Secluded Boxes

Feb 27th, 2006 5:11 pm | By

Amartya Sen on multiculturalism. Right at the beginning – in the second paragraph – he asks the questions that seem so obviously necessary to ask, but that seem completely ignored in the way that people generally talk (or prate, or babble, or rave) about multiculturalism. As Sen remarks, ‘There is no way of escaping these rather foundational questions if multiculturalism is to be fairly assessed.’ Just so, which is why it so seldom is fairly assessed, why it is instead simply assumed to be a good even without precise specification of what it means.

One of the central issues concerns how human beings are seen. Should they be categorized in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to have been born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender, language, literature, social involvements, and many other connections? Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and associations, whose relative priorities they must themselves choose (taking the responsibility that comes with reasoned choice)?

See – that is so basic, and so important, and yet it is so widely ignored or obscured, with the result that people (certain people, and not others) are incessantly pressured to put their unchosen identity first and put the chosen ones way, way behind the first. And this is taken to be, assumed to be, kind and caring and progressive, when in most ways, frankly, it is the opposite.

Why isn’t this more widely appreciated? I always wonder. I can see why multicultural identity politics seem at first blush like a good way to resist racism, but I have trouble seeing why the terrible coercion and confinement of them don’t become apparent with a little further thought. You wouldn’t think it would need much further thought. We know it of ourselves, I think – that we don’t want to be permanently stuck doing whatever it is that our ancestors had always done, that we don’t want to be obsessed with our religious backgrounds, that we do want to be able to choose and decide for ourselves what interests us most, what is salient to us, what keeps us energized and motivated. If we do know that of ourselves, why do we not know it of other people?

I will argue that the real issue is not whether “multiculturalism has gone too far”…but what particular form multiculturalism should take. Is multiculturalism nothing other than tolerance of the diversity of cultures? Does it make a difference who chooses the cultural practices – whether they are imposed on young children in the name of “the culture of the community” or whether they are freely chosen by persons with adequate opportunity to learn and to reason about alternatives?

Yes. It makes a huge difference. Huge. We know that for ourselves, don’t we? Practices that are imposed are imposed, and we want the freedom to reject them if we think good. If we want that freedom for ourselves, are we really sure we have good reasons for not wanting it for other people? Can we articulate them? What – immigrants, because they are subject to racism and hostility, shouldn’t be free to reject cultural practices that were imposed on them in childhood? That seems like a harsh remedy, and also one that’s not likely to work all that well.

The vocal defense of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this (a common enough occurrence) is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to plural monoculturalism, that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal defense from alleged multiculturalists, on the ground of the importance of honoring traditional cultures – as if the cultural freedom of the young woman were of no relevance whatever, and as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.

Exactly. Those secluded boxes. We don’t want to live in secluded boxes ourselves, do we – so we should think long and hard, and then think some more, before shoving other people into them.

The Briar Patch

Feb 26th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

This is a surprising news item.

Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett are two of the most prominent philosophers writing about issues related to evolution. It seems they have been engaging in a bit of e-mail correspondence on the side. How do I know this? Because Ruse inexplicably sent the entire correspondence to William Dembski. I say this is inexplicable because there is no indication that Dennett consented to have his private e-mails made public. For Ruse to make public e-mails that were intended as part of a private correpsondence is an incredible breach of professional ethics.

Especially since, as you discover if you look at the correspondence, it was Ruse who initiated it. So – he asked Dennett a leading question, got an expected answer, retorted unpleasantly, got a brief polite ‘think again’ reply – and sent the whole thing off to Dembski?! That sounds almost like a set-up. How very strange – especially since it’s so public.

Close (not to say fanatical) readers of B&W may remember that I’ve done quite a few N&Cs disagreeing with things Ruse has said in interviews and articles – ten of them, in fact, along with one by Jeremy, so many that I did an In Focus to put them all in one place along with those articles and interviews. The first N&C is more than two years old – Ruse has been saying odd things for quite awhile.

I feel somewhat vindicated in all this disagreeing now. (Besides, there was that time my disagreements with Ruse and with Dylan Evans seemed to have inspired Salman Rushdie to talk about them in an article in the Star, which was interesting.) It’s not just my imagination that Ruse has taken an odd path. Dennett says as much in his letter to the Times.

The suggestion by Michael Ruse that this activity of extending the reach of science is tantamount to turning science into a religion is a transparent example of a well-known cheap trick: when you don’t like the implications of some science, and can’t think of any proper scientific refutation, call it ideology – then you don’t have to take it seriously!

It is a very, very, very familiar, stale trick – a variant of the ‘atheism is religion’ trick. And at least in the articles and interviews I’ve seen, Ruse doesn’t back it up convincingly. So now he resorts to sending his correspondence with other people to William Dembski – not a terribly impressive move.

Statements Aspiring to the Status of Facts

Feb 26th, 2006 5:56 pm | By

Ah. Someone finally points it out.

The notion of free speech, at its best, speaks to freedom of conscience – the idea that there’s no opinion or worldview whose expression should be proscribed. But it is ever more subject to be hijacked by the muddy notion that it protects all statements aspiring to the status of fact – be they truthfully believed or cynically falsified. Should we, necessarily, protect the statement “nobody died at Belsen”, any more than we regard as free speech a false claim in an advertisement for a vitamin supplement? I’m not sure.

Precisely. Neither am I. Furthermore, I am pretty sure that it’s not helpful to ignore that aspect of the issue when discussing the free speech problem. Irving doesn’t just have an opinion or a belief about the Holocaust, he also falsified the evidence. Should falsification of evidence be protected free speech? In certain situations it emphatically isn’t; in others it’s not approved but it’s also not subject to imprisonment. But either way it’s more than mere opinion. (Truth matters.)

The Usual

Feb 26th, 2006 5:34 pm | By

Here it is again.

A virulently anti-Semitic film about the Iraq war has provoked a storm of protest in Germany after it sold out to cheering audiences from the country’s 2.5 million-strong Turkish community.

The Turkish community – as if they all live together in a rather large and crowded village somewhere. How much does this insistence on ‘the ___ community’ foster audiences that cheer anti-Semitic movies, one wonders. Talk of ‘the community’ and celebration of Hate Week are cheek by jowl.

At a packed cinema in a largely Turkish immigrant district of Berlin last week, Valley of the Wolves was being watched almost exclusively by young Turkish men.

So – yet again, as with the riots in the banlieues, as with 7/7, as with so many things, we’re not actually talking about ‘the community’ at all, we’re talking about a very specific fraction of it, which cannot be taken to represent the rest of it – which is more likely to bully and oppress at least half of the rest of it than it is to represent it. Young men represent young men, especially when they have grown up in religions that teach and mandate the inferiority and subordination of women. So blithering about ‘the community’ is doubly inaccurate, and also damaging. (If the audiences consisted almost exclusively of Turkish women, would they be referred to as ‘from the country’s 2.5 million-strong Turkish community’? I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling they wouldn’t – I have a feeling they’d be seen as a special case. But if they are, men are. It is not true that men can speak for everyone while women can speak only for women – but too many people still seem to think it is true.)

Kenan Kolat, the head of Germany’s Turkish community, insisted that a ban on the film would make matters worse.

The head of Germany’s Turkish community? It has a head? Is he elected? What is his title? Is everyone able to vote for him? Or is he ‘the head’ in the same way that Iqbal Sacranie is ‘the head’ of the UK’s ‘Muslim community’ – to wit, no way at all except anointment by mass media.

And of course there’s the obligatory confusion to sum up.

Alin Sahin, the film’s distributor in Germany, argued: “When a cartoonist insults two billion Muslims it is considered freedom of opinion, but when an action film takes on the Americans it is considered demagoguery. Something is wrong.”

Yes, something is wrong; the comparison of unlike things is wrong. Mocking a belief is not the same thing as insulting the people (two billion now?) who hold the belief. Demanding that everyone accept that it is will be the death of thought – and in no long time, too.

Bad Language

Feb 25th, 2006 10:49 pm | By

I suppose you saw that shockingly bad review by Leon Wieseltier of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in the NY Times last Sunday? It’s so awful I keep blinking with surprise when I read it. It’s not just that it’s incompetent, as Brian Leiter points out, it’s that the tone is so unpleasantly abusive, spittle-flecked, bad-mannered. It is, to use a pompous term that nevertheless seems to fit, inappropriate.

For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book…In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it…Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!…Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name…Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume’s heir…In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism…What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken.

It’s downright childish. It’s embarrassing. And that’s even apart from the substance; just the stupid schoolyardy ‘he thinks he’s such a big deal’ taunting makes Wiesltier look – completely ridiculous, and loutish besides. What can he have been thinking? Did he have a fever? And what was the Times thinking?

Affirmation is not Denial, and Vice Versa

Feb 25th, 2006 7:19 pm | By

And then, more straightforwardly, there’s more of the confusion about free speech, in which people compare unlike things and then stand back triumphantly and say ‘See?’ No, we don’t see, because the two cases are different, not the same, so there’s nothing to see.

In the past few months, Europe has been flexing its muscles as a guarantor of freedom of expression – both in the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, and before that in its criticism of the trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for raising the subject of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in the early 20th century. What a delicious irony that a Europe so sniffy about Turkish justice when it came to Pamuk should end up jailing another writer for three years for delivering his opinion on a different act of genocide.

No, that’s not a delicious irony, or even a nasty one that tastes like burnt okra, because the Pamuk and Irving cases are different. Different. Can you say different? I knew you could. Pamuk was on trial for saying a genocide that did happen, did happen; Irving was sentenced for saying a genocide that did happen, did not happen. There are two differences there. One, Pamuk was telling the truth, and Irving was lying, and two, denying a genocide that did happen is a kind of threat to the survivors, whereas asserting a genocide that did happen is not. Which is not, repeat not, to endorse either the Austrian law against Holocaust denial, or the sentence; it is simply to say that the two cases are not only not parallel, they are on the most crucial issues, opposites. So it seems very silly to try to treat them as parallel.

Here, Then There, Then Somewhere Else

Feb 25th, 2006 6:14 pm | By

Lot of people around saying weird things today. Is there something in the water?

Andrew Brown for instance. He seems to change direction with every paragraph, and much of what he says in the process seems snide and silly.

It is hard being an atheist with a sense of proportion. No one in this country will persecute you and it’s not really very hard to disbelieve in God, but the temptation to strike attitudes in front of the universe persists…Thus, Daniel Dennett writes early in this book: “I for one am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasoning certainty that you have all the answers” – and he’s not talking about Richard Dawkins.

Oh, ha ha, that’s so amusing. But what is so dang arrogant about Dawkins? He’s sometimes blunt (and a good thing too), but arrogant? Not particularly, not unless you simply assume that it’s arrogant to think there’s not much reason to believe religion gets things right. But why assume that? And why call Dawkins arrogant when one could call Ted Haggard arrogant instead? But there’s this dopy truism that Dawkins-is-arrogant, so it has to be trotted out to strike attitudes whenever religion is criticised. Temptation to strike attitudes yourself.

So, after the preliminary pep-talk to the choir, he gives a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon: apparently this programme comes as a tremendous shock to those Americans who have never heard of Hume, William James, or even Terry Pratchett.

Yes – and? Your point is? Surely not that such Americans don’t exist? So what, then?

Dennett understands there are vast differences between primitive or animist religions and the sophisticated beliefs of a modern Jesuit.

Sophisticated – hmm. Sophisticated in what sense?

Richard Dawkins might regard Romney’s professed beliefs as evidence of simple insanity. Dennett sees that their status is more complicated and interesting than that.

Did Richard Dawkins once give Andrew Brown a decayed olive at a dinner party or something? What’s his problem? What’s with all the straw man stuff? Dawkins might regard Romney’s professed beliefs as delusional (and so would I), but as evidence of simple insanity? That looks like a silly spiteful canard, to me.

Few of us in this culture are in favour of fanaticism; but it is obviously possible to be a fanatical atheist, so it turns out to be fanaticism that’s the problem, not religion.

Uh – what? Where does that ‘so’ come from? For that matter, what does that entire sentence mean? It seems to say three quite random unconnected things, while pretending they are somehow linked. The ‘but’ doesn’t make any more sense than the ‘so’ does. Well, who knows, maybe Brown has been chatting with Michael Ruse.

Inverted Colonialism

Feb 24th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

Consider Azam Kamguian in Ibn Warraq’s Leaving Islam, for instance. Page 216.

The very fact that people are forced to abide by laws based on something some god or prophet is reported to have said somewhere is a form of mental violence.

Page 219.

When I came to the West in the early 1990s, I was faced with the fact that the majority of intellectuals, mainstream media, academics, and feminists, in the name of respecting ‘other cultures,’ were trying to justify Islam by dividing it into fundamentalist and moderate, progressive and reactionary…For people like me, the victims of Islam in power, it was suffocating to listen to and have to refute endless tales to justify the terror and bloodshed committed by Islamic movements and Islamic governments in Iran and in the region.

She was tortured in Iran, while verses from the Koran were played in the torture chambers.

Western liberal and left-wing intellectuals have a strong sense of guilt about the West’s past colonial history and are apologetic to the Third World as such. They consider the Third World a given entity, where people are keen to suffer under the rotten rule of Islam, are happy to be deprived of the human civilization in the twenty-first century. To them, women desire sexual apartheid, girls love to be segregated, people hate civil rights and individual freedom in the Third World.

She calls that ‘inverted colonialism.’ One wonders if it’s also inverted colonialism that is causing all this communalism, this insistent shoving of people into certain communities and keeping them out of others, by labeling them as ‘members’ of some and not of others. One wonders, and one wishes people would notice what they are doing, and stop.

The Community Community

Feb 24th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

Sometimes my head swims. The room goes dark, spots dance before my eyes, there is a howling sound in my ear, bats seem to dart back and forth overhead, my hair tangles, the milk curdles in the fridge, frogs and ravens knock on the door. In short, I can’t make sense of it all. It doesn’t add up, or compute, as the sophisticates say.

Look, I’ll show you.

Here, for instance, is the BBC on Livingstone.

In a statement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews said it regretted the guilty result, but said Mr Livingstone had been “the architect of his own misfortune” by failing to recognise the upset caused. It added it had never sought anything more than an apology and an acknowledgement that his words were inappropriate for the “elected representative of Londoners of all faiths and beliefs”…Mr Livingstone has said he was expressing his honestly-held political view of Associated Newspapers, but he had not meant to offend the Jewish community.

And here is the BBC on the Best Bakery case.

Twelve Muslims and two others were burned to death when the Best Bakery was attacked by a Hindu mob. The riots had been sparked by the death of 59 Hindus after a Muslim mob allegedly attacked a train in Godhra. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in the riots. Human rights groups put the death toll much higher.

And here is the BBC in 2002 on Gujarat.

Ahmedabad today is perhaps the most communally sensitive city in the country. In 1969, nearly 2,500 people were killed there in the region’s worst violence between Hindus and Muslims since the subcontinent was split into India and Pakistan in 1947. A series of communal riots rocked the city in the 1980s and again in 1992 following the demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu activists in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. There followed a decade of relative peace, barring a few months of sporadic anti-Christian violence in the state’s tribal areas three years ago. But the bloodbath earlier this year again raised the question of why Gujarat has become so susceptible to communal conflict.

This is what I don’t get: it seems 1) blindingly obvious and 2) widely accepted that communalism is a bad, dangerous, them-and-us idea, and at the same time, it also seems to be widely accepted that it is in some way sensitive and kind and good to keep referring to entities such as ‘the Jewish community’ or ‘the Muslim community’ (though not ‘the secular community’ or ‘the atheist community’ or ‘the socialist community’ or ‘the capitalist community’ – why is that?) or ‘the Sikh community’ or ‘the Hindu community’. But if communalism is a bad idea, at least in Gujarat, maybe that’s not so clever after all, not so sensitive and kind and good after all. Maybe it’s stupid communalism, instead. And yet – that never seems to occur to anyone. Everyone seems to be just deeply enamoured of the formula ‘the ___ community’ when the ___ represents a certain kind of adjective – but not a great many others. The ___ is nearly always either religious or ethnic or both – in other words, pure communalism. People don’t talk about the poet community or the Tory community, but they do talk about the Bangladeshi community or the Sunni community. Well – maybe, just maybe, if communalism is not a great idea in Gujarat, that’s because it’s not a great idea anywhere. Maybe this constant reification of one of the myriad attributes people can have, and the constant insistence that that one attribute enrolls one in a ‘community’ whether one wants to be enrolled there or not, is much more productive of group hostility than it is of anything else.

In the State of Denmark

Feb 23rd, 2006 8:49 pm | By

Hitchens murmurs a gentle reproach or two.

The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark…is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability!…And nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary – that we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail, and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let’s be sure we haven’t hurt the vandals’ feelings.

Let’s be sure we surrender as abjectly as possible.

Denmark will host a conference next month to promote religious dialogue following the uproar over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, the Foreign Ministry announced Thursday. The government will also give “a significant financial contribution” to a UN program aimed at overcoming prejudice between Islam and the West, and support an Islamic festival in Copenhagen, Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said in a statement.

Will that be enough? Can we go home now? No?

He said the government was planning a range of initiatives to promote “respectful dialogue,” partly drawing on advice given by Muslim countries. “In Denmark there is a genuine respect for the religious feelings of other people and we acknowledge that many Muslims felt gravely insulted by these controversial drawings,” the foreign minister said.

And so we will grovel and grovel and grovel just as hard and long as necessary until somebody finally tells us we’ve groveled enough. We’ve taken the phone off the hook – we may be on the floor for some time.

Back to ‘No groveling, thanks’ Hitchens.

Could things become any more sordid and cynical? By all means. In a mindless attempt at a tu quoque, various Islamist groups and regimes have dug deep into their sense of wit and irony and proposed a trade-off. You make fun of “our” prophet and we will deny “your” Holocaust…As it happens, I am one of the few people to have publicly defended David Irving’s right to publish, and I think it outrageous that he is in prison in Austria for expressing his opinions. But my attachment to free speech is at least absolute and consistent. Those who incite murder and arson, or who silkily justify it, are incapable of rising above the childish glee that culminates in the assertion that two wrongs make a right.

And then he zeroes in on the real problem.

Within a short while—this is a warning—the shady term “Islamophobia” is going to be smuggled through our customs. Anyone accused of it will be politely but firmly instructed to shut up, and to forfeit the constitutional right to criticize religion. By definition, anyone accused in this way will also be implicitly guilty. Thus the “soft” censorship will triumph, not from any merit in its argument, but from its association with the “hard” censorship that we have seen being imposed over the past weeks.

Or, I would say, that along with its association with the well-meaning but dead wrong idea that it’s ‘progressive’ and lefty and kind to defend religious zealots against their critics, provided the religious zealots in question are Muslim.

You may have noticed the recurrence of the term “One point two billion Muslims.” A few years ago, I became used to the charge that in defending Salman Rushdie, say, I had “offended a billion Muslims.” Evidently, the number has gone up since I first heard this ridiculous complaint. But observe the implied threat. There is not just safety in numbers, but danger in numbers. How many Danes or Jews or freethinkers are there? You can see what the “spokesmen” are insinuating by this tactic of mass psychology and mobbishness.

Yup! Remember the pope? He said the same thing. Insult, belief, billion, people. So what, you authoritarian overdressed fraud?

I feel terrible that I have taken so long to get around to this, but I wonder if anyone might feel like joining me in gathering outside the Danish Embassy in Washington, in a quiet and composed manner, to affirm some elementary friendship. Those who like the idea might contact me at, and those who live in other cities with Danish consulates might wish to initiate a stand for decency on their own account.

If any readers are in Washington tomorrow and amble along to the Danish embassy at 3200 Whitehaven Street (off Massachusetts Avenue) between noon and 1 p.m., let us know how it goes. And give my regards to Mr Hitchens.

Truth Fails to Triumph Again

Feb 23rd, 2006 12:51 am | By

You’ve probably heard that Larry Summers is leaving Hahvahd. It’s interesting to note that the BBC is still, obstinately, misreporting what he said about women and science. I did a comment on that ages ago, months and months ago, and I can’t believe I’m the only one; surely people must have written to them to tell them they got it wrong – but maybe not, because they’re still doing it. (Andrew Marr got it wrong in talking to Steve Pinker last year; Steve said ‘that’s not what he said,’ but to no avail; no one listened.)

Lawrence Summers lost the first vote in March last year after suggesting women had less “intrinsic aptitude” than men for science.

No he didn’t. That is not what he said. You can read what he did say – scroll down to the fourth paragraph. What he did say is considerably more complicated, and it certainly doesn’t boil down to that ridiculous, meaningless formula the BBC embarrassingly, incompetently gives. The Beeb’s version would have it that, oh, any woman physicist or cosmologist you’d care to name has less intrinsic aptitude for science than any random guy on the Clapham omnibus. It would have it that all women have less intrinsic aptitude for all branches of science than all men – which is ludicrous, and obviously ludicrous; so why can’t they get it right? It’s an important part of the story, so why can’t they get it right? Isn’t that their job?

There’s a discussion of Summers and his speech at Pharyngula with a lot of comments; I read them hoping to find a lot of people making the same point, and was disappointed to find only one – but one is better than none.

But not much better. See why I don’t think truth will necessarily triumph ‘in the end’?

It’s a Different Way of Knowing

Feb 22nd, 2006 8:28 pm | By

And further speaking of religious tyranny and the optimistic idea that truth will triumph ‘in the end’, PZ discussed and quoted from an interesting item the other day.

Inside the flagship lab of the National Center of Atmospheric Research, a dozen home-schooled children and their parents walk past the offices of scientists grappling with topics from global warming and microphysics to solar storms and the electrical fields of lightning. They are trailing Rusty Carter, a guide with Biblically Correct Tours. At a large, colorful panel along a wall, Carter reads aloud from a passage describing the disappearance of dinosaurs from the earth about 65 million years ago. He and some of the older students exchange knowing smiles at the timeline, which contradicts their interpretation the Bible suggesting a 6,000-year-old planet.

And so on. The usual dreary, stupid, head-in-the-sand dreck; the usual depressing display of adults telling silly lies to children in the guise of teaching them.

Museums around the country, meanwhile, have been adding training and workshops for guides to address religious-themed questions. At the Denver museum, chief curator Kirk Johnson says Biblically Correct Tours at least exposes children taught only about creationism to other ideas. Still, Johnson says: “Their message is quite backward and intellectually dishonest.”…Carter, who has a degree in biblical studies, admits feeling somewhat intimidated when he first gave tours, knowing scientists were listening. “I used to think, ‘What are they thinking? Are they going to come out and correct me?'” he says. Johnson, the curator, was raised a Seventh Day Adventist. He says he rejected the idea of a 6,000-year-old Earth when, around age 10, he became curious about fossil layers. “It’s an interesting kind of arrogance to dismiss something that you don’t know a lot about,” Johnson says of the tour guides.

Yes, it is. It’s even more interesting when people with that kind of arrogance call other people ‘arrogant’ for failing to bow to ignorance, as that Haggard prat did Dawkins. Johnson escaped the ignorance, Carter remains mired in it and works to mire other children.

And then things get sinister.

The tours are not all fun and games, with the guides claiming that evolutionist thinking supports racism and abortion. This happened on a recent NCAR tour, when Carter told a dozen children and their parents abortion was an act of natural selection carried out by humans. Other tours suggest Hitler was playing his version of survival of the fittest by favoring whites, and note that museum dioramas of early humans have black “subhumans.” “My contention is evolution kills people,” Jack said in an interview. “It’s not that evolutionists don’t have morality, it’s that evolution can offer no morality. Ideas have consequences. If you believe you came from slime there is no reason not to, if you can, get away with anything.”

Right, because you know how slime is – not a moral bone in its body.

Teri Eastburn, an educational designer at NCAR, said she would never engage in such discussions during a tour. She said the complex welcomes anyone, but notes in-house tours only espouse scientific views of the world. “We try to explain it using evidence that we find in the natural world, whereas religion is dealing more with spirituality, ethics and morality, which science does not deal with at all,” she said. “It’s different ways of knowing. How people reconcile the ways of knowing is an individual choice.”

And that’s the most disgusting quote of all. That is tragic. The know-nothing dishonest bat-loonies teach children fairy tales as truth and accuse ‘evolutionists’ of anything and everything, while the other side simpers and fawns and drivels about spirituality and science’s complete separation from morality, and (oh please no not that) different (ow, ow, ow!) ways of knowing and an individual choice. It’s enough to make you spew. Talking about a 6000 year old earth is not a ‘different way of knowing’, it’s a pack of lies! And teaching it to children as if it were true is not an individual choice, it’s a very collective one, and a violation of the rights of said children.

And yet we’re cheerily told that lies don’t matter as long as the truth is around somewhere – in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet behind a stack of boxes of 1947 calendars in the sub-basement of the annex of the archive building in Grub’s Corners, North Dakota. Pardon me if I fail to be convinced.

More Breezy Optimism

Feb 22nd, 2006 6:27 pm | By

And speaking of religious tyranny and the optimistic idea that truth will triumph ‘in the end’, there is this little problem.

A growing number of science students on British campuses and in sixth form colleges are challenging the theory of evolution and arguing that Darwin was wrong. Some are being failed in university exams because they quote sayings from the Bible or Qur’an as scientific fact and at one sixth form college in London most biology students are now thought to be creationists. Earlier this month Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin’s theories as false. Evangelical Christian students are also increasingly vocal in challenging the notion of evolution.

It’s unfortunate when people who are wrong and confused get ‘increasingly vocal’. People like that should get increasingly quiet, instead.

In the United States there is growing pressure to teach creationism or “intelligent design” in science classes, despite legal rulings against it. Now similar trends in this country have prompted the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific academy, to confront the issue head on with a talk entitled Why Creationism is Wrong. The award-winning geneticist and author Steve Jones will deliver the lecture and challenge creationists, Christian and Islamic, to argue their case rationally at the society’s event in April.

Well done the Joneses, as Steve Jones amusingly said in his comment on Judge Jones’s decision in Kitzmiller. But how tiresome that it’s necessary. How tiresome all this militant noisy ‘vocal’ theism is.

Leaflets questioning Darwinism were circulated among students at the Guys Hospital site of King’s College London this month as part of the Islam Awareness Week, organised by the college’s Islamic Society. One member of staff at Guys said that he found it deeply worrying that Darwin was being dismissed by people who would soon be practising as doctors. The leaflets are produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a Slough-based charity set up in 1992 with the aim of improving the understanding of Islam. The passage quoted from the Qur’an states: “And God has created every animal from water. Of them there are some that creep on their bellies, some that walk on two legs and some that walk on four. God creates what he wills for verily God has power over all things.”

Well that clears that up. And it’s considerably shorter than most textbooks.

Most of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists, according to a biology teacher at a leading London sixth-form college. “The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism,” she said, “and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole … it’s a bit like the southern states of America.” Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists.

Oh, goody – loony Pentecostal neuroscientists who think ‘God’ created everything. But don’t forget – the truth will triumph in the end.

Clerical Gits

Feb 22nd, 2006 5:55 pm | By

Meanwhile, religious tyranny is flexing its nasty poxy muscles at us. It is letting us know that it will decide what we can think and say, and that’s enough out of you thank you very much.

The pope for one.

In the current international context, the Catholic Church remains convinced that to encourage peace and understanding between peoples and individuals it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected, and that the faithful not be subjected to provocations injuring their outlook and religious feelings.

Oh does it. Is that what the Catholic Church remains convinced. That religions must be respected, and the faithful must not have their religious feelings injured. Religions must be respected because – erm – because they have no truck with evidence, therefore their need for and right to mandatory respect are self-evident. The faithful must not have their religious feelings injured because – erm – otherwise they might have to hear that their religious feelings are based on a human-made fiction, and they don’t like hearing that.

For the faithful as well as for all people of goodwill, the only path that leads to peace and brotherhood is that of respect for other people’s convictions and religious practices, in order to ensure that all societies ensure the free exercise of religion.

There’s that absurd assumption that we saw Frattini make last week – that ‘the free exercise of religion’ requires everyone else’s respect. What childishly tyrannical nonsense! We’re free to do all sorts of things even if no one else in the entire world respects what we are doing. Freedom to do something does not require oblations and obeisance from other people, and it’s grandiose and demanding to claim that it does. But it’s just typical. Freedom for us and silence for you – that’s what that boils down to. Well, dream on, popey. I don’t respect you or your religious ‘feelings’ and you can’t make me.

‘Egypt’s top Muslim cleric’ for another.

Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of al-Azhar University, the world’s highest Sunni Muslim seat of learning, said the Danish prime minister must apologise for the drawings and further demanded that the world’s religious leaders, including him and Pope Benedict XVI, meet to write a law that “condemns insulting any religion, including the Holy Scriptures and the prophets.” He said the United Nation should impose the law on all countries.

Must. Demanded. Law. Impose. All. Bossy stuff! Bossy, demanding, presumptuous stuff coming out of these clerical guys. Well – no. Sorry, bub, but no. And the more you try to order us to, the less inclined we are to ‘respect’ you. There’s a direct equation here, which you would do well to heed. It is precisely because you clerical guys are so fond of trying to tell all of us what to do that some of us don’t ‘respect’ you but think you’re tyrannical shits instead. See how that works? If you want respect, try being respectable. Until then, piss off.

But When is That?

Feb 22nd, 2006 5:18 pm | By

Here’s a terrific piece, which I found via Lipstadt’s blog, that is all about exactly what we’ve been discussing, as well as a good deal more.

Let me tell you why my grandfather, Alfred Wiener, began this collection. It was because he believed in the power of truth. He believed that the facts would win in the end. He was not a pacifist – you need to be ready to meet force with force. But lies must be fought with truth.

Daniel Finkelstein’s grandfather was clearly an admirable man (no, there is no ‘but’ coming). I agree with him in a way, perhaps the most salient way; but (there’s the but) I don’t agree in another. (At least, I don’t agree with one way that Finkelstein phrases the matter, which could be his own rather than his grandfather’s.) I don’t agree that the facts will win ‘in the end’ – because I don’t think there is any end (and probably neither do most people, if they pause to think about it). There is only now. There is a series of ‘ends’ which keep coming in, like waves hitting the shore; they are never final, permanent, secure. The facts can win at any given moment, but they are never beyond being altered, distorted, hidden, burned up, lied about. There never comes a point at which we can all heave a sigh of relief because the truth or the facts have been established for all time and no one will ever again dispute them or tell whoppers about them. That just doesn’t happen and can’t happen – humans being what they are, it isn’t possible.

But I do believe in the power of truth (though in the power of all humans to take it in, not so much), and I do believe lies must be fought with truth. It would be odd if I didn’t, given what I’ve spent the last three and a half years doing! But that’s a different thing. I think the truth is the best answer to lies, but it does not follow and it is not true that I think the truth will always automatically prevail. It’s so visibly not prevailing right now – and why should we not consider this particular moment as ‘the end’ just as much as some hazy time in the future which, when it arrives, will be no more special or end-like than this moment now is? At any given time, there are myriad places and ways the truth is not prevailing; fighting lies with truth is a constant and often losing battle. Depressing but – er – true.

I have always shared this belief. Yet this week, as David Irving begins his sentence in an Austrian jail for denying the Holocaust, my belief, our belief, is being tested. Do I really trust in the power of truth that I have proclaimed so often?…Alfred Wiener retained his belief in the power of the truth. And the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the growing historical understanding of the Holocaust and the triumph of liberal democracy over totalitarian doctrine in Europe vindicate that belief. His library has played a role in all of those things. Yet it is hard to hear the words of Irving and his fellow Holocaust deniers without wishing to be armed with something tougher even than the truth. A baseball bat, for instance, or a pair of Austrian handcuffs.

This is pretty much what I’m saying. Irving is a real test. It’s just too easy and way too comfortable to say airily that the way to deal with Irving is with facts to counter his lies, and that that will make everything all right. Maybe it will, but at least in some places and with some people, maybe it won’t. It’s really quite simple. Irving can (when and if free to do so) give lectures that tell factual falsehoods, and there is no magical guarantee whatsoever that people who hear him won’t 1) believe his account and 2) fail ever to encounter a corrected version. Note – please, pay attention – I’m not saying therefore he should be imprisoned; I’m simply saying the truth doesn’t always win, and it’s not useful to assume that it does.

it is difficult not to feel anger, rage at Irving. It is difficult not to wish him behind bars. And I do feel rage. But I do not wish him behind bars, not for giving his opinion, not for delivering a lecture, however warped and horrible his opinion is. I still believe in the power of truth. And my belief in truth is what separates me from Irving.

But there again – it’s not just his opinion that Irving gives, it’s also his falsifications. His opinion is not just warped and horrible, it’s also backed up by systematic falsifications. It does seem to me that the right to give an opinion is different from the right to tell factual lies. I’m not a bit convinced that there is such a thing as a right to tell factual lies. What one does with that thought I’m not at all sure, but I don’t think we get much forwarder with thinking about it by simply pretending it doesn’t exist, by never mentioning it. I think Irving’s lies should be way more conspicuous than his opinions in this public discussion.

The admirable author Deborah Lipstadt had it right when she destroyed Irving in the courts, challenging his methods as a historian, undermining his reputation, demonstrating his falsehoods and his distortions. It is always tempting to fear the liar and believe, as Mark Twain did that “A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on”. But I have more faith than that. I believe that by allowing free exchange, by allowing anyone to assert anything, the truth will triumph, provided that its friends are vigilant and relentless.

But when? When will the truth do that? In the sweet by-and-by? Tomorrow? The ever-postponed future? But that’s the same as never, you know. And looking around us – it is very very difficult to believe that the truth generally does triumph, however vigilant and relentless its friends are. It’s a damn uphill battle, making the truth triumph; it’s certainly one that has to be fought; but it’s no good thinking the outcome is in our pockets. It isn’t.

But I’ll give Finkelstein the last word, because I agree with it, I’m just not quite as optimistic about it.

David Irving is the least of our troubles. But through it all we must hold fast to this: that we must always be ready to meet force with force, but lies — lies we fight with truth.

Saying What He Doesn’t Think

Feb 22nd, 2006 12:02 am | By

The Irving sentence raises some issues that are, it seems to me, not very well grasped by discussing them in the usual terms of the freedom or right to express an opinion or say what one thinks or similar. Because the thing about Irving is that, surely, he doesn’t actually hold the opinion he peddles, he doesn’t think what he claims to think. He falsifies the record, as the libel trial judge found. Well if he falsifies the record, he doesn’t do it in a trance or a fugue state, presumably – he knows he’s doing it, it seems fair to assume – so if he knows he’s doing it, he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. If he knows he has to tweak things, he has to know that things weren’t as he says they were.

The Independent gives some examples:

“Last week, on the occasion of the Dresden bombing,” he said, “I knelt in my cell and prayed to remember the 100,000 civilians killed there.” The accepted historical casualty figure is closer to 35,000. Irving has traditionally exaggerated the numbers of Germans killed in the war and played down the numbers of Holocaust victims…The state prosecutor, Michael Klackl, remained unimpressed. He called Irving a “dangerous falsifier of history” and a man who often played the role of a repentant sinner.

A falsifier of history isn’t the same thing as someone who actually believes history was one way when in fact it was another. That’s not to say he should be jailed; it’s not to say either way what should be done about him; but it is to say that he’s actually doing something different from simply expressing an opinion or saying what he thinks.

Deborah Lipstadt on the Irving Sentence

Feb 21st, 2006 4:03 pm | By

What a good thing it is that Deborah Lipstadt has a blog. It is, needless to say, full of interest right now. She was floored yesterday by Irving’s sentence. She gave us her first thoughts and then further thoughts, she was summoned to talk to the BBC and then unsummoned because they switched to bird flu. Livelier than the average blog, you must admit – and also involved in centrally important issues. Truth, for instance, and evidence, and documentation, records, history, lies and the uncovering of lies.

After having a long conversation with a reporter who was in the courtroom, I have learned that it seemed to him – quite clearly so – that the judge was really angry about Irving’s claims to have “changed his views” as of the 1990s. “The judge had read every page of every transcript of your trial. He knew the judgment. He knew the experts’ findings,” this reporter said to me. “The judge knew that in 2000 Irving was in court suing you. He knew that Irving’s claims to have seen the light and to no longer be a denier as of the 1990s was rot and that Irving was playing with the court.”

Once again, as he did at my trial, Irving seemed to behave in a way that said: “I can do whatever I want, say whatever I want and get away with it.” The problem is, he can’t. While I may disagree with Holocaust denial laws, while I may be disturbed by the sentence, David Irving cannot seem to grasp that there are consequences to his actions.

Judges don’t like it when people play with the court. We saw that in Judge Jones’s verdict, and we see it again here.

Which Vulnerable Minority?

Feb 20th, 2006 5:05 pm | By

Yes, what about that Francesca Klug article. It’s worse than some of the more obviously woolly commentary, because its subtlety makes it that much more persuasive. But she starts from a very dubious premise, and sticks with it throughout – without it she has no case. She starts from the assumption that the Danish cartoons ‘denigrate’ not the prophet M, but Muslims themselves. But – if that’s true, then why isn’t that what all the shouting is about? Has she not noticed that the shouting is in fact about something else? Does she think that’s just displacement or a smokescreen? Well, if so, she needs to say so, and say why. She doesn’t.

While some [of the cartoons] seem benign, others appear designed to stereotype Muslims as (literally) sabre-rattling terrorists…Instead, the newspaper cited the European Jewish Holocaust, not as an illustration of where pictorial denigration of minorities can ultimately lead, but as an example of western hypocrisy over free speech.

But are the cartoons examples of ‘pictorial denigration of minorities’? They don’t seem so to me – though I realize it’s debatable. The two sabre-rattling ones could be seen that way, at a pinch – but I do think that’s stretching things. It seems to me that the sabre-rattlers don’t stand for all Muslims or all of a particular minority, but rather for a violent and oppressive minority within the minority (or majority in the context of the cartoons) that bullies and oppresses everyone else. It’s not a bit clear to me that the sabre-guys are meant to be a synechdoche for all Muslims – and Klug spends no time at all arguing that they do, she just assumes it. Then she complains about confusion…

Confusion and obfuscation have clouded every element of this morass. Torrid debates about the right to mock belief systems versus the obligation to respect religious sensitivities camouflage the essentially racist nature of the cartoons in question. Take the publication by a German newspaper this week of a cartoon depicting the Iranian football team as suicide bombers.

Take? Take it where? And why? Why should we take the publication of a different cartoon in a different newspaper in a different country as evidence of (and surely that’s what ‘take’ is supposed to mean there) ‘the essentially racist nature of the cartoons in question’? That seems like a startlingly bald and unembarrassed non sequitur. I might as well say ‘Francesca Klug’s article is very silly, take this article by Tom Friedman in the New York Times.’ Eh?

And she’s wrong. The ‘torrid’ (torrid?) debates about the right to mock belief systems really are about the right to mock belief systems, they’re not camouflage. And the ‘essentially racist nature of the cartoons in question’ is, surely, at the very least debatable – especially since most of them aren’t even close. No, if we’re going to fret about confusion and obfuscation and camouflage, the real problem is this insidious, coercive, and false idea that attacking or mocking or criticizing a religion is exactly equivalent to, is the same thing as, attacking or mocking or criticizing people who believe in the religion. That idea just has to be stamped out, hard. It’s the death of all clarity of thought, of all ability to question or disagree with any ideas whatever. That death is well under way already: plenty of people really do think it’s bad manners or worse to disagree with anything that anyone ‘believes’, especially if the belief is fervent and irrational. That equation just will not do.

Analogies with the Rushdie and Behzti affairs, in this sense, are misleading.

Well, in that sense, maybe so, but since that sense is worthless, analogies with the Rushdie and Behzti affairs are not misleading at all. That doesn’t actually follow, but I’m arguing Klug-style.

Liberal secularists cite Enlightenment heroes such as Voltaire, Kant and Mill to underline their cause. But they fail to distinguish between free speech as an essential means to challenge state or church monopoly power and stigmatising vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities in the name of a free press.

Rhetoric. Heroes shmeroes. Don’t be so silly. And it’s still only an assertion that stigmatising vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities is what’s going on with the cartoons, and again: if that is what’s going on, then why isn’t that what all the motorbike-torchers and embassy-torchers say? They don’t talk about vulnerable minorities, they talk about the prophet. It’s no good just ignoring that inconvenient fact.

Who could deny that in the context of modern Europe it is Muslims who have reason to feel vulnerable when mass circulation newspapers publish images that deny their individuality and associate them with terrorism?

Well I certainly wouldn’t deny that Muslims have reason to feel vulnerable in the context of modern Europe in general, but I am not at all convinced that the cartoons ‘deny their individuality and associate them with terrorism’. In fact I’m so unconvinced that I think the equation of the two – of the cartoons with the imputation – is a sly bit of coercion aimed at telling people to shut up about Islam. But then Francesca Klug really, really, really ought to think hard about all the vulnerable people who desperately wish Islam would treat them a good deal more gently. Girls married off to strangers, for instance; girls forced to wear religious costumes when they don’t want to; girls kept at home; girls and women never free to make their own choices about their own lives. If Klug’s line of thought succeeds in making Islam immune from challenge, then what about them? And why doesn’t she worry about that?

The Anatomy of Lunacy

Feb 19th, 2006 6:27 pm | By

Allow me to explain. I’m a little vague about the way the RSS feed works, on account of I don’t have it myself. I forgot (or perhaps never knew, despite having been told) that people who subscribe to the RSS feed get the whole N&C – I mistily thought they (you) got a notification, rather than the thing itself. Jeremy reminded me of how it actually works and said that it’s normal practice when making a big change to put a time on it, so that it doesn’t look as if I’m cluelessly trying to sneak a change in when the RSS makes that impossible. I deleted two paragraphs yesterday and substituted a much shorter one, saying ‘oh look, I’m sane again, that’s enough of that.’ But I knew I wasn’t doing it covertly, I knew people would have seen the previous version, and that’s fine. I almost did leave it and just add an update, but then decided that because it was so no longer true, I might as well erase it.

But it’s interesting, psychologically. So I’ll explain, because of the interest. I was half-crazy yesterday morning and most of Friday afternoon. I thought it was at least as much resentment of publisher’s faux pas as it was wanting the book – until the books arrived, and I immediately realized it wasn’t. Well not quite immediately – I spent a minute or two yowling at everyone in earshot about how relieved I was, and clawing open the package. But almost immediately, I realized that the publisher’s faux pas had shrunk to almost nothing – as of course it should have long ago. So it became instantly blindingly clear that it was the combination of the frustration of not having the book, along with the faux pas, that had been making me nuts. I spent considerable time yesterday afternoon pondering how bad for the psyche and character frustration can be, especially repeated frustration, especially repeated frustration when you expect it to go on being repeated. (Waiting for something to come by mail that doesn’t come, in short. Like being six years old and waiting for your secret decoder ring, or whatever fool matchbox thing it is you’ve sent away for.) I find that it’s very bad for the character indeed. I was a creature from hell yesterday morning – a very gargoyle.

And there was nothing I could do about it. That’s the aspect that makes me think it was quite like being genuinely mentally ill – at least a glimpse of it. I could not get my mood under my control, despite trying really hard. Especially yesterday morning, when I spent an enormous amount of energy trying to convince myself the book wasn’t coming that day or any day soon – trying to avoid that horrible moment when opening the mailbox – and just forget about it and let go and calm down – and I could not do it. Trying to do it just made me a nervous wreck. I was dreading that day’s mail delivery, and Monday’s, and the rest of the week – anticipating repeated torture for at least another week. Mad as a hatter, I was. But I was desperate to have that book. Frantic. I don’t even know why, exactly; it’s not rational; but I was. So then when it did arrive after all, and I became instantly sane again – I realized it was much more about the non-possession of the book than it was about anything anyone did. It was about impersonal matters like the slowness of the mail, so nothing to get bitter and resentful about. The return of sanity is a remarkably pleasant change.

So that meant the two paragraphs I had posted from the depths of struggle against mood were null and void, so I simply erased them. In future when I do that I’ll add a note saying I done erased them.

And your reward for following this deeply uninteresting saga is to know that I know that I am by no means always sane or rational or reasonable. I’ve always known that, but that doesn’t mean you know I know. Well now you know.

And by the way, the book is every bit as beautiful as Jeremy said it was, and furthermore, he says he’s seen it at one (1) Waterstone’s, so that means it is in at least one (1) Waterstone’s, and not hiding until March or April after all. And it’s not a bad read. It’s really not.

Sing it, Deeyah

Feb 19th, 2006 5:30 pm | By

Oh, really; how pretty. How perfectly lovely.

A Muslim pop singer has been forced to hire bodyguards to protect her during a visit to Britain next month after she received a string of death threats from religious extremists. US-based Deeyah is due in London next month to promote a new single and video, released tomorrow. But the track “What Will It Be?” has already outraged hardline Islamists here as it promotes women’s rights.

Yes, well, you can see why that would outrage people, promoting women’s rights. Women can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t have any rights, because the whole point, or almost the whole point, of hardline Islamism is to take rights away from women. Take that away and what’s left? Okay, there’s some fun left – executing a teenage girl because she stabbed one of three men who were intent on raping her and her teenage niece, for instance, and hand-amputation, and execution of gays – of course those are all good, but they don’t match the fun of keeping women squashed and oppressed, now do they. Use your head.

Her performances with a clutch of male dancers and revealing outfits have also deeply offended many Muslims. In one scene in her latest video, the singer drops a burqa covering her body to reveal a bikini.

‘Deeply offended’ – well we can’t have that. No no no no no – if there is anything the past few weeks have taught us, it is that ‘deeply offending’ many Muslims – no matter what footling thing ‘many Muslims’ choose to be ‘deeply offended’ by – is Forbidden. Or else dangerous. One of those – we seem to have a little trouble making up our minds which.

That has attracted vitriol from some quarters. The 28-year-old singer claims that in the past she has been spat upon in the street and told that her family would be in danger if she did not tone down her work…”I have been on the verge of a breakdown. Middle-aged men have spat at me in the street and I have had people phone me and tell me they were going to cut me up into pieces. I became this figure of hate simply because of what I do and wear.”

Well, yeah – because you’re a woman, see, and what you do and wear is not up to you to decide, because of your being a woman. See?

Deeyah, who was born in Norway of Iranian and Pakistani parentage, remains keen to return to Britain. “I miss London,” she said, adding that she wanted to inspire British Muslim women. “I receive letters and emails from women saying I am doing a good job. Putting my life at risk no longer bothers me. That so many women – Muslim women included – are abused by people in their own religion and communities does.”

Yeah. It bothers a lot of us. Go, Deeyah; good luck; peace be upon you. Not figurative peace, not in heaven peace; real peace; no harm.