The right to choose your customers

Dec 10th, 2006 12:34 am | By

We have this on-going discussion about rights, about what they are, what we mean by them, what they aren’t or shouldn’t be or shouldn’t be thought to be, how they are justified, and the like. We have some commenters defending the idea that Christians do have rights to refuse service to gay people in public accommodations. They’re using arguments that have a certain familiarity. The ‘right to free association’ for instance. From a comment on ‘The fundamental right to say get outta my store’: ‘the right to free association. That’s the very same right denied in apartheid south africa or in the US under segregation or by many anti-union laws.’ Well, no, actually. It was the defenders of apartheid and segregation who resorted to talk of rights to free association or to choose one’s own company or customers, not the opponents. There is this 1964 incident in the career of William Rehnquist, a recent Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, for instance:

he opposed [Phoenix, Arizona’s] public accomodations law, defending in a letter to the Arizona Republic ‘the historic right of the owner of a drug store, lunch counter, or theater to choose his own customers.’ [Peter Irons, A People’s History of the Supreme Court, p. 443]

The churches, whether they realize it or not, are aligning themselves with intransigent segregationists of the 1950s and early ’60s. They can do that, of course, but it’s as well to be aware that the defense of ‘free association’ has particular historical resonances. It emphatically does not refer to or mean the right of black people to associate with whites, it means the right of white people not to associate with blacks, and to exclude them from public accomodations for that purpose. Not a pretty or inspiring kind of right, not one that reasonable people (frankly) ought to defend. The picture to form in your head is not a living room full of friends but a restaurant with ‘No Niggers’ or ‘No Queers’ on the door.



Contradictions? What contradictions?

Dec 8th, 2006 6:42 pm | By

Blair gave a speech on multiculturalism. (Maybe if he’s very good, next week he’ll be allowed to have a debate on the subject with Madeleine Bunting.) He said some slightly odd things…

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive.

But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common…

But those two can be in flat contradiction. Blair surely knows that. Is the idea that people are just supposed to ignore that problem? The fact that practicing a ‘faith’ and conforming to a culture can rule out belief in and practice of equal treatment for all? He must know that, he’s not silly – so what does he mean by saying that? Is it just that anodyne but impossible formulas are required for speeches of this kind?

Actually he does admit the problem farther down. (But then why state it this way farther up? Won’t he confuse his hearers?)

[W]e stand emphatically at all times for equality of respect and treatment for all citizens. Sometimes the cultural practice of one group contradicts this. We need very clear rules for how we govern the public realm. A good example is forced marriage. There can be no defence of forced marriage on cultural or any other grounds.

Right. Good. But then it’s no good saying people have a perfect right to practice their ‘faith’ and to conform to their culture when in fact that right is (very properly) limited. That’s misleading.

Andy Armitage sent me the link to this speech and pointed out this passage:

One of the most common concerns that has been raised with me, when meeting women from the Muslim communities, is their frustration at being debarred even from entering certain mosques. Those that exclude the voice of women need to look again at their practices. I am not suggesting altering the law. But we have asked the Equal Opportunities Commission to produce a report by the spring of next year on how these concerns could be practically addressed, whilst of course recognising that in many religions the treatment of women differs from that of men.

Well, okay, but that looks like some thin ice up ahead. But good luck with it.



Vociferous aggressive secularists for WAR

Dec 8th, 2006 6:24 pm | By

Bunting in a similar vein.

In the summer, the publication of Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence, was greeted with delight by many reviewers and commentators…He was promptly adopted by the lobby of vociferous aggressive secularists who regard all faith in the public sphere as evidence of some sinister plot.

No, actually, that’s not what we regard all ‘faith’ in the public sphere as, we regard it as an inherently dangerous influence on politics, law, human rights and other such public influences that shape how we all get to live our lives. Get it right, Madders.



The rights of Christians

Dec 8th, 2006 6:16 pm | By

Christians continue to struggle to defend their rights.

Allies of Ms Kelly have accused Mr Hain of pandering to Labour activists…His liberal approach may derail sensitive negotiations between the Government and church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians.

Church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians to exclude and refuse to serve gays in public accomodations – those rights. You know, those ‘rights’ that don’t exist, that no one recognizes, the ones that are just asserted. Those rights.



Neocon bastards

Dec 8th, 2006 5:58 pm | By

Some wisdom and insight from Ziauddin Sardar:

The British literary landscape is dominated by three writers: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan…In their different styles, their approach and opinions define a coherent position. They are the vanguard of British literary neoconservatives, or, if you like, the “Blitcons”…Their writing stands within a tradition, upholding ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature….The Blitcon project is based on three one- dimensional conceits. The first is the absolute supremacy of American culture. Blitcon fiction is orientalism for the 21st century, shifting the emphasis from the supremacy of the west in general to the supremacy of American ideas of freedom…The second Blitcon conceit is that Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation. Rushdie’s suspicion of and distaste for Islam is obvious in his novels…References to Islam in Midnight’s Children can be read as deliberately insulting.

Naughty Rushdie. Suspicion and distaste for Islam not allowed. Trust and love for Islam only permissible attitude, also only progressive attitude; other attitude places one as a conservative; Islam self-evidently the opposite of conservatism and deserving of trust and love, respect and admiration, affection and reverence; therefore Rushdie Amis and McEwan are all neocons. Besides they uphold ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature. Well I mean to say. How neocon and sinister can you get.

The third Blitcon conceit is that American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world. The extent to which this conviction has become central to these writers’ thought can be traced by Rushdie’s surprising progression, over the past 20 years, from political left to centre right. Rushdie’s fiction is more nuanced than that of Amis or McEwan, and he was an outspoken champion of multiculturalism during the 1980s. All that, however, changed when Ayatollah Khomeini, enraged at The Satanic Verses, issued a fatwa sentencing him to death in 1989.

Oh, gee, did it? Well I can’t imagine why! I can’t imagine why a ‘fatwa’ sentencing him to death by a complete stranger in a country he had nothing to do with – a stranger who hadn’t read the book he was so ‘enraged’ about – would cause him to be any less fond of ‘multiculturalism’ – can you? What a narrow-minded spiteful conservative orientalist all-wrong guy he must be, to react that way. Dang, some people just have no tolerance. Obviously he should have been pleased at this creative manifestation of a vibrant culture displaying its difference and Otherness for the edification of all those dreary fools who uphold ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature. But nooooo – he had to get all offended and huffy and bitter, and even more unfriendly toward Islam. Is that crazy and neocon or what!

And, the NS tells us, ‘Ziauddin Sardar has been appointed a commissioner of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.’ Oh dear.



Hold the patronizing inanity, thanks

Dec 7th, 2006 7:39 pm | By

The discussion at Cosmic blog of Allen Esterson’s research on the ‘Einstein’s Wife’ myth has continued. Some of the comments indicate why mythic history can get traction.

So far as I know, both Einstein and Maric are dead and continued discussion of who contributed what to either’s research would be pointless (unless you’re dead set on using the work of long-dead scientists to promote your own injured sense of your gender’s worth and equality.) Wouldn’t a more relevant topic be whether or not Einstein’s or Maric’s conclusions were valid, or that their work was useful?

Well, continued discussion might be pointless if it were taking place in a vacuum, but given that there is a story out there that is given prominence on a public television website and is being taught in schools and is wrong, then no, it’s not pointless. Teaching history as pretty, self-esteem inflating stories that aren’t actually true is not helpful. Rigoberta Menchú did not help her cause by exaggerating and embroidering parts of her story. Japan doesn’t do itself any good by minimizing what happened in Nanjing. Turkey is not covering itself in glory by prosecuting anyone who so much as whispers the words ‘Armenian genocide.’ Holocaust denial is neither useful nor benign. Yosef ben-Jochannan didn’t advance black empowerment by giving lectures in which he said that Aristotle had stolen his philosophy from the library at Alexandria. Truth has to apply everywhere in inquiry if it’s going to apply anywhere; once you decide it’s okay if you play games with it in just this one place – you’ve given up on it entirely (for one thing, because you’ve made yourself unreliable). As a reply to the above comment at Cosmic Blog says:

There are probably a lot of people who would agree with you. Thirty years ago I might have been among that number. However, I think there’s something to be said for truth. Some years ago I read an article by the historian Mary Lefkowitz in the paper entitled, “Greece for the Greeks: History is not Bunk.” Very enlightening little essay that inspired me to continue on and read her book “Not out of Africa.”

Interesting. I was inspired to read Lefkowitz’s book too, some ten years or so ago, and that’s why she’s one of the first people I asked to write something for B&W. She did, too – her article is the first one I published here. The next is by Richard Evans and also about why truth matters in history. (Then a couple of interviews – with Norm Levitt and Steve Pinker – and an article from TPM and then there’s the first article Allen sent – so we come around in a circle. We all think history does matter and truth matters and truth in history matters. The commenter at Cosmic Blog goes on:

If Maric really did deserve a share in the Nobel that would be a good thing to know – for everyone. But the evidence for such a thing is extremely feeble, even where it exists. The grotesque exaggeration of her involvement is a disservice to the facts, to ourselves, and most especially to her. There is a tendency now in some quarters to say, “B was a downtrodden class of individuals. They did not have the opportunities that DWMs (Dead White Males) had and their contributions were ignored or downplayed. In many cases they were actually punished. THEREFORE, as a matter of social justice, we must go back and give them retroactive credit for things they might have done had they not been oppressed.” The movement to elevate Maric’s recognition is an extreme example of this…Also, when it comes to teaching our kids – my OWN daughters, one of whom has decided to be a chemist – I want them to know the truth as far we are capable of discerning it. I want to inspire them to their level of brilliance and beyond – using the real accomplishments of those who have come before, and not the imaginary and inflated accomplishments that amount to patronizing inanity.

Yep. Patronizing inanity is no favour. Thanks all the same.



She’s wearing lipstick, you know

Dec 6th, 2006 11:34 pm | By

Purves and the niqab again. I find I haven’t quite finished with that subject – I find I didn’t chew it over quite thorougly enough. I find that one small paragraph is peculiarly full of matter for contemplation. I find there is more to say.

One: she said it was ‘good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private.’ But that’s ridiculous. You might as well say it was good to have the student saying torture is cruel and bad, and good to have other people saying it is kind and useful. Why would that be good? On Millian grounds, because arguments are stronger if they meet opposition? But that’s not what she says; she doesn’t say why; she just says it was a fun evening. It seems to be merely a matter of let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand opinions flourish, they’re all good, all interesting, all colourful. But that’s saying anything. If the things people say are in tension with each other, and they relate to actions and rules and laws, sometimes a choice will have to be made, so it’s not helpful to just beam fondly and say they’re all lovely.

Two: she ‘admitted’ a moment of discomfort about encountering a woman in a niqab. Why did she ‘admit’ it? That means she thought she did something at least slightly wrong in feeling discomfort. But why should she think that? Why should anyone? Why should there be guilt about feeling discomfort at seeing women with no faces? What’s not to feel discomfort about? Suppose we encountered someone crossing the road wearing a Tshirt slogan in huge neon letters: ‘Woman is man’s rib and born to serve him.’ Would we feel discomfort? Would we feel guilty and apologetic about the discomfort? I doubt it. If not, should we feel guilty about niqab-discomfort? I don’t think so.

Third: the biggest omission, the one that bugged me: the cheerful man’s ‘She can speak, you know!’ I should have noticed that. No, we don’t know! Of course we don’t know – how would we? She’s wearing this thing over her face that makes it impossible to know, isn’t she; that’s the point! For all we know the lower half of her face has been sheered away and she can no more speak than she can fly. Of course we don’t know. And the cheerful man is being completely ridiculous in pretending there is simply no possible reason to think a woman with a bag over her head might not react just like any other person in the street to a casaul uninvited remark from a stranger – in pretending she’s just perfectly routine and familiar and ordinary and commonplace and just like everyone else except for this one tiny detail that she’s dressed like Darth Vader. And in fact he’s being not only ridiculous but also disingenuous, because the point of the niqab is to ward off contact and conversation, not to invite it and not even to say that it’s difficult but possible – it’s just plain to prevent it. Get real, cheerful man. And then of course there’s the question that Purves should have asked, which is whether this mandate to say ‘Good morning!’ applies to men. But that would have taken her into territory that might cause ‘discomfort,’ so instead (apparently) she let cheerful man buffalo her into treating the revolting medieval nonsense as normal and healthy and fine. Sad.



Epistemic darkness

Dec 6th, 2006 10:11 pm | By

Something ChrisPer said in comments on the ‘Fundamntal right-get outta my store’ N&C, that I found myself doing a longish comment on, so decided to put it out here.

“Christian disapproval of gay practice is not without reasons – its just without reasons that others find persuasive. For instance, you disown the reason of pleasing God on the grounds that He does not exist.”

No, actually; more grounds than that. I could perfectly well think or believe that god does exist and still be far from thinking ‘the reason of pleasing God’ is a valid reason to say and teach and preach that homosexuality is wrong and to think it should be legal to deny gays service in public facilities. Because even if god exists, there are still further questions, before one can conclude that condemnation of homosexuality pleases this god. What kind of god is it? What does it think is good, and what does it think is bad? What does it want us to do? Has it told us what it wants us to do? Has it told us what it thinks is good, and what is bad? If so, how do we know it has? And if so, why hasn’t it told everyone? And if so, and if it thinks good and bad matter, why hasn’t it told everyone in such a way that there can be no dispute about it?

It seems to me that even if there is a god, no human has the slightest idea what the true answers to those questions are, and that even if any humans do know the true answers, they have no way to know they know, and we have no way to know they know.

It’s basically an epistemic problem. People who claim that homosexuality is displeasing to god really don’t know that and have no way to know it.

Some theists claim that is because god wants us to have free will, and wants us to have a free choice whether to believe in god or not, as well as whether to be good or not. Okay – but then the only way to do that is to keep us in genuine epistemic darkness. Not pretend darkness; real darkness. We really don’t know if there’s a god, or if there is what kind of god it is, or what it thinks is good, or if we would agree with it if we knew, or what it wants us to do, or if it has told us what to do, and if so what it is that it has told us to do; and we don’t know how to know any of this, either way, yes or no. Okay. Real freedom, but bogus knowledge of god. There is no real knowledge of this god, and so far there never has been (or it would have been passed on in an indisputable fashion). So – we’re free to choose to believe it exists. All right – but are we equally free to choose to believe we know what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do? Are we equally free to choose to believe we know it has told us what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do, and that it will blame and punish all who disobey? No. I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone has the right to take that risk. Because the reality is you just have no clue what god wants, you don’t even have any clue what it’s like, so how can you possibly know it doesn’t think children should be tortured? Let alone know it thinks homosexuals should be given unequal treatment because of what they do with their genitalia. Darkness is darkness; we don’t know what we don’t know; and this is something we don’t know. It seems to me it’s only right to admit that.



Something’s wrong, I can’t quite tell what it is

Dec 5th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

People are funny. Hilarious, even. Yesterday a regular reader emailed me to express concern. The subject line said ‘Something’s afoot.’ Oh what? thought I. John Bolton has been made Vice-president? Barack Obama has turned atheist? No, the something was afoot at B&W.

Am I picking up a shift in your political orientation? Something is changing in the complexion of B&W and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Almost as though you were feeling contrite about slamming President Bush for his brainlessness for so long and felt you needed to give the other side equal time, or even more, that you are saying, “The Devil take the whole bunch of them.” Why, soon you’ll be telling us you are heading back across the ocean having given up on us. Tell me I’m wrong, but your choices are starting to look like Arts and Letters Daily.

??? I thought. What can this possibly refer to? I stole time from pressing work on TPM (and B&W) glancing over recent News items and N&C titles trying to figure out what was meant, and I squandered several minutes writing a longish reply. Then wished I hadn’t bothered when the reply to my reply came in.

Nothing as specific as any of those–just a sea-change I am sensing or a tilt of the tectonic plate. I’ll let you know if I can pin it down more–not that it should matter–but just as long as you are doing equal-opportunity goading, I am reassured.

Pretty funny, you have to admit – first the shock-horror accusations, then the casual admission that actually the helpful reader has no examples. This morning I stole another couple of minutes to point out the absurdity along with the waste of my time which I have better things to do with it actually. The thoughtful reply? ‘Life’s tough.’

I’m laughing again. You do have to admit – that’s not bad.

Don’t worry, I won’t publish your rude emails, not unless they’re as funny as that. I get lots of rude emails that I don’t publish. (Oh well not all that many really. Most of them are about dear Al Pope, and not rude anyway. But I get a few.) But ones that extract the biscuit and cause hilarity – those are fair game. Besides, this way I recoup the wasted time.



Smile at me, dammit!

Dec 5th, 2006 6:45 pm | By

Um…wait….Libby Purves at a meeting to discuss The Veil.

It was good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement. I admitted a moment of discomfort myself: on the way in, crossing the Mile End Road and finding myself face to face with a full black veil, as we jinked from side to side to avoid collision, I gave the usual smilingly embarrassed grimace, yet her invisibility denied me any answering smile. When I said this, a cheerful bearded man in the audience whose wife wears one said: “You should have greeted her. She can speak, you know!’ We agreed that next time I meet a niqab-wearer in the street I will say “Good morning!” and expect a response.

Wait. If the niqab makes women feel more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement, i.e. when they’re sad and upset and fragile and need to be outside but don’t want to interact with strangers, then why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? And as a matter of fact, even without the privacy-sadness-fragility-leave me alone aspect, why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? What if they don’t want to be accosted? Why should the niqab be interpreted as a near-requirement to say ‘Good morning’? Is this over-compensation? Over-correction? Reverse psychology? Perversity? What’s the thinking here? ‘I see – you’re wearing something that covers your face, therefore you are inviting me to greet you, and will feel insulted and offended and aggrieved if I don’t. [anxiously] Good morning!!’

Why is the cheerful bearded man in the audience (of course he’s cheerful, he gets to wear his face) whose wife wears one scolding Purves for not greeting a woman whose face is wrapped in a cloth? Why is it Purves’s duty to greet her? Why do people want to have everything both ways, or all ways? Why do people want to put on clothes that they know perfectly well elicit certain reactions, and at the same time rebuke the expected reactions? Why do people want to pretend on the one hand that the niqab is ‘just a piece of cloth,’ nothing more than that, no more peculiar or thrilling than a handkerchief, despite different location; no meaning, no implications, no resonance, certainly no political or religious agenda, just a small square of cloth that could be a doll’s tablecloth in another context; and on the other hand that there are all sorts of rules and ethical imperatives about how everyone is to react to the piece of cloth and the woman wearing it? If I go out in jeans and a sweater, no one is under any obligation to greet me and say ‘Good morning!’ because I am wearing them; so if the niqab is so ordinary and ho hum and average, why are we commanded to greet people who wear them? And then, if a woman puts on a face-shield whose primary effect is surely to make it difficult to greet her, why are we expected to greet her? If I go out with a horse’s second-best blanket over my head, is that a mandate for people to greet me? Is it not rather an invitation not to greet me and also a pretty effective preventive device? If you want people to greet you, you should make it easier, not harder. The way to get people greet you is not to go prancing around with your face in a sheet so that no one can tell if you are smiling or sneering or making bubble-lips. We don’t want to greet people who we can’t tell if they’re laughing at us! If it’s greetings you want, leave the Groucho nose and the mask at home; otherwise, put up with non-greetings. You can’t have everything. Get used to it.



What did Mrs Plato write?

Dec 4th, 2006 11:35 pm | By

Allen Esterson alerted me to and sent me the link to this bizarre item. (Did I see references to it at the time? Possibly. There might be a faint memory – but if so I didn’t follow them up.)

A study by an academic who has spent more than 30 years looking at Bach’s work claims that Anna Magdalena Bach, traditionally believed to be Bach’s musical copyist, actually wrote some of his best-loved works, including his Six Cello Suites…”I also discovered that the only complete manuscript from the time for the Cello Suites was a manuscript in the hand of Anna Magdalena, and that the original manuscript in the hand of Johann Sebastian had vanished.”

Oh well then. What more is there to be said? It couldn’t possibly be that she simply copied the manuscript (because such things have never been known; manuscripts never were copied; wives never were asked to copy their husbands’ work; original manuscripts never simply disappeared) or that the original manuscript was used to wrap the leftover strudel that Johann Christian took to school; therefore, beyond a reasonable doubt, Johann Sebastian Bach did not write the Cello Suites, his wife did.

Suppose someone found a fair copy of Emma in James Austen’s hand, or one of Wuthering Heights in Branwell Brontë’s, or one of Middlemarch in Lewes’s. Would people be rushing to claim any of them wrote the items in question? They wouldn’t you know. And rightly so. Suppose someone noticed a letter in which Frederick Douglass thanked Thoreau in the warmest terms for his help and inspiration – would people fall over themselves in the stampede to say that Thoreau wrote A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Suppose someone found a Christmas shopping list on which Toni Morrisson planned to buy a typewriter for someone named George Smithers – would everyone decide George Smithers had written Beloved? Suppose some alert scholar noticed that a contemporary of Emily Dickinson’s named Albert Innacan wrote poetry for the Amherst Gazette and that his poetry featured a lot of dashes – would new books pour off the presses claiming that Albert Innacan wrote Emily Dickinson’s poetry?

I don’t think so. So why do people swallow this kind of nonsense when it goes in the other direction? Can’t they see how pathetic and shaming it is? And if they can’t, why can’t they? Why will they insist on being so silly?

I leave it to your wisdom to determine.



On ‘freedom of association’

Dec 4th, 2006 11:00 pm | By

Prompted by an interesting comment on an earlier post about putative rights I did a little Googling about freedom of association. Something I need to know more about. Found this useful page on the subject.

The phrase “freedom of association” does not appear in the Constitution (although the First Amendment protects the right to peaceably assemble). Nonetheless, the Court has recognized to separate types of association that are constitutionally protected: (1) intimate association (protected as an aspect of the right of privacy) and (2) expressive association (protected as as an aspect of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech). Freedom of association cases are interesting in that they bring into conflict two competing views of the world: rights-oriented liberalism that holds that a person’s identity comes from individual choices (and that government ought to create a framework of laws that remove barriers to choice) and communitarianism, that holds that a person’s identity comes from the communities of which an individual is a part (and that communities are an important buffer between the government and the individual).

Well that’s very interesting, because I’ve been thinking of these issues as being about competing ideas of rights rather than about rights competing with communitarianism. I’m sharply aware that I much prefer rights and rights-oriented liberalism to communitarianism – so I’m being consistent here.

I’m tempted to copy in the whole left-hand column of the page, but that would be silly (and perhaps a copyright violation); just read it; it’s interesting.



The right to declare the right to violate someone’s rights

Dec 4th, 2006 7:48 pm | By

Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 793.

It’s normal to feel nostalgic for cherished practices once treasured and now disgraced. Sometimes, being forced to give them up is a violation of rights. At other times, it means retracting a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place. Some Southern whites spent the 1960s pining for the old days, when they could lynch whom they pleased; few today would portray that as a right transgressed! Today, conservative Christians behold society falling from their faith’s exclusive grip and, like their Southern racist predecessors, sigh, “There goes my everything.”

Just so. Sometimes, being forced to give up a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place feels to the forcee like a violation of rights, which is why we are so often treated to petulant arias on the violation of various rights that aren’t rights. That, plus of course it’s a highly useful tactic, always likely to convince a few unwary observers. Don’t let this happen to you.



Sword or rapier?

Dec 4th, 2006 7:33 pm | By

Hitchens takes down Coulter in his own special way.

She has emerged as a persona because she has mastered the politics of resentment, and because she can combine the ideology of Human Events (the obscure ‘Joe McCarthy was right’ magazine) with the demand of the chat-show bookers for a tall blonde with a very rapid delivery on a wide range of subjects.

Ah yes the very rapid delivery thing. (I’ve never seen Coulter in action, but I’ve seen others.) I’ve never seen the appeal. I prefer the effete languid drawl of a Vidal or Hitchens that nails you without breaking a sweat. Much more amusing, also humiliating. Anyone can jabber; it’s those relaxed, casual, effortless bastards who can really make the blowhards look like fools. As Hitchens proceeds to do.

Here is another instance of the sheer incoherence that results from a mixture of feigned rage and low sarcasm…[T]he abject confusion, with its resounding non sequitur of a concluding sentence, impels her to the negation of her own supposed “argument”. These are the pitfalls that are set by spite and by haste, and Coulter topples leggily into them every time…So, slice it as you will, Coulter finds herself inventing new ways in which to be wrong. As it goes on, the book begins to seem more like typing than writing, and its demonstration of the relationship between poor language and crude ideas becomes more overt.

See what I mean? No need to say that quickly. No need for haste. Easy does it. Steady as she goes. Whack!

If it matters, I am with her on the tepid climate of moral and political relativism which, while it wants all children to do equally well at exam time, also regards the United States as no worse than the Taliban and thus, by an unspoken logic, as no better. But a polemic against this mentality cannot really be written by a McCarthyite.

Or by someone who’s not very good at writing or thinking clearly, or by someone who invents new ways to be wrong. Not useful talents for that particular job.

In a world where the true enemies of civilization are much, much more godly than the blonde goddess of the hard Right, Coulter is reduced to a blitzing of soft civilian targets – one redeemed only by its built-in tendency to fall so wide of the mark.

That’s how it’s done.



The fundamental right to say get outta my store

Dec 3rd, 2006 8:38 pm | By

Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 792. I have a right to equal treatment. No no, comes the reply, I have a right to treat you unequally, provided I don’t actually assault you or break into your house and eat your lunch.

Religious groups are outraged that, from next April, it will be illegal to discriminate against homosexuals or transsexuals when providing goods and services. The clash between religion and secular liberalism is stirring high passions and has even brought threats of civil disobedience…Religious groups have been emboldened by their successes in forcing British Airways to drop its ban on a worker wearing a cross, and in getting the Government to backtrack on its threat to faith schools. Andrea Williams, of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, which has led the campaign against the gay law, said: “This is truly a clash of fundamental human rights. It would seem that, when these rights clash, the homosexual person’s rights trump the religious person’s rights.”

The religious person’s rights…to what? To deny a commercial service to a homosexual person on the grounds that the homosexual person is a homosexual person? Is that a fundamental human right? Is there a fundamental human right to enter the public sphere in order to sell a product or service for public money but still reserve the ‘right’ to reject customers on irrelevant grounds? Is that a fundamental human right? Or is it just a bit of yukkism dressed up in fundamental human rights clothes?

The Guardian thinks it’s the latter. It makes a change, to agree with the Guardian.

The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, warned that church-based charities would be forced to close their doors if the government insisted they let in gay people. ‘It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers,’ he said…That is a tendentious argument. ‘The poor and disadvantaged’ would only lose out if the churches choose to hate homosexuality more than they like good works. Their objection to the new law is not, as they like to see it, self-defence against a meddling government. It is a threat by powerful institutions to withhold their charity out of prejudice. Churches are free to preach that homosexuality is a sin and their followers are free to believe it in private. But the elected government of Britain does not share that view and has rightly sought to give gay citizens the same public rights as everyone else. Or at least it has done thus far. On this latest measure the cabinet is divided. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, is the minister responsible for the new law and is sympathetic to the idea of exempting churches. The Prime Minister is also thought to be amenable to religious petitioning.

No comment. Comment superfluous.

Conflicting ideas of freedom come into play too, of course.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former lord chancellor during the Thatcher era, is the patron of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), part of a coalition of religious groups opposed to the new rules which they say will ride roughshod over their beliefs. The new rules, which ban those offering goods and services from discriminating against gays and lesbians, will force them to act against their consciences, they say. The rules aim to stop, for example, gay couples being turned away from hotels. But faith groups believe there should be an opt-out clause in situations where it goes against their religious beliefs. Lord Mackay said: “People of faith are having their freedom to live according to their beliefs taken away from them.”

Their freedom to live according to their beliefs – ‘live’ in the sense of being able to reject customers on arbitrary yuk-based grounds. That’s a rather broad definition of ‘live,’ it seems to me. Granted, if you have a very small restaurant or b-and-b, you do in some sense live with your customers – but surely that is precisely the condition you accept when you undertake such an endeavour. Surely you realize it would be unworkable to include in your advertising and on the signs the stipulation, ‘for Discerning People That I Happen to Like.’ Bobbi Sue’s Flapjack House for Nice Straight People Who Are Pat Boone Fans would make the sign bigger than the flapjack house and would also risk narrowing the customer base to the point that Bobbi Sue has to declare bankruptcy four days after she opens the bidness. Or to put it another way, tough. That’s the free market for you. If you don’t like it, just stick with being a vicar.



Solidarity forever

Dec 2nd, 2006 7:26 pm | By

Pamela Bone points out that ‘if Islam is to be reformed, and the world consequently made safer and happier for all, it is women who will do it…Western men didn’t see last century’s women’s liberation movement as in [their interest]. It had to be driven by women because the status quo advantaged men.’

The Koran seems fairly clear about women’s subordinate status, but then so is the Christian Bible. If Christian women have been able to argue, more or less successfully, that the misogynistic passages in the Bible are merely a reflection of the era in which they were written and have no relevance to today, there should be no reason Muslim women can’t do the same.

She also quotes Maryam Namazie.

“Debating the issue of women’s rights in an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity, in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Anywhere they (Islamists) have power, to be a woman is a crime.” Namazie is of the Left…But in general, she notes, the Left, the traditional defender of human rights, is silent about the oppression of Muslim women. The reasons are that political Islam is seen as anti-imperialist, racism is these days much worse than sexism and minorities are automatically to be supported…Change must come from within, say the good liberals. Strangely, no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.

Interesting Pamela Bone should say that, because that’s exactly what Maryam said to me when she interviewed me briefly for her tv show. It was shortly after Ramin Jahanbegloo was let out of prison at the apparent price of giving a tv interview that said he’d been wrong to work for reform of Iran, and especially wrong to attend international conferences and the like. I was therefore worried at the time about the possibility that I could taint people inside places like Iran by the mere fact of my support. I blurted something angsty to that effect, and Maryam retorted, with some heat, that, indeed, ‘ no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.’ She said, I think (if I remember correctly), that the whole thing was a shut up device and reformers do indeed want international solidarity and support. So I resolved to cease worrying and do better next time.



Why size matters

Dec 1st, 2006 8:33 pm | By

Simon Blackburn has a very amusing and interesting review of Harry Frankfurt’s new tiny book on truth. One detects a certain…annoyance in places, and one can very well see why. One is in fact unusually well placed to be able to see why, because one shares with Blackburn the experience of having written a slightly less tiny book about truth recently. One is in fact a member of the extremely miniature group of people who have written and published non-tiny English-language books about truth in the past, oh, say three years. There can’t be great huge pulsating throngs of such people, can there? I would guess no. So one really is quite well qualified to know without needing much time for reflection what Blackburn probably thinks of the follow-up to

Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere. Evidently the commercial giant Knopf wanted to get in on the act, and the result is this almost equally tiny book, nicely positioned for a similar success this Christmas, since there is an announced first printing of 200,000 copies. Its appearance and its design make it almost identical to its hot little predecessor: at 101 baby pages, On Truth appears to be fractionally longer…

A first printing of two hundred thousand copies. For a short essay dressed up as a book. Hmm.

Right! That’s enough of that. What about the actual review.

Truth is bigger game than bullshit. Truth and its agent, reason, are the kings of the philosophical jungle, and their capture has excited the finest minds. It is a brave thing for a philosopher to try to bring them down with a little essay — like hunting an elephant, or, better, a herd of elephants, with a pea shooter.

Oh, well, if you aim the pea shooter just right

Frankfurt explains that his book arose because he had failed to explain in the previous book why truth is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it, and hence had failed to explain why indifference to truth is such a bad thing. This is the task he now undertakes. But he also sets himself some quite definite limits in so doing.

We set ourselves some definite limits too. Had to – we had a word limit. But we did have quite a few more words than would fit into 101 baby pages.

Taken together, these represent a fairly dramatic shrinkage of the boundaries of the discussion. It is a contraction that might be regretted as excluding such diverse predecessors as Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, Peirce, Tarski, Foucault, or Richard Rorty.

Check, check, check, no, no, check, check. I fretted about excluding Tarski, I thought it would be highly appropriate and useful for JS to learn all about him and then tell the world, but JS said we had this word limit and couldn’t mention everyone and everything and didn’t want to anyway; we could and should select; I think I probably said something wise about synechdoche; so Tarski was shut out, poor guy. We contracted, but not too much.

Reading Frankfurt’s book, I worried that without chapter and verse the unnamed postmodernists who are so enthusiastically vilified might feel they have not been given their day in court.

Okay, now there we have a clear conscience. That’s exactly what we didn’t do. We named names and gave days in court. That was pretty much the point of the book: to show the kind of thing. We did that. (You’ll notice that this comment turns out to be an exercise in making Blackburn’s review of Frankfurt somehow be about Why Truth Matters. Well, I just couldn’t help comparing as I read, and now you get the benefit.

Spinoza is the only philosopher or writer named or acknowledged in Frankfurt’s book. I found myself made uncomfortable by this, even given the demands of miniaturization…It is a discomfort similar to that arising from the way the unnamed postmodernists are treated. And when I think of Frankfurt’s resolute silence about the philosophical tradition from, say, Protagoras onward, I confess to scenting a whiff of something like — well, negligence with the truth, an affectation of amateur carelessness adopted to mislead or manipulate the audience, and which therefore, by Frankfurt’s own account, characterizes the bullshitter. This is undoubtedly too harsh. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” as Pope rebuked himself when he talked of Lord Hervey.

Now, I call that a really nice touch, to smuggle a veiled reference to B&W into his review of Frankfurt.

[W]e need an explanation of how the virtue of truth can take on a life of its own and stand opposed to pragmatism, or of how we first learned to separate the question of whether a signal represented how things stand from the question of whether it was a signal that it was expedient for us to hear. But such questions would provoke more than a cute diversion to pick up at the exit to a bookstore.

Yes but then it wouldn’t sell 200,000 copies.



Redundant

Dec 1st, 2006 2:15 am | By

Nigel Warburton interviews Richard Norman and asks why he rejects the idea that God exists. Norman gives a good clear succinct answer that would cut through a lot of the disputes that keep turning up like clumps of dust under beds.

I believe that the onus is on those who believe in the existence of a god to provide reasons for that belief. (This is a point which the philosopher Antony Flew has well made.) I can’t prove that there is no god, but in the absence of good reasons for believing that a god exists, I live my life without belief in a god. In particular, the success of scientific explanations of the natural world makes religious explanations redundant. It’s in that sense that there is a tension between science and religion. The two are not logically incompatible, but the more we succeed in discovering well-founded scientific explanations of the origins of the cosmos, the origins of living species, and so on, the more the explanations in terms of a divine creator become redundant. They add nothing.

There. Quite simple really. We can’t prove there is no god, but in the absence of good reasons for believing there is one, we don’t. There are good explanations of the natural world, so the religious ones are redundant. They add nothing. So – we do without them. That’s all.



Well, yes and no

Dec 1st, 2006 2:14 am | By

Ken Livingstone offered a Millian version of multiculturalism in the Indy yesterday.

Multiculturalism versus its opponents is simply one manifestation of the age-long struggle between liberty and its opponents. It is not about personal differences of opinion but between the values of an open and a closed society.

Yes but which side is for the values of the open society and which is for those of the closed? Things don’t necessarily line up the way Livingstone claims.

The foundations of liberalism and multiculturalism were outlined with great clarity in what is justifiably the most famous political essay in British history, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty…Every individual who exists is unique, and wishes to pursue their life in a different way. The individual must be able to choose for themselves…Multiculturalism has nothing to do with an assertion that there are no universal values. The very statement that people should be able to do only such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value. It merely states that insofar as they do not interfere with others, people should be able to choose freely which values they wish to pursue and they may not have these imposed on them…What is prohibited is one group or person imposing their will on others…Female genital mutilation is another such imposed act of violence and equally should not be tolerated.

Good; admirably clear and forthright; but that’s not actually what everyone understands by multiculturalism, and that’s why multiculturalism has opponents who are in fact not enemies of the open society. There are cultures – and they are neither few nor obscure – which do not agree that all individuals must be able to choose for themselves; on the contrary. That being the case, multiculturalism does not have quite the same freedom-loving ring to it that Livingstone seems to think it does.

Update: article in Guardian about Livingstone’s attack on Trevor Phillips.



More on atheist appreciation of religious art

Dec 1st, 2006 2:13 am | By

Nigel Warburton has a very interesting guest post by Richard Norman on the ‘Whether Atheists Can Appreciate Religious Art’ topos. Norman talks about Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Resurrection,’ which his comment caused me to look at again. It’s a terrifically interesting painting; I already thought so, but the discussion intensifies that thought (as such discussions tend to do, which is one huge reason art criticism and literary criticism are not footling wastes of time); it also made me think about why.

Some of what Norman said:

The assumption here is that the truth presented by a religious work of art must itself be a religious truth. That is what I want to question. Of course Piero’s painting is a depiction of the resurrection, but it does not give us any reason for believing the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. How could it do so? (It’s not as though it were photographic evidence or anything of that sort.) The truths which it conveys are human truths, truths which help us in the understanding of our human condition…And that is specifically a truth about human beings, because the features of the work which convey it are the recognisable human characteristics of the figure rising from the tomb.

Yeh. I’ve been claiming something similar in the earlier thread on atheists and appreciation of art – that paintings about some part of the story of Jesus interest us or move us for human reasons rather than specifically religious ones. As an atheist I am in fact left cold by paintings of Mary ascending into heaven amid blasts of trumpets (yes, those are painted blasts), for instance, but not, as I mentioned last week, by the supper at Emmaus, which is very human.

Piero’s painting is enthralling in somewhat the same way as ‘Las Meninas’ – maybe partly for the same reason – Jesus fixes us with his cold straight gaze in just the way Velasquez does in Las Meninas. We feel seen: pinned: examined: weighed in the balance and found – we know not what. He’s uncomfortable to look at – in fact he looks slightly fanatical (well he would, after all that) – and perhaps that telltale reaction is exactly the wrong, ‘atheist’ one that does get in the way of my proper appreciation. But then again perhaps not, perhaps it’s just a variation in preference: I would surmise that a lot of religious people prefer their Jesus with a different expression. Some want him angry, militant, dividing the sheep and the goats; others want him meek and mild; others want him looking like a mensch. Is that religion or just de gustibus?

Back to Richard Norman.

The truths conveyed by The Resurrection are also to be found in the figures of the sleeping soldiers at the base of the tomb. Again the truths are conveyed in the significance of the poses and expressions of the human figures. They say something about the propensity of human beings to miss the miracles that are going on in the world around us – in this case, to be oblivious to the transformation and renewal of human life, and to the corresponding transformation and renewal of the natural world, as represented by the change from the bare trees on the left of the picture to the new growth on the right…The general point is that the truths conveyed by great religious works of art are human truths.

I’ve always loved the sleeping soldiers – slouched and snoring away while miracles happen all around. We’re all the soldiers, crumpled, shapeless, all anyhow, of the earth earthy, while Jesus is almost rectangular in his uprightness and straight-aheadness and his chilly stare. I can appreciate the painting (I think), despite being an atheist, in the same way I can appreciate the presence of the ghost in Hamlet despite not being a ghostist. They work almost like thought experiments, such works; we have to (and we do, at least we can) think our way into them. It has to do with imagination. The Romantics would probably have thoght it was downright heresy to think imagination has no power to help atheists appreciate religious art.