The Leader

Sep 23rd, 2005 8:55 pm | By

Bush said an odd thing on Wednesday.

Mr. Bush said he had been “thinking a lot” about the comparisons between the response to the attacks in New York and Washington, and the storm devastation. “We look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break,” he said. Turning the subject to terrorists, he said: “They’re the kind of people who look at Katrina and wish they had caused it. We’re in a war against these people.”

‘We look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break.’ They do? We do, and they do? Who’s we? You mean you? Did your heart break? Really? Are you sure? Because that doesn’t seem to be how people remember it. That doesn’t seem to be how people saw it at the time. You may remember some comments to that effect?

What was it that made people think your heart was intact, I wonder. The slowness to cut short your vacation? The telling ‘Brownie’ he was doing a heck of a job? The joke about Trent Lott’s front porch?

I heard a commentary on NPR this morning on the effect of Katrina on Bush’s poll numbers, which said that the above speech was an attempt to improve his situation by emphasizing his ‘leadership’ qualities. That was supposed to be one of his strong points – strong and decisive leadership. I would like to know why. Even apart from that ridiculous juxtaposition above (terrorists would cause hurricanes if they could, so we’re at war with them, so I’m a tough guy), I would like to know why Bush’s ‘strong and decisive leadership’ is seen as a virtue, or as leadership.

Leadership, and strength, and decisiveness, are only as good as the purposes for which they are being strong and decisive and leader-like. That’s not a big newsflash, is it? Hitler was a strong decisive leader, so was Stalin, so was Pol Pot. Strength and decision on their own are not necessarily virtues, are they.

Bush’s ‘strength’ and ‘decisiveness’ can be and have been described with other words. Obstinate, unreflective, unwilling to think again, incurious, uninformed, indifferent to being uninformed. Furthermore, he thinks he was chosen by god to be president. Such a belief is almost a guarantee that one will assume one’s every thought is divinely inspired and therefore good. But it’s not likely to be a true belief, so its immunity from criticism and correction is not necessarily a good thing.

Political rhetoric and political advertising are carefully designed to give the impression that ‘character’ is the most important thing about a candidate, and that various military virtues are (along with conjugal and parental and pet-owner virtues) both necessary and sufficient for a political candidate. This impression is quite incorrect. It would be good if people started to realize that, and so be able to resist the manipulations of the peddlers of ‘strong, decisive leaders.’

Over the Top

Sep 23rd, 2005 8:01 pm | By

This whole thing is…intolerable. Just intolerable.

A bus carrying elderly evacuees out of the path of Hurricane Rita has caught fire on a gridlocked motorway, killing up to 24 people…Television pictures showed the entire bus alight, with explosions sending plumes of thick black smoke billowing into the sky. Officer Peritz said the blasts were apparently caused by oxygen containers for the elderly on board the vehicle…The passengers were being evacuated from a nursing home in Bellaire, south-west Houston, when the accident happened…Officer Peritz said the driver, who survived the fire, repeatedly went back onto the bus to try to rescue passengers.

I can’t read that without wanting to blub. Hell and damnation – what next. You’re old and ill and you can’t breathe well, you have to get on a bus to escape a hurricane, you have to sit on that bus in a colossal traffic jam for – what? Many hours, certainly. News reports last night were saying 15 hours. You have to sit in misery for hours and hours – and then the oxygen that some of you need in order to breathe – explodes and burns most of you to death. Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.

And then there is Templeman 3, one of the New Orleans city jails.

As Hurricane Katrina began pounding New Orleans, the sheriff’s department abandoned hundreds of inmates imprisoned in the city’s jail, Human Rights Watch said today…These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level…According to inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they had no food or water from the inmate’s last meal over the weekend of August 27-28 until they were evacuated on Thursday, September 1. By Monday, August 29, the generators had died, leaving them without lights and sealed in without air circulation. The toilets backed up, creating an unbearable stench…As the water began rising on the first floor, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Some of the inmates were able to force open their cell doors, helped by inmates held in the common area. All of them, however, remained trapped in the locked facility…Some inmates from Templeman III have said they saw bodies floating in the floodwaters as they were evacuated from the prison. A number of inmates told Human Rights Watch that they were not able to get everyone out from their cells…Many of the men held at jail had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted.

More flies, more sport.

Theism, Dogmatism, Puritanism

Sep 22nd, 2005 6:46 pm | By

A long review-article on books on atheism by Ronald Aronson. It starts with Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism.

Just like the postmodernist claim that modernity is over, the retrospective stance implied by terms like twilight is the book’s main idea and does double duty as a weapon in the battle against atheism. The “rise and fall” metaphors are tools of a brilliantly clever religious writer against the movement he seeks to undermine…But for the most part he argues broadly that the rational argument between religion and atheism can never be resolved, comments on the rise of interest in spirituality and the growth of Pentecostalism, and brings out as uncontested fact the postmodern verdict on modernity, grafting it onto his case against atheism…A more self-conscious theology professor might have explored the paradox of a proclaimed “reinvented” Christianity in league with postmodernism, at least to consider the potential conflicts between the two worldviews on issues of authority and truth.

We’ve seen this ploy so many times – postmodernism used to argue against rationality and for traditional authority-based ‘revealed’ truth or for irrational and anti-rational leaps of faith and the will to believe. It’s as Simon Blackburn said –

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.

Relativists of that stripe often wrap themselves in the flag of postmodernism to do it.

Aronson finds Sam Harris’ book far too dogmatic, and much prefers Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by some guy named Julian Baggini.

Baggini’s excellent little book is intended not as an attack on religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism…In a highly accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine) covers what have become familiar themes…His final chapter is a masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come, the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the willingness to be proven wrong.

Then Aronson discusses Erik J. Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and Daniel Harbour’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism. Jerry S reviewed Daniel Harbour’s book for the New Humanist a few years ago – I’d link to the review but it’s not online.

Wielenberg’s carefully developed main argument is that a moral framework totally dependent on God’s will “is not a moral framework at all.” Plato’s Euthyphro provides the key question: Does God endorse acts that are already moral or do these become moral because God commands them? Even among Christians, he points out, morality turns out to be objective and independent—it is “part of the furniture of the universe” and does not require God to make it right.

We’ve discussed that idea here a few times.

Harbour’s recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question “Does God exist?” but rather “the whole worldview to which we subscribe.”…The first worldview he considers, based on the scientific paradigm of rational inquiry, operates by constant “reexamination, reevaluation and rejection” of its assumptions and results, which continually must prove themselves, while the second introduces starting points that are elaborate and are not subject to question or testing. Religion falls under the second category because “all attempts to explain observations about the nature of the world must be consistent with, or subservient to, the unrevisable starting assumptions.”

That’s one reason it’s hard for people like me to be as undogmatic and tolerant as Aronson thinks we should be. It’s because of the unrevisable starting assumptions and the resulting chronic imbalance in arguments between (dogmatic) theists and atheists. The claims to know what they can’t know, the special pleading, the shifting back and forth between claims that God is supernatural and ineffable so shut up and claims that they know all about this God so shut up – the having it both ways, the heads I win tails you lose, the certainty, the cheating. There are undogmatic theists…but they seem to be getting scarcer and scarcer.

The Vicar of Putney thinks Salman Rushdie is too dogmatic.

But more important still, the novel has the rare capacity to nudge us out of our ideological trenches into a more sympathetic engagement with the moral universe of those we consider the enemy.

Maybe so. But sympathetic engagement is one thing, and agreement is another. The overall import of the vicar’s article seems to be disagreement with Rushdie’s opinion itself. Well, he’s a vicar and Rushdie is an atheist. Rushdie could write a novel engaging with his moral universe, but that doesn’t require him to agree with its unrevisable starting assumptions, and nor does it require him to be a novelist and nothing else. He can be a novelist and a polemicist, or essayist, or pamphleteer, or campaigner, or all those. He can do both – lots of people do. The vicar talks as if Rushdie is betraying the novel or his work as a novelist by doing both.

The tragedy is that Rushdie the novelist has increasingly been overtaken by his public crusading. The vocation of the novelist is to pluralism. That’s why the novel is sacred. Unfortunately, it’s a sanctity in which Rushdie now seems to have lost his faith.

Well, maybe that’s the problem right there. Being a vicar, he thinks in terms of sacred and sanctity. That’s a narrowing, limiting, simplifying way to think. If the novel is ‘sacred’ then it mustn’t be polluted by profane things like articles – then the novelist must be pure, and unadulterated, and one thing only. Puritanism, in short. People who think in terms of purity and pollution can be very dangerous, and even at the best they are simple-minded.

Norm talks about the vick here and here, where he cites that Simon Blackburn quotation.


Sep 22nd, 2005 5:00 pm | By

Lists are always strange. Lists of 100 best novels in English that include some of the worst novels ever written – that kind of thing. They’re always strange. That list of UK public intellectuals that was then augmented by a female version, both of them including some very odd ‘intellectuals’ – movie stars, advertisers, publicists. Strange. So of course this list is strange. But all the same, I have to bleat at a couple of inclusions. Why so many clerics? The pope, al-Qaradawi, al-Sistani? Those are intellectuals? And then there’s Paglia, and Thomas Friedman. But these lists are always strange, so whatever.

So whodja vote for? I’ll tell you mine. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Sen. I’d already chosen them before I noticed that at least three of them have some connection with B&W. Two have articles here, another has sent email comments for quoting. But I voted before I thought of that.

Minimum Wage Chic

Sep 21st, 2005 10:49 pm | By

I was a little amused to see a letter on the letters page rebuking B&W (actually, me) for ‘perpetuating the fashionable nonsense of minimum-wage laws.’ No. Minimum wage laws may be nonsense, but they’re hardly fashionable. They’re too old for that, for one thing, at least in the US. And they’re not fashionable anyway, any more than unions are. Are you kidding? Unions? The minimum wage? Yeah, right, they’re about as fashionable as poodle skirts, or peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches on Wonder bread, or Maxwell House coffee made in a percolator, or zootsuits. No. The word class is fashionable, provided it’s accompanied – chaperoned, as it were – by the words ‘race’ and ‘gender’ – but that’s it. The thing itself is fashionable only if you’re in one of the right ones, and that doesn’t include the working class.

I would say hostility to the minimum wage is more fashionable than the minimum wage itself is – fashionable in the same sense and the same circles in which libertarianism is fashionable, that is. Libertarianism is not quite as hot as it was during the bubble, but it’s still a lot hotter than the boring old minimum wage is. You might as well say health and safety laws are fashionable.

But, we are sternly told, the minimum wage is bad, because it costs jobs. Sometimes it does, though there is dispute about how often, how invariably, how much, and so on. But even if it does, that doesn’t make it bad, full stop. Not all by itself. What it does is make it bad in one way, but not in another. There are fewer jobs, but the jobs there are pay more. Some people have no jobs, but other people work for – too little, instead of much too little.

It’s interesting that even in raving-right-wing Murka, there is a high level of political support for the minimum wage, and for raising it more often and higher than it gets raised. Even here, it is widely thought that people who do a job should actually be paid decently for it. The fans of the unregulated market don’t agree, of course; they think the market should decide. They also think the market should be helped to decide by always being oversupplied with unskilled labour, so that wages will always be as low as possible.

One of the odd things about the argument that the minimum wage costs jobs, in fact, is that full employment is not a goal anyway, and the government takes steps to prevent full employment any time the unemployment rate falls ‘too’ low. We heard about that a lot during the bubble. The unemployment rate was 4% – oh dear, uh oh – time to raise interest rates and hope it goes up again quick like a bunny. Well, if full employment is not the goal, is in fact not permitted, then why is it a problem that the minimum wage costs jobs?

The Escape Clause

Sep 21st, 2005 7:13 pm | By

Iqbal Sacranie in the Guardian yesterday:

Across the globe there is a widespread view that we in the west practise double standards and devalue the lives of non-westerners. The former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, earlier this month, said of our actions in Iraq: “There is no tally of Iraqi deaths, but every single death of a US soldier is reported to the world. These are soldiers who must expect to be killed. But the Iraqis who die … are innocent civilians who under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein would still be alive.”

Hmm. Does Sacranie talk much about the tally of Iranian deaths during the Iran-Iraq war? Or other tallies of Muslims killed by other Muslims? Does he have a thoroughly single standard himself?

There is no shortage of Jews – including Leslie Bunder, editor of and Rabbi Schochet – who recognise that the memorial day in its present format is morally problematic. Still, the MCB recognises that this is enormously sensitive territory and if widening the scope of the day – while ethically right – is not politically feasible currently, then we should consider establishing a separate and truly inclusive genocide memorial day.

Truly inclusive? Truly? How truly? Inclusive of whom?

From the MCB’s news release on its decision not to attend Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2001:

In a letter to the Home Secretary, the Secretary General, Yousuf Bhaliok said that whilst they fully condemn the Nazi Holocaust and sympathise with the families of the Holocaust victims, they have reservations about the actual ceremony…It includes the controversial question of alleged Armenian genocide as well as the so-called gay genocide. In view of the above concerns the MCB believes that it would be inappropriate for them to be present at tomorrow’s ceremony.

So – truly inclusive? Well, no, then, not if the well-attested Armenian genocide is disallowed.

And another thing. The press release concludes with this familiar quotation:

The letter concludes, ” I need hardly say that our reservations concern only the ceremony and not the Nazi holocaust per se. The Qur’an (Al-Maidah 5:32) tells us that the murder of one man is as if one had slain all mankind and he who saves a life shall be as if he had given life to all humanity.”

Not true. That’s a truncated quotation – a vital piece has been left out, as Irshad Manji has been pointing out lately. The real quotation is translated for instance as ‘if anyone killed a person, not in retaliation for murder, or to spread mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed all mankind.’ Irshad Manji usually gives it as something like ‘except as punishment for murder or villainy in the land.’ At any rate, there is a very crucial escape clause – which actually renders the whole thing worthless. Because guess what, anyone who wants to kill someone is perfectly well able to come up with some ‘villainy in the land’ that the prospective murderee has spread, and there you go: carte blanche to commit murder. For instance of rebellious Armenians, who were not murdered in an act of genocide at all, but were killed as enemy combatants or rebels or opponents in a civil war or what have you. Well…that’s what Eichmann said, too. The Jews were enemies of the Reich. That’s what he was told, and that’s what he told the Jerusalem court in 1961. That’s what the Hutus said – repeatedly, insistently, urgently, over the airwaves on Radio Mille Collines – about the Tutsis: they were enemies, rebels, insurgents, and had to be killed before they killed all the Hutus. That’s what happens in genocides. People don’t just say ‘Let’s kill all the Jews now because we don’t like them.’ They use the ‘villainy in the land’ clause.

So the MCB’s fastidiousness about Holocaust Memorial Day is a bit suspect.

No Wonder

Sep 21st, 2005 2:40 am | By

These people piss me off.

Lenore Durkee, a retired biology professor, was volunteering as a docent at the Museum of the Earth here when she was confronted by a group of seven or eight people, creationists eager to challenge the museum exhibitions on evolution. They peppered Dr. Durkee with questions about everything from techniques for dating fossils to the second law of thermodynamics, their queries coming so thick and fast that she found it hard to reply.

That’s not a group of people seeking understanding or enlightenment or further education or information or an interesting discussion – that’s a group of aggressive over-confident truculent aggrieved fools who think they have a special pipeline to certainty and a right to challenge people who both know more than they do and eschew certainty. That’s a pack of hostile theocrats out to dismantle every secular institution and branch of education in existence. Nothing will make them shut up, nothing will make them understand that their pipeline to certainty is a short rusty tube leading nowhere. Nothing will even make them perceive the irony of the fact that it is science, which actually revises its findings on the basis of evidence, that disavows certainty, while it is know-nothing zealots like them who do not, ever, revise their obstinate beliefs excuse me ‘faith’ who claim to ‘know’ that someone made the universe and who the someone is.

They piss me off.

…science museums and other institutions struggle to contend with challenges to the theory of evolution that they say are growing common and sometimes aggressive. One company, called B.C. Tours “because we are biblically correct,” even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. Participants hear creationists’ explanations for the exhibitions.

Biblically correct. And people in museums have to waste their time answering hostile questions from imbeciles like that. It pisses me off.

Instead, he told the volunteers that when they encounter religious fundamentalists they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science. They seek answers in nature to questions about nature, they look for explanations that can be tested by experiment and observation in the material world, and they understand that all scientific knowledge is provisional – capable of being overturned when better answers are discovered.

Unlike religion – which does not overturn its ‘knowledge’ when better answers are discovered. Ever, ever! No, instead it just causes people to keep insisting more and more loudly, more and more stupidly, more and more self-righteously, on the inarguable certain truth of the fairy tales they grew up on!

It pisses me off.

There is more than one type of creationist, he said: “thinking creationists who want to know answers, and they are willing to listen, even if they go away unconvinced” and “people who for whatever reason are here to bother you, to trap you, to bludgeon you.” Those were the type of people who confronted Dr. Durkee, a former biology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. The encounter left her discouraged. “It is no wonder that many biologists will simply refuse to debate creationists or I.D.ers,” she said, using the abbreviation for intelligent design, a cousin of creationism. “It is as if they aren’t listening.”

No wonder indeed.

Simon Blackburn 2

Sep 20th, 2005 6:43 pm | By

More Blackburn on truth. (Maybe in a few months I’ll give you a passage or two from Stangroom and Benson on truth. That will be fun for you!)

He points out that it is important to distinguish between relativism and toleration.

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…Relativism, by contrast, chips away at our right to disapprove of what anybody says. Its central message is that there are no asymmetries of reason and knowledge, objectivity and truth…It is not only that we must try to understand them, but also that we must accept a complete symmetry of standing.

So, we have a Western view of the universe, they have theirs, we have Western science, they have theirs, and so on.

And then, once the symmetry of standing takes possession of the relativist, other things may come to fill his head, and they need not involve toleration at all. The dogmatic faith in homeopathy quickly leads to intolerant rejection of double-blind tests for the efficacy of treatments, or intolerant campaigns for the diversion of funds from medicine that works to medicine that does not…The faith that wisdom and the recipe for living are written in one text or another rapidly brings cries of death to the infidel.

Eloquent, isn’t he.

Simon Blackburn

Sep 20th, 2005 6:10 pm | By

From Simon Blackburn in his new book Truth. He compares skeptics, who suspend judgment on undecideable questions, with relativists.

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. Astrology, prophecy, homeopathy, Feng shui, conspiracy theories, flying saucers, voodoo, crystal balls, miracle-working, angel visits, alien abductions, management nostrums and a thousand other cults dominate people’s minds, often with official backing. ‘Faith education’ is backed by the British Prime Minister, while Biblical fundamentalism, creationism and astrology alike stalk the White House.

This is the problem. Skepticism that leads to caution about dogmatism is one thing, and relativism that leads to inflated, robust, blimp-like dogmatism is quite quite another.

Monsieur Freud

Sep 20th, 2005 2:59 am | By

So someone has finally told France – psst, Freud kind of got things wrong. Tiens! Sans blague?

A war of words has erupted among French psychiatrists after the publication of a “black book” that lambasts the teaching of Sigmund Freud and blames his followers for setting back mental health care in France by decades. In a country that is one of the last redoubts of pure Freudian psychoanalysis, the book has been like shock treatment for many in the white-coat establishment who accuse the authors of grovelling to the “Anglo-Saxon” trend towards behaviour-based mental therapy. The news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which published extracts of the 800-page work last month, was bombarded with letters charging it with “fascist rhetoric” and leading a “communist-style” propaganda campaign. One leading psychoanalyst described the book as a “fanatical chargesheet placed firmly in the camp of the revisionists”, while another accused its authors of “scientism” – an excessive belief in the power of science.

Scientism! Oh no! Anything but that. Guesswork, intuition, aura-manipulation, healing touch – anything.

In France, around 70% of French psychiatrists base their treatment of depression, phobias and other mental ailments on Freudian theory. Most countries now use of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – which works by helping a patient understand and overcome patterns of behaviour. Pure French Freudians see this as a superficial mechanism designed to return patients to usefulness in the results-based societies of “le monde Anglo-Saxon”.

Results-based! God, is that philistine or what. Those stupid empirical pragmatic Anglo-Saxons, actually wanting results when they’re mentally ill – actually wanting to get better and not feel depressed or phobic. How superficial. How trivial. How shallow. How utilitarian, returning patients to ‘usefulness’ – so much better and more authentic for them to be miserable and unable to function. Imagine, wanting to be useful – for instance to your children if you have them, to your friends, to the people you work with and for – if you’re a teacher, for instance, or a doctor, or a scholar, or a poet. Why would people like that want to be useful? So much better for them to curl up in a corner whimpering.

France is the world’s biggest per capita consumer of anti-depressants and tranquillisers as the result, the authors claim, of the failures of the couch-and-notebook school and the lack of any alternative. One section of the book entitled “Victims Of Psychoanalysis” contains painful accounts from French mothers of autistic children. Freudian theory had it that autism was caused by the mother’s “unconscious wish that the child should not exist”. A Swiss doctor accuses the French mental health authorities of being responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 heroin addicts up to the mid-1990s by refusing to countenance methadone treatment. This was deemed by Freudians as a crude way of suppressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than addressing the inner cause.

Oh dear. So they kept addressing the inner cause until…oh dear.

According to the book, only last year Freudians persuaded the health ministry to suppress a report from the National Medical Research Institute which attested to the effectiveness of cognitive behaviour therapy. In the view of the critics, Freudian psychoanalysis is not a science but a hermetic cult “immunised against proof” which has inflicted untold damage on the nation’s mental health by opposing treatments that are known to work and by enforcing a politically correct “pensee unique” across the country.

Pensée unique. I like that – good phrase.

But the Freudians see the book as an attempt to introduce new-fangled American theories into France. Treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy – they say – are dehumanising, merely conditioning the patient to overcome his symptoms and render him “productive” again. Freud, they argue, recognises human complexity.

But even if not feeling miserable does make one ‘productive’ again, which no doubt it does, one, that’s not the only thing it does, and two, being productive is not necessarily a bad thing, is it. It’s not just being Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’ or Dilbert. It could mean being an effective mental health doctor, for one thing. An artist, a dancer, a singer, a dentist, a gardener, a farmer. Furthermore, even if Freud does recognise human complexity, here’s a news flash: he’s not the only one who does. And a lot of the ‘complexity’ he recognises is his own invention. I’d rather just treat the symptoms, thanks.

Bottom? What Bottom? There is no Bottom

Sep 19th, 2005 1:56 am | By

Some more bottom.

Belatedly reading the comments on Michael’s piece on Bush’s swell money-saving plan I see that I’m not the only one who experienced genre-confusion. I thought it was all sarcasm, other people thought it was all news. One commenter objected to the mix and to the sarcasm, saying the news is so disgusting that jokes don’t quite play. Michael’s answer is interesting.

OK. I’m sorry to be so expository, but here’s the deal. First: I don’t think this post is funny. It wasn’t meant to be funny, and I honestly didn’t imagine that anyone would laugh at it. I did not laugh while I was writing it, for what that’s worth; I wrote it in a cold gray fury. Second: the reason I embedded real quotes in the second, “satirical” half of this post – George Bush’s, Barbara Bush’s, Tom DeLay’s – is that I think the (obviously) racialized subtext of those remarks is worth calling attention to in precisely this way. Third: the suspension of Davis-Bacon is obscene. And in the context of the Gulf Coast, it goes well beyond the ordinary screw-the-unions policy of the Bush GOP. It verges on a kind of local/national colonialism which, I think, has everything to do with race, poverty, and the question of who gets to sit on Trent Lott’s porch. I hoped that would be clear.

For the record, I don’t think humans have yet invented a prose genre adequate to this moment in US history.

Just so. I certainly went into a hot red fury when I read the real news stories. I would not have thought it possible. Which just shows what a chump I am. I find it hard to believe I could think any worse of the rodent in the White House than I already did, and yet I would not have thought it possible. How wrong can you be.

And he’ll get away with it. A serious tone and some Biblical-sounding language (this city shall rise again – the word ‘shall’ goes a long way, you know) and he’ll get away with further impoverishing people who’ve already been quite impoverished enough, one would have thought. While he and his friends get richer than ever. In full view of everyone. It’s unbelievable – but there it is.

From the CNN Money story Michael linked to.

President Bush issued an executive order Thursday allowing federal contractors rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to pay below the prevailing wage…The Davis-Bacon law requires federal contractors to pay workers at least the prevailing wages in the area where the work is conducted. It applies to federally funded construction projects such as highways and bridges. Bush’s executive order suspends the requirements of the Davis-Bacon law for designated areas hit by the storm…”The administration is using the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to cut the wages of people desperately trying to rebuild their lives and their communities,” [California Rep. George] Miller said. “President Bush should immediately realize the colossal mistake he has made in signing this order and rescind it and ensure that America puts its people back to work in the wake of Katrina at wages that will get them and their families back on their feet,” Miller said.

No, see, because if they were responsible people they would have jumped in the SUV on August 28 and driven like a bat out of hell to Idaho or someplace like that. If they’re still in the area, that means they were irresponsible and shif’less and dependent on the federal gummint and expecting a handout and feeling a sense of entitlement. Some nice healthy outdoor work for substandard wages is just the ticket for people like that – teaches them to quit messing around and get jobs managing federal agencies so they can buy an SUV to get out of town in whenever there’s a big storm. See? It all works out. God planned it that way. And Barbara Bush is pleased for them.

Scraping the Bottom

Sep 18th, 2005 11:02 pm | By

There’s an interesting news article at Michael Bérubé’s place.

The President’s mother, Barbara Bush, pointed out that no-wage contracts can be extremely popular for people devastated by Hurricane Katrina: “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary,” she remarked on National Public Radio, “is that some of them are singing with happiness. And many of them were idle anyway, so this could work out very well for them.”

President Bush did not say which industries would be eligible for the contracts, but one White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked that the affected areas were ideal for growing cotton, and “cotton is a really great fabric in all kinds of weather—light, comfortable, versatile. I think we’ll need a lot of it in the next few years, particularly in the regions most vulnerable to hurricanes.”

Tom DeLay (R- Tx.) agreed, quickly rounding up a group of evacuees for emergency planting. With the help of law enforcement officials from Gretna, Louisiana, who surrounded the evacuees and began to march them to the fields at gunpoint, DeLay pulled aside three of them and asked, “Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?”

I thought the whole article was a surrealistic joke, until I looked at the first link and realized it was to an actual news story. Uhhhh – wait. What was all that bullshit on Thursday then? That had conservative commentators in such a panic that Bush might actually decide gross inequality is not such a good idea? Was that all just camouflage? Well what a fucking stupid question – of course it damn well was.

That miserable loathsome overpaid his entire talentless privileged cronyist life bastard. There’s just no low too low, is there.

A Party in Toronto

Sep 18th, 2005 3:05 am | By

Excellent article on sharia in Ontario in the Toronto Star. Lynda Hurst corrects one widespread misapprehension (I certainly shared it):

The decision means there will be no domestic tribunals in this province based on Orthodox Jewish, or Islamic sharia, laws. No other faiths come into it. None ever did. Contrary to government comments in past media reports and current statements by Jewish and Muslim activists, no known Christian church has made use of Ontario’s 1991 Arbitration Act to settle marital breakdown or child custody disputes. “I’ve consulted fairly widely and no one is aware of any such thing,” says lawyer Janet Buckingham of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. “Of course, churches mediate and counsel if people request it, but arbitrating legal matters? No.”

It was all smoke and mirrors. How about that.

But that was just one of the many distortions and red herrings that flourished in this rancorous controversy. Time and again, in letters and columns, sharia advocates accused opponents of spreading propaganda, of claiming sharia courts would see women in Ontario stoned to death for conjugal infractions: How paranoid of these bigots, right? In fact, no one involved on the anti side ever said that, or anything close. Time and again, and with breathtaking arrogance, advocates dismissed the Muslim women who led the no-sharia fight as a Westernized elite, an educated minority who demeaned other, more recently arrived women in the guise of protecting them.

They should have sent Madeleine Bunting an invitation, she would have come over and helped with that last line of ‘argument’.

Most unsettling of all was the ease with which sharia advocates played the religion card, accusing Muslim opponents – and thousands of other objectors across Canada and a nervous world – of Islamophobia.

That’s a popular card. What a good thing that tactic failed.

When the consultations turned to sharia, dozens of Muslim women and men told Boyd that sharia, in all its myriad forms, is inherently and uniformly biased against women. They explained that it is not religious doctrine, but a cultural “code for living,” a man-made series of laws written after the death of Muhammad in 632 that’s now been politicized in many countries…Escaping sharia’s pervasive presence is the very reason many Muslims have immigrated to Canada. They assumed that, if not officially secular, Canada did, at least, keep religion and the state separate and apart. Many, such as the tireless no-sharia campaign leader Homa Arjomand, an Iranian refugee, were stunned to learn sharia had followed them.

Good on her for crediting Homa. Tireless indeed. She led this whole campaign, and what a lot she accomplished. I know I said it before, but – well done, Homa.

Boyd, however, green-lighted the continued use of “faith-based” arbitration, including sharia, albeit with costly and impractical safeguards in place. Her report, ironically, was subtitled Protecting Choice, Promoting Inclusion. It would have done neither. Had the province allowed its female Muslim citizens to be pressured into accepting the dictates of sharia tribunals or face community ostracism, or worse, their exclusion from the Canadian mainstream would have been sealed. Since when was that the aim of multiculturalism? It took months of relentless speeches, petitions, panels and protests to counter Boyd’s naïve recommendations and stop the province from setting a dangerous precedent. After unanimous objections by female Liberal MPs and ultimately all three parties*, McGuinty finally overcame his fear of acting.

*And international demonstrations three days before McGuinty acted, and an open letter from Margaret Atwood, Maud Barlow and a long list of journalists, writers and the like, a few hours before McGuinty acted.

There’s a party to celebrate this evening – in fact it must be going on right now, since it started at 7 and it’s either 9 or 10 there now. (What zone is Toronto in? Eastern, or central? Central, probably – but I’m not sure. How ignorant.) Have fun, all!

Galloway tried to rebuke Toronto over the sharia matter yesterday, a Harry’s Place reader reports. But it didn’t win him many friends. Bastard!

Galloway only lost the crowd at one point, when he criticized the NDP’s stand against Sharia law in Ontario. He told the audience that this was catering to the right-wing and risked dividing the anti-war movement.

Catering to the right wing is it. Unlike fawning on tyrants. Gah.

I have to listen to the debate one of these days. I’m dreading it. I heard excerpts on Today, and listening to Galloway bellow and shout and rant is not my idea of a good time.

From the Attic

Sep 17th, 2005 11:14 pm | By

Just a few items. They’re hard to find now, so I feel like stashing two or three.

Thinking Makes It So. Actually, my colleague published this one on B&W when B&W was brand-new – but after awhile I deleted it. But just putting up a link to it back here off the front page isn’t so bad.

Gustave and Dawn

Other Minds


Do I Wake or Sleep

Okay five. Not two or three, five. So sue me.

Ring-fencing Religion Again

Sep 16th, 2005 7:52 pm | By

There’s this article by Timothy Garton-Ash in yesterday’s Guardian, titled ‘What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves’. Well, yes, no doubt – but one could say that of anything. What we call anything is a mirror in which we see ourselves, but what of that? Does that get us much of anywhere? It could, but it could also not. In other words, calling something [whatever we do call it] could indicate that we are [rational/irrational/misanthropic/empathetic] and be true or untrue all the same. The two can be quite independent. A person can be malevolent or loony and still get things right, and a person can be caring and understanding and still get things wrong.

Garton-Ash offers six examples of possible things to say about Islam. First:

The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself, which is superstition, false consciousness, the abrogation of reason. In principle, Christianity or Judaism are little better, particularly in the versions embraced by the American right. The world would be a much better place if everyone understood the truths revealed by science, had confidence in human reason and embraced secular humanism. If we must have a framed image of a bearded old man on the wall, let it be a photograph of Charles Darwin. What we need is not just a secular state but a secular society.

Then he comments on it.

This is a view held by many highly educated people in the post-Christian west, especially in western Europe, including some of my closest friends. If translated directly into a political prescription, it has the minor drawback of requiring that some 3 billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs.

But what is the point of saying that? What’s he talking about, ‘If translated directly into a political prescription’? What does he mean? Apparently something like people saying: ‘”The world would be a much better place” should be translated to “Let us enact laws that would force people (how?) to have confidence in human reason and embrace secular humanism.”‘ That seems to be the political prescription he has in mind. But who does suggest political prescriptions like that? Who does make the leap from saying religion is superstition to saying that people should be forced to abjure it? No one. Damn well no one. So why do people insist on saying or implying that the first entails the second? It’s a form of moral blackmail, it’s a way of ring-fencing (as Rushdie calls it) religion and making critical discussion of it more difficult, and it’s not based on reality.

This kind of thing is especially irritating coming from professional intellectuals and opinion-purveyors. I might as well tell Timothy Garton-Ash that he shouldn’t write for the Guardian because that equates to ‘requiring’ me to agree to whatever it is that he says. It’s ridiculous! People criticising religion does not equate to summoning an army to force people to ‘abandon their fundamental beliefs’! Can we for once get clear on that so that we can discuss the subject honestly?

The second example:

The fundamental problem is not religion itself, but the particular religion of Islam. Islam, unlike western Christianity, does not allow the separation of church and state, religion and politics. The fact that my Iranian newspaper gives the year as 1384 points to a larger truth. With its systematic discrimination against women, its barbaric punishments for homosexuality and its militant intolerance, Islam is stuck in the middle ages. What it needs is its Reformation.

And the comment.

A very widespread view. Two objections are that such a view encourages a monolithic, essentialist understanding of Islam, and tries to understand its history too much in western terms (middle ages, Reformation). If we mean by Islam “what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do”, there is a huge spectrum of different realities.

But monolithic, essentialist understandings of systems of ideas are not necessarily unreasonable or silly or wrong in the way that monolithic, essentialist understandings of groups of people are, because systems of ideas can be and often are monolithic and essentialist. That’s rather the point of them. Systems of ideas have particular content, which is different from other systems of ideas. It’s not even coherent to criticise an account of a system of ideas for being monolithic and essentialist. And the primary meaning of Islam (as it is with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism) is not ‘what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do’ but the doctrines of the religion itself. There are interpretations and schools, yes, but that’s not the same as no core doctrine at all.

Irfan Khawaja talked about this subject in an article a year or two ago.

“Belief in an Islamic essence that supercedes [sic] the behavior of actual Muslims,” we are blithely told, “leads people to making sloppy generalizations about Islam.” So the criterion of “the Islamic” is “the behavior of actual Muslims.” The absurdity of this claim is almost mind-boggling. For one thing, it ignores the fact that Muslims themselves believe that Islam has an essence that supersedes the behavior of actual Muslims. It ignores the fact that the Qur’an states that Islam is a “perfect” religion whose essence is contained within the Qur’an itself. It ignores the fact that according to Islam, the Sunnah takes precedence over and regulates “the behavior of actual Muslims.”…What Staerk is telling us is that it’s easier to generalize rigorously about the behavior of 1.25 billion existing Muslims plus all the Muslims who have ever existed in the 1400 years of the existence of Islam – than it is to generalize about the claims of a handful of Islamic texts!

And so on. Garton-Ash’s argument isn’t a very good one.

Auspicious Geopathic Chi Luck Elements Fortune

Sep 16th, 2005 6:32 pm | By

All righty, now let’s all pull up our chairs to our desks and place our pens and pencils neatly at the top and get ready to pay attention. Remember the other day we had a little disagreement about whether or not Feng Shui is woo-woo or, in the technical language, nonsense? It started because I linked to an article by Nick Cohen who referred to Feng Shui (as I did in the headline) as fashionable nonsense – a phrase that has a certain resonance for the proprietors of B&W. But a reader took exception to that headline, and to Nick’s article, on the grounds that Feng Shui isn’t nonsense at all, but just sensible environmental design. Well, I don’t think so. It does include sensible environmental design, but it also includes real nonsense. I’ve been investigating, and I have yet to find any nonsense-free Feng Shui. Now, granted, it’s possible that like the black swan, nonsense-free Feng Shui just hasn’t turned up on the radar yet…But so far, it seems safe (and fair) to say that Feng Shui is well over in the woo-woo camp.

Here’s something from the first Google hit. It’s about kitchens.

The kitchen represents the manifestation of the family’s well-being and wealth. It is useful for pressing down bad luck caused by bad flying star number or personalized directions of bad fortune. According to the Eight Mansions and Flying Star formulas, certain sectors of the house are deemed to be unlucky. If your kitchen is located in an unlucky sector this is a good thing…The mouth of the stove should face one of the best directions of the father of the family. This energises the stove, making the food cooked in it auspicious for the family…Good feng shui kitchens should take the orientation of the stove, oven and rice cooker into account. When auspiciously oriented, the stove can bring enormous good fortune to a family. The kitchen stove should not be in the northwest sector. This is called “Fire at Heaven’s Gate” and brings bad luck to the breadwinner, causing the head of the household to lose their job and money.

Here is a basic course in the principles of FS from a UK site:

Four evenings of giving a good basic foundation in Feng Shui principles for the absolute beginner and basic knowledge to go on to further training. The course will cover: Form School, Chi Energy, the five elements, ying and yang, I Ching and the trigrams, Geopathic Stress, Electro magnetic fields, Feng Shui cures, artwork and symbolism, Clutter and space clearing.

And finally there is this from yet another site.

In Chinese philosophy, the concept of “Wu Xing” has a prominent standing. In Chinese Medicine, Astrology and Fengshui, the idea of Wu Xing is used extensively. This term has been conveniently translated as “five elements” or “five phases”. The word “Wu” means “five”. To single out the word “Xing” and try to explain what it means is futile effort…Water dominates in winter, wood in spring, fire in summer, metal in autumn. At the intersection between two seasons, the transitional period is dominated by earth…The names “water”, “wood”, “fire”, “metal” and “earth” are only substances whose properties resemble the respective chi in the closest possible way. They do help us understand the properties of the five types of chi but they also mislead us if we take everything in the literal sense.


So is there any completely nonsense-free Feng Shui anywhere? If so, it’s pretty hard to find!

Galileo, Therefore I’m Right

Sep 15th, 2005 6:24 pm | By

There was some discussion yesterday of what to call the ‘argument’ that goes along the lines ‘Galileo was ignored/suppressed/censored, I’m ignored/suppressed/censored, therefore my ideas are on a par with Galileo’s ideas.’ I said I simply thought of it as the Galileo fallacy. (Chris Williams on the other hand offered an alternative in the Bozo the clown fallacy. ‘They laughed at Newton, they laughed at Einstein…’ ‘Yes and they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.’ That works.) Once I’d said that, I thought I might as well google it – and behold, a few citations of the Galileo fallacy.

At Bad Logic for instance.

Just about every logical fallacy ever imagined turns up in pseudoscience, including: “Galileo Fallacy” “They laughed at Galileo, and he was right. They laugh at me, therefore I must be right.” Variation common in education: “Einstein didn’t do well in school, therefore any kid who does poorly in school is like Einstein.”

And in this list of fallacious arguments, under Appeal to Pity (Appeal to Sympathy, The Galileo Argument):

Some authors want you to know they’re suffering for their beliefs. For example, “Scientists scoffed at Copernicus and Galileo; they laughed at Edison, Tesla and Marconi; they won’t give my ideas a fair hearing either. But time will be the judge. I can wait; I am patient; sooner or later science will be forced to admit that all matter is built, not of atoms, but of tiny capsules of TIME.”

Apparently people who edit philosophy magazines see a lot of that kind of thing. ‘Please read my complete theory of everything, available at’

And there’s a variation at Evowiki: Galileo Wannabe:

You commit this fallacy if you compare yourself to Galileo Galilei or another scientist suppressed by authorities or disbelieved by your peers. This is very popular among pseudoscientists…A popular answer is, “they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at Columbus, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown”. Indeed, being “suppressed” is not correlated to being right.

No, it’s not, but it’s such fun to imply that it is!

Update: I missed one. At Orac Knows, we have Galileo’s Gambit, enriched with a lot of parallel examples.

Reading Judith Shklar

Sep 14th, 2005 8:48 pm | By

I’ve just been re-reading Judith Shklar’s 1989 essay ‘The Liberalism of Fear.’ It’s good stuff.

Skepticism is inclined toward toleration, since in its doubts it cannot choose among the competing beliefs that swirl around it, so often in murderous rage. Whether the skeptic seeks personal tranquility in retreat or tries to calm the warring factions around her, she must prefer a government that does nothing to increase the prevailing levels of fanaticism and dogmatism.

I read it the first time several years ago. I liked it – but certain resonances are even more resonant now than they were then (let alone than when she wrote the article, which was for instance before Yugoslavia fell apart).

To call the liberalism of fear a lowering of one’s sights implies that emotions are inferior to ideas and especially to political causes. It may be noble to pursue ideological ambitions or to risk one’s life for a ’cause,’ but it is not at all noble to kill another human being in pursuit of one’s own ’causes.’ ‘Causes,’ however spiritual they may be, are not self-justifying, and they are not all equally edifying.

No, they’re not.

The consequences of political spirituality are, moreover, far less elevating than it might seem. Politically it has usually served as an excuse for orgies of destruction. Need one remind anyone of that truly ennobling cry: ‘Viva la muerte!’ – and the regime it ushered in?

Viva la muerte – it’s back.

Unless and until we can offer the injured and insulted victims of most of the world’s traditional as well as revolutionary governments a genuine and practicable alternative to their present condtion, we have no way of knowing whether they really enjoy their chains. There is very little evidence that they do…The absolute relativism, not merely cultural but psychological, that rejects the liberalism of fear as both too ‘Western’ and too abstract is too complacent and too ready to forget the horrors of our world to be credible. It is deeply illiberal, not only in its submission to tradition as an ideal, but in its dogmatic identification of every local practice with deeply chared local human aspirations.

Madeleine Bunting, please note.

Too great a part of past and present political experience is neglected when we ignore the annual reports of Amnesty International and of contemporary warfare. It used to be the mark of liberalism that it was cosmopolitan and that an insult to the life and liberty of a member of any race or group in any part of the world was of genuine concern.

As above.

On the Other Hand

Sep 14th, 2005 6:50 pm | By

Since I keep picking fights with Michael Ruse’s recent arguments, it’s only fair that I should point out this item I’ve just read on Philosophy of Biology. It’s a letter Ruse sent to the dean, which he posted by way of encouraging others.

As the disaster unfolds in New Orleans, I am sure I am not alone in wondering what I can do. So far, the FSU response seems to be that we must go on with the football game. Is it at all possible to offer something to the students of Louisiana? For instance, could we take some of them in for a semester or two and wave fees? It is surely not too late in the term to think about this. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that my family would consider it a privilege to house and board for free a couple of students for the year. I am an Englishman born in 1940. I owe so much to America that for me it would be paying a very small part of the debt.

No comment necessary.

That Infinite Regress Again

Sep 13th, 2005 10:54 pm | By

John Sutherland interviewed Michael Behe in the Guardian yesterday. (P Z comments on the interview at Pharyngula). He didn’t ask some questions that it seems to me he might have.

JS: It’s no secret that you are a Catholic. But, as I understand it, your scientific theory does not predicate God in any form whatsoever. You’ve suggested that the designer could even be some kind of evil alien. Is that right?

MB: That’s exactly correct. All that the evidence from biochemistry points to is some very intelligent agent. Although I find it congenial to think that it’s God, others might prefer to think it’s an alien – or who knows? An angel, or some satanic force, some new age power. Something we don’t know anything about yet.

What is the difference? What’s the difference between an evil alien, God, an alien, an angel, some satanic force, some new age power? They’re all the same thing, really – just a big X, a big ?, a big ‘who knows’, a big wild card, a Something, a Whatever. A designer.

In other words it’s such an empty category it might as well not be there. It’s just a substitute for ‘I don’t know’. So why not just go with ‘I don’t know’? Because it’s more cuddly to suggest that it might be God, even though ‘God’ could in fact translate to ‘evil alien.’ (Apart from anything else, God is pretty obviously an alien, right? I mean what else is he going to be? A local?)

But the more basic unasked question is closer to the beginning of the interview.

JS: Is there a discourse problem here? Metaphysics can’t engage meaningfully with physics? Does intelligent design belong in science?

MB: I believe it does. I see it as straightforward empirical observation. One analogy I like to use is to Mount Rushmore. If you had never heard of Mount Rushmore, you would see immediately the images of four people and immediately recognise that to be design. There wouldn’t be any question of metaphysics there. You can tell that something was designed from its physical structure.

But then what designed the designer? ‘You see this design when you see co-ordinated parts coming together to perform a function – like in a hand. And so it’s the appearance of design that everybody’s trying to explain. So that if Darwin’s theory doesn’t explain it we’re left with no other explanation than maybe it really was designed.’ But that’s not an explanation, because it leaves you exactly where you were. So who designed the designer? Why do you think saying ‘Intelligent Design’ is explanatory when obviously anything that intentionally designed all the complex things in the universe would have to be a lot more complex than they are? You think those less complex things have to be explained – so why don’t you think the same thing about the more complex thing, only more so?

Is it just because you can’t see it? You see the flagellum under the microscope, and think ‘It looks designed’ – but you don’t see the Designer under the microscope, or through the telescope, or any other way, so, unimaginatively enough, you just forget to wonder who designed that? Don’t you think that’s kind of simple-minded? Because I do.

It’s such an obvious problem, and it’s so fatal – it’s odd that it so seldom gets raised.