Stepping Sideways

Apr 29th, 2006 11:15 pm | By

Phrasemaker, Scruton, isn’t he.

Freud, who assumed the mask of the objective observer, who presented his results as the inescapable conclusions of arduous empirical study, who repeatedly claimed that his psychological discoveries would one day be grounded in biology, is now widely accepted at mask-value…Someone must have reminded him that not all children are boys; but he had an easy way with his critics, which was to throw the Greeks at them. Thus was born the Electra complex, conjured from a thigh-bone of Oedipus…At every point where scientific method might impose its logic on the argument, Freud stepped sideways into metaphor, asserting with dogmatic intransigence that this is how things are because this is how they must be.

Stepping sideways into metaphor – perfect way of putting it. That’s quite a familiar dance step these days, beloved of bishops and postmodernist theologians alike, not to mention astrologers.

And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell. Freud suffered from the ‘charm of disenchantment’. Like Marx he was irresistibly drawn to explanations that demean us, and which turn our world-view upside down – or set it, as Marx insisted, ‘on its feet’.

Yeah. I used to suffer from that charm too – I’m sure most of us did. Although I wouldn’t say ‘explanations that demean us’ – I don’t think that’s quite accurate (though it’s close). I think it’s more a matter of trying to see past explanations that sentimentalize or prettify us, to get at the uglier (more demeaning) truth underneath. Of course that’s not always mistaken, to put it mildly (advertisers aren’t actually always in the business because they want to educate us); but it’s also not always the case that the most repellent or unnerving explanation is invariably and necessarily the right one. Freud often does seem to be convinced that the most irritating intepretation he can come up with is indeed necessarily the right one. Probably because of his toilet training.

Astrology Not Nonsense After All

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Okay and now that we’ve got it straight that I have no choice but to go on being smugly complacently in favour of rational inquiry as opposed to the other thing, let’s drop in on the Independent and see what it has to say about astrology.

The massive power of waves and the tides that cause them are, it is universally accepted, a direct consequence of the gravitational influences of the Moon and the Sun upon Earth. We also know that the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour and has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance, hence the word lunatic. Is it, astrologists argue, therefore completely impossible that the other planets also exert influences on our lives and personalities, to greater or lesser degrees and in varying combinations?

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anything quite as ridiculous as that, at least in a respectable newspaper. (Okay, not counting Bunting.) Note the discrepancy between ‘it is universally accepted’ in the first sentence and the much vaguer ‘we also know’ in the second. Who’s we, bub? And what do you mean ‘know’? And once we’ve got that clear – what on earth do you mean by ‘the Moon sometimes determines animal behaviour’? You mean like wolves howling at it? Or you mean like the moon turning bats into vampires? And then when we’re clear about that, what in the sam hill do you mean by ‘has long been linked with aspects of our lives as diverse as a women’s menstrual cycle and mental disturbance’? Eh? What do you mean ‘linked with’ for a start? You mean correlated with? You mean somebody has said ‘Hey, Clara went barking mad when the moon was almost full, and that other woman across town went a little funny during an eclipse’? Saying the moon has ‘long been linked with’ women’s ‘mental disturbance’ is perfectly compatible with simply saying that a lot of people who didn’t know much about either the moon or women’s brains have made random speculative correlations between the moon and women flipping out – which isn’t saying much. (Neither is ‘hence the word lunatic’. We know whence the word lunatic, you prat, that doesn’t constitute evidence that the moon does in fact make women go crazy, it just constitutes evidence that people thought the moon made people go crazy.) And then the descent into complete raving in the last sentence. Who knows whether it’s ‘completely impossible’ or not, but that’s not the issue; the issue is that there’s no reason to think so. Woolly thinkers always babble about proof and certainty and completely impossible, when those are not what’s at stake. Anyway – how did Terry Kirby get from the waves and the tides to ‘influences on our lives and personalities’? (By sly stages, that’s how. Waves and tides, to animal behaviour, to aspects of our lives such as menstruation and mental disturbance, to influences on our lives and personalities – as if they were all pretty much the same kind of thing. Well they’re not. If Kirby knows of some evidence that gravity influences our personalities the same way it influences the tides, I’d be curious to see it.) And then there’s ‘the other planets,’ meaning in addition to the moon and the sun. Err…

And that, having been around in various forms since the ancient Babylonians first began to describe celestial omens 4,000 years ago, astrology deserves more respect than the derision commonly accorded it by the rational scientists and the established churches[?]

Well there’s a stupid ‘argument’. Lots of things have ‘been around’ for four thousand years or more, but that doesn’t automatically mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ – why would it? Stupid ideas don’t become less stupid as they get older; often the contrary is true, as better information becomes available. The four humours were around for a long time too; does that mean they ‘deserve’ ‘respect’ now?

Marlene Houghton, an astrologer for more than 30 years, puts it another way. “Astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science.”

Yupuhuh. Also known as the easy out. Astrology is a ‘metaphysical doctrine’ – okay, but then if it claims that distant planets do in fact ‘exert influences on our lives and personalities’ then it is making non-metaphysical truth claims, and doesn’t get to wiggle out of noticing disconfirming evidence with handwaving about metaphysical doctrines. That is, in the vernacular, cheating.

I’ve never seen astrology as a prop or a belief system but, as Ms Chalklin says, simply a tool to better understand the ups and downs of everyday life and help explain something about ourselves and the people we meet. It’s not rocket science, in fact, it’s not science at all. Whether you are an Aries or a Pisces, it is ultimately about people and what makes us what we are.

But if it’s a crap tool with all broken teeth and twisted prongs and dull blades and bent shafts, then what’s the point of it? How does it help anyone better understand the ups and downs of anything if it’s a great whirling cloud of vapor? How does it explain anything about ourselves and the people we meet when in fact it doesn’t explain anything at all because it’s pure raving nonsense?

Ah, the hell with it. With people like that around and the Indy publishing them, I’ll just have to go on being smug and complacent, I can’t possibly do anything else.

No Remedy

Apr 28th, 2006 7:47 pm | By

Sastra makes a relevant point, or set of points, in a comment on ‘No Exit’.

Bottom line, science is the method you use when you want to force yourself to seriously consider the possibility that you might be wrong. It’s designed to eliminate bias and test views as much as possible. It’s structured to force a change of mind. If that is allowed to pass as just a “different kind of dogma,” then being undogmatic would mean refusing to consider the possibility you might be wrong, embracing your biases, and not testing your beliefs. Don’t change your mind. Stay firm. Otherwise, you might be in danger of the smugness of scientism.

Just so, and that’s where the regress comes in, and I just can’t see any way out of it. For one thing, as Sastra indicates, taking things on faith itself involves a kind of smugness. In fact you could say that it doesn’t involve smugness, it is smugness. The refusal to consider disconfirming evidence (and that is what faith is, by definition) could be seen as the very essence of smugness. Again, I reach a dead end where I just don’t see what the alternative can be. Making a virtue of refusing ever to change one’s mind, no matter what, is not an anti-smug stance.

But then it’s smug of me to say that. We’re saying (we have a consensus) that rational inquiry and science, which always include the possibility that we might be wrong, are better forms of inquiry than their opposites, which exclude the possibility that their practitioners might be wrong; we’re saying this method is better than that method; therefore there is a potential for smugness. Sure; there is; but the remedy for that can’t be to take up a much smugger, more self-protective way of thinking. I don’t know what the remedy is, other than the usual ones of trying to be vigilant, aware, self-critical, and so on; but I’m pretty convinced of what it’s not.

No Exit

Apr 27th, 2006 9:08 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about consensus and complacency. I know of people who think that B&W has too much in the way of consensus and thereby risks smug complacency. That’s true enough, but I don’t quite know what can be done about it, or even if anything should be done about it (that’s what I’ve been thinking about). It seems to me that as soon as I try to figure out what (if anything) can be done about it, I immediately get into a regress, which engenders feelings of deep hopelessness and futility (along with hunger). It may be that from a moral point of view, feelings of hopelessness and futility (and hunger) are preferable to smug complacency; but from other points of view, I’m not sure they are.

Here’s why I get into the regress. It seems to me that B&W’s* only really basic commitment – and thus all it can really risk being complacent about – is to rational inquiry. To rational inquiry of whatever kind; to using whatever tools and methods are needed to investigate whatever particular question needs investigating – including whether or not B&W is smug and complacent, and whether consensus on the need for and value of rational inquiry necessarily leads to smug complacency. And right there, two seconds into the inquiry, we smack into the regress, and I don’t see how we can get out of it. How can we tell whether or not B&W is smugly complacent except by trying to find out? By trying to find out by inquiry? But if we do that we’re just displaying the consensus again, smugly and complacently. But what else can we do? What is there other than rational inquiry? Faith? Revelation? Authority? Intuition? Blind commitment? Hunch? Insight? Mystical experience? But those simply don’t seem the right (the most reliable, the most testable, the most likely to be accurate) way to find out the truth of the matter. No doubt it’s smug and complacent of me to say and to think that – I can see that in a way it is by definition – but I still don’t see any good alternative. To rely on faith or revelation would be credulous and reckless and fundamentally incompetent, in the sense of using the wrong tools for a particular job.

So I seem to be stuck. It seems to me that B&W is not (necessarily) smug and complacent, because the basic idea it is committed to is, to the best of its (my) knowledge, the only one that’s a valid option – so it’s a forced choice – so not really a source of smugness. We don’t really feel smug when we pick up a garlic press instead of a chainsaw when we have some garlic to squash. Not unless we’re terribly hard up for reasons to feel smug (in which case no one should begrudge us, because really, how sad, don’t you think?).

It’s as if someone said, ‘what colour is that shirt?’ You have two choices – you can guess, or you can look. You think you’re more likely to give an accurate answer if you look. Is it smug and complacent to think that?

The other issue is that in a world where lots of people guess, and not only guess but make a virtue of guessing, and chastise people who look instead of guessing – the result may well be that the people who look will feel superior to the guessers (and, as a matter of fact, the guessers will feel superior to the lookers). If that is the sense of smug and complacent that is meant, it’s true enough: no doubt that is a risk. But how can it be helped? What is to be done? Should we start arguing in favour of guessing in order to avoid feeling superior to guessers? (What of the risk then of feeling superior to lookers? Should we just alternate every few minutes? But then wouldn’t we get dizzy and start dropping things?) But is that a good reason to do that? If we think rational inquiry really is the best way to find out things (and we think finding out things is worth doing) then is it sensible to do the opposite simply to prevent ourselves from (possibly) feeling superior? Isn’t that doing a large bad in order to prevent a comparatively trivial bad?

And the logic of doing things we don’t actually believe in in order to avoid smugness is tricky – because anything can prompt such feelings – so at that rate we should never do anything. Never learn anything, acquire any skill, form any opinion – we should be so humble and self-abnegating that we don’t exist at all. Which seems safe, but a bit pointless.

*I keep saying B&W, which is a bit absurd, because B&W c’est moi, there isn’t anyone else here – so why don’t I just say ‘I’? It seems coy to say B&W if I mean me. But I don’t really mean me, I mean B&W, so that’s what I say. B&W seems like something bigger than mere me – which it is, actually, because a lot of other people write for it, and I assume they do that because of the nature of B&W, which is created partly by those very people who write for it, in a continuing expansive process. Okay that’s why I say B&W. Though it’s also because it was two people when it was founded, so I formed the habit of thinking of it and referring to it that way; it’s taken me a long time to break the habit of using the plural first-person pronoun.

Women Out of Control

Apr 27th, 2006 2:00 am | By

Well you can see their point, of course. Men in shorts darting around kicking a ball – I mean to say. If they let women in to watch that kind of thing, not much football would get played, know what I mean? I mean, whoarrrr, right? Obviously. So if they let women in, then all they would get is, the men would come running out and do a spot of kicking and in thirty seconds flat each man would have forty or fifty women on top of him, and those shorts would be nowhere to be seen. Whoarrrrrrr.

That’s how it is here of course. In the West. There’s no such thing as football here, there are just these abortive occasions where men in shorts start to play football and then before you can say ‘Play ball!’ there’s just a lot of rutting going on. Not all that sporting. But you know how women are – one look at men’s knees and they can’t keep their clothes on. I think there used to be football, once upon a time, but I suppose that was before the Pankhursts or Betty Friedan or something.

It’s the thing about the other men in shorts that I don’t quite get.

Women can watch football broadcast on Iranian television and they can attend basketball and volleyball matches even though they too involve men dressed in shorts.

The thing about television seems quite cruel. It must drive them almost insane, poor things. Do they try to hump the television itself, I wonder? But it’s the part about attending basketball and volleyball matches that I really don’t understand. Why is that allowed? Why is it okay to have basketball and volleyball matches interrupted and ruined by throngs of whimpering women dragging the players’ shorts off? What’s the deal – Iranians like football but not basketball and volleyball? So they want football to go ahead and be played all the way to the end without being sidetracked to a copulation-fest, while with basketball and volleyball they figure it’s okay either way? That must be it, but I think it’s a little unfair to basketball and volleyball. But I prefer football myself, so I guess I can understand it.

Members of the clergy say it is wrong for men and women to look at each other’s bodies, even if they have no intention of taking pleasure from it.

Well of course it is. And what do they mean about no intention of taking pleasure from it? What planet is that supposed to be on? The one where women go to soccer matches and tennis matches and squash tournaments and swimming competitions and volleyball and basketball games and marathons and bicycle races with no intention of taking pleasure from slavering over men’s bodies? The one where women don’t even notice those tight tight tight lycra shorts? That planet? Haaaaaaa –

Sorry, but you have to admit, that’s funny.

One MP said, if the reformists had tried this, there would have been suicide bombers protesting on the streets of Teheran.

Protesting? Suicide bombers protesting? In the sense of blowing themselves up? Or just in the usual sense of marching and setting fire to things? But if it’s that – do suicide bombers announce themselves beforehand? Do they have like suicide bomber clubs, or uniforms, or regalia of some sort? Banners, maybe? I’d have thought they didn’t, I’d have thought the idea was to conceal the fact that one was a suicide bomber until the very instant when that fact was made apparent by an explosion. Because, see, if you go around beforehand saying you’re a suicide bomber and protesting things, there is some remote chance that someone might stop you going on being a suicide bomber.

But, maybe not, with everyone so busy keeping women out of football stadiums. First things first, ya know?

A Dialectic

Apr 25th, 2006 7:11 pm | By

One good Radio 4 idea-discusser reviews another. (I like Laurie Taylor. For one thing, he reviewed the Dictionary of FN in the Times Higher. He didn’t think much of it, but he did think some of the jokes were funny – that’s good enough.)

I’m also put off by the assumption that anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly join Bragg in his latest popularising endeavour is something of a spoilsport or a dangerous elitist…No one can doubt Bragg’s populist spirit. One of the chief pleasures of In Our Time on Radio 4 is the sound of him trying to persuade the assembled academics to speak more plainly about their specialist subject. Whether the topic of the day is quantum mechanics, Goethe, or the rise and fall of Charlemagne, there’s nearly always a magic moment when Melvyn grumbles that a distinguished professorial guest is departing from the order of play or becoming too interested in matters that are not central to the main story. Such episodes perfectly capture the dialectic between Melvyn’s healthy and commendable populist belief that every topic can be successfully brought to heel and his guests’ equally well-grounded insistence that matters are, on the whole, looking at it from both sides, taking everything into account, rather more complicated than their host would wish them to allow.

Yeh. That’s an interesting and tricky dialectic. I spend much of my life encountering it these days. Jeremy and I were always wrangling over it while writing Why Truth Matters, and I always have to keep it in mind while working on The Philosophers’ Mag. The basic issue JS and I kept disagreeing over is whether it makes people feel stupid and frustrated to read something they don’t entirely understand, or whether it makes them feel insulted and frustrated to have something they do understand explained to them. That’s why it’s a dialectic. I tend to think that a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does not necessarily make people feel stupid and frustrated but rather challenged and stimulated; I think he tends to think I go too far in that direction, and also that the risk isn’t worth it. I suppose the problem is that what a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does is make some people feel challenged and stimulated while it makes other people feel stupid and frustrated. But the trouble is that there has to be a cutoff point somewhere – it’s not possible or practical to explain absolutely everything, or else no one would be able to write anything at all, since every word would need explaining, as would the words that did the explaining, so that progress would be impossible. But how does one figure out where the cutoff point is? It’s pure guesswork, pure intuition; seat of the pants stuff. Nobody knows. We just do our best, that’s all. And argue over words like ‘quotidian’.

No Shortcut

Apr 23rd, 2006 5:25 pm | By

This is good bracing stuff.

At Wellington College, one of Britain’s top public schools, headmaster Anthony Seldon is piloting an initiative that may eventually see lessons in happiness added to the curriculum in both the state and independent sectors. What an unhappy prospect…The problem is that Wellington is opting to teach happiness through positive psychology which, in my view, can amount to little more than self-help with a veneer of academic respectability.

And one thing neither the world nor education needs more of is self-help with a veneer of academic respectability. It’s had lashings of that, via for instance the totem of ‘self-esteem’, and look how well that turned out – producing throngs of people with all too much self-esteem and all too little awareness of their own limitations. Positive psychology sounds unnervingly like more of the same.

A life of unremitting cheerfulness is one of delusion, for it refuses to acknowledge normal ups and downs. By emphasising pleasure, the psychologists turn happiness into something self-regarding: mere accumulation of pleasure and avoidance of pain. More, they leave unanswered all the tough questions: Do you have a right to be happy? Can you be happy if others are unhappy? Does it matter whether or not you’re happy?

The tough questions and also the most interesting ones. For instance: if there were a happiness pill, would you take it? The answer is far from obviously yes, for the same sort of reason the answer is not obviously yes to questions like ‘if there were a pill that could make you write great poetry or play the cello like Rostropovich, would you take it?’ The idea may appeal for about a quarter of a second, but then when we think about it we realize we want our happiness and our accompishments or talents to mean something, which entails that they have to be the product of something, of something connected to our own efforts or experience or thought or all those. No, actually, we don’t want to just magically turn into another Keats or Mozart; what would be the point? We want to cover the ground that lies in between being our poor bare selves and whatever magical being we have it in us to become – we want to cover all the ground, ourselves, wide awake and bending every nerve. If we don’t do that, whatever we get at the end doesn’t belong to us, and it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just some sort of parlour trick. Away with it. Same with positive psychology.

To begin, we must find a better definition of happiness, one that surpasses the restricted boundaries of subjective wellbeing. Lasting and profound happiness is the active orientation of your life towards meaning, purpose and value. It’s a reflection upon the character of your life as a whole. This kind of happiness is strong enough to withstand misfortune and does not depend upon good fortune. It isn’t about feeling good, it’s about being good. That’s what Aristotle meant when he called happiness (eudaemonia) a state of flourishing in the art of living…And thus he insisted that happiness was an activity – because it requires skill and focus.

It’s the opposite of a magic pill; it’s the negation of a magic pill. A magic pill would block and prevent the need for activity, skill and focus, so the happiness it created would be just some sort of weird delusion (a trick of the Evil Demon, perhaps) rather than the real thing. It would be like taking a pill that would cause you to have won a marathon, without having actually run the 26 miles and with no memory of having done so. Not very rewarding.


Apr 21st, 2006 9:21 pm | By

Why Truth Matters.


Apr 21st, 2006 8:00 pm | By

The thing about the cultural anthropoligical view is that, unless you are a cultural anthropologist, it’s not the place to stop. Because tolerance, acceptance, neutrality, non-judgmentalism never is the place to stop. That’s one of the advantages of being human, isn’t it – we are able to second-guess things, and ask for something better, so we should never permananently and thoroughly give up that ability and right.

We can suspend it at times, obviously. You don’t go to a friend’s house and tell her how to do things. (On the other hand, if you somehow discover that serious abuse is going on, you may want to intervene, with all the attendant difficulties and worries that possible duty raises.) But that is not the same thing as, and should not be confused with, either 1) never making any critical judgment at all or 2) accepting or approving everything no matter what.

No matter what; sight unseen; unconditionally; in advance: all are bad and dangerous ways to think. The Euston Manifesto has sparked a lot of discussions of cultural relativism, and many people think (or claim to think) it’s a fiction, but it isn’t at all. The very word ‘Islamophobia’ which is so readily flung around is a symptom and an example of cultural relativism. The word itself forms a mandate not to criticise Islam because to do so is ‘phobic’: irrational, neurotic, mistaken, hostile, fearful; and also, on the assumption that Islam is a race rather than a religion (which of course it isn’t), a form of racism. That’s a lot of work for one word to do, but it does it. (Why else would Comment is Free include Bunglawala?) As long as the word Islamophobia is in popular currency and used not (inaccurately but in another sense reasonably) to mean hostility to all Muslims no matter what, but to mean criticism of Islam, then it’s no good saying there is no cultural relativism; there is a lot of it.

Perhaps it clarifies to think of it as not so much cultural relativism as in advance, unconditional, sight unseen, pre-emptive thinking, or non-thinking. They describe the same thing, but perhaps the alternative term makes it more obvious what the problem is. The problem is this business of deciding ahead of time what the mandatory conclusion is, and then always reaching that conclusion, without considering evidence and without analysis.

It’s much like the way that religious argument functions, as a matter of fact – where no amount of evidence is relevant or heeded, and attempts to cite evidence are called ‘scientism’ and reductionism and then rebuked on the grounds that they claim anything that can’t be measured doesn’t exist; all that just boils down to saying ‘don’t ask, don’t look, don’t think, don’t evaluate.’ But we need to be able to evaluate and ask and think, we need to be able to reject as well as accept. Without that ability we can’t change or correct or fix or reform anything, not political systems nor economic arrangements nor traditions nor gender relations nor anything else. Life without the ability to second-guess and then fix or change anything would be hellish.


Apr 19th, 2006 8:55 pm | By

Another point about this strawman argument we keep getting from rabbis and bishops, this ‘argument’ that boils down to claiming that non-theists have a ‘belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured’ and then following that absurd claim with the equally absurd claim that love, morality, beauty and god are all ‘face[s] of human experience that [are] not subject to empirical verification.’

The other point (see above) is that that endlessly repeated pseudo-argument is a crap argument from two directions, not just one. It’s bad and stupid first, as I mentioned, because it dishonestly or woollily or confusedly makes a truth-claim about the existence of an entity, a being, in the view of theists a person, equivalent to evaluative thoughts and emotions such as love, ethics, awe, beauty, when they are quite different kinds of thing. That amounts to a large and glaring category mistake. On the one hand you have questions, controversies, discussions about whether Napoleon, King Arthur, Achilles, Marco Polo, Paul Bunyan, Mata Hari was or was not a real person who actually existed. On the other hand you have discussions of what we mean when we talk about love, beauty, good, bad, better, worse. Those are different kinds of thing. I think we can all agree on that? Am I right? Napoleon did or did not exist; a yes or no question; an empirical question. Napoleon was good or bad; a complicated question, not a yes or no; a question with empirical elements but also with other elements.

That’s one reason Lerner’s argument is a bad one, but there’s another reason, that comes from another direction. It’s bad because it relies on a claim that questions about the evaluative as opposed to the factual category are absolutely and entirely non-empirical questions, and I think that’s nonsense, and stultifying nonsense at that. It is not the case that there is nothing empirical to say or to discover about love or ethics or beauty (though it may be the case about god, though not about religion or belief). It is not necessary to think that statements such as ‘beauty is an excitation of this particular set of neurons’ are all there is to say on the subject, to think that they are some of what there is to say on the subject. The idea that empirical inquiry is completely beside the point and even profanation is just a way of sealing off one whole useful way of exploring the subjects; what would be the point of that? Why not inquire into both what is going on in the brain when we watch the sun set over mountains and what we experience when we watch the sun set over mountains? Rabbis and bishops don’t get to monopolize whole areas of life such as emotions and judgments merely because they want to assimilate them to their fuzzy ideas of what god might be. They also don’t get to wall them off from close examination merely because they want to protect that fuzzy god who tends to melt away into nothing when people look at it too hard.

A Cant-free Voice

Apr 18th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

Read any Dwight Macdonald? If not you should. He’s a good one.

I take exception to all this.

But you can’t dine on clippings and the bones of old controversies, so what did his versatile output amount to after decades of pounding the typewriter? For years…Macdonald had been…frustrated, fatigued and plagued by the feeling that he had failed to climb the masthead of his talent by writing a major, original work – bringing out a real book, not just a basket of articles.

That’s a stupid opposition – a real book as opposed to a ‘basket’ of articles. As if there is some Platonic Ideal length, as if there is some magic that makes sixty thousand words on the same subject a Real Book while six ten-thousand word articles are a mere basket. Some articles are worth more than some books, and there is no magic ideal Platonic length. Ask Hazlitt, ask Orwell, ask Montaigne.

Well, at least he gets there in the end.

More of an odd-jobber and instigator, Macdonald harbored no creative cravings, courted no muse, left behind no masterpiece to keep his legacy warm at night…Yet sometimes the most important thing a critic leaves behind is a singular, wised-up, cant-free voice that is pure intelligence at play, and at its best Macdonald’s voice shoots off the page as if he were broadcasting live and cutting through the static.

Yes it does. That singular, wised-up, cant-free voice is more worth reading than a lot of full-length books I can think of, so fret not after the unwritten ‘masterpiece’.

Cultural Anthropology 101

Apr 17th, 2006 9:37 pm | By

Martin Jacques has some thoughts on globalization, or on one version of globalization anyway. He starts with Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US office of war administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration. Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan’s culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country’s arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world. This prompts a deeper question: has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalisation been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the west, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies?

But that’s a silly question, at least the way Jacques puts it. Of course the approach of a cultural anthropologist will be different from ‘the present US attitude towards Iraq’ – if by that he means either the attitude of the Bush administration or that of the US people in general – because neither entity consists entirely of cultural anthropologists. Cultural anthropologists are necessarily professionally cultural relativists, in a technical sense that is a little different from the more colloquial sense in which Guardian columnists and B&W and other chatters use it. Cultural anthropologists take a value-neutral approach to other cultures in order to study them properly; that does not entail endorsing or agreeing with everything (or in fact anything) about other cultures, it simply entails understanding that other cultures have their own internal logic. If Jacques just means that the Bush administration would have done well to get more information about Iraq (preferably from people who knew a lot more about Iraq than Benedict knew about Japan – her book has its critics, who think it oversimplifies rather seriously), then of course he’s right, but he seems to be making a much larger claim.

In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalisation is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: it is becoming, and should become, more and more like the west. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its western-style accoutrements…At the heart of globalisation is a new kind of intolerance in the west towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian. The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the western model – neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest – is the template for all.

Note, as Norm does, the equation of intolerance with the idea that ‘democracy…is the template for all’. Note the oddity of that thought; note how insulting it is. Note the fatalism of the idea that ‘each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics’ and therefore some ‘cultures’ don’t want or need democracy, and nor do the people inside those cultures. Note the assumption that idea rests on, which is that cultures are monolithic and dissent-free and that therefore there is not so much as a hair’s width room for disagreement with or criticism of any aspect of that culture including its tyrannical or dictatorial or unaccountable and unrepresentative form of governance. But if a culture is undemocratic, how can Jacques be confident that all the people within that culture approve of its undemocratic character? Since, by definition, they haven’t been asked, how does he know that?

And how does he know they all think alike? Why does he assume that Other Cultures have no disagreement or dissent? Why does he assume that Other People are incapable of looking around them and thinking about their situations and wanting something different? Why does he assume Other People are incapable of saying No?

It would be interesting to know why he assumes that. Someone ought to assign a cultural anthropologist to study Martin Jacques and figure it out.

Keep Your Instruments of Cohesion

Apr 16th, 2006 9:39 pm | By

The New Statesman provides a partial antidote.

One ally, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, is dismissive of the vogue for New Age thinking and the popularity of vaguely “spiritual” schools…Copson’s association has about 6,000 members, but it claims as kindred spirits, at the least, the many people of no religion who do not specifically identify themselves as humanists. These people need a voice, he argues, because of the continuing prevalence of the notion that religions have a superior morality. “Charles Clarke [the Home Secretary] gave a speech the other day saying that faith gives people values,” Copson says. “There’s an attempt to use faith as an instrument of cohesion. But other people are not valueless.” The philosopher A C Grayling, a supporter of the BHA, calls for “absolute clarity” in this area. “Very non-rigorous, very confused ideas [about belief] are a source of potential danger,” he says.

Exactly. There is indeed an attempt to use ‘faith’ or rather religion and religious belief as instruments of cohesion, and the attempt is riddled with very non-rigorous, confused ideas. For instance there is the obvious problem that ‘faith’ works against cohesion precisely to the extent that it works for it – it creates cohesion in one group and the opposite of cohesion between groups – in other words it creates sectarian hostility that might not be there if there weren’t so much insistence on cohesion of ‘faith communities’. For another instance there is the question whether it is either sensible or fair to attempt to create cohesion via fictions portrayed as truths.

The charge levelled at the New Godless is that, with their rigorous reasoning, testing and experimentation, they are making a religion out of the scientific method. “It’s an all-purpose, wild-card smear,” retorts Dennett. “It’s the last refuge of the sceptic. When someone puts forward a scientific theory that they really don’t like, they just try to discredit it as ‘scientism’. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.”

Bishop of Oxford, please note. All other journalists who have used the word ‘scientism’ in the past week, please note.

Tested facts are the real ammunition of the New Godless…Raising unfounded doubts about those, says Copson, is “a failure to reason properly. The worst thing you can hear is, ‘Well, it’s my truth.'” Richard Dawkins, naturally, has little time for such viewpoints. “There’s this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out,” he says.

My, what a scientistic thing to say. Shocking.

Endless Supply

Apr 16th, 2006 7:31 pm | By

Yet more kack; the rabbi hands the kack-distribution duty over to a bishop.

There is a paradox about the current bout of media atheism.

Oh yes, the current bout of media atheism. How about the ongoing drip drip drip of media theism? Is there a paradox about that? In the fact that it keeps saying the same few untrue things over and over and over again, never fazed by voices whispering of bad arguments and troops of strawmen, and never able to find anything new to say?

The idea that faith and reason are inherently opposed to one another is a mantra that is mind-boggling in its lack of historical perspective. The fact is that all philosophers, ancient and modern, have believed that reasons can be adduced for and against a religious view of life. Most of them have, in fact, believed in God but all have thought religious belief a matter of rational argument.

Nonsense. Tricksy wording. Sure, all philosophers have believed ‘reasons can be adduced for and against a religious view of life’ – that’s easy! Sure, reasons can be adduced for and against anything; it doesn’t follow that the reasons adduced are good reasons, or that all philosophers think they’re good reasons. And if it is still true (which I doubt, and which I strongly doubt that the bish has any evidence for) that most philosophers have believed in god in the past, much of that is, obviously, because they lacked evidence for alternative explanations. And as for all thinking religious belief is a matter of rational argument, same as the first point – of course they do, but that’s not the same thing as thinking religious believers have good rational arguments. Don’t be tricksy, bish. It ain’t Christian.

However, religious belief is a matter of considered judgment. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgment, our imagination and our intuition. In this respect, it is not totally different from making a judgment, for example, that Beckett is a great playwright, the war against Iraq was wrong or the sheer existence of the universe is awesome.

Yes it is. Unless you are simply defining religious belief as a value judgment, but since that is not what most people mean by religious belief, that’s mere tricksiness. It’s that bait-and-switch tactic we’ve noted so often – talk about religion as a vague feeling or attitude to the universe when talking to atheists and a broad general public, and talk about it as theism the rest of the time. That’s cheating. Don’t cheat, bish. It ain’t Christian.

The danger of this simplistic understanding of the relationship between science and religion is now fully exposed by the way American creationists are using Dawkins and Dennett. Indeed, the leader of the American creationists has apparently written to Dawkins to say that they daily thank God for him.

Sigh. Apparently the bish missed Dennett’s piece in the Guardian commenting on that leader of the creationists thanking god story:

I find it amusing that two Brits – Madeleine Bunting and Michael Ruse – have fallen for a version of one of the most famous scams in American folklore. When Brer Rabbit gets caught by the fox, he pleads with him: “Oh, please, please, Brer Fox, whatever you do, don’t throw me in that awful briar patch!” – where he ends up safe and sound after the fox does just that. When the American propagandist William Dembski writes tauntingly to Richard Dawkins, telling him to keep up the good work on behalf of intelligent design, Bunting and Ruse fall for it!

Hello, bish? You missed the point? (I thought it was Americans who don’t do irony.)

Dawkins argues that evolution inevitably implies atheism.

No he does not. How many patient corrections of that stupid error have I seen in the past few months? I don’t know, but it’s more than a few. But obstinate blinkered tiresome woolly-minded bishops and rabbis and vicars and their fellow-travelers keep trotting it out every five minutes just the same. And then they expect us to take them seriously and think they are rational and have good arguments! No can do, bish. If you will insist on all this tricksiness of wording and recyclement of ancient misquotations, I’m not about to give you the accolade of being a rational arguer, or a scrupulous one, either.

This Easter, as usual, the Christian church will proclaim its central theme that, in Jesus, God shares our human anguish to the full and, through the resurrection, gives us hope that in the end all evil, including death, will be left behind.

So God shares our human anguish by causing his son to be tortured to death. Inspiring.


Apr 14th, 2006 8:32 pm | By

Have another serving of kack, this time from good old Rabbi Michael Lerner, he of Tikkun.

In my research on the psychodynamics of American society I discovered that the left’s hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off. So it becomes important to ask why.

So it becomes important to ask why, but it does not become important to ask why without at the same time carefully limiting the ways in which one asks why, and ruling out in advance the most obvious answer. It becomes important to ask why by suggesting irrelevant answers and ignoring the relevant ones. It becomes important to pretend to ask why, to ask why in a rhetorical, play-bashful way that avoids anything that might make rabbis fretful or worried.

I’ll tell you why I’m hostile to religion (since that is the ‘why’ Lerner is asking, though the way he wrote that sentence makes it look as if he’s asking why people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off) before I bother engaging with Lerner’s cautious pseudo-answers. I’m hostile to religion because I think it makes a lot of truth-claims that are false, without ever being particularly apologetic or hesitant or tentative about it, and I get hostile when people expect me (and everyone) to believe truth-claims that there is no good reason to believe. That’s why. I experience that expectation as a kind of mental tyranny, or attempted mental tyranny, and it repels me like a force field.

But Lerner doesn’t offer that as an explanation. He offers three others, instead, and then leaves it at that.

One reason is that conservatives have historically used religion to justify oppressive social systems and political regimes…Another reason is that many of the most rigidly antireligious folk on the left are themselves refugees from repressive religious communities…Yet a third possible reason is that some on the left have never seen a religious community that embodies progressive values.

And that’s it. Next paragraph, he draws conclusions from this exhaustive analysis:

So I am led to the conclusion that the main reason that underlies the left’s deep skepticism about religion is its members’ strong faith in a different kind of belief system…The left is captivated by a belief that has been called scientism…Science, however, is not the same as scientism – the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification – all these spiritual dimensions of life – are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.

Sigh. Familiar stuff. Familiar, dreary, feeble stuff. Philip Blond-Dylan Evans territory. What does he mean by ‘the only things that are real or can be known’, for one thing? He probably means something more like testable or reproducible, but that would narrow the definition drastically and make it much too clear that that’s a reasonable, even perhaps tautological, thing to believe, so he has to re-phrase it into something much broader, which merely happens to be something that hardly anyone believes. And then he performs the same trick with ‘unknowable and hence meaningless’. Nonsense. He says the left’s ‘members’ (all of them, apparently – he didn’t qualify the claim with ‘some of’ or ‘many of’) have a strong faith in scientism, then he says that scientism dismisses love, ethics and beauty as unknowable and hence meaningless – so he’s claiming that the left in its entirety scientistically dismisses love, ethics and beauty as unknowable and hence meaningless. That’s a ridiculous, sweeping, wild claim, lightly disguised with the usual hand-waving about meaning and what science can and can’t tell us. It’s absolutely typical of that kind of woolly-but-bossy religious fluff-talk, and I say it’s kack. I can’t measure its kackiness, I can’t empirically observe it, I can’t pick it up and throw it around the room, I can’t put it in a petri dish or feed it to the cat, but I say it’s kack just the same. Therefore, I am a devout theist. QED.


Apr 13th, 2006 6:25 pm | By

Ziauddin Sardar has been reading some Radical Thinkers.

Taken together, the works selected by Verso embody the creation and development of a dissenting tradition that set out to question and subvert the established order. Yet while this was once the principal strength of these thinkers, it has become something of an Achilles heel. A collective reading exposes all that has gone wrong with radical thought in the 20th century. Traditions, and intellectual traditions in particular, rapidly ossify and degenerate into obscurantism…It is time to…move forward from Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s postmodern relativism to some notion of viable social truth; and for criticism to stop messing about with signs and signifiers, and instead confront the increasing tendency of power towards absolutism.

Ossification and obscurantism are indeed (I would say) the problems. Endless pivoting on one spot, is what all too much Theory reads like. It is indeed time to move forward. That one spot has been well and truly pivoted on by now, so move on.

Radical thought, as exemplified by this list, suffers from three fundamental problems. First, jargon. These thinkers have developed a rarefied terminology that they employ to talk among themselves to the exclusion of the majority – on whose behalf they presume to speak. This tendency has been directly responsible for the intellectual decline of the left…The second problem is theory…At its worst, theory becomes little more than a tool of tyranny. Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb (2000) provides a good example. Virilio’s analysis of information technology and the relationship between science, automation and war is knee-deep in theory but perilously short on insight, offering hardly any advance on Jerry Ravetz’s 1971 classic Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems.

This is what I’m saying. Pivoting on one spot. All too often Theory seems to be nothing but an exercise in taking the jargon out for an airing, to show one’s peers that one knows how to deploy the vocabulary properly, and then taking it home again, with nothing in particular accomplished. This is a deeply unimpressive activity, which five minutes spent with a good new book in history or philosophy or law or a mix of disciplines will show up for the empty sack it is.

Look for instance at a sentence in this piece on academic language in the Guardian the other day. I think the writer of the piece is wrong about the problem with it.

When several noun phrases of this type gang up, they leave non-experts gasping for breath, as in “Deconstruction’s relentless questioning of the authority of perception and thought discovers the heterogeneous conditions of significance, the conditions of both theoretical coherence and deconstructive play.” Critical theorists probably find this subject-verb-object sentence child’s play. For the rest of us, there are too many files to unzip.

No, I don’t think so, I don’t think the problem is all the nouns at the start, I think the problem is that the nouns don’t refer to much of anything – they just represent some pivoting. That sentence says very little, and what it does say is both obvious and familiar. That sentence isn’t difficult as opposed to child’s play, it’s vacuous and preening and irritating. In fact it seems to be all about pretending to be difficult and hoping to awe the peasants with a display of erudition while in fact just messing around like a toddler in a mud puddle. The writer is saying ‘Get this – too many files to unzip, right? Difficult, right? Deep? Searching? Relentless? Don’t you wish you were me?’

Child’s play.

Get Out of My Head

Apr 12th, 2006 7:05 pm | By

The Christians who want to be intolerant again. Just to be difficult (I do love to be difficult, you know), I want to add that there is one place where one of the complainants had a point, though not a religious point.

In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled.

That’s a pretty grotesque pledge, frankly. It’s a pretty demanding employer who wants to tell employees what to respect and value, and it’s an employer both demanding and reckless who demands that employees respect and value ‘the differences among us’ without saying which ones. (Maybe AT&T did say, but the quotation doesn’t mention it.) Both demanding and reckless, but that is a pretty common formula – celebrate diversity; value difference. Well – it depends, doesn’t it! Murderers are different, rapists are different, persecutors are different, narrow-minded bigoted fag-haters of the Fred Phelps school are different; so what?

But in truth even if the employer did specify, the demand would still be an intrusive, invasive, presumptuous demand. What we respect and value is, I submit, a pretty basic internal matter – a pretty basic aspect of what we call the self. In short, pretty damn personal. Our employers don’t get to tell us what to respect and value: I’ll respect and value whatever I decide and want and choose to respect and value, not what my employer decides and chooses. Employers can tell us what to do – on the job – in many ways, but they can’t tell us what to think. Even if they’re right. Clearly they are right, up to a point – in a perfect world, we would all respect and value each other, and all would be peace and joy (and boredom, but never mind). But since this isn’t a perfect world, the point beyond which they are not right is not very far up the road.

Free Exercise

Apr 11th, 2006 7:42 pm | By

Well, this ‘Christians suing for right to be intolerant‘ thing is certainly a place where free speech rights (and the ‘free exercise’ clause and reason and religion and quite a few other things) get interesting, or difficult, or both.

Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant. Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation. Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy. With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting gays and lesbians from harassment…The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. “Christians,” he said, “are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian.”

One problem with Malhotra’s claim is that it’s very disputable whether her Christian ‘faith’ does compel her to speak out against homosexuality. Other Christians don’t experience that compulsion, so that raises the question, is it really the Christian ‘faith’ that does the compelling, or is it something else that feels to Malhotra like her Christian ‘faith’ because she’s never thought to disaggregate her ‘faith’ from her ethical and moral views? And if so is this failure to disaggregate merely a way of dressing up nasty hatreds and yuk-factorism as something admirable and spirichual? My guess would be yes, that is what it is – but then that could just be part of my habit of religion-bashing.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle. The verses, clearly visible from the hall, harassed gay employees and made it difficult for the company to meet its goal of attracting a diverse workforce, the judge ruled. In the public schools, an Ohio middle school student last year won the right to wear a T-shirt that proclaimed: “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder!” But a teen-ager in Kentucky lost in federal court when he tried to exempt himself from a school program on gay tolerance on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs.

The ground rules shift depending on the situation. Don’t they though. That’s why these discussions of free speech and cartoons and Irving and Ellis and whatever the latest item is, are always with us.

Disputation and Obedience

Apr 10th, 2006 8:24 pm | By

Todd Gitlin asks a searching question:

Sects are always in need of heretics to blame, expel and punish. First, fervor takes hold, then rigidity. Righteousness dictates uniformity. Dissent seems dangerous, even treasonous. The spirit hardens: You’re either with us or with the evildoers…Why is the left so determined to eat its own? Sometimes it can be explained as the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities.

Indeed – and the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities is a very scary thing. And before I get all righteous, I should note that I probably have a tendency that way myself. Perhaps a strong one. There are quite a few ‘impurities’ that I want, if not to root out, at least to avoid. But then – one of them would be the fervor of people who want to root out impurities and enforce orthodoxy and sanctity and conventional wisdom – so I’m confused. Am I a Puritan or an Impuritan or what?

Well, we all have commitments; I suppose one can have commitments and still not be a furious extirpator of impurities. B&W is obviously for some things and against others; if it weren’t it wouldn’t be B&W, it would be just some random collection of material. B&W has always been about something, so naturally there will be a certain amount of orthodoxy about it – but I hope it falls short of heretic-punishing and evildoer-pointing-at. Though who knows – a former fan of B&W tells me he’s gone off it because he doesn’t like my ‘religion-bashing.’ So clearly that’s one heretic right there.

At least as often, though, the sect becomes inflamed not because it has won but because it has lost. Out of weakness, it imagines treason. As it dwindles, it devotes more of its energies to the urge to purge. It loses patience with arguments about ideas. It is already dead certain of how the world works and needs obedience, not disputation. It develops a taste for scurrilous charges and loyalty oaths. To its own dissenters it says not, “Consider this point,” but, “How dare you?”

And that’s where we get off the train – when there is no patience for arguments about ideas; when obedience replaces disputation. Obedience and submission are not what’s wanted, and the replacement of ‘Consider this point’ with ‘How dare you’ is just the tactic I quarrel with several times a day. ‘How dare you’ is another word for Taboo which is another word for unconditional respect, and they all stink; they all stink of smelly little orthodoxy.

I write this not to complain, but to note and bemoan a widespread disrespect for serious disputation. There’s a lot of this disrespect going around, all over the political spectrum. The confusion of manliness with belligerence does not help. The sound-bite culture does not help. The mixture of insinuation, sneering and yelling practiced by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews and Michael Moore does not help. A president who tells a reporter, “I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation,” and acts on this premise, does not help. Nor does it help when the Bush White House muzzles government scientists who dare report what virtually all their colleagues think about climate change. In claiming that abstention is the best method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and that intelligent design deserves to be considered science, the administration enshrines mindlessness rather than rational thought as a governing principle. The sectarian mind is at home everywhere – left, right, you name it. On every front, passion plunges ahead while reason takes its time, cleaning up the mess.

Well, I said B&W was about something, and that’s pretty much what it’s about. One impurity I would like to see a lot less of is this widespread disrespect for serious disputation, and this preference for passion over reason. It just muddies things up.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

Apr 9th, 2006 10:11 pm | By

There’s an interesting discussion about free speech between Eve Garrard and Shalom Lappin at Normblog. Not, this time, via Irving and lying but via Frank Ellis and racist opinions. I had a thought about that earlier discussion with Norm and Eve, and have been meaning to scribble a note on that thought.

The thought was sparked by something Appiah said in a note (note 66 on page 337) in The Ethics of Identity.

The US has a singularly expansive free-expression regime, and yet even here, freedom of expression is tightly corseted, and legitimately so. The First Amendment does not protect a contract killer’s verbal contract; it does not protect a fraudulent or defamatory claim…

Bingo. Just what I said. There is no freedom of speech right to make fraudulent claims; that means deliberate falsification of evidence is not protected free speech. I went on thinking about this, because I still agree with Norm and Eve (and Lipstadt and Evans and lots of people) that (ideally, and leaving aside Austria’s particular situation) Irving shouldn’t go to prison for three years for falsifying evidence. So I decided that what we have here is a different right. If we want to put it in US terms (which we don’t, particularly, it’s just that it might clarify), what we have here is not a First Amendment issue but an Eighth Amendment issue. What we’re worried about here is not a putative right to lie but a disproportionality of punishment. (The Eighth Amendment reads in its entirety: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.)

In fact I don’t really particularly think Irving should (necessarily, ideally, in theory, etc) be punished at all, but I do think he should be prevented. That is, since his falsifications are now well documented, thanks to his bullying rashness in suing Lipstadt, I think they ought to be no more protected than claims that cigarettes promote health. That of course is not to say that I think the state should vet scholarly work for accuracy, or that it should get involved at all, but it is to say that I don’t think Irving does have or should have a legal right to tell lies – and that was the issue we couldn’t agree on.

Eve says this, in reply to Lappin’s* “There is, I think, a clear analogy here between the Ellis case and that of a racist candidate for a jury in the trial of a black defendent.”

I have very mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, your jury example is very convincing, but on the other hand I think that setting a precedent of punishing people for the implications of their views, on the grounds that holding the views is bound to make them act in accordance with those implications, is a bit worrying.

It is worrying, for the reasons that both agree on (intimidation of speech and proper academic functioning), but I would say that what’s at issue (Ellis’s suspension) is not actually punishment, but prevention. Leeds, it seems, suspended him in order to prevent him from having certain effects (which Lappin discusses), not in order to punish him. I think that makes a fairly important difference. Not much of a difference to people in that situation who are suspended and prevented, but a difference to the motivation and intention of the agents.

Another point, about something Lappin goes on to say:

But with the racist juror we are not prepared to take this chance. We regard his or her expressed opinions as sufficient grounds for disqualification from the role of impartial judge in a case involving someone directly affected by the potential juror’s racist attitudes. It is hard to see how we can avoid the same conclusion in the case of a university lecturer entrusted with power over students and colleagues.

I’m not entirely sure of my facts, here, but I don’t think that’s actually true – I don’t think ‘we’ exclude racists from juries, I think it’s one side or the other in the trial that does. I think that it is one side of an adversarial process that does that excluding, while the other side would much prefer to keep the racist. (In pre-Civil Rights Mississippi and other places that wasn’t even an issue, because blacks weren’t even eligible for jury duty [under what form of law or custom I don’t know]; for instance the jury who tried the murderers of Emmet Till was all white men who cheerfully acquitted them.) At any rate, it makes something of a difference to the argument, I think, because jurors are generally excluded not on the basis of fairness but on the basis of tactics. Tactics can just as easily prompt a desire for unfairness, bias, preconceptions. Juries are a rather disquieting subject, actually…

*I’ve just noticed I use first name for one, last name for the other. That’s because I’ve swapped quite a few emails with Eve, so I sort of ‘know’ her; it’s not absent-minded sexism, like those people who talk about Dickens and Hardy and Charlotte and Jane.