t it?

Compare the ineffable Charles Murray, asked what he thinks of Sarah Palin:

I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love…The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government.

So the more unthinking and incurious and ill-informed the better? Why, exactly?

Ah but that’s the kind of question that pointy-headed intellectuals ask.

You can’t detect it, but you know it’s there

Nov 9th, 2008 11:33 am | By

As you may have seen in News the other day, David Colquhoun provides excerpts from ‘a lengthy set of notes for a first year course on “The Holistic Model of Healthcare”…from the 2005 course at Thames Valley University’ (along with a link to the whole thing). It’s fascinating stuff – and it raises a familiar question.

[T]he subject of Wholistic Nutrition transcends the area of human understanding for which science, alone, is appropriate. The reason is that it is ‘vitalistic’. It recognises the presence in all life forms including the human body, of subtle (or ‘etheric’) energy forces not easily measurable by the physicist’s equipment. It shares that position with the ‘energy medicine’ disciplines such as homoeopathy, traditional acupuncture and spiritual healing. It follows an approach to those subtle energies that is embodied in the discipline and philosophy of naturopathy. Vitalism is the notion that life in living organisms is sustained by a vital principle that cannot be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. This vital principle, often called “the life force”, is something quite distinct from the physical body and is responsible for much that happens in health and disease.

The question is familiar (around here) because I keep asking it. If there are subtle energy forces not easily measurable by the physicist’s (or anyone else’s) equipment, then how do Wholistic Nutritionists or Vitalists or anyone else know they are there or anything about them? It’s just like the god question. We’re always hearing that god transcends science and is completely different and can’t be measured by our mere scientific equipment. Okay, but then what equipment can it be measured by? Nobody ever says. In the god case some people do say it can’t be measured by any equipment, but then they still don’t say how they know it’s there. They pretend they say (it’s ‘experience’; one just knows; it’s an interaction), but they don’t.

But so then how do the Vitalists know any of the things they claim to know and pronounce on with such confidence? What is the source of all the palaver in the Thames Valley University course notes? There’s a grotesque disconnect between the frank declaration of Zero Knowledge at the outset and the abundant unbashful proliferation of truth claims in the rest of the document.

There is a kind of admission of the problem:

At the root of most hoIistic therapies lies the belief that all life is animated by a subtle force. We call this the Life Force. You either believe it or you do not. It cannot exactly be proved at the moment and the belief is not in accord with the yardsticks that we call ’scientific’, The belief is a little akin to the belief in God or in spirits or ghosts, and yet at the same time it is not, because the Life Force is by no means so remote from us.

You either believe it or you do not, but we will go right ahead and give medical advice as if we had something more than ‘belief’ backing up our whacked ideas.

As mentioned above, toxic foci (deposits) in the body show up in the iris of the eye. The iris is arranged so as to encompass a complete ‘map’ of the body. with all the organs and systems laid out upon it. Hence the location of a toxic deposit in the iris shows the iridologist its position within the body. The toxins may appear as colours, spots. blobs and smears in particular places in the iris, or as darkened areas.

Uh…right. Bye now.

Child-torture in Nigeria

Nov 8th, 2008 5:27 pm | By

Now for something more serious. Something intolerable.

Ostracised, vulnerable and frightened, she wandered the streets in south-eastern Nigeria, sleeping rough, struggling to stay alive. Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa Ibom province with 150 other children who have been branded witches, blamed for all their family’s woes, and abandoned. Before being pushed out of their homes many were beaten or slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had acid poured over them…Many of those branded “child-witches” are murdered – hacked to death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive in an attempt to drive Satan out of their soul. The devil’s children are “identified” by powerful religious leaders at extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have combined to produce a deep-rooted belief in, and fear of, witchcraft. The priests spread the message that child-witches bring destruction, disease and death to their families.

And the priests get rich on ‘exorcisms.’

The exorcism costs the families up to a year’s income. During the “deliverance” ceremonies, the children are shaken violently, dragged around the room and have potions poured into their eyes. The children look terrified. The parents look on, praying that the child will be cleansed. If the ritual fails, they know their children will have to be sent away, or killed. Many are held in churches, often on chains, and deprived of food until they “confess” to being a witch. The ceremonies are highly lucrative for the spiritual leaders many of whom enjoy a lifestyle of large homes, expensive cars and designer clothes.

The ‘spiritual leaders’ – even in a piece like this the flattering labels are pasted on. ‘Spiritual,’ forsooth – spiritual in what sense?

Faith, any faith

Nov 8th, 2008 5:19 pm | By

Michael Binyon in The Times slobbers over Charles for being interested in lots of religions.

[N]o monarch since the Stuarts has taken an intellectual interest in religion, and none has devoted time and respect to other faiths. The Prince, however, counts bishops and moral philosophers, rabbis, priests and Islamic scholars among those whom he regularly meets and with whom he discusses the spiritual dimensions of life in Britain today.

Find the odd one out. Got it in one. What are ‘moral philosophers’ doing in that mob? Does this beezer think moral philosophy is a ‘faith’?

For him, the concept of faith — any faith — is important in the crusade against the rising tide of secular materialism and scientific reductionism, both of which he detests.

Ah, does he. He prefers the tyrannical rule of an unreachable unaccountable unknowable god, does he. Well that makes sense in a way, of course, given that he too represents a silly anachronistic semi-magical form of government.

Frederick Douglass and Randall Terry

Nov 7th, 2008 11:34 am | By

The other day ‘hanmeng’ said in a comment on ‘God-talk as an unstated norm’ that the bible is Obama’s favourite book and later quoted from a keynote address he gave in 2006. The quotation was worrying – especially this bit –

[W]hat I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas[s], Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant [Bryan], Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

I was going to dispute that, but reading the whole address I found that Obama did some of the disputing for me. He doesn’t mean what that passage in isolation would seem to indicate that he means.

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Well – that’s what I was going to say, and he’s already said it, in the same address, so I don’t need to bother. I had already thought he knew that, must know that, being 1) sensible and 2) a Constitutional scholar; but the quotation worried me. But if all religious people understood and agreed to that principle, we would all have a lot less to worry about.

I was going to say that it’s all very well to talk about Douglass and King, but they are not the only reformers in American history who were motivated by their religion and use religious language. Fred Phelps and Randall Terry are a couple more; so are throngs of people who opposed everything Douglass and King stood for. It always irritates the bejesus out of me when opponents of secularism cherry-pick their reformers and movements in order to defend the place of religion in politics, as if Christian defenders of slavery and segregation had never existed. I was prepared to give Obama a damn good scolding for doing that, but he doesn’t really do that (although I think he ought to have mentioned the anti-Douglasses, since he brought it up). He doesn’t really do that and, more important, he doesn’t shy away from stating the principle involved.

Gene Robinson states it too.

The Anglican church’s first gay bishop and the United States’ first black President-elect discussed in depth the place of religion in the state. Bishop Robinson said: “He and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the Constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes.”


No ordinary moment

Nov 6th, 2008 1:00 pm | By

There are (I suppose this was inevitable) some skeptics now claiming that people are rejoicing at Obama’s election because he’s black – which is true in one way but false in another. The way it’s true is probably obvious enough; the way it’s false is that 1) that’s not the only reason and 2) we would have been rejoicing anyway. Obama’s being black is neither necessary nor sufficient for the rejoicing. Here’s why. Suppose a Sarah Palin who was black – identical to Palin in every other way, but black. A very different, much smaller, and much more delusional crowd would be rejoicing. Suppose an Obama who was white – identical to Obama in every other way, but white. We would still be rejoicing – although a huge element of the actual rejoicing would be missing.

There are some people sneering at the emotionality. Fuck’em. Seriously. I’m as skeptical as the next person, I too like to be cautious with my admiration and respect (let alone affection), I too am aware that sentimentality is risky for clarity of thought. But I do not think this particular example of mass enthusiasm is irrational. It’s emotional, but it’s not irrational.

It’s funny…I wasn’t really prepared for how emotional it turned out to be. I’m not the only one. I never really allowed myself to imagine what it would be like, because like so many people I was so afraid it wouldn’t happen – I was trying to minimize the disappointment. So when it happened – so abruptly – it was like being knocked down by a wave. What can I tell you? It was no ordinary moment. It just wasn’t, and for so many reasons – not all of which were to do with race.

It’s interesting that it was very little about race until that moment. That aspect was left mostly in the background (including in coded messages from the opposition, of course) during the campaign, but then the moment the election was announced, that aspect zoomed into the foreground and took over for the evening. Good. The campaign was run on the merits, then once it was over, we could go ahead and celebrate the symbolism. Aided by the echoes of King’s mountaintop speech – not that there was much need for aid.

What can I tell you? We don’t get many moments like that. I can’t think of any like it. The sneerers can go write condolence cards to Sarah Palin.

8 p.m. Pacific time

Nov 4th, 2008 10:09 pm | By



Nov 4th, 2008 10:38 am | By

The Independent, or at least Arifa Akbar in The Independent, reports on attacks on a London art gallery but also, four words in, cites ‘inflammatory images.’ The art gallery was attacked but it had been quite naughty.

A gallery showing inflammatory images of veiled Muslims, including a bare-breasted woman partially clad in a burqa, is under police surveillance after being attacked earlier this week.

But the images are not ‘inflammatory’ unless people decide they are. It is open to people not to see them as inflammatory.

I don’t want to push that thought too hard. I don’t want to claim that it’s universally applicable – I don’t want to claim that nothing is genuinely malicious and aggressive unless someone decides it is. I don’t believe in applying Stoic reasoning to everything. I just want to make the drearily familiar claim that some kinds of speech and expression are genuinely racist or sexist or in some other way an attack on people as a group, and that others are not, and that we shouldn’t confuse the two, and that confusing the two is a way to undermine all kinds of rightly-valued freedoms and capabilities.

Maple, from Sussex, has upset the Islamic world before. An exhibition by her earlier this year showed Muslim women in provocative poses, including one suggestively sucking on a banana.

There again. Maple hasn’t ‘upset the Islamic world’; the ‘Islamic world’ or rather a very small fraction of it has chosen to be upset. It has no real or legitimate reason to be upset.

Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said that while he thought the exhibition provocative, he defended freedom of expression and condemned any violence inspired by the display. “I urged the gallery and the artist to respect the community in the area, but if Muslims see the work and dislike it, it is completely wrong to use any violent expression of that,” he added.

Good that he condemned violence, but urging the gallery and the artist to respect the community in the area in fact just reinforces the message that galleries and artists have to creep around whatever ‘area’ they happen to be in and find out what all the local prejudices are and then ‘respect’ them, which in the case of Sarah Maples of course would have meant simply not showing her paintings at all. (And would the Indy have refrained from calling the images ‘inflammatory’ if the gallery had been in Chelsea or Hampstead or Cheam? I doubt it.) Urging the gallery and the artist to respect the community is a kind of first small step in the direction of overt coercion and eventually violence – which is not to say that Badri should be censored, just that he is wrong.

God-talk as an unstated norm

Nov 3rd, 2008 9:49 am | By

Ron Aronson recently pointed out what secularists have to get used to.

In the vast heartland of suburban and semirural America, they grow accustomed to new acquaintances greeting them by asking what church they go to. At work, they get used to God-talk as an unstated norm…In the news media, they get used to reading or hearing that the appropriate response to stressful situations is to turn to God. They also grow accustomed to putting up with offhand insults,…would-be presidents criticizing them for trying to keep religion out of public places…When will they demand that the spirit of multiculturalism be extended to those who do not pray, instead of the widespread assumption that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone?

Not very soon, it would seem. Elizabeth Dole’s tv ad calling her rival ‘godless’ and the rival’s response that she is not either godless is depressing evidence for that suggestion. Hagan points out that she taught Sunday school and takes umbrage at this attack on her ‘faith’ – and not enough people point out that being ‘godless’ is not actually a crime, much less that being godfull is not necessarily a virtue.

A breath from the pit

Nov 2nd, 2008 11:48 am | By

Bastards bastards bastards.

It can tip you right over the edge sometimes, contemplating how unfathomably foul people can be.

A girl stoned to death in Somalia this week was 13 years old, not 23, contrary to earlier news reports. She had been accused of adultery in breach of Islamic law. Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was killed on Monday 27 October, by a group of 50 men in a stadium in the southern port of Kismayu, in front of around 1,000 spectators…Inside the stadium, militia members opened fire when some of the witnesses to the killing attempted to save her life, and shot dead a boy who was a bystander…[N]urses were instructed to check whether Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was still alive when buried in the ground. They removed her from the ground, declared that she was, and she was replaced in the hole where she had been buried for the stoning to continue.

In sane places, a child of 13 can’t commit ‘adultery’ even if she tries to. But Duhulow didn’t commit ‘adultery’ anyway

An Islamist rebel administration in Somalia had a 13-year-old girl stoned to death for adultery after the child’s father reported that three men had raped her…A lorryload of stones was brought to the stadium for the killing. Amnesty said that Duhulow struggled with her captors and had to be forcibly carried into the stadium…Duhulow’s father told Amnesty that when they tried to report her rape to the militia, the child was accused of adultery and detained. None of the men Duhulow accused was arrested.

So. A child of 13 and her father try to tell the authorities that she was raped by three men, and the authorities in response arrest her, order up a truckload of stones, bury her in the ground up to her neck, gather a crowd of a thousand people, and throw the truckload of stones at her head.

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the heads of people like that. It’s not just violent lashing out – it’s religious legal official punishment – carried out in cold blood and the pure odor of sanctity. It’s hard to figure that out. What kind of monster do they think they worship, that wants children smashed to death with rocks for being raped? What kind of hideous loathsome savage bloodthirsty tyrannical cruel monster do they imagine wants them to act like that? What kind of nightmare world do they live in? How do they look on their work and approve it?

Palin has the bends

Nov 1st, 2008 11:57 am | By

No. No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not it. The First Amendment does not say that nobody can criticize what you say. On the contrary, as a matter of fact – it says that anybody (and everybody) can criticize what you say. And that you can return the favour, and so on, until one of us has to go home for lunch.

It also does not say that people cannot argue that things you say are morally wrong and should not be said. That is not censorship or attempted censorship, it is a moral argument. It is not a violation of the First Amendment. It is alarming that you (of all people) don’t understand that.

Palin told Washington radio station WMAL Friday she is concerned that her First Amendment rights could be endangered by what she called “attacks by the mainstream media” in response to her political attacks on the Democratic presidential nominee…”If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations,” she said, “then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”

Dear oh dear oh dear. And last week she revealed that she doesn’t know what the Vice President’s job is.

Asked by a third-grader what a vice president does, Republican candidate Sarah Palin responded that the vice president is the president’s “team mate” but also “runs the Senate” and “can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes.”



Oct 30th, 2008 1:26 pm | By

Norm has an interesting comment on Ron Aronson’s ‘Choosing to Know’ – but I take issue with it. I wonder if that’s because weird beliefs are more abundant over here, where Aronson and I live, than they are over there, where Norm lives. I wonder if people who believe weird things are more familiar to us than they are to Norm. Lucky Norm if so.

I’m not sure that asking in a general way why people hold weird beliefs – or, otherwise expressed, why they believe things that aren’t true – can yield a single and satisfying answer.

I take issue with that because I think holding weird beliefs and believing things that aren’t true are two different things, which raise different questions and issues. It’s perfectly easy and (often) reasonable and commonplace to believe things that aren’t true without the beliefs being weird. It’s easy just to get things wrong, to remember incorrectly, to misread, to misunderstand, to lack information; but none of that is by itself weird. (It may become weird if people try to point out the misunderstanding or offer information only to meet obstinate resistance – but that doesn’t always happen.) I think what Aronson has in mind in the article are genuinely weird beliefs and that that entails a certain element of perversity or willfulness or resistance to correction – I think that’s what is meant by ‘weird’ beliefs. Weird beliefs aren’t just mistaken beliefs, they’re beliefs that one is surprised to find in apparently reasonable adults.

Norm continues:

Bad faith can certainly play a part in someone’s refusing to recognize a truth which they have in some sense perceived; there is such a thing as wilful ignorance. At the same time, to make this a major explanatory cause for beliefs that are very widely held strikes me as a form of wishful thinking: as if to say that all these millions of people really know the truth already but won’t own up to it; or that the reality of things is always there before us and seeing it takes no effort.

Sure. But for weird beliefs that are very widely held…it’s a different matter, I think. Weird beliefs, as opposed to merely false beliefs, do (perhaps by definition) partake of willful ignorance. Though I suppose one could divide weird beliefs…into, say, weird beliefs that rest on mistaken but extensive and plausible webs of pseudo-argument and pseudo-evidence and pseudo-data and the like, and weird beliefs that rest on hokey tv shows and books by Sylvia Browne and other nonsense that no one over the age of 6 should find convincing. In that case the former type of weird beliefs would conform to Norm’s claim while the second type would conform to Ron’s.

It’s a large and complicated task, categorizing the types of false belief. Where are Bouvard and Pécuchet when we need them?

All we see

Oct 28th, 2008 12:09 pm | By

Theological ruminations in letters to the Guardian.

…there is nothing to lead any person to postulate a teapot circling the sun, but look around – all we see came from somewhere and although such a thought does nothing to prove the existence of a creator, it makes such a being worthy of consideration.

Well yes, all we see came from somewhere, but the question is where. ‘A creator’ could mean any number of things; there is no more reason to leap from ‘somewhere’ to ‘God’ than there is to leap from ‘somewhere’ to Jennifer or Bubbles or Squirrel Nutkin. ‘A creator’ could be a machine or a natural process or software or mice or some entity that we can’t even imagine. The fact that all we see came from somewhere does not by itself provide a reason to identify somewhere as any one particular thing much less any particular person much less a particular person described by some desert goatherds 30 centuries ago.

A vicar says That’s not Our God.

I don’t believe in the God whose existence Dawkins denies either – nor do most people in the British Christian churches.

Really? Really? How, exactly, does the God of the British Christian churches differ from the one Dawkins doesn’t believe in? And how explicit are the vicars in British Christian churches about that different God?

A professor of mathematics at York is not afraid of banality:

Science cannot decide between these world-views, but scientists on both sides believe that science supports their own faith (for atheism is also a faith – as even Dawkins says, you cannot prove there is no God).

Norm comments on that:

Atheists – or at least the kind of atheists whose atheism I am ready to defend, being one – think there is no God because they think that the balance of everything they know, all the putative evidence, all the would-be reasons, for believing in God fall short, whether singly or in combination, of establishing that He exists…It is no more persuasive to call atheism a faith than it would be to say that scepticism about the existence of beings that believers themselves regard as mythical – dragons, unicorns, mermaids – is a faith.

No it isn’t, and yet the attempt keeps being made (and it does at least convince the already-convinced). Why is that? Partly, I would guess, because people have been trained (by the steady drip-drip of just this kind of endlessly-recycled bad argument) to think that, for instance, the fact that all we see came from somewhere means that it came from a particular guy called God. This means that few people think that the existence of all we see constitutes evidence for the existence of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, but they do think it constitutes evidence for the existence of ‘God’. They’re wrong, of course, but they don’t know they’re wrong. The thought is so familiar it’s like a well-worn path that it’s hard to abandon. Part of the definition of ‘God’ is that it is a being who created all this stuff; that’s not true of dragons or mermaids. The problems with the notion that a guy called God created all this stuff are not familiar to most people who believe that (and the believers to whom the problems are familiar usually don’t bother spreading that familiarity around), so it comes to seem like a crude mistake not to think a guy called God is the somewhere from which all we see came. And then professors of mathematics pass it on.