Dec 25th, 2007 11:55 am | By

Merry Xmas. (No war on Christmas here.)

As may be obvious, I’m away for a few days. I’m on the Monterey peninsula doing my day job, and Jeremy and Cheryl are here for a visit. We went to Point Lobos yesterday, on a brilliant beautiful windy day, with pelicans flying back and forth in front of us. Jeremy took a few thousand photographs (he’s a professional you know) and he says he will post some here when he gets back. Normal broadcasting will resume on Friday.


Dec 20th, 2007 11:41 am | By

‘If the essays in “Thinking Politically” share a single theme, or better, a common tension,’ says Adam Kirsch, ‘it is Mr. Walzer’s effort to reconcile his liberal instincts with his leftist commitments to socialism and cultural relativism.’

The problem for Mr. Walzer, as a left liberal, is that the left has never really shared the morality of liberalism, or even credited it…To the left, the liberal love of freedom is a self-deception, designed to obscure the fact that the material conditions of life leave most [people] unable to enjoy their freedom. The danger of this conviction is that, once the love of freedom is discredited, freedom itself usually follows, as the history of the last century shows again and again. And when freedom is lost, equality — which was supposed to take its place, in the Marxist vision — also disappears, since without the liberal respect for the individual, there is no basis on which to erect equality.

Unless you just swap group equality, ‘community’ equality, cultural equality. Which is exactly what a lot of people seem to have done, often without fully realizing it, or the implications of it.

It is only because he is deeply wedded to liberalism that Mr. Walzer assumes that all cultures can converge on the liberal belief that the self-legislating individual is the ultimate ground of value. Ironically, Mr. Walzer seems to be guilty of the very same error that he chastises in his polemics against John Rawls and the Rawlsians: His ostensibly neutral moral deliberation rests on principles that he smuggles in because he cannot openly declare them.

Ah yes – the ever-present danger. I was reading a long article or declaration from the Vatican a couple of hours ago, and noticing exactly that. It makes certain things crystal clear and leaves obscure the implications of those things – because it cannot openly declare them. It smuggles in the principles that make one set of things more important – more clarity-worthy – than others. Always something to watch for (in self as well as others, of course).

“If each of us walks with his own god, then all of us will sit in peace under our vines and fig trees,” Mr. Walzer writes sanguinely. But the assumption that our god wants us to sit in peace, rather than to convert the heathen, is already a thoroughly liberal assumption, which would find no purchase in, say, fundamentalist Islam.

Another assumption is that we will all even be able to sit in peace under our vines and fig trees. What will actually happen is that prosperous men will be able to sit in peace under their vines and fig trees while women do all the domestic work and unprosperous men cultivate the vines and fig trees.

The alternative to this illusory neutrality would be openly to confess that liberalism is a positive creed, which holds some human types and some forms of society to be better than others. Such an admission would considerably ease Mr. Walzer’s difficulties in articulating a criticism of the enslavement of women — a practice he clearly loathes but finds it hard, given his axioms, to directly condemn.

Yes. JS and I are busy doing that for this book that articulates a criticism of the enslavement of women (that’s why I was reading a Vatican declaration a couple of hours ago). We openly confess that we hold some forms of society to be better than others. That item is much too big to smuggle.

A better discourse

Dec 19th, 2007 10:39 am | By

After that it’s good to be able to read Farrukh Saleem.

Aqsa is dead; she can wear a scarf no more; can go to the school no more. Aqsa can change into jeans no more; she can breathe no more…Honour killing is our export to Canada…Of the 192 member-states of the United Nations almost all honour killings take place in nine overwhelmingly Muslim countries. Denial is not an option…[H]onour killings have taken place in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. Intriguingly, all these honour killings have taken place in Muslim communities of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. Denial is not an option.

Soumaya Ghannoushi, meet Farrukh Saleem. Denial is not an option (and neither is obfuscation via ‘discourse’ about binaries and the other and hegemony).

Here’s another fact: Illiteracy and honour killings are correlated. Jacobabad District has a literacy rate of 23 percent, the lowest in Sindh. Jacobabad has the highest rate of crimes of honour; 91 honour killings in 2002…Another fact: Around 2.5 percent of humanity lives in Pakistan. But, nearly 30 percent of all honour killings reported from around the world are reported from Pakistan. Is denial an option? Who will take the honour out of these killings? Who will expose the horror from under the hijab? Who will protect women from the laws of men?

Well, probably not Soumaya Ghannoushi.

Hegemonic narrative strikes again

Dec 19th, 2007 10:26 am | By

Soumaya Ghannoushi tells us there are two discourses that are actually one – that are ‘one in essence’: a conservative one that keeps Muslim women stuck at home and in the power of male relatives, and a liberation one that is opposed to the first one but is (somehow) wicked too.

It is a game of binaries that pits one stereotype against another: the wretched caged female Muslim victim and her ruthless jailer society against an idealised “west” that is the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom.

Meaning…what? That there are no Muslim women in wretched ‘caged’ situations? That the ‘west’ is not in fact the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom and therefore there are no Muslim women in wretched ‘caged’ situations?

The narrative revolves around a dehistoricised, universal “Muslim woman”; a crushing model that oppresses flesh and blood Muslim women, denies them subjectivity and singularity, and claims to sum up their lives with all their vicissitudes and details from cradle to coffin. It reserves for itself the right to speak for them exclusively, whether they like it or not.

Really? Does it? Where? Who spins this narrative, and where, and to whom? I’ve read a fair bit about this subject and I don’t recall anyone blathering about a dehistoricised, universal ‘Muslim woman.’ Could this be just a phantom in Ghannoushi’s mind? I don’t recall anyone reserving the right to speak for Muslim women exclusively, whether they like it or not, either. I really think I would have noticed.

Representations of the Muslim woman serve a dual legitimising function, at once confirming and justifying the west’s narrative of itself, and of the Muslim other.

Yes yes yes, we know, Orientalism; we’ve heard. Tell that to Gina Khan and Irshad Manji and Maryam Namazie and Necla Kelek and Fadéla Amara and countless others. Then tell it to Aqsa Parvez and Mukhtar Mai and the women of the Abu Ghanem family.

Varieties of relativism

Dec 18th, 2007 2:46 am | By

From Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, page 114:

Until Kabul, the UN’s disastrous lack of a policy had been ignored but then it became a scandal and the UN came in for scathing criticism from feminist groups. Finally the UN agencies were forced to draw up a common position. A statement spoke of ‘maintaining and promoting the inherent equality and dignity of all people’ and ‘not discriminating between the sexes, races, ethnic groups or religions.’ But the same UN document also stated that ‘international agencies hold local customs and cultures in high respect.’ It was a classic UN compromise, which gave the Taliban the lever to continue stalling…

In the chapter ‘Women and Cultural Universals’ in Sex and Social Justice Martha Nussbaum tells ‘true stories’ of conversations at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, ‘in which the anti-universalist position seemed to have alarming implications for women’s lives.’ Pp 35-6.

At a conference on ‘Value and Technology’ the economist Stephen Marglin, a leftwing critic of classical economics, gives a paper urging the preservation of traditional ways of life in a rural part of Orissa, India, citing for example the fact that unlike in the West there is no split between values that prevail at work and those that prevail at home. His example of this: ‘Just as in the home a menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and therefore may not enter it, so too in the workplace a menstruating woman is taken to pollute the loom and may not enter the room where looms are kept.’ Some feminists object. Frédérique Apffel Marglin replies: ‘Don’t we realize that there is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? This, after all, has been shown by both Derrida and Foucault.’ Those who object are neglecting the otherness of Indian ideas by bringing their Western essentialist ideas into the picture.

Then Frédérique Apffel Marglin gives her paper, which expresses regret that the British introduction of smallpox vaccines to India eradicated the cult of the goddess Sittala Devi. Another example of Western neglect of difference. Someone (‘it might have been me’ says Nussbaum) objects that surely it is better to be healthy than ill. But no: ‘Western essentialist medicine conceives of things in terms of binary oppositions: life is opposed to death, health to disease. But if we cast away this binary way of thinking, we will begin to comprehend the otherness of Indian traditions.’

This is where it gets really good. Eric Hobsbawm has been listening ‘in increasingly uneasy silence’; now he rises to deliver a ‘blistering indictment of the traditionalism and relativism’ on offer. He gives historical examples of ways appeals to tradition have been used to support oppression and violence. ‘In the confusion that ensues, most of the relativist social scientists – above all those from far away, who do not know who Hobsbawm is – demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the room.’ Stephen Marglin, disconcerted by the tension between his leftism and his relativism, manages to persuade them to let Hobsbawm stay.

That’s good, isn’t it? Feel for poor Stephen Marglin, confronted by outraged relativist social scientist colleagues who don’t know who this tiresome old geezer is and don’t like his blistering indictment, demanding that Eric Hobsbawm be thrown out! It would be funny if it weren’t, at bottom, so disgusting.

I ‘pardon’ you

Dec 17th, 2007 11:51 am | By

On a different note – the Saudi rape victim has been ‘pardoned’ by King Abdullah – the one we ‘share values’ with, according to Kim Howells. But don’t get the wrong idea – the King (the one we share values with) doesn’t actually think there was anything wrong with the sentence – the two hundred lashes for being raped – he just thinks it would be inconvenient at the moment, that’s all.

Mr. Khashoggi [a newspaper editor] said that the woman, who has married, had been living freely while her case was being appealed. There have been reports that her brother has tried to kill her to remove the “stain” to the family’s honor, and bloggers and international human rights activists have expressed concern for her safety. The Saudi minister of social affairs, Dr. Abdul Mohsin Alakkas, reached by telephone, said that Saudi women who run into trouble with the law frequently fear retribution from their relatives. Some women who serve prison time refuse to leave prison at the end of their sentences, he said. The Ministry of Social Affairs operates special shelters for these women, and Dr. Alakkas said the Qatif victim would be able to live in one.

Ah. Isn’t that sweet. Isn’t that kind. She gets to go live in a special prison for the rest of her life to avoid being murdered by her brother; is that thoughtful or what.

Commenting on the pardon, the Saudi justice minister, Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheik, told Al Jazirah that the king fully supported the verdicts against the woman but had decided to pardon her because it was in the “interests of the people.”

That’s the ticket. Stick to your guns, kingy. Merry Christmas and happy shared values.

The Carol Proof of the Existence of God

Dec 17th, 2007 11:03 am | By

Theo Hobson has outdone himself – again. He keeps breaking his own record – it must be exhausting.

What’s up? Well, journalism is an atheistic bear-trap of cynicism and ferocity and Theo is tremulous with fear and anxiety about saying what he says but what the hell, he’ll just bravely risk the fury of the censors at Comment is Free and say it: Christmas carols make him soppy. There. They have the same effect on an ‘atheist comedian’ . There. He admires the comedian’s honesty in saying so. There. Imagine what Dawkins would say. There. Then Theo proceeds to imagine what Dawkins would say, then he proceeds to give him a damn good thrashing for saying it, then he talks some unadulterated nonsense by way of conclusion.

Christmas seems to me the refutation of the idea that beauty and truth can be separated. The beauty of the Christmas story, and of the festival, is more than beauty. Mere aesthetics cannot account for it.

No, quite right, it’s baby Jesus what does it.

The really funny part is that the commenters almost unanimously point out that Theo has simply invented ‘what Dawkins would say’ and then attacked his own invention (and not for the first time – he’s fond of this tactic), and that his refutation of the idea that beauty and truth can be separated has a few holes in it, with the result that Theo comments several times, more absurdly each time. I’ll show you – each new comment on a new line, each separated by a slew of sane, rational, well-argued replies and questions from the commenters; no wriggling, no evasion, no hero-worship, no failure to think.

I am berated for making a straw-man Dawkins. So what does he think? I take it that he thinks carols are beautiful but meaningless (and perhaps a bit dangerous in glorifying superstition). This is a flawed position – it treats as merely aesthetic what is more than that. Instead of thinking about this, lots of you are just jumping to the defence of your hero.

Look, I’ve got an incredibly simple question for you atheists. Please don’t try to wriggle out of it. Would you like to see the practice of childtren singing ‘Away in a manger’ and suchlike dying out? Please take a few minutes to THINK.

those of you atheists who say ‘who cares if children sing carols?’ are intellectually dishonest. For do you not think that it’s wrong to encourage children in harmful superstition? It stuns me how evasive and unthinking you are about the implications of your atheism.

It seems to be Dawkins’ view (judging from some of the comments realting to him) that carols are lovely, harmless, part of our heritage. Don’t you see that this makes him a big hypocrite? If he were logically consistent he would oppose them for their promotion of lies, but because they are popular, he doesn’t dare say this.

Ultimately you are either for or against Baby Jesus. Atheists should have the honesty that they’re against him, that they’d like the celebration of him to be wiped out. Don’t hide from the decision in aesthetics.

That last one tipped the balance: surely we have here a case of stolen identity. I suggested a secret agent of the dreaded International Atheist Conspiracy, or else that Theo Hobson is Richard Dawkins’s sock puppet, like Lee Siegel’s ‘sprezzatura’ at The New Republic*. Now that would be truly funny.

*But insulting instead of flattering – double-bluff kind of thing.


Dec 14th, 2007 12:14 pm | By

Blind fingers-in-ears lalalala denial is interesting to see. It is not so because it cannot be so because it would be bad if it were so therefore it is not so; do you understand.

Violence against women is sadly a global human rights issue and occurs within all communities, regardless of race, class, culture and faith. It is troubling when this occurs in some communities because the media are quick to focus the story on “issues in the community” that have led to Aqsa’s slaying. The story becomes about how some communities have a greater tolerance for violence against women.

Funny old media, focusing on what appears to be the grim reality of what led to Aqsa’s murder; they should have ignored all that and pretended it was inexplicable and random. And how terrible that the story should become about the fact that some ‘communities’ have a greater tolerance for violence against women, even if it is in fact the case that some ‘communities’ have a greater tolerance for violence against women. Why? Well, because…because they’re communities, so they must be nice, right? (No one ever talks about the fascist community or the racist community or the Neo-Nazi community – so all communities are nice – surely.)

The discussion of this homicide as stemming from issues of a “clash of cultures, faith, the hijab” misrepresents the issue of violence against women. Violence is about the power and control of women by men.

Uh…yeah, violence is indeed about the power and control of women by men, and religion very often provides the pretext for exactly that. If the hijab were not about the power and control of women by men, then why would women get beaten up in so many places for refusing to wear it?

The assertion that this violence reflects the community and Islam is rooted in both racism and Islamophobia. Violence is not a value in any culture or faith community.

Really. Any evidence for that claim? None that’s offered, at any rate – it’s pure assertion. ‘Violence is not a value in any culture’ – well where does it come from then? Godalmighty – does Cindy Cowan think all violence is a product of epilepsy or something? The assertion that violence is not a value in any culture is rooted in a near-deranged level of denial.

Media preoccupation with this young woman’s background supports the myth that the incidence of violence and murder of women is somehow greater in these “other” communities, but this is false.

False, is it? Any evidence for that claim? No again. Which is depressing, because this Interim Place that Cindy Cowan is the executive director of is a women’s shelter. She kind of needs to know something about this subject, and she appears to know less than nothing; she appears to know minus-facts, anti-facts. She seems to think that the incidence of violence against and murder of women is exactly the same in all ‘communities’ as opposed to being ‘somehow’ (that ‘somehow’ is interesting – as if she can’t even figure out how such a thing could possibly be, even in principle) greater in some than in others. She seems to live in an alternate universe.

Pesky family spats

Dec 13th, 2007 10:46 am | By

Okay now let’s not get excited here. These things happen. Teenagers rebel, parents get cross, the fur flies, doors slam, windows shatter. It happens in the best of families – Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Scientologist, Free Silverist, you name it. It’s a terrible shame, but it doesn’t mean anything – it’s just like a spot of bad weather.

It’s a bitterly sad story, and if, indeed, her father killed her, nothing can excuse that. Aqsa might well have defied family values and parental rules, but nothing she did warranted death. Harsh words, perhaps, and even grounding, but there can be no tolerance for such violence.

Oh good – glad to know that killing a daughter for defying family values is not okay. Glad we got that straight.

Murdering daughters is no more an Islamic value than murdering estranged wives is a Western one. Muhammed Parvez might have been fighting a losing battle trying to make Aqsa wear a hijab, but that hardly sets him apart. Few are the fathers, of any faith or none, who have not clashed with their adolescent daughters over something – boyfriends, lipstick, short skirts, staying out late, dyed hair, body piercings, tattoos and any number of other age-inappropriate enormities.

How very true – and few are the fathers, of any faith or none, who don’t then go on to murder those adolescent daughters. Yes indeed, fathers murder their adolescent daughters by the thousands every day in every city on earth; it’s commonplace; it’s like jaywalking. There can be no tolerance for it of course, but all the same it’s terribly common. So nothing to see here folks, move on.

Fainting in coils

Dec 12th, 2007 6:01 pm | By

I don’t see eye to eye with Ali Eteraz here.

[T]he fact that Muslims around the world insist “Islam means peace” is evidence that a vast number of Muslims do not think that Islam means violence.

No…the fact that (many) Muslims insist that Islam means peace is evidence that many Muslims want to think that Islam means peace, and therefore they 1) simply insist that it does and 2) explain away anything that would cast doubt on that thought, either by saying that violence is extremist and aberrant or by saying that what looks to the uncomprehending like violence is actually peace. In short, they rationalize, as people often do about their chosen religion. It’s a mistake to take people’s defensive, often desperate rationalizations as evidence that they actually think what we want them to think. Really: big mistake. If a Christian tells you that Christianity means love, it would be a mistake to assume that that Christian means what you mean by ‘love.’ Christians will insist that Jesus was all about love then when you cite chapter and verse of Jesus getting quite hostile, they will say ‘Oh that was because he was angry with the Pharisees’ and go right on believing that Jesus was all about love.

Further, when a Muslim does commit something nasty against fellow human beings, and other Muslims decry this person as an “extremist”, this is evidence that a vast number of Muslims find brutish behaviour worth distancing themselves from. This too is a good thing. At the least, it shows that most Muslims share in the universal definitions of good and bad.

How does Eteraz know that ‘other Muslims’ are ‘a vast number of Muslims’ and how do the ‘a vast number of Muslims’ suddenly become ‘most Muslims’? How did we get from other to vast number of to most? Since the numbers are all left vague, we have no clue.

[W]hat is honesty to a secular humanist is psychological devastation to a believer. If a woman-respecting, non-violent, cool-headed Muslim says that he is a good person despite Islam, he would essentially be saying that Islam is irrelevant to his existence. A believer would never say that. He will chalk up his successes to his faith. He will insist that his faith galvanised every good thing in his life.

Some Muslims, in fact half of them, are women themselves as opposed to ‘woman-respecting’ men, but leave that aside for the moment. We know all that (we ‘secular humanists,’ though I’d rather be called an atheist, please), but that’s the problem. Defending the religion comes first, and truth or reality or unpleasant facts come second; the latter have to be made to fit the former, not the other way around. ‘A believer’ has to be able to credit his ‘faith’ for every good thing, therefore the believer will simply insist that the religion is the source of goodness no matter what evidence there might be that it’s not; the result is that whatever belongs to the religion is by definition good, necessarily; thus the believer is unable to judge what is good and what isn’t, and thus bad things are labeled good while remaining bad. That’s the danger of that way of thinking; that’s the danger of having sacrosanct protected ideas or beliefs that can’t be thought about without psychological devastation.

At the end of the piece Eteraz tells us of the contortions believers resort to in order to explain away a Koranic verse on flogging. But the verse remains – and people who like flogging remain, and people who want divine sanction for flogging remain, so what good is it twisting oneself into a pretzel to pretend that flogging is really a kind of massage? Not much.


Dec 10th, 2007 3:24 pm | By

Kuwaiti tv sounds like fun – like Oprah but more intense.

Kuwait TV Host Sheikh Tareq Al-Sweidan: “We have a question for the viewers at home, not in the studio, and they can respond with a text message. What is the best way to deal with apostates who converted from Islam? You have three possible responses. The first is through dialogue only. The second option is killing them, and the third option is to leave it up to the legal system.

Don’t you wish you could watch tv shows like that? We have a question for the viewers: What is the best way to deal with apostates who converted from Southern Baptism? You have three options. You can chat, you can kill them, or you can call the cops.

That would be even more fun when most of the audience went for door number two. Kill them, Bob, definitely.

Fatima: “He should be declared an infidel. The Koran divided people into Muslims, infidels, and the People of the Book. So there is a group of people who should be declared infidels.”

Just so. Because otherwise the Koran would have divided people into three groups for nothing. The Koran divided people into three groups, one of which was infidels, therefore there is a group of people who should be declared infidels. Naturally.

Gamal ‘Allam: “If he believes that his law is equal to the law of Allah, he is comparing Allah to human beings, and thus, he is an infidel. If he believes his law to be better than the law of Allah, then he prefers the creature over its Creator, and thus, he is an infidel.”

Humans are forbidden to use their own judgement about the law because they are required to defer to the judgment of someone who doesn’t exist, doesn’t answer when called, doesn’t apologize, doesn’t explain, can’t be demoted or fired or thrown out of office, doesn’t care, isn’t there. Otherwise they are infidels. End of story.

Young man in audience: “Sir, if you become an apostate, your punishment is death. There is a great problem that most of us, 70% of us, are Muslims because they were born to Muslim fathers and mothers. Before a person converts to Islam, he has the liberty to choose, but remember that if you want to convert from Islam, you will be punished by death. So you have the liberty to choose, but on the condition…”

Oh, okay, thanks – I have the liberty to choose, but on the condition that I’ll be killed if I do. Fine, that’s fair.

Prince Charles tried to improve things once, but had no luck.

“In 2004, Prince Charles called a meeting of leading Muslims to discuss the issue,” adds Dr Sookhdeo. “I was there. All the Muslim leaders at that meeting agreed that the penalty in sharia is death. The hope was that they would issue a public declaration repudiating that doctrine, but not one of them did.”

Oh. Well, maybe PC could try again in a few years. Meanwhile…um…well I guess nobody convert from Islam, okay?

Damian Lanigan notices this is not such a great arrangement but then fumbles over another arrangement.

If Muslim religious leaders in Britain are unwilling to speak out on this issue then we really are in trouble. [Well yes. ed]…And credit should be given to secular Muslim leaders. Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), says that it is “absolutely disgraceful behaviour… In Britain, no Muslim has the right to harm one hair of someone who decides to leave Islam.” Let’s hope that behind closed doors, at the community centres and mosques people like Mr Mogra are winning the argument.

No let’s not. (And what makes Lanigan think anyone in the MCB is secular?) Let’s not hope people who stipulate that ‘in Britain’ killing apostasy is not okayare winning the argument; the not okay has to apply to everyone everywhere, not just to the locals. No Muslim anywhere has the right to harm someone who decides to leave Islam.

The Grasshopper

Dec 9th, 2007 6:24 pm | By

I’ve just read Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper. I first heard of it and realized I wanted to read it a month or so ago when reading a piece by Simon Blackburn for the next issue (the tenth anniversary issue, number 40) of The Philosophers’ Magazine. In answer to a question about ‘the most under-appreciated philosopher of the last ten years’ he said ‘Inevitably, it is probably someone of whom I have not heard. But a little known and now dead philosopher called Bernard Suits wrote an absolutely wonderful book on the notion of games and play, called The Grasshopper, published by Broadview Press. I do not think I have ever met more than one person who has heard of it.’ Really, thought I, making a note of it. Then just a few weeks later Nigel Warburton wrote a review at ‘Virtual Philosopher’ of a new edition, and then Tom Hurka who wrote an introduction to the new edition commented, and then Bernard Suits’s widow Cheryl commented. The Grasshopper is being hauled out of obscurity, and a good thing too. It’s a terrific book.

Nigel has a later post about it here.

I had one very interesting, what to call it, there’s no word for this – thought-linkup, while reading. Page 39 in the University of Toronto 1978 edition:

…in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do, whereas in game it appears to be an absolutely essential thing to do.

Not quite, I thought; there’s something else, I thought; what is it…oh, poetry. That description works beautifully for poetry – and I couldn’t think of anything else that fit as well. So poetry turns out to be closely related to golf and squash and chess and bridge. Who knew? Poetry that has unnecessary obstacles, that is, not free verse. I no sooner had that thought than I remembered – with a considerable feeling of delight, I must say – that Robert Frost disliked free verse: he said it was like playing tennis with the net down. Well there you go. Good eh?

At least notice where you are

Dec 9th, 2007 2:31 pm | By

Howard Jacobson is a bit harsh but he’s right.

[I]t is irresponsible, so many years after Don Quixote messed up everything he touched, and when there is no shortage of international report, to be quite so determinedly unaware of where you are and what you’re doing and what the consequences might be. And that irresponsibility is compounded when you come home having narrowly escaped a lashing or worse, tell everyone what a great time you had and how lovely the people are, and express the hope that what happened to you won’t put anybody else off going.

I had the same thought, and I don’t suppose I’m the only one. No, thanks, I don’t think I will rush off for an adventure holiday in Sudan just now.

As for her refusal to be judgemental about it: at best it is a worthless show of magnanimity if she hasn’t a clue what the furore was about or how it relates to the treatment of other women or dissenters in that country, at worst it smacks of Stockholm Syndrome – that masochistic compulsion (especially incident to lovers of the simplicities of the Third World) to fall in love with your captors and torturers. It behoves you if you insist on travelling – against my advice that you stay resolutely at home – at least to notice where you are. And to bring back a better report from what…must be an ideological hell to live in, than how nice everybody was to you…With her release it’s business as before: half the world can go on thinking it has a right to imprison and execute whenever it considers its feelings hurt. So tell me what, now the dust has settled, is cultural “understanding”. Accepting the inhumanity of whatever society one finds oneself in? Acknowledging the primacy of local sensibilities, however closed-minded, however uneducated and raw, however severe the penalties for outraging them?…No Danish cartoon affair, this. Even the most vehemently touchy parties could agree it was an innocent mistake. No harm done because no hurt intended. But where does that leave us if we believe we should be able to give a teddy bear any name we like?

Just so; hence the interest of the fact that Bunglawala was obliging enough to say explicitly that if it is intentional then…he has no sympathy for the criminal. That’s where that leaves us.

Profundity in Texas

Dec 7th, 2007 12:24 pm | By

Mitt Romney – not surprisingly – says lots and lots of irritating things in that collection of platitudes and errors he offered up in Texas yesterday – at the George Bush I ‘library.’ It would be silly and otiose to analyze them in much detail – it’s not as if there’s any reason to expect the speech to be sensible or well-argued or grown-up or coherent. But there are some remarks that are so outrageous I just…

When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God.

It would be nice if it became his highest promise to his fellow-citizens instead.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

‘Tolerance’ of course is only relevant when we’re talking about opinion. It’s silly to talk about tolerance when you actually want to get at the truth of something – tolerance comes in handy when the subject is a human invented story that people want to believe is literally true but realize they can’t actually demonstrate is literally true. It becomes a matter of ‘I’ll tolerate your myth if you’ll tolerate my myth and that way neither of us will have to confront the likelihood that both myths are just myths and not literally true.’ The last sentence is a terrific summing-up of that – religious tolerance is deep because it will tolerate anything – which doesn’t mean actually believing the anything is true. Except of course one’s own anything. Which is true. But the others aren’t. But it doesn’t do to say so when running for President. Twirl, repeat, twirl.

Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government…[W]e can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty…Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.

Well here’s one American who doesn’t ‘acknowledge’ that liberty is a gift of God, and I’m reliably informed that there are others. And as for reason and religion being friends and allies – well the whole speech demonstrates why they’re not: it’s nonsense throughout, and blithely ignores (when it should ‘acknowledge’) its own nonsenicality.

The consolation prize of multiple wives in heaven

Dec 7th, 2007 10:27 am | By

So how does this work?

There are also those who think that Romney’s disowning of past Mormon polygamy is too opportunistic, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does still offer the consolation prize of multiple wives in heaven (just like the sick dream of Mohamed Atta).

Who are all those women? Where do they come from? Are there lots of extra women in heaven who never spent any time as mortals down here? If so mightn’t they be just a little creepy? Do men really want bizarro ‘wives’ who have no idea what life is like on an actual earthy planet? What would they be like to talk to? Of course the idea is that they’re a consolation prize because they provide sexual variety – but the word is ‘wives,’ not concubines or mistresses or sexual partners, so one has to assume they’ll be underfoot all the time. And then if there are all these extra women in heaven, one has to wonder if men would really regard it as a consolation prize to be vastly outnumbered. Especially by a lot of weird clueless from-another-planet women who don’t know from Seinfeld or Dr Strangelove or Jon Stewart or The Onion or The Office.

And that’s before we even get to the question of what the consolation prize for women is. Having lots of female roommates? But how does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know that all women want lots of female roommates? Or are women who don’t want that allowed to make their own arrangements, while the complement of multiple wives for each man is made up from the magical warehouse-full of heaven-born women? But if that’s the case why not just issue each man a set of really high-quality inflatable dolls, so as to avoid the creepiness problem and the outnumbered problem?

I wonder if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has really thought things through.

She will desist from repeating such venomous writing

Dec 6th, 2007 5:30 pm | By

Sometimes the disgust surges like bile.

Amid continued protests, the pressure on the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin is continuing to mount, as a prominent Muslim cleric today called for her to apologise for her “anti-Islamic” writings.

He didn’t call for her to, he ordered her to, in no uncertain terms.

[T]he offer to remove the paragraphs from new printings of the bestseller was not enough for Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the chief cleric of New Delhi’s Jama Masjid mosque, who suggested earlier today that Indian Muslims should “not tolerate the infamous authoress Taslima Nasrin on the Indian soil” unless she offered a written apology for what he called her “anti-Islamic publications”.

“The apology must bear her assurance that in future she will desist from repeating such venomous writing that may have any inkling of blasphemy,” he said in a statement. “India is a democratic nation and the constitution here neither does permit any citizen nor allow any foreign national to be irreverent to the tenets of any religion,” the cleric continued. “The entire responsibility of the consequences shall rest upon the government of India,” Bukhari warned.

That’s good, isn’t it – India is a democratic nation and thus it follows as the night the day that it forbids citizens and foreigners alike to be irreverent to the tenets of any religion. India is a democratic nation and therefore it has no truck with any pesky notions about people’s freedom to say what they think. But in case his audience doesn’t get the message, he finishes up with a nice flourish of threats. What a despicable man.

Religion as boa constrictor

Dec 6th, 2007 11:56 am | By

Things are humming in the Maghreb. Excellent.

Human rights activists from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania attending a Tunisian seminar last week stressed the need to separate religion from state as “an essential approach to realizing gender equality.” The “Maghreb Women’s March towards Realizing Equality” seminar on November 24th and 25th addressed the marginalisation of the Maghreb woman and the gender gap in each country…Activist Malika Remaoun from Algeria complained about the concessions given to Islamists at the expense of women…Tunisian Balkis Mechri agreed, saying “the battle to realize equality is not only legal, but social as well.” Ourida Chouaki of Algeria, however, warned that secularism in Maghreb societies is mistakenly being perceived as a call to apostasy.

And doubtless also painted and framed and presented as a call to ‘apostasy’ which of course is not just disapproved but forbidden. That’s one hell of an obstacle to get around. Good luck Maghrebians.

Razi pointed out that family law still gives men the right to polygamy, compels the return of women to the matrimonial home and governs child custody…Rejectionists, she maintained, “are using religion as a means to swallow up women’s rights”.

It’s a good wheeze, isn’t it. It’s a capital crime to leave the religion, and the religion is used to forbid women’s rights. Heads I win tails you lose.

Good luck Maghrebians.

Let’s not rush into anything now

Dec 6th, 2007 11:34 am | By

Ho hum – a woman says women are equal, male clerics pitch fits.

Zeinab Radwan…announced during a conference on “Citizenship” that “the testimony of a woman is legally equal in weight with a man’s testimony.”…Clerics were swift to condemn Radwan’s statement, as expected. Gamal Qutb, former head of the Fatwa council in Al-Azhar, impugned Radwan’s credibility on Islamic Jurisprudence and warned against tampering with the Shari’a. In his view, it would be insane to continuously alter interpretations of the Quran every time conditions in society human behavior changed.

Oh well quite. Exactly so. It would be stark staring insane to keep on and on and on forever changing interpretations of the Koran simply because conditions changed – what could possibly be madder than that? Because conditions change all the time, society changes, human behavior changes, all those things are fickle as windmills, they’re always whirling up and down and round about, first one thing then another; one minute it’s slavery and hierarchy and violence and the next minute it’s equality and freedom and peace, up down, up down, skirts long, skirts short; it’s all so arbitrary and whimsical and meaningless, there’s no way to choose among them, of course the only thing to do is have one interpretation of one book written fourteen centuries ago and then stick to it like death forever after no matter what. Because who cares if people grow and learn and change, who cares if we gradually collect data and explanations and experience that indicate that some ways of life are better for more people than other ways of life are? A pox on all that; what we want is stability and continuity and certainty and above all predictability – we want to know that women were inferior yesterday and they’re inferior today and they’ll be inferior tomorrow. We want to know where we are. We want to be able to find our way around with our eyes shut because it’s too god damn much trouble to open them.

While being interviewed by Al-Jazeera yesterday, Qutb lashed out at the Western world for “having molded such speakers to serve their interests and who are being guided by the West. Those who live in our midst while representing another culture and regardless of their elevated worldly status are unqualified to speak on religious matters.”

Those who live in our midst while representing another culture – interesting touch – reminiscent of Leon Kass’s ‘All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us’ combined with the convenient genuflection to ‘culture’. Note the contradiction, too – we mustn’t change interpretations of the Koran every time conditions in society change, yet ‘culture’ is a valor-word. On the one hand the timeless and eternal, on the other hand the contingent and situated and mutable. Well that’s clerics for you, any port in a storm.

Looking for scare quotes

Dec 6th, 2007 10:26 am | By

A comment or attempted explanation on BBC jokes got my curiosity awake.

This still seems to need spelling out for some. In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam. Gibbons was convicted of this crime. Should it be a crime? No. Given that it is a crime, was Gibbons guilty? Again, no: she didn’t insult Islam. Nevertheless, she was convicted of insulting Islam. In saying so I quote no-one, but simply state a fact. Tim Evans was wrongly convicted of murder, not “murder”.

Which is to say that the BBC wasn’t doing anything risible or marked or noteworthy by reporting that

Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, had spent eight days in custody for insulting Islam before eventually being pardoned by President Omar al-Bashir.

The claim seems to be that news organizations don’t use scare quotes on crimes if they are in fact crimes in the state that is in question. ‘In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam’ so it is not normal practice to put scare quotes on ‘insult Islam’ with reference to Sudan. I thought about that, and it seemed to me that it wasn’t true; so I did a little looking and found something. Then I wished I hadn’t wasted any time looking, because I remembered Turkey’s Article 301 which outlaws ‘insulting Turkishness’ – I know the BBC uses scare quotes on that ‘crime,’ I knew that even before looking it up. ‘Insulting Turkishness’ is decidedly a real crime in Turkey: prosecutions for it are not rare, and the existence of the crime has been a major stumbling block for Turkey’s membership of the EU.

So – behold the Beeb putting scare quotes on a crime even though it is a crime to insult Turkishness in Turkey.

Turkey’s most internationally-acclaimed novelist will go on trial here charged with “insulting Turkishness”.

The fact that Article 301 exists does not prevent the BBC from putting scare quotes on the crime that Article 301 forbids. Therefore there is nothing automatically or necessarily or ethically or journalistically preventing the BBC from putting the same scare quotes on ‘insulting Islam’ when reporting on Gillian Gibbons. It chose not to; I chose to point that out; I fail to see that there’s anything obviously unreasonable about that. Why would it not be of interest to notice what an influential news medium chooses to hold at arm’s length and what it doesn’t? Why would it not be of interest to notice the ways the BBC frames various issues? It’s supposed to be a good thing to be media literate, isn’t it? Isn’t noticing things like subtle cues and unobtrusively coded language and careful wording part of the whole project of figuring out how media outlets shape the way we think?

Sure it is. It could still be the case that I did a crap job of it, of course, but I don’t think the ‘In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam’ argument shows that.

BBC jokes

Dec 4th, 2007 10:18 am | By

The Beeb really is hilarious sometimes. In its report on Gillian Gibbons’s story it puts ‘ordeal’ in quotation marks but leaves ‘insulting Islam’ free of them. So we get

A British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting her class name a teddy bear Muhammad has spoken of her “ordeal”, after returning to the UK. Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, had spent eight days in custody for insulting Islam before eventually being pardoned by President Omar al-Bashir.

You have to admit – that really is funny.