Mohanty, Nussbaum, MacKinnon

Jan 12th, 2008 12:21 pm | By

Here’s a sampling of the wonderful and famous “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” for your delectation. I have to tell you – it’s kack. Read that and then read a page of Martha Nussbaum – for instance her essay ‘Judging Other Cultures: the Case of Female Genital Mutilation’ which I just read this morning; or read a page of Susan Moller Okin or Catharine MacKinnon or Katha Pollitt – and you will see a difference. Mohanty is all pretension and extended jargon-mongering; the others are clear (without necessarily being easy, much less dumbed down) and precise and specific. Mohanty is not really trying to argue a case (if she were, she would do it in a different way); she is doing something more like trying to score points in a very particular kind of game. (And clearly she has succeeded fairly well, since she gets people in a particular discipline to refer to her as famous a lot.) Nussbaum and the others I mentioned are indeed trying to make an argument: they don’t waste time on verbal pirouetting, on showing off their High Theoretical vocabulary, they’re too busy doing other things. Other and better things.

The relationship between Woman – a cultural and ideological composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourse (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) – and women – real, material subjects of their collective histories – is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address…I would like to suggest that the feminist writing I analyse here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘third-world woman’ – an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanistic discourse.

That’s Mohanty. Now for a bit of Nussbaum. (‘Judging Other Culture’ Sex and Social Justice page 122):

It is wrong to insist on cleaning up one’s own house before responding to urgent calls from outside. Should we have said ‘Hands Off Apartheid,’ on the grounds that racism persists in the United States?…It is and should be difficult to decide how to allocate one’s moral effort between local and distant abuses. To work against both is urgently important, and individuals will legitimately make different decisions about their priorities. But the fact that a needy human being happens to live in Togo rather than Idaho does not make her any less my fellow, less deserving of my moral commitment. And to fail to recognize the plight of a fellow human being because we are busy moving our own culture to greater moral heights seems the very height of moral obtuseness and parochialism.

And some Catharine MacKinnon, from her essay ‘Postmodernism and Human Rights’ in Are Women Human?:

Abuse has become ‘agency’ – or rather challenges to sexual abuse have been replaced by invocations of ‘agency,’ women’s violation become the sneering wound of a ‘victim’ pinned in arch quotation marks. (p. 55)

Postmodernism has decided that because truth died with God, there are no social facts. The fact that reality is a social construction does not mean that it is not there; it means that it is there, in society, where we live. (p. 56)

Women often serve power and do have power over children, but postmodernists have to portray women actually having power that men largely have in order to confuse people about power. (That they want to avoid being called sexist in the process, we have accomplished.) (pp. 59-60)

I know which I prefer.

How to be famous

Jan 12th, 2008 11:45 am | By

You’ll remember (won’t you?) that my favorite commenter on the FGM question told us that all this had been thoroughly sorted out by the great and famous Chandra Mohanty. I was moved to find out more.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty (born 1955) is a prominent postcolonial and transnational feminist theorist. She became well-known after the publication of her influential essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in 1986. In this essay, Mohanty articulates a critique of the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman” as a hegemonic entity.

Ah, good. I’m relieved to know that she took care of that. It’s always irked me, the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman”. You know? The way Western feminists talk about ‘the Third World woman’ all the time and what they’re going to do to her and what an exciting project it is.

Okay I’m lying. I’ve never in my life heard a feminist talk about ‘the Third World woman.’ It’s a stupid category that is way too big and undifferentiated to use for the ‘discursive construction’ of anything. That’s not necessarily Mohanty’s fault, it could be just the fault of whatever acolyte wrote the Wikipedia entry – but whoever wrote that silly sentence, it’s a classic of strawman nonsense. It’s also a good example of doing the very thing one is aiming to ‘critique’ – it treats ‘Western feminism’ as a ‘hegemonic entity’ by discursively constructing it as such. In other words it generalizes wildly about ‘Western feminism’ in the course of charging (by implication at least) ‘Western feminism’ with generalizing wildly. In short, it’s stupid and complacent. And typical. ‘Theory’ punches itself in the eye again.

Slightly long-winded

Jan 11th, 2008 8:11 pm | By

Sorry, that last one is awfully long. But hey, my N&C impulse has been thwarted by necessary detention in jury room and courtroom, and then I’m morbidly interested in perversities of this kind – in ‘feminists’ lecturing other feminists on why they should not talk quite so loudly or harshly about the carving up of girls’ genitalia. So I gave you some detail – it’s there if you want it, if you share my morbid interest, but don’t worry if it bores you. This one won’t count toward your grade.

It didn’t stop there

Jan 11th, 2008 7:57 pm | By

Chapter 2 of the ‘I’m more postcolonialist than you’ follies.

Another respondent:

Why do feminists still have to analyze everything using the concept of ‘oppression?’ Why are -you- using the term as though everything feminist has to be talked about in terms of oppression. There are times when that’s okay, but there are other times when it is not…When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, by naming them oppressive, for instance, they may be putting other women into situations which could be dangerous for them, or which could at least change the course of their lives, and not always favourably, if they decided to act on this new way of perceiving it. What should be respected is the fact that not all women will be able to make positive change in their lives…For starters, referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement. Call it FGE. If the genitals are severely mutilated, thats another thing.

When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, they’re doing various things to other women. Uh…yes. And? That is, obviously, always the case with any kind of suggestion or campaign or movement for social change. Abolitionists may have been putting slaves into situations, union organizers may have been putting workers into situations, anti-apartheid campaigners may have been putting South African blacks into situations. That’s always true, and it is as well to be careful. The protests in Kenya over an allegedly stolen election have gone in a very bad direction and I would not at the moment jet off to Kenya to fire people up for more protests. But is it therefore a general principle that no harmful practice should be called a harmful practice because it’s always safer just to let things be? Well, not for the young girls who get their genitals sliced off it’s not!

‘Referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement.’ Yes indeed it is, and that is exactly why I and others do it. We’re making a value judgement: chopping off female genitalia is mutilation, it’s bad, it should stop. No I damn well won’t call it FGE: ‘excision’ is the right word to use for a tumor, not for a normal set of genitals. As I rather heatedly said on the list, calling FGM ‘excision’ is like calling footbinding orthopedic surgery. And I’m not going to call it FGE if it’s just a little bit of mutilation – I’m not going to save ‘FGM’ for severe mutilation. I don’t think mild genital mutilation is okay or that it deserves a pass or a dang euphemism.

And more from the first respondent, the one from ‘Ethnocentric feminism’:

I will note that I was careful to add two citations to my response, the James and Robertson volume, as well as Mohanty’s famous essay (and now body of work) on the problematic application of Western feminist concepts, frameworks, and analyses to non-Western locations…Both of these sources and collection of authors are very careful to make nuanced, complicated claims about both Western feminism and female genital surgeries, rather than the broad-brush condemnations of the latter or caricatures of their critique of Western feminism that have dominated the discussion on this list thus far.

You see, Mohanty’s essay is famous (and now it’s a body of work), therefore it’s important. This is the classic argument from celebrity that is all too familiar to those of us who follow the antics of the trendy. They love to tell us how famous their heroes are – the famous Judith Butler tells us how famous Derrida is, and acolytes everywhere tell us how famous Judith Butler is. Then when they’ve finished doing that they tell us how nuanced and sophisticated the famous work of all these famous people is. They never manage to reproduce or imitate any of the nuance or sophistication, they just keep endlessly waving at it. Very careful, very nuanced, very unlike ‘the broad-brush condemnations’ of – of what? Of female genital surgeries? Surgeries? Excision wasn’t euphemistic enough, now we’re talking about surgeries? When the vast majority of them are nothing of the kind, when the vast majority of them are performed with a pair of scissors and no anaesthetic? Surgeries?

It’s scary, isn’t it?

Indeed, critique of problematic moves in Western feminism should be allowable without it being equated with total dismissal of Western feminism, just as the critique of female genital surgeries should be allowable in a register other than self-righteous moralizing condemnation that seeks to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world, “modern industrialized countries” always (unsurprisingly) coming out on top in this type of analysis…

Good point, excellent point, except for one tiny thing: nobody was seeking ‘to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world’; yet again, that’s just self-righteous bullshit. This particular writer (she wrote all the nonsense in ‘Ethnocentric feminism’ too, as I mentioned) specializes in silly hyperbolic inaccurate depictions of claims that never were. Another tiny detail is that no one said anything about ‘modern industrialized countries’ coming out on top, either.

As many within the literature on transnational feminisms have also shown, the contest to prove some cultures or places or religious communities as “more” oppressive toward women than others is one of many longstanding ways of measuring savagery and barbarism more generally, and was a common strategy used to justify colonialism (e.g., “just look at how they treat their women!”).

Yes…we know imperialists often condemned practices that involved women (like sati for instance, and they were right, even if not all of their reasons were), that is not a newsflash, but so what? Does it follow that contemporary feminists are being imperialist in calling FGM FGM rather than ‘excision’ or (pardon me while I swear) ‘surgery’? No it does not. The ‘feminists’ who call FGM ‘surgery’ are being soft-headed at best and conceitedly self-serving at worst.

Speaking personally, I thought I was quite careful to make specific and nuanced claims which, in this previous email at least (see below), were chopped up (another kind of “cutting”?) to suit the poster’s polemical purposes of caricaturing me as advocating for a nihilistic world wherein nothing – not even hierarchy and women’s oppression – means anything anymore.

That was me – I chopped up the ‘nuanced claims’ – that is to say, I excerpted them, with ellipses to show where the cuts were, in the usual way when one quotes someone else. Yet our commenter is so vain and so self-obsessed and so self-important that she apparently thinks it’s droll to pretend that my excerpting something she wrote is the same kind of thing as an adult gouging out a child’s clitoris and cutting off her labia. She wants me and others to talk of female genital surgeries, as she does, instead of female genital mutilations, yet she’s not embarrassed to compare excerpting from something she wrote (while the original remains in the archive and everyone’s Inbox as opposed to being thrown in the garbage like the child’s bleeding pieces of flesh) with the carving up of a child’s crotch. That’s what I call a healthy sense of priorities!

I am surprised by the responses to my original post, which I thought was a fairly mundane (and even rather dated) argument in the feminist literature; moreover, I am stunned at the level of anger and defensiveness on this issue. If such critiques are still this threatening to the USAmerican feminist establishment, there is much to be worried about. It seems to me a more appropriate response to positions about which we feel strongly, but which have nevertheless been demonstrated by a substantial body of non-Western feminists and feminists of color to be problematically racist or colonialist, is (at a minimum) interest, curiosity, openness, (self-)reflection, and thoughtfulness.

Hmmmmmmmmyeah, except maybe when it’s been presented in such a preeningly self-satisfied yet energetically prosecutorial way, we don’t actually feel all that interested and thoughtful, we feel more like repelled and incredulous and deeply alarmed that this buffoon actually teaches.

Ethnocentric feminism

Jan 11th, 2008 11:38 am | By

I had a hard time tearing myself away from the computer Wednesday and Thursday mornings to catch the bus downtown to the courthouse, because there was a lively (not to say acrimonious) discussion on a Women’s Studies list I subscribe to, about Female Genital Mutilation. I may have done something myself to contribute to the acrimony. Okay I did. I got annoyed. Repeatedly. (But one is limited to two messages a day, so there was a limit to the damage I could do.)

It started with the (astonishing, I thought) fact that the practice was called ‘circumcision’ – which staggered me because I thought it was apologists for the practice who called it that and that opponents all called it Female Genital Mutilation (which is what it is) as a matter of principle. What could feminists be doing euphemizing the horrible practice? I wondered and wondered, then someone rather gently asked the same question, so I decided to provide backup. (I haven’t been posting to the list much, if at all [I can’t remember if I’ve posted before], because I’m not a women’s studies teacher, so I figured I would just read and be silent; but that’s over.) Backup is useful on that list, I think, because there is a strong current of orthodoxy and orthodoxy-enforcement there, and it looks to me as if more people speak up when other people are speaking up. Certainly that’s how it fell out with this discussion. So I expressed my astonishment in stronger and somewhat ruder terms – and there were other comments – and before long out came the classic retort.

This collection of essays problematizes the “M” for mutilation (which I thought was a critique by now well-entrenched in Women’s Studies) as much as an “E” for excision, given regional differences in the types of procedures performed, and “circumcision” is rejected for the very reasons already named – this is not exactly what occurs (one of the editors suggests “S” for sugeries; another option is “C” for cutting). The book does a very nice job of pointing out that while no one is turning cartwheels about female genital surgeries, and that African women themselves have taken steps to end such practices, this is a far cry from the explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage voiced by Western feminists about practices in “other” countries, as performed precisely on cue on this listserv, according to a script that seems not to have changed in 20 years.

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was no ‘explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ in any of the messages. None of the messages started out by saying ‘Here is my colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ – or ‘Here is my outrage as a colonialist ethnocentric Western feminist’ – or ‘My colonialist ethnocentric sense of superiority is outraged at the practices in “other” countries.’ No; no one said anything like that; so what was the accusation doing there? The usual. The usual boring, hackneyed, thought-free, self-flattering attempt at intimidation via orthodoxy-deployment and guilt-mongering.

[D]iscussion of female genital surgeries and potential analogues or comparisons with male circumcision should be possible without the accompanying ethnocentric outpouring of feminist outrage. The notion that female genital surgeries are uniquely violating, singularly oppressive to women, primarily about the control of women’s sexuality, a sign of women’s unique powerlessness and violation in Muslim cultures, or the most pressing problem facing the women who undergo it has been *exhaustively documented* as reflective of Western feminist priorities, a fundamentally imperialist feminist analysis that operates on the basis of Western feminist conceptions of gender, sexual hierarchy, and the oppression of women…The result is the characterization of non-Western women as uniquely victimized, exploited, and damaged by “their” men or their barbaric “culture”…

No it isn’t. It isn’t because the ‘outpouring’ (such as it was) wasn’t ‘ethnocentric’; because not all ‘non-Western women’ are subject to FGM, in fact the vast majority of them are not; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘non-Western women’ in general; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘West good non-West bad huh huh huh’ or any other such brainless grunting; because the discussion wasn’t about trying to ‘characterize’ all non-Western women (which would be a bizarre project) but about calling the practice of cutting off and sewing up women’s genitalia a harmful practice. That’s all it was about – yet it was called ethnocentric, colonialist, fundamentally imperialist, and (horror of horrors) twenty years out of date.

So, not for the first time, I learned that it is simply not possible to satirize this kind of thing adequately, because it’s always more fatuous and delusional and above all self-flattering than one can imagine in advance.


Jan 10th, 2008 7:54 am | By

Just in case you’re wondering if I’ve run off to Las Vegas or something, I can explain. Posting is light at the moment because I have jury duty. I’ll catch up at the weekend, if not sooner.

Indirect effects

Jan 7th, 2008 11:43 am | By

The Vatican is planning a party. Sounds like fun.

The Vatican has called on Catholics to atone for the sex abuse scandals that have engulfed their church in recent years by taking part in what may be the largest global prayer initiative ever seen…[E]very diocese in the world should name a priest to work full-time on the arrangements for the “perpetual adoration” of the eucharist. This would involve parishioners taking turns to keep a round-the-clock vigil in front of a consecrated host representing the body of Jesus…The aim was “to make amends before God for the evil that has been done and hail once more the dignity of the victims”, who had suffered from the “moral and sexual conduct of a very small part of the clergy”. He did not indicate how long he saw the adoration continuing.

Or, apparently, how the whole thing would work. How would parishioners taking turns standing around in front of a bit of bread ‘make amends’ (before God or before anyone else) for sexual abuse of children by priests? It’s not exactly entirely altogether perfectly clear – but hey, these people know what they’re doing, they’re experts in the field, if they say standing around in front of pieces of bread I mean perpetual adoration of the eucharist will make amends, then –

I gotta go.

The patriarchal matriarchy

Jan 6th, 2008 11:43 am | By

Ah yes, the matriarchy myth. That’s one I haven’t gotten around to yet. Long overdue!

I have been a close observer of the myth of matriarchal prehistory for fifteen years now and have watched as it has moved from its somewhat parochial home in the feminist spirituality movement out into the feminist and cultural mainstream. But I haven’t been able to cheer at the myth’s increasing acceptance. My irritation with the historical claims made by the myth’s partisans masks a deeper discontent with the myth’s assumptions. There is a theory of sex and gender embedded in the myth of matriarchal prehistory, and it is neither original nor revolutionary. Women are defined quite narrowly as those who give birth and nurture, who identify themselves in terms of their relationships, and who are closely allied with the body, nature, and sex—usually for unavoidable reasons of their biological makeup. This image of women is drastically revalued in feminist matriarchal myth, such that it is not a mark of shame or subordination, but of pride and power. But this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests.

Precisely. Difference Feminism bollocks. Yes we are nurturing and sweet and slightly dim, but that’s a good thing. Bleah. We’re not nurturing and sweet, dammit, we’re ornery and crabby and disobliging and we bite.

[I]t is my feminist movement too, and when I see it going down a road which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way to me, I feel an obligation to speak up. Whatever positive effects this myth has on individual women, they must be balanced against the historical and archaeological evidence the myth ignores or misinterprets and the sexist assumptions it leaves undisturbed. The myth of matriarchal prehistory postures as “documented fact,” as “to date the most scientifically plausible account of the available information.” These claims can be—and will be here—shown to be false. Relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court.

Relying on any kind of myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves the people who rely on it looking like chumps. ID, Afrocentrism, Noah’s ark, the Goddess; away with all of it.

The conception of the family as a subject

Jan 6th, 2008 10:30 am | By

This idea that human rights are for individuals rather than for groups is relevant to the Vatican’s reflection on the Rights of the Family in the context of the Universal Declaration, too. (Do you see a pattern here? There is one. Religions, especially coercive, totalizing, domineering religions such as Catholicism and Islam and Protestant fundamentalism, are suspicious of human rights and would like to elbow them aside in favour of group rights, especially [of course] religious-group rights. We need to watch that, so that we can fight back.)

This bit of the Pontifical Council’s ‘reflection’ is the giveaway:

One aspect of fundamental importance for the promotion of human rights is recognition of the “rights of the family”. This implies the protection of marriage in the framework of “human rights” and of family life as an objective of every juridical system. The Charter of the Rights of the Family, presented by the Holy See, implies the conception of the family as a subject that includes all its members. The family is thus a whole which should not be divided up when it is being dealt with by isolating its members—not even for reasons of social substitution which, although necessary in many cases, should never put the family as a subject in a marginal position.

What’s that saying? That the family should be treated as a person, indivisible and with rights, and that in aid of that the members of the family should not be treated as indivisible persons with rights, they should be treated as parts of an indivisible whole. The family is a subject, with all that that implies, and the people who make up the family are merely parts of that subject.

That’s a really terrible idea. It’s also nonsensical. Families aren’t persons; no matter how united and loyal and loving they are, they still are never persons, they are groups of people, and a group of people is never the same thing as one person. You don’t add a person and a person and a person and get one big person, you get three people; three different, separate people, each with her own wants and needs and plans. They may all cohere and cooperate and agree, fine, but that still doesn’t make them all one person. No group has a mind; no group is aware; no group has consciousness or sensations or feelings or experience. All those belong to single individuals, one at a time. They may want to make sacrifices for the good of their family or religious group or political party, but that is still not the same thing as the notion that any of those groups has its own rights. Beware of anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise.

One at a time, please

Jan 6th, 2008 9:40 am | By

Beware of ‘religious and cultural specificity.’ Beware especially when religious and cultural specificity is invoked in the context of human rights. Religiously and culturally specific human rights are not the real thing, they are impostors wrapped up in burqas. The International Humanist and Ethical Union knows.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) representing the 56 Islamic States renewed its attack on the Universality of Human Rights at the 6th Session of the Human Rights Council that ended on 14 December. On Human Rights Day, 10 December, Ambassador Masood Khan, speaking on behalf of the OIC, claimed that the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam “.. is not an alternative, competing worldview on human rights. It complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries”.

No, it doesn’t; it doesn’t complement, it competes; it contradicts, it denies, it deprives, it prevents.

Even a cursory reading of the Cairo Declaration shows just how widely its definition of human rights differs from those of the UDHR. No “complementary” document (the word implies adding to, not subtracting from) should restrict the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Yet this is precisely what the Cairo Declaration does. Under Shari’ah law a woman has no personal autonomy. A women’s word or the word of a non-Muslim counts as half that of a Muslim man; and they are valued as half that of a Muslim man. No woman is considered an autonomous individual but needs a guardian: her father, husband, son or another male relative, and may not make autonomous decisions. Freedom of religion is limited to freedom to become and remain a Muslim. Apostasy and any actions or statements considered blasphemous are harshly punished, in some states by death.

Oh that kind of religious and cultural specificity.

On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution “Combating Defamation of Religions” by 108 votes to 51 with 25 abstentions…The resolution expresses “deep concern about the negative stereotyping of religions and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief”. But the only religion mentioned by name is Islam…The Western delegations stood firm, however, in their opposition to this resolution. The Portuguese delegate, speaking for the EU, explained clearly why: “The European Union does not see the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ as a valid one in a human rights discourse. From a human rights perspective, members of religious or belief communities should not be viewed as parts of homogenous entities. International human rights law protects primarily individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief, rather than the religions as such.”

Human rights are for humans, not for groups. Human rights are for individuals, not for groups. The IHEU ends on a depressing note…

Notwithstanding these objections, those opposing the resolution found themselves on the losing side of a two-to-one majority in favour. The implications of this resolution for freedom to criticise religious laws and practices are obvious. Armed with UN approval for their actions, states may now legislate against any show of disrespect for religion, however they may choose to define “disrespect”. The Islamic states see human rights exclusively in Islamic terms, and by sheer weight of numbers this view is becoming dominant within the UN system. The implications for the universality of human rights are ominous.

Don’t submit

Jan 4th, 2008 12:02 pm | By

Anthony Grayling points out a great and central struggle of ideas:

[A]re individual human beings capable of overcoming such limitations of circumstance…to achieve by will and endeavour what they identify as good…? Or are people, or the vast majority of them, too weak, too fallible, too constrained by those circumstances, to be able to do this, meaning that they are essentially dependent, and need to be instructed and guided by the few who assume the role of leaders, teachers, those who know the right answers and possess the truth?

I would say we’re all more or less weak and fallible and constrained, but not so weak and fallible and constrained that we are essentially dependent. That’s perhaps a somewhat optimistic view, but I do think most people can change and learn and improve.

The monolithic ideologies require a dependent, submissive mass mind; in recovering the classical idea of individual potential for autonomy – the capacity of individuals to shape themselves according to their conception of such truly human goods as love, friendship, pleasure, kindness, knowledge and discovery, creativity and achievement – the modern western liberal and secular mind has fought to break itself free from that imposed dependency.

The fight is risky, because people are weak and fallible and they can always go toddling off towards fascism or jihadism or God hates fagsism or some other combination of ignorance with bullying. But the alternative – a dependent, submissive mass mind – is so awful (and anyway also risky) that the risk seems worth it.

This is not a merely abstract point…[T]he matter is so fundamental that it merits far more than blog-bitesize examination. That examination might show why there can be such passionate opposition to anything that requires the entrapment of the human mind in the cage of one big truth that demands submission, the yielding of the autonomy that is our central human potential – think of the Christian tenet of “dying to the self” and what is meant by the “sin of pride” (viz thinking one can get by without God), remember that “Islam” means “submission”, think of Stalinism: they are all about obedience, heteronomy, dependence, tutelage, amounting even to a prohibition against thinking for oneself; for the first sin in Eden was disobedience, and the disobedient act – all too significantly – was one of acquiring knowledge. And what is this submission and heteronomy but the condition of slavery…?

Exactly. And I suppose that’s one of my most bedrock beliefs or assumptions – my ‘religion’ if you insist – that thinking for oneself is of the essence of being human, and that if you give that up you miss what it is to be human; you miss the kernel of the experience; you might as well be a cat or a potato. ‘Be a Potato for Stalin/Allah/Jesus’ – no thank you.


Jan 3rd, 2008 1:09 pm | By

The Vatican seems to have a strange lack of acquaintance with reality – at least its Council for the Family does. It has a statement on the family and human rights which floats weirdly free of the difficulties that humans tend to encounter.

The father and the mother, as a couple, with the characteristics proper to them, procreate and raise the child. The child thus has the right to be welcomed, loved and recognized in a family.

That’s a pretty idea, but the trouble is, it’s the Vatican itself that does more than any other human institution to make that right impossible to implement. It’s the Vatican that forbids birth control, thus removing (in intention at least, which is what’s relevant) people’s ability to avoid having children who are not wanted and thus at risk of not being welcomed. The same applies to abortion. The child may have a right to be welcomed and loved, but what of it? who is going to force the parents to welcome and love the child if they don’t in fact want it or (in the event) love it? The Vatican? How?

As the first natural community, the family is the exemplary place for solidarity. In the family human beings gradually become aware of their dignity, acquire a sense of responsibility, and learn to give attention to others. In the family, solidarity develops beyond the spouses’ love relation and extends to the relations between parents and children, siblings, and inter-generational relations.

Need for reality check again. ‘In the family, solidarity develops’ when it does, but when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Has no one at the Pontifical Council for the Family ever encountered an unhappy (a ‘dysfunctional’) family? Has it never encountered a family that is more indifferent than anything else? Or one that is downright hostile, or one that is bullying and demanding and controlling? One that is shot through with tensions and jealousies and resentments? One that is estranged? Does the Pontifical Council for the Family really seriously think that all families are of their nature and essence loving and loyal and generous? Some are, certainly, but all of them? No. Yet the Pontifical Council prattles away as if it had never even read any Jane Austen, or any newspapers.

Family values people are like that, I suppose – they’re so keen to stamp out all the freedoms and choices and eccentricities and ways of living that thrive outside the familiar ones that they’re forced to pretend there is no flourishing outside The Family and no misery inside it. But then do they convince anyone?

What seems to be the problem?

Jan 3rd, 2008 12:47 pm | By

A lot of women in Saudi Arabia attempt suicide. Now there’s a surprise.

Within family circles, boys always get preferential treatment. What is more, there is very little or no communication between girls and their parents. The report highlights many factors that can lead women to consider killing themselves, one of them being forced marriages.

Others probably being things like no freedom of movement, no ability to walk around in public looking at the sky and the flowers and anything else that comes along, no sense of having equal rights and duties. That must get a trifle dispiriting.

Disregarding a woman’s free will and her right to choose her life can simply lead her to desperation.

Well yes. It can.

Disregard all that manifest horror behind the curtain

Jan 2nd, 2008 11:02 am | By


This week the “better” democracies are wagging fingers at worse ones, like 17th-century popes reprimanding missionaries in the distant jungle. They tut-tut over a stuffed ballot box in Nairobi, a banned radio station in Islamabad or a murdered journalist in Moscow. They condemn a riot here, a bombed polling booth there and an imprisoned politician somewhere else. How dare these “developing” peoples corrupt the sacred rites of mother church?

They what? They ‘tut-tut’?? Over a ‘stuffed ballot box in Nairobi’ – meaning a possibly stolen election followed by an outburst of ethnic cleansing which perhaps heralds more? Over ‘a banned radio station in Islamabad’ – meaning eight years of military dictatorship, a state of emergency declared in order to fire all the Supreme Court justices and replace them with more compliant ones, followed by a tiny matter of the murder of the likely winner of the upcoming election? Over ‘a murdered journalist in Moscow’ – meaning Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered perhaps by the government, for exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya? These things strike Simon Jenkins as trivial and apparently slightly laughable? Not the kind of thing anyone should ‘tut-tut’ over? Well what would be the right kind of thing then?

If I had been Musharraf in receipt of such patronising remarks, I would have drawn deep from the well of irony. I would have referred Britain’s prime minister to his poor poll rating and said Islamabad was “dismayed” he had funked a democratic mandate last October. I would have expressed Pakistan’s disappointment at Brown’s record on habeas corpus, ID cards and the exploitation of Pakistani doctors by the NHS.

No doubt you would, but what is your point? That Gordon Brown and Pervez Musharraf are much of a muchness and that there is really nothing to choose between them? That Gordon Brown is the same kind of thing as a military dictator?

For all the manifest horror of the past week in Pakistan and Kenya it is presumptuous for the west to demand that the world take the same route to self-government that it spent bloodthirsty centuries pursuing. We may regard liberal democracy as the one true religion, but it is doubtful if many Russians or Chinese do likewise at present. Like many places on earth, they give a higher rating to security and prosperity.

Well if that’s the case, then they could vote for that, if they got the chance, couldn’t they. But if they don’t get the chance, then you don’t know what they give a higher rating, do you. What makes you so sure it’s not ‘presumptuous’ for you to decide what they give a higher rating when there is no mechanism for them to declare that? Presumptuous yourself.

The jihadis would, if they could

Jan 2nd, 2008 10:31 am | By

Pamela Bone notes that Islamists hate women.

The fear of women, of women’s freedom, and most of all, of women’s sexuality, runs through Islamism. It is a large part of Islamist hatred of the West. “The issue of women is not marginal,” writes the Dutch scholar Ian Buruma. “It lies at the heart of Islamic occidentalism (anti-Westernism).” It is the “deep, ignored issue”, writes Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism. Why, I wonder, is it mainly men who are making these points?

Well, I’m not sure it is, really; it may be just that the men who are making these points are bigger names than the women who are making them are, but there are a good few women making them. Gina Khan, Homa Arjomand, Azar Majedi, Marieme Hélie-Lucas, Maryam Namazie, Houzan Mahmoud, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many many more. I consider myself one of them, in my own small way. There are lots of us. Eventually the drip drip drip of water will wear away the stone.

Al-Qa’ida has made it perfectly clear that its aim is an Islamic caliphate, first in all nominally Muslim countries and ultimately in the whole world. The jihadis would, if they could, impose the same rampant misogyny on women worldwide as was, and still is to a large extent, imposed on the women of Afghanistan.

Of course they would. Otherwise what’s the point? Rampantly misognyist oppression and suppression of women is the chief, central, throbbing reward of being an Islamist; without that the game is hardly worth the candle. (What, you get to force everyone to pray five times a day? Where’s the fun in that?) That’s why I went into a prolonged fit of rage and despair when I turned on the news in San Francisco last Friday; that’s why I don’t think Islamism is the hot new form of radicalism that’s going to make the world a better happier freer place; that’s why I dislike putative leftists who have a soft spot for Islamism. I take it personal-like.

Fuller reviewed

Jan 1st, 2008 2:28 pm | By

Norm Levitt reads Steve Fuller. You remember Steve Fuller, right? The guy who so helpfully testified for the defense – for the ID side – at Dover? The guy whose testimony helped the other side win? The supposed lefty who is a fan of creationism? Sure you do.

The book under review is Fuller’s subsequent effort to justify philosophically the position that failed so miserably to sway the Kitzmiller ruling in ID’s favor. It is with frank satisfaction and not a little glee that I can report that it is a truly miserable piece of work, crammed with errors scientific, historical, and even theological…In this review I also want to consider the defection of Fuller (who all his life has proclaimed himself a progressive and “leftist”) to a cause demonstrably reactionary in all respects.

No but see the thing is the religious side is always the left side because The People are religious and The Scientists are an elite so therefore a good lefty always has to side with religion.

That obliviousness is even more evident in Fuller’s utter failure to come to terms with the political nature of the Intelligent Design movement. He mentions the notorious “wedge” strategy once or twice, but only with an exculpatory purpose…The “wedge”…is a patently reactionary political program, not a philosophical one. Naturally, this embarrassing fact is too much for someone who, like Fuller, thinks of himself as a left-populist, to admit directly.

Some of us had some experience of trying to argue with Fuller directly over at Talking Philosophy, but he’s one of those exasperating people who just ignore anything they don’t feel like answering. Like Theo Hobson. The fact that he doesn’t admit the reactionary nature of the program he’s supporting comes as no surprise.

Sand, Sea and a Dog

Jan 1st, 2008 6:28 am | By

Hi – This is Jerry.

Ophelia mentioned that we spent Christmas together in California. It was very cool. Here are some photos I took. Thumbnails appear below. Just click on the thumbnail for a larger picture.

(If the guy who complained last summer about this turning into a travel blog is reading – you should Stop Right Now. You will find this distressing. You have been warned!)

– Pebble Beach sunset

– A beach just past a mission.

– A marsh. (Notice how the sky has cleverly changed colour.)

– This tree is a tree next to a very important tree.

– Ophelia’s favourite dog just after I had read him chapter 2 of Why Truth Matters.


Copies of these prints are available at no good bookshops.

Happy New Year!

Block that play

Dec 30th, 2007 11:01 am | By

Speaking of the combination of bullshit and bullying – consider the way the word ‘faith’ is everywhere used as a tool of that combination. It’s a bully-word precisely because it’s about bullshit; it gets to bully people on the grounds that it is about unwarranted belief. What an odd arrangement.

Look at Deborah Solomon talking to Ian McEwan for instance.

It seems to me that the impulse to atone is a religious one, and yet you are a self-declared atheist. Yes, I am an atheist, and probably Briony is, too. Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction, and they still have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you.

Not necessarily. Faith in itself is not easy to sustain. Well, we won’t get into that.

‘Faith in itself is not easy to sustain.’ And why is that? Because it’s ‘faith’ – it’s not based on evidence or probability or plausibility, it’s just a choice, an act of will; naturally it’s ‘not easy to sustain’ when there are so many ways it can seem wrong. Yet Solomon turns it into a smug boast combined with a reproof. ‘Faith’ is not easy to sustain therefore people who sustain it are brave or loyal or dedicated or athletic, or some such thing. Faith-people are the brave strong tightrope-walking ones, atheists are the pale weak cowards who stay at home and suck on their pacifiers. That’s sheer intellectual bullying, that is, and McEwan, politer than Solomon, allowed her to get away with it. But faith-people really ought not to play that card, because it’s not a legitimate card to play; it gives them an unfair advantage based on other people’s civil reluctance to embarrass them; it’s tawdry and passive-aggressive to take advantage of that politeness.

The Texas Education commissioner used the same tawdry weapon in discussing the firing of Christine Comer.

The Texas Education commissioner, Robert Scott, told The Dallas Morning News that Ms. Comer was not forced out over the message, adding, “You can be in favor of science without bashing people’s faith.” He did not return phone calls to his office.

‘You can be in favor of science without bashing people’s faith.’ What does that mean? You can be in favor of science without forwarding a message saying that Barbara Forrest was going to be giving a talk in Austin? You can be in favor of science without thinking and saying that science classes ought to teach science and not religion? You can be in favor of science without saying that Creationism and ID are not science but religion? Is that what that means? (In the context, it sort of has to mean that; there’s not really anything else it can mean.) Well, if it is, it’s nonsense. You can’t be ‘in favor of science’ while raising no objection to the replacement of science by religion in the science classroom. That’s not ‘being in favor of science,’ it’s being in favor of religion in place of science. But, of course, calling such a view ‘bashing people’s faith’ is just the way to prevent a fair and open discussion of the question and to substitute a sweaty atmosphere of guilt and shame and apology – if people buy it, that is. Chris Comer didn’t buy it; good; no one should buy it. Everyone should be highly sensitized to the deployment of the ‘faith’ guilt-trip, and should ward it off with contumely and scorn.

Secular democracy is a Sin

Dec 30th, 2007 10:15 am | By

Some ideas are dangerous any way you look at them. This is one.

Over the past decade, thousands of people, from top politicians to ordinary voters, have been murdered by Islamists in Muslim countries that have held reasonably free elections (Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia). Islamist opposition to democracy is based on the claim that allowing men to legislate would be a form of sherk, that is to say associating Man with God, who is the “sole and ultimate legislator”. Man-made law cannot rival God-made Shariah.

Humans can’t and mustn’t (especially mustn’t, because in fact of course they can, so they have to be stopped) correct or review or displace or act for or contradict or just plain ignore ‘God’; God always trumps humans, humans have to do what God says, never the other way around; yet (here’s where things get scary) ‘God’ of course is not around, not available for consultation or plea, not at the bench to commute sentences or pardon mistakes or hear about extenuating circumstances. All that’s around is a very very old and tedious book, and various interpretations of and commentaries on that book, along with a great many self-appointed interpreters of that book, who are pleased to kill you if you don’t do what they say, armed with the self-righteous claim that they are killing you in the name of this absent ‘God.’ You could hardly come up with a better recipe for that miserable combination of bullshit with tyranny which torments so much of the world. The sole and ultimate legislator is some sky-dweller whom no one ever sees or talks to, so all six-plus billion of us down here on this lumpy little planet are helpless to say anything about our laws or leaders or lives (unless we’re mullahs, of course). Heads they win tails we lose.

Bad, bad, very bad

Dec 28th, 2007 12:20 pm | By

So…I was driving around in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, I had dropped Jeremy and Cheryl at the SF airport and then gone on into the city to have fun looking around for a couple of hours until it was time for me to go back to the airport. I turned the radio on and found some okay music and drove up 19th and through the park and through the Avenues a little and over to Arguello, and then the music changed so I looked for another station and hit a news one – and then I found myself repeatedly shouting a bad word as loudly as I could possibly shout it, and kind of thrashing back and forth in rage. It took me awhile to calm down, and all I calmed down into was despair and only slightly quieter rage. I was upset, and I went on being upset all afternoon.

Because…well, perfect. Great. There’s a glimmer of hope that Pakistan might get to be able to have a secular democracy after all, and thus be an example to other majority Muslim countries; and one with a woman at the head of it besides, and thus even more of an example; well of course we can’t have that, so Bang. And I admired Bhutto, while being unsure how justified the corruption charges were or were not. And – you know how it is – I hate it when women who get some power, whether political or intellectual, are killed because they got some power. I hate it. It makes me feel threatened and furious. I hate being reminded that people can prevent each other from doing things any time they feel like it, just by finding a gun or a bomb, and that lots of people do feel like it. It’s the truth, it’s reality, and it stinks.