Everybody freeze

Mar 17th, 2008 11:25 am | By

Yelena Shesternina in the Kuwait Times gives us all a damn good scolding.

Far from everyone in the West has learned a lesson from the first cartoon war in 2005, when Jyllands-Posten, a little-known Danish newspaper, managed to cause an uproar in the whole world with just one publication. Its cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) offended 1.5 billion people. Islamic traditions prohibit the publication of any images of people, not to mention the prophet.

What lesson was everyone in the West supposed to learn from the first ‘cartoon war,’ do you suppose? That if some people decide to over-react in a deranged, disproportionate, violent, and unpredictable manner, then all the rest of us should thenceforth be afraid to say anything about anything, and act accordingly?

And then…what are we supposed to do about the fact (if it is a fact) that ‘Islamic traditions prohibit the publication of any images of people’? Close down all publication of images of people anywhere in the world? But lots of traditions prohibit lots of things (some of which necessarily contradict each other); are we all supposed to obey all of them? If so we might as well be newts, or toadstools. There’s no point in having a mind if you’re forbidden to use it.

It is time for the politically correct Europe to come to its senses and stop defending its democratic principles at all costs. The value of human life overrides any liberties, even freedom of expression. If the ultranationalist shows his movie, there may be dozens of victims (I’m not talking about his life). Or are the Europeans ready to sacrifice dozens of Muslim lives so that Wilders can enjoy freedom of expression?

So…if the ultranationalist shows his movie, dozens of Muslims will be killed? Why would that be? Why would it be Muslims who would be killed? Is Shesternina trying to imply that the movie will inspire people to rush out and kill dozens of Muslims? Maybe so – at the beginning of her piece she said that ‘About 50 people fell victim to pogroms and demonstrations’ – without saying ‘pogroms’ by whom against whom. Maybe she wanted to make us think there were ‘pogroms’ of Muslims by non-Muslims – but that’s not what happened. So what exactly is the causal mechanism that will result in dozens of Muslims being killed as a result of Wilders’s free expression? She doesn’t say. No; she just says pc Europe has to come to its senses and stop defending its democratic principles at all costs. Well what a pretty thought. Overboard with the democratic principles, because Islamic traditions prohibit the publication of any images of people. Understood?


Mar 14th, 2008 10:54 am | By

Well I learned something new today.

Abstinence-only education funding has a long history of bipartisan support. There are three ways that the programs are funded in the United States…CBAE has the most stringent rules. To receive money from the fund, a sexual-education program must teach an eight-point set of guidelines, which include lessons such as: “Sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

That’s the something new that I learned – I was unaware that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. Were you aware of that? Is it common knowledge?

Well to tell the truth I have to admit that I still don’t know it. Sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological effects? That it would not be likely to have inside the context of marriage? Is it? Like what? And what is it about marriage that prevents such effects? Or does it prevent them? Are the nice people at CBAE just not telling us that sexual activity inside the context of marriage is just as likely to have harmful psychological effects? Or more likely? Are they being tricky?

Who knows. Therefore, to be on the safe side – rent a movie instead.

This is feminism?

Mar 13th, 2008 6:07 pm | By

Remember I told you about that Women’s Studies list I subscribe to? This week there’s been a busy discussion of ‘spirituality’ – but without ever bothering to actually say what that is. That makes for an extremely peculiar discussion, when people chat away about something that seems to change shape dramatically for each person. On Monday, after quite a few of these shape-shifting discussions, I asked what it meant. I got an answer, too.

I think that there are multiple definitions of “spirituality.” While
some might define it as religion by another name, others see it as
quite different from organized religions, or even belief in “higher
powers.” I would argue that spirituality & religion can be quite
different. Anzaldua’s theory of spiritual activism offers an
important alternative to religious spirituality, as do holistic
perspectives and social-justice theories of interconnectivity.

Then several book titles, concluding with ‘Interconnectivity is key.’ I had no more idea what the word meant than I had had before. For two days I read more messages that were along the same lines. Then there was one yesterday…

Spiritual practitioners can be activists: activist mysticism, activist prophecy.
Spirituality can be practiced by oneself and in community–chanting, praying;
speaking in private and in public, writing and publishing from a position that
promotes love, justice, and joy. And, very importantly, not simply talking the
talk but walking the walk, in other words, being a spiritual activist in every
moment of one’s life. This requires a soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body
consciousness: it extends beyond intellectual concepts, beyond any kind of body
work, any regular attendance at a temple, church, or mosque.
Soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body is a term that I use throughout my writing,
which is spiritual, intellectual, erotic, and very much of and from the body.

And I couldn’t contain myself any longer, I had to ask again, at more length.

So what exactly is spirituality? It seems to be more or less everything. It’s chanting, it’s praying, it’s speaking in private and in public, it’s writing and publishing from a position that promotes love, justice, and joy. What exactly is it about all those activities that makes them spiritual? And what is it that being spiritual makes them? Being a spiritual activist extends beyond intellectual concepts, beyond any kind of body work, any regular attendance at a temple, church, or mosque…so it’s everything and at the same time it’s beyond everything. How does it manage that? And what, exactly, is it? What is it for writing to be spiritual, intellectual, erotic, and very much of and from the body?

What does it mean to be a mystic in the world, what does it mean to be at once a social and a spiritual activist? In what sense are human beings divine? What does it mean to be numinous? What does ‘to be human is to be numinous’ mean?

It all sounds very resonant and deep, but it seems to have no actual meaning at all.

I can’t help thinking that feminism needs rigor a lot more than it needs hand-waving about spirituality. It’s so easy to dismiss women if they get identified with woolly empty pretty feel-good verbiage.

There was an attempt…

Anyway, if “spiritual” generally has any meaning, I think it’s often used
something like this: a transcending of the self in its narrowest, most
egotistical manifestations — fear, selfishness, delusion, alienation from
oneself, from others and from the universe.”Spirituality” might involve a
certain metaphysics, or at least metaphysics of the person. Or it might be
understood more psychologically.

There was also another list of books. So this morning I replied:

I have to say – from everything I’ve seen so far, it appears that no one knows what it is. Certainly no one has said what it is. If it takes a *whole book* to say what it is, maybe it’s not a very useful term? Maybe it’s just feel-good fuzz? If a term is useful, it’s generally possible to define it (in under 60,000 words). If a term can’t be defined, can it really do anything other than obfuscate?

That inspired a retort (perhaps the clearest thing said in the whole discussion).

Maybe it depends. Maybe the term is useful for
some people but not for others. (While for some,
the term “spirituality” might obfuscate, for
others, the term might really resonate.) I would
suggest that part of spirituality’s definition is
its slippery nature, its inability to be easily
pinned down and neatly defined.

Well that’s all very well, but the trouble is, these people are academics. They teach, in universities; their subject is an academic discipline; yet they feel quite cheerful about using words that mean everything and nothing, and they make a virtue of vagueness. And not only are they academics, they are feminist academics. Fucking hell. How did academic feminism get turned into Advanced Wool-gathering? Why do feminists think it’s feminist to make a parade of refusing to think?

It’s enough to make one despair.

You must respect me, it’s the law

Mar 13th, 2008 12:20 pm | By

And from another front on the ‘shut up about religion’ campaign, there is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and its efforts to get everyone in the whole world to respect Islam.

Islamic states are bidding to use the United Nations to limit freedom of expression and belief around the world, the global humanist body IHEU told the U.N.’s Human Rights Council on Wednesday…[T]he IHEU said the 57 members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) were also aiming to undermine the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights…Ambeyi Ligabo, a Kenyan jurist, said in a report to the Council limitations on freedom of expression in international rights pacts “are not designed to protect belief systems from external or internal criticism.” But this argument is rejected by Islamic states, who say outright criticism – and especially lampooning – of religion violates the rights of believers to enjoy respect. The IHEU statement and Ligabo’s report came against the background of mounting success by the OIC…in achieving passage of U.N. resolutions against “defamation of religions.”

The rights of believers to enjoy respect – the new rights of the 21st century. The ones that make no sense, the ones that inherently contradict themselves, the ones that make all the real rights impossible, the ones that undermine themselves more the more they succeed. We respect people who can bear disagreement, we don’t respect petulant bedwetters who demand protection from disagreement. Well done OIC, making it clearer and clearer with every ‘success’ why Islam is so undeserving of respect.

Another bridge built

Mar 13th, 2008 12:01 pm | By

Another bishop heard from.

The Rt Rev Patrick O’Donoghue, Bishop of Lancaster, told MPs that books critical of the Catholic faith should be banned from school libraries…Fiona McTaggart, the Labour MP for Slough, said she was extremely concerned that Catholic sixth-formers would be denied access to great works of fiction as well as non-fiction if the bishop’s ban were implemented…But Bishop O’Donoghue defended his stance. “I think there has to be a vetting of material given the age range of children in schools,” he said. “There is certain material that you do not put in front of them.”

Such as for instance books critical of the Catholic ‘faith.’ You don’t put those in front of children in schools; God no; in front of them you put books uncritical of the Catholic ‘faith.’ Because why? Because you want them to be indoctrinated in the Catholic ‘faith,’ that’s why. You want schools to be an arm of The Church, not educational institutions where people learn to think critically.

The BBC’s holiest prophet

Mar 11th, 2008 11:47 am | By

Does the BBC call in someone from the MCB to write some of its news articles, or what?

The Danish cartoonist behind drawings satirising the Prophet Muhammad has urged a Dutch lawmaker to air an anti-Islam film despite Muslim outrage…Mr Westergaard’s cartoons in a Danish paper triggered riots by Muslims in many countries in 2006.

Where to begin? Kurt Westergaard wasn’t ‘behind’ all the Motoons; he drew one of them, that’s all. And there’s the unqualifed censoriousness of ‘anti-Islam film’ – the silent but obtrusive assumption that Islam should be immune from opposition. And then the usual, indeed obligatory, distortion in which the cartoons ‘triggered riots’ as if the cartoons were to blame, along with the repetition of the claim that the cartoons, plural, were Westergaard’s work. And then there’s the absence of any mention of the fact that Westergaard is under active death threat. Look at the article, look how far down the page you have to go before that little item is mentioned. Damn near the end, that’s how far. Long before you get to that, you get to more unsubtle blaming of Westergaard for drawing a cartoon.

Mr Westergaard was one of 12 cartoonists behind the Prophet Muhammad drawings, but he was responsible for what was considered the most controversial of the pictures. The caricature – originally published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005 – featured the head of Islam’s holiest prophet with a turban depicting a bomb with a lit fuse.

Islam’s holiest prophet. Got that? The BBC wouldn’t want you to miss the point, now – this was Islam’s holiest prophet that this terrible Danish fella drew a cartoon about. Not just any old prophet, but Islam’s holiest prophet. Is your skin crawling? Is your hair standing on end? Are you flushing with rage?

The cartoons were later reprinted by more than 50 newspapers, triggering protests in parts of the Muslim world in 2006.

That ‘trigger’ word again – twice in one article. You do get it, right? It’s the cartoons’ fault, and the more than 50 newspapers’ fault. No mention – I repeat, no mention – of the Danish mullahs who trotted the cartoons around various Middle Eastern countries, doing their large bit to ‘trigger’ things; no mention – not a word – about the fake ‘cartoon’ with the pig snout, which probably did more to ‘trigger’ things than the 12 cartoonists and all of Denmark combined. It was the mullahs themselves who put that cartoon in – but they don’t come in for all this scolding and glowering from the BBC. Why not? Why is the BBC in such a hurry to wag its nasty inky finger at Westergaard while letting the mullahs completely off the hook?

So long, and thanks for all the

Mar 10th, 2008 6:21 pm | By

Christian Jago (potentilla) died this morning. I’ve been missing her steadily since she got too ill to talk with us any more. Her brisk clarity and bluntness were a regular tonic (as the saying goes). Jean has a post at Talking Philosophy with several quotes. Here’s one that I found over here. (The database has 139, which seems like a kind of wealth.)

Connections between Rod Liddle’s opinions and logically defensible positions are largely random, IMHO. So saying he got this one right is very charitable of you, Ophelia! As TG points out above, he is a kind of auto-contrarian. (Also a churchgoer, if that’s relevant).

And here’s another…which is very apt. I did an uncharacteristic (soppy) post when Hansa, the young elephant, died suddenly last June. I was an elephant keeper at that zoo for a couple of years, and I knew Hansa’s mother and the rest of her herd very well; it was heartbreaking when she died. There are forty very kind comments on that thread – and Christian’s is the first. I ended the post by saying “I heard of a headstone inscription on the radio once: ‘It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch.’ It is.” Christian’s reply, in its entirety, was:

It is. But ‘better to have loved and lost……” Commiserations.

Indeed, Christian. Much better. Adios, amiga.

Ugly work

Mar 10th, 2008 12:38 pm | By

The Vatican is a nasty piece of work. Let’s not ever lose sight of that fact.

A senior member of the Vatican has drawn up a new list of mortal sins…Along with drug use and social injustice he listed genetic manipulation and experiments on humans.

First of all, how does he know? How do they know? How does anyone know? Do they have a private phone line to the deity so that they can get updates on what sins are mortal and what are venial? Who the hell are they to decide which ‘sins’ are relatively minor and which ones deserve eternal torture by way of punishment? But second, what hateful sadistic shits they are, threatening people with eternal torture at all. Don’t forget, Ratzinger told us just a year or so ago (I don’t have time to look it up at the moment) that hell isn’t just some abstract but comfortable thing, it is literal physical torture; he wanted us to be clear about that. And we’re supposed to think of them as Good, because they’re Christian. They’re not Good; they’re evil. The whole idea of hell is evil, and this business of using it to try to coerce people into obeying a church is…simply disgusting, that’s all.

And of course using it to threaten scientists doing research that will help people with horrible medical problems is beneath contempt. The Vatican sucks.

What is liberty of conscience?

Mar 9th, 2008 4:40 pm | By

I have a question for you, basically about terminology. Here is a quoted passage, which I have never understood.

Should religious organizations and their members be treated as unequal under the law for certain purposes connected with gender? US constitutional law has standardly granted special latitude to religion, by contrast with other forms of commitment and affiliation. Religious reasons for exemption from military service, or for refusing to work on a particular day, are granted a latitude that is not granted to other forms of conscientious commitment, such as the familial or the artistic or even the ethical. This remains controversial for the way it appears to privilege religion over nonreligion and thus, it might seem, to violate the Establishment Clause…[S]uch privileges given to religion, though highly contestable, can be strongly supported by pointing to the special importance of liberty of conscience as a fundamental right and the consequent need to give religious freedom special protection…

It may be obvious what I don’t understand. If liberty of conscience has special importance, why is that a reason for privileging religion while not privileging other forms of conscientious commitment? They all have to do with liberty of conscience, right? If so, why is liberty of conscience in the concluding sentence taken to refer to religion and not other forms of conscientious commitment? Perhaps I’m wrong and liberty of conscience actually does refer only to religion – but if so, why? Surely ‘conscience’ doesn’t mean ‘religious conscience’ so why would liberty of conscience refer only to religion? Help me out here.

Reverse epistemology

Mar 8th, 2008 3:34 pm | By

Anthony Appiah notes in The Ethics of Identity p. 86:

Many accomodationists are also concerned that courts often fail to respect religious beliefs – fail to respect what [Stephen] Carter terms the ‘alternative epistemology’ of the church. What we haven’t understood, we’re told, is that religion demands an ‘epistemology of its own’ – that it is ‘really an alien way of knowing the world – alien, at least, in a political and legal culture in which reason supposedly rules.’

There is a note on page 301:

In this spirit, Carter advises that ‘[g]iven its starting point and its methodology, creationism is as rational an explanation as any other.’ It runs into trouble only because its starting point and methodology ‘reflect an essential axiom – literal inerrancy – that is not widely shared. In this sense, the wrongness of creationism becomes a matter of power: yes, it is wrong because proved wrong, but it is proved wrong only in a particular epistemological universe.’

Yes; the right one. And creationism isn’t ‘proved’ wrong – but then Carter is a lawyer, not a biologist or a philosopher, and lawyers do talk about proof.

[A]t the end of the day, Carter suggests, only might makes right: ‘We win because you lose. We have the power and you don’t. On such distinctions, all too often, is the modern notion of truth premised.’

Appiah wryly expresses doubt that fundamentalist will be grateful for Carter’s ‘stout defense of their rationality,’ because it sounds too dang much like that pesky relativism stuff.

One cannot take another person’s view seriously as a competitor for the truth about the one world we all share by allowing that it is proceeding by a different epistemology. For that puts aside the question whether it is a sound epistemology, a good way of getting at the truth.

Yeah. And it isn’t. Starting from literal inerrancy isn’t a good way of getting at the truth. It’s quite a bad way, as a matter of fact.

‘Alternative epistemology’ forsooth. Reformed, alternative, different – new, improved, diverse, multicultural, sympathetic, postcolonialist – give it up. Adjectival epistemology just isn’t the way to go.

York and O’Cathlain

Mar 8th, 2008 3:28 pm | By

From the Lords debate on the abolition of the blasphemy law. The Archbishop of York.

It is more difficult to reach for an understanding that replaces the common law of blasphemy with a law that essentially provides for a protection not exclusively of the Christian faith but of the fabric of society, as the case in December decided.

So the idea here is that the fabric of society needs to be protected from blasphemy or something like blasphemy. So the idea is that blasphemy, or something like blasphemy, is dangerous or destructive to the fabric of society. Why? Because it pisses people off? But lots of things do that; it’s impractical and illiberal to make laws against all of them. Why then? Because the fabric of society in some way depends on the inviolability of religion? But why would that be? It’s not clear, and York doesn’t explain.

It is extraordinary that at a time when religion and religious identity have come to dominate global and domestic concerns, parliamentarians seek to stick their heads in the sand by attempting to relegate considerations of religion and faith from matters of public policy to the private sphere. The mover of the motion in the other place seems to assume that religion no longer matters and as such there is no need for the law of blasphemy in a society which he believes is very secular. I want to ask this: where is the spirit of magnanimity which shaped this nation?

Magnanimity? It’s supposed to be magnanimous to have a law on the books that forbids people to mock religion (but not other treasured ideas)? If that’s magnanimous, what would coercive and narrow and parochial be?

Baroness O’Cathain.

[A]bolishing the blasphemy law does not demonstrate neutrality; rather, it contributes to a wider campaign for the adoption of a secular constitution, which, despite what the most reverend Primate said, would actually be hostile to religion. There is no neutral ground here. Every society has some cherished beliefs that it protects in law.

Really? Every society has some cherished beliefs that it forbids anyone to challenge, including via derision? I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t think it’s true of the society I live in, for instance. That society has plenty of beliefs it protects in other ways, of course – but in law? I don’t think so. The First Amendment makes that kind of law very very tricky to enact or enforce, because it tends to be declared unconstitutional before the ink is dry. And I have to say, I think the Baroness ought to make a comparative study of societies that do protect their cherished beliefs ‘in law’ and those that don’t, and then ponder what she finds out. Either that or go to work for the Vatican, where perhaps she would feel quite cozy.

Let us be clear. The amendment before us proposes to legalise the most intense and abusive attacks on Christ, who is the central figure in our history. As the Bible records, God has exalted Him to the highest place and given Him a name beyond every other name.

Y….eah. And the Odyssey records that Odysseus poked Polyphemus in the eye with a log, too, but that doesn’t make it true. And ‘Christ’ is long dead, so the only kind of ‘attacks’ there can be on him are verbal ones, and those are just part of the commerce of life. If, as the Baroness seems to think, Jesus really is God, is he truly going to give a rat’s ass if some humans call him names? But his fans will, the Baroness may protest. Maybe they will, but is that a reason to have a law against it? The B. would obviously say yes; I would say no.

I will say this though: I didn’t realize until I read this that the Lords call the Commons ‘the other place’ – I find that rather endearing. It’s like The Scottish Play.

Sorry, you have no choice in the matter

Mar 5th, 2008 11:09 am | By

And speaking of authoritarianism and bullying, remember the new Iranian penal code? I was having another look at it and I noticed something I hadn’t fully taken in before.

Article 225-5: Parental Apostate is one whose parents (both) had been non-Muslims at the time of conception, and who has become a Muslim after the age of maturity, and later leaves Islam and returns to blasphemy. Article 225-6: If someone has at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception but after the age of maturity, without pretending to be a Muslim, chooses blasphemy is considered a Parental Apostate.

Look closely at 225:6. If you have one Muslim parent at the time of conception, and then when you grow up, without ever actually being a Muslim, calling yourself a Muslim, declaring yourself to be a Muslim, thinking of yourself as a Muslim – you then choose to be not a Muslim – you are considered a Parental Apostate, for which the penalty is death. So two people you don’t know have sex; one of them is a Muslim; you are conceived as a result of that sex act; you’re a Muslim, and you can’t not be a Muslim or we’ll kill you.

You can’t say fairer than that, can you!

Oh comrades come rally

Mar 5th, 2008 10:44 am | By

It’s heartwarming when authoritarian reactionaries join forces, don’t you think? The Vatican and Al Azhar university got together last week to forbid everyone to make fun of them. They included the usual dutiful and empty (given what always immediately follows – given the inevitable ‘but’) acknowledgement of ‘the value’ of free expression, but

Both sides vehemently denounce the reprinting of the offensive cartoon and the attack on Islam and its prophet. We call for the respect of faiths, religious holy books and religious symbols. Freedom of expression should not become a pretext to insult religions and defaming religious sanctities.

So they pretended for form’s sake to acknowledge ‘the value’ of free expression only in hopes of getting away with immediately rescinding that acknowledgement. In that sense I suppose one could say the open threats and demands for prevention and punishment that come from imams and the OIC and similar are preferable; they at least don’t open with that ridiculously hypocritical acknowledgement of something that they don’t in fact acknowledge in the least. There is something profoundly annoying about seeing people go trundling up and down the place announcing that they recognize the value of free expression when in the very next sentence they announce their hatred of free expression and their strong determination to see it done away with. You can’t recognize the value of free expression in one breath and then vehemently denounce the reprinting of an ‘offensive’ cartoon with the next. That’s just ass-covering, and it convinces no one.

Call for the respect of faiths, religious holy books and religious symbols all you like, guys; you’re not going to get it. You’ll get it from the people who already bend the knee to bossy clerics, of course, but you’ll get precious little of it from anyone else; on the contrary, you’re likely to inspire new and more fervent contempt.

Flemming Rose has some thoughts.

Yesterday the Vatican joined the al-Azhar university in Cairo in condemning the republication of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s depiction of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban, but the Catholic state and the supreme institution of Islam in the Sunni world didn’t say a word about the foiled plot to kill Westergaard, who has been in hiding since November last year.

Perhaps they think he deserves it. Bastards.

Kurt Westergaard’s wife Gitte works at a kindergarten; she’s been told to stay away because of security concerns.

Congratulations to the Vatican and Al-Azhar. This kindergarten have really shown them the kind of respect they are craving for. It’s the hells angels’ code of ethics: If you don’t respect me I’ll kill you. Or if you don’t respect me I’ll scare the hell out of anymore who’s in touch with you so that they will cut off any contact with you. And it’s working: due to security concerns the Westergaards were kicked out of the Radisson hotel in Aarhus last week.

And the Vatican joins forces with the rest of the Hell’s Angels. Pretty.

Providing a context

Mar 3rd, 2008 6:14 pm | By

The archbishops tell us, in the concluding sentence of their letter to the communities secretary:

The relationship between Church and State, reaffirmed by the Government last July in The Governance of Britain, will continue to provide a context in which people of all faiths and none can live together in mutual respect in this part of the Realm.

What does that mean? Anything? Is it anything other than an obvious absurdity? What can it mean to say that a relationship between church and state will provide a context in which people of all faiths and none can live together in mutual respect? Why would it do that? What does a relationship between the state and one particular church have to do with providing a context for a whole lot of people who have no interest in that church to live together in mutual respect? What does it have to do with providing a context for a whole lot of people who dislike or hate or fear or are bored by that church to live together in you know what?

What can the archbishops mean? Let’s get real, dudes. The truth is, the ‘relationship’ between an official established Christian church and the state necessarily excludes all non-Anglicans – all atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, non-Anglican Protestants. The relationship is one between the state and one specific group, not one between the state and everyone, so what kind of ‘context’ are they talking about? Are they just pointlessly announcing that if all goes well people can live together despite the existence of this ridiculous and anachronistic relationship? Or are they, more expansively, saying this relationship actually makes living together possible, or helps it along in some way? If it’s the first, it’s just blather; if it’s the second, it’s ludicrous.

Archepiscopal weight thrown around

Mar 1st, 2008 10:39 am | By

So the archbishops have changed their minds about not resisting the repeal of the blasphemy laws? They’ve decided to resist after all? Why? Did they look around themselves and decide that religious types don’t interfere with the government enough and they’d better get busy and start meddling?

Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Sentamu say in a letter today that the Government should not lightly change laws that, though their day-to-day importance may be small, “nevertheless carry a significant symbolic charge.”

Why yes, they do, and that’s exactly why they should be not only changed but ground into powder and then torched. The significant symbolic charge they carry is that it is Not Permissible to mock or tease or chaff or rally or quiz or fall down laughing at religion. That’s a bad thing to be symbolized, which is why the laws should be ground into powder and then torched.

It should not be capable of interpretation as a secularising move, or as a general licence to attack or insult religious beliefs and believers.

The Anglican church is supposed to be a relatively liberal body, isn’t it? Well – if that’s liberal, what would reactionary look like?

I don’t like that shade of blue

Mar 1st, 2008 10:09 am | By

Well quite – if a museum puts on an exhibition you don’t like the sound of, the thing to do is stroll in and threaten the staff with violence if they don’t take it down again. That’s how I take care of these little annoyances. After all it is up to me to decide, isn’t it? Therefore it’s also up to them – except of course when I get there first.

Whereas the mere spectre of possible attacks was enough to get the Deutsche Oper to put the kibosh on a Mozart opera in 2006, Berlin’s Galerie Nord closed its doors this week after a group of Muslims walked into the gallery and threatened staff with violence.

Thus cultural life is enriched bit by bit.

The gallery is now in negotiations with the Berlin authorities in a bid to get 24-hour police protection, so that the exhibition can be re-opened, hopefully by Tuesday of next week. Egesborg said it was vital the exhibition continue. “If the radical Muslims are successful, then it means a mob can curate an exhibition in a museum,” he said. “It would be dangerous for art in Europe, as it would give a good example of what threats can achieve.” He saw a parallel in the furore over the publication of the Muhammad caricatures in Danish newspapers. “Radical Muslims think they can influence what is printed in the newspapers or shown in galleries,” he said. “That is very dangerous. It is a road that leads to hell.”

The hell of radical Muslims curating all museum exhibitions, editing all media, librarianing all libraries – vetoing all cultural products they don’t like. Let’s not have that; it sounds nasty.

Rude women

Feb 29th, 2008 10:50 am | By

Speaking of Katha Pollitt – she made an interesting comment on the Women’s Studies list yesterday, one which is partly relevant to all this stuff about respect and worry.

Actually I think powerful women make many women quite uncomfortable.
Just look at what women say about Hillary Clinton — she’s
‘ambitious,’ “cold,” “I just don’t like her,’ etc. I’m not saying a
feminist has to vote for Hillary, but the kinds of things so many
women hold against her are quite revealing of their own discomfort
with a woman who steps out of the nice-nice nurturing deferential role.

That comment inspired me to reply, in a way also relevant to all this stuff.

Ain’t it the truth. Which is why some of us feel a kind of duty to be abrasive, brisk, chilly, sarcastic, even at times hostile and aggressive. We have to stake out that territory.

I’m serious about that. I think there aren’t nearly enough women around who step out of the nice-nice nurturing deferential role. Mind you, I would be abrasive and hostile even if there were, even if there were no such discomfort, even if I didn’t feel a kind of duty, because it is My Nature. But the fact remains that I think it is a kind of duty. I’m a longstanding fan of Pollitt’s because she is not nice-nice nurturing deferential, and I wish there were more women like her.

I got an enthusiastic reply and a new fan of B&W via that comment, so there are a few of us chilly sarcastic women out there. We do what we can…

How to be respectful

Feb 29th, 2008 10:13 am | By

The discussion of my hostile and flippant comment on the Secretary General’s advice to ‘respect all religious beliefs’ last week got diverted into irrelevance right at the beginning with talk of laughing at people who pray before dinner, which had nothing at all to do with the subject under discussion; and it went on the way it began, irrelevance piled on irrelevance. Commenters insisted that the Secretary General didn’t really mean what he had said, he meant something else; I kept replying that I was talking about what he had in fact said, only to get more assertions about what he really meant. Commenters insisted that the only alternative to ‘respect’ was laughing at people, ignoring the vast middle ground between those two possibilities. As an example of some of that middle ground I mentioned Katha Pollitt and suggested that she doesn’t pause to ask herself if every thought might cause some reader to feel disrespected, only to be told (with mystifying confidence) that Katha Pollitt doesn’t want people to feel disrespected. How ‘Serafina’ knows that is a question for the annals of The Journal of Other Minds, but be that as it may, I had a look through Pollitt’s Subject to Debate and found plenty of comments that (note that I say this with energetic approval) could be seen by the hypervigilant as failing to worry about whether or not some readers might feel disrespected.

[C]ommunitarianism offers a particular social ministratum – middleaged white academics with children and fading memories of once having been happier and more liberal – a way to see themselves as political actors without having to do much that is difficult, boring, scary or expensive…What is communitarianism, finally, but Republicanism for Democrats – Reaganism with a human face? It’s the perfect philosophy for our emerging one-party state…[‘Communitarianism No’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate pp 15-6]

Mostly, though, chapel made me loathe religion…I know believers too who don’t trouble themselves over the outmoded or bloodthirsty bits of their faith; they just take what they want and leave the rest. Not me. For me, religion is serious business – a farrago of authoritarian nonsense, misogyny and humble pie, the eternal enemy of human happiness and freedom. My family may have made me a nonbeliever, but it took chapel to make me an atheist. [‘School Prayer? By All Means’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p. 29]

The state-backed religions of Western Europe are pallid affairs compared with our robust industry of Virgin-spotters, tongues-speakers and Mitzvah-mobilers. Where is the English Jimmy Swaggart, the French billboard in whose depicted bowl of spaghetti thousands claim to discern the face of Christ?…[Y]ou could say that when the state underwrites religion the buried links between these two forms of social control stand too clearly revealed for modern, let alone postmodern, people to accept…It’s never too early for the young to take the measure of the forces arrayed against those who would think for themselves…Prayer in the schools will rid us of the bland no-offense ecumenism that is so infuriating to us anticlericals: Oh, so now you say Jews didn’t kill Christ – a little on the late side, isn’t it? [Ibid]

Better a panhandler than the Hare Krishna costumed like Bozo the Clown, who is louder than any panhandler and much more obnoxious, or that beautiful black nun, doomed to spend her rapidly fading youth silently holding her bowl near the Times Square token booth. At least with panhandlers, you know your money isn’t going to build ashrams or convert the heathen. [‘Beggar’s Opera’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p 33]

See what I mean? It’s not what you’d call gentle, or respectful of religious beliefs, or noticeably concerned about the possibility of making believers or Hare Krishnas or nuns or communitarians or fans of Jimmy Swaggart or anyone else feel “disrespected”. And what a good thing it’s not!

So what was all the huffing and puffing about? It wasn’t (we were assured) about the kind of thing Katha Pollitt writes – good heavens no – so what was it about then? If (as we were assured) Pollitt is fine, Pollitt is okay, Pollitt is not the kind of writer we are to understand as the kind who is disrespectful – then there is no disagreement, and all those hymns to respect and not laughing at people praying were a complete waste of time, because we’re all on the same page. I’m defending everyone’s right – moral as well as legal – to write this kind of thing, not the BNP or God Hates Fags kind of thing. So what was everyone else defending? Beats the hell out of me.

Iran’s parliament gets down to work

Feb 28th, 2008 12:24 pm | By

More exciting news from Iran.

The Iranian parliament is discussing a new penal code, under which citizens who convert [to] another religion will face execution…Besides apostates, the code also [include?]s the death penalty for a[n]yone who ‘insults the Prophet’.

Ah. Well…perhaps this idea that people should be allowed to leave a religion without having their heads separated from their shoulders is just some old hegemonic notion of western Orientalists, or something.

Dr Nazila Ghanea, lecturer in human rights law at Oxford university and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Religion and Human Rights, said: ‘The laws will give the Iranian government legal grounds to resort to taking the lives of any of its citizens who choose to adopt a religion other than Islam. The code is a gross violation by the Islamic Republic of Iran of its obligations as a party to a number of international human rights instruments, particularly those relating to freedom of religion or belief.’

Oh. Well, maybe Iran has changed its mind since it signed up to those instruments. Can’t people change their minds around here? Not apostates of course! They can’t! But governments that are party to international human rights instruments – they can. It’s their human right.

It’s all carefully spelled out. They can’t say fairer than that, can they.

Article 225-1: Any Muslim who clearly announces that he/she has left Islam and declares blasphemy is an Apostate…Article 225-7: Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death. Article 225-8: Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death, but after the final sentencing for three days he/she would be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant his/her belief and if he/she refused, the death penalty would be carried out…Article 225-11: Whoever claims to be a Prophet is sentenced to death, and any Muslim who invents a heresy in the religion and creates a sect based on that which is contrary to the obligations and necessities of Islam, is considered an apostate.

And don’t you forget it.

The uses of polemic

Feb 26th, 2008 10:27 am | By

Some further thoughts on ‘offensive’ writing and cartoons and such. One issue is whether or not we know in advance that people will be outraged. I claimed, sweepingly, in comments, that we can’t know, and Jerry S prodded me into acknowledging that sometimes we can. Fair point. It’s easy (he demonstrated!) to come up with something we can be quite confident will outrage some people. True; and I also agreed that I don’t like or value mere abuse, and feel no need to make a principled defense of it. But I do value polemic, including polemic that can be considered harsh or mocking and that thus can be considered very likely to outrage at least some people. The further thoughts are about why I value it and think it can be worth the risk of offending some people.

I value it because even though we can know that polemic X will (almost certainly) offend some people, we can’t know how many, and we also can’t know how many people in the group or ‘community’ likely to be offended will be not offended but amused, surprised, startled, even shocked, without being offended. We can’t know how many people might be surprised or shocked into thinking in a new way, a way which would be beneficial to them. People do change their minds, after all; people do learn new things, and move, and adapt, and grow (or shrink). That does happen, and it seems to me that it is lively, sharp, combative writing or cartooning that is likely to spark such change. I don’t think it is inherently bad for people to have their settled ideas challenged; on the contrary, I think it’s good. I think writers like Dawkins wake people up in a way that politer, more mollifying writers don’t. I think a certain amount of bluntness and even scorn (for ideas or beliefs, not for people) wakes people up in a way that respect doesn’t.

In other words, scorn and mockery can be liberating. They can be and they very often are. We can suddenly realize ‘Oh – we can laugh at that!’ That’s a huge relief for some people. For others it’s an outrage. That’s the difficulty. I suppose one reason the prior restraint by respect idea makes me bristle is that it is biased toward the people who will be outraged, at the expense of the people who will be liberated. And that’s where not knowing comes in – we really don’t know how many there will be of either. I think the respect idea tends to push us in the direction of assuming there will be lots of people outraged and hurt, while forgetting the possibility of other people being liberated. Even more insidiously, perhaps, I think it pushes us in the direction of worrying more about the potentially outraged than we do about the potentially liberated. I’m not sure that’s the right way to allot our concern. It’s bad to hurt people, so it is right to take the risk into account – but then if when taking it into account it seems to us that 1) the people who are hurt are hurt for dubious reasons and 2) the potentially liberated need concern just as much as the potentially hurt do, then – you get the drift.