Taking Seriously Vacuous Antimonies I Mean Antinomies

Nov 16th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

Just a small thing. I wanted to extract and keep a couple of comments by Frederick Crews from a longish piece on Philip Rieff because I think they’re interesting.

“The question ‘What can Freud teach us about the relation between our impulses and civilization?’ ceases to be interesting if it transpires that Freud didn’t actually make the discoveries he claimed to have made about the psyche,” says Frederick C. Crews, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading Freud skeptic.

Of course – oddly – a lot of people – well actually not a lot of people, but a sizable proportion of people in certain disciplines – think questions about what Freud can teach us about relations between various things don’t cease to be interesting no matter how clear it becomes that Freud didn’t actually make the discoveries he claimed to have made about the psyche. Their fixed idea (one might even call it an idée fixe) of Freud’s insight and profundity and originality seems to float completely free of any actual ontological status for his ‘discoveries’ about the psyche. There’s something puzzling and disconcerting about that.

“Rieff was brilliant in assessing the schismatics’ more simplistic visions of liberation, and he left us with the sense that Freud’s tough-mindedness, while hardly sufficient as a replacement for actual supernatural belief, deserved our sympathy and respect.” But Mr. Crews continues: “My feeling today is that those books of Rieff’s were period pieces, in three senses: In the intellectual style of the era, they overrated the extent to which social stability depends on the ideas of literary intellectuals; they overrated Freud’s permanent interest as a scientific pioneer; and as a result, they took seriously the vacuous antinomies of Civilization and Its Discontents, whereby a measure of ‘repression,’ causing personal unhappiness, is deemed requisite to the preservation of culture.”

Eloquent, isn’t it. That’s why I wanted to pull it out.

Whither Satire?

Nov 16th, 2005 6:51 pm | By

Amusing thing about the (as it were) Theory of satirical dictionary writing. I took careful notes, just in case I ever need to write another.

In conducting this assault, Donaldson and Eyre are making an important point not only about the nature of modern celebrity but also about the nature of satire. The textbook definition of satire is that it flourishes in an age of clearly defined moral standards, or one in which those standards are only just beginning to break down. If you are trying to be funny about other people’s moral failings, in other words, there must be some broad agreement between you and your audience as to what a moral failing actually consists of.

Ah. Well, fortunately, we didn’t have that problem, or limitation, or requirement, because we weren’t trying to be funny about moral failings, but rather about intellectual or cognitive or epistemic ones. Different thing. Or not. Actually maybe not, because the tricky bit of what D J Taylor says there is ‘your audience’. All depends what you mean by ‘your audience,’ doesn’t it. If you have wild hopes of writing a book that everyone over the age of three will want to read, then that’s one kind of ‘broad agreement’ you’re after, whereas if you sanely expect to amuse the kind of people who are amused by the kind of thing you are writing, and no one else, then that’s another kind. Though actually we did argue about this quite a lot during the writing. One of the writers kept urging that we ought to have a few very obvious jokes so as not to turn off people who don’t get the other kind; the other never saw the point of that, because who is going to buy or read a book on the grounds that it has ten good jokes in it and 490 duds? Who is even going to find the obvious jokes among all the others? I still don’t see it. Isn’t Theory interesting.

Here in the age of Big Brother and Celebrity Love Island, alternatively, the satirist is faced with three disabling drawbacks. The first is that so many satirical targets, from John Prescott to Robbie Williams, are, as Craig Brown once despairingly put it, “beyond parody”.

Yup. That is indeed a disabling drawback. I know, because that’s why the publisher didn’t want a satirical guidebook to angels and pagans and Celtic wisdom and all that good stuff – because it parodies itself. Sad, isn’t it – there are people out there walking around and driving cars and working at jobs (none of them in medical or dental fields, let us devoutly hope) who are so silly that they can’t be parodied, they’ve already done it for you. Sad, but also very funny.

The second, at a time when formal yardsticks of human behaviour are snapping all around us like celery stalks, is that many people, served up with something that labels itself “satire”, are simply unaware that a joke is being made. Extraordinary as it may seem, a fair proportion of the populace probably imagines that reality TV is aspirational, or that Vanessa Feltz is a very interesting woman of whom a whole lot more should be heard.

Well…yes. Admittedly – the stuff Sylvia Browne writes is so bottomlessly ridiculous and hilarious and absurd, it would be very hard indeed to write anything that was even more so. So naturally it does become difficult to perceive that a joke is being made.

That’s almost tragic, in a way. The really ludicrous people and ‘movements’ are so extremely risible that they can’t be mocked – there is simply no room left – so only the more moderately ridiculous people and movements can be made fun of. That does seem like a terrible waste. Ah well.

The third drawback was recently identified by Clive James in his essay Save Us From Celebrity…What was the best way to stem the tide of rubbish in which the average TV watcher or newspaper reader is constantly deluged, he wondered. “Satire is one way, but the satirists become celebrities too.” Don’t they just? And so Mr James found himself on Parkinson, reciting one of his amusing poems to Posh Spice and David Bowie. The emasculated satirist, in fact, is one of the commonest sights in literary history. In later life Thackeray, famously, never produced any social critique quite so devastating as Vanity Fair, largely because its success brought him fame and dinner invitations from the Duke of Devonshire.

Ah – now that one is not a worry. That difficulty has been grandly, even regally surmounted. Success shall not spoil wosname. No. Fame and dinner invitations to Chatsworth will not emasculate this satirist, thank you very much, because the problem doesn’t arise. I don’t get dinner invitations from the people who sleep under Waterloo Bridge, let alone the Duke of Devonshire. And the one time I got the chance, when I was on that radio thing with nice Philip Adams, well, I didn’t sell out, did I. Not a bit of it. I was just as sarky and parodic and mocking as ever. So! My social critique will go on being just as devastating as it was last year, Dukes or no Dukes, I assure you. There’s integrity for you.

Speaking of fame and dinner invitations and radio and amusing poems, Julian is on ‘In Our Time’ tomorrow, so have a listen.

From Stockholm

Nov 15th, 2005 6:38 pm | By

More (I know, but there are a lot of good items today, and I want to quote from them). From the always-rewarding Ishtiaq Ahmed – who teaches political science in Stockholm.

Are human beings united or estranged in their essence? Tragedies such as the October 8 earthquake in Pakistan bring out the best and the worst in human beings. We have heard how people volunteered to help, sometimes risking their own lives, when involved in rescue operations…Everyday we see foreigners engaged in providing medical aid, food, blankets and other help. They too represent the best qualities in human beings. We should never forget their sense of duty to fellow human beings.

That’s exactly what I meant the other day when I said that the guy who kicked Reginald Denny in the head might on a different day have rushed to rescue people from danger after an earthquake. I think that’s true. Disasters (can) bring out the best in people. We’re moody, we’re labile, we’re flighty and changeable and unsettled; we can hate people one minute and run into danger to save them the next. Or we can live peaceably next door to them for decades and then after listening to the radio for awhile decide to kill them all.

The most shameful and disgraceful reaction was that of Islamic obscurants who – even before the full tragedy had unfolded – had in their enthusiasm to score cheap and vulgar points against the Musharraf regime, opined that those hit by the earthquake were facing divine punishment because they had done nothing to prevent the Pakistan government from allying itself with the Americans against fellow Muslims such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda and being soft on India and Israel. I have, in subsequent exchanges with such utterly despicable custodians of Islam, demanded an explanation as to how schoolchildren and those several hundred pupils at a Quran school who also perished while reciting the sacred scriptures could do anything to change Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is, of course, no answer to give but we are told that we mortals do not understand how God works in human societies.

Yes, the Pat Robertson school of thought. If it ever rains hard in Dover, Pennsylvania, well – it’s all up with the people there because God won’t lift a finger. He’s too pissed off.

Why inflict so much pain and suffering on ordinary creatures, many of whom barely managed to stay alive even under normal circumstances? The answer one gets is silence or prevarication but never an admission that when they make such a statement they start playing God themselves and that is wrong. I have yet to meet an obscurantist who ever admits having made a mistake in interpreting the will of God.

And they not only start playing God themselves, they cheer on a God who inflicts pain and suffering on innocent impoverished people in order to make an unrelated point.

Consequently all philosophy and religious beliefs should be judged as benign or malevolent on the basis of how ideas are used to either advance the notion of a common humankind with the same needs for respect, love and security or to preach permanent war and hatred deriving from differences of faith and colour and so on. We can also safely assume that although each individual is unique, our survival as a species has been possible because of our ability to cooperate. We are united in our essence and not estranged.

Yes. Just say no to those who preach permanent war and hatred – no matter how passionate their grievance, no matter how intense their conviction, no matter how strong their feeling, no matter authentic their tradition. Just, No.

Fight the Power

Nov 15th, 2005 5:53 pm | By

Slavoj Zizek says something interesting in the Voice.

“I am a mastodon,” he says. “I still believe in the big theories popular back in the ’70s. This distrust in big universal theory is the most dangerous ideology today. Look at all totalitarians, the really bad guys, Hitler, Stalin. Sorry, but none of them believed in big theory. Hitler was a historicist-relativist and so was Stalin! Often a reference to some absolute truth is necessary to resist totalitarian political power, so you can not lose hope.”

Right on. Good mastodon. Pat pat pat.

Cheap Copies

Nov 15th, 2005 5:39 pm | By

This is good. Not least because it cites a philosopher of science who has written several articles for B&W. A ‘holy man’ shows up in a village in India and performs some conjuring tricks – then unmasks himself. Score one for rationalism.

“We are rationalists” declares the intruder, Sanal Edamaruku, secretary general of the Indian Rationalist Association. “We have come here to show you how sadhus and god-men are using simple tricks to cheat you.” The sadhu himself is divested of wig and beard and revealed as a completely ungodly rationalist volunteer. He’s no guru – just very skilled at conjuring…The miracle is that the spell has been broken. Once the crowd have absorbed the shock, and broken into laughter, this poor, remote village has been liberated from superstition. Perhaps for ever.

Dear Indian Rationalist Association. Dear Indian rationalism – long may it flourish. Forever, in fact.

Despite a tenacious western orientalism which overemphasises and overvalues Indian religiosity, reinforced by the homegrown ‘Hindutva’ movement propagated by the BJP (anatomised by Meera Nanda in New Humanist Jan/Feb 2005), India has a long and distinguished rationalist tradition which is considerably older than that of the west. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the seeds of rationalism were planted many thousands of years before the Enlightenment.

It’s actually both orientalism and occidentalism (that is, anti-orientalism) that overemphasise and overvalue Indian religiosity. Kind of a lose-lose situation. People with silly dopy romantic exotic fantasies about India and anti-romantic postcolonialists join forces in declaring rationalism an inauthentic hegemonic import, a stalking horse for imperialism, a mere tool of capitalist efficiency, a disguised form of tyranny. Which is unfortunate.

Professor Desai is clear that while the forms of Indian activism can be an inspiration for a renewed practical western rationalist project, western traditions of rationalist and humanist thought remain an essential model for India: “Our entire enlightenment depends on the west, and we have a lot more to learn.” In his speech at the conference in 1999 which celebrated 100 years of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), Sanal Edamaruku was explicit about the vital role played by the availability of cheap copies of classic western humanist texts, printed by the RPA, publishers of the journal you are reading now.

Dear RPA. Floreat.

All the Appropriate Emotions

Nov 14th, 2005 10:36 pm | By

I read something this morning in Frank Cioffi’s essay* ‘Was Freud a Liar?’ that grabbed my attention. It reminded me of something. I knew what, too.

Freud did not fall into the seduction error through believing his patients’ stories; he did not fall into it through ignorance of the fact that persons sexually molested in infancy may, nevertheless, not succumb to neurosis; he did not fall into it through underestimating the frequency of seduction in the general population. Freud fell into the seduction error through the use of a procedure which to this day remains the basis of the psychoanalytic reconstruction of infantile life: the attribution to patients of certain infantile experiences because they appear to the analyst to be living “through them with all the appropriate emotions.”

What did that remind me of? John Mack. You know John Mack? I’ve talked about him a little, but not enough, not yet. I’ve had it in mind to talk about him more though. He’s the Harvard psychologist who thought there was something to the whole alien abduction thing – not ‘something to’ it in the sense of as cultural phenomenon or symptom of mass lunacy, but in the sense of maybe real aliens really abducting real people and taking them onto real alienships and really impregnating them and doing medical exams on them. For real. And why did he think this? His main reason was that they had such strong emotions when they talked about it. They seemed (they appeared to the analyst) really really really frightened, upset, disturbed, traumatized.

And what is so interesting about that – or one thing, at least, that is so interesting about it – is that it seems so obvious that people having very strong emotions about something isn’t necessarily a reason to think that something refers to a real event. It seems so obvious 1) that there are other possible explanations and 2) that the other possible explanations are a great deal less unlikely than the alien abduction [of just a few people who can produce no physical evidence] scenario is. It’s interesting that such a bizarrely faulty bit of reasoning could be perpetrated by a Harvard psychologist. (Harvard thought so too. Harvard blushed. Harvard was not altogether pleased.) Credulity on that scale is surprising in an academic. Well, maybe it’s not. I know several people who would immediately tell me that that’s just the kind of person it’s not surprising in. They could have a point.

*Originally a radio talk for BBC 3 in 1973, published in The Listener, and in 1998 in the Frederick Crews edited collection Unauthorized Freud.

Tidying Up

Nov 14th, 2005 9:48 pm | By

I wanted to make more easily available the useful work Allen Esterson has done on the changes Hizb ut-Tahrir has made on its website, which he posted in comments on the previous N&C.

It is significant that some of the language the organization has had on its website has been removed, or toned down, presumably to make it more amenable for Western consumption. For instance, the statement that “There is no middle position or compromise solution in Islam” used to appear on the website, along with the statement: “The terminology of compromise did not appear amongst Muslims until the modern age. It is a foreign terminology and its source is the West and the Capitalist ideology. This is the ideology whose creed is based upon a compromise solution.”

At the time I accessed this I noted the URL (either earlier this year, or last year). It is now a blank page.

Again, the page “WHAT IS THE CALIPHATE (or KHILAFAH)?” disappeared for a while, and now reappears considerably toned down.

For example, the following about the Khaleefah (Clerical Leader) no longer appears: “These ahadith are clear statements of the fact that Muslims cannot have more than one Khaleefah, and if another person tries to wrest his power it is necessary to kill that person… If anyone disputed with the Khaleefah in order to break up the State or to put himself forward as Khaleefah, he should be killed.”

This is replaced by: “Accountability [of Khaleefah]: – He can also be accounted by individuals, political groups, scholars, and an elected people’s assembly.”

As for Sharia Law, it’s really very benign – most of the time: “The judiciary cannot be influenced by the rulers while investigating a case. Any accusation of criminal offence needs to be investigated and proved, often with a much higher burden of proof than in democratic states. Punishments in Islam are very variable – some more lenient than that in the modern day. However, the hudood punishments for a small number of offences are prohibitively harsh, deterring people from committing these offences.”

Out goes: “The establishment of a Khaleefah is an obligation upon all Muslims in the world. Performing this duty, like any of the duties prescribed by Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’Ala) upon the Muslims, is an urgent obligation in which there can be no choice or complacency. Negligence in performing this duty is one of the greatest sins, for which Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’Ala) punishes severely.”

I think we all know what is meant by a severe punishment under Sharia law.

It Gets in Everywhere

Nov 13th, 2005 11:01 pm | By

It’s funny about this piece by Ziauddin Sardar – it gave me quite a turn when I read it a few days ago, because I’ve been writing an article that talks about exactly, but exactly, an issue he discusses. It’s a rather important one, too, and one in need of as much clarity of thought as possible. Getting it wrong causes suffering all over the place.

The bearded and elegantly attired supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the fundamentalist Muslim group, like to emphasise the non-violent nature of their party. As a recent press release put it, they “have never resorted to armed struggle or violence”. This is correct as far as it goes. While HT has openly engaged in the politics of hatred, particularly towards the Jews, it has not, strictly speaking, advocated violence. But this does not mean that it is not a violent organisation.

Bingo. That’s an evasive tactic that a lot of groups and individuals resort to: saying a group has never resorted to violence or never injured or harmed anyone – which is true as far as it goes – but is therefore highly misleading. Violence isn’t just clouting someone with a two-by-four; injury isn’t just slicing someone up with a machete; harm isn’t just running over someone with a lawn mower. Therefore, it is not good enough to say that a group is non-violent if, for instance, it doesn’t commit violence itself but does encourage and praise and validate and romanticize it in others; or if it trains other people (who are officially not part of the group in question) to commit violence; or if it writes propaganda for violent groups while not telling the complete truth about those groups’ activities; and so on. It has been deeply exasperating seeing defenses of Hizb ut-Tahrir that insist on the group’s non-violence as if direct literal physical violence were the only possible reason to criticize HT. But there are other reasons. Groups that, for instance, want to take some people’s rights away by peaceful means, may be non-violent but they’re not therefore beneficent.

But this does not mean that it is not a violent organisation. During a recent debate on PTV, the Pakistani satellite channel, a prominent member of HT told me emphatically: “The idea of compromise does not exist in Islam.” This is standard HT rhetoric, and it explains why the group is deemed dangerous and worthy of being proscribed. Intolerance of that kind is a natural precursor of, and invitation to, violence.

Exactly. Well said Mr Sardar. If only more people would see that.

In fact, violence is central to HT’s goals. Its primary objective is to establish a caliphate. It seeks, I have been told on numerous occasions, a “great Islamic state” ruled by a single caliph who would apply Islam “completely to all Islamic lands” and eventually to “the whole world”. What would be applied “completely” is the sharia, Islamic law. No wonder they recognise no compromise. Their ideology argues that there is only one way Muslims can or should be ruled, that those who form this caliphate have the right to rule, that all others must submit unconditionally and that only this political interpretation of Islam is valid and legitimate. In other words, the caliphate of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s vision can be established only by doing violence to all other interpretations of Islam and all Muslims who do not agree with it – not to mention the violence it must do to the rest of the world, which also must eventually succumb.

Violence isn’t just one guy punching you in the face, or even just one guy blowing up the bus you’re riding in. It’s also a bunch of guys enforcing a narrow sexist punitive theocratic law on you and on everyone. That’s a very thorough-going, far-reaching kind of violence – that’s why it’s called totalitarian. It governs everything – ‘completely’ – and permits no escape. That’s real violence.


Nov 13th, 2005 7:56 pm | By

A couple of amusing items sent by readers – by readers who are the creators of said amusing items.

John Emerson has a little rumination on Freud – possibly scurrilous, he says, but surely that’s a good thing.

Read Civilization and its Discontents lately? Remember the part about men peeing on fires to put them out? And why women like to weave? (Hint: it has to do with pubic hairs. Funny old women.)

So John pondered.

I imagined a band of cave men gathered around a fire like the one I saw, incontinently and ecstatically squirting their tiny streams of urine in the futile effort to extinguish the raging fire, while at the same time their resentful, feminist wives tried furiously to weave themselves little fake penises even more useless than the men’s real penises. And became convinced that the human race, deluded as it was, wasn’t going to make it. We are, as a species, like Lewis Carroll’s “bread-and-butterfly”, incapable of survival.

The other item, from Dan Green, is a nice new guru with a happy message for us all. I feel more hopeful already.

The Interview

Nov 11th, 2005 7:17 pm | By

I like this, so I thought I’d share. There’s this job interview for a prospective philosophy teacher, see…

Other candidates should create distractions. One man illustrated proper logic with this syllogism:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is mortal.

Therefore, Socrates is a man.

I raised my hand. “Birds are mortal too, aren’t they?” I asked, hoping he would correct his error.

“Yes,” our teacher agreed.

“So Socrates could be a bird?”

He smiled benignly. “No. Socrates doesn’t have feathers.”


Nov 10th, 2005 7:16 pm | By

I was somewhat cryptic in that post ‘Interpretation’ yesterday. Deliberately, I suppose, because I wasn’t trying to make a flat assertion, but rather to point out possibilities – areas of murk, of darkness, of fog, of confusion. Of more than one possibility. Of epistemic uncertainty. Also because that post was only preliminary; I thought I would probably try to look at the subject further, later.

So, one thing I’m not saying is that there’s no reason for people in the banlieues to be angry. Hardly. No – but it’s not a choice between ‘people in the banlieues have every reason to be angry therefore the riots are political rebellion and nothing else’ and ‘people in the banlieues have no reason to be angry therefore the riots are the same kind of thing as suicide bombing or just plain criminal assault.’ Nope. There’s a huge amount of territory in between those two items. One possibility – among many, be it noted – is ‘people in the banlieues have every reason to be angry but the particular people who are out rioting are more caught up in the fun of group violence than they are rebelling in a political way.’ That’s just one possibility, remember – but surely it is no less than one possibility. It seems to me it’s not on the face of it so outlandish and implausible that it should be ignored completely.

There are hints, after all. There are complications. Where is everyone else? Where are the women? Where are the non-youth? Why is this a young guy thing? Well, duh – for the same reason war is a young guy thing. Yes, but that’s my point. It’s probably also for the same reason that most violent criminals are young men, and that most football players are young men. Because they’re fit, energetic, muscular, all that, yes, but also because (on average) they’re more aggressive than they ever will be again. It’s because they’ve got testosterone leaking out of their eyeballs. It’s because they like doing things like this. (There, there’s a flat assertion for you. Standing there all naked and vulnerable. Go on, knock it down.) That aggression can be compatible with political rebellion, with dedicated work of all kinds, it can be admirable and useful and courageous – but it can also be compatible with much worse things. Can be, has been, often is.

So it’s just not self-evident that what’s going on for instance in the riots but in other areas too is not at least partly just plain aggressive group-driven violent sadism. It can’t be. It can’t be self-evident – it’s happened too many times before. Lynch mobs, race riots, religious riots, the New York draft riots that were part race riot – and so on. Remember the video of what happened to Reginald Denny during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles? Because I do – it seared itself into my memory. Why? Because it was so obvious that the guy who kicked Denny in the head was having fun – was enjoying himself. And, I think, in a particular way – a self-righteous way. A way that was backed up or validated by self-righteousness. In other words a different kind of fun from the fun of a more routine, furtive criminal assault – of beating someone up in an alley. This was broad daylight, with an audience – and a ’cause’ – of sorts. (By which I mean, a very valid reason to be angry, but a non-useful way of expressing the anger.) So the guy felt good about it – you could tell, from the way he threw his arms up in the air. (That’s another naked assertion. I think it’s true, but I don’t know. I’m interpreting.) Maybe the reason it seared itself into my memory is partly because I could so easily imagine how he was feeling – I could imagine feeling that way myself. On another day, maybe that guy would have joined another crowd to rescue people from a collapsed freeway after an earthquake, the way people did in Oakland when the Nimitz freeway pancaked.

These things can be all mixed up together. People can have a valid grievance, and also have cruel sadistic vindictive urges. They can have both, and they can act on both. The one doesn’t rule out the other. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn’t.

Le livre noir

Nov 9th, 2005 11:55 pm | By

If you read French, do explore the website for le livre noir de la psychanalyse. It’s highly interesting. There is this page where Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen answers ‘internautes’ for instance. Maybe I can translate a little…

Internaute: Can one say that religion, psychoanalysis, and Coke are products that work and that sell well? MB-J: Thomas Szasz wrote a luminous, decisive book on that question. in which he compares the marketing of psychoanlysis to that of Coca-Cola. I’m entirely in agreement with his analysis.

Religion, psychoanalysis, and Coke – I like that. (Appropriate, too, since Siggy was a coker.)


Nov 9th, 2005 8:23 pm | By

Sometimes it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that people can’t always see what’s in front of them. However obvious it is. However frantically it jumps up and down right in front of them. However hard it punches them in the face, however red and dripping the clothes it wears, however loud it screams, however charred the flesh, however choking the smoke.

Not that they don’t notice that something is there. But what they – some people, sometimes – have a hard time making out in the fog is a possibility about what the something is. They see the something there – all red and jumping and punching as it is – and they notice it – but they don’t always do a very good job of figuring out what it is, or what it might be – they don’t do a very good job of figuring out that it might not be what they think it is. In other words they think they recognize it, and they don’t stop to consider that the light is bad, that they’re not wearing their glasses, that it’s the middle of the night, that they’re sound asleep. All those courtroom things. ‘I suggest to you that you could not possibly have identified the defendant from two miles away during a blizzard while wearing a blindfold.’

It’s not just the riots. It is those, but it’s other things too. It’s also suicide bombers, and animal rights campaigners, and people who make death threats over plays and movies and novels that ‘offend’ their religion. The possibility that seems to escape a lot of people’s attention is that all these things are far less a matter of protest, and alienation, and revolt, and justified anger, and understandable resentment, than they are just plain old pleasure in sadistic violence. No more edifying than that. Just joy and pleasure and delight in frightening people, and hurting them, and smashing them up, and making them suffer. That can happen, you know. (Read a little Thucydides or Euripides, if you don’t know – it’s all right there. There was no need to wait for Nietzsche or Freud or Foucault; it’s all right there.) People can just plain get off on beating up on people or leaving fake bombs on their porches or stealing the bodies of their relatives from cemeteries or setting fire to the buses they’re sitting in.

That possibility, at least, is part of these events and activities, but it doesn’t always get as much explicit attention as it should. Too often it’s just tactfully swept out of sight and ignored, or never even noticed in the first place. That’s unfortunate. Think of Gladys Wundowa. Think of the driver of the bus she was on, who instead of running away ran upstairs to help his passengers. Think of the woman on crutches who was set on fire in Sevran, outside Paris, on Friday. Think of the driver of the bus she was on, who suffered smoke inhalation in helping her to escape the bus instead of running away. Think of the woman leaning out the window on a high floor of a block of flats where some ‘youths’ had just set fire to a rubbish bin inside the lobby, calling down that she was frightened. Consider possibilities – that’s all.


Nov 9th, 2005 2:49 am | By

Small point. Very small. Small, picky, fussy point. Obsessive point. Small, minor, not that important in the great scheme of things point. So sue me, I make small points sometimes. So I’m not cosmic.

Guy named Sebastian Rotella in the LA Times, an article on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Minor point.

Working into the evening in a well-guarded office in parliament, Ali retains the elegance and charisma that propelled her from refugee to political star. She wears a black pantsuit and sweater on a small, slender frame. She has oval eyes in a long, delicate face set off by pearl earrings.

Okay okay okay, it’s a minor point, I’m sorry, but god it sounds so stupid. And in sounding that stupid it also sounds patronizing and point-missing and trivializing and – just plain fokking stupid. It should go like this:

Working into the evening in a well-guarded office in parliament, Ali retains the elegance and charisma that propelled her from refugee to political star. She wears a black pantsuit and sweater on a small, slender frame. She has oval eyes in a long, delicate face set off by pearl earrings. So I asked her to go out for a drink with me, and when she declined, I tried to stick my hand down that sweater I mentioned, and when she told me to stop it, I tried to push her against the wall, and those guards I mentioned threw me out. So much for that interview.

And then a word connoting a female dog, if not a word for the female genitalia.

I mean – come on – how much smarts does it take to interview a woman MP with strong views on women’s rights without going into dribbling raptures on her frame and the shape of her face and her earrings?! I ask you! I know this is a familiar, yawn-inducing question, but all the same, it does kind of jump out at you – would anyone describe a male MP in such a ridiculous way?

It’s a good article otherwise, so it is a small point. Good luck with the work, Ayaan.

Turn Back the Tide

Nov 7th, 2005 6:43 pm | By

John Judis says Alito may be not a ‘prudent conservative’ but a ‘determined reactionary.’

Samuel Alito’s position on abortion, evidenced in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, may turn out to be an accurate barometer of his overall judicial philosophy. First, Alito’s dissent in the 1991 case may be indicative of his position on the larger question of women’s liberty and equality, and more broadly still, of how he views the changes the feminist movement made in our understanding of liberty. In this opinion and others, Alito appears, as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas often do, to be standing athwart history, yelling stop.

And what is the chief thing people who seem to stand athwart history yelling stopstopstop probably most want to stop? Women having (more than nominal, rhetorical, purely verbal) liberty and equality. People like that know they have to say they want equality for women. But they do whatever they can to keep them from having it.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey came in response to an act that Pennsylvania passed in 1982 and later amended. The law imposed conditions on women seeking abortions: They had to endure a 24-hour waiting period; minors had to have the consent of a parent; and wives had to sign a statement that they had notified their husbands of their intention…in 1991 the appeals court on which Alito sat affirmed two of the three conditions but threw out the spousal notification requirement. Alito dissented, arguing that spousal notification was constitutional.

Because married women give up the right to own themselves by getting married. Otherwise – it’s time to start yelling stopstopstop.

Lawyers for Pennsylvania had argued that the state had an interest in promoting the integrity of marriage and protecting the husband’s interest in the fetus. While recognizing these as relevant, O’Connor argued that the liberty of a woman, as a separate individual, took precedence. She saw spousal notification not just as a threat to abortion rights, but as a challenge to women’s rights as they had evolved in the twentieth century and had been embodied in a succession of Supreme Court decisions. O’Connor drew a sharp contrast between an earlier view of a woman as wife–articulated in an 1872 opinion that “a woman had no legal existence separate from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative in the social state”–and the Court’s modern understanding, in Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, that the “marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional makeup.”

See – that’s such a large step, and a lot of people still can’t stand to take it. It’s such a large step to think that women are people just as men are people, that women are individuals just as men are individuals. That it’s just not the case that you have people, men, and half-people, semi-people, quasi-people, kind of blurry fuzzy nebulous incomplete blobs of vapour and milk and sex who mean nothing on their own but make perfect sense if attached to a person – a man.

Alito’s reasoning in his dissent did not rise to the level of political, or even judicial, philosophy…With a modern definition of liberty created by the feminist movement at stake, Alito affirms the old against the new. In defending spousal notification, Alito doesn’t weigh women’s liberty and independence against other factors; instead, he fails to acknowledge them. Alito’s reasoning is also sufficiently contorted to suggest that he is rationalizing an ideology rather than faithfully interpreting existing law.

And then the most depressing bit of all:

Alito seems to argue that when O’Connor interpreted an “undue burden” as a “severe” limitation, she meant that it affected a great percentage of women seeking abortions. Spousal notification, he wrote, “cannot affect more than about 5 percent of married women seeking abortions or an even smaller percentage of all women desiring abortions.”…But in her opinion on Casey, O’Connor, without singling out Alito by name, was understandably contemptuous of Alito’s argument about numbers. “Legislation is measured for consistency with the Constitution by its impact on those whose conduct it affects,” she wrote. “The proper focus of Constitutional inquiry is the group for whom the law is a restriction, not the group for whom the law is irrelevant.” Alito’s reasoning flies in the face of the Bill of Rights…Arguments like this were sometimes made in the early 1950s by Yale political scientist Willmoore Kendall and other conservatives to justify McCarthy-era restrictions on free speech–and, more generally, to defend a prevailing way of life against political or social deviations. The philosophy was at the time called “majoritarianism”; it was abandoned after Brown v. Board of Education turned conservatives’ attention to a defense of state’s rights.

‘Majoritarianism’ – yes – just the beast that Tocqueville and Mill were so worried about. Defending a prevailing way of life against deviations – and heresy, and apostasy, and all those bad things. And above all, against women wandering around free and unrestricted. Stopstopstop.

Things Fall Apart

Nov 7th, 2005 3:42 pm | By

I’ve been meaning to say: sorry about the weekly update. I’ve been getting emails from readers who miss it, and who try to resubscribe only to get an error message. It’s broken. Sorry. I wish I could fix it – I would if I could – but I can’t. Sorry. It’s probably the hacker who broke it. I miss it too – apart from anything else, it sold a few copies of the Dictionary every time it went out, which meant that in five years or so there might be a tiny royalty. Thanks, hacker.

I think B&W is probably on its last legs. I don’t have the tech skills to fix things, so as more things break, they will stay broken, until the whole thing falls apart. Sorry about that. I’m a bit gloomy about it – and somewhat bitter, too. Thanks, hacker.

I’ll keep it going while possible, of course, but it won’t be what it was, and as more of it breaks, more of it will not be what it was. Sorry. So it goes.

Pike on Honderich

Nov 4th, 2005 6:10 pm | By

Jon Pike on Ted Honderich is well worth reading. Studying, even.

To begin with, he doesn’t just think that affluent westerners are collectively guilty for their omissions in respect of bad lives. He asserts that this explains and justifies anti-Western hatred…The book is, as I will show, chock full of sloppy arguments and non-sequiturs but this is perhaps the worst, and is the hinge with which Honderich gets from bad lives to terrorism.

That’s an important hinge, I think. It’s a hinge that other people use in other causes, or ’causes.’ There is suffering or deprivation or injustice in X place or situation; some set of people are collectively guilty for their omissions or their ‘complicity’ (remember that word? it’s a hinge-word); this justifies hatred of said set of people, which in turn justifies tormenting them in some way.

Here is a point worth keeping in mind:

First, there is a standard, ordinary language distinction between having a right to do X and X being the right thing to do. For example, it makes ordinary sense to say that Joe has a right to vote for the (fascistic) British National Party, but that he is not right to do so. This ordinary language distinction can be philosophically cashed out as the right to do wrong.

Pike makes this in comment on a key (and somewhat notorious) passage of Honderich’s:

I myself have no serious doubt, to take the outstanding case, that the Palestinians have exercised a moral right in their terrorism against the Israelis. They have had a moral right to terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves.

There is a slippage there, Pike points out – from having a moral right, in the second sentence, to having been right, in the third. Once again we see the crucial importance of close reading.

Then he points out that even if we accept a whole absurd chain of arguments about bad lives and omission and moral equivalencies, there is still a consequentialist argument (and Honderich is a consequentialist of sorts) to consider, that terrorism will help the Palestinian cause – which Honderich doesn’t do. Instead he just says it is possible to think so.

But, as philosophy markers often say, that wasn’t the question. It is possible to think all sorts of silly things, it is possible not to doubt them, even not to doubt them seriously. It is possible to have great confidence in them, to be convinced by them. More: it is possible to write them down, and sometimes, quite often, sadly, it is possible to get them published. That doesn’t stop them being silly.

No. It doesn’t. There’s quite a lot of evidence of that scattered around B&W.

At first sight, it seems that Honderich thinks that it is the strength with which he holds his view that makes a difference. He tells us that he hasn’t changed his mind, that he is unrueful, that he is more convinced than ever. It seems that he thinks this ought, in some way, to be persuasive. Perhaps his uncertain reader just needs to be convinced – ‘well, Ted, if you’re sure…’

Uh oh.

But, since not even the first year undergraduate sees anything in truth by conviction, perhaps there is something else going on. Perhaps it’s not the strength of convictions themselves that matters, but the fact that they are Honderich’s convictions. Honderich is a Philosopher, after all, and an eminent one at that. He used to be the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at UCL. He has thought about these things a lot, (as if time, on its own, mattered) and his conclusions are controversial. But he is an Authority, so perhaps the persuasive force is supposed to come from some strange mix of truth by conviction and truth by authority. It’s an odd conclusion to come to, because the very basis of doing philosophy, especially critical political philosophy is a rejection of all of these notions. In order to do serious critical political philosophy, you shouldn’t care about someone’s credentials, or the strength of his or her convictions.


Michael Walzer’s judgement of this sort of view can’t be bettered: in Just and Unjust Wars he compares people like Honderich unfavourably to early IRA volunteers and to the Stern gang, who drew lines between combatants and non-combatants.

That’s worth knowing, because I have seen at least one philosopher who is not Honderich cite Walzer and just war theory as justification for intimidation tactics against civilians – for arguably terrorist tactics.

And then Pike winds up.

Here is my own, somewhat rueful postscript. I’ve argued here that Honderich’s book is terrible, not simply because it is an apology for suicide bombing, but because it presents a sloppy, lazy, dishonest argument that fails in its own terms. There is, to my mind, a lot wrong with those terms, and we should remember what is at stake, in these calls to understand ‘their’ hatred, and ‘our’ guilt, ‘their’ necessary terror and ‘our’ complicity.

We should remember what is at stake.

On the 7th July this year, after hearing about the London bombings, my first thoughts, like those of many others, were for friends, family and acquaintances living and working in London. First, my brother, on his way to give a lecture at Imperial College, then a friend who works for the Aristotelian Society, people at the London Review of Books, in Tavistock Square, and philosophers at UCL. I heard soon from my brother. Brian Leiter’s blog and Crooked Timber quickly contained news that the UCL philosophers were safe, and people were able to make one or two black jokes about the chances of catching a philosopher on a tube train in the rush hour. It looked as if UCL, close to the scene of the bombings had escaped unscathed.

Same here, same with a lot of us.

Over the next few days, though, it became clear that an employee of UCL was killed in the suicide bombings that day. Gladys Wundowa, a Ghanaian cleaner at Honderich’s college, a charity worker and a student of housing management at Hackney College was blown up on the Bus in Tavistock Square. The logic of Honderich’s position is, I think (though it’s hard to be absolutely certain) that the 7th July bombings are to be condemned. But I wonder how much truth the Emeritus Professor thinks there is in the answer that Gladys Wundowa had it coming?

I posted the news about Gladys Wundowa at Brian’s blog on that thread about UCL – not because everyone else had been callous, just because the news had just come out and I was the one who saw it and posted it. Brian thanked me for the tragic update. Gladys Wundowa made me lose it. She had worked all night at the cleaning job, you may remember, and was on the bus because she was on her way to Hackney College for that housing management course. Did those four stupid infatuated self-admiring men have Gladys Wundowa in mind? Probably not. But that’s where ‘sloppy, lazy’ arguments about collective guilt get you.


Nov 3rd, 2005 7:20 pm | By

Catherine Bennett is amusing.

It is strange, isn’t it, to think that this fine-looking couple, recently seen experiencing spiritual ecstasy in East Grinstead, presumably believe in Scientologist founder Ron L Hubbard’s story of Xenu, the galactic tyrant who froze his victims and stored them in the Earth’s volcanos?

Yeah? I didn’t know that. I don’t keep up with Scientology (too busy keeping up with Feng shui, I guess), and I didn’t know that. The galactic tyrant! Froze his victims! Stored them in earth’s volcanoes. Very cool. Almost as cool as playing football in pyjamas with no goal and no crossbar and no hugging.

If, as Madonna says, she has been ridiculed for professing her beliefs, her best expedient would be to stop professing them, at length, to a British public that is already wearied by haranguing, complaints and demands from rival believers whose only common ground is their indifference to the fact that most other people don’t share their faith…Concerning religion, we can only hope she soon alights on the joys of trappism, and subsequently takes all the other faith communities in this country with her.

Just so. There has been a hell of a lot of haranguing, complaints and demands from rival believers lately, hasn’t there, as well as lashings of indifference to the fact that most other people don’t share their ‘faith’. We get the same thing here, of course, multiplied by approximately 500. It seems to be creeping across the Atlantic. We’re all doomed.

Was there really a time, not so long ago, when Thought for the Day, with the Rabbi Lionel Blue maundering about his mum was the most egregious irritant to this country’s non-believers? If so, it is fast taking on the look of a golden age of secularism, when one likes to think that Tony Blair, had he shared his vision of a new medieval country in which no one spoke ill of religion and where state schools would be handed to unyielding members of mutually contradictory faiths, would either have been escorted to Hyde Park Corner or locked up as a danger to himself and others.

And another thing. It’s this Lewis ‘Tricycle’ Libby thing. What’s up with that?

Mr Libby, who was chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, faces five counts of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice…Mr Libby faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted but it is widely believed that, if jailed, Mr Libby would be pardoned by President George W Bush when he leaves office.

Is it. Why would that be? Because they’ve done it before, no doubt. Because Republican presidents have a history of pardoning other top Republicans. So…why are Republicans supposed to be the party of ‘values’ then? Seriously. I don’t understand that. Because they get all tied in knots about HoMoSekShuals but are serenely unworried about little things like perjury and obstruction of justice? Well, yes, I suppose that must be it. But…it seems strange. Even stranger than Xenu the Galactic Tyrant.

Football Fatwa

Nov 2nd, 2005 8:11 pm | By

There must be a mole at the Guardian. Prince Charles would frown wonderingly in the manner of Ned Welch if he read this article – HRH would be most unamused. But that’s his problem.

As part of a government drive to eliminate frivolous fatwas, the Saudi newspaper Al Watan recently published a stone-cold sober one on football. If you can read it without collapsing in helpless laughter – I have bad news for you: you seem to be deceased.

International terminology that heretics use, such as “foul,” “penalty”, “corner,” “goal”, “out” and others, should be abandoned and not said…Do not follow the heretics, the Jews, the Christians and especially evil America regarding the number of players. Do not play with 11 people. Add to this number or decrease it…Play in your regular clothes or your pyjamas or something like that, but not coloured shorts and numbered T-shirts, because shorts and T-shirts are not Muslim clothing.

Okay. I’m beginning to form a picture. Teams of either five people or eighty seven people wearing pyjamas gather together in a field and mill aimlessly around because they have abandoned the word and with it the concept ‘goal.’

Do not play in two halves. Rather, play in one half or three halves in order to completely differentiate yourselves from the heretics, the corrupted and the disobedient.

Yeah! Nothing more disobedient than talking nonsense about two halves. Talking about three halves so much more obedient and submissive. And pure, too.

If neither of you beats the other, or “wins”, as it is called, and neither puts the leather between the posts, do not add extra time or penalties. Instead leave the field, because winning with extra time and penalty kicks is the pinnacle of imitating heretics and international rules.

Oh that’s how you say it! You ‘put the leather between the posts.’ Cool. Except when you don’t, whereupon you leave the field, because doing the other thing is the pinnacle of heretic-imitation. Got it.

You should spit in the face of whoever puts the ball between the posts or uprights and then runs in order to get his friends to follow him and hug him like players in America or France do, and you should punish him, for what is the relationship between celebrating, hugging and kissing and the sports that you are practising?

Ah. That’s a nice touch – a pretty thought. Spitting in people’s faces – yes, that’s always pleasant and sporting, that always goes down well. Very festive, very enjoyable, very athletic and wholesome and fresh air-enhancing. Miserable lousy stinking America and France. Ptah! Ptooie! Hkkkkkkkfwop! Take that, heretic hugging bastards.

You should use two posts instead of three pieces of wood or steel that you erect in order to put the ball between them, meaning that you should remove the crossbar in order not to imitate the heretics and in order to be entirely distinct from the soccer system’s despotic international rules.

And the two posts should not be straight in the manner of despotic international posts but they should be crooked and skywompus so that they fall down a lot. And the ball should be triangular in shape and made of fava beans, so that it falls to bits as soon as it is kicked, because a ball that stays in one piece is despotic and international, both.

Do not do what is called “substitution,” that is, taking the place of someone who has fallen, because this is a practice of the heretics in America and elsewhere.

No. No no no no no. No, if someone has fallen, you should spit in his face, and then all of you jump up and down on him until he is dead (read him this fatwa to make sure – if he doesn’t laugh, you’ve done a thorough job). Then you should leave the field, declaring victory as you go, because to do anything else would be heretical and French and American and just plain crazy, man.

Vicar of Drivelly

Nov 1st, 2005 8:44 pm | By

The Vicar of Putney is sounding off again.

But what resources of self-criticism has atheism developed? Little, it seems. Rarely is a critical lens directed inwards. Once the campaigning atheist has seen the light, they remain on-message, keen to convert all unbelievers. Last week, as Maryam Namazie picked up her award for Secularist of the Year, she proposed “an uncompromising and shamelessly aggressive demand for secularism. Today, more than ever, we are in need of the complete de-religionisation of society.”

What’s his point? What does he mean? What does he think he means? He doesn’t say, he just gives another example of what he takes to be self-evident atheist non-self-criticism. Well, that’s stupid. The fact that a given atheist is a strong advocate for atheism doesn’t (at all, remotely, by any stretch even of the twisted vicarious imagination) mean that she is not self-critical. What an absurd conclusion to draw. Behold. One can be a strong advocate of atheism and be very cautious, skeptical, uncertain, tentative, gradualist about every other subject under the sun. Furthermore, one can be a strong advocate of atheism and be scrupulously, even obsessively self-critical, self-deprecating, self-mocking, self-correcting. The two are independent.

What he probably means is something like ‘atheism doesn’t consider what’s wrong with atheism enough.’ But too bad – that’s not what he said, so he doesn’t get any points for it.

Part of the problem is that many born-again atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp, reheating the standard refutations of religious belief based on a form of rationalism that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns. One Oxford don has called the website of the National Secular Society a “museum of modernity, untroubled by the awkward rise of postmodernity”. Ignoring the fact that at least three generations of thought have challenged an uncritical faith in rationality, the society continues to build its temples to reason, deaf to claims that it is building on sand.

Attababy, Vic! You tell ’em! You tell those pesky old-fashioned boring dreary old hat modernists how yawn-inducing they are, how unhip, how deaf, how sandy. Above all tell them how bad it is to have ‘uncritical’ ‘faith’ (geddit? faith? he’s a vicar?) in rationality. You betcha. Let’s all have more uncritical faith in irrationality, and see how much better everything will be.

This commitment to Victorian philosophy turns to farce when campaigning secularists describe themselves as freethinkers. In truth, atheism is about as alternative as Rod Stewart. The joke is that many who were converted at university via Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene think of themselves as agents of some subversive counterculturalism. This is ridiculous to Da Vinci Code proportions. Contemporary atheism is mainstream stuff.

Grooooan. He’s arguing from fashion! He’s using the argument from hipness! He’s trying to make atheists feel silly and pathetic because we’re not ‘alternative’ enough. What an idiot. What (again) is his point? God-bothering is hipper than atheism therefore God exists? No? Well what then? God-bothering is hipper than atheism therefore we should believe in God despite the non-existence thing? Yes, apparently. Well why would that follow?

As religion returns to the geopolitical scene with frightening malevolence, secularists ought not to be handing out awards and congratulating themselves. They must first try to understand religious belief. That means dispensing with their own self-congratulatory piety: it’s the only route to an effective challenge.

That’s not funny, that’s just downright disgusting. He means Maryam. Yeah, right, that’s all Maryam does, is sit around congratulating herself – in between being imprisoned and fleeing Iran at the risk of her life, and working for women’s rights in Sudan and having to flee for her life from there, and working for women’s rights and secularism in the UK and being systematically ignored by a media that’s too busy fawning on Iqbal fucking Sacranie to phone her up for an opinion now and then, so the National Secular Society has the almightly gall to try to get her just a little more mainstream attention via this award – only for the Vicar of god damn Putney to come along and drivel about handing out awards and congratulating themselves. That pisses me off!

Sod off, Vicar of Putney. Go be Vicar of Morden for awhile – that would show you.