Jul 7th, 2005 3:24 pm | By

Funny. Just last night I turned on the radio for a few minutes and heard Tariq Ali telling Seattle about Iraq, oil, one thing and another. Then he went a bit sarcastic about al-Qaeda – saying it’s a tiny organization, it’s a few thousand people at most, what can it do? Well that’s a fucking stupid question, I thought; it can do a lot; thanks to advanced technology and communications it can do a lot. Then he went on to say (near exact quote) ‘These things don’t happen every day.’ ‘Well it only takes one, Bub!’ I shouted furiously. And that was last night. Two hours before the first bomb went off.

No, these things don’t happen every day. That’s fine then. Not a problem.


Jul 7th, 2005 12:59 pm | By

I’m six thousand miles away but I don’t feel six thousand miles away. Comes of having friends, acquaintances, readers there – not to mention having recently spent time there. Tavistock Square, Russell Square…

Say a word if you have a moment, those of you in London, so that B&W won’t worry about you.


Jul 6th, 2005 10:28 pm | By

This article raises a great many questions.

Campbell wants a rationalisation of the current abortion laws, so that terminations are available on demand in the first trimester, but available only on urgent medical grounds in later stages of pregnancy…His conviction owes much to advanced ultrasound scanning, a field in which Campbell is the acknowledged leader…

Okay, why.

By demonstrating the advanced physiological development of foetuses, his images reignited the abortion debate last year, when the television programme, Life Before Birth, showed footage of Campbell’s scans, with embryos moving in real time at just 12 weeks, and apparently smiling at 20 weeks.

Moving, and apparently smiling. But…but moving doesn’t necessarily equate to conscious, aware, even sentient moving. And ‘apparently smiling’ doesn’t necessarily equate to actual smiling (whatever Jeb Bush may say).

A father-of-four, he admits his reasoning is based on gut instinct, rather than cold logic. “It’s very tenuous, very non-specific, and some people say it’s very sentimental, but given how advanced these babies are in terms of the sophistication of their movements, and their facial expressions, I feel it’s actually offensive to be [carrying out abortions], certainly after 18 weeks.”

But what does ‘advanced’ mean there? What does ‘sophistication’ mean? I know what ‘facial expressions’ means, but I don’t know how one picks out ‘sophisticated’ ones from reflex ones. Is that ‘cold logic’? But if it is – maybe there’s a place for cold logic when discussing these issues? Maybe gut instinct can be misleading?

“At 12 weeks the foetus starts to move around much more vigorously, make complex movements, touch its feet and toes, put its finger in its mouth, take stepping movements. Suddenly that is a big change, and you don’t see it at 11 weeks…”

It’s a change, but what kind of change?

Although annoyed his images have been “hijacked by the anti-abortion lobby”, Campbell doesn’t regret the fact abortion is now a hotly contested issue. “I feel slightly flattered in a way that my images have got people talking about it. The foetus is its own advocate. Before, it was all about care for the mother, and I’m all in favour of that. But that’s balanced with images of the foetus, which is saying, ‘Here I am, this is what I can do, this is my humanity, I’m a sentient human being, do you want to terminate me?’ The foetus now is part of the question.”

Okay – that begins to answer some of those questions. The idea is that the foetus (because it is moving around and apparently smiling) is saying ‘Here I am, this is what I can do, this is my humanity, I’m a sentient human being, do you want to terminate me?’. But is the foetus saying that? Would it be saying that if it could talk? And (another question) what does ‘sentient’ mean there? Are we meant to confuse it with ‘conscious’?

So many people told me they felt very emotional about it. I had thought there was a growing movement towards the recognition of humanity in the womb.

There again. Surely nobody claims that a human foetus is not human – so what does ‘recognition of humanity in the womb’ mean?

What about the charge that emotive images of early foetuses showing apparent emotional responses shouldn’t be taken into account in considering an essentially scientific issue?…“Of course it’s emotive,” counters Campbell. “It’s a natural human response to see something that looks and behaves like a child, and to be emotional and protective towards it, not rip it out of the uterus. It’s good emotion, not bad…The film [Life Before Birth] at least made the foetus look like a potential human being, as nice as a newborn baby. It’s not suddenly there and it’s cute; it was cute before birth. It’s time people began to love the foetus.”

But is it? If so, why? Because it moves in an advanced, sophisticated, complex way? Because it’s apparently smiling? Because it’s sentient? Because it’s as cute and nice as a baby? Because it’s human? Because people feel protective towards it when they see images of it? Are any of those good reasons? Are they good reasons when all added together even if they’re not good reasons taken separately?

I have to say, they don’t seem like good reasons to me. That’s not to say that there may not be good reasons, but these don’t seem to be good ones. Movements can be merely reflexive, as can smiling. Sentience is not the same thing as consciousness. Humanity is not in dispute. Cute and nice – well cute and nice seem to be what’s at issue here. It’s all about images, and emotional reactions to images. But images, like appearances, can be misleading. (Surely Campbell must know that – mustn’t he?) In short, a foetus may look as if it’s aware and conscious without actually being so. Now, maybe that’s not the issue – maybe that isn’t and shouldn’t be the cut-off point for abortion. But it’s not clear why movement or ‘cuteness’ should be either. At least not for the rest of us; not for the law; not as public policy. If the foetus’ own parents want to decide the matter on that basis, that of course is their business. But I don’t see why outsiders should decide it for them on that basis. ‘You can’t abort that foetus; it’s cute now.’ That does not seem to me to be a compelling argument.

A Useful Mere Truism

Jul 6th, 2005 2:27 am | By

‘X’ in this quotation is science, which has been temporarily re-named for the purpose of an examination of some criticisms of ‘science’:

X is “E-knowledge,” “obtained by logical deduction from firmly established first principles.” The statements in X must be “provable”; X demands “absolute proofs.”…I quite agree that X should be consigned to the flames. But what that has to do with our topic escapes me, given that these attributions scarcely rise to the level of a caricature of rational inquiry (science, etc.), at least as I’m familiar with it.

Take the notion of “E-knowledge,” the sole definition of science presented here. Not even set theory (hence conventional mathematics) satisfies the definition offered. Nothing in the sciences even resembles it. As for “provability,” or “absolute proofs,” the notions are foreign to the natural sciences. They appear in the study of abstract models, which are part of pure mathematics until they are applied in the empirical sciences, at which point we no longer have “proof.”…Science is tentative, exploratory, questioning, largely learned by doing.

So there! And who said that? Noam Chomsky. He said a lot of good stuff.

As for the cited properties of X, they do hold of some aspects of human thought and action: elements of organized religion, areas of the humanities and “social sciences” where understanding and insight are thin and it is therefore easier to get away with dogmatism and falsification, perhaps others. But the sciences, at least as I am familiar with them, are as remote from these descriptions as anything in human life. It is not that scientists are inherently more honest, open, or questioning. It is simply that nature and logic impose a harsh discipline: in many domains, one can spin fanciful tales with impunity or keep to the most boring clerical work (sometimes called “scholarship”); in the sciences, your tales will be refuted and you will be left behind by students who want to understand something about the world, not satisfied to let such matters be “someone else’s concern.” Furthermore, all of this seems to be the merest truism.

Yes, but how good people are at ignoring truisms when they’d rather spin tales.

Wrong End of the Telescope

Jul 6th, 2005 12:24 am | By

This week’s Writer’s Choice at Normblog is Nick Cohen on Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. Don’t miss it.

Although I like to present myself as an open and rational chap, I can remember very few times when I’ve admitted being in the wrong. Not wrong in detail, but wrong in principle. In my experience the politically committed rarely do that. We change imperceptibly and grudgingly, while all the time pretending we haven’t changed at all but merely adapted to altered circumstances.

Hmm. I don’t know – sometimes those ‘wrong in detail’ admissions can add up to ‘wrong in principle’ ones. But that’s a mere quibble.

The only time I realised I was charging up a blind alley was when I read Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism. I didn’t see a blinding light or hear a thunder clap or cry ‘Eureka!’ If I was going to cry anything it would have been ‘Oh bloody hell!’ He convinced me I’d wasted a great deal of time looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was going to have to turn it round and see the world afresh. The labour would involve reconsidering everything I’d written since 11 September, arguing with people I took to be friends and finding myself on the same side as people I took to be enemies. All because of Berman.

The bastard.

Yes, one knows the feeling, or feelings. That ‘oh bloody hell’ thing (in my case it was more like ‘God I’m stupid’), that wrong end of telescope thing, that twitchy stuff about friends and enemies.

Terror and Liberalism is an essay rather than a history and its arguments come from the almost forgotten tradition of the anti-totalitarian left. Its central point is that Islamism and Baathism are continuations of Nazism and communism, not only in their fine points – founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Baath Party were admirers of Hitler and Franco – but in their fundamentals.

A chapter – ‘Wishful Thinking’ – explains why so many are reluctant to see clearly and in their blindness end up on the far right.

Now that really fascinates me, because we have a chapter called ‘Wishful Thinking’ in Why Truth Matters. I’ve been meaning to read this book; obviously I have to hurry up about it.

Obviously, the socialists couldn’t begin to show solidarity with the German socialists who were being persecuted by Hitler. How could they protest at their treatment or organize parliamentary debates calling attention to their plight when they were making excuses for the Hitler who was doing the persecuting?…To see the old process at work, one only has to look at how a large chunk of the world’s liberal opinion has got itself into the position where it can’t support Iraqi and Afghan liberals, socialists and feminists.

There is a lot more; a must-read.

Religious Myths Gotta Go

Jul 5th, 2005 1:06 am | By

Time to say it in polite company.

Harris’s explosive book, as more than one reviewer has noted, articulates fiercely and fearlessly what more and more people are thinking but few are willing to say in polite company: religious faith is not only blind, but deaf, mute, absurd, irrational, and threatens our very existence…He calls his book “an argument for intellectual honesty. It’s only on matters of religion that we allow people to pretend to be certain of things they are not certain about.”

That’s just it – it’s this special dispensation thing. On everything else people over the age of about four are expected to justify their assertions, especially if they’re a tad far-fetched – but ‘devout’ people can talk about what God wants, and very few people will be heartless enough to ask how they know. It’s a double standard, but one that never really gets explained or justified – it’s just there.

Religious moderation, Harris argues, betrays both faith and reason equally. Moderates are, in large part, responsible for religious strife “because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed” — all thanks to the sacredness in which we hold tolerance.

Exactly – ‘the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.’ And if you try, even atheists flock to chastise you. I do find that strange, and disheartening.

A Word from Mill

Jul 4th, 2005 11:58 pm | By

Good, The Subjection of Women is online after all, just not at Project Gutenberg. So I’ll quote a passage from section one.

All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have — those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things — first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. Can it be doubted that any of the other yokes which mankind have succeeded in breaking, would have subsisted till now if the same means had existed, and had been so sedulously used, to bow down their minds to it? If it had been made the object of the life of every young plebeian to find personal favour in the eyes of some patrician, of every young serf with some seigneur; if domestication with him, and a share of his personal affections, had been held out as the prize which they all should look out for, the most gifted and aspiring being able to reckon on the most desirable prizes; and if, when this prize had been obtained, they had been shut out by a wall of brass from all interests not centring in him, all feelings and desires but those which he shared or inculcated; would not serfs and seigneurs, plebeians and patricians, have been as broadly distinguished at this day as men and women are? and would not all but a thinker here and there, have believed the distinction to be a fundamental and unalterable fact in human nature?

So much has changed since Mill wrote that, and yet women are still subject to unremitting social pressure to be sexually attractive before they are anything else.


Jul 4th, 2005 2:06 am | By

Julian’s been on the radio again – in fact he seems to have been on aproximately every other time I listen, lately. That one’s Night Waves and it’s only good until tomorrow, because it’s last Monday’s show and I didn’t know about it until yesterday when I happened to browse the Night Waves page to see what I’d been missing – otherwise I would have told you sooner.

I transcribed one bit because it sort of fits with various things we talk about here from time to time. The interviewer asked how useful philosophy can be, does it change people’s thinking, and so on.

I think it’s possible to read a hell of a lot of philosophy, it’s possible to be a professional philosopher, and not have a philosophical attitude. I think the philophical attitude is this kind of constant questioning, and I think that sometimes people find philosophy, they love it, and they latch onto a few of their favourite philosophers, and they become as entrenched in a particular form of philosophy as any unphilosophical person becomes entrenched in their assumptions; philosophers are actually subject to the delusion in fact because their subject is officially the ‘queen of the sciences,’ the discipline which questions assumptions more than any other, they kind of feel that they themselves are immune to the kind of dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making that the unwashed masses do, and I think that’s a terrible risk of doing philosophy.

Good point. Let us all take a solemn vow (on a bust of Socrates if you happen to have one, or Hume, or Sponge Bob) never to feel that we are immune to dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making.

Is That Right?

Jul 3rd, 2005 8:12 pm | By

Here’s something I find quite funny. It’s from The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism from the entry for ‘Speech Acts’.

This issue of parasitic language became one of the turning points of the Searle-Derrida debate. In the late 1970s Searle wrote a “reply” to Derrida’s deconstruction of Austin, assuming that Derrida was attacking Austin and rushing to the master’s defense. Derrida then wrote a hundred-page deconstruction of Searle’s reply, more or less savaging Searle and demonstrating both that philosophically Searle is way out of his league and that methodologically Searle and Derrida are not so very far apart. Both Searle and Derrida are analytical philosophers who believe in rational, logical thought; Derrida is merely better at it than Searle, more sensitive to the mind-numbing complexity of analytical issues.


Just a Light Trim, Please

Jul 3rd, 2005 2:47 am | By

I’d never heard of Sheila Jeffreys before reading this article. Okay so I’m a dreary boring sexless humourless old-timey feminist, but I think she’s right. It depresses me to see the things women do to themselves and how it’s gotten not better but worse since second-wave feminism started.

I’ll tell you something else I hadn’t heard of, and that’s ‘trimmed labia.’ Trimmed what? Trimmed? Trimmed? You trim fingernails and hair, apples and carrots, not pieces of your body! Okay so I’m clueless, but I don’t spend a lot of time keeping up with the ‘sex industry,’ therefore I was unaware there was such a thing as ‘labiaplasty.’ What was that we were saying last year about female genital mutilation?

“Men’s desire for bigger and bigger breasts, and clothes commonly associated with prostitution, has resulted from the mass consumption of pornography.”

Ah – is that what causes it. Good to know. I’ve been wondering for years what the ‘get me, don’t I look exactly like a hooker’ fashion was all about.

She points to studies that have found significantly higher rates of suicide among women who have had breast implants. The latest, conducted in 2003 by the International Epidemiology Institute of Rockville and funded by Dow Corning Corp, a former maker of silicone gel breast implants, included a study of 2,166 women, some of whom received implants as long as 30 years ago. Dow Corning also funded an earlier Swedish study, which examined 3,521 women with implants, and found the suicide rate to be three times higher than normal.

The first thought that occurs to me is that it’s probably not that the implants make women suicidal, but that suicidal women get implants. It seems quite likely that women who think their appearance is the most important thing about them will tend to be depressive. That women who think it’s worth cutting their breasts open and having a foreign substance shoved inside just to make the breasts bigger do not have a particularly healthy or reasonable view of what they could be doing with their lives.

I can get very cross and depressed about this kind of thing. I’m glad Sheila Jeffreys has written this book, but I have absolutely no hope that it will make the smallest bit of difference.

They Say Anything They Want to Now

Jul 2nd, 2005 8:50 pm | By

The trouble is, there is no answer. It’s no good trying to argue the question with the thought that there is an answer if only everyone can be convinced of it – there isn’t. It’s hopeless. There are only two competing goods, or goals, or desires or needs; there’s no way to grant both at once; there’s no way to do the right thing in both directions. At least not that I can ever see.

Three French intellectuals and the publisher of the nation’s premier newspaper, Le Monde, were ordered by a French court in May to pay 1 euro each to Attorneys Without Borders, which Mr. Goldnadel leads, for defaming Jews in an op-ed article three years ago…The case is one of many such complaints to land in European courts in recent years as a surge of emotional discourse – regarding Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks and Israel after the second Palestinian intifada – bumps against post-Nazi laws intended to guard against the fascist hate-mongering of the 1930’s…Some here say that Europe is struggling to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate at the worst possible time.

That’s just it. It’s a struggle to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate – contestable every step of the way, as indicated by the contest-laden vocabulary – struggle, adjust, boundaries, reasonable, debate. Not a black/white, yes/no idea in the lot.

Many free-speech cases have been set off since Sept. 11 by criticism of Islam amid concerns about Europe’s growing conservative Muslim population…The case of the article published in Le Monde arose amid a wave of scorn for Israeli policies that swept Europe after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. The mood soon fueled a surge in anti-Semitism in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe. “Death to Jews!” was shouted in Paris streets.

Not a situation that can be just brushed aside, or ignored. Not a shout one wants to hear shouted in any streets anywhere on the planet.

The article, published in June 2002, was nothing remarkable to American readers accustomed to raucous, sometimes racist public debate…One of the passages cited by the court read, “One finds it hard to imagine that a nation of fugitives descended from the people which has been persecuted the longest in the history of humanity, having been subjected to the worst humiliations and the deepest contempt, would be capable of transforming itself in two generations into a ‘dominating and self-assured people’ and, with the exception of an admirable minority, a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others.”

One doesn’t want to hear ‘Death to [Anyones]’ shouted in any streets – but at the same time, that sentence does not look like something that ought to be taken to court. In fact it looks like the kind of thing that ought not to be taken to court, because it is a political opinion. And yet – and yet – political opinions, even those comparatively distant from shouts of ‘Death to [Hated People]’ in the streets, can, in just the right (i.e. wrong) circumstances, lead to such shouts and then to the machetes or the massacres in empty warehouses. But then, if one looks at it that way, so can almost any political speech. Safety is good, protection of minorities is good, but so is political discussion. Ideas about the need to protect minorities are themselves the product of political discussion, after all.

An open letter in support of the defendants, signed by 100 French intellectuals and published in Le Monde last year, argued that criticizing the Israeli government “and even the majority of Israelis who support it,” is far from a condemnation of all Jews. It warned that the case “shows the serious threat, which often takes the form of intimidation, that is looming over freedom of expression in France.” But Mr. Goldnadel sees the case as part of a larger shift in what is acceptable in public discourse that began with the start of the second intifada. “Since the intifada, the media has suddenly discovered freedom of expression,” he said. “When speaking of Israel or Zionism they say anything they want to now.”

Well, I think he’s wrong, but I don’t know of any knock-down argument that he is. I just think he is.

Faith Whatting?

Jul 2nd, 2005 2:42 am | By

They’re getting closer…and closer…and closer.

They’ve reached Cleveland, for instance.

The Cleveland health education museum will open its doors to faith healer Dr. Issam Nemeh on July 10, creating an unusual venue for a purported miracle healing service. HealthSpace Cleveland waived the customary $5,000 rental fee for Nemeh, said Patricia Horvath, the executive director. “We decided not to charge them because a number of board members are supporters of Dr. Nemeh’s work,” Horvath said. “We see spiritual health in the holistic view of overall health,” she said.

The Cleveland what education museum? The Cleveland health what museum? The Cleveland health education what? Don’t you mean the Cleveland bide-a-wee home for bullshitters? The Cleveland theatre of wooerpgahwackawacka? The Cleveland we are all out of our minds and happy about it institute?

The Plain Dealer reported earlier this month that Nemeh’s method of acupuncture requires only a five-day training course and uses a device not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical safety or effectiveness. The paper also reported that Nemeh had sued after being kicked out of a medical residency program at Fairview Hospital…Nemeh and his wife, Cathy, who lays hands on the sick with her husband, have declined to be interviewed.

Gee, I wonder why.

Well at least there’s a refuge, of sorts. Well not a refuge – because it’s a summer camp – and if you’ve ever been to a summer camp, especially the kind where you have to actually live there and don’t get to go home after half an hour or so, you’ll know that they’re not what you’d call refuges. More like hell on earth, is what they are. But anyway, if you have to go to summer camp (how ecstatically happy I am that that is one possibility that simply cannot arise in my life, not unless the zealots take over completely and send people like me off to be re-educated, in which case I have a plan to escape to the still-vex’d Bermoothes) then it’s better to go to one where the Christians won’t insist on telling you that you’re friends with the devil. That kind of thing palls after awhile.

Many of the two dozen campers who attended this year’s session last week recounted experiences of being called names and otherwise harassed. For instance, Travis Leepers, 17, from Louisiana, reported that just about everyone he knows has expressed concern to him about his soul and has tried to convert him. Sophia Riehemann, 14, from Bellevue, Ky., recalled how one of her schoolmates called her a devil-worshiper. “People get really confused sometimes,” Sophia said. “They think that if we don’t believe in God we believe in the devil.”

Even the New York Times seems to find the whole thing a little suspicious – and they’re not even in Kentucky or Louisiana.

Nearly two million American adults openly identify themselves as atheist or agnostic, according to a 2001 survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Openly! Right out there in the open! Where puppies and butterflies and little innocent children can hear them – they come right out and say they’re atheist or agnostic. You know, I really thought that kind of thing had been made illegal by this time.

Does the Times think people should only say that kind of thing behind closed doors with a hood over their heads and a note of deep shame in their voices, or what? Oh, never mind. I think I’ll amble over to the local science museum for some faith healing and attitude-adjustment.

Oath? What oath? Want some vitamins?

Jul 2nd, 2005 2:08 am | By

What was that thing Hippocrates said? Something about first doing no harm, wasn’t it? Or am I misremembering – maybe it was first bend your arm, or first wear this charm, or first wind up that yarn. Must have been, because the ‘do no harm’ thing doesn’t always seem to be uppermost in the minds of certain kinds of ‘healers’ – but maybe that kind doesn’t take a Hippocratic oath anyway. Maybe that’s what ‘complementary and alternative’ means. There’s this Rath Foundation for instance.

And so to Africa, where there exist “complementary and alternative medicine” practitioners pursuing the fashionable attack on mainstream medicine, just like in the UK. Take Matthias Rath and the Rath Foundation vitamin empire. They have been running advertising campaigns in newspapers and poster campaigns near HIV/Aids treatment centres, telling people that anti-retroviral drugs undermine the body’s immune system, and that “micro-nutrients alone can promote the defence against Aids”.

That’s nice, isn’t it. Positively papal in its niceness. It’s not good enough to tell people to take vitamins in addition to anti-retroviral drugs – no – it’s necessary to tell them the drugs actually undermine their immune systems. (Figuring – what – that they’re mostly very poor so can’t afford to buy both so therefore they have to be made to buy the one that will put money in the pockets of the vitamin people rather than the pockets of the retroviral drug people? How do some people sleep at night, I always wonder. I mean really – I don’t know how the pope and his assistants manage it, and I don’t know how this crowd does.)

…the Rath Foundation makes paranoid accusations against anyone who disagrees with it, accusing them of being in the pocket of the multinational pharmaceutical companies with advert headlines such as “Stop Aids genocide by the drug cartel”…[I]t likes to adopt a mainstream scientific stance and push multivitamins for “treating” illnesses. Harvard researchers have accused Rath of misinterpreting their findings to argue against increased use of antiretroviral therapy, numerous countries’ advertising standards people have ordered Rath to withdraw unsubstantiated claims, and UNAids, WHO and Unicef have condemned his misrepresentations of their nutrition and health advice…South Africa has 5 million people infected with HIV, one person in nine. Fewer than 40,000 are taking proper medication.

That’s a pretty remarkable story.

Mere Featherless Bipeds

Jul 1st, 2005 2:12 am | By

This article by Carlin Romano raises a lot of very interesting issues. I don’t know nearly enough (by which I mean I know nothing at all) about the subject to judge how fair or accurate any of it is – but the issues raised are interesting in any case, and I propose to mumble over them, so there.

The desire to portray great thinkers as disembodied argument machines remains a powerful force in analytic philosophy. Think of it as a slice of amour-propre, part of the arrogant wish to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything. It can move acolytes to depict thinker-heroes as dynamos of pure intellect rather than peers: mere featherless bipeds whose thoughts bear clear markings from their beliefs, fears, and weaknesses.

See, that’s an interesting idea whether it’s true or not. The idea of people wanting to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything – there’s something fascinating about that (as well as very funny, of course). I suppose I’m interested in various forms of déformation professionelle, and especially in academic ones, so the thought of a special need or desire to be a disembodied argument machine makes me sit up and take notice.

It also interests me because it seems to me not altogether mistaken to want to separate the thoughts from the biography. I can think of other reasons philosophers (among other people) would want to do that that aren’t mere vanity – so Romano’s article partly goes against the grain of my thinking, which is to say it challenges some of my assumptions. I don’t always like having my assumptions challenged – when the students at Patrick Henry college (no, I’m not going to stop mentioning that place any time soon, why do you ask?) babble about the joys of subordinating women I don’t find it particularly interesting or thought-provoking – but sometimes I do.

It seems reasonable to want to try to do that, at least, for reasons to do with clarity. As part of an effort to strip away extraneous details in order to get at the thoughts as – in themselves they really are. That may be an absurd, hopeless, impossible, even risky wish, but still I can see why people would want to try – at least I think I can. But the idea that it’s pretty much just presentation of self is…interesting.

I keep thinking of Lydgate. In Middlemarch, you know. Eliot does a brilliant job on him: he’s the classic case of a would-be impersonal, dedicated, above it all scientist who in fact is riddled with unaware vanity.

Like many of his colleagues, Hart largely avoided anecdotes, biography, and detailed sociological evidence because it didn’t fit with proper Oxford philosophical method. Clear, precise, and commonsensical, he kept his personal life out of his books. Lacey’s study consequently hit the jurisprudence community like a Kitty Kelley exposé implanted in a Festschrift.

Not all bad, the keeping the personal life out business. One can get weary of the anecdotes about evenings wandering around Jakarta or Rangoon. I’m just saying.

But Lacey’s achievement triggered an attack on her this year by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, author of – unsurprisingly – The View From Nowhere. Complained Nagel in the London Review of Books, “I felt that I was learning too much that was none of my business…Nagel also maintains that despite Lacey’s distinguished academic position, she is “not equipped … to deal with the philosophical background. When she talks about the ‘paradox of analysis’ or about the differences between J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein, she is lost.” Upping the insult quotient, Nagel maintains that Lacey “seems to have a weak grasp of what philosophy is,” a claim he repeats several times. False in every respect. Lacey, far more industriously than Nagel, backs her statements throughout.

Now, that interests me because I happen to have read just a couple of days ago a letter from Simon Blackburn and Jeremy Waldron to the LRB protesting exactly the same thing.

We were puzzled and depressed to read Thomas Nagel’s patronising review of Nicola Lacey’s biography of Herbert Hart. In particular, his sweeping claim that the author is ‘lost’ when it comes to philosophical issues is both ungenerous and unsupported.

So the context and explanation Romano gives seems to make sense of something puzzling.

Indeed, Lacey utterly foresees Nagel’s line of insult. She specifically anticipates his assertion that Wittgenstein thought understanding “has to be pursued primarily by reasoning rather than by empirical observation,” noting “Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the embeddedness of language games within social practices.” In her view, Hart, like Nagel, never adopted an approach to reality as reportorial as Wittgenstein’s because it “undermines the pretensions of philosophy as the ‘master discipline’ which illuminates our access to knowledge about the world.”

Now that really interests me, because it’s something I’ve heard before, from people I know who have a somewhat disrespectful view of philosophy – who say it likes to see itself as ‘the queen of the sciences’ and that that self-vision can make philosophers a tad grandiose. I have no idea, myself. I don’t know any philosophers. I live in a tiny fishing village on the edge of an ice shelf in the far far north, and philosophers don’t get up here much. But I have heard people (who do know some philosophers) say so. Thus it’s interesting.

The sad upshot of this latest sighting of the disembodied thinker is that a champion of “philosophy” thinks truth matters less than keeping up appearances.


Book Meme

Jun 30th, 2005 2:15 am | By

Err. I knew it had been awhile, but I didn’t think it had been as long a while as that. Thought it was more than a week, so maybe…ten days or so. No – three weeks. Blimey! How I do lose track sometimes (because I’m busy not losing track other times, or rather of other things – that’s what does it).

But I’m on it now. The book meme, which Norm tagged me with ten days I mean three weeks ago. (Really?! I bet it wasn’t. I bet he moved the post, just to rattle me.)

Total number of books I’ve owned:

What, I’m supposed to have counted them and kept track of the numbers? I don’t know! I have a couple of thousand now.

The last book I bought:

Haven’t bought a book in years – too penniless. I’ll substitute the last book I got out of the library – actually it was several – Philip Larkin’s letters, Mark Lilla’s Reckless Minds, Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault and a couple of others.

Five books that mean a lot to me:

On Liberty. A Fine Balance. The Secret Garden. Emma. From the Beast to the Blonde.

I’m supposed to tag five people, but I think I’d better not, because it’s been so long – it’s probably not etiquette to tag people, like, two years late.

Close Reading Redux

Jun 30th, 2005 12:43 am | By

Michael Bérubé has a post on that Judith Halberstam article about the putative death of English. Remember that article? The one I had so much innocent fun with last month? Actually (now I look) two sessions of innocent fun – because I wasn’t able to fit all my ridicule and venom into one comment of reasonable length.

Much of my venom was directed at the characterization of close reading as ‘elitist’ – remember that?

But, while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low.

I frothed and gnashed at that – so I’m pleased (though, like the Elephant’s Child, not at all astonished) to see Michael disagreeing too.

When I first read this, I said softly to myself, “no no no no no no no no.” But since that’s not a sufficient argument, let me supplement it by saying that close reading is not, in fact, elitist. Although it was once applied to a particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, it is not forever tainted by that association. Hey, you can’t use that—don’t you know that Cleanth Brooks once used that on John Donne?


In the right hands (ours, naturally), close reading is a good thing, and we ought to keep on doing it, not least because it remains one of our best defenses against the lies and slander of our attackers. And we should make it clear—much clearer than we have to date—that close readings (or, if you like, skills in advanced literacy) are precisely what English departments have to offer. They’re our distinct product line; they’re what we sell people—and even better, they’re a product that just doesn’t wear out. Once you know how to do one, you can do more of ‘em. And you don’t have to confine yourself to literary works, either. You can go right ahead and do close readings of any kind of “text” whatsoever, in the most expansive sense of that most expansive word.

Exactly. Which is pretty much what N&C is for – close readings of various bits of wool and fluff and dancing around in The Meeja, books, and similar textual-type environments. That was the basic idea of N&C from the beginning: a place to do close readings. I could probably even find the email I sent to my colleague sometime in September 2002 when we were inventing the whole site, saying something along the lines of ‘How about a place to do close readings of whatever comes along?’ And that’s odd, because it happens that in the course of an, ahem, a discussion of a past conversation, PM provided a link to N&C for July 2004 which I read bits of with surprise and interest, as if I’d never seen any of it before (how I wish we had an archive for N&C, but it is Forbidden) – including this one, which is about, precisely, Close Reading – it’s even titled that. But I was going to do this post (this one, the one I’m doing now) talking about close reading, before I saw that one. Apparently there’s some kind of magnetic field shortly after the summer solstice that causes me to write a post about close reading and its connection to Notes and Comment. This is how I said it last year.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Then I got from there to a close (well, close-ish) reading of the term ‘race’ – which I mention by way of pointing out that close reading (as Michael also points out) is not some artsy-fartsy elitist snob’s night out, it’s a very damn useful and basic activity. If you don’t do it the Patrick Henry colleges and the Bill O’Reillys can just run roughshod all over you merely by throwing around words like ‘spiritual’ or ‘values’ or – listen closely, now – ‘elitist.’

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

Michael closes with a promise of more fun in the future.

Hey! This post is already too damn long. I was going to proceed from here to do a close reading of Mark Bauerlein’s essay on “Theory’s Empire,” recently posted at Butterflies and Wheels, but I think I’ll give you all a break for once. Stay tuned for John McGowan’s Thursday Guest Post tomorrow, and I’ll be back on Friday with an arbitary but fun value judgment. The close reading of Bauerlein will just have to wait until after the weekend.

That’s the thing about close reading, once you get started it’s hard to stop, and posts get long and longer.

Remarks on Theory

Jun 30th, 2005 12:39 am | By

People have been commenting here and there on Mark Bauerlein’s “Theory’s Empire”, no doubt because of the links on Arts and Letters Daily and (cringe) National Review Online’s The Corner. There’s this colleague of Mark’s for example:

If the original impulse of theory was to shatter orthodoxies and challenge hierarchies (it wasn’t all that, but that’s the mythology), the current incarnation is tediously hegemonic…I’m sure deconstruction was really exciting back in the day, but, well, I don’t live back in the day, and I don’t care…the theory evolved into elaboration for its own sake, turning a corner of literature departments into Philosophy-Lite (“Just as much deep meaning, but a third less logical rigor”). You can see how theory for its own sake could take over…But in the end theory has alienated people from literature rather than drawing them in with all the cool new tools of analysis. Why? Because theory, as it is currently constituted, is no longer about finding things out but rather about obscuring them…Theory is dying a long, slow death because it has become boring and opaque. When it comes to praxis, it’s predictably pseudo-radical. When it comes to literature, it’s predictable. Theory won’t die out entirely because there is a quorum of young scholars who have staked their careers on it (I know someone who says “I am the person who does Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives; That’s my niche” — and a tiny niche it is…).

Snicker, snerk. Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives – I wish I’d known about that while we were doing the Dictionary. There’s nothing in there about Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives, although Lacan is definitely there.

There’s another medievalist, this time one who doesn’t think much of B&W:

Sure, the article is a shameless plug, and it is found on the frequently disappointing Butterflies and Wheels site, but he still acknowledges the institutional nature of theory study.

Now see here – B&W may well be frequently disappointing (all depends what you were looking forward to, dunnit), but the article is not a plug, shameless or otherwise – I asked Mark to write it and he kindly consented; plug doesn’t come into it. Plug, indeed – given the kind of site B&W is, it features a lot of talk about books, doesn’t it! That doesn’t make it plugs. [mutter mutter]

Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s “the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature” ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional — else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect.

Eh? Academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles? That’s a bit question-begging, isn’t it? Why did it? Why wasn’t it institutionally headed by slavophiles or magyarophiles?

But no matter. I’m just quibbling (I need a break from plugging). Then there’s this site called, catchily, C8H10N4HO2O2.

Without literature, I’d put myself firmly in the camp of those (Ms. Benson, maybe? I don’t want to put words in her mouth) who mostly think that post-modern ideas about the significance of context to observations might be useful things to keep around, but anyone taking this so far as to suggest this implies there is either (a) no tractably knowable objective reality or (b) actually no objective reality is probably either (1) incredibly silly, (2) sadly deluded, (3) grinding an axe for a pseudoscience, or (4) all of the above…Beyond these goobs, of course, there’s the out and out apologists for unreason, hiding behind postmodernism’s flag. You can’t live long as an atheist without encountering at least one slackjawed evangelical preacher who insists his firm belief in an invisible sky fairy is somehow ‘post-modern’… or justified because post-modernism sez there’s no reality anyway, so he can believe whatever he durn well wants, thank you very much… Or somesuch rot. True story: one of these I met, attempting to answer my ridicule of his rhetoric, responded to me with the line: “You’re such an Enlightenment thinker”… as though, apparently, I was gonna take this as an insult or something.

Yup, I’ve encountered some of them too.

And there’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast who finds B&W helpful for dissertation writing.

I do, however, have a new weapon in my battle against such propensities for skillfully written perpetuation of nonsense: It’s my newest favorite blogrolled site, Butterflies and Wheels…The site’s entire mission appears to be an innoculation against poor academic writing, faulty scholarly thinking and reasoning, and ideological monarchs clothed in scientific clothes. It’s a good companion, in my mind, to the book Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont. One gradstudent-relevant point to take from these resources is the importance of not copying the mistakes of our elders in order to be accepted into the academic fold. It is possible to think clearly. It is possible to write well. It is possible to communicate complex scholarly ideas with clarity, honesty, and flair.

Yes – that is indeed our entire mission. And a dang good mission it is, too. (And not as small as it may sound – look how full it’s made these pages in the last almost three years.)

The sun is setting in its usual decorative fashion, and I must scamper off to admire its descent over the silvery waters of Puget Sound. Good night.


Jun 29th, 2005 2:50 am | By

What was that we were saying about Bible-clutchers who avow their belief that everyone ‘outside’ of JC will get conscious torment for eternity? And about the thought that people who choose to believe that, and sign a statement saying so at the beginning of their college careers, and carry on as usual in a cheerful tranquil manner – have something badly wrong with them; that such people are not, as is so often assumed of ‘devout’ believers, better than other people, but worse?

Well. Last January, some six months before Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced for the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a visit to Killen a few years earlier at his house near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

A sign on the narrow road that leads to Edgar Ray Killen’s house, in the low hills southeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi, reads “If You Don’t Believe in God, the Hellfire Awaits You.”

But Killen’s a preacher, so no doubt he does believe in God.

Killen is known around Philadelphia as Preacher. He used to preside over a small church nearby, where he taught the inerrancy of the Bible and the superiority of the Caucasian race, but that day he was apparently caring for his weapons. “My gun’s clean and ready,” he said…The killings took place on Rock Cut Road, a short walk from Killen’s house, and it has long been alleged that Killen, who, according to the F.B.I., was a founder of the local Klavern, organized the murder party. He was indicted on federal charges not long after the killings, but he benefitted at trial from a deadlocked jury. A holdout juror said she could not convict a preacher.

So not only does the Hellfire not await him, but he got four decades of impunity that he otherwise wouldn’t have. How spiritual.

He’d been more talkative a few years earlier in an interview with David Oshinsky for the Times Magazine. “I’m a right-winger who supports the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers,” he’d said. When Oshinsky asked him about the murders, he replied, “Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I’m sorry they got themselves killed. But I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.”

I’d like to read that interview, but I haven’t found it online. David Oshinsky wrote a very good (horrifying) book, Worse Than Slavery, about Parchman Farm, the state prison in Mississippi and how it and the labor laws of the state functioned to reimpose slavery on the supposed freed slaves after the Civil War. Reading him on Killen would be pretty interesting.

I mentioned a conversation I’d had with Stan Dearman, who was then the editor of the local paper. Dearman had told me that some people in the town were thinking of building a memorial to the murdered civil-rights workers. This prospect sent Killen into a rage. At first, he didn’t even understand. “A memorial?” he asked. “To who? The dead guys?” I nodded. “Never!” he shouted. “It’ll never happen.” After a moment, he asked me to leave. He said, “I’m not a man of violence, but if you don’t get off my property right now, I’m going to shoot you dead.”

And that’s Preacher Killen.

Disorder and Early Sorrow

Jun 27th, 2005 10:16 pm | By

This review of Simon Blackburn’s Truth brings up Munchausen’s by proxy:

For a more serious example of the misuse of “objective facts” by people in power, he blasts the proponents of “Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy,” which Blackburn calls “a description invented by a British pediatrician for a ‘condition’ in which mothers harm or kill their babies in order to gain attention for themselves. By insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence, the medical profession assisted in the conviction of many innocent mothers whose babies had died of natural causes.”

The subject is in the news as we speak, as a professor of forensic statistics explains what he takes to be a mistake in Roy Meadow’s analysis of the odds that two children in the same family could have SIDS, to the General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice panel.

These ‘conditions’ that are ‘discovered’ are interesting. Apparently there is – or is said to be – a ‘condition’ ‘called’ (by whom?) Body Integrity Identity Disorder. People who have this rare ‘condition’ apparently (as far as I can make out) are convinced they have an arm or leg too many and pine their lives away longing to have the superfluous limb chopped off. Now…I don’t know, but where I come from, that kind of thing isn’t considered a ‘condition’ so much as just being stark staring stupid. Could that be the problem here? Could the people (who are they?) who named this ‘condition’ Body Integrity Identity Disorder, simply have been confused? Could they just have mistaken a peculiar belief with a ‘condition’? People have lots of peculiar beliefs, you know; that doesn’t mean they’re sick, it just means they’re not firing on all cylinders. A certain amount of cautious skepticism would seem to be in order.

Two Australian philosophers believe surgeons should be allowed to cut off the healthy limbs of some “amputee wannabes”. Neil Levy and Tim Bayne argue that patients obsessed with having a limb amputated should be able to have it safely removed by a surgeon, as long as they are deemed sane…Dr Levy, of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, said some patients suffered so severely from the rare condition – known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) – they tried to remove the limb themselves…Only a few thousand people worldwide are believed to have the disorder.

By whom? Who are all these people? All these shadowy people who named the ‘Disorder’ and have beliefs about how many people in the world have it – who are they, and how do they know?

But more to the point, this seems like a glaring example of exactly what Blackburn is talking about – of ‘insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence’ – and then give surgeons the okay to cut off legs and arms that don’t need cutting off. It’s like
‘Reactive Attachment Disorder’
, the made-up ‘disorder’ that got Candace Newmaker killed by ‘therapists’ in a rebirthing exercise. It’s also like ‘recovered memory’ and ‘multiple personality disorder’ and no doubt a good few other disorders and syndromes. If it just prompts some therapeutic hand-holding and hanky-clutching, it’s not so terrible (unless the afflicted want to tell us about their affliction, in which case it’s time to discover an urgent appointment elsewhere), but when it starts getting people squashed in mattresses or mutilated or thrown in prison or permanently estranged from parents or children – it’s a bit dodgy.

The Griffin Can Be Umpire

Jun 27th, 2005 2:08 am | By

Hey remember last winter when I used to tell you all about Wicca and Celtic pathworkings and Sylvia Browne on angels? (I’m getting all tearily nostalgic just thinking about it. Those were the days – turning over page after page, staring at the words in disbelief, laughing incredulously, drawing moustaches on the angels and druids.) Well now other people are talking about her, to wit, PZ at Pharyngula and James Randi. It all sounds so familiar.

All God’s creatures exist on the Other Side with only one exception. The only living things I have never seen at Home are insects. I am not sure exactly why that is, but I have never seen a spider, fly, or any other type of insect…

That bashful ‘I am not sure exactly why that is’ is especially typical – she’s always saying things like that. ‘I’m not sure exactly why it is, but there’s nothing there that I don’t happen to like. Dirt, splinters, skeptics, insects – isn’t that strange – I have no idea why that is. And at the same time – I’m not sure exactly why – there is everything I do like. Golly, isn’t that just coincidental?’

Like this bit I quoted last winter (because I don’t have any of her books, that’s why – you think I actually want to have them on my shelves?) from The Other Side and Back

We on earth are stuck with our dimension’s annoying laws of time and space, laws that contribute concepts like ‘late’ and ‘crowded’ and ‘traffic jam’ and ‘stressed out’ to our vocabulary. The residents of The Other Side joyfully function without those restrictions and instead enjoy the freedom of such universal laws as infinity and eternity.

Yay! No ‘late,’ eternity instead! No traffic jams or crowds, because with infinity to play with, everybody can be miles apart – it’s brilliant! Of course, then the question arises, what could you be not late for? What could you travel through no traffic jams to get to? I mean, are you meeting people for lunch, or what? Because if you are, at some point you’re going to have to get closer to them – or else call it something other than lunch. ‘Waving hello across a vast space’ perhaps, but not lunch. That’s where this infinity business nabs you, you see – it seems like a good idea, it seems like pure luxury and enjoyment – ‘all the space I want! I can do a 20 mile run in my living room!’ – but then when the moment arrives that you want to pick up a piece of foccaccia because you’re hungry, and you can’t because it’s several miles away – well you see the problem. And it’s like that with everything. Pretty soon claustrophobia starts to look pretty good – but it’s too late, because you’ve let Sylvia Browne talk you into the infinity-and-eternity version. You’re not allowed to change your order. Messes up the gears in the infinity drive. And as for eternity – that means that on the rare occasions when people do manage to get within shouting distance and you all settle down for a chat – they never leave. Why would they? What’s their hurry? They’ve got nowhere they have to be (and they can’t get there anyway, because of infinity), and if they did they’d have more than enough time to get there – so they’ll just stay and pass the time with you.

And how is this for something to look forward to: All spirits on The Other Side are thirty years old…Spirits can assume their earthly appearance when they come to visit us, to help us recognize them, but in their day-to-day lives on The Other Side, not only are they thirty but they can choose their own physical attributes, from height to weight to hair color.

Ooooooh, I do look forward to that, don’t you? Ooh I’m so excited – maybe I’ll go there now. I can choose my own physical attributes! Okay, I’ll be ten feet tall, weigh enough to crush stuff, and have hair the colour of turpentine. No, wait, scratch that – I’ll look exactly like Billy Bob Thornton. No, wait, I’ll look exactly like Marie Dressler (oh, wait, I already do). No, Natalie Portman. No, Sponge Bob Squarepants – oh, no, wait, he’s a poofter, I want to look butch – the Archbishop of Canterbury – that’s it, I’ll look like that guy. And I’ll be thirty, and everyone will be thirty. There we’ll all be, ten feet tall looking like Sponge Bob, racing the unicorn up and down our infinitely long living rooms and hoping nobody drops by and stays for eternity. Um – it doesn’t sound all that much fun, actually.