I’ll decide how much light you need

Feb 1st, 2007 6:45 pm | By

Noga pointed out two more articles, and I’m feeling slightly peeved at being told not to ‘blame the Jews, for Chrissakes,’ as if I had, so I’ll say a little more. The articles are interesting. From The Canadian Jewish News, which says the Canadian Jewish Congress doesn’t agree that the synagogue should have asked the Y to frost its windows.

[C]ommunications director Leyla Di Cori…said CJC is trying to get the message out to the public that the entire chassidic population represents only five to 10 per cent of the Montreal Jewish community and “does not reflect the community as a whole.”

Well of course it doesn’t, and neither does anyone else, because there is no such thing as ‘the community as a whole’ except in the case of a town or neighborhood, in which case there is still no one who can ‘reflect the community as a whole’ because that doesn’t mean anything, because people don’t think in a bloc. Why would anybody think that the people at the synagogue did ‘reflect the community as a whole’? I suppose because people keep talking about ‘communities’ that way, just as Leyla Di Cori does.

What the people at the synagogue may ‘reflect’ is a growing tendency for religious zealots to think they can tell everyone else what to do, but that’s not the same thing as reflecting a ‘community.’

Di Cori said she thinks this seemingly minor incident has been played up in the media because it fits into the “reasonable accommodation” debate going on in Quebec today about how far a society that prides itself on being secular and progressive should go to tolerate practices of religious and cultural minorities that are at odds with the majority.

I’ll tell you how far. Zero far. Unless of course there’s no issue, which is no help, because when there’s no issue there’s no debate about how far anyone should go. If there’s no harm and nothing at stake, no problem; if there is harm, the society should go zero far.

B’nai Brith Canada legal counsel Steven Slimovitch “commended” the Y administration for good neighbourliness and finding a “compromise” that poses little or no inconvenience to the institution or its members. In fact, it appears to have been a plus for the Y, because the congregation paid for the change to the windows.

Why is that a plus? The congregation paid to make the windows opaque so that there is less light inside. Why is that a plus? Many of us like natural light.

“Was the space rendered any less comfortable? Can they not work out there any more? No. If it had been, for example, a sewing class that was held there that required a lot of natural light, it would be a different story.”

Ah – so it’s up to him to decide how much light the people at the Y get to have in a situation where the people at the synagogue want them to have less. It’s up to him, not up to them. I see.

He deplored what he regards as the visceral “us versus them” mentality among some Y members. In an increasingly diverse society, he said, it’s necessary more than ever to co-operate and show respect and understanding.

Respect and understanding for the religious zealots who want women to hide, not respect and understanding for people who don’t share their religion and don’t want it telling them what to do and how much light they’re allowed to have in a public gym. No, it’s not necessary to show that, it’s necessary to refuse to show that.

Slimovitch said he doesn’t see this case as a status of women issue in any way, or one that endorses a view that women are somehow shameful and must be kept out of sight.

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he. And he’s not the one who’s being told to cover up, is he, so I really don’t think his opinion is interesting or relevant.

And here’s an ugly little finale:

Alex Werzberg, president of the Coalition of Outremont Chassidic Organizations and a Satmar community member, called “the whole thing a big joke…Everything was fine for months, and then somebody came in and made a big deal out of it – an agent provocateur – who says, ‘Those Jews are not going to tell us what to do,’ called the media and made a hullabaloo.”

Did she? Did she say that? Did she? Or did he just say she did? I know what I think.

Cover yourself!

Feb 1st, 2007 1:31 pm | By

So if there are ‘devout’ people around, then anyone living or working or exercising or playing sport in a building near them has a responsibility to make sure that the devout people don’t see anything that they (or, really, some of them) don’t like. Even if that means that a subset of the devout people can see what the other people are doing only by going outside, around the corner, into the alley, where they peer into the windows – it is the responsibility of the horrible non-devout people next door to wear armour or paint their windows black or turn all their lights off, because after all what right does anyone have to wear shorts and a skimpy top for athletic purposes if there are devout people nearby? No right at all of course. Devout trumps non-devout. Right? Right.

Some members of the Avenue du Parc YMCA are upset with the centre’s administrators, who allowed windows on the building’s west side to be tinted in order to placate leaders of a Hasidic synagogue across the alley. The Y members claim the tinted windows compromise the building’s interior lighting and make it hard to practise tai chi and yoga.

Oh grow up. For heaven’s sake. So the Y is a little darker than it used to be; get used to it.

Members of the Yetev Lev synagogue, on Hutchison Street, paid for tinted windows at the Y after they complained their children and youth were unwittingly watching too many women in various states of undress work out at the gym. The congregation’s rabbi said public nudity is not acceptable to his members, nor to any religious Jew.

Public nudity in the sense of inside a building, next door to another building containing people who ‘unwittingly’ watch women in various states of undress. Right; well that makes sense. It’s perfectly fair, too.

But some people just won’t see reason.

[N]ow the windows have opened up a rift over whether the institution went too far to accommodate a minority. Some Y members have circulated a petition demanding the opaque windows be removed because they not only deprive the room of light, but allow a religious group to impose its ways on the majority.“It’s like getting us to wear a veil. Since we represent temptation, we’re being asked to hide,” Renée Lavaillante, who started the petition, said yesterday. “We shouldn’t have to hide in order to exercise in Quebec. We’re a secular state, and shouldn’t hide ourselves for religious reasons.”

It’s also like ordering you to go to the back of the bus – but hey, be reasonable; the back of the bus is a perfectly nice, homey place. Settle down, get comfortable.

The Hasidic community says it is not out to stop women from exercising the way they like. Members just want to find a way to maintain their strict traditions in a secular world, and felt the windows – for which the congregation footed the $3,500 bill – were a reasonable solution.

Of course they were! Perfectly reasonable! Hey, if a neighbour of mine decided he couldn’t stand the possibility of getting a sight of me reading a godless book (which he couldn’t, because I live at the top of a hill and my windows face into thin air, but never mind), of course it would be perfectly reasonable of him to demand that I have the windows painted black, especially if he footed the bill. Why should I mind a darkened living room if it makes a neighbour happy? I’m not so petty, I assure you!

“We have a belief in being dressed modestly, and we want our kids to see women dressed modestly,” Mr. Weig said.

Not just in our own living rooms, but also in their living rooms. We want our kids to see women dressed modestly, therefore we think we have a right to demand that all women everywhere ‘dress modestly’ according to our definitions and no matter where they are. We don’t want much, do we.

Serge St-André, director of the YMCA branch, said the Hasidim’s request had been submitted to an advisory committee, which judged it to be reasonable…“We are geographically at the junction of several communities, and the YMCA has to take on the colours of those communities,” he said…“We try to be responsive to the requests of the community. It’s a challenge to satisfy everyone.”…a Y member walked up to say he objected to the windows. “We can’t let ourselves be imposed upon by extremist religious groups. What’s next? Separate gyms for women and for men? Wearing long pants and long sleeves to exercise?” Outremont resident Robert Dolbec asked. “They [the Hasidim] should cover their own windows. I respect their right to practise their religion, but not their right to impose their religion on us.”…The frosted-window kerfuffle is just the latest flare-up between the fast-growing Hasidic community in Outremont and the larger secular community that surrounds it. In the 1980s, Outremont passed a bylaw banning the wearing of bathing suits in its public parks; the law was struck down as unconstitutional by Quebec Superior Court in 1985…Asher Wieder, a rabbi at the Yetev Lev synagogue, said he hoped the window row would be resolved peacefully. “We felt the way we worked it out was very fair. They still have light in the room and we help our children keep their traditions and religion,” he said. “I think it’s a good compromise.”

They don’t have as much light, but hey, that’s what ‘compromise’ means. So if that neighbour wants me to paint my windows black and I agree to paint just half of the windows, everybody is happy. Compromise is great.

The psychology of such accommodations

Feb 1st, 2007 10:32 am | By

Jonathan Derbyshire’s interview with Nick Cohen is very good.

‘I realised that people on the left who had once supported Iraqi socialists were going to dump them. That’s when the iron entered the soul. That’s when I thought something is going very badly wrong and that I need to write about it.’Instead of supporting socialists and trade unionists in Iraq once Saddam had been overthrown, some on the left went so far as to romanticise the insurgency launched by Baathist irregulars and radical Islamists, declaring it to be a movement of ‘national liberation’…‘To say it’s left-wing to turn your back on Kurdish and Iraqi socialists is to throw the best traditions of left solidarity out of the window. What kind of left is it that betrays its comrades?’

A very confused one, at any rate.

‘What’s Left?’ is not a book about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq but rather an attempt to answer the question of betrayal…[H]e compares the strenuous act of historical forgetting involved in seeing Islamism as authentically ‘anti-imperialist’ with the mental gymnastics demanded of Communists and their fellow-travellers in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact was sealed. Cohen is interested in the psychology of such accommodations.

Yeah. So am I. I always have been, for some reason – I spent most of my twenties reading about the mental gymnastics of the left in the 30s. I’m very interested in the psychology of such accomodations. And the weird gymnastics of today are indeed reminiscent of those of the 30s – Nick and I did some muttering about that while he was writing the book.

Metaphysical naturalism

Feb 1st, 2007 10:29 am | By

Mark Vernon takes issue with Anthony Grayling on the question of the latter’s challenge to Madeleine Bunting ‘to name one – even one small – contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years’.

After all, there are a number of essentially theological ideas that underpin modern science, such as the notion that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on.

But are those ideas essentially theological? Are they theological at all? (Does ‘essentially’ there mean – necessarily, or of its essence, or something like ‘perhaps not obviously but down deep beyond appearances’? It could be just a no true Scotsman move.)

I don’t think the ‘notion’ that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on is an essentially theological idea, and I tend to suspect that claims that it is are part of the usual pattern of giving theism, or particular religions, credit for pretty much every idea anyone’s ever had, including some pretty obviously secular ones. We’re told that Christianity invented the idea of equality, anti-slavery, science, the worth of the individual, human dignity, secularism – you name it. But the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible doesn’t depend on also thinking there is a god; the two can be separate thoughts; one can have one without the other; in fact, lots of people do have one without the other (some of them are called ‘scientists’). Why would it depend on thinking there is a god? Because the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way? That must be the thought, but it doesn’t seem like a very compelling thought to me. It’s the regress problem again, for one thing. If you think the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way, then why not also think a god couldn’t be a coherent-universe-maker unless a bigger god had made it that way, and so on? And for another thing, it adds a kind of person to the puzzle, instead of just stopping with a coherent universe, for reasons which are not self-explanatory, at least not to me. So why couldn’t people just look around them and see a lot of coherence and intelligibility and come up with the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible, and leave it at that? They could; lots did; so in what way is that notion essentially theological?

I said at Comment is free that the coherent-universe notion could be a metaphysical belief (as opposed to a theological one) but also that it could equally well be a working assumption, which is what most scientists take it to be.

I don’t like this habit of labeling all or most human ideas religious or theological. It really is possible to think thoughts that are not essentially somewhere down at the bottom theological.

Nostalgia for mud

Jan 29th, 2007 5:22 pm | By

Bunting is at the old stand again.

But it is [A C Grayling’s] claim of the west’s steady march of progress to the happy lands of a universal ideal of rationality and freedom that strikes so hollow. The more vehemently one hears liberal progressives claim progress, the more one wonders who they are trying to convince. Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity – that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James’s new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west’s “good life” – success, fame, wealth – mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Isn’t that just the truth? Don’t you just want to leap out of your seat and yell ‘Dang, Madeleine, you are so right!’? That stinking old progress we like to attribute to something called ‘western or enlightenment values’ is just such a, a, a dead mackerel, compared with the bliss and joy and heaven of the alternative. How I wish I lived in Bangladesh, or Zimbabwe, or Darfur, or Congo, or Guatemala, or Indonesia, instead of here in the poxy old ‘West’ with its poxy old enlightenment values. How I wish I were dirt poor, and illiterate, and crippled from overwork and childbearing (or in fact dead, which is more likely), and malnourished, and bossed around by some man who sits smoking and bullshitting with his friends all day while I do all the work. Doesn’t that just sound like paradise? I do so agree with Bunting about that – how I hate all this education, and clean water, and edible food, and electric light, and functioning plumbing and sewer systems, all these streets and buses and libraries and shops, all these books, all this music, all these schools and universities cluttering up the place.

Anthony Grayling agrees with her just as warmly as I do. He is as impressed with her good sense and powers of observation and inference as I am.

Ms Bunting will be on top of the mailing list for the large tome I’ve just spent years writing (I thank her for this advertising opportunity) on the way liberties, first of conscience, then thought, then the person, then for working people and women, were wrested from the bitter opposition of church and absolutisms premised on “divine right” and their joint legacy of oligarchies of privilege and patriarchy. If the Catholic Church were still running Europe, Ms Bunting would not be writing for the Guardian. Actually, if this was 1950s Ireland, she might not be writing anything.

Indeed she might not. Especially if she’d grown up at Goldenbridge, or been shoved into one of the Magdalen laundries. But she appears to be, frankly, not clever enough to grasp that not very difficult point. She’s just clever enough to do the Christianophobia schtick, and not one bit cleverer.

Finally, Ms Bunting wheels out the bunkum that we (here in Britain?) live in unhappier and more spiritually impoverished times because we do not dwell – well, where? In the warm glow of Torquemada’s Inquisition pyres? On a slave plantation in Jamaica? Would she prefer to be in a harem, or an undermaid in a medieval kitchen?

No, but she thinks she would, which is what makes her so absurd. One of the things – she has other ways:

Having abdicated so much ground in political life – particularly over the economy – liberal progressives have to scrabble together another way to define their notion of progress, and they have recycled old anti-clericalism to attack religion. Faith has become a curiously faddish target in a new, ersatz politics. Judging by the outcry over the past few days, Catholics, or Christians in general, are lurking on every street corner to deprive the English of their most cherished liberties, as they have done all through history. The National Secular Society even raised the cry of English kings down the centuries last week: “Who runs Britain – the government or the Vatican?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Catholics have a duty to care for the millions of people who are under their authority, so shut up about them, even if they do demand special exemptions from regulations mandating equal treatment. If it were some dreaded arrogant liberal progressives demanding such an exemption, would Bunting be so briskly dismissive? I don’t know, but [darkly I doubt it.

The church’s tender concern for children

Jan 28th, 2007 11:47 am | By

Well damn. As Andy Gilmour reminds us in a comment on the last post, the Archbishop’s record on concern for children isn’t what it might be. Isn’t so flawless that he is really the ideal person to be saying what kind of person should be ruled out in advance from eligibility to adopt children. Maybe he really ought to worry about gay couples less given that he did such a bad job of worrying about a priest before.

One of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales has defended his decision to allow a known paedophile to continue working as a priest, despite warnings he would re-offend. A BBC investigation found evidence suggesting Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor ignored the advice of doctors and therapists that Father Michael Hill would carry on assaulting children.

It may have been just a case of compassion, of believing that the priest had changed and ought to have another chance, but even then, the Archbish could have erred on the side of caution out of concern for children and givent the priest another chance in a different kind of job. But he also, according to the BBC, ignored advice.

Documents seen by the BBC suggest the archbishop ignored the advice of doctors and therapists who warned that Hill was likely to re-offend. Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor has now agreed that boys abused by the priest should receive compensation, but as part of the settlement they were required not to speak publicly about what happened.

What right does the church have to set conditions? And how does the church square that with its vaunted conscience and its boasted principles? Why doesn’t it put the children ahead of its own interests? Why in this case didn’t it simply prostrate itself in guilt and remorse and sorrow and do everything it could to make amends, rather than making conditions and silencing the victims?

In short, what principles? What conscience?

A BBC News investigation in 1999 revealed evidence that some Catholic bishops in the UK were failing to follow the church’s child protection guidelines, allowing priests accused of child abuse to continue working. Since 1994 the Catholic Church has had strict rules in place which state that if a complaint is made against a priest, social services should be informed and the priest removed from parish duties.


Principle, conscience, beliefs

Jan 28th, 2007 10:25 am | By

Well, it’s difficult for nice Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, clearly, but – but he does fall back on a lot of emotive but undefined terms, doesn’t he. As do Sentamu and Williams. They all do – because they have to, because they have nothing else to say. What else are they going to do? Just say ‘we hate poofters, they’re icky!’? Say they just can’t stand the thought of men humping each other, it makes them come over all trembly, so they have to dig their little episcopal heels in and say No? Apparently not. So instead of that they just say resounding nothings, that don’t mean anything until the meaning is specified, which it never is. It’s all conscience, and principle, and church teachings, and beliefs, and sensitivities, and morality, and the family, and a man and a woman.

We don’t believe in discrimination – homosexuals should be treated with respect and sensitivity – but the best way of bringing up a child, and the government says so, too, is having a mother and a father.

That’s as concrete as the Cardinal gets. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t cover the subject, because 1) there are more children needing adoption than there are mother-father couples wanting to adopt them and 2) there is more than one thing to compare with the mother-father option: there are gay couples but there are also single gays (which the church does allow, making the cardinal’s remark irrelevant), single straights, potentially (I would suggest) other adult groups, and – last but decidedly not least – institutions. Even if mother and father is the best option, what the cardinal fails to address is the question whether institutions are better than gay couples – and everybody who’s not stark raving mad agrees that responsible loving couples of any kind are better than institutions. So the cardinal’s comment there is beside the point on at least two counts. And that’s his best effort.

Moral views may be changing but our view is rational and has been held for many, many years in this country as the normality. Shall we leave it there?

No. Here’s why. Your view is not rational, for the reasons cited above among others, and the fact that it has been held for many years does not make it so, as you and anyone who pays attention ought to know perfectly well. All sorts of hateful views get held for many many years as normality; it happens all the time; that doesn’t magically make the hateful views nice or okay or acceptable or moral.

We’re not talking about huge numbers. It’s a principle…This is about the rights of the government to legislate, but is also about the rights of conscience – the rights of large numbers of citizens to live according to their beliefs.

But what kind of principle? What kind of conscience? What kind of beliefs? They’re only as good as they are, Cardinal.

Catholics are obliged to obey the law, just like any citizen, but I believe there is such a thing as conscientious objection. On adoption, our beliefs in the primacy and the foundations of family life are a matter of conscience to us.

One that justifies you in a priori excluding gays from being considered for adoption? My conscience says no. It’s a principle.


Jan 28th, 2007 9:49 am | By

Right. This is where two principles slam right into each other. They are frankly irreconcilable. They can’t both be fully accommodated, any more than two bodies can occupy the same space.

The Catholic Church is to go to war over new legislation on rights for homosexuals, vowing to create “gay rights martyrs” if the laws are passed. In a change of tactics, Church officials now say they will not close down adoption agencies as a result of new laws forcing them to deal with applications from gay couples. Instead, they will deliberately break the law in order to bring a case to court. The Church believes it could then challenge a guilty verdict through Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which upholds the freedom of religious expression.

One wonders if it will succeed. One imagines that it might; and that would be a disaster.

This is a perennial problem in the US, as I’ve mentioned before, because of the free expression clause of the First Amendment. That clause is sometimes held to invalidate legislation. How broadly judges define ‘the freedom of religious expression’ is probably going to be an increasingly worrying issue as time goes on. The more broadly it is defined, the less possible a secular state becomes. That is deeply alarming to those of us who don’t want the Vatican or imams or preachers dictating terms for all of us.

And hurry up about it

Jan 27th, 2007 1:08 pm | By

People will get aggrieved and resentful and angry and irritated about anything, have you noticed?

Senior leaders within the Muslim Council of Britain tried to reverse the controversial decision to stay away from Holocaust memorial day, the Guardian has learned…It is understood that Daud Abdullah, the deputy secretary general, and affiliate members from the Muslim Association of Britain joined forces to oppose the lifting of the ban at the meeting last November. They were aided by irritation at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line. Last October, Ms Kelly appeared to criticise the MCB and suggested that organisations that snubbed the holocaust event might be starved of funds.

Irritation ‘at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line’. But the government gives the MCB money (for reasons which are somewhat mysterious, at least to me). The government might decide to stop giving the MCB money. This is irritating? Why is the government obliged to go on giving the MCB money, even if it decides it’s not crazy about what the MCB does?

It’s probably natural to think that way; to think that once people start handing you money on a plate, they have to continue; but it’s irritating.

Adopted children of God

Jan 27th, 2007 12:47 pm | By

This is one time when I find a religious argument rather attractive – although in fact it’s not really a religious argument as such, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any supernatural truth claims. The claims are in fact ethical and secular, but they are made more persuasive, emotive, convincing to believers because they are attributed to Jesus. And this version of Jesus is indeed vastly more attractive and moving than the usual one, and it’s certainly more attractive than the threatening demands of the established churches to be allowed to continue to exclude a despised group. As Simon Barrow points out. The churches seem to have lost the plot, if they think excluding despised groups was Jesus’s pet project.

Despite continuingly emollient words about service and conscience, the church message to the prime minister is still crystal clear: “allow us to discriminate against lesbian and gay people, or we pull the plug on ‘our’ adoption agencies”. This kind of threat is not quite what Jesus had in mind, I think, when he said, “suffer the little children to come to me”…These words were, tellingly, addressed to people who had acquired a habit from religious authorities of putting their own interests ahead of the most vulnerable. Children were usually last in the pecking order in Jesus’ society, which is why he singled them out as exemplars of God’s special concern for those at the bottom of the heap. That’s the gospel. The Catholic Church, like many historic religious bodies, is not at the bottom of the heap…Still seeing its future as a powerful stakeholder, the church naturally struggles with the deliberately marginal ethos of the early Christian movement, and instead is tempted towards policies which enshrine positional arrogance over pastoral care. It has lost its Christian bearings and opted instead for what John Kenneth Galbraith called the deception of “institutional truth”.

And it has not always and everywhere been conspicuous for its tender concern for the people who are at the bottom of the heap. Children in Irish industrial schools come to mind. So do women imprisoned by the church in ‘Magdalen’ laundries, also in Ireland. Victims of paedophile priest join the queue. Maybe the church should worry more about that than it does about its perceived right to go on excluding yet another despised group.

Ironically, one of the key terms the Epistle to the Ephesians uses to describe those who belong to the church is “adopted children of God”. The point is that people belong to the family of Christ not because they are good, worthy, rich, of the “right” family line, ethnicity, gender or theological persuasion. No, they are “in” solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, and they are a sign of that love. This makes the church anti-exclusionary by nature, rightly understood.

I don’t know how true that is (how well it reflects some original nature of the church or of Chistianity), but I do find it rather moving. But I also immediately compare it with the cold, harsh, unloving treatment of children at Goldenbridge – which was not just an absent-minded habit, but a matter of policy – and I marvel at the gap between the ideal and the reality.


Jan 26th, 2007 12:01 pm | By

So now it’s time for threats.

Senior Cabinet ministers including Gordon Brown and John Reid have been warned that Catholic church leaders will campaign against Labour candidates…Mario Conti, the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, has written to five Scottish Cabinet members – the chancellor, the home secretary, trade secretary Alistair Darling, transport and Scottish secretary Douglas Alexander, and defence secretary Des Browne – repeating his warning to Tony Blair that preventing Catholic agencies from discriminating will be a “betrayal”…Last night, the church said it planned to defy the new equality law…[A] Catholic spokesman made clear the sense of rancour within the church.

That last bit really staggers me. The sense of rancour within the church – they feel aggrieved, they feel bitter, they’re pissed off and resentful. At…? At a regulation that forbids them to discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services. If there’s a sense of rancour, that means they feel they’re right to be angry – they feel they’re hard done by. They think it’s a ‘betrayal.’ None of this handwringing about teachings or our conscience, just bloody-minded resentment – at being forbidden to treat homosexuals as outcasts. So we’re right back in Little Rock in 1957 or Mississippi in 1964 – it’s just as benevolent, just as reasonable, just as excusable.

And Blair still hopes. Hopes what?

Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of both the religious community and supporters of gay rights.

Oh did he. What business does he have being hopeful about such a thing? Why does he want to ‘respect’ the ‘sensitivities’ of ‘the religious community’ at all? Why does he not just consider them not respectable and thus refuse to respect them? Substitute other ‘sensitivities’ and see how that rebarbative formula sounds. ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the white community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Gentile community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Caucasian community.’

Haven’t we learned by now that we ought not to respect the ‘sensitivities’ of people who want to treat other people unequally, excludingly, prejudicially, unjustly, for no defensible articulable secular reason? Haven’t we? I thought we had – construing ‘we’ to include people Blair would want to include himself among, as opposed to racists and other defenders of ‘No __ Allowed’ signs and blockages of school house doors and arresting or beating up women who refuse to move to the back of the bus. Give it up, Mr Blair; just respect a better set of sensitivities and let it go at that.


Jan 25th, 2007 11:23 am | By

Nigel Warburton asked David Edmonds and John Eidinow a very important interesting searching profound question, one that always gets my alert curious attention, though I couldn’t quite tell you why.

Nigel: How difficult is it to write collaboratively? Not many people manage to pull it off as well as you do…

Okay, I could tell you why; I was joking when I said I couldn’t. It interests me because I sometimes write collaboratively myself, so I’m always interested in how it goes for other people, how they go about it, whether they enjoy it, and if they have any useful little tips.

Julian also interviewed Edmonds and Eidinow, for TPM, Issue 35. He also asked how they managed it.

The particulars of their working relationship are also interesting, though not perhaps for philosophical reasons. How is it that they have avoided the kind of falling-out that dooms so many writing partnerships?

By plying each other with chocolate and brandy? By sending each other little prezzies – tickets to football matches, cufflinks, T shirts with FCUK on them? By taking time out to hold hands and skip lightly around the flower bed every so often? No…

‘We communicate a lot,’ says Eidinow.

Aha! What a good idea! What a really good, sound, clever idea! Why has no one ever thought of that before?

I’m joking again. You can tell that. I will have my little jokes. I’m joking because this is something I’m always trying to convince my collaborator of – that communicating a lot (or at least some, or a bit, or any) is useful for collaboration purposes, and he is always trying to convince me of the opposite, though his method is the quiet one of not doing anything while mine is the noisy one of doing something. It’s sort of like speech acts. We enact the very thing we’re either talking or not talking about – although my enactment is more of an enactment because his enactment, being non-enactment, could bear other interpretations. I, the proponent of communication, enact that proponent-hood by communicating that communication is useful, whereas he, being either a non-proponent of communication, or a proponent of non-communication (which is it, I wonder) – either enacts or doesn’t enact that non-proponent-hood or that proponent-hood of non-communication, by not communicating. Then after the passage of a few weeks or months I enact some more, only louder, and he either does or doesn’t do the opposite, only minus louder.

I’m only joking, and exaggerating, and messing around. Only I do like it when other people who write collaboratively come right out in public and say that they keep on writing collaboratively by communicating a lot, thus strongly implying that a lot of communication is useful for purposes of collaboration. This is all I’m saying. I like it when other people say it because it provides a broad hint that I’m not stark staring mad – or at least that I’m not stark staring mad simply because I think communication is useful for purposes of collaboration. There may be other reasons to think so (she said darkly) but that’s not one of them, at least not if E and E are anything to go by, and why shouldn’t they be?

Actually writing collaboratively can be quite good fun, in its way. Especially when there’s an eight hour time difference between the collaborators, which throws up all sorts of extra challenges.

Right, that’s enough autobiographical chat for one year. This isn’t one of those dear diary places, after all. Except I might tell you about the new Sculpture Park that just opened down the hill from where I live. Some time.

What’s multi about it?

Jan 25th, 2007 10:19 am | By

Agnes Poirier decided to give Ken Livingstone’s multicultural jamboree a miss after all.

The multicultural London motion at that point included Jonathan Freedland, Tariq Ramadan and myself, and therefore offered three different points of view: in a nutshell, English liberal, fundamentalist Islamist and French republican. Are you surprised that I define Tariq Ramadan as a fundamentalist Islamist? Perhaps you thought that, as an adviser to Tony Blair on multiculturalism and a visiting senior research fellow at Oxford, he represented the face of moderate Islam? Forget his reassuring manner. Read Caroline Fourest’s remarkable study of his speeches and audio cassettes in which he asks young Muslims not to mix or marry outside their religion. Or note that he thoughtfully proposed “a moratorium on the lapidation of adulterous women”. Yes, a “moratorium”.

I wonder how many people do think Tariq Ramadan is not an Islamist. Probably quite a few, unfortunately.

On the right to religious dress debate, organisers had clearly another agenda. First, I was told Salma Yaqoob from Respect and French feminist Christine Delphy would speak alongside me. I didn’t know them so I thought I’d research a little. What I found was illuminating. I read scripts of speeches they made over the last three years, which all seemed to concentrate on the veil issue. What inflammatory tone, what incendiary statements about “France’s institutionalised racism”. Having campaigned together against what they called “the ban on Islamic veils”, they seemed to focus exclusively on the French colonial past, mother of all evils. I also learnt that Christine Delphy’s association “School for everyone” had been set up with Tariq Ramadan. This was shrewd of him: as in all matters of “women things”, it’s good to have a back-up who has been a buddy of Simone de Beauvoir: it usually unsettles and quietens the liberal left…Actually, since the law was passed two years ago, the question is not an issue any more in France. Beyond the law, what is fascinating is to see how the French position on religious dress is used by Islamo-leftists, revealing all too clearly the current British malaise rather than proving the existence of a French scandal.

Multiculturalism in this case boils down to Islamism, it seems.

Last thing, at the end of the programme, there was a mention of facilities “available during the day”: a crèche (great, that’s always handy), a “female prayer room” and “a male prayer room”…And is it Ken Livingstone’s idea of multiculturalism, one that acknowledges and condones segregation? Perhaps, you now see the point of French republicanism: don’t give in to any specific religious demands. And let everybody go down the café if they want a change of scenery.

Yes, apparently it is exactly Ken Livingstone’s idea of multiculturalism, one that acknowledges and condones segregation. How depressing it is.


Jan 23rd, 2007 12:39 pm | By

So where are we.

Downing Street appeared to be wavering today on allowing Catholic adoption agencies exemption from gay rights legislation, after a warning from the leader of Catholics in England and Wales that agencies may close rather than comply with the regulations…Mr Blair’s official spokesman said: “This is an issue with sensitivities on all sides…The key thing we have to remember in all of this is the interests of the children concerned and that there are arguments on both sides. This is not a straightforward black-and-white issue. This is an issue where there are sensitivities on all sides and we have to respect those but equally find a way through.”

But are there arguments on both sides? Or are there just sensitivities. There is a difference. I hope Blair knows that – but I’m not confident that he does. It’s also worth pointing out that in fact we don’t ‘have to’ respect all sensitivities just because they’re sensitivities. I hope Blair knows that too, but again, I’m not confident that he does. It sounds too like the usual community-respect-grievance-fuzz-wool for confidence. This is one reason all this kind of thing gets so…hopelessly lost in the fog: it’s because people know that all they have to do is bleat about sensitivities and respect and conscience and faith and there will be spokespeople eager to say that we have to respect those. Well we don’t. Not necessarily. It depends what they are. The people of Little Rock had ‘sensitivities’ – the white people among them, that is – about integrating the public high school there. No one ‘had to’ respect those, because they were nasty and wrong. You could multiply that example by the thousands or tens of thousands all over the planet. Everywhere you go there are ‘sensitivities’ about various outgroups and ways in which We don’t want to mix with Them and in order to avoid that dread fate we want to shut them out of various public accommodations and services so that we won’t have to, you know, mix with them and be contaminated by them. Those sensitivities do not have to be respected, and ought not to be respected, and it’s not impressive to see Blair or his spokesman saying they do. A Tory MP did a hell of a lot better than Blair did.

The Tory MP John Bercow, who has argued strongly in favour of gay equality, said: “The idea of an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies is an anathema and contradicts the concept of equality at the heart of this legislation. People choose their religion, they do not choose their orientation. I believe equality is equality is equality and it is quite incredible for the Catholic church to insist its religious views should take precedence over others’ human rights.”

Yes, it is. Perhaps this is a more straightforward black-and-white issue than Blair wants to admit.

Let’s have a look at the archbishop’s ‘argument’ then.

[T]o oblige our agencies in law to consider adoption applications from homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents would require them to act against the principles of Catholic teaching. We require our agencies to recruit and approve appropriate married and single people to meet the needs of children in local authority care for whom adoption has been identified as being in their best interest. We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured. Marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female. We recognize that some children, particularly those who have suffered abuse and neglect, may well benefit from placement with a single adoptive parent. However, Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

That’s it. And frankly it seems completely worthless. A single parent is okay, though not the first choice – but a gay couple is not okay. Because…’it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured.’ Sorry, that doesn’t work. It is, of course, from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born, because that’s how that works, but adoption isn’t about the birth of new life, it’s about rescuing an existing life from loneliness, abandonment, neglect and unhappiness. The idea seems to be (though the archbish does a damn bad job of spelling it out) that because children are born to two parents, therefore adopted children ought to be put in a situation that mimics a two-parent situation. Well – why? Why ought they? That is not clear. And, especially after learning what we’ve been learning about life at Goldenbridge, I think the archbishop should have made it clear. I assume he didn’t because he couldn’t because there is nothing to make clear. It’s not a real reason, it’s just a ‘sensitivity’ (that is, a taboo) dressed up in religious clothes, as ‘sensitivities’ so often are.

Not to worry

Jan 22nd, 2007 2:16 pm | By

The MCB is so dutiful and giving and conscientious, don’t you think? It assures us that, when it’s absolutely necessary, even a Muslim will in fact do her job.

A Muslim woman police officer refused to shake hands with the head of the Metropolitan Police on faith grounds…The woman’s refusal was based on her view that her faith prevented her touching a man other than her husband or a close relative…Sheikh Ibraham Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said people should not be alarmed by the officer’s beliefs and that Muslim law “was not set in concrete”. He added: “If the officer is called to a male victim who has been shot, the laws go out of the window. If she has to resuscitate that dying person, Muslim law will then change and allow her all sorts of physical contact because a life is at risk and life is so precious. Muslim law will say, ‘forget everything, save this life’.”

Ohhhhh – isn’t that generous? I’m so impressed. If a male victim is dying, then the law goes out the window. Coolerino. But so – if he’s not dying but just mangled, it doesn’t? Or if there’s uncertainty about whether he’s dying or not? Or if he’s quite all right really but trapped and in pain? Does she have to do her job only if the male victim will die if she doesn’t? Is there, like, a get-out clause for all cases short of death? Is that what everyone should be not alarmed about? Or should people instead be alarmed about the whole idea of other people taking up jobs that their religions forbid them to, you know, do?

It all reminds me of Mr Collins –

I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.

And Lizzy’s reflection on him: ‘Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.’

No equality please we’re Catholic

Jan 21st, 2007 5:35 pm | By

God, this is revolting.

Ruth Kelly is trying to water down new anti-discrimination laws to let Catholic adoption agencies turn away gay couples. Backed by Tony Blair, the embattled Communities secretary is at the centre of a full-scale cabinet row over the new gay rights laws…The Catholic church has threatened to close its seven adoption agencies rather than comply with laws that forbid them to discriminate against gay couples. The Prime Minister is supporting her efforts to water down new laws that are supposed to guarantee gay people equal rights to goods and services.

Well, great. Because the Catholic church has such a shining history of taking care of children, doesn’t it.

Of the 2,900 children put up for adoption last year, the agencies placed around 4 per cent. But they found homes for around a third of the “difficult-to-place” children. Ms Kelly argues it is these children that would suffer if Catholic couples were no longer encouraged to adopt by church-run agencies. Gay campaigners argue, however, that gay parents are themselves more likely to adopt the most vulnerable children and nothing should be done to bar them from the system. Ms Kelly refuses to say whether she regards homosexuality as a sin. She has defended failing to vote for civil partnerships or gay adoption on the grounds that they are “issues of conscience”.

What’s that supposed to mean? If it’s a vote, it’s an issue of law; she’s in the government; what right does she have to refuse to vote on an issue not of conscience but of what Lord Whatsit the other day called ‘church teaching’?

Oh dear – I’m coming over all militant atheist. If Ruth Kelly wants to inspire a lot more people to turn militant atheist, she’s going the right way about it.

Joan Smith is cross with her.

Ms Kelly stands accused of preparing to give in to homophobic lobbying from Roman Catholic bishops. It seems that these worthies, who present themselves as champions of children’s rights in their relentless campaign against abortion, would rather see kids remain in institutions than hand them over to same-sex adoptive parents. Faced with equality legislation that would make such discrimination illegal, they’ve lobbied the Government and found sympathetic listeners in the Prime Minister and Ms Kelly who – this is not a joke – is the cabinet minister responsible for equality.

Yeah well – we know they preferred to see them in institutions in Ireland rather than hand them over to their own mothers, in many cases not because the mothers were abusive but because they were unmarried. We know they have a very warped idea of what is immoral and what isn’t. Forbidding condoms during a pandemic, moral; keeping children in institutions rather than letting them go to gay parents, moral; being gay, shockingly immoral and sinful and bad.

If I were thinking about how best to promote the welfare of children in need of adoptive parents, I certainly wouldn’t take much notice of an organisation with such a scandalous record. No doubt Ms Kelly takes a different view, but then she would: she’s a devout Catholic, and in a sane world that would disqualify her from taking decisions which might provide special treatment to an organisation of which she is a member. Those of us with a surer grasp of morality are entitled to explain to Ms Kelly that for the second time in a month she faces something called a conflict of interest, and the Prime Minister’s support cannot alter that fact.

Why is Blair supporting her?

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is set to become the leader of England’s Catholics, recently warned the Government not to “impose on us conditions which contradict our moral values”. “It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of… adoption agencies … can work in co-operation with public authorities only if the faith communities accept not just the legal framework but also the moral standards being touted by the Government,” he sermonised last November. When it comes to Mr Blair, the archbishop is preaching to the converted, according to senior ministers. The Prime Minister first asked Alan Johnson, then responsible, to include a loophole in anti-discrimination legislation to allow the Catholic ban on gay parents early last year. When he refused, the PM moved him and handed the equalities brief to Ms Kelly, whom he knew could be trusted to back him on the issue.

Well what a pretty story.

Militant atheism

Jan 20th, 2007 9:49 am | By

I’ve been pondering something Julian says in Atheism: a very short introduction (again). I think there’s something I disagree with; unless I misunderstand it, which is always possible.

It’s to do with his overall rejection of what he calls ‘militant atheism’ in favour of a less hostile or less noisy variety. I’m not saying there are no reasons to object to noisy and/or hostile atheism – people offer me such reasons often, and I can see that some of them have force. (There’s the fact that it can be boring, irritating and repetitive, for instance!) I’m just taking issue with a couple of particulars here.

On page 106 he says:

Nor do I believe that a firm belief in the falsity of religion is enough to justify militant opposition to it…I think my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values that I think inspire atheism: an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational enquiry…Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is, I think, antithetical to such values.

Agreed – except for this objection I have, unless it’s a misunderstanding. It’s the (crucial, I think) bit about ‘hostile opposition to the beliefs of others.’ I don’t think it’s beliefs we’re hostile to (we militant or noisy or hostile atheists). I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s statements, assertions, truth-claims, that we oppose, sometimes with hostility. Like Elizabeth I, we don’t really want to make a window into people’s heads. We (mostly)* don’t mess with people’s internal beliefs, we mess with the externalized version that comes out as assertions or arguments. I think that makes a difference. I could be wrong, but at the moment it seems to me that that makes a difference. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others may well be objectionable, but hostile opposition to the assertions or arguments of others? Is that objectionable? (Well, it partly depends on how you define ‘hostile,’ of course. If it descends to name-calling, yes; but if it’s just energetic disagreement, that’s another matter.) It seems to me that even militant atheists, even outright brawlers, don’t care about internal states of other people, it’s only external states that meet opposition.

The assertions and arguments are of course based on the beliefs, so that by opposing the assertions and arguments we are in effect also opposing the beliefs – but not, I would say, as such; we’re opposing them as a necessary part of opposing what flows from them. Of course that’s not obvious when these disputes are going on (or afterwards either) – but I think it’s true all the same, and I think it matters.

If that’s right, I think it’s possible that militant atheists get something of a bad rap, even from other atheists. Being (I take it) what is meant by a ‘militant atheist’ myself, of course I have a motivation for saying that, but I think it’s possible all the same.

On the other hand – it may be that by ‘beliefs’ Julian means assertions and arguments as well as mental states. He may mean ‘beliefs’ to cover that whole complex – in which case my objection becomes irrelevant. Or it may be that he would argue that hostile opposition is objectionable in any case. Or it may be both of those. If that’s the case, then I admit that I offer hostile opposition to the beliefs of people like Theo Hobson, Giles Fraser, Keith Ward, Madeleine Bunting, Phillip Blond. In a way I suppose it’s reasonable to call what they write in columns and articles their ‘beliefs’ – arguments and assertions are instantiations of beliefs, at least. I do often feel and express hostility to such arguments and claims – but is that because of ‘a dogged conviction of the certainty of [my] own beliefs’? Hmm. No, I don’t think so…At least, not a dogged conviction of the certainty of oppositional ontological beliefs. I might have a certain amount of dogged conviction that their way of reaching conclusions is wrong…Yes; that’s what it is. That’s what sparks the hostility. It’s not the substantive beliefs, it’s the way of thinking.

So the question becomes – Is a firm belief in the badness of woolly thinking (as opposed to ‘a firm belief in the falsity of religion,’ see above) enough to justify militant opposition to it? Well, yes, frankly; I think it is, at least when the woolly thinking is published in newspapers and on newspaper websites. I think that’s a different kind of thing – different from beliefs about the falsity of religion. Furthermore, it seems to me that if the woolly thinking is offered up in public media, then it is necessarily fair game, in a way that mere beliefs about the non-falsity of religion are not. I think that’s especially true when the woolly thinking is itself rather aggressive, as with Theo Hobson and Co it so often is. There is in fact something inherently aggressive and would-be coercive about conspicuously bad arguments – they have a whiff of force about them, at least to my aristocratic nose. A whiff of ‘believe or else,’ of ‘unbelief is not permitted,’ of ‘submit,’ of ‘how dare you.’

I think that’s what triggers the militant atheism. Not the basic beliefs, not internal states, but aggressively weak arguments delivered as public challenges. You don’t see a great many militant atheists invading churches or disrupting funerals, as far as I know. You see them disputing public claims. And perhaps upsetting dinner tables, but that’s an issue for Miss Manners.

It’s a swell book, by the way, as commenters (and I) said in the previous post on the subject.

*I’m generalizing throughout. I think what I’m saying applies to most militant atheists, but I don’t claim it applies to all. I’m extrapolating from myself, is what it boils down to, and I certainly don’t know that there are no exceptions.

What kind of respect are we talking about?

Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

We keep hearing about public objections to or fears about the creation of human-animal embryos for research purposes, but the objections and fears that are cited are, frankly, rather pathetic. They also seem to be very much in the minority. In fact it looks as if the news media are creating and inflating these objections and fears, more than they are reporting on their existence. Oh, well that’s a surprise, that’s never happened before. Surely?

The Indy offers some background, including on the opposition.

There are many pressure groups and religious organisations who have voiced their opposition on the grounds that it is unethical or immoral to mix germ cells from humans and animals to create potentially viable embryos. They believe that it undermines respect for human life, and some believe it is also demeaning to animals.

And…that’s it, at least as far as this article goes. It undermines ‘respect,’ it’s ‘demeaning.’ Sounds familiar, doesn’t it – sounds like the wack objections to gay marriage: it undermines respect for the institution of marriage. How and why it does that is never spelled out – what that even means is never spelled out. People who oppose the opposition ask and ask and ask to have the reasoning made plain, but…if they’ve had much success, the results are being carefully hidden.

Why, exactly, does the creation of a certain kind of egg, which will be destroyed within fourteen days, undermine respect for human life? I want to know. What’s the thinking here? That thirteen-day old embryos might end up being dressed up in little outfits and enrolled in school? That they might start marrying people’s children? That they’ll make all the buses and movie theatres and supermarkets too crowded? That they’ll jostle us off the sidewalk and humiliate us? That they’ll want to spend the night in our houses and have their horrible unthinkable disgusting squelchy sex right there with us in the next room listening in fear and horror?

That’s it, isn’t it. It’s sex. The many pressure groups and religious organisations are afraid that they will want to have sex with each other where we’ll be able to hear; they’re afraid they will want to have sex with us. They’ll seduce us, they’ll lie down on top of us in the night when we’re asleep and impregnate us with their horrible hybrid pinkish fibrous mucousy slimy – oh, jesus, help me.

Okay maybe that’s not it, maybe I’m being unfair, as usual. But what is it then? What, exactly, is it? What is it about some embryos in a lab at Newcastle or King’s College London that causes respect for human life to be undermined? Perhaps it’s that potential murderers will, as soon as such embryos exist, no longer think ‘No, I mustn’t, it would be wrong,’ but instead will think ‘Hey, there are those little embryos at Newcastle, they have some cow DNA mixed in – not very much, admittedly, but still some, so what is human life worth? Not much, obviously; therefore I will murder that co-worker who gets on my nerves, because why not?’ Is that it? Well, if so, could it be that the worry is ever so slightly far-fetched and, as it were, strained? That the likelihood of that looks no more robust than the likelihood of any other random fanciful absurd scenario one could come up with? Maybe the next time I take the 74 bus one of the passengers will decide the existence of tomato paste in tiny cans makes life not worth living, and so get off on Stone Way instead of 40th Street.

Why do pressure groups and religious organisations get to ‘voice their opposition’ on worthless empty meaningless grounds that way, and be considered a serious and worth-heeding opposition? Talk about undermining respect – they’re the ones who undermine respect, if you ask me: they undermine respect for human ability to oppose things for good reasons as opposed to completely factitious whimsical made-up ones. This isn’t just messing around, after all! This isn’t like old Coke versus new Coke; this is medical research that could cure horrible diseases. What business do people have opposing it for silly frivolous worked-up reasons? It’s revolting if you look at it hard enough. Is it just for the sake of the self-righteous glow? The little aura of piety? Well – that’s a crappy reason. A crappy, vain, narcissistic, beside the point reason. If we want to fret about respect for human life, why not fret a great deal more about the lives lost or ruined by Parkinson’s or Motor Neurone disease than about some mysterious vague unspecified general ‘life’ that belongs to no one in particular but would be less respected because of those eggs? Respect for human life, indeed. Pull the other one.


Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

I did a comment a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think and NASA and the Challenger explosion and Richard Feynman. I got Feynman’s book (What do You Care What Other People Think?, the one that includes his account of the investigation of the explosion) from the library yesterday – it’s a fascinating read. It is all about bad or non-existent communication between managers and engineers, along with the fact that the managers make the decisions. Baaaad set-up. However good a manager you are, you can’t manage a cold stiff non-resilient rubber O-ring into doing its job of holding in the hot gases during launch. That just isn’t a managerial skill. O-rings and rubber just aren’t…manipulable or commandable or influenceable or persuadable in that way. They just do what they do, no matter what plans the managers make, no matter how many zeros the managers add to the number an explosion can’t happen in. That kind of thing just doesn’t change what happens when a cold O-ring isn’t resilent enough to expand when the joint expands. It just can’t be coaxed. It doesn’t expand, the gas escapes, blam; that’s all.

I’ll tell you more another time, but there was this one passage I read this morning that made me sit up and take even more notice than I already was, which is a lot. It’s highly interesting in itself, but it also exactly echoes something I was thinking…the other day, recently some time, but I couldn’t remember when. You know how that is. I enjoyed that ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s just what I was thinking…whenever it was,’ but I wanted to remember when I was thinking it. (I don’t know. I just did.) I knew I could find out though, because I scribbled a note about it at the time. I scribble notes about things like that in a notebook. You never know when you might want to recall them. It took me awhile to find the note, but I did, and oddly, I scribbled it the day after that post. (I date them. I do several every day, so I insert each day’s dates. I don’t know. I just do.) I’d forgotten that it had anything to do with NASA. But I ended up having the same thought Feynman did about the whole matter. I find that interesting.

Here’s some of what I say in the notebook (don’t mind the sketchiness and crudeness, it’s just a note, a scribble, a memory-aid):

Politics is like NASA. It’s about taking off your engineering hat and putting on your management hat. It’s about – agreement, compromise, persuasion, manipulation, acceptance, opinion. It’s got nothing to do with accuracy, evidence, inquiry, critical thinking – it’s all mush. Mush-world. Baby world. Coax world. ‘Is this okay, will this do?’ Who cares; is it right, or not? [etc] But the political way of thinking – at the extreme – is like NASA – and is a kind of magical thinking – if the majority thinks so then it is true, which can even become, if the majority wants it to, it will happen. Like prayer, perhaps – a background idea that our hopes and wishes (and prayers) really do affect rocks and gases – really do protect the shuttle and keep it from exploding.

That’s politics at its worst, of course, but still, it did strike me with a peculiar force or clarity at that moment, and explain to me why I’m really not very interested in politics these days. So you’ll be able to see why this bit of Feynman’s book made me sit up.

The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty. In other fields, such as business, it’s different.’ He cites advertising, where the goal is to fool the customer, and then: ‘When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians.

Yes. It does. That’s exactly it. It’s wearing a management hat not an engineering hat – which means ignoring what the engineers tell you if it’s not what you or the voters want to hear. Even if that means ignoring the engineers telling you it’s dangerous to launch when it’s this cold and launching anyway, as if managers or politicians have some kind of magical power to over-ride physical reality and make O-rings resilient by the mere power of wishing. Step right up, buy our magic hats, they can make you beautiful and healthy and young, and they can prevent shuttles from exploding and hurricanes from breaching levies.

Once you’ve been impressed by that difference, it’s hard to go back, I think.

Not Hezbollah now, thank you

Jan 16th, 2007 6:26 pm | By

What’s all this about liberal education then? Does it have to do with the free discussion of ideas and a more cosmopolitan sense of the world maybe, as opposed to whatever green-and-slimy thing Bill O’Reilly thought he saw under the bed one day? Michael Bérubé offers some thoughts:

I’ve given up on trying to come up with formulations about the goal of liberal education that everyone would agree with, but I think cosmopolitanism beats the alternatives…What I’m offering, simply, is the much broader stroke of opposing cosmopolitanism to parochialism…I look at how it was, from Clifford Geertz onwards, that the idea of “local knowledges” took such hold of us. Why would the local be taken as a good in itself?…[I]t struck me as strange that the fetishization of the local would become so entrenched…[C]osmopolitanism…still gets a bad rap in quarters where it’s understood to entail rootlessness and a lack of grounding or commitment…Not only do I disagree – I think cultivating the idea of “world citizens,” to take Martha Nussbaum’s phrase from Cultivating Humanity, now more than ever beats every alternative I can think of. It offers a rebuke to certain pragmatic nationalisms – and I also think the talk of supersession of the nation-state is running well ahead of the actual facts. Finally, I would much rather be associated with an internationalist left than with a so-called patriotic left, and I think cosmopolitanism works toward that end.

Same here. With considerable emphasis. Cosmopolitanism, internationalism, world citizenship over the parochial, local and patriotic every time. Hand me my tiny patchwork flag, would you? I want to wave it.

The university is perhaps ‘one of the more genuine public spheres, in contrast to the kind of politics that we get on TV,’ the interviewer suggests.

There is always (and often for good reasons) suspicion of anyone launching a critique of Chomsky because he is so iconic; and all criticism is considered apostasy. So this week on the blog I said, let me try to explain what the difference is between the “democratic” and the “anti-imperialist” left, because the anti-imperialist left these days, I think, is leading itself right off the cliff to – well, the phrase this month is “we are all Hezbollah now.” I’m not Hezbollah, thank you, and I’m also not part of the Iraqi resistance…You don’t want to be in the position of saying, well, the repression and the homophobia of such and such a regime—at least they’re at least anti-imperialist, revolutionary homophobia and repression, as opposed to reactionary, imperialist homophobia and repression. In the last ten years or so, I have not only come around, as I argue in Liberal Arts, to a kind of re-appreciation of what the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was trying to do, but I’ve gotten increasingly impatient with that wing of the left that will cut some slack to whoever is the enemy of my enemy at the moment.


Read the whole thing, as they say.