Analyze Everything

Oct 10th, 2005 7:07 pm | By

Time for a Monday morning tease. Or more of a mock, really. I know I shouldn’t – it’s fish/barrel stuff – but I want to, so I will.

There was this lecture, see. And it was full of new, profound, fresh, original, searching stuff that no one had ever thought of or said before. Not a word of it was stale or familiar or old news.

Jasbir Puar, an assistant professor in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, spoke on “Queer Biopolitics and the Ascendancy of Whiteness” yesterday in Stimson Hall to provide a theory for the way race and sexuality affect U.S. and international politics…Puar’s was the first of a series of lectures sponsored by the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department that “seek to explore the future of queer studies”…The series of lectures are also a “concerted effort to talk about race and imperialism…”

Well great! That should cover it. That should pretty much dot all the eyes and cross all the tease. Terrific. Women, gender, queerness, biopolitics, whiteness, race, sexuality, U.S. and international politics, feministgenderexuality studies, queer studies and its future, raceandimperialism. A modest menu! A humble, self-deprecating agenda for the various Studies departments. I suppose they really ought to have sorted out capitalism and acne while they were at it, but still, it’s a good try.

Puar said her lecture explored the “intersections of sexuality and the war on terror, specifically how some [lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and questioning individuals] are complicit with nationalist, racist, and orientalist politics of the U.S.”

Fan-tastic! It’s about time someone cleared that up. I’ve been fuming for years now about the way lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and questioning individuals, violinists, beet-pickers, cats, goldfish, and lentil farmers are complicit with nationalist, racist, and orientalist politics of the U.S., and I’ve been wondering when someone was going to point it out. At least Puar has made a start! Props to her eh.

The core of Puar’s lecture, underlying the theory and terms, focused on identity. Puar began her work as a graduate student after four years of travel around the world, where she realized her self-identity changed wherever she traveled. In an interview with The Sun, she said identity is complicated, that it is a localized concept, and that who you are depends on where you are.

Oh my god!! Identity is complicated! It can change, depending on circumstances! Wow! Who ever knew that, who ever imagined such a thing? The insight is staggering. It’s like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, or Homi Bhabha’s discovery of liminality, which is also about the staggering discovery that identity is complicated. What a precious hour that lecture must have been, how fortunate the interdisciplinary people of Cornell who were there to hear it.

She said the ideas of her lecture are important because they “complicate single identity politics” and that organizing and activism on many college campuses focus on only one identity.

Yes. You bet. Important. Yes. Very important. Well done. ‘Complicated – identity complicated.’ Important idea. Yes.

Shirleen Robinson grad explained the idea of the dilemma of identity Puar proposed in her lecture. She said that if a guy wearing a turban is the victim of a hate crime and it also turns out he’s gay, one must analyze what identity his attackers intended to target. She said his identity can be read in different ways; his Arab identity is associated with terrorists and 9/11, while harems and a mystique of hypersexuality are associated with his sexual identity.

Err…yeah, and his jeans and T shirt are associated with creeping Americanization and the Starbucks cup he is holding is associated with globalization and the copy of Discipline and Punish he is carrying is associated with Paris and the Marlboro he is smoking is associated with cowboys. Could keep the analyzers busy for some time.

“I think there are ways of talking about diversity and inclusiveness that embrace initiatives like open hearts, open minds,” Villarejo said, but added that “a lot of those communities are deeply homophobic” and that we need to “make sure discourse of inclusivity is also offered” to queer African Americans, queer Asian Americans, and queer Latinos.

You forgot queer Native Americans! And queer Muslims! And queer disabled African Americans! And queer disabled – stop, cut it out, what are you doing, get off, help, let go of me

Multiculturalism Again

Oct 9th, 2005 6:06 pm | By

How did everything get turned around?

Today, to criticise multiculturalism, one is invariably derided as ‘right wing’ or ‘reactionary’. Conversely, to champion multiculturalism, one is invariably perceived as ‘progressive’ or ‘of the left’. But it should be, and historically it has been, the other way around. Multiculturalism represents the antithesis of the Enlightenment principle of colour-blindness and the notion of the universality of humankind – while the fetishisation of ethnic particularism is a quintessentially Tory ideal. The liberal-left’s love affair with multiculturalism today is a betrayal of what it used to stand for.

That’s for sure. That realization is starting to trickle through, but dang it’s taking a long time. Hurry up, folks! Get a clue. The fetishization of ethnic or religious or cultural particularism is an idea whose time has gone. Kiss it good bye. Get with the program.

Salman Rushdie says it.

In Europe, integration has been held up as a bad word by multiculturalists, but I don’t see any necessary conflict. After all, we don’t want to create countries of little apartheids. No enlightenment will come from multicultural appeasement.

Maryam Namazie says it.

Though political religion is facing a revival, it is the political Islamic movement which is spearheading this. And this rise is taking place within a new world order in which universal norms and values taken for granted only decades ago can no longer be taken so. In this climate of cultural relativism, Islamists and their apologists have perfected the use of rights language to dupe and silence any opposition.

Simon Blackburn says it.

And as far as
toasting some particular subset of humanity goes, I also wish people were not keen on
separating themselves from others, keen on difference and symbols of tribalism. I don’t
warm to badges of allegiance, flags, ostentatious signs of apartness, because I do not
think they are good for the world. I am glad that the word “race” has lost most of its
reputation recently, and I would rather like the word “culture”, as it occurs in phrases like
“cultural diversity,” to follow it. More moderately, we might keep it, but also keep a
beady eye on it. When people do things differently, sometimes it is fine, but sometimes it
is not.

And Patrick West discusses it in detail in the Spiked piece.

Multiculturalism in subsequent years has acted only to divide the population into groupsicles of competing ethnicities who feel they have nothing in common with each other…In an article in the liberal monthly, Prospect, in December 2000, Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen argued: ‘Solidarity and diversity are both desirable objectives. Unfortunately, they can also conflict…But it is easier to feel solidarity with those who broadly share your values and way of life. Modern progressives committed to diversity often fail to acknowledge this.’ Diversity and solidarity, both sound bites of the Left, can be mutually antagonistic.

As can democracy and freedom, or democracy and rights, and for much the same reasons. It’s as well to keep that strongly in mind – to keep ‘a beady eye on it’ – when flinging around the usual rhetoric about democracyandhumanrights or democracyandfreedom, which tend to sound as if they are inextricably linked and that the one entails the other, when in reality they can fight each other, and one of them can lose the fight.

It is peculiar that many who are the inheritors of the secular, rational Enlightenment tradition, and who call themselves progressives, are not only apologists for ethnic separateness, but – under the ostensible banner of respecting diversity – defend organised religion and irrationalism. When Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum lost her High Court battle to wear strict Islamic dress to school in June 2004, some left-leaning commentators decried this as racist and oppressive.

Peculiar indeed. I remember some left-leaning commentators who resorted to patronizing sexist rhetoric about me when I had the gall to keep pointing out that a lot of French Muslim and Muslim-background women were in favour of the hijab ban in schools. The things that come oozing out of the woodwork can be very surprising – as Nick Cohen notes in the New Statesman.

Her cheery note ended with a warning: “You’re not going to believe the anti-Semitism that is about to hit you.” “Don’t be silly, Ann,” I replied. “There’s no racism on the left.” I worked my way through the rest of the e-mails. I couldn’t believe the anti-Semitism that hit me. I learned it was one thing being called “Cohen” if you went along with liberal orthodoxy, quite another when you pointed out liberal betrayals. Your argument could not be debated on its merits. There had to be a malign motive. You had to support Ariel Sharon.

So it goes. Anti-Semitism, sexist epithets, patronizing anti-intellectual speculation about boredom or money-love – whatever tool comes to hand.

As Stephen Eric Bronner laments in Reclaiming the Enlightenment (2004), this is the symptom of a deeper corruption of the Left. Under the spell of relativist postmodernist theory, and despairing of the failure of the Socialist experiments of the twentieth century, erstwhile progressives have sought intellectual refuge in identity politics. They have come to resemble the conservatives of old. Todd Gitlin notes this in The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars.

Yes he does. I’ve recommended that book to quite a few inquiring minds.

In academia, there are relatively few voices of the Left still championing reason, such as Noam Chomsky; Brian Barry, author of Culture and Equality (2001); Stephen Eric Bronner; Richard Wolin, author of The Seduction of Unreason (2004); and the late Susan Moller Okin, whose Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women? (1999), gave the answer ‘yes’ to its title. When Okin concluded that gender equality was impossible to achieve among societies that practice polygamy, forced marriage or female genital mutilation, she faced the accusation of being dogmatically attached to Western liberalism.

Well…we’re working on that (those of us who are), and the dam is beginning to break. Witness all those citations. So just keep chipping away at the dam…

Secularist of the Year

Oct 9th, 2005 1:05 am | By

Maryam won! Maryam Namazie is Secularist of the Year. Ya-hoooooo. Sorry to be so American, but I’m really really pleased. As a matter of fact, I’m also damn smug. Here I’ve been publishing her articles like mad all this time, which I haven’t noticed the Guardian or the Independent bothering to do. Well? Well??! Wouldn’t you be smug? Wouldn’t you? Who has the better judgment? Eh? Eh? Which would you rather have published – Dilpazier Aslam, or Maryam Namazie?

Well maybe now they’ll start publishing her. Maybe this will be the push they need. Kenan Malik said, you know. Remember that? In the Guardian (she said pointedly). All the way back in January.

It also creates a climate of censorship in which any criticism of Islam can be dismissed as Islamophobic. The people who suffer most from such censorship are those struggling to defend basic rights within Muslim communities. Marayam Namazie is an Iranian refugee who has long campaigned for women’s rights and against Islamic repression. As a result she has been condemned as an Islamophobe, even by anti-racist organisations. “On the one hand,” she says, “you are threatened by the political Islamic movement with assassination or imprisonment or flogging. And on the other you have so-called progressive people who tell you that what you say in defence of humanity, in defence of equal rights for all, is racist. I think it’s nothing short of an outrage.”

I don’t see anything about the award in the papers yet (Maryam told me herself, and Azar Majedi sent a congratulatory message), so I’ll just link to this for now. It wouldn’t do for people not to know.

The Amplifier

Oct 8th, 2005 5:42 pm | By

Some more on that terrific Simon Blackburn article ‘Religion and Respect’. So much of it is so exactly what I think myself, and have been saying here with tedious iteration – naturally I think it’s terrific. But it is, all the same.

But, I argued to myself, why should I
“respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs
of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my
host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some
such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed

Just so. We’re expected (all but coerced, at times) to ‘respect’ some beliefs, but not others.

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term…The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on
the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it
uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes.

Exactly. As do words like faith, and community, and spiritual – words that span a spectrum and mean different things for different purposes. It is necessary to be always, permanently, without fail, tirelessly vigilant about and attentive to words like that. They have designs on us (which is to say, people who resort to them have designs on us). It is essential to foil their knavish tricks.

People may start out by insisting on
respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too
difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request
for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling,
or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

Bingo. Respect creep – that’s exactly it. (And come to think of it, it also makes a nice nickname for Galloway – but that’s another story.) There’s a huge difference between respect in the sense of leave me alone, and respect in the sense of see me and my beliefs as special and devout and good and superior. The first does not entail the second. Crucial point.

In postmodernist writings on religion, it is the done thing to distinguish between
theology and ‘onto-theology’, or religion and ‘onto-religion’. Onto-theology makes
existence claims. It takes religious language in the same spirit in which people calling
themselves scientific realists take science. It makes claims about what exists, and these
claims are more or less reasonable and convincing, and when they are true they point to
explanation of the way things are in one respect or another…In more sophisticated circles, onto-theology is old hat. Instead we should see
religion in the light of poetry, symbol, myth, practice, emotion and attitude, or in general
a stance towards the ordinary world, the everyday world around us…

Yes. We’ve seen that ‘sophisticated’ line more than once. I’ve been known to call it harsh names. In fact, amusingly, I made a note while reading page 11 that I would put it more strongly than SB does: I would call it a cheat. On page 15, SB does exactly that, which made me laugh a good deal. Snap!

But equally perhaps ‘God exists’ functions largely as a license to demand respect
creep. It turns up an amplifier, and what it amplifies is often the meanest and most
miserable side of human nature. I want your land, and it enables me to throw bigger and
better tantrums, ones that you just have to listen to, if I find myself saying that God wants
me to want your land. A tribe wants to enforce the chastity of its women, and the words
of the supernatural work to terrify them into compliance.

Brilliant image. Tantrum-amplifier, threat-amplifier, enforcement-amplifier.

I think
that the ontological imaginings do their work at a slightly different place. They work to
close off questions and doubts, and in effect to fend off reason. They cement a particular
way of associating ‘ought’ and ‘is’ and insulate it from criticism…By closing its eyes to this bit, expressive
theology in fact repudiates everything that makes religious language the power that it is.

Yet again – just so. But you’re going to get tired of reading me saying ‘Exactly,’ so I’ll stop. That’s only a fraction of the ‘exactly’s in the article. I give it my personal secular award for today.

And the Nominees Are

Oct 8th, 2005 2:42 am | By


You know how I’m always asking why people like Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie don’t get the kind of attention the MCB gets? How I’m always saying the BBC and the Guardian and, you know, the government, ought to talk to them as well as or in fact damn well instead of a lot of fundamentalists? You know? Well – well you already know what I’m going to say, probably, since I just put it in News. But I want to yell and squeal and dance and hop for a minute anyway. Bear with me. The day didn’t begin well – it began with the horrid shock of going online and finding dear old B&W turned into a mocking advert of some kind. You think you were shocked! (I know you do, and were, because you emailed to tell me so, and I’m glad you did, because you wouldn’t if you didn’t like B&W.) Imagine how I felt! Imagine (this is Homeric vein) a doting mama going to the baby’s crib and finding there a large and very dirty warthog. Imagine a dedicated poet going to the desk and finding there, where the soaring dazzling sonnet was supposed to be, a smelly pile of rotting cabbages. Imagine a moneybags opening a safe deposit box and finding there, instead of the usual piles of stock certificates and diamonds, a heap of used bandages. So that’s how the day began. So it’s good that it’s ending (well the day isn’t ending, but I have to get off the computer, so the computerday is ending) with something better.

I didn’t even know. There I was reading the article – and was surprised and pleased to read this part –

Eight people have been nominated for the inaugural “Secularist of the Year” award, which will be presented at a central London hotel. They include a leading theatre director who has fought religious censorship in the arts, an illusionist who has used his TV shows to debunk spiritualism and several campaigners against Islamic governments in the Middle East.

I thought ‘That’s good,’ and read on.

They also include Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has highlighted violence against Muslim women.

That’s even better, I thought. The NSS has the right idea. Well done NSS.

Among those nominated for Saturday’s prize are Nicholas Hytner, director of Britain’s National Theatre, who came under fire for staging the musical “Jerry Springer — The Opera”, which many Christians regard as blasphemous. Other nominees include Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie, Iranian women who have campaigned for women’s rights in the Middle East and against Tehran’s clerical rule.

I have to admit – I kind of shrieked when I read that. In fact no kind of about it: I let out a very loud and vehement exclamation. Yessss! Go Azam, go Maryam, go Ayaan! B&W is bursting with pride for you. Hurrah!

And maybe the Major Media damn well will start phoning them up when they want an opinion now. It’s about stinking time.

But hurrah.


Oct 7th, 2005 12:04 pm | By

We’ve been hacked, so I’m going to have to take the server down for a while. I’ll get B&W up and running asap.

Bastard Spammers!

Not This Again

Oct 7th, 2005 2:24 am | By

Here we go again. I still don’t get it. I don’t understand the basic point.

Unlike many pro-evolution types, however, he agrees with creationists and intelligent-design advocates that evolution often operates as not just a scientific theory about species, but also as a worldview that competes with religion.

One: and? If evolution does ‘operate as’ a worldview that competes with religion – what of it? Why should the worldview of religion not be competed with? Because fundamentalists don’t like it, yes, I get that, but why else? Two, if evolution does provide a better (more coherent, more warranted, less full of holes) explanation of how we got here, then it does. Why is that not part of the science, and why is it to be frowned on? Other than because the fundamentalists don’t like it. We were just talking about not placating fundamentalists – in a different context, but it applies here too, I think.

Huxley, Ruse argues, felt he needed to build a rival “church” to defeat archaic Anglican and Christian beliefs, and put man, not God, at the center of life.Evolution became his “cornerstone.” With the help of philosopher Herbert Spencer, who extended “survival of the fittest” thinking to social theory, Huxley promoted evolutionary thinking as a worldview hostile to sacred religious truths.

And? Why not? There are no sacred religious truths, because they’re not true. Calling them sacred is just a way of declaring them off-limits. Well they can’t be off-limits. I know I’ve said this fourteen thousand times now, but – I’ll just say it again. Religious people don’t get to demand that other people believe (or defer to, or respect, or godalmighty teach) their sacred myths. They can believe whatever they like themselves, but they don’t get to force their beliefs on other people. (On the subject of respect for religion, Stuart told me about this Simon Blackburn pdf article yesterday. SB refuses to respect religion. Does a good job of it, too.)

Both books, however, undermine the notion that the evolution/creation dispute is simply hard science versus mushy religion. Simplistically, it may be, but not simply. As Ruse shows, it’s often more like secular religion versus non-secular religion, even if most of the “professional” science remains on the evolution side.

But that’s just crap. It’s just rhetoric. Evolution isn’t ‘secular religion’ because it isn’t religion. It may be used as an ideology by some people, but that’s not the same thing, and it is not, not, not useful to pretend it is the same thing.

George Johnson asks the pertinent Millean question in the NY Times.

So suppose there is a Great Intender, who mapped out the circuitry of living cells with the care an Intel engineer would bring to a new microchip. Where then did the creator come from? Was he created by another creator? Or did he evolve?

That’s what I’d like to know! And since those pesky creationists never answer, they need to go away and be quiet until they’ve figured it out.

Desolation Row

Oct 5th, 2005 7:51 pm | By

Have things changed, or did we (I, you, they) get them wrong in the first place? It can be hard to tell, sometimes. Or perhaps I mean always. It can be hard to sort out misunderstanding from wishful thinking, confirmation bias from overcorrection, too much suspicion from not enough suspicion, too much suspicion of X from not enough suspicion of Y – and so on.

From Open Democracy:

Some of my friends and relatives tell me I’ve changed – that my politics aren’t as “leftwing” as they used to be during the anti-nuclear movement in Britain back in the 1980s. In a way, they are right. My core politics haven’t changed, but it seems to me that the world has changed so dramatically – traditional alliances and reference points have become unreliable, the ground rules of the power game have so shifted – I’d be a fool not to incorporate these changes into my analytical framework.

Maybe. Maybe, maybe. Or maybe we (I, they, you) were (at least partly) wrong about some of those alliances and reference points and ground rules all along. Or maybe not. It can be very hard to tell. Which means it can be very hard to tell just what is ‘leftwing’ anyway. It’s getting to be a very slippery eel, that ‘leftwing’ attribute.

Unlike my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, however, whose break with erstwhile comrades on the left over foreign policy has resulted in a wholesale swing rightward, I still hope that my rethinking of some foreign policy questions can be incorporated into a vibrant progressive movement. Indeed, I’d argue that a strong defence of pluralistic, democratic societies needs to be an essential, perhaps a defining, component of any genuinely progressive politics in today’s world.

There’s an example of that eel right there. That ‘wholesale swing rightward’ is highly disputable (and disputed). Just for one thing, I would venture to say that Hitchens also hopes that his ‘rethinking of some foreign policy questions can be incorporated into a vibrant progressive movement,’ and he certainly would argue that a strong defence of pluralistic, democratic societies needs to be an essential component of any genuinely progressive politics – so the ‘unlike’ bit is not altogether clear. A distinction without a difference.

But the basic point is unexceptionable.

Yet reading the voices of much of the self-proclaimed “left” in the London papers in the aftermath of the bombings, I was struck by how ossified many of them have become, how analyses crafted at the height of the cold war have lingered as paltry interpretive frameworks for political fissures bearing little if anything in common with that “twilight conflict.”…They assume that groups like al-Qaida are almost entirely reactive, responding to western policies and actions, rather than being pro-active creatures with a virulent homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but of conquest, destruction of rivals, and, ultimately and at its most megalomaniacal, absolute subjugation…Moreover, many of those who reflexively blame the west do not honestly hold up a mirror to the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and the racism and sexism and anti-semitism that is rife in many parts of it. If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force. But given the fundamentalist prejudices that are so much a part of bin Ladenism, the cry of western racism is a long way from being a case-closer.

Well there’s an understatement. A bit of litotes, as a commenter usefully reminded me the other day when I was groping for an antonym for hyperbole. A bit of hyperbolic understatement, that is – ‘If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force.’ Yes, they certainly would! But boy is that ever not the case. Nothing in that whole capacious box of human cruelty, brutality, exploitation, oppression – racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnicism, religionism, megoodyoubadism – none of that is the exclusive preserve of the west, in fact it flourishes in gangrenous proliferating bottomlessly malevolent ways in many pockets of the non-west.

Indeed, what al-Qaida apparently hates most about “the west” are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment…It is because bin Ladenism is waging war against the liberal ideal that much of the activist left’s response to 11 September 2001 and the London attacks is woefully, catastrophically inadequate. For we, as progressives, need to uphold the values of pluralism, rationalism, scepticism, women’s rights, and individual liberty and oppose ideologies and movements whose foundations rest on theocracy, obscurantism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for a lost empire.

Yes. We do.

Pamela Bone also makes that point.

”A move back towards the left for you?” a regular correspondent emailed, in response to a recent column. “I never left the left. The left left me,” I replied. “The left I thought I was part of didn’t make common cause with fascists.”

Therefore placation is not an option.

Of course we are all for peace, aren’t we? It’s certainly the easiest moral position to take. The problem is that sometimes things are just not that easy. And I am yet to hear a satisfactory explanation from the anti-war left as to what should done to stop mass murder when diplomacy has been exhausted and sanctions have failed. What should be done about Darfur?

What should have been done about Rwanda? Kosovo? Bosnia? Peace is good, war is bad – but sometimes peace is not the best good and war is not the worst bad. Sometimes peace is not peace but desolation, as Tacitus pointed out a long time ago. I’ve quoted this before, I think, but I’ll do it again, because it’s good. ‘Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.’ Where they make a wilderness and call it peace. By the same token, submission is not peace, it’s submission.

In the 1930s, people of the left went from around the world to fight fascism in Spain. The left didn’t argue then that fascists needed to be “understood” and placated. Today’s terrorists will be placated only when they have achieved their declared aim: a worldwide, Taliban-style Islamic state…I am not part of that left who seem to believe democracy is OK for Swedes but not for Arabs.

No. Nor am I (nor are you, we, they).

Hitchens also makes the point.

Never make the mistake of asking for rationality here. And never underestimate the power of theocratic propaganda. The fanatics look at the population of Bali and its foreign visitors and they see a load of Hindus selling drinks – often involving the presence of unchaperoned girls – to a load of Christians. That in itself is excuse enough for mayhem. They also see local Muslims following syncretic and tolerant forms of Islam, and they yearn to redeem them from this heresy and persuade them of the pure, desert-based truths of Salafism and Wahhabism…So, what did Indonesia do to deserve this, or bring it on itself? How will the slaughter in Bali improve the lot of the Palestinians? Those who look for the connection will be doomed to ask increasingly stupid questions and to be content with increasingly wicked answers.

Stupid questions and wicked answers – let’s not. Let’s at least try not to.

There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days

Oct 4th, 2005 8:48 pm | By

Time for some legend-tweaking, some myth-interrogating, some eye-poking in the.

But while millions of colonists were accepting of slavery if not relaxed about it, millions of Britons back in the old country really were disgusted by it. And when slaves could choose whom to trust, they trusted Britannia.

So in the end it’s a poke in the eye for America?

“Yup. In the interests of truth,” he says.

Simon Schama, this is. He’s written a new book on – well, what it sounds like.

He’s grateful, he says, for Americans thirst for popular history – a thirst that can make “doorstoppers such as Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton beach reading for the summer”. But there’s a but, and it’s a big one. All these blockbusters (one thinks also of Stephen Ambrose’s boomingly titled The Victors, Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage) are “very coloured, in my view, by the wish for a pre-lapsarian past; (by the notion that) however much trouble we’ve been in since the civil war, there was once a place where America’s founding fathers were good, wise, strong, heroic, devoted to liberty and all of that”.

And by the wish for ‘the good war’ and for ‘the greatest generation’ and other cuddly items. Wishes of that kind do get in the way of truth. That happens.

Wrong sort of history for his esteemed colleagues to be writing, Schama reckons. Go back to Thucydides and the great cock-up theory of how we got to where we are. “It may have been low-key and Macaulay, not Carlisle, but that’s the greatness of the Western historical tradition. It’s not purely celebratory — in fact it began with unflinching self-criticism — so there is some sense of the virtue of party-pooping.”

There is indeed. Unflinching self-criticism is a good deal more likely to get at the truth than wishful thinking about pre-lapsarian pasts is. (Why? Because there is always something to criticise, whereas pre-lapsarian pasts don’t exist. And because wishful thinking distorts perception. That’s why.)

Schama was on Start the Week last week, talking about this book and being amusingly rude about Mel Gibson’s terrible mythic movie ‘The Patriot’ and about the decisiveness of Bush – ‘He’s decisive,’ Schama said acidly, ‘about doing whatever the last person he spoke to recommended.’

Mental Blocking

Oct 3rd, 2005 9:24 pm | By

It’s outrageous. Something ought to be done about it. ‘College’ in the US apparently has the unmitigated gall to teach things that conflict with Christianity. Isn’t that illegal?

Spend a couple of days at the workshop and it becomes clear that, for many of these students, college is fraught with peril. There is the pressure to party, to drink, to have sex. There is also the subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview. There are biology courses that ask students to accept evolution, which workshop organizers and most of the students reject as untrue and ungodly. There are literature courses that see any text, including the Bible, as open to multiple interpretations. And there are philosophy classes that view absolute truth as nothing more than an illusion.

The subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview – meaning, the expectation that students will give rational answers to questions. That if asked to write an essay on the Renaissance, they won’t begin every sentence with ‘God made it come about that’. That they will read secular books on secular subjects and think about them in rational, empirical, non-supernatural ways. Yes, no doubt such a pressure is there – but how can university subjects be taught properly if it’s not? How can you have biology courses that don’t ‘ask students to accept evolution’? How can you have philosophy courses that view ‘absolute truth’ as revealed by a deity and passed on by authority, when that’s not philosophy but religion? The problem seems to be basic, in fact downright foundational.

Even though he is a devout Christian, Mr. Thomas chose to attend a secular college because it will “make me a more well-rounded person.” Still, he is worried about what he will encounter in the classroom. “You always hear horror stories about professors treading on students’ beliefs,” he says. “I hope they won’t ignore my point of view.” When a professor or fellow student asserts something that runs contrary to Christianity, Mr. Thomas intends to speak up. And now, thanks to the workshop, he knows what to say.

He wants to be a more well-rounded person – which is a very good idea, especially for a ‘devout’ Christian – but he is also determined to reject anything ‘that runs contrary to Christianity’ – thus assuring that he can’t possibly (unless he fails in that project) become a more well-rounded person. It’s basic. You can’t do both. You can’t both get a real education – which involves asking genuine questions, not ones with predetermined answers; which involves following the evidence wherever it leads; which involves learning things you didn’t know before; which involves learning things that don’t conform to what you want to believe – and reject in advance anything ‘that runs contrary to Christianity.’ That’s not education – that rules out education. Vocational training, yes, but education, no.

Columbia undergraduates study the Bible not as divinely inspired scripture, but as literature. For Ms. Keyes this was distressing. But, she says, Summit taught her that the Bible is “historically accurate,” and this knowledge kept her from believing that it belonged on the same plane as Homer or Aeschylus. “It equipped me to think through things and not accept everything I was told,” she says.

Except of course when that everything is told to her by the people at camp. Summit taught her something that is not true, and that equipped her to accept everything she was told provided the tellers are Christian.

It’s sad, really.

The Bennett of Bennetts

Oct 3rd, 2005 7:30 pm | By

You might as well know. I don’t usually spill these things, I don’t just blurt them out, I keep myself to myself. I don’t make everyone a present of my secrets. I don’t bore you with my passions and adorations. I don’t feel it necessary to go public with everything. I don’t ‘share’ my every emotion. But you might as well know – there are few people I like as much as I like Alan Bennett. Not that I know him or anything – but everything I’ve read and seen by him, everything I know about him, everything I’ve heard him say; his voice, his plays, his journals, his readings, his performances – well, I just like them intensely, that’s all. And this review of his new book in the Times simply refreshes or reinforces that liking, and also creates new branches of it.

Bennett does not tell it as a success story, and doubts, in glummer moments, if it is one; “Living is something I’ve managed largely to avoid.” Rather, he inspects his past to discover how he came to be himself — fastidious, buttoned-up, an inveterate outsider…Being categorised at all is what he resists. He laments his constant sense of being shut out, but when he looks at those he might be shut in with, being shut out is clearly his preference. “I have never found it easy to belong. So much repels.”

Oh, dear – come over here and sit by me, as Dorothy Parker said. Those three little words – dalling, they are so very me. So much repels. Yes.

Like most lower-middle-class couples at the time, they believed in keeping themselves to themselves and avoiding anything “common”, articles of faith their son has inherited. It would do, he suggests, as a definition of what has gone wrong with England in the past 20 years, to say that it has got common. Unfashionably ready to call vulgarity and stupidity vulgarity and stupidity, he picks out, in an anti-paedophile mob on a Portsmouth housing estate, a tattooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms, proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.

So much repels.

His father taught him to distrust affectation (“splother”, he called it), and Bennett proved all too apt a pupil…He has an unerring ear for verbal falsity — the archbishop of Canterbury at the Queen Mother’s memorial service referring to her as “someone who can help us to travel that country we call life”…The modern jargons we invent to keep reality at bay arouse his scorn. You sense the struggle when he refers to Rupert Thomas, who now lives with him, as “my partner, as the phrase is”. He has trained himself, or maybe it was just a gift, to hear and see what is actually there, not what convention dictates…

Well that’s why, then – he has an unerring ear for verbal falsity. I do value that quality – so naturally he’s a hero.

Elsewhere his incisiveness is less alarming, and often pleasingly sceptical. Puncturing reputations is a speciality. He comments wryly on the “canonisation” of Iris Murdoch, whose famed unworldliness somehow did not prevent her accepting umpteen honorary degrees and a damehood from Mrs Thatcher. Sir Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova are also put through the mill — the one not much good at thinking, the other not much good at poetry, and both too pleased with themselves.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – more, more.

I have never read a book of this length where I have turned the last page with such regret. It is intelligent, educated, engaging, humane, self-aware, cantankerous and irresistibly funny. You want it to go on for ever.

So much repels; what a good thing there is Alan Bennett, who doesn’t.

What Colour Are Your Specs?

Oct 2nd, 2005 10:30 pm | By

At some point in the past day or two, while pondering the latest upsurge in the Freud debate, I was inspired to look up ‘hysteria’ in The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. I was a little surprised at what I found.

A form of neurosis for which no physical diagnosis can be found and in which the symptoms presented are expressive of an unconscious conflict. In conversion hysteria, the symptoms usually take a somatic form (hysterical paralysis, irritation of the throat, coughs)…Hysteria has been explained in many different ways over the centuries; the most influential aetiology or causal explanation to have been put forward in the twentieth century is that supplied by Freud’s psychoanalysis.

There’s a problem with that. It inexplicably omits necessary phrases like ‘once thought to be’ and ‘it was thought that’ and ‘but increased knowledge of diseases of the brain and nervous system have rendered such explanations nugatory.’ The phrase ‘for which no physical diagnosis can be found’ ought to read ‘for which no physical diagnosis could be found until researchers discovered organic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, and developed a better understanding of the effects of closed-head injuries and spinal injuries’. And note the sly word ‘influential’ about the aetiology put forward by Freud. Not accurate, not correct, not well-founded, but influential. Note further that it doesn’t say influential on whom. Not on neurologists it wasn’t – fortunately.

There’s another absurd bit:

It was only in the nineteenth century that the phenomenon of ‘railway spine’ (a psychosomatic syndrome observed in the victims of the frequent railway accidents of the 1880s) led to the recognition that men too could suffer from hysteria.

Umm…railway spine? Spine? Frequent railway accidents? Does that suggest anything to you? Like, for instance, the possibility that the syndrome was not psychosomatic at all, but, you know, spinal injury? Isn’t it kind of an odd coincidence that it was specifically railway accidents that caused men to develop ‘hysteria’?

No, it doesn’t suggest that to the writer of this dictionary. Very odd. Causes me to ponder the ways of epistemic functioning.

I’ve also been browsing in Frederick Crews’ excellent, indispensable anthology Unauthorized Freud, which has been causing me to mutter darkly about credulity and suggestibility. Credulity is an interesting and often puzzling phenomenon, which turns up in places (and people) where one doesn’t expect it, sometimes.

I’ve been discussing these things with Allen Esterson lately, too – in particular the entrenched misconception that a lot of people have via Jeffrey Masson’s book The Assualt on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory: that the problem with Freud is that he concealed what his women patients told him about being sexually molested by male relatives. In fact Freud’s patients didn’t tell him they were molested or ‘seduced,’ he told them – and then he changed his mind and suppressed the theory. But try explaining that to people who are convinced of the first account. Go on, just try. I have, and I know: it is impossible to get them to believe you. They think you’re part of the cover up crimes against women crowd, or else just ill-informed and out of touch and not up to speed. I expostulated on this point to Allen, and he remarked in his reply:

What is extraordinary is that the indications that there is something odd
about Freud’s story is staring the reader in the face even in the most
commonly cited version of the story, in “New Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis”: “In the period in which my main interest was directed to
discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me
that they had been seduced by their father….” But why should almost all
his female patients have reported these ‘seductions’ only during the period
when he was actively seeking infantile traumas? As is not uncommon when
Freud is misleading his readers, he gives himself away — at least to
someone who has acquired sufficient knowledge to see what he is up to.

That’s good, isn’t it? It made me laugh. “In the period in which my main interest was directed to
discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me
that they had been seduced by their father….” Oh did they! My, what a coincidence! And in
the period when my main interest was directed to discovering the secret
role of the Illuminati in European history, almost all the people I sat
next to on the bus told me that they had been abducted by Illuminati.

Yes, life works out so neatly sometimes, you know? You develop a main interest in discovering something, and by golly, all of a sudden you start discovering it everywhere you go. In some cases, this happy outcome is called paranoid schizophrenia, and in other cases, it is called one of the great intellectual adventures of the 20th century. You just never know. It all boils down to prestige, and whether your ideas are ‘influential’ or not.

Prestige is as Prestige Does

Oct 2nd, 2005 7:41 pm | By

Part two of this review of Simon Blackburn’s Truth says some peculiar and rather ill-natured things, and also some silly ones. Some of the things are all three at once.

In Truth, the hostility to the unnamed relativist so overflows at points as to make her sound more like a solipsist, a nihilist, or even a willful and demented child. I spent a number of years in and around English departments and certainly met plenty of nudniks and witnessed my share of bizarre seminar discussions. But never once did I meet the shameless knave that Blackburn describes.

Well – bully for you, one feels like saying. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, does it. (Black swans! Dingdingding!) We don’t know what ‘a number of years in and around English departments’ means, do we. Nor do we know what ‘plenty of nudniks’ or ‘bizarre seminar discussions’ means. We don’t really even know what ‘in and around English departments’ means. But we do know that your not encountering X does not mean that X does not exist. So the snotty, de haut en bas tone of your review might be a tad out of place.

Anyone currently in academia in any capacity knows that the prestige of hard and semihard disciplines (notably economics) has never been higher, while the prestige of soft disciplines—those aided over the previous 25 years by the allure of “theory,” such as English, Comp Lit, Art History—has never been lower.

Well, pal, that depends what you mean by ‘prestige.’

Blackburn’s Truth Wars would pit right-brain adepts of the math and sciences against the left-brain adepts of the humanities, but this is a tendentious morality play meant to fret the public imagination without taking into account the actual intellectual or institutional history of the American university.

The right-brain adepts of math and science?? And for that matter, the left-brain adepts of the humanities?? And then…um…why is Blackburn supposed to take into account the actual intellectual or institutional history of the American university? Why the American university? (This is very like my writing a comment on a problem in democracy and being told by way of reply that the American people distrust powerful institutions. Hello? As Coriolanus said, there is a world elsewhere.) Blackburn is at Cambridge – the one up the M11, not the one across from MIT – so why is he expected to concentrate on the American university? Who knows.

One philosopher above all has chronicled the decline in prestige of analytic philosophy and the corresponding rise in interest in literary theory; and not coincidentally, this is the one enemy Blackburn troubles to identify by name. This is a review-essay, and any attempt to justify the American philosopher Richard Rorty’s conclusion, that truth is human-centered and consensual and not alien and extrinsically imposed, would require at least a book. But it is possible to identify, merely by quoting Rorty, the wound to the ego that seems to have motivated Blackburn to write a screed in response to him.

The wound to the ego. That seems to have motivated Blackburn. Seems? Seems to whom? On what basis? On what evidence? You mean ‘seems’ because you don’t like the book and so cast about for a concealed motivation? I’ve said it before, and no doubt will again – that one little word ‘seems’ can do a lot of work. Dirty work, often.

Being told that you are ill-read, or better yet, a “time-serving bore,” as Rorty has dubbed analytic philosophers, would fuel anyone’s bafflement and annoyance, and these are the twin engines behind Truth. As a helpless rejoinder to Rorty that only serves to prove his case, the book would be harmless if it didn’t also take energy from a trend darkening the culture at large.

Ho yus. Baffled, helpless, annoyed – fuming with irritation at the superior ‘prestige’ of Rorty – is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, holder of Wittgenstein’s chair, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, best-seller, frequent radio commenter – yes indeed, that’s a plausible account, Mr Metcalf.

How vast the bad faith, and the hoodoo powers of left-wing conspiracy! To which one can only reply: Physician, heal thyself. As in his beef with Rorty, Blackburn has let a personal distaste overwhelm a basic respect for the facts. To have been lectured to at length by this man, on just this score, and in a book so clumsily soldered together, lies beyond even poor taste; it is perverse. It requires reminding, then, that “Philosopher” isn’t a job description, but an honorific. And in this instance, it might better be revoked.

The guy’s clueless. He thinks Blackburn is right-wing! That’s downright funny. Basic respect for the facts, dude? Physician – oh never mind.

Anyway. Not an impressive review, frankly. Reminiscent of Vollman on Nietzsche.

Slate has a history of this kind of thing. It published a lame two-person dialogue review of an earlier Blackburn book, Being Good, four years ago. It’s a supremely irrelevant review. If you read it and go to the bottom you’ll see a reader comment on the review followed by a comment on the comment by Blackburn. Here’s an amusing factino: I wrote that comment. ‘Kassandra’ c’est moi. That was a long long time ago – way before B&W.

In Full Bloom

Oct 1st, 2005 6:30 pm | By

This review of Harold Bloom’s latest bit of vatic wisdom is good fun. I like and value Bloom’s efforts to preverve and convey enthusiasm for literature, but I find the actual books in which he does so unendurably irritating. He’s irritating in the same kind of way Paglia is; I wonder if he taught her to be irritating in that way, or if she taught him, or if they taught each other, or if they’re both that way by nature. They both make flat unargued unsupported assertions when they ought to be arguing. Take it or leave it. Yeah, I’ll leave it, thanks.

In spite of his popularity and productivity, however, Mr. Bloom remains an odd candidate for the mantle of Mortimer Adler, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Barzun. He completely lacks the good teacher’s humility before his subject and the good popularizer’s ability to make a complex subject clear. Mr. Bloom is an impatient and mannered writer, unwilling or unable to take trouble over his prose or to follow an argument from premise to conclusion. Like a lazy gardener, he lets the seeds of his insights fall where they may, never lingering to make sure they have sprouted into an actual thought.

And they haven’t. The thing about Shakespeare’s characters changing their minds right before our eyes, which he thinks is such a staggering insight – I don’t buy it. I don’t believe Shakespeare invented the idea, which is part of Bloom’s claim, and I don’t believe all the other eye-goggling stuff Bloom says about it either. He doesn’t say a thing to make it convincing – he just keeps repeating it. Repetition doesn’t do it.

In “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998), he wrote about the playwright in terms befitting a god, considering him the creator of the modern human mind, as God was the creator of the original human species. This is a metaphor, of course, and a Wildean paradox, reminiscent of the aesthete’s observation that the fogs in London were beginning to imitate Impressionist paintings. But Mr. Bloom did not treat it as a metaphor; he wrote as though, through some means he did not even attempt to explain, our consciousness was actually created by Shakespeare’s representations of consciousness.

Just so – ‘through some means he did not even attempt to explain.’ Well, an idea that sweeping needs some explanation, doesn’t it.

It is a shame that…the reader must wade through so much of the usual Bloomian detritus – irrelevancies, digressions, careless repetitions, grand pronouncements. Is it vain to hope that, in his next book, Mr. Bloom will stop hiding his intellectual light under a bushel of mannerisms?

Probably. Bloom seems to be well entrenched in his mannerisms. Pity.

Female Dogs

Oct 1st, 2005 6:01 pm | By

Women, eh. What is their problem? Why do they keep insisting on being born women? Isn’t it kind of obvious what a bad career choice that is? So why do they keep doing it? It’s so stupid that no punishment can be too severe for it. This being a woman thing has got to be stamped out. And by golly in some places in this world people are doing their best. Widows starve along with their children, because obviously they can’t be allowed to do anything else, because that would be immodest, and violate someone’s honour. So starve, bitch.

In a bleak and run-down part of eastern Kabul, aid workers call out to a group of poor women waiting for food handouts. One by one, they collect a ration of flour, salt and cooking oil. It is supposed to last them and their children for the next month because they all have something in common – they are widows. In Afghanistan, losing your husband can mean destitution for women. Many are abandoned by their families. Unable to work, they depend on support programmes like this one run by the aid agency Care.

And women are beaten up by their brothers for being women, so they run away, which means they’ve been Out Alone, which of course means they deserve to be beaten even more.

Fatima – not her real name – describes how she was beaten regularly by her brothers, while a refugee in Iran. She fled, but then returned home – only for the beatings to get worse. Because, Fatima says, her family believed their reputation had been damaged by having a daughter who had been out alone…”They were beating me but they don’t understand that and now they saying: ‘You are guilty.’ Because of their honour they don’t want to be faced with other family members. They want to kill me.”

Well of course they do. How dare you not want to be beaten regularly by your brothers? How dare you run away? How dare you sully your brothers’ ‘honour’? The honour of aggressive thugs who beat up their sisters regularly is a precious thing. Die, bitch.

Such cases are far from unusual – in fact they’re commonplace. “It’s complete impunity,” says Rachel Wareham, Afghan director of the charity Medica Mondiale, which cares for women who suffer domestic violence. “There is no established mechanism for men who are violent to be brought to justice.”

Naturally not. Men aren’t the ones who made the stupid and shameful mistake of being born women. All women by being born women and going on being women are a standing risk to the honour of men; therefore they must be beaten regularly, as a minimal precaution, and in cases where that is not enough to keep them permanently cowering under the furniture, killed.

A Problem in Democracy

Oct 1st, 2005 1:46 am | By

This article by Ishtiaq Ahmed raises an issue I fret about a lot. It’s one which doesn’t get discussed much, especially not in unequivocal and non-euphemistic terms. The issue is: democracy is widely seen as a good thing, and in many ways it is a good thing, but – there is a problem. The problem is that there is no magic mechanism that prevents majorities from voting to take away or deny the rights of some people – of even a majority, such as for instance women. The disputes over the Iraqi constitution are all about that problem, obviously, and yet the problem is seldom put in quite those terms. But it is a very real problem, which is why constitutions and bills of rights are also seen as good things. Democracy is seen as a good thing, constitutions and bills of rights are seen as good things; it’s not always quite in the front of everyone’s awareness that the two are more in tension than they are complementary – that bills of rights are needed to correct democracy at least as much as to collaborate with it.

After World War II when the United Nations proclaimed peace, democracy and human rights as antidotes to tyranny and war, it was assumed that as the new states developed and modernised, they would also embark upon the road to democracy…A problem which was never resolved in the UN Charter or the UDHR was that of people voting into power a government which would abolish private property or institute racial laws or religious dogma as state ideology.

Just so. A problem that was never resolved, and still plagues the world.

Would Islamists become good democrats if they take part in elections and gain power? Some people think that if the FIS had been allowed to assume power in Algeria it would have become a moderate party. On the other hand, critics point out that Abbas Madani, one of the leaders and ideologues of FIS, had declared that they will not take away women’s right to vote but would convince them to transfer it to their husbands or fathers!

And some women in Iraq took part in counter-demonstrations when women’s rights campaigners demonstrated for women’s rights in the constitution – carrying placards that said ‘No Equality!’ That’s it in a nutshell. What if a majority agrees that all women should be deprived of rights? Would I think ‘That’s democracy’ and feel obliged to submit? I damn well wouldn’t. A majority once thought slavery was a fine institution. They were wrong. It’s important to be clear about that. Majorities can be wrong, tyrannical, unjust – there is no God of Democracy seeing to it that that never happens.

Under the circumstances, we need to ponder upon the prospects for democracy in the Muslim world. There can be no denying that Islamists are now a major constituency in all Muslim states. Can one establish democracy by excluding them? Equally, the question is why should I support the right to vote for Islamists if I fear that they will undermine my freedom to think and write and express myself? These are dilemmas that we face at present when discussing democracy in the Muslim world. I believe a middle path can be found. One should in principle allow all parties to take part in elections if they do not openly advocate violence and intolerance and commit themselves to respecting the equal rights of women and non-Muslims. However we need to develop mechanisms which ensure that a parliamentary majority is not abused by Islamists or any other extremists.

And the question is why should I support the right to vote for Islamists if I fear that they will undermine my freedom to leave the house without permission, to leave the house at all, to be independent, to be autonomous, to own myself? I shouldn’t, I can’t, I don’t. I don’t support the right of anyone to vote to take away anyone’s basic rights. I don’t.

Religion Doesn’t Make People Sweet After All

Sep 27th, 2005 8:30 pm | By

Well, obviously. This is what we keep saying. No, godbothering does not always and necessarily make people better.

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today. According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems. The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

Or at least it counters the view that religion is a guarantee of a healthy society.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills. The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports…“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

Correlate. Correlation is not causation. But still, even the correlation is worth noticing. (Of course godbotherers still have the option of saying Yes but you see without religion, US rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion would be thousands of times higher, whereas in the other, nongodbothering prosperous democracies, with religion the rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion would be much lower. That’s the thing about correlation: that option is always available. But anyway.)

The New Republic gives us a nice glimpse of religion making people and societies better.

There was a lot of traffic, and he started to maneuver between the cars as though he were on a race track going for first place. I couldn’t keep up. My strength flagged, I stopped the car, and I cried. I saw him pulling away from me and drawing nearer to his target. His heart grew still to tear out the criminal hearts. He will be blessed, and the criminals will face hardship; he will rise, and they will fall. I saw a column of smoke rise 20 meters into the sky amid a deafening roar. He felled 50 infidels.

That’s one of the things religion does right there: make its adherents think of non-adherents as infidels. Not always, certainly, and fortunately, but the potential is always there.

Imaginary Offense and Real Censorship

Sep 26th, 2005 5:18 pm | By

So it turns out that Sacranie isn’t all that gleeful after all. Or perhaps he is but thinks it politic to pretend not to be. Or perhaps he is but wants to throw his weight around some more anyway – yes that could be it, that seems to fit.

The Muslim Council of Britain told the BBC News website: “We have not received any complaints about this piece of artwork. We would have preferred to have been consulted by Tate Britain before the decision was taken to remove John Latham’s piece. Sometimes presumptions are incorrectly made about what is unacceptable to Muslims and this can be counter-productive.”

Ah – is that what you would have preferred. Is it really. Yes well I would have preferred to have been consulted by a great many people about a great many things before they did them. Gosh, that would be a long list. Crap books, ugly houses, crap movies, stupid policies, ugly clothes, silly names. But oddly enough people mostly don’t consult me before they do things. Maybe if I started a Council they would? I’d better get busy and do that then. Let’s all start Councils so that everyone will have to consult everyone before doing anything. Let’s just spend all our time asking various assorted groups and ‘communities’ for permission to write anything, say anything, think anything, sculpt anything, act anything, tease anything. Let’s devote every bit of our time and energy to pre-emptive consulation and judgment and permission-seeking and no-saying and offence-taking and sensitivity-respecting, and that way we’ll never have to actually do or produce anything and pretty soon we’ll all starve to death or die of boredom and everything will be fine.

But really. The self-importance of that statement is pretty remarkable. The assumption that the MCB knows ‘what is unacceptable to Muslims’ and is the bod to consult on the subject, when in fact lots of Muslims find the MCB itself ‘unacceptable.’ And the BBC’s continued ongoing fostering of that very assumption by itself ‘consulting’ the MCB. And of course even more, the calm, smug, authoritarian assumption that Muslims or any religious group should be able to tell a secular national museum what not to display.

It’s all meme-work, self-fulfilling prophesy, thought-shaping. The more the MCB is treated as coterminous with ‘Muslims’ the more the MCB gets to shape what all but consciously skeptical or rebellious Muslims do think. And the more institutions defer to predicted ‘offended’ ‘sensitivities’ the more sensitive people will think they ought to be offended by everything. And the more institutions like theatres and museums (and no doubt publishers) censor themselves in advance, as a precaution, just in case, because oh dear you know maybe – the more emptied-out everyone’s mental world will become.

It’s appalling.

The Tate Did What?

Sep 26th, 2005 2:36 am | By

Brilliant. Perfect. Let’s let worries about ‘offending’ religious sensitivities determine what art we’re not allowed to see. What a good idea! Why didn’t someone think of it sooner? It would save such a huge amount of trouble, for one thing – we would all have to spend so much less time in museums and at the theatre and reading blasfeeemous books. Think how much more efficient we would be. We would be able to put new colours on the stripes in toothpaste. We would make the world a more beautiful (and of course less blasfeemous) place.

One of Britain’s leading conceptual artists has accused the Tate gallery of ‘cowardice’ after it banned one of his major works for fear of offending some Muslims after the London terrorist bombings. John Latham’s God Is Great consists of a large sheet of thick glass with copies of Islam, Christianity and Judaism’s most sacred texts – the Koran, Bible and Talmud – apparently embedded within its surface. The work was due to go on display last week in an exhibition dedicated to Latham at London’s Tate Britain, but gallery officials took the unprecedented decision to veto it because of political and religious sensitivities.

Well that certainly sounds offensive and blasfeemous. I can see why the Tate was all in a swivet.

Tate Britain says that it had to take the ‘difficult decision’ to avoid its motives being misunderstood given the attacks, which killed 52 people in July, and the present political climate. However, it admitted it had not consulted the Metropolitan Police or the Muslim Council of Britain.

What? It hadn’t what? It hadn’t ‘consulted’ the cops or the Muslim Council of Britain? The MCB is running things now? People are supposed to ‘consult’ it? People who are wondering if a given piece of art might or might not be ‘offensive’ to Muslims are supposed to ‘consult’ the MCB? Because – what? They have such a good record on that kind of thing? What with boycotting the Holocaust, and thinking death is too good for Salman Rushdie?

Why are they the people to consult? Why, why, why? They’re just a self-appointed group, they’re not elected, they’re not representative, they’re not ‘the Muslim community’ – why are they given some kind of de facto official role? Not that anyone should be given such a role, but that goes double for the MCB.

Last night Latham, 84, who insists that the piece is not anti-Islamic, told The Observer: ‘Tate Britain have shown cowardice over this. I think it’s a daft thing to do because if they want to help the militants, this is the way to do it.’

Yeah you could say that! Flop down on the floor and show your belly, cringe, whine, cry, pee on the floor, sweat, faint, and then send the Tate’s entire inventory to a secret vault in Kidderminster lest something might someday offend someone. That’s what I call curating!

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, supported the artist. ‘We share his concern,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what precise thought processes were going on at the Tate but I am concerned about the signal this sends at a time when we see free speech quite significantly under threat. I think that after 7 July we need this kind of artistic expression and political expression and discourse and disagreement more than ever, which is why this is worrying. Is three holy books in a piece of glass going to incite controversy? Frankly, whether it does or doesn’t, controversy is what we have in a flourishing democracy.’ She added: ‘I ultimately level my criticisms against legislators and certain lobby groups who’ve allowed free speech to be put in such peril and are making the climate that leads the Tate to have this kind of nervousness.’

Exactly. It’s that wretched religious hatred bill – plus the media’s bad habit of treating the MCB as some sort of official Spokesgroup.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, defended the gallery’s decision to hold back the piece…’It was a very difficult decision,’ he said, ‘but we made it due to the exceptional circumstances of this summer and in the light of opinions that we value regarding religious sensitivities.’

Why? Why do you value those opinions? And especially, why do you value them so much that you grovel before them and let them influence what you do? Why?

The Muslim Council of Britain was not consulted on the issue. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, its secretary, said: ‘I’m not aware of this particular exhibition, nor I am aware of any Muslim group that has protested. However, if the art gallery itself felt the display of the divine and holy books in such a manner would be deeply offensive to the believers of the three religions and therefore withdrew it, then I respect their decision.’

Yes I bet you do! I bet you’re just hugging yourself with glee. I bet you feel that the MCB has really arrived at last – that along with the K, getting the Tate to withdraw a sculpture without even asking it to must mean the MCB has some pretty impressive clout.

Well I don’t respect their decision. I hope they get a torrent of outrage and mockery and contempt that makes their fears of an imagined ‘offended’ Muslim community look like a pack of butterflies out for a waltz. That’s what I hope.


Sep 25th, 2005 11:01 pm | By

Dogmatism, we were talking about the other day. Via this remark by Simon Blackburn in Truth.

Today’s relativists, persuading themselves that all opinions enjoy the same standing in the light of reason, take it as a green light to believe what they like with as much conviction and force as they like. So while ancient scepticism was the sworn opponent of dogmatism, today dogmatisms feed and flourish on the desecrated corpse of reason.

A day or two after posting that I read a related comment by Hume.

You propose then, Philo, said Cleanthes, to erect religious faith on philosophical skepticism; and you think that if certainty or evidence be expelled from every other subject of inquiry, it will all retire to these theological doctrines, and there acquire a superior force and authority. Whether your skepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: We shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window; and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall…

That’s from the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and it’s the epigraph to chapter 4 in Francis Wheen’s Mumbo Jumbo.

There’s another thing I quoted from Blackburn.

In the intellectual world, toleration is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion; in other words, to protect freedom of speech, and to confront divergence of opinion with open critical reflection rather than suppression or force.

Yesterday I re-read this article on Islamophobia-phobia by Piers Benn.

The real lesson of tolerance is that disputes should be settled by reasoned dialogue rather than abuse or violence, and that we should always accept that we may have much to learn from people whose beliefs initially appear strange. But these virtues are a far cry from the sentimental pretence that all claims to religious truth are somehow ‘equal’…

There, you see? It all ties up. Skepticism and relativism can be hijacked to the purposes of dogmatism, and tolerance doesn’t mean never disagreeing with anyone, it means disagreeing by means of reasoned dialogue not by force. Both of those points are quite useful to keep in mind.