The dancer from the dance

Dec 22nd, 2011 5:09 pm | By

It’s accommodationism day in the neighborhood…I guess it’s a Christmas thing. Baby Jesus is born, Tim Minchin got his (requested) song dropped from a tv show, Julian tries to square a circle, and to make it all complete, Chris Stedman writes yet another “mean atheists are doing it wrong and I am doing it right” article for the Huffington Post. I had been ignoring Stedman for months, but he does make it difficult.

…effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.

Well some people do actually believe the most extreme forms; often a lot of people. It’s not the case that most religious believers are thoroughly liberal and unextreme.

But some of the most vocal atheist activists understand religious criticism differently. Take, for example, this sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims:

Ah ah ah – not so fast – those two items shouldn’t be mashed together. Talking about Islam is not the same as talking about Muslims and they can’t usefully be talked about under a single heading.

PZ Myers: “Come on, Islam… It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

Yes, and? Stedman fails to say what is wrong with that, and he also fails to say what the post was about. It was about the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris whose life was trashed because she had to go into hiding after drawing a benign cartoon of Mohammed for Draw Mohammed day. I hope Stedman doesn’t deny that Islam takes Mohammed very very seriously.

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

But they don’t, and it’s unfortunately typical of Chris Stedman to pretend that they do.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Make sure that no one ever sees it

Dec 22nd, 2011 3:29 pm | By

Omigod omigod omigod Tim Minchin wrote a song about Jesus and it has jokes in it – jokes about Jesus! Would you believe it? He wrote it because some tv people asked him to for their pre-Christmas show.

It was the worst possible time to be writing a new song – I’ve been overworked and ill, was on tour, and was really feeling the stress. But I wasn’t going to say no… it’s Jonathan Ross!

It’s certainly not very contentious, but even so, compliance people and producers and lawyers all checked my lyrics long before the cameras rolled. As always with these bespoke writing jobs, I was really stressed for about 3 days, and almost chucked it in the bin 5 times, and freaked out that it wasn’t funny and all that boring shit that people like me go through when we’re lucky enough to have with a big audience with high expectations.

I did my song and everyone laughed and Tom said it was great and when it was done I ran off set onto the back of a waiting motorbike, got from South Bank to the Hammersmith Apollo in 13 minutes, walked into the building, straight on to stage to sing White Wine in the Sun with Professor Brian Cox. Rock n roll.

And after all that, someone sent it to ITV’s boss of tv Peter Fincham, who axed it.

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

And Tim Minchin wrote the blog post about it, and the BBC reported that Minchin had written a blog post about it. No really. It did. The headline is “Tim Minchin fumes over song cut from Jonathan Ross show” and then it summarizes his blog post. Just as I am, now, but I’m not the BBC!

And the Telegraph did a sniffy censorious shock-horror piece.

A song by comedian Tim Minchin that describes Jesus Christ as a “zombie” and compares the Virgin Mary to a “lizard” has been cut from Jonathan Ross’ Christmas broadcast by ITV executives for fear of offending Christians.

That’s just the subhead. It goes on to quote chunks of the song, so that the readers will understand exactly what was so fraffly shocking.

Minchin asked the Telegraph reporter, Matthew Holehouse, some very cogent questions on Twitter, which was amusing. (And Holehouse answered, also amusing, though in a different way.)

Another Streisand effect, pretty much. Uh oh, drop that blasphemous song. Blasphemous song gets reported and quoted all over the place. GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Are we making progress yet?

Dec 22nd, 2011 11:43 am | By

Julian has a new installment of Heathen’s Progress out, in which he sums up the progress so far, by repeating what he’s said in the previous installments, with links, then in the last couple of paragraphs asks if that’s progress, and tells the reader to tell him. It’s all rather stately and solemn, as if he were a government commission, but let’s do our best to help.

Since this series is called Heathen’s progress, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the festive break to see if I’d actually made any.

Back at the beginning, I explained that my purpose was to move the God debate on from the stalemate it seemed to be stuck in, to see what could come after the new atheism. When I said that “the battle lines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought”, I was quickly and rightly told that I should start by ditching the military, confrontational metaphors. Lesson one: how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter.

Well this is part of what makes it seem so stately and as-if-a-government-commission. It seems odd for one person to think he can move the God debate on, and to say that that’s what his purpose is. It seems…official, and powerful, and more than one person can usually do. It seems a little peremptory to look for what could come after the new atheism when it’s not at all clear that “the new atheism” is over yet. I think most gnu atheists, if you asked them, would laugh at the idea and say fuck no, we’re in the thick of it.

And then there’s the needing to be told that military confrontational metaphors are just that, and needing to learn that how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter. Actually I know perfectly well he didn’t need to be told or to learn; I know that because he’s been writing about both for years, so obviously he’s perfectly well aware of both. I suppose he means he needed to be reminded. (Then one wonders why. Is it because there’s so much pugnacious anti-gnu rhetoric around, and some of it has infected him without his noticing until readers pointed it out? Could be.)

Toward the end of his recapitulation of the entries so far, I come in for a tiny rap on the knuckles.

The clamour to sign up the articles from religious leaders and thinkers was notable by its absence. Many of the people I wrote to did not even reply. When it comes to the crunch, it seems that very few genuinely embrace, or are prepared to admit they embrace, a form of religion that doesn’t make supernatural claims. This finding was backed up by two surveys I conducted, which while far from authoritative strongly suggest that churchgoers do, indeed, hold traditional beliefs about such things as Christ’s resurrection and the need to worship God. (Oddly, many people have claimed I was surprised by these results, when, as I explained in a reply, I have never expressed any amazement at all.)

The penultimate link is to my “Surprised, surprised,” in which I quoted several people who were bemused “at Julian’s effortful discovery and announcement of what everyone already knew.” He says it’s odd that people claim he was surprised when he never said he was, and yet, in the very next paragraph he says

I think the real movement has come from grappling with the question of how important literal belief is to religion. From an agnostic position, I have become convinced that it plays a very important part…

Quite, and that’s all I meant, and that’s all the others meant. (Nobody said anything about amazement.) He laboriously discovered what a lot of people had been saying all along. It’s not particularly odd to point that out.

At the end the summing up is summed up.

Taken together, some in the blogosphere have suggested that in this series I have moved closer to the new atheists. I’m not sure this is true. For a variety of reasons (including unfortunate headlines others gave to some of my pieces) the extent to which I have disagreed with the new atheists has probably been overstated because it is the disagreements that I have found more interesting to write about. I agree with them that literal belief is not a straw man, strongly expressed belief is not aggressive dogmatism, we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and that science does pose difficult questions for many religious people. But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful and that in order to make progress we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst, and find common ground with more liberal believers in order to counter the more pernicious forms of belief.

The last sentence seems to contradict the next to last – or if not flatly contradict it, at least to take back the ground it had just seemed to yield. If we “have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst,” then we are not (and indeed should not be) “as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism.” It just doesn’t make sense to say that we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and then in the next breath say we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst (emphasis added). It looks like having it both ways, or trying to – throwing a sop to “the new atheists” but then going on to say but all the same, do it this way and not that way; focus on the good not the bad; find common ground. Well you can’t have it both ways. If we really should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, then none of that “you must meet them halfway” malarkey applies, because it certainly doesn’t apply to the way people have been criticizing atheism.

Let me try harder to be fair. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what he means by “free” – maybe he means legally free. Except that wouldn’t make sense, because we already are legally free – so he has to mean what I mean, which is socially free, rhetorically free – i.e. not constantly subject to silly social pressure to be nicer to religion. But then maybe he thinks that that kind of freedom is not in tension with practical advice to “find common ground” for the sake of…some larger goal, in this case countering “the more pernicious forms of belief.” Maybe he does. In that case the last sentence doesn’t contradict the previous one…but I still think he’s mistaken, because I think that putative practical advice is very often just a disguised version of the silly social pressure. I think at this point it’s damn near impossible to distinguish the one from the other, and I think people who give that kind of putative practical advice should be sharply aware of that.

Is that progress? You tell me.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Now that’s what I call Public Relations

Dec 21st, 2011 4:59 pm | By

The Twenty-First Floor gives us a video by someone called SKEPTICSExposed, titled Rhys Morgan Harassing Burzynski Clinic. It is deeply absurd.

The video then goes on to try and link Rhys to the identity fraud of James Randis longtime partner in exactly the same way that Marc Stephens did in emails to Popehat and even using the same images. Which does make me wonder if SKEPTICSExposed might be down to the infamous Marc Stephens. Particularly as, like the red arrow letter before, these videos don’t attempt to address any of the arguments made by Rhys  and others.

Oh surely not. Surely Marc Stephens wouldn’t be so silly as to continue trying to bully Rhys Morgan even now that the Burzynski Clinic has issued a press release saying it has severed its relationship with Marc Stephens. I mean he wouldn’t go around trying to bully skeptics as some kind of wack hobby would he?

Mind you he is still deeply involved with Ken White aka Popehat – still corresponding with him with near-amorous intensity, still trying to tell Ken what to do on the basis of not a damn thing.

Skeptics have all the fun, wouldn’t you agree?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Compassion in action

Dec 21st, 2011 11:13 am | By

The Irish government again notes that the Catholic church failed to prevent child abuse by its own employees, failed to follow its own rules, failed to call the cops, failed to protect children, failed to act like decent human beings, failed failed failed. It succeeded at protecting itself and its own people, and that’s it.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has highlighted the failure of the Catholic Church to bring child abuse allegations to the attention of gardaí, following the publication of previously redacted portions of the Cloyne report.

“The publication of the redacted portions of the Cloyne report yet again details the failure of the church to comply with its own child abuse guidelines and its failure to ensure that allegations of abuse when first received were brought to the notice of An Garda Síochána,” Mr Shatter said.

So children were screwed, literally as well as figuratively, and priests were protected. The safe and prosperous were shielded, and the weak went to the wall.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald…said it was clear that the priority of the church authorities in Cloyne was the protection of the institution of the church and not the protection of children in the diocese or the protection of other children.

Themselves and their friends and their institutions, in short, at the expense of other people, and those other people very vulnerable both physically and intellectually. An arrant abuse of power and privilege, and a hardened display of selfishness. And these people claim to be better than non-theists!

“I want to make it very clear – it is absolutely unacceptable that child abuse allegations were not reported to the Gardaí and the HSE in a timely way by the church authorities. The handling of child abuse allegations is not discretionary; there is no choice, no exception.

“All allegations must be reported so that the allegation itself is investigated and any potential risk to other children is assessed.” Ms Fitzgerald said the most shocking aspect of the report, in her view, was the fact that the incidents it dealt with took place so recently.

“It is not dealing with terrible wrongs committed in the distant past but how the Diocese of Cloyne dealt with complaints made from 1996, the year in which the Catholic Church put in place detailed procedures for dealing with child sexual abuse.”

They’re just like anyone else, and worse than most.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Comparative memorialization

Dec 20th, 2011 4:13 pm | By

Neal Pollack knew Christopher Hitchens better than you.

Christopher Hitchens and I were friends for 40 years, plus another five when we were enemies. He took ideas so seriously that if he disagreed with you on a matter that he deemed important, he’d literally throw you in a ditch. It was 1972, the height of our mutual virility. He and I went to a pub to celebrate his most recent intellectual victory over the establishment press. I intimated that sometimes women could be funny on purpose. Even back then, the thought enraged him. Hitchens threw a drink in my face, pressed a lit cigarette into my neck, and hit me over the head with a barstool.

Compare Dave Zirin, not being satirical, in The Nation on Friday:

I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer…I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.

With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth…

He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”

I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”

Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud.

A little more Pollack -

Many was the time we passed the bottle until dawn, bemoaning Thatcher’s England, Reagan’s America, and also some stuff about the Middle East. Sometimes Hitchens would bring over a dissident writer who was fleeing oppression in his native country, and we’d all make fun of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, then remove our pants to compare our manhoods. We were so middle-aged and foolish then, so committed to the struggle.

For months, he’d wander the streets at night, looking to drunkenly berate someone who disagreed with him about the evils of Islamofascism. Occasionally he’d attempt to strangle young journalists, who admired him unquestioningly, with their own neckties.

Now that’s an elegy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Christopher didn’t wait his turn

Dec 20th, 2011 12:36 pm | By

Yesterday I expressed (via Katha Pollitt) reservations about a certain kind of combative anger that Hitchens sometimes deployed. Daniel Dennett talks about when rudeness is necessary.

He starts with an example.

We were both appearing in a debate as part of the program of Ciudad de las Ideas, an excellent gathering held annually in Puebla, Mexico. (It’s modeled on TED-I call it TED Mex. Go. It’s well worth the visit.) One of the speakers for the other side, the God side, was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and after our short set pieces, the rebuttals started with the rabbi. We each were allotted four minutes only for rebuttal, and the rabbi launched into a series of outrageous claims trying to besmirch Darwin and evolutionary biology by claiming that Hitler was inspired by Darwin to organize slaughters to ensure the survival of his race. I sat there, dumfounded and appalled, and tried to figure out how best to rebut this obscene misrepresentation when my turn came.

Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me–and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak–is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock. Of course I knew that as a general principle, but I needed to be reminded, to be awakened from my diplomatic slumbers by his example.

Definitely. (And for what it’s worth, I think Katha would agree too – she’s definitely not opposed to all blunt anger, and she expresses plenty of it herself. Her examples were of people with much less standing than Shmuley Boteach, as was mine – the guy in Kensington Gardens was just a random bystander.)

We have all heard, endlessly, about how angry and rude the new atheists are. Take a good hard look at their work, at the books and talks by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and you will find that they are more civil, less sneering, less given to name-calling than such religious apologists as Terry Eagleton or Alvin Plantinga or Leon Wieseltier. It is just that many people are shocked to see religious institutions, ideas, and spokespeople challenged as intensely as we expect banks, big pharma, and the oil industry to be challenged.

Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved–which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.

Don’t. they. just.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

One rule for thee and another for me

Dec 20th, 2011 11:49 am | By

Religious privilege in action.

Some guy from something called The Christian Institute (why do I suspect its membership consists of the guy in question?) is saying he’s going to boycott Tesco, because some other guy who works for Tesco in some capacity said something on Flickr. Yes really. Mind you it’s in the Telegraph, which seems to specialize in this kind of non-story, but it’s still worth a tiny smile of disdain (because after all, how much trouble is a tiny smile of disdain).

Nick Lansley, Tesco’s head of research and development, said he was actively taking a stand “against evil Christians” who opposed the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In a message on his profile page on, he said: “I’m…campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”

I suppose some intern at the Telegraph spotted that and alerted an unoccupied reporter who phoned Xian Institute guy and asked him what he thought about that, and  Xian Institute guy obligingly took the bait. It’s hard to imagine it happening any other way.

What actually caught my eye was something the Telegraph said farther down the page.

The row comes a month after Tesco provoked controversy by reducing its support for the charity Cancer Research’s Race for Life while deciding to sponsor Pride London, Britain’s largest gay festival.

See it? Tesco “provoked controversy” by doing something (something benign, in my view). Typical. Typical manipulationg-by-wording. Anything you do that I don’t like is “provoking” me.

Second item: a Methodist church in Cornwall tried to get around an employment tribunal by claiming its ministers are employed by God rather than by the church.

Appeal Court judges have ruled the Reverend Haley Preston, of Cornwall, is employed by the Church rather than God.

The Methodist Church had claimed that ministers were not ordinary employees but “stewards in the house of God”.

The Appeal Court ruling opens the way for Mrs Preston, 50, of Redruth, to pursue an unfair dismissal claim against the Church.

I suppose that one is an example of ex-privilege or attempted privilege, since it didn’t work, but still, there’s something so brazen about the attempt that it seems to earn the word. The Methodist Church was feeling very Special that day.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Miscellaneous, or, feel free to be OT, since there is no T

Dec 19th, 2011 5:01 pm | By

I said maybe I should do one of these, because sometimes people do go OT and that can be tiresome if you want to talk about the T, but it’s fine if there’s no T to begin with. If the particular set of people who bump into each other here want to talk about everything in general, I might as well make that possible.

I have a cold. I asked Facebook to sing “Soft Kitty” for me, and it did.

Newt Gingrich plans, if elected president, to arrest judges who don’t do their judging according to the bible.

Kim Jong-un is not sure he’s crazy enough to run North Korea.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Science blogger 1, SLAPP suit 0

Dec 19th, 2011 4:44 pm | By

Popehat has a great post on a pro bono victory (his) in a junk science SLAPP suit against a science blogger.

The pro bono client is Michael Hawkins of For the Sake of Science, and the adversary is Dr. Christopher Maloney, a licensed naturopath in Maine.

Dr. and Ms. Maloney’s central legal theory was expressed in the cover letter: “As should be clear to you, you can say anything you want against naturopathic doctors, but you cannot attack and bully a single person.” This is not, to put it mildly, a correct statement of law. The First Amendment protects Mr. Hawkins’ right to call naturopaths in general quacks, and to call Dr. Maloney in particular a quack for promoting naturopathy. Dr. and Ms. Maloney’s theme seizes upon the increasingly fashionable — and utterly insipid and unprincipled — trend of invoking the word “bullying” as if it is some talisman that wards off the First Amendment and the rule of law. I’ve talked about parallel arguments by censors here and here.

I find that particularly interesting, because I see a lot of loose accusations of bullying that seem to me to be bogus, while at the same time I also see a lot of what I take to be bullying that seems to other people to be quite reasonable discourse or behavior. It’s a fraught word, and a fraught concept. At any rate, calling a naturopath a quack doesn’t fit my definition of bullying, at least not if the naturopath claims to treat people.

Note that any Google search like “Christopher Maloney quack” tends to yield more results for prominent bloggers like PZ Myers than results from Mr. Hawkins. PZ Myers’ rhetoric about Dr. Maloney has been far more forceful and vivid. But PZ Myers is a well-established large-scale national blogger with resources and a professor position and wide support. Mr. Hawkins is a student in Maine of modest means. He has the talent to be a nationally known blogger, but isn’t yet. Censors are by their nature cowardly thugs: they go after the easy targets. They go after the people they think will roll over easily. That, ultimately, was the point that made me decide that I wanted to do whatever was necessary to help Mr. Hawkins, and do so pro bono. Game on.

Fine; let’s lavish attention on Mr Hawkins and help make him a popular blogger that quacks will be afraid to threaten.

Read the whole post. It’ll make your day.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not another one

Dec 19th, 2011 12:59 pm | By

Hey guess what the war is over!

This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now old (or departed). And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.

Has it all, doesn’t it. The air of easy omniscience, the disdain for atheists, the gloating at the death of one particular atheist, the false dichotomy, the warm uncritical affection for the middle ground, the stupid assumption that it’s “extreme” (not to mention old, or dead) to think science and religion are not in every way compatible.

Indeed, many folks have been hard at it, doing a new kind of peace work. Some have done it intentionally, some have not. Outliers, both atheist and religious hardliners, continue to wage battle but they look increasingly irrelevant.

Yup, there it is again: marginalize those atheists, lump those atheists in with religious fundamentalists, declare the enemy irrelevant.

Here are ten who, in small ways and large, have helped to spread seeds of peace on the blasted-out battleground of science and religion.

10. Karl Giberson, science & religion writer and former physicist, for reminding evangelicals that science is not the enemy

And who took a lot of grief from evangelicals as a result – but Paul Wallace omits to mention that.

6. Jack Templeton, surgeon, president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, for bringing science into the church

And the church into science, but Paul Wallace omits to mention that.

5. Chris Stedman, interfaith activist and super-swell atheist guy, for decoupling atheism from science, and for being the face of a kinder, gentler atheism

This year saw the softening of the atheist universe. Perhaps the Four Horsemen came out hard because they had to, but in their wake have emerged atheists who are more interested in dialogue and shared values than in pounding the snot out of other people’s notions of God.

Kinder, gentler than what? Well, than those Other atheists, of course, the one who pound the snot out of everything. That seems to be almost the whole point of this super-swell interfaith atheism: to carve atheism into two pieces and claim the Good, Kind, Gentle, Non-snot-pounding piece for oneself while implying (in a super-swell deniable sort of way, of course) that the people in the other part are mean belligerent shits.

Maybe the war isn’t over after all.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Katha Pollitt on Hitchens

Dec 19th, 2011 12:12 pm | By

I’ve been hoping Katha would write something, because I knew she would have informed reservations. I remember her exchange with Hitchens when he left The Nation. I’ve been a fan of both of them for a long time, so their differences interest me.

Katha suggests that “he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth” and that he didn’t wonder enough how he got from one position to another, radically different one. I think that’s a fair point, and yet…well I’m ambivalent, as I am about so many things, which is why, unlike Hitchens, I spend so much time staring blankly into space instead of being productive.

So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).

That, on the other hand, gives me genuine pause. I don’t admire that quality, and I do know he had it. The CBC’s The National showed him doing it in its obit on Friday. He was talking to a reporter in Kensington Gardens, saying something disobliging about a memorial to Diana Spencer, and an off-camera male voice interrupted to protest, saying indignantly “you shouldn’t be in this garden.” Hitchens responded fast and ferociously, all but shouting, “Who the hell are you?” and then adding, “I’m sure you’re as stupid as you look.” That’s no good. Yes what the guy said was both silly and bossy (and servile underneath), but the response was overkill.

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan…

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.

Yes. That certainly was not one of my favorite things about him. I said so in December 2006 in two posts on the Vanity Fair “women aren’t funny” article, Depends who’s asking and On closer reading.

But, Katha sums up,

as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Firm but fair, I think.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Pity the poor bishops

Dec 18th, 2011 4:48 pm | By

The Catholic bishops haz a sad again. This time it’s the Catholic bishops in the Netherlands. Not the ones in Belgium, nor in Bavaria, nor in Ireland, nor in Alaska, nor in Boston, nor in New York. No. These are the ones in the Netherlands. They haz a sad because

Tens of thousands of children have suffered sexual abuse in Dutch Catholic institutions since 1945, a report says.

Oh dear oh dear, say the Catholic bishops in the Netherlands. That is sad.

The report by an independent commission said Catholic officials had failed to tackle the widespread abuse at schools, seminaries and orphanages.

“This episode fills us with shame and sorrow,” said a bishops’ statement.

Does it? Why? Because it’s not a secret any more?

It’s hard to believe it fills them with shame and sorrow because of the nature of the abuse and sympathy for the children who were abused. It’s hard to believe they haz a sad about anyone but themselves. The reason for that difficulty is the date cited: since 1945. They didn’t haz a sad from 1945 until the present. The fact that they have one now, after the report has been published, seems to indicate that they could have continued with equanimity if only the whole matter had gone on being an ecclesiastical secret.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Dec 18th, 2011 3:02 pm | By

This is from 2009, but I hadn’t seen it before.

A new video by Samar Minallah that highlights the importance of education for girls. It is the first pushtu/dari lullaby dedicated to daughters! The video has been shot and conceptualized by Samar. It has been sung by renowned singer Naghma and the poetry is by Watan Dost. It has been filmed in Kabul, Bagram, Khyber and Swat by Samar. It has been produced by WCLRF and Heinrich Boll Foundation Afghanistan.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bishop David Oyedepo

Dec 18th, 2011 12:33 pm | By

Dear sweet kind loving god, who deputizes men to hit women in the face.

H/t ‘Yemi Ademowo-Johnson.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

One in the eye for ferrety bureaucrats

Dec 18th, 2011 10:40 am | By

Nick Cohen on Hitchens.

In conversation he was the most intellectually generous man I have ever met. More writers than readers like to imagine are fretful and suspicious. They bite their tongues and hide their thoughts in case rival authors “steal their ideas”. Hitchens was too much of an enthusiast for life and debate to waste time being pinched and cautious; too engaged in the battle of ideas to worry about others taking his.

When you had an argument you needed to work through or a book you had to deliver, he would sit you down, fill your glass to the brim and pour out ideas, references, people you needed to talk to and writers you had to read. You would try, and fail, to keep up and hope that you could remember a quarter of what he had said by the time the inevitable hangover had worn off the morning after.

That’s a beautiful snapshot, and entirely believable, because it goes with everything we already know on the subject – Hitchens was an incomparable extemporaneous talker. I’m on record saying this well before anyone knew he was checking out; I told the New Statesman about it in 2009.

His appeal is that he’s a brilliant writer with a huge range of knowledge. I admire that kind of thing. He’s also a brilliant talker, and I admire that too. When he was at the Hay festival a few years ago, even hardened BBC presenters were admitting he was hard to beat for impromptu wit and erudition.

I thought I had said that thing about the BBC presenters somewhere at B&W, too, but I can’t find it, so maybe I didn’t (or maybe it was in a comment and doesn’t turn up in a search). I remember being impressed by it though. It was someone who is no fool himself (it was a male), maybe Andrew Marr, and he expressed the same kind of awe that I felt – “how does he do that?”

Here’s part of what I did find that I said about that Hay appearance – it was in 2005.

Hitchens certainly was busy while he was in the UK. Multiple talks at the Hay Festival, Start the Week, and finally Night Waves. Did I miss any? Did he also fill in for Melvyn Bragg on ‘In Our Time’ and do the weather report on ‘Today’? Did he open Parliament and drive the number 85 bus? Did he announce the trains at Victoria and carry a sandwich-board up and down Oxford Street and sell tickets for the Eye? Was he, like, everywhere, or only almost everywhere?

So, in short, Nick’s picture is no exaggeration, and we know this. It’s a lovely point about the generosity.

Nick goes on to repay a debt. He said he was going to, he said so on Friday; it’s good to see that he did.

Glorious conversation survives merely in memory of the listener, however, and there is the booze question that has to be addressed as well. The BBC’s obituary was delivered by its media correspondent, Nick Higham, a ferrety cultural bureaucrat who has never written a sentence anyone has remembered. He assured the nation that Hitchens was an “alcoholic”. Hitchens could certainly knock it back. But he and everyone who knew him understood his distinction between a drinker and a drunk. If he were a true alcoholic he could never have written so much, so fast and at such a high standard. Nor would he have been loved, for addicts are too selfish to love.

A ferrety cultural bureaucrat. I hope that epithet sticks to Nick Higham for some time. And it’s obviously true about the “alcoholism” – if that’s alcoholism, everybody should aspire to being an alcoholic!

I cannot overemphasise how much he loathed people who stuck to a party line and tried to tell me, you or especially him what we must think; how every kind of bureaucrat, archbishop, rabbi, ayatollah, commissar and inquisitor roused in him the urge to fight.

A better and more accurate epitaph than “an alcoholic.”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Mutilate the baby tastefully

Dec 17th, 2011 3:10 pm | By

Parents shouldn’t mutilate their children, amirite? I think that’s a pretty safe claim. But….

But it turns out it’s ok, as long as you make a show of angst about it first. It’s ok as long as you go on and on and on about your feelings on the subject, demonstrating how sensitive you are, and then in the end agree to lopping off a bit of your baby’s penis. The show of angst makes it ok, so it turns out that the mutilation of the baby is actually all about the feelings of the mommy.

Ever outspoken about what I considered the “barbaric” nature of the bris ritual, it is no wonder I was blessed with two sons. Experiencing it once was pure agony. But it was as I stood on the sidelines awaiting my younger son’s circumcision, in pensive conversation with my brother, that I realized I — and women like me — deserved to shed our status as victims and claim our own meaning in this tradition.

And so she does, at great and self-indulgent (or is that “pensive”?) length.

These days, the recent ballot initiative in San Francisco to ban the circumcision of minors (ultimately stricken by a local judge on a technical matter) is the latest manifestation of the growing anti-circumcision movement. Like shirking vaccinations, shedding strollers in favor of “baby wearing,” and embracing co- sleeping, it is increasingly popular to resist subjecting your newborn to such a “barbaric” procedure against his “will,” and to casually throw around terms like “genital mutilation.” Great. Just what I needed to add to my ambivalence over the decision to circumcise my sons — a healthy dose of the liberal guilt I thought I safely had left behind in college.

But I did not find the cries of the hyper-liberal terribly persuasive. Yes, choosing to circumcise your son involves making a difficult and significant decision on his behalf — but what in parenting doesn’t? And, after all, isn’t the irrationality bred of cult-like child-centric parenting ultimately akin to religious zealousness? Just trendier.

Yes, parents have to make many decisions for their children, but no, that doesn’t make it ok to snip off a bit of a baby’s penis for reasons of religion or tradition.

I chose to be awakened from my womb-like slumber, along with my new son, and confront that, while his pain may be my own, I cannot always protect him. Neither from physical discomfort, nor from the weight of the traditions into which he was born. For me, the bris served as an important reminder that there are things larger than me and my quest for rationality. Larger than my son and this brief encounter with pain. As one parent wrote about giving his son over for his bris, “I submit him [for circumcision] because I hope there is more to this than I can see or understand.” There are things I can’t explain, things beyond my control, even — especially — when it comes to this new life.

So she just abdicates responsibility, and lets it happen, because religion is bigger than she is. Therefore what? It’s ok to keep children out of school, to forbid girls to go to school, to hire people to hit children with metal poles, to marry little girls to adult men, to mutilate children’s genitals?

It’s a sad spectacle, someone going to all that trouble to come to a hopeless conclusion.

Update: Stewart did a graphic response so I helped myself to it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Ian McEwan on Hitchens

Dec 17th, 2011 11:48 am | By

In the Guardian/Books, as is appropriate. The Guardian has its flaws but it does hella good book journalism.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it.

He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library.

I love that last sentence. It puts books and journalism and ideas together, and then makes them all equivalent to a good university library. One of the things I love about Hitchens is his massive erudition and his skill at deploying it, which few if any academics can match.

Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.

Superhuman effort.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Wheen on Hitchens

Dec 17th, 2011 10:48 am | By

Friends of Hitchens are remembering him for our benefit.

Francis Wheen is. First there’s the unfathomably rude awakening -

Waking yesterday morning to the news of Christopher Hitchens’s death, I was gratified to hear it given second place in the Today programme’s 7am bulletin. The gratification ended moments later when the BBC reporter described him as a journalist, an atheist “and an alcoholic”.

“No he bloody wasn’t!” I yelled at the radio.

He also reported that stupidity at Facebook (and named the reporter). Nick Cohen said “I’ll do him.” I hope he does.

On to the better stuff.

He was a heavy drinker (“No argument about that,” he would say with a throaty chuckle on those rare occasions when we found something about which even he couldn’t take a contrarian view), but also a prodigiously energetic worker whose focus, as he observed the world and its follies, was never blurred. Even when he reached for another late-night whisky, his perception remained unerringly sober.

This is not an adjective that has often been applied to the Hitch. His sobriety was perhaps disguised by the frisky playfulness of his language,   the extravagance of his invective, the fearlessness of his risk-taking. Except for incest and folk-dancing, he’d try almost anything once, from being waterboarded to undergoing a Brazilian wax. Sometimes one felt that he had known everybody, read everything, been everywhere…

One did indeed; that’s almost exactly what I said about him nearly a decade ago:

…he seems to average three or four longish essays a day, along with reading everything ever written and remembering all of it, knowing everyone worth knowing on most continents, visiting war zones and trouble spots around the globe…

He wasn’t what you’d call excessively deferential, Wheen points out.

Unlike our own raucous and disputatious hacks, US commentators tend to be judicious pipe-suckers who take themselves (and   their “insider” status) exceedingly seriously: not for nothing is the New York Times known as the Gray Lady. Over breakfast every morning, Christopher would glance at the NYT’s front page to check that it still carried the smug motto “All the news that’s fit to print” – and to check that it still irritated him. “If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be,” he wrote, “then at least I know I still have a pulse.”

You can use that final phrase for a lot of things. What the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be?

Part of our inheritance, that is.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Hello darkness

Dec 16th, 2011 4:40 pm | By

And as twilight falls, a last goodnight…

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)