A Staff Reporter

Aug 7th, 2005 1:02 am | By

Remember that peculiar article in the Guardian after it fired Dilpazier Aslam? It was two weeks ago now, but I want to mumble a few belated words.

Rightwing bloggers from the US, where the Guardian has a large online following, were behind the targeting last week of a trainee Guardian journalist who wrote a comment piece which they did not care for about the London bombings. The story is a demonstration of the way the ‘blogosphere’ can be used to mount obsessively personalised attacks at high speed.

That’s peculiar stuff. There were leftwing bloggers not from the US who criticized Aslam. And why call it ‘targeting’? (To make it sound illegitimate, that’s why.) And ‘did not care for’ is a silly way to characterize the issue. And what is this ‘obsessively personalised attacks’ business? It was disagreement and criticism; it was neither obsessive, nor any more personalised than any other disagreement with and criticism of a particular commenter is, and it was not an attack. So what’s up with all the rhetoric?

These ravings were posted alongside more legitimate questions as to whether a newspaper should employ a reporter who belongs to a controversial political group linked to the promotion of anti-semitic views. Aslam’s comment piece…did not mention that the author was a member of the radical but non-violent Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, proscribed in Germany and Holland as anti-semitic.

There it is again – that word ‘radical’. Along with ‘controversial,’ which is an anodyne way of describing Hizb ut-Tahrir. That’s one reason I want to mumble a few words. I think the Guardian has that problem I mentioned the other day, about getting all confused when the word ‘radical’ turns up. Yeah, Hizb ut-Tahrir is radical, but not in the way Greens or socialists are radical. It looks to me as if the Guardian kind of thought they were. You know – angry, militant, activist, radical, sassy, boat-rocking – it’s all kind of the same thing. Well – no.

Scott Burgess, a blogger from New Orleans who recently moved to London, spends his time indoors posting repeated attacks on the Guardian…

Spends his time indoors?? Oh, come on…

Indoors-staying Burgess quotes from Private Eye’s take on the Guardian’s silly-looking hissy fit.

Nothing in the brief Guardian career of Dilpazier Aslam – even the “exclusive interview” he conducted back in March with Shabina Begum, the girl whose legal fight to wear the jilbab was backed by Hizb-ut-Tahir, the same radical group of which he himself was a member – became him like the leaving of it. When the paper belatedly decided on 22 July that his ‘continuing membership of the organisation was incompatible with his continued employment by the company’, it was not without a last shriek of defiance on its website. A lengthy rant claimed that ‘right-wing bloggers in the US were behind the targeting’ of Mr Aslam, pointing out that ‘the ‘blogosphere’ can be used to mount obsessively personalised attacks at high speed’, before mounting one of its own, on ‘Scott Burgess, a blogger who spends his time indoors posting repeated attacks on the Guardian’. And who was the author of this piece which sneered at bloggers for their anonymity and the speed at which they rushed to judgement on the net? ‘A staff reporter’.

The thing that Scott Burgess reports that I didn’t know, however, is that the ‘staff reporter’ byline is unusual – very unusual. I wondered about it – I certainly noticed it, because as soon as I started reading that truly ridiculous article, I wanted to know what buffoon had perpetrated it, and was a bit staggered to be unable to – but I didn’t realize how unusual it was.

In fact, a search of the Guardian archives indicates that, within the last 3 years, a total of only three stories have been published completely without attribution. Two of these involved memorial services for individuals associated with the newspaper, and one was filed from Zimbabwe by a reporter with very good reasons for anonymity.

Not the Guardian’s finest hour.

Exciting New Scholarship

Aug 6th, 2005 2:55 am | By

Disability studies has hit town. Actually it did that a longish time ago – this reporter may be a little behind the times. I noticed a new ‘Disability studies’ section in the University bookstore several years ago, and there are jokes about the subject in the Dictionary, which we started writing three years ago.

Now disabled people have gotten into the business of problematizing: Disability studies has arrived in academia. Of course, the medical study of disability is long-standing, but the new approach establishes an interdisciplinary field on the model of women’s, queer, and ethnic studies…”Disability studies is us looking out at the world and seeing how that looks to us.” It also critiques “how disability is represented in all kinds of texts—in literature, film, the annals of history.”

Should I be polite and serious and respectful and say I think that sounds like a good idea? But I don’t. I think it’s boring and scab-picky and whiney and trendy and tiresome.

For the past two years, Columbia has hosted a monthly seminar for area faculty and grad students. Organized by Linton and colleagues, its topics range from disability in late capitalism to the intersection of disability and queer studies. Just last May, the field was officially recognized as a division by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

That’s quite a range! From disability in late capitalism to the intersection of disability and queer studies – it’s breathtaking in its scope. And the MLA has recognized it as a division – well no wonder I don’t feel polite and respectful. If it were sociology or history, I might be, but just yet another branch of literary Theory? Er – no thanks.

Disability scholars aim to revolutionize the way disability is imagined in our culture. Rather than pathologizing individuals, they ask how society accommodates different bodies (or doesn’t). Disability, they point out, highlights the dynamic nature of identity itself: Entry into the disabled community could be a matter of an overlooked stop sign or the emergence of a lurking gene.

Cackle! Yeah, I suppose it could. Kind of like an episode of the Twilight Zone – you overlook a stop sign and – run over three pedestrians, and the next thing you know, You Have Entered The Disabled Community.

The what? What community? Why is that a ‘community’? Well we know why – the MLA has just said – because there are studies programs, that’s why. If there are studies, there’s a community. Don’t fret that it seems kind of insulting and stupid and oversimplifying to assume that everyone who has some sort of ‘disability’ therefore belongs to a ‘community’ of people with some sort of disability – it may seem that way but really it’s a Liberation Movement. Or something.

Anyone who’s taken a women’s studies class or read Edward Said will be familiar with the terms of the field. The study of disability, like that of gender, race, and sexual orientation, is rooted in bodies perceived as “other.” All of these disciplines use the language of critical theory—Foucault, with his interrogations of power, the body, and pathology, is big in disability studies. And these related fields can cross-pollinate. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who teaches in the women’s studies department at Emory University, promotes the integration of feminist and disability studies.

Doesn’t that sound exciting! Doesn’t that just sound like a stimulating cross-pollinated field? I’m tempted to enroll at Emory right now, so that I can learn why feminists are disabled and disabled people are feminists and all of them will be saved by the language of critical theory.

Although disability has fruitfully integrated with other identity studies, the field has not always received a warm welcome. Alison Kafer, who teaches feminist and disability studies at Southwestern University, attributes resistance in part to funding, but on a deeper level, she notes that “women and queers and people of color have often been cast as sick. That’s how discrimination was justified.” Now those minorities are saying, “You know what—we’re not sick,” and they shun association with people still seen as defective. The ambivalence is mutual; some disability scholars want to jump from what they see as the sinking ship of identity studies. As University of Illinois at Chicago’s Lennard J. Davis pointed out in a 2004 conference paper, “We are in a twilight of the gods of identity politics, and there is no Richard Wagner to make that crepuscular moment seem nostalgic and tragic.” So disability studies has arrived, but is it too late?

Oh, I do so hope so. I do so hope identity politics and especially identity studies are on a sinking ship. I do so hope scab-picking will at last go out of fashion and people can go on to something better.

But institutionalization may not be the primary goal. As Garland-Thomson says, “We don’t necessarily need people majoring or minoring in disability studies. We need to create a system in which educated people have it as a category of understanding.” She observes that many canonical literary works have a neglected disability aspect: Ahab in Moby Dick is an amputee, Shakespeare’s Richard III is a hunchback…In studying literature—or any subject—disability is simply an additional lens at our disposal.

Yes but – so what? So the hell what? Many ‘canonical’ literary works have people with hair, too; many have people who walk around; many have food; many have travel; many have characters wearing clothes. So what? Does that mean there have to be hair and walking around and food and travel and clothes studies? What do people see through the ‘additional lens’ of disability? Especially, what do they see that requires a new division in the MLA, or section in the bookstore?

Exciting scholarship is being generated. Last March’s issue of the PMLA (the MLA’s publication) featured papers from a recent MLA conference, including “Deaf, She Wrote: Mapping Deaf Women’s Autobiography” and “Crip Eye for the Normate Guy: Queer Theory and the Disciplining of Disability Studies.”

Exciting? Exciting? Hoo-boy.Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow needs to get out more, or do I mean less.

The Point of Scholarship

Aug 6th, 2005 2:04 am | By

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Education has an article about criticisms and criticisms of criticisms of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s hard to tell without reading a great many academic blog posts (I read part of one and decided that was more than enough of that), but it all seems to have a whiff of self-righteous orthodoxy-sniffing about it. But since I haven’t actually read all those academic blog posts, I could be wrong about that. But in any case, Jaschik turned up one comment – by a commenter at Crooked Timber – that sounds like exactly the kind of thought that started B&W on its erratic but dogged course.

Both Savage Minds pieces seem to exhibit one of the worst tics of the academic left — a tendency to evaluate arguments exclusively with reference to whether or not they might, in some distorted form, serve the rhetorical purposes of one’s political opponents. It’s exactly the same approach to debate you find coming from the most thuggish members of the war party – whole lines of argument (e.g., Do our actions lead to more terrorism?) are ruled out from the start on the grounds that they stray too close to the other side’s manner of thinking. What is so depressing about this approach isn’t just that it’s bad scholarship. It’s that it rests on a complete misunderstanding of the point of scholarship, or at least a refusal to see arguments as anything rhetorical strategies.

So I felt like preserving that comment.

Roots Again

Aug 5th, 2005 3:56 am | By

As Hamlet said, words, words words. They can be so tricky. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident – and it can be very difficult to tell which is going on. Consider this rumination by Hanif Kureishi.

I believed that questions of race, identity and culture were the major issues post-colonial Europe had to face, and that inter-generational conflict was where these conflicts were being played out. The British-born children of immigrants were not only more religious and politically radical than their parents – whose priority had been to establish themselves in the new country – but they despised their parents’ moderation and desire to “compromise” with Britain. To them this seemed weak.

What does he mean by ‘politically radical’ in that paragraph? More religious and politically radical – so by radical he means right-wing radical. But it’s not entirely clear if he knows that’s what he means. I think that’s a confusion a lot of people have – they conflate anger (and, yes, ‘grievance’) and sulkiness and intransigeance and violence with radicalism, meaning (vaguely, sort of) lefty or at least revolutionary radicalism. (‘Revolutionary’ of course is just as tricky, and in the same way. Hitler was a revolutionary. One can have a revolution that’s not an egalitarian or progressive one – to put it mildly.) Maybe that’s one reason there is this weird current of almost-sympathy for Islamist terrorists that is entirely absent in the case of the BNP; maybe that’s one reason the SWP is hooked up with Respect.

But maybe he doesn’t mean radical that way. Anyway he makes some good points later.

These men believed they had access to the Truth, as stated in the Qur’an. There could be no doubt – or even much dispute about moral, social and political problems – because God had the answers. Therefore, for them, to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry. For them the source of all virtue and vice was the pleasure and displeasure of Allah. To be a responsible human being was to submit to this…It is not only in the mosques but also in so-called “faith” schools that such ideas are propagated. The Blair government, while attempting to rid us of radical clerics, has pledged to set up more of these schools, as though a “moderate” closed system is completely different to an “extreme” one.


You can’t ask people to give up their religion; that would be absurd. Religions may be illusions, but these are important and profound illusions. And they will modify as they come into contact with other ideas. This is what an effective multiculturalism is: not a superficial exchange of festivals and food, but a robust and committed exchange of ideas – a conflict that is worth enduring, rather than a war. When it comes to teaching the young, we have the human duty to inform them that there is more than one book in the world, and more than one voice, and that if they wish to have their voices heard by others, everyone else is entitled to the same thing. These children deserve better than an education that comes from liberal guilt.

But that thing about modifying as they come into contact with other ideas – that is asking people to give up their religion – and a good thing too. At the very least it’s asking them to give up their religion in the form of something insulated and protected from other ideas and from disagreement – which, surely, comes to the same thing. Yes, you can ‘ask people’ (it’s part of education) to give up their insistence on literalist irrational anti-rational belief systems that cannot be questioned or criticised – sure you can. Not by force, not by scolding them; but as part of ordinary human interchange, as part of life in the big world, where there are other ideas and other evidence? Of course you can.


Aug 4th, 2005 12:45 am | By

This is so horrible! The situation it reports on – and the fact that the guy who wrote it was murdered yesterday.

As has been widely reported of late, Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups, from the relatively mainstream Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr…And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it…Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society.

So – guess what.

At the city’s university, for example, self-appointed monitors patrol the campuses, ensuring that women’s attire and makeup are properly Islamic. “I’d like to throw them off the grounds, but who will do it?” a university administrator asked me. “Most of our police belong to the same religious parties as the monitors.”

Nightmare. Nightmare, nightmare, nightmare.

An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations – mostly of former Baath Party members – that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of “death car”: a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.

And now the guy who wrote those words – who did not remain anonymous – has himself been assassinated.

Mr. Vincent and Ms. Tuaiz were kidnapped around 7 p.m. Tuesday, as they left a moneychanger’s shop in downtown Basra, by at least two men dressed in police uniforms and driving a police sedan, said a witness who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution…An officer in the Basra police department said Mr. Vincent had been working on a story about the role of police officers in the recent assassinations of former Baath Party officials…A recent comment on his blog showed that he was aware of the dangers of writing too openly about the Shiite parties of Basra, and that he had tried to be discreet in a recent story published in The Christian Science Monitor: “When you read this, keep in mind that for various reasons – not the least of which were safety concerns – the piece only scratches the surface of what is happening here.”

Hell. It’s just bottomlessly depressing.

Mr. Vincent said in conversations that he was particularly incensed about the sharp divide between men and women in the Islamic world. He said he had fully supported the American-led invasion of Iraq because he believed it was part of a much larger campaign being waged by the United States against what he called “Islamo-fascism.” But Mr. Vincent also said it was the duty of journalists to expose the pitfalls of the rising tide of Shiite Islam in Iraq to awaken the Bush administration to the kind of nation the White House was helping to create.

No doubt the rising tide of Shiite Islam didn’t want him doing that. Well, now he won’t be anymore.

Vincent’s blog is here. Worth reading, if the top post is anything to go on.

Words Fail Me

Aug 3rd, 2005 2:30 am | By

God almighty. Sometimes things are just too surprising. I was dismayed (from afar) when Galloway was elected – but I clearly wasn’t dismayed enough.

Two of your beautiful daughters are in the hands of foreigners – Jerusalem and Baghdad. The foreigners are doing to your daughters as they will. The daughters are crying for help, and the Arab world is silent. And some of them are collaborating with the rape of these two beautiful Arab daughters. Why? Because they are too weak and too corrupt to do anything about it.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Foreigners? Daughters? Your daughters? Your beautiful daughters? The foreigners are doing to your daughters as they will? Rape? It’s difficult not to scream. It’s sheer bloody Julius Streicherism, it’s lynch-mob language, it’s misogynist sexist racist communalist slavering garbage. And this guy is an MP!

We live in very strange times. Harry’s Place (which is where I saw this) has the comments I would make if I had the time, as well as a few I wouldn’t say – but there is far more agreement than usual, in that thread.

Nobel Prize for Smugness

Aug 2nd, 2005 1:45 am | By

Well, smugness is a good thing, of course, but there is such a thing as too much of it.

Lots of people move to the right as they grow older, and newspaper commentators are no exception…So what are we to make of Nick Cohen, the most uncompromising left-wing columnist in the British press for most of the past decade? How far right is he going?…Cohen, who continues to write for the NS as well as the Observer, argues that the left has gone right, not him. The left should be secular and liberal, he says, but the anti-war movement has, in effect, found itself supporting Islamic fascists. “To read the liberal press,” Cohen tells me, “you would think the authentic Muslim is a religious fanatic. But there are Iraqi and Kurdish socialists and communists. I can talk to them. Most liberal journalists can’t and won’t.”

Ah, I see – that’s turning rightward, is it? Saying the left should be secular and liberal? Saying it’s worth talking to Iraqi and Kurdish socialists and communists? I see. Interesting definition.

What causes left-wing commentators to slip their moorings in their 40s? Perhaps some just follow the cliché that if you are not a socialist up to 40, you have no heart and, if you are still one after 40, you have no head. Others find that property ownership or parenthood make them right-wing. Others again get mugged or burgled. I suspect a good many just want more income; after all, there are only a few left-of-centre newspapers and magazines and most of them pay badly, or not at all. But I fear there is another reason. Leftwing commentators get bored…Cohen and Hitchens are among the cleverest people I know. In the end, I guess, the left proved too much of straitjacket for their restless minds.

So out of boredom they abandoned the dull old left for the meretricious excitements of – secularism, human rights, feminism, universalism, the Enlightenment, reason, equality and justice. Why those shallow frivolous shits. Leaving their comrades behind to plod along with the grim boring old duty of cheerleading for religion, cultural relativism, female subordination, communalism, postmodernism, anti-science, and inequality and injustice provided it’s the Other perpetrating it.

That column really does take the biscuit. Note the complete and total failure to engage with the ideas in question. Note the condescending armchair cause-excavating. Note the insulting quality of the suggested causes. But mainly just notice the stupid anti-intellectual bypassing of the ideas. [stupid voice] ‘Maybe the right smells better. Maybe the right has better sex. Maybe the right can get them tickets to sold-out plays. Maybe the right lets them sit next to it at playtime. Maybe they’re mad at the left because it broke their Spiderman doll.’

Or maybe, just maybe, they have real reasons, not venal or corrupt or frivolous or stupid or infantile ones. Unlike the people with the tricky rucksacks, they say why they do what they do, why they think what they think and write what they write, so we don’t need to sit around spinning theories about their reasons. But if we did we could hardly come up with stupider ones than those.

Two Kinds

Aug 1st, 2005 6:03 pm | By

You want martyr? I’ll give you martyr. Here’s a real martyr.

Mahmud Muhammad Taha argued for a distinction to be drawn between the Meccan and the Medinan sections of the Koran. He advocated a return to peaceable Meccan Islam, which he argued is applicable to today, whereas the bellicose Medinan teachings should be consigned to history. For taking this position he was tried for apostasy, found guilty and executed by the Sudanese government in 1985.

There seems to be a lot of confusion around on this subject.

The funeral of British suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer was held in absentia in his family’s ancestral village, near Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of people attended, as they did again the following day when a qul ceremony was held for Tanweer. During qul, the Koran is recited to speed the deceased’s journey to paradise, though in Tanweer’s case this was hardly necessary. Being a shahid (martyr), he is deemed to have gone straight to paradise. The 22-year-old from Leeds, whose bomb at Aldgate station killed seven people, was hailed by the crowd as ‘a hero of Islam’.

That crowd is mistaken.


Aug 1st, 2005 1:00 am | By

A little from that sickening interview in Prospect.

Taseer: It’s martyrdom, isn’t it?

Butt: Absolutely. It’s something that makes me really depressed being stuck in this country because I know I’m so far away from it. I know that if I was to pass away in my sleep, then I would not have the mercy of Allah upon me because I have been such a bad person. And I don’t see myself in any way as getting into heaven that easily, except through martyrdom.

‘Allah’ won’t give him ‘mercy’ if he just dies of gangrene from an infected pimple. No, he has to kill himself and a lot of other random people – then ‘Allah’ will be nice to him. And of course that’s the important thing – not to mention what a swell guy this ‘Allah’ must be.

Taseer: You’re looking forward to death?

Butt: Absolutely. As long as it’s done properly. I’m terrified of dying normally, growing old, grey.

Taseer: You don’t see that as a selfish impulse, to care for nothing but your own salvation?

Butt: Ultimately, that’s everybody’s. The mother loves the child more than anybody. But even she, on the day of reckoning, will not look at the child; Allah says she will think of herself, solely of herself. Ultimately, that is what it’s about: I’m going into my grave, you’re going into your grave, everyone is ultimately going into their grave. In this duniya (world), we have as much as we can want, but ultimately it is for the benefit of your soul. It is the only point in Islam where an individual is actually allowed to be selfish.

No comment required.

Euphemism Piled Upon Euphemism

Jul 31st, 2005 2:20 am | By

Identity, eh. Identity, identity, identity – how sick we all are of hearing about it. The hell with identity. Get over it – you are what you are, never mind what your precious ‘identity’ is, just get on with it, do something useful, make a difference, forget about your darling self for five minutes, think about something more interesting.

Eve Garrard says a few words on this subject at Normblog.

Human rights are an indispensable part of a morally decent society (though the eager embracing of victimhood is not, and there’s no doubt that the discourse of human rights has, along with multiculturalism, encouraged many to regard the status of victim of rights-violation as the most attractive one going, and hence to reach for it at the slightest provocation).

That’s the one – the thing about regarding the status of victim of rights-violation as the most attractive one going. That’s one of the problems with the (often frankly formulaic and mindless) repetition of the ‘alienation – rage – grievance’ trope. It creates the very thing it’s talking about – and then uses the created thing as a reason to go on talking about it, thus creating more of it, thus having yet more pretext to go on talking about it, ad infinitum. And then the victim-status that’s been invented can curdle and warp and go stark staring mad, and then look what happens.

The New Republic has an article on some inspiring people. It’s about three ‘clerics’ in the UK: Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza Al Masri, and Abu Qatada. But the authors keep saying a strange thing, despite their lack of admiration for these ‘clerics.’ They say it repeatedly – which I find odd. Not surprising, because I see it all the time, but very odd. Stupid, in fact.

In fact, German law enforcement documents we recently obtained indicate that Abu Qatada has provided much of the spiritual inspiration for Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the most effective Iraqi insurgent leader…Abu Qatada is the mentor and spiritual authority for many militant jihadists, including the notorious Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi…Abu Qatada’s central role as the spiritual guide of European jihadists was highlighted by the fact that the members of the Spanish cell who killed 191 Madrid commuters on March 11, 2004, tried to reach him three times by phone before they blew themselves up a couple of weeks after the Madrid attacks. Indeed, the Spanish judge who indicted Abu Qatada characterizes him in the indictment as “the recognized spiritual leader of numerous extremist groups.”

I daresay you’ve spotted the strange thing I have in mind. What’s all this ‘spiritual’ nonsense? What do people mean ‘spiritual’? They mean religious, so why don’t they say that? Why do they want to pretty it up? Religious is a hooray word these days anyway, why is there this compulsion to make it even hoorayer? They wouldn’t call Hitler a spiritual inspiration, so why the honorific for these bastards? Spiritual inspiration (same word is the root, there – it means breath), spiritual authority, spiritual guide, spiritual leader. Why so respectful? Really, it’s baffling.

Another knee-jerk honorific got on my nerves yesterday. An irritating little item on the need to keep religious schools in the UK – only of course they’re not called that. Why? Because that would make it too obvious what a bad stupid idea they are? Yes, probably. When your case is feeble, resort to manipulative language. It works, too.

Abolishing faith schools is not the way to create harmony between different communities in the wake of the London attacks, Tony Blair has said…He stressed that he backed faith schools, including Muslim schools, which were part of the “proper” school system. And he insisted the schools did not teach children to “look at children of other faiths in a bad way” and often contained some pupils from other religions. Mr Blair said parents were attracted to such schools because they provided a “strong ethos and values”.

Yeah, because people like you go on implying that religion has a monopoly on ‘values.’ Another self-perpetuating self-creating trope, just like identity and victim status. I think this is where we came in.


Jul 29th, 2005 8:53 pm | By

Hmm. Should I do the charitable reading thing? Or should I just yell is Peter Singer nuts?

Let’s try the charitable reading. He mis-spoke. He left out the qualifying phrase. He forgot a crucial adjective or two. He – um – lives in a hole in the ground and has all his news filtered by hooded agents of a secret international organization?

Singer sought the clash with neo-con America, partly to revive a career that was going stale. True, when he was appointed Ira W de Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University in 1999, Bill Clinton was in the White House, but still Singer had been lured from the relatively liberal milieu of academic Melbourne because he thought the challenges in one of the world’s most selfish, reactionary societies would galvanise him anew as an ethical person.

Maybe it’s the reporter who left out the adjective or two, since that is a paraphrase or indirect quotation rather than an actual quotation. Surely. Because I have to say – bad and regressive as things are here, this is not even close to being one of the world’s most reactionary societies. (Selfish, possibly, depending on how you define it, but that’s not what I’m taking issue with.) It’s really not. I could give a great long list of examples of why not, but it’s so obvious I won’t even bother. I’ll just say – look at the lives of women and girls in a long, long, long list of countries, and then look at their lives here, and tell me the US is more reactionary than all those countries. Neither in practice, nor in law, is that remotely the case.

Thirteen Million Women

Jul 29th, 2005 1:44 am | By

It looks as if women in Iraq are in big trouble.

With the approach of the 15 August deadline for completing the new constitution, the role of women in society has become a political battlefield. It pits secular Iraqis against newly powerful religious parties who want a greater role for Islam written into the document…Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had some of the most secular legislation in the region. But all that could change, with hardline Shia members of the national assembly pushing for the country to be named the Islamic Republic of Iraq.


A strict interpretation of Islamic law would mean that the evidence of a woman in court would count for only half that of a man. And women would have significantly less say in matters of marriage and divorce. “We believe in equality between men and women,” says Amal Moussa, a member of the Shia coalition that took the most seats in January’s elections. “But it is a limited equality. There are Islamic rules that regulate the family and society, and women and men have different rights and duties.”

I love that kind of thing. We believe in equality (well that sounds good). But it is a limited equality. It means that women are inferior and have to do what they are told. That kind of equality.

“We are a pluralist society and this constitution will determine our future,” Ms Edwar says. “It is crucial for us. We cannot allow it to move us backwards and make a mockery of conventions that Iraq has signed on human rights.” Secular women in Iraq have been through a difficult two years, with relentless violence keeping more and more women indoors and many feeling growing pressure to wear the veil.

Growing pressure to wear the ‘veil’? Oh but why is that a problem? Isn’t wearing the veil an expression of their deep devout pious faith? And of their culture? And of their Otherness? And of their postcolonialism and nonOrientalism? And of diversity? So why don’t they want to? Have they been corrupted by the West – is that it?

“I am worried,” says Yannar Muhammad, a prominent activist who runs a shelter for abused women. “I think the future of women in Iraq is very bleak.”

Not good.

Margaret Owen is also worried.

In March 2004, Iraq adopted an interim constitution called the Tal (transitional administrative law). It was then that Iraqi women won their battle to stop the passing of the proposed rule 137, which, if promulgated, would have destroyed all hopes for women’s equality, dignity and justice in the country, in effect allowing the total subordination of women to men within their families, in the community and in political life. This particular interpretation of the Qur’an would legalise polygamy; divorce by “talaq” (when a husband has only to declare “I divorce you” three times for the marriage to be at an end); honour killings; stoning and public beheadings of women for alleged adultery. But now rule 137’s provisions are back in the new draft constitution.

Rule 137 would legalize honour killings? Really? I’m naive – I thought honour killings were tacitly permitted in many places, but I didn’t realize they were actually legal – anywhere. At least I don’t think I knew that. I wonder if that’s right.

Despite the appalling security situation in Iraq (two Sunni members of the committee who are drafting the constitution were gunned down last week), thousands of brave Iraqi women, from different governorates, risked their lives last Tuesday when they congregated in Baghdad’s Al-Firdaws Square to protest against their exclusion in the draft constitution. The international press, busy reporting the continuing violence of the insurgency, failed to cover this event and it got little publicity within Iraq.

Hmm. That BBC article above said it was two hundred women – not thousands. Unless it’s a different demonstration, but that seems unlikely. I wonder which is the right figure.

The drafts released last weekend are a cause for deepest concern. Written by a committe of 46 men and nine women, they expressly state that the main source of legislation in the new Iraqi constitution is to be sharia law, which will take precedence over international law. Sharia law decrees that “personal status” (that is, family law relating to marriage, divorce, custody, widowhood and inheritance) is to be determined according to the different religious sects. Depriving women of their long-held rights and rendering them subservient to interpretations of Islamic law could well lead to the “Talibanisation” of Iraq and an escalation of violence towards women who rebel. Indeed extremists and insurgents are already using rape, acid attacks and violence to force women to wear the veil. Now a law is set to be passed that will ban widows from working for three months following the deaths of their husbands.

That’s how it went in Iran. (I’ve just read Persepolis – read and looked at. Great book.)

If Iraq is truly to become a democratic state, complying with international human rights treaties and conventions, then its constitution, while upholding sharia law, must ensure that its interpretation does not breach its international obligations.

Wait – what? While upholding Sharia law? After what you just got through saying? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Every day in Iraq, women are beaten, raped, abducted and murdered in “honour killings”. Millions more live in poverty and fear. The new constitution must uphold their rights, for we know that it is only when women have equality with men that there can be true democracy, justice and peace. Iraqi women are imploring the international community to act to protect the lives of 13 million women. Tony Blair and Jack Straw must not remain silent.

Second that.

Update. Sort of legal, maybe, semi-legal. “In November 1998, the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of honor killings. The two articles in the Jordanian Penal Code, which apply to crimes of honor, are the exonerating law: a section of article 340 in the Jordanian Penal Code (no 16, 1960) stating that “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty”; and Article 98 that states: “He who commits a crime in a fit of fury caused by an unrightful and dangerous act on the part of the victim benefits from a reduction of penalty.” That’s from January 1999 and they were working on reforming the law.

It’s an Outrage

Jul 28th, 2005 8:08 pm | By

A reader tells me I’m wrong in the Flexible Labour comment – that Muslims (from the Indian subcontinent) were not recruited to move to the UK in the 50s, and that I have them confused in that respect with West Indians, who were. Okay. I did look it up before posting, in a reference book I happened to have handy (the Oxford Companion to British History) which did say people were recruited from the subcontinent, because I thought I thought that was the case but wasn’t sure. But one reference book can always be wrong.

I also apparently didn’t make my meaning entirely clear – probably because I knew so well what I meant that I didn’t notice it wasn’t clear. By ‘dirty little secret’ I didn’t mean the recruitment itself, but the broader or perhaps vaguer point that immigration policy is not motivated solely by altruism or multiculturalism but also by a demand for cheap labour. The reader tells me that’s not a secret, dirty or otherwise, in the UK. Okay. Perhaps I’m misled by the way the subject is discussed in the US, which is generally extremely euphemised and dressed up and generally disguised. Maybe that’s just as well, maybe a blunter discussion would be disastrous. But I think euphemised discussions tend to be confused.

In any case, this article suggests a different reason for ‘alienation’ and grievance and generally feeling pissed off.

What is revealing is that the feelings of alienation suffered by Muslims in the YouGov poll are far greater among men than women. Muslim girls, on the whole, are liberated by living in Britain. Their education is deemed as important by the State as their brothers’. Those whose parents don’t encourage them to stay on at school and go to university will be encouraged by their teachers instead. For many of them, Western society offers the chance of escape from oppression by fathers, brothers and husbands.

Not to mention from ‘the community’ at large. ‘Community’ has become such a hooray word – a usage which overlooks how oppressive and coercive and narrowing a community can be. Not to mention punitive. And if it’s a community that hates women – well, it’s all those and more, for women and girls.

This suggests that the problem with Britain — and the West as a whole — is not that it is un-Islamic. If that were the case, then Muslim women would surely feel as alienated as Muslim men. More plausible is that Muslim men resent the way in which their traditional feelings of superiority over women are challenged in the West. Here, they simply can’t get away with subjugating their womenfolk in the way that they can in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Somalia.

Actually, often, they can, if they do it behind closed doors. But they can’t subjugate all women. They’re constantly affronted by the presence of women who are not generally globally subordinated and submissive and inferiorized. There’s a grievance for you.

Impossible Dreams

Jul 28th, 2005 1:34 am | By

The Christians are coming, the Christians are coming. Well, at least, a dozen or so of them are, to part of South Carolina. And they got plans, dude.

In the South Carolina of their dreams, abortion would be illegal. The Ten Commandments would be proudly displayed. Public schools would be a thing of the past. Taxes would be severely limited, and property rights would be paramount.

Doesn’t that sound like paradise? Doesn’t that just sound like a little corner of heaven right here on earth? The Ten Commandments would be proudly displayed. Cool. So no graven images then – no graven images of anything in the sky, or on the earth, or in the water. No stars, no fish, no flowers, no airplanes, no leviathan, no mountains, no birds, no kelp, no 2005 silver Mercedes with leather upholstery. No family snaps, either. But so then what about family values? That’s the part I don’t get. I thought family values were all about sitting around the stove on winter evenings looking at pictures of Junior sledding down hill and Sis with her blue-ribbon pie at the county fair and Grandma pouring herself a stiff drink. No? Well okay, I wouldn’t know, I’m a stranger here myself. Next item – public schools would be a thing of the past. Well that’s a lovely thought. So – everybody in this dreamland is rich enough to pony up for private school? Okay – then who does the shitwork? Has it escaped the dreamers’ notice that rich people don’t do shitwork? Who’s going to do it then? Who’s going to work on their cars, and pass their food over the scanner and take their money, and clean their houses? Or is the plan that women will do all that – homeschool the children and do all the shitwork? So – they’ll be working part-time at the supermarket then, and the garage, and the restaurant? While homeschooling? Could get tricky. But, hey, property rights would be paramount, so no doubt they would work it out somehow.

And if the federal government tried to interfere, well, they’d secede.

Aha! The Civil War, Part Deux! Great!

Many South Carolinians, including conservatives, are skeptical about the new group.

Gee, I wonder why.

Oh well – look on the bright side. They don’t have a back room full of nail-studded bombs all ready to go, at least not that they mention, so I suppose that’s something.

Muriel Gray has a better take.

For the government of a secular country such as ours to treat religion as if it had real merit instead of regarding it as a ridiculous anachronism, which education, wisdom and experience can hopefully overcome in time, is one of the most depressing developments of the 21st century…we have debates on TV news shows between hardline Muslim scholars and moderate Muslim politicians without any intervening voice of scepticism suggesting that the whole darned thing might be just as invented as virgin births and Mormon tablets.

Which apart from anything else is so condescending. Amartya Sen might as well not even have bothered publishing that book.

Since these are dark days, it’s time to stop all this polite tiptoeing around religion and harden up accordingly. Our elected leaders constantly bleating their respect for religion is not political correctness but a public declaration that intellect, tolerance, democracy, reason and enlightenment are of less value than dogma and delusion…No bishops, mullahs, Presbyterian ministers, rabbis, or Scientologists should be gifted special hearings at Downing Street…

Good idea. As impossible of attainment as the dream of the Christian South Carolina, but a good idea all the same.

Flexible Labour

Jul 26th, 2005 11:12 pm | By

However. I said I think there actually is a genuine grievance lurking behind all this rage and alienation we’re hearing about. I don’t know, I’m only guessing, but it’s my suspicion that this grievance is less bogus and worked-up than the ones that are more usually rolled out are. I don’t see this one mentioned much, if at all. Because – ? Because it’s too sensitive, too close to the bone, too uncomfortable to talk about? Maybe – but I don’t know.

Muslims in the UK are the underclass, and that’s why they’re there. They were recruited to move to the UK for that reason – to provide cheap (meaning unskilled, uneducated) labour. Just as Turks were in Germany, and Mexicans in the US. It’s not that Clement Attlee and his cabinet decided in the late forties that Britain was too pasty-white and monocultural and wouldn’t it be a great thing to be more diverse. No. One might be forgiven for thinking so, to hear people drivel about diversity now, but in fact that was not the reason. There was what is always called a ‘labour shortage,’ meaning a shortage of people willing to work for low wages, after WW II, and a surplus on the subcontinent, so a demographic re-arrangement was made. Not a terrible solution in some ways; both sides benefit; but it shouldn’t be prettied up as a way to make London more right-on and cosmopolitan, because that’s not what it was. Still less was it a way to make Bradford and Leeds more diverse.

That’s not necessarily a great source of pride. It can be – because in fact it takes a lot of courage and ambition to make such a move, and children and grandchildren of impoverished immigrants often do derive pride from that history. (Read Carl Sagan on his grandfather at the beginning of Pale Blue Dot, for example. ‘My grandfather was a beast of burden.’ It’s quite moving.) But that depends on a lot of factors, and the truth is that it can also be a considerable narcissistic wound.

David Goodhart touched on this a week after the 7th.

First, the relatively poor socioeconomic position of most British Muslims has little to do with Islamophobia or racism and a great deal to do with the fact that nearly two-thirds of British Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, often from these countries’ poor, rural areas. (Indian and Arab Muslims do better.) The starting point in terms of education, skills and traditional cultural attitudes is worse for most Muslims than it is for, say, the Hindu or Chinese minorities, both of which outperform white Britons. To expect Muslims to rise to the average level in terms of education and jobs within a generation or two is not realistic, although progress is being made.

That’s just it. The starting point in education and skills is the point, because it’s not an accident, it’s not something that just happened – it’s integral to the cheap labour aspect. This is the dirty little secret (at least, if it’s not, I don’t know why it doesn’t get mentioned more) of the economic imperative.

I have no idea whatever if this has anything to do with the bombings or bombers, but with the generalized alienation of Muslim young men that we hear about, I suspect it does. It’s only a suspicion though.

Make a Splash

Jul 25th, 2005 9:29 pm | By

This comment says pretty much exactly what I was thinking (and saying) a few days ago. I would guess that a lot of other people are thinking it too – but that’s just a guess. But it is related to Mona Eltahawy’s point, that it’s insulting for non-Muslims to think Muslims can’t take responsibility.

The notion that the British Muslim suicide bombers of July 7 were spurred on by some passionate form of public-spiritedness, of course, is both flagrantly idiotic and deeply dangerous…Yet Mr Ahmed’s apparent reasoning – that his nephew was compelled to kill himself and seven innocent people near Liverpool Street station by a combination of righteous anger and sheer desperation at injustices suffered by fellow-Muslims – is not too distant from the explanations that have in the past been provided for Palestinian suicide bombers by non-Muslim British public figures…I wonder, however, if the recent apparition of British suicide bombers – raised in circumstances that were far from desperate – might have caused Baroness Tonge and Mrs Blair to reconsider the psychological ingredients they once naively deemed necessary to the phenomenon…Suicide bombing, however, fired by a volatile combination of religious and political fervour, is a vigorous act of self-assertion: the bomber hopes to make his triumphant, bloody mark upon the world before proceeding to his reward in Paradise.

Bingo. It’s not righteous anger, it’s not altruistic rage at injustices suffered by other people – it’s narcissistic mark-making (peeing on a bush writ large and bloody, one might say) and Look At Me-saying, dressed up as altruistic whatnot. It’s not about other people, it’s about me, me, me. Get me, look at me, admire me, respect me, fear me, scream when you see me, dream about me, run away from me, tremble at the thought of me, hate me, pay attention to me. Be blown to pieces by me, be blasted full of nails by me. I’m powerful, I’m scary, I’m brave, I can make things happen, I can pee higher than you.

That impulse should never be confused with altruism.

It is no accident that the bulk of suicide bombers are young men, a group particularly drawn, not necessarily to hopelessness, but to the potent romance of a “cause”. They are easily bored by the dreary, complicated business of living peacefully: the dull job, the squalling baby, and the round of minor compromises. Their professed desire to “avenge injustice” is not their driving motivation: that is a palatable excuse to buoy up their self-image. The real spur is an arrested, adolescent craving for immortality and legendary status among their peers.

Well – exactly. At least I think so. I think it’s all about self-image, combined with disaster-porn. A bunch of dreary shits bigging themselves up. No, I know, as commenters pointed out the other day, I don’t know that. But boy it’s plausible.

But let us be under no illusion that Islamist suicide bombers, whether they immolate themselves in a Haifa restaurant or the London Underground, have any love for justice: they murder the most vulnerable without compunction. Nor have they any protective instinct for their fellow-Muslims, despite their rhetoric: one glance at the newspaper photographs after the July 7 bombings will proclaim that. For there, staring back from the page of victims, is Shahara Islam, a beautiful 20-year-old bank cashier from Plaistow; Atique Sharifi, 24, an Afghan man whose parents were killed by the Taliban, and who was struggling to forge a new life in London; and Ihab Slimane, a 24-year-old student from France. They were all Muslims too, and they are all dead, their dreams forcibly extinguished by a bunch of selfish fools who hoped, with some frantic gesture, to render themselves more significant in death than they could ever be in life.

There it is, you see. Their desire for significance at the expense of other people’s dreams. That’s why pious talk of their grievances and disaffection is so – loathsome.

Eltahawy and Manji

Jul 25th, 2005 2:30 am | By

Mona Eltahawy in the Washington Post.

The July 7 London bombings did it for me. Perhaps it was because my parents moved us from Cairo to the British capital when I was 7 years old, and so London was my childhood “home.” Or maybe it was because our route to work and school every morning crisscrossed those same Underground stations that were targeted.

I know the feeling. As, of course, do countless other people – literally millions of them. They live there, they once lived there, they visited there, they have friends and relatives there. Many, many millions of people know the feeling.

I’m sure it was also those dog-eared statements that our clerics and religious leaders read out telling us that Islam means peace — it actually means submission — and asking us to please forget everything they had ever said before July 6, because as of July 7 they truly believe violence is bad. Their backpedaling is so furious you can smell the skid marks.

Yes, I’ve been noticing that ‘Islam means peace’ bromide lately, and wondering at it. I certainly was under the impression that it meant submission. I thought maybe it meant both, or that the two words are the same thing in Arabic – so it’s good to see that correction. (Of course, it may be that in the minds of clerics, sumbission in fact is peace. Reminds one of that old bitter remark of Tacitus’: they make a wilderness and call it peace. Submission is peace, in a sense, as is being dead. Give up, give in, empty yourself, empty your mind, become an obedient blank – and that’s peace. In a way. But if that’s peace, give me turmoil.)

I was against the invasion of Iraq and would not have voted for George Bush if I were a U.S. citizen, but I’m done with the “George Bush made me do it” excuse. We must accept responsibility for this mess if we are ever to find a way out. And for those non-Muslims who accept the George Bush excuse, I have a question: Do you think Muslims are incapable of accepting responsibility? It is at least in some way bigoted to think that Muslims can only react violently.

It’s also in some way bigoted – or condescending – to apply special standards to Muslims. If the bombers were anti-abortionists or Nazis, would the same people be talking the same nonsense about rage and alienation in the same tone? Give me a break.

Irshad Manji in the LA Times.

I believe thursday’s bombings in London, combined with the first wave of explosions two weeks ago, are changing something for the better. Never before have I heard Muslims so sincerely denounce terrorism committed in our name as I did on my visit to Britain a few days ago. We’re finally waking up. Except on one front: the possible role of religion itself in these crimes…To blow yourself up, you need conviction. Secular society doesn’t compete well on this score…Which is why I don’t understand how moderate Muslim leaders can reject, flat-out, the notion that religion may also play a part in these bombings. What makes them so sure that Islam is an innocent bystander?

And not only moderate Muslim leaders. For some understandable reasons, plenty of non-Muslims also don’t want to admit that religion may play a part in the bombings.

What makes them sound so sure is literalism. That’s the trouble with Islam today. We Muslims, including moderates living here in the West, are routinely raised to believe that the Koran is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God’s will, untouched and immutable. This is a supremacy complex. It’s dangerous because it inhibits moderates from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. To avoid the discomfort, we sanitize. And so it was, one week after the first wave of bombings. A high-profile gathering of 22 clerics and scholars at the London Cultural Center produced a statement, later echoed by a meeting of 500 Muslim leaders. It contained this line: “The Koran clearly declares that killing an innocent person [is] tantamount to killing all mankind.” I wish. In fact, the full verse reads, “Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind.” Militant Muslims easily deploy the clause beginning with “except” to justify their rampages.

Interesting clause for clerics and scholars to leave out, isn’t it. Interesting game to play. Produce a statement saying ‘the Bible/the Torah clearly states [something with a key phrase that profoundly alters the meaning omitted].’ Not good. Not honest.

How about joining with the moderates of Judaism and Christianity in confessing some “sins of Scripture,” as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has said of the Bible? Anything less leaves me with another question: Why is it that in diverse societies, those who oppose diversity of thought often feel more comfortable getting vocal than those who embrace it?

Interesting paradox, isn’t it.

Wrong Verb

Jul 25th, 2005 12:03 am | By

The Guardian has booted Dilpazier Aslam, because of his membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. You may remember his comment in the Guardian July 13:

Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers. We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not. Which is why the young get angry with that breed of Muslim “community leader” who remains silent while anger is seething on the streets.

Sassy. Rocking the boat. Oh, is that what this is – sassy boat-rocking. Interesting take. Okay, and what is it that all this seething is about? Somalia? Bosnia? Kosovo? The Kurds? No?

Anyway, as Norm points out, Aslam did a silly thing after getting the boot. He chose the one word of all words in the dictionary that would most make him look like a hypocritical prat. The same word Louis chose – sarcastically – when he raided Rick’s. Dilpazier Aslam is shocked, shocked, at the naughty Guardian.

Aslam said: “I am shocked by the manner in which this whole affair has been handled. My treatment throws up issues which will be of grave concern to all journalists. I am currently taking legal advice.”

But what did he just get through saying, in that boatrocky sassy comment?

If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked.

Then – apparently thinking he’s onto a good trope, here – he starts no fewer than four paragraphs with the same word. He gives us all a damned good talking-to for having the nerve to be shocked about the July 7 bombs when we should have realized that the bombings happened through our own responsibility. Right. We mustn’t be shocked by bombings that kill 56 people and injure a lot of others, but he is shocked because the Guardian told him to piss off. What, apart from any other consideration, an admirable sense of proportion. Mass murder, entirely understandable; the firing of a seething trainee, shocking.

Dazed and Theorized

Jul 24th, 2005 4:15 am | By

Apparently in Australia schoolchildren are being taught Theory. Or postmodernism, or critical literacy, or deconstruction, or cultural relativism. Poor little tads. Bad enough there are all those dingoes around eating your babies – but critial literacy theory for schoolchildren? Ice cream, Mandrake? Children’s ice cream?

For Australian academics John Stephens, Ken Watson and Judith Parker, compilers of the manual From Picture Book to Literary Theory, the story of the Three Little Pigs is really about “the virtues of property ownership and the safety of the private domain” — both “key elements of liberal/capitalist ideology”.

Mind you – there is interesting stuff about the not very hidden messages in fairy tales – Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, and the like – but they’re slightly more subtle than those Australian academics sound, and anyway I didn’t read them when I was ten.

But postmodernism’s intellectual assumptions – truth is a matter of opinion, there is no real world outside of language and hence no facts independent of our descriptions of them – render it an entirely inappropriate teaching tool in an era of information excess. As Julian Baggini, editor and co-publisher of The Philosopher’s Magazine, observes in Making Sense, Philosophy Behind the Headlines, that cultural relativism is widespread in the classroom.

But in From Picture Book to Literary Theory, a booklet addressed to teachers pushing the barrow of postmodern theory in the classroom, edited by academics JohnStephens, Ken Watson and Judith Parker, John Brown demonstrates to students the way in which we are socially constructed as readers.

From Picture Book to Literary Theory – doesn’t that just make you laugh and laugh? From the Little Red Hen to Grammatology, from the Mary Poppins to Discipline and Punish, from Five Children and It to Social Text. Makes you wish you were a child again, doesn’t it?

Present Mirth

Jul 23rd, 2005 9:12 pm | By

Howard Jacobson’s a funny guy. Writes well, too.

The other proof of our philistinism is our politicising of literature…The old complaint that Jane Austen left out the Napeolonic wars is making itself heard again. If a novel isn’t politically au courant, if it isn’t ratified by events outside itself, we have trouble remembering what it’s for.

What used to be (tediously) called ‘relevance.’ How is Shakespeare ‘relevant’ to the yoof of today? Answer: he isn’t, so let’s not read the pesky old bastard any more.

It takes the most responsible of writers to see why irresponsibility is so important…Once upon a time, when we knew aesthetically what we were about, the novel was comic or it was nothing…Gargantua and Don Quixote are novels of grand design and purpose; they mean to liberate us from the debilitating certainties of God and hero worship, whether those certainties take the form of sermons, laws, sagas, patriotism, idealism or romance…

Yeah. If only someone would – liberate us from all those debilitating certainties. We’re all badly in need of some certainty-liberation these days.

In their guidelines for aspiring writers of eroticism, the publishers of Black Lace warn specifically against comedy. What they do not go on to say is that laughter is the operation of intelligence, an act of criticism, and the moment you subject porn, soft or hard, to intelligence, it comes apart like a mummified artefact exposed to light. Ditto The Da Vinci Code. Ditto the modern novel of highly responsible ideological intent.

Now that is really interesting. ‘No comedy, don’t forget, it messes up the concentration. Focus on the throbbing genitalia, and leave the wit at home.’

The isolation of comedy from everything else we do is symptomatic of this. We are right to shrink from the very idea of a “funny” book. There should be no such genre. We should expect laughter to be integral to the business of being serious. We are back in a new dark age of the imagination. We read to sleep.

And that’s even more interesting (well, to me), because that’s the Dictionary. It is funny (in intention), but it’s also serious. We even bothered saying that in the introduction. And I felt quite squirmy about having it shelved in the comedy section with all the chav books and crap town books. It’s not that kind of book. (But, as Jeremy kept sagely pointing out when I whined, more people would see it among the crap town books. They still wouldn’t buy it, but they would see it.) But anyway, this idea of laughter being integral to the business of being serious – that’s very B&W, I think. B&W has been lashed and laced and intertwined with mockery from the very beginning – but it’s also been quite serious.

Some things, we believe, should not be scrutinised or ridiculed. And day by day the list of sacred sites and objects – like one of Gargantua’s spiralling menus of excess – gets longer. Soon parliament might even harden our jokelessness into law. A radical confusion between art and action is at the heart of this. What we consider unacceptable in human behaviour, we consider unacceptable in art, forgetting that art exists precisely to say the otherwise unsayable.

Just so. The list of sacred stuff gets longer and longer and longer. That trend really needs to be reversed.