Feb 1st, 2005 8:36 pm | By

Speaking of radio (there’s a deft transition for you), I keep meaning to recommend this In Our Time from last month. It’s on the Mind-Body Problem, and the contestants are – no, that’s not right – the people doing the talking are Sue James, Anthony Grayling and Julian Baggini. It gets very amusing toward the end when Julian and Anthony Grayling get in a punch-up. No, I’m only joking. But Grayling says a rude word to Julian in Latin, and Julian laughs – rough stuff for philosophy! No not really, philosophy is actually very aggressive; it’s more aggressive than squash. No, not really, nothing is more aggressive than squash. They were talking about how aggressive the squash game in Ian McEwan’s new novel is, on Saturday Review the other day – and Tom Sutcliffe was also talking about how boring it is (the squash game, not the novel, which they all liked a lot) (apart from Tom Sutcliffe and the squash game – he didn’t like that part). Anyway this Latin punch-up is all the more amusing because the rude word Grayling calls Julian just happens to be the title of one of Julian’s Bad Moves. Is that a staggering coincidence or what! Well maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe Grayling carefully studied the B&W page that has the most recent Bad Moves listed by title, and memorized a few so that he could inject one into the discussion. Anyway, you should give it a listen, it’s very interesting as well as amusing.

Speaking of Julian (another deft transition for you), I tripped over this article of his in the Guardian a couple of days ago. What I was doing was, I was looking (via Google) for that review of the Dictionary I’d been told about, just in case it had smuggled itself online somewhere after all – and I found this article. It’s about internet interaction, a subject which has interested me for awhile – ever since I started internet interacting, I suppose. Before that it bored me senseless. The three of us talked about it over dinner that time – you remember: last October, when I was over there. I told you all about it at the time.

This is the part that interests me:

Leading philosophers who have written on the web, such as Hubert Dreyfus and Gordon Graham, have argued that this is largely because face-to-face we interact with the whole person, whereas in virtual environments we only have access to a small part of what they choose to reveal. Therefore a purely online relationship can never be with a whole human being. It’s an intuitively plausible argument, but even if the most intimate of relationships require physical contact, in our working lives, we do not and need not deal with the whole person. For example, many people behave very differently at work to how they do at home. Personal identity is extremely malleable, and people play different roles at different times of the same day. That means it is simply not necessary to know “the whole person” in order to have a good working relationship with them.

And there’s a little more to it than that, I think. It may be that some people actually reveal less of ‘the whole person’ in the real world than they do in virtual or written interactions. It may be that real world interactions bring out hostility, aggressiveness, shyness, inhibition, suspicion, awkwardness, inarticulacy and similar qualities that are not helpful to social interaction, that are not really particularly central or important to the ‘real’ nature of the person who shows them. John Carey says something to this effect in his introduction to the Everyman edition of Orwell’s essays. After a few sentences about how prickly, and ill at ease friends remember Blair as being, he says:

George Orwell the writer, by contrast, is confident, relaxed, open, democratic. This is not to claim that his writing misrepresents his ‘true’ self. You could just as easily argue that the true self was masked by shyness or awkwardness in life and came out in the writing.

Just so. It’s an interesting question. Is the person that other people see more real than the one we experience from inside? In some ways, it seems reasonable to say yes. Some of those ways are related to recent studies on self-esteem that indicate people tend to over-estimate many of their abilities. It’s possible that we all think we’re kinder, pleasanter, more considerate, less rude and selfish and me-firsty, than we in fact are. (It’s also possible that a lot of us think we’re less boring than we are. I’m pretty sure of that. I have only to think of various people who have bored me into near-comatose states to realize that. They surely didn’t know how boring they were, did they? If they had surely they would have shut up, somewhere along the way.) In that sense, and no doubt many similar ones, people who can see us from the outside do know us better than we know ourselves. But in others…they don’t, at least not necessarily. There is always at least the possibility of a gap between appearance and reality, between what shows externally and what is going on internally. It’s the other minds problem. We think we know; especially in very close, intimate relationships, we think we know. And maybe we do. But, then again…

Tel Hits One Out of the Park

Feb 1st, 2005 6:58 pm | By

Update – I decided to move this one too, since the discussion is still going on. Chris M supplied this link and this one.

Oh, jeezis. I saw a reference to Terry Eagleton’s piece in the Guardian at Normblog earlier today, but didn’t read it. I saw another reference just now at Harry’s place, and this time I did read it. It was – very horrible. Way more horrible than I expected. I’m not sure why. There’s just something about the preening, lit-critty, self-admiring tone of it all, of the aesthetic approach to mass murder, that just made my gorge rise. It’s as if he’s, I don’t know, admiring his reflection in a pool of blood, or combing his hair with someone’s blown-off hand. He’s not really making a political argument, that’s what’s weird – he’s doing some sort of languid, semi-ironic literary criticism. Literary criticism of suicide bombing – just what the world needs. What can he think he’s playing at?

Like hunger strikers, suicide bombers are not necessarily in love with death. They kill themselves because they can see no other way of attaining justice; and the fact that they have to do so is part of the injustice…People like Rosa Luxemburg or Steve Biko give up what they see as precious (their lives) for an even more valuable cause. They die not because they see death as desirable in itself, but in the name of a more abundant life all round. Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others; it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them in the process. The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it. But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for. On this theory, what makes existence meaningful is what you are prepared to relinquish it for. This used to be known as God; in modern times it is mostly known as the nation. For Islamic radicals it is both inseparably.

How about that ‘just’ in ‘it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them’? That’s quite a ‘just’! Oh is that all – well silly me then not to think of the suicide bombers as just like Steve Biko and Rosa Luxemburg. And then notice how quickly he forgets the thing about taking others – ‘But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for.’ Not just dying for, Bub: killing for. Making other people die for. Imagine a fiery-eyed student popping into your office and locking the door and telling you he was about to give you the glory of dying along with him for something that makes life worth living. Would you take quite such an aesthetic view of the matter then? And he does it again – ‘what you are prepared to relinquish it for’. No! Pay attention, dammit. What you are prepared to make others relinquish it for. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Can’t you get that? Are you so caught up in this stupid dandyish word-spinning that you can’t hang on to such an obvious thought for two sentences?

See, this is what I’m saying about the ethical commitments thing, the identity thing. It’s not just about the damn ego, it’s about what you do to people.

And there are three more paragraphs of really disgusting verbal pirouetting, just as if he were droning about Henry James or Dostoevsky (oh yes, so he is), about the meaning of suicide bombing – ending up at this rich mess:

Blowing himself to pieces in a packed marketplace is likely to prove by far the most historic event of the bomber’s life. Nothing in his life, to quote Macbeth, becomes him like the leaving of it. This is both his triumph and his defeat. However miserable or impoverished, most men and women have one formidable power at their disposal: the power to die as devastatingly as possible. And not only devastatingly, but surreally. There is a smack of avant garde theatre about this horrific act. In a social order that seems progressively more depthless, transparent, rationalised and instantly communicable, the brutal slaughter of the innocent, like some Dadaist happening, warps the mind as well as the body. It is an assault on meaning as well as on the flesh – an ultimate act of defamiliarisation, which transforms the everyday into the monstrously unrecognisable.

Honest to fucking Christ. Is that cute or what? Can cultural theorists spin a metaphor or can they not. If that doesn’t make you sick, you have a stronger stomach than I do.


Feb 1st, 2005 1:56 am | By

There are a lot of bizarre remarks in this piece in the LRB.

Within the limits he sets himself, Sharpe’s book is admirable…He takes pride in bringing to his task the skills of a professional historian, determined to ‘get history right’. He sets out to expose the stories told about Turpin since his death as factually incorrect…Sharpe is uncomfortable with myths.

Um…why should Sharpe not be ‘uncomfortable’ with myths? (That sentence is a good example of why ‘comfortable’ is one of the first words that was defined in the Fashionable Dictionary – the original one, the one on B&W. ‘Comfortable’ is such a weasel word. What’s comfort got to do with anything? It’s not about bums on seats, or even about elevated heart rate and sweaty palms. It’s about critical thinking, epistemology, rational inquiry. Thinking that myths are out of place in ‘professional’ history is not a giveaway of pathetic nerdy insecurities, it’s simply a reasonable idea of what history is supposed to be: to wit, evidence-based and logically sound.) Why should he not be ‘determined’ to ‘get history right’? What should he be determined to do, get it wrong?

What interests Sharpe about this story (which he has read in the much abbreviated fifth edition) is that it is false: what should have interested him is that Ainsworth’s readers (and the book was an enormous bestseller) thought it was true.

I beg your pardon? Why is that what should have interested him? If that’s not the book he’s writing, then why should it interest him? It may well be a highly interesting question, why Ainsworth’s readers thought the Black Bess story (that Turpin rode a horse 200 miles in 12 hours) was true, but it’s not the only possible subject. David Wootton does go on to say some interesting things on this question, but it doesn’t follow that Sharpe ought to have written them instead of what he did write.

This doesn’t occur to Sharpe. His idea of the historian as someone who gets at the facts means that he can give a fine account of the activities of Turpin and the Essex gang, but it makes him quite unfitted to be a reader of Rookwood.

Um…so? So on earth what? You read Rookwood if you want to, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to. And what is with this absurd scorn for the idea of ‘ the historian as someone who gets at the facts’? Well we know what’s with it. Alas.

Sharpe could have been provoked by his subject into reinventing the idea of what history is: instead, his conclusion, ‘Dick Turpin and the Meaning of History’, retreats to the old cliché that the business of the historian is to deal in facts…The language of fact and fiction, critical and uncritical thinking, is useful if one wants to address the question of whether Turpin was a thug. But it hardly helps one address the question of why Rookwood appealed to the imagination of its readers.

The old cliché – it’s a shame, isn’t it, the way historians will go on thinking that they ought to deal in facts rather than myths. Unless, of course, they are in fact doing histories of myth, which some historians do. But they don’t all do that, and why should they? (And if they do, one hopes they do it with some reference to facts somewhere along the way, lest they tell us about Navajo myths that actually belonged to the Chinese, and Egyptian myths that in fact originated with the people of Tierra del Fuego.) And some historians inquire into the history of literary taste; but, again, not all of them. If the question of why Rookwood appealed to the imagination of its readers was not Sharpe’s subject, it’s not clear why he should have addressed it.

Guess what David Wootton is writing about. It made me snort with laughter when I saw it. Can you guess? I’ll tell you. ‘He is writing a history of the body from Hippocrates to Foucault.’ Attaboy! No chance of any old clichés there! That’s some fresh untilled cliché-free ground, all right. I think I’ll review it when it comes out, and keep asking why he didn’t write a history of underwear from Nefertiti to Adorno instead.

Order, Design, Whatever

Feb 1st, 2005 1:55 am | By

I heard a classic example of the journalistic habit of translation that I have pointed out a few times in the past, earlier today on the BBC World Service. It was a discussion of creationism and the pressure to get it taught in US schools, between Peter Atkins and creationist Donald DeYoung. At one point DeYoung (or else the journalist) mentioned ‘design’ and Atkins said ‘There is no design in nature.’ DeYoung didn’t hear, and Atkins repeated with great distinctness and emphasis, ‘There. is. no. design. in. nature.’ DeYoung, a physicist, disagreed and talked about the weight of the proton: if it had been just a tiny amount heavier, etc (the anthropic principle, in short). The journalist cut that off, as being too far afield, and said ‘You [meaning Atkins] say there is no order in nature – ‘ ‘That’s not what he said,’ I shouted at the radio. ‘That’s not what I said,’ Atkins said without shouting (well he was nearby). ‘I said there is no design in nature.’ ‘Same thing,’ said the journalist. ‘It’s not the same thing!!’ I shouted even louder. ‘It’s not the same thing,’ said Atkins.

I mean. Come on. The guy thinks order and design are the same thing?! And all [I mean many – not all – I haven’t checked them all, have I!] journalists, apparently, think ‘no evidence that’ is the same thing as ‘proof that not,’ and so they use the two interchangeably with gay abandon. It’s an outrage.

Really. Journalists ought to be licensed, or something. And they ought to learn some basic vocabulary and concepts before they get that license. I mean that literally – well except of course that if they did, Julian would run out of Bad Moves. As it is the supply seems to be infinite.

Good Morning, Senator

Jan 31st, 2005 3:47 am | By

The ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ issue seems to be warming up. Unfortunately. Because the idea seems as full of holes as a colander. It seemed leaky when I wrote an In Focus on the subject a year and a half ago (it doesn’t seem that long, but it was), and it seems leaky now. The difficulties seem so obvious…I mentioned some –

Who would decide the law was being violated? What would the criteria be? What would constitute evidence? Would the testimony of students be sufficient? If so, what of the possibility that for instance a student who’d received a C, or one who’d been bored, or one who simply disagreed with a teacher would file charges? If student testimony would not be sufficient, would administrative staff sit in on classes? Would they go undercover? Might that lead to an underage hence underexperienced and underqualified administration?…And what about all the issues that don’t divide along a neat left-right axis? What about points of view that aren’t really particularly political at all but that the legislature doesn’t happen to agree with? So perhaps we begin to see the advantage of dealing with such issues by means of discussion, debate, argument, books and articles and websites, rather than handcuffs and subpoenas.

And Brian Leiter mentions similar ones

The problem is that it is plainly within the purview of academic freedom for instructors to determine what counts as “serious scholarly opinion” and what counts as “human knowledge.” The only way, then, that this provision can have any bite is if it authorizes others (who exactly? the Ohio legislature?) to override the instructor’s academic freedom in setting the curriculum…suppose the student’s political, ideological, or religious beliefs with respect to the subject matter of the course are false, i.e., contradicted by “serious scholarly opinion” and “human knowledge” as assessed by the instructor? Does the creationist get a free pass for her ignorance in evolutionary biology simply because she has a “religious belief” that conflicts with the scientific content of the course? Is the NeoNazi entitled not to be graded down when he writes a paper for his Anthropology or Biology class defending his “ideological belief” that “the Jewish race is biologically inferior”?

Just so. Question after question. But that hasn’t stopped the Ohio legislature, as Leiter usefully points out. Coming soon to a university near you: teaching entirely taken over by political hacks, lobbyists, bribers and bribe-takers, and religious zealots who have the ear of the political hacks. Spiffy. That will certainly improve things.


Jan 30th, 2005 8:42 pm | By

Any of you read the TLS? An informant told me via email that ‘apparently’ there is a review of the Fashionable Dictionary in the latest one, but that it doesn’t seem to be available online. I asked a few questions, such as who wrote it, but the informant didn’t answer, so I’m thinking it was probably a joke. I love jokes. So – if any of you do read the TLS – is there a review of the DFN in there? Silly of me to be so curious, I know, but – well it’s probably an American thing.

The Clash

Jan 28th, 2005 8:18 pm | By

This articles intersects with a couple of issues we’ve been talking about lately. (Well, I say ‘we’ – I’ve been talking about them. I know that. It’s just me, going jaw, jaw, jaw. I realize that. But I think of it as a discussion anyway – I think ‘we’re’ talking about them. Because…because of a lot of things. Comments, and emails I get, and that tiny little high-pitched voice that no one else hears, and – what meds? I’m fine, cut it out, get your hands off me – )

Sorry. Where was I. A couple of issues. The one about various tensions between cherished goals and ideas, and the one about special treatment of religion.

In the bitter controversy that followed, the Christian Legal Society sued Ohio State, charging that the university’s nondiscrimination policy violated the group’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion by forcing it to accept unwanted members. This past fall, without ever going to court, the group won a complete victory when Ohio State changed its policy to exempt student groups formed to promote “sincerely held religious beliefs.”…Requiring a Christian-student association to admit non-Christians or gay people, “would be like requiring a vegetarian group to admit meat eaters,” asserts Jordan Lorence, a senior lawyer at the Alliance Defense Fund, which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It would be like forcing the College Democrats to accept Republicans.”…Emotionally charged conflicts like the one at Ohio State have forced colleges to choose which of two basic principles is more important: freedom of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment, or equal protection under the law, as established by the 14th Amendment. “There are times when constitutional rights come into conflict with one another,” says Jeffrey Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Aren’t there just. And such times force one to think hard about which rights, goals, values, ideas are more important (or valuable or basic or non-negotiable or central or various other terms indicating which is less possible to give up) and which are less so. And often such thinking gets one nowhere but at a stalemate, an ‘I don’t know.’ And I don’t know. Because groups are discriminatory, aren’t they. If you have a book group, you discriminate against people who never read. If you have a cooking group, you discriminate against people who eat out of tins and foil bags. If you have a runners’ group, you discriminate against people who prefer to amble or sit or lie flat. And so on. But you don’t really want to see the same principle extended to the Anti-Semites’ group, or the Misogynists’ Club, or the Homophobia Alliance. So you seem to want to judge groups on the merits of their principles of discrimination – and what a can of worms that would be to get into! What a lot of time and trouble that would be. As all these college adminstrators and litigators remark in the article.

Critics of the change are particularly concerned that the settlement exempts only religious student groups from nondiscrimination rules, which may represent an unconstitutional favoring of religious groups over nonreligious ones, says Ruth Colker, a professor of constitutional law at Ohio State. She predicts that the decision could lead to future lawsuits if nonreligious groups are denied recognition because they practice some form of discrimination.

Well, exactly. Here we are again. Why do ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ get special consideration when other kinds of sincerely held beliefs don’t? There seem to be a lot of reasons – habit; religion is consoling; religion is taken to be central to people’s identity; religious people are willing to sue; and no doubt more. But none of them really seems like a knock-down argument or reason, does it. Which is why people aren’t always pleased when sincerely held religious beliefs get special treatment that sincerely held secular beliefs don’t.


Jan 27th, 2005 6:34 pm | By

I said I was going to drone some more about ethical commitments. Why? Because the subject interests me, especially now, when there is so much pressure to take religion seriously, to be sympathetic towards religion, to give religion the benefit of the doubt, to be careful not to dismiss religion ‘lightly’ or ‘contemptuously’ or quickly or any other way that doesn’t involve the aforementioned taking it seriously. I don’t say there is no merit to those suggestions and urgings, but I do think they are too much in fashion right now, and the other view is too much out of fashion. So I think it’s useful to take a look at the underpinnings of the idea. I take the thought that religion is one important source of ethical commitments, to be one of those underpinnings. Hence the utility of poking away at the thought.

Ethical commitments are not just general, they are also particular. Let’s look at them in particular – as the ethical commitments of people in particular situations. Because what situation one is in makes a considerable difference to how one forms one’s ethical commitments. The phrase has very different meanings depending on whether the person who holds them is: autonomous; responsible for others; in control, authority, power over others; subordinate, owned by, obliged to others.

The phrase also has different meanings depending on past history. Has the person who holds them ever been in a position to think about and choose them, to consider alternatives, to look around them on all sides, to decide? Has the person been issued the ethical commitments from birth? Were they issued as orders and commandments, as imperatives and mandates? Were they issued as mandates by a person or people who (as part of this ethical commitment) was/were in a position of unquestionable power, authority, ownership over the person? Are the ethical commitments the commitments of everyone the person has ever met, heard, seen, read? Are they actually commitments rather than an inherited conglomerate? Does it matter?

The meaning also depends on context, environment, geography, social and national history as well as personal history. Also on what kinds of indoctrination, socialization, education the person has had access to. Is the person able to go to a library? Can she go by herself and read freely, anything she wants to? The meaning depends on the nature of the schools, religious institutions, libraries, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books that are available. Bookshops, coffee houses, gathering places. The police, security service, military. Vigilante groups, gangs, militias. Security cameras, and who is watching them.

So, to put it more concretely and specifically. The ethical commitments of a single man or woman in London or New York who had secular liberal parents and went to state schools and a secular university, have been arrived at in different ways from the ethical commitments of a married woman in a village in Bangladesh who never went to school and was married off at age twelve.

And not only formed differently but ontologically different. Different all the time. It seems reasonable to wonder if some people – people in certain situations, situations not of their own making or choosing, situations that are controlled and given and coercive – are in a position to have anything that can be called ethical commitments at all. Or if they can be called that, can the people who hold them be said to hold their own? Or do they hold other people’s? In which case ‘ethical commitments’ would be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it? So they don’t have them. They have rules; they obey. A ‘commitment’ can’t be something imposed on them from the outside, can it? Or can it. It seems like a contradiction in terms. Commitment is voluntary or else it’s not commitment, it’s something else. Isn’t it?

It’s obvious what I’m getting at (the female pronoun is one clue). Some people have much more freedom, power, authority, responsibility, to have ethical commitments than other people do. And, furthermore, some people are in a position to impose their own ethical commitments on other people, while other people are in a position such that they are required to accept them. Others again are somewhere between these two extremes.

Some people have more of this freedom because they are of a gender, class, status, caste, and in an environment, such that they are allowed autonomy, they are allowed to think for themselves. Other people are not. In many contexts and situations, a male parent has the ethical commitments for everyone in the household. He has the freedom to have them (except that within many religions he actually doesn’t), and he also has the power, authority, and responsibility to impose them on all the people below him in the hierarchy. He would be considered to be failing in his responsibilities if he didn’t impose them. The responsibility to impose his ethical commitments is in fact an ethical commitment itself. (As, it could be argued, is all teaching and persuasion. Yes. But it does surely make a difference how mandatory the teaching is. What backs it up. [Whipping? Incarceration? Disapproval? Regret?] Who does it, what the relations between the two parties are.)

The man has the freedom and duty. What about the others? Does the woman in such a situation (subject to a male head of household) have ethical commitments? And is there any way to know whether she does or not? Is there any way to judge whether she is simply doing what she is told, or actually agrees with every commandment she is given?

And the same questions for the children, doubly so for the girls. The boy children expect to grow up to impose ethical commitments on other people, the girls expect to grow up to have them imposed on them. That must make a large difference in the meaning of ethical commitments for each.

Which is not to claim that ethical commitments can be formed in a vacuum. Obviously they come from somewhere in all cases, they’re not created ex nihilo, there’s always influence, from parents, teachers, friends, books, tv, music, all sorts. But all the same. Some choices are freer than others. Some people are in a position to choose among alternatives while others are not; with variations in between.

So, in a sense, one can see what is meant by concern for ethical commitments, but even so, it seems relevant that not all ‘ethical commitments’ are ethical commitments. It may be worth asking if it is simply naive to take them all as on a par with one another – all as formed in the same way, by people with fully equal freedom and opportunity to form them, consider them, question them. What can an ‘ethical commitment’ be if you never actually had the chance to form it yourself but merely had it inserted into your head like a coin in a parking meter?

Lather Up, Joe

Jan 26th, 2005 10:44 pm | By

I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of ethical commitments as the best argument for treating religion differently from other systems of thought. I didn’t make clear enough in yesterday’s post that both Amy Gutman and Jonathan Derbyshire think that argument fails, despite being the best one available. I’m not taking issue with Jonathan, I’m just trying to poke at the idea to see where it gives. One place it gives, as Jonathan mentioned, is the fact that religion is not the only source of ethical commitments. But I think there are other places.

For one thing – ‘ethical commitments’ sounds like an individual item. It sounds like something that goes with the self, and matters to the self. But ethical commitments are about what the self does to other people. So this idea – “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity” – seems to need some poking. Though I’m not sure exactly what kind. It’s not that I disagree that ethical commitments are a valued part of individual identity; I’m sure they often are. I suppose I disagree (tentatively) about what follows from that. (And, again, I’m not disagreeing with Jonathan, I’m disagreeing with whatever nebulous body of opinion holds to that idea. Joe Lieberman, maybe. Yes, that’s it! He’s just the kind of person who thinks that kind of thing. Okay I’m arguing with Soapy Joe again.) Ethical commitments aren’t like clothes or haircuts, or tastes in music or books; they’re directly, not indirectly, about how one treats other people. Your taste in music doesn’t affect me unless you live next door and play heavy metal at top volume – in which case I have you killed. But your ethical commitments are likely to, if we have any dealings together.

Ethical commitments are for one thing about telling people what to do. Christopher Hitchens talks about this and about the way religion is used to back up what may be quite tottery in an interview on the Atlantic’s site.

However, if a grown-up says “I’ve just a heard a voice telling me what to do,” what they really mean is “I can now tell you what to do.” That’s what I don’t like. What I noticed when I was a kid wasn’t just that what the headmaster was preaching at sermon time was rubbish (which was easy to see), it was also that it seemed very important that the headmaster be able to invest his otherwise rather feeble authority with religious authority. In other words, I could see already when I was eight that religion is used to say, “You better listen to what I say. My power is not just of this world. I have divine right.” That’s where you have to say, “Say that again and I’ll burn your church.” That’s fascism. I loathe it. And I tend to loathe the people who believe it, because they are making a claim on me.

So, yes, ethical commitments feel like an important part of the self to many people, and so do the supernatural sanctions that are taken to back them up. But that isn’t necessarily a good argument for treating religion as special or deserving of consideration. It could just as well be an argument for doing precisely the opposite. For being quicker, not slower, to subject religious sources of ethical commitments to close scrutiny and sharp questions. Yes, it may be an important part of someone’s identity that he keeps women under control to please Allah, or that she tells children who play with their genitals that they will burn in hell, or that he whips his children for disobedience because the Bible says he should, or that she told her gay son to get out of the house and has never spoken to him since because she thinks that’s what Jesus would do. But what of the identity of the people subject to such ethical commitments?

I have more poking, but it’s rather long-winded, so…later.

Taking Words Seriously

Jan 25th, 2005 10:59 pm | By

Jonathan Derbyshire has an interesting post that’s relevant to that last post, and to many of the posts lately.

“Is religious identity special?” This is a question Amy Gutman poses in her excellent new-ish book, Identity in Democracy. And of course it’s a question many people have been asking themselves recently…As far as specifically religious identity groups are concerned, Gutman’s view is that they should not be treated with special consideration. However, and this is very important, she takes seriously, as some liberals do not, the reasons why it is argued that religion should be given such consideration. The best argument for according religion special consideration in democracies, in Gutman’s view and mine, is that the “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity”. But, she goes on, a “degree of deference does not mean that conscience [another name for those ultimate ethical commitments, JD] trumps legitimate laws”. Moreover, conscience is special but religious identity is not, because religious identity is not the “only source of binding ethical commitment”.

Hmm. “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity”. Yes…but then, since ultimate ethical commitments may be religious or secular in their source, I’m not sure why that is a good argument for according religion special consideration in democracies. Since (as pretty much everyone seems to agree, at least I have yet to see anyone disagree) it doesn’t apply to secular sources of ultimate ethical commitments. So aren’t we still left with the same problem, the same asymmetry? Why treat one source of ultimate ethical commitments with special consideration and not treat others the same way? Am I failing to take the reasons seriously in asking that question? I don’t think so. I think I do take them seriously (if only because I’m afraid of them). I just fail to understand them entirely – because of the asymmetry. There are other sources of commitment, other systems of belief, other cherished illusions, other sources of consolation – but they don’t get the kind of consideration that religion does.

And then there’s also the problem that we’ve noticed before: some people’s ultimate ethical commitments are inimical to other people’s ultimate ethical commitments, or sense of identity, or well-being, or freedom, or tenure of life, or all those and more. The BNP has ultimate ethical commitments. So, very much, does the Taliban and its offshoots in Bangladesh and elsewhere. So ultimate ethical commitments and valuable parts of individual identity seem to me to be somewhat slippery terms. Maybe I’m just being dense…but the Mafia has those, gangbangers have those, all sorts of people and groups and parties have those. The people in Bosnia and Kosovo and Rwanda thought they were doing the right thing, most of them – and for reasons that had a lot to do with identity. I tend to think people should be somewhat less concerned with their own identities and ultimate ethical commitments and consciences and a little more concerned with their effects on other people – a little more consequentialist in their thinking, I guess is what I mean. I could be dead wrong, but I have a lurking suspicion that there’s something irreducibly selfish and self-concerned and self-aggrandizing in all this identity-hugging. Yeah yeah, one wants to say, never mind your conscience and your ultimate ethical commitments, just stop whipping that woman and mind your own business.

Is that what I’m saying? Maybe. That ultimate ethical commitments and conscience and identity sound nice, but too often they’re just disguises and pretexts for pushing other people around. Words and phrases that sound nice have a tendency that way, sometimes. That’s one reason the 18th century was so down on enthusiasm, why Kant hated Schwärmerei. People can inflate themselves with high-sounding rhetoric (see Falstaff on ‘honour’) and then go out and punish everyone they consider less moral or pure or enthusiastic than they are.


Jan 25th, 2005 7:34 pm | By

Well, this makes things admirably clear. There’s a useful absence of fuzz and wool and disguise about this crowd.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a controversial Islamic scholar who approves of wife-beating and believes in traditional family values. The Mormon church, having abandoned polygamy more than a century ago, believes in traditional families too. With that much in common, they have joined forces to “defend the family” and fight progressive social policies at the United Nations. Other members of the holy alliance include Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo, who campaigns against condoms on behalf of the Catholic church, and Mahathir Mohamad, the dictatorial former prime minister of Malaysia who sacked and jailed his deputy for alleged homosexuality.

‘Traditional’ families – meaning…? Don’t tell me; let me guess. Meaning ones where The Man is The Boss and everyone else is subordinate to him. Am I right? Am I in the ballpark?

Opening the conference, Sheikha Mousa bint Nasser al-Misnad, the wife of Qatar’s ruler, announced that the well-being of the family was in peril. She warned against trying to “redefine the concept of family in a manner contrary to religious precepts” – though there was little danger of anyone at the Doha conference doing that. In common with many Muslim states, Qatar rejects basic family rights legislation such as the international Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), using “religious precepts” as an excuse.

Oh look, I am right. We have to preserve and keep and cherish discrimination against women, not eliminate it. Because why? Because Daddy God said so, that’s why. How do we know? We know because somebody wrote it down a long time ago. Ah – well in that case, there’s nothing more to be said. Obviously ‘religious precepts’ have to trump mere silly modern egalitarian ideas about basic human equality. Obviously we simply cannot allow a world without the principle of subordination enshrined at the very heart of it.

And how pleasant that Bangladesh is also pulling its socks up and getting women under control. At this rate, maybe in a decade or two all women everywhere on the planet will be under control, and The City of God will be established on earth.

The quiet was broken now and then by donkey carts clattering past, as village women, seated on the backs of the carts, were taken to the market. The women wore makeshift burkas — black, white, canary yellow — and kept their heads down, and this, the men explained, was Bangla Bhai’s doing.

My imagination is haunted by items like this. How could it not be? One minute you’re living a normal (normal for us, yes) modern autonomous life, where you’re an adult and you get to decide for yourself what you wear and how you hold your head, not to mention when and whether you go out and come in, work and learn, talk and walk and drive – a life where you’re a person like other people, a grown-up like other grown-ups, independent and responsible and competent even as other people are – and the next minute you’re thrust into a bag for the rest of your life and subject to the command and bullying and physical violence of every male human being within a thousand miles – and you’re not allowed to leave. You are so very not allowed to leave. You can’t leave the man who owns you (and a man always does own you – women are not allowed to be unowned by a man in these arrangements), you can’t leave your house or your bag, and you sure as hell can’t leave Islam. You are doubly or triply or quintuply trapped and imprisoned and locked up. Yes – I would say that’s an imagination-haunter.

Nonetheless, it is possible to travel through Bangladesh and observe the increased political and religious repression in everyday life, and to verify the simple remark by one journalist there: ”We are losing our freedom.”…In Bangladesh, ”Islam is becoming the legitimizing political discourse,” according to C. Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, federally financed policy group in Washington. ”Once you don that religious mantle, who can criticize you?…Another close observer of Bangladeshi politics, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, told me recently: ”The practical effect of politics along religious lines is that you start to accept a religious identity and reject every other. It’s absolutely crucial to understand that this is happening in Bangladesh right now.”

Exactly. Once you don that religious mantle, who can criticize you? And the practical effect of politics along religious lines is that you start to accept a religious identity and reject every other. Combine the two, as all too many people do, and not only in Bangladesh, to put it mildly – and you get an uncriticizable system of ideas that excludes all other ideas. Not a good situation, especially when the system of ideas in question is one that rejects Conventions for Elimination of Discrimination.

Column A and Column B

Jan 21st, 2005 8:59 pm | By

There was an interview with Amrit and Rabindra Singh on Front Row last night. Mark Lawson asked them (about six minutes in) what they think about the controversy about ‘Behzti,’ especially as Sikhs themselves. Of course, as artists, they think freedom of expression is important and that artists should express what they think is valid, but – there have to be boundaries somewhere along the line. It’s like the idea of a so-called free society: that doesn’t mean you can walk down the street and punch your neighbour in the face. There have to be some regulations and rules that take other people’s feelings into account; artists should not seek knowingly to offend people’s feelings, or to offend the feelings of a certain religion or section of the community.

Lawson pointed out and they agreed that this can be very difficult (impossible, more like) because different people get offended at different things. Well don’t they just. As PEN says, the religious can be quick to take offence. PEN mentioned the Index – ‘The Papal Index makes salutary reading: it has banned every great offender from Voltaire to Flaubert to James Joyce.’ And it’s sobering to reflect that the Index banned for instance Montaigne’s great essay ‘On Cruelty’ – partly (or maybe wholly) because of the famous line that says it’s enough to kill people, roasting them alive is surplus to requirements. It’s sobering and interesting to reflect that the Papal Index didn’t like that and didn’t want that kind of thing written or read.

So there are at least two blindingly obvious problems right there. People are offended by different things, and people can be ‘offended’ by things that desperately need saying. If we decide we have to start censoring ourselves lest we ‘offend’ a certain religion or a certain section of the community – well we’ll never say anything at all. A great pall of silence will fall over the earth. Everyone’s larynx and tongue will atrophy. All art will be abstract and devoid of meaning; pretty noises, colours, shapes, but nothing one could actually put into words, lest the words might say something that could offend someone. Life will become one big warm bland soft soup, and we’ll all asphyxiate with boredom. Then the snails and armadilloes will take over, and the earth will give a great sigh of relief and say thank goodness they’re gone.

But really. How (as Mark Lawson, to his credit, asks) does one draw the line? Which religions, for instance, get to kick up a fuss and be listened to when some of their adherents are ‘offended,’ and which don’t? Scientology? Aum Shinrikyo? Branch Davidians? And then how do you draw the line between religions and other beliefs? Which imaginary or supernatural or metaphysical beings get to be protected from offensive comments and which don’t? What about Frodo? Spock? Yosemite Sam? ET? What are the criteria? And what are the reasons for the criteria, if and when there are any criteria? A belief is entitled to protection provided it is based purely on fantasy and wishful thinking, but if it is based on evidence then it must take care of itself? Is that the idea? Or is it only some kinds of fantasy and not other kinds. But if so, why? How exactly is that justified?

I hope I don’t get in trouble for asking these questions…


Jan 20th, 2005 8:30 pm | By

PEN’s Open Letter is quite interesting, I think.

Although we applaud the government’s wish to make everyone in our multi-cultural, multi-faith nation feel that they have an equal stake in Britain, the proposed amendment to the bill is misguided. It is emphatically not the way forward. It creates a climate which engenders events such as the recent Sikh riot in Birmingham. Here a violent mob, on the grounds that a play offended their religion, successfully prevented its performance, acted as censors, and threatened the life of its author. Fiona MacTaggart, the Home Office Minister, has contended that the remit of the proposed legislation is narrow. However, the signal the offence clause sends out to religious leaders is broad. It serves as a sanction for censorship of a kind which would constrain writers and impoverish our cultural life. Rather than averting intolerance, ‘it would’, as the Southall Black Sisters have pointed out, ‘encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions’. To gag criticism is to encourage abuse of power within religious communities.

There. It creates a climate, it sends a signal, it serves as a sanction, it would encourage a culture of intolerance. Just so. Of course, that’s all fairly subjunctive, fairly conditional, fairly subtle. It’s an interpretation, an extrapolation, an educated surmise, rather than 3 + 3=6. It’s about other minds, and why people do what they do, and groupthink, and hidden influences. But then so is the clause itself, and so is politics. Mathematical certainty isn’t a requirement or a possibility for legislation, so it can’t be required for opposition to legislation either. And surely the surmise is plausible. Does it not seem likely that the proposed criminalization of ‘religious hatred’ is interpreted by many religious people not as Fiona MacTaggart interprets it but more broadly – as encouragement to get in a temper at anything that ‘offends’ their sensibilities?

Finally, as writers of many faiths and none, we must emphasize that if religious leaders had their way, we would have little literature, less art and no humour. The religious can be quick to take offence. The Papal Index makes salutary reading: it has banned every great offender from Voltaire to Flaubert to James Joyce. On their side, some Jews have objected to Philip Roth and to Joseph Heller; while some Muslim clerics have been so severely offended by the fictions of Salman Rushdie and the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, as to issue fatwas against them – much to the distress of other Muslims. Now some British Sikhs have succeeded in censoring the play Behzti and forcing Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding.

The religious can be quick to take offense. Yeah. You could say that.

The new legislation encourages rather than combats intolerance. We do not need it. What we need is a signal from government that it wishes to defend true democracy and its many virtues, including those of dissent and the freedom of expression. If the government feels more legislation is essential in this area, then it would achieve more of its ends by repealing the law on blasphemy, a relic of pre-multicultural times. Less, here, is more.

Well said. Go, PEN. The response of the Home Office is not very encouraging though.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Both Fiona Mactaggart and the home secretary understand the concerns some groups feel about this legislation and are happy to have meetings to discuss these and reassure them.”

Oh how sweet. As if those ‘some groups’ were whiny little children afraid of the dark. I don’t think Salman Rushdie and Lisa Appignanesi want to be ‘reassured’ – I think they want the Home Office people to take on board what the writers and PEN are saying. I don’t think ‘There, there, everything will be all right’ is precisely what they’re after.

Bad Legacy

Jan 20th, 2005 3:41 am | By

A reader sent me the link to this interesting item in the Guardian. The subhead starts things right off – ‘Colonial attitudes linger, finding their most xenophobic expression among liberal defenders of free speech.’ Uh oh.

The argument is basically a ‘taboo’ argument. Every culture has some sacred things, which should be beyond criticism, and certainly beyond mockery. In the UK, it’s the Queen that’s sacred; all cultures have ’em.

Neither is rationalism alien to eastern cultures. Science and mathematics thrived both in the great age of Hindu civilisation and Islamic ascendancy. Eastern cultures have long traditions of theatre, reform movements and of absorbing criticism. But when a creative work offends the sacred, it loses its message.

Well, that’s debatable.

Sikhism believes that the rational is as speculative, variable and subjective as any other construction of belief. From that philosophical premise, the sacred cannot be dismissed. Jacques Derrida similarly analyses the subjectivity of rationalism. Further, Sikhism holds that language is limited. The Guru Granth Sahib uses several tools of communication including poetry, music and pragmatic symbolism. Again, a 20th-century western philosopher – Foucault – has also articulated the limits of language.

And therefore ‘Behzti’ had to be stopped? Not sure I get the connection.

The sacred may not make sense in the constructed paradigms of rationalism, but it sustains people through traumatic times, as well as giving strength to the successful. Offending the sacred wounds those whose hopes and culture are orientated around the subjective inscrutability of sacred icons. Fifty years after the end of colonialism, most British people are comfortable living with people of different colours. But many are still uncomfortable with different cultures. The legacy of colonialism lingers, now disguised as a defence of “free speech”. Ironically, it finds its most xenophobic expression among liberals.

What if the defence of free speech is actually not disguised colonialism but in fact a defence of free speech? How can you be sure it’s the one rather than the other? Are you sure you can tell the difference? Or are you in fact using the dread phrase ‘legacy of colonialism’ as an intimidation-device.

Now if you want to see someone else, this time a ‘Westerner,’ take on the dratted old legacy of colonialism, here’s a fun item. It’s at Salon, so that means clicking through an ad, but it’s worth it. The item you get is really quite staggering. This link was also sent by a reader. The item is an advice column, the question is from a guy in love with a woman who can’t bring herself to introduce him to her family because he’s not of the right religion or ethnic background. The columnist pins his ears back. The columnist gives that man what for. The columnist is a piece of work.

Consider how you have been indoctrinated since birth in a secular, scientific, cosmopolitan faith. Cosmopolitanism teaches us to be broad and accepting, but it’s easiest to be broad and accepting of others who are also broad and accepting. When the other seems genuinely narrow and parochial, we see that narrowness and parochialism as a barrier to some other higher, truer reality — our Western reality.

Very true. It is easier to be broad and accepting of others who are also broad and accepting. I’ve noticed that myself. Similarly it’s easier to be kind to people who are also kind, and polite to people who are also polite, and considerate of people who are also considerate. In a like manner it’s easier to be a pissy rotten bastard to people who are also pissy rotten bastards.

In order to see things a little differently, try to imagine that she is not being held prisoner by a narrow-minded family and culture but rather is struggling to preserve her identity against the onslaught of your intoxicating Western-ness, your powerful banjo of I, your hypnotic gaze, your KitchenAid mixer of desire and promise, your Cadillac and your Camels, your plantations and riding mowers and frontier hats, the echo of imperial riches in your thick, sweet voice, your arrogant swagger…

Wha…? Cadillac? Plantations?? The guy didn’t mention any Cadillac or riding mowers, let alone any plantations. I like purple writing now and then, if it’s done well, but there is a limit.

For the sake of argument, consider how innocently our genocidal forefathers went about curing the world of its savagery, and consider how harshly they later were judged. Consider how with progressively fine gradations each generation codifies its righteousness. Consider even the possibility that you may be in fact a wretched criminal in the eyes of history…You don’t need to lie to yourselves or to anyone else. If you do the hard work of accepting how closely she, her family and her culture are knitted together in one collective, diffused identity, you may come to feel a little differently about what we in the West revere as “telling the truth.”

Aaarrrggghhh! The kind reader who sent the item said this: ‘I’ve been enjoying b&w on and off for a while now. I made the mistake of reading this, was completely deflated with revulsion – and thought “what would Ophelia Benson think?”‘ Well, that’s what I think – a loud guttural inarticulate scream of disgust, that’s what.

It’s not that I think there’s no such thing as a legacy of colonialism, or that I think ‘Westerners’ are never arrogant or intolerant. But – oh well. You get the idea.

Speaking Up

Jan 18th, 2005 11:46 pm | By

I plan to improve N&C by talking less. More links and quotations from the articles linked, and less of me commenting on them. That will be an improvement, right? Right.

There is this article in the Guardian about some reactions to David Bell’s speech to the Hansard Society in which he expressed some reservations about ‘faith’ schools.

The head of the government’s education watchdog prompted an angry reaction from Muslim leaders yesterday after claiming that the growth of Islamic faith schools posed a challenge to the coherence of British society. In a deliberate intervention criticised as “irresponsible” and “derogatory” by senior Muslim representatives, the chief inspector of schools David Bell claimed that a traditional Islamic education did not equip Muslim children for living in modern Britain.

The article goes on the cite three Muslims who disagree with Bell and one who agrees. Three seems like a smallish number to be called ‘Muslim leaders’ and ‘senior Muslim representatives.’ And then there is some vagueness in the very terms ‘leader’ and ‘senior representative’ in this context. Do the three people quoted lead and represent all Muslims? Does anyone? Or is that particular choice of nouns part of the habit of thinking and talking about Muslims as more of a single entity than other ‘groups’ or ‘communities’. Is it, for instance, a way of ignoring and obscuring the possible existence of Muslims who don’t like the idea of ‘faith’ schools, who share Bell’s reservations about the idea, and who aren’t entirely happy to have it thought that all Muslims want all Muslim children to go to faith schools? If so, wouldn’t that tend to reinforce the idea (surely already out there) that Muslims as a group are more eager to be, and to be seen as, Muslims-as-a-group? And also to be and to be seen as more keen on religious segregation than other groups are?

In other words is the article reporting on something? Or is it creating the something it aims to report on. Or both. Probably both. No doubt there is some anger about Bell’s speech, but the article could be doing its bit to create the impression that the anger is more universal than it is, merely by its choice of words. With, no doubt, the best of intentions. But I can so easily imagine being a Muslim who wanted to be a Muslim but also wanted to be various other things – call them what you like – modern, secular, urban, pluralist, universalist. Part of the world of comprehensive schools and public libraries and community centres and Citizens’ Advice Bureaus and the NHS; one to whom restriction to a smaller world of co-religionists would feel suffocating and limiting. I can so easily imagine feeling intensely exasperated if journalists always referred to the segregationist wing of my co-religionists as my leaders and representatives. ‘They’re not my damn leaders!’ I would want to shout. ‘I didn’t elect them, I didn’t nominate them, why are you calling them leaders and representatives? They’re just some people! They don’t speak for all of us!’

Well. That wasn’t a very good job of talking less, was it. I guess I’m not going to be very good at that.

One more. Letters to the Guardian about Ken Livingstone and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. From Ramzi Isalam of OutRage!

I fled to Britain to escape murder by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria. Now I find the mayor of my adopted city embracing a cleric who provides theological justification for the homophobia of the people who wanted to kill me. Why is the mayor prepared to have a dialogue with fundamentalists like Dr Qaradawi and the Muslim Association of Britain, but not with liberal and progressive Muslims and not with the victims of Islamist repression and dictatorship?

Why indeed. And from Nadia Mahmood of Middle East Centre for Women’s Rights and Faz Velmi.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi may well condemn the September 11 attacks and the killing of hostages in Iraq. What he most certainly does not condemn is the fundamental political and social vision behind these atrocities – the project of establishing a theocratic state in which individual liberty and every trace of democracy are eliminated. Would the mayor embrace a Christian cleric who argued, as Dr Qaradawi does, that gay sex should be punishable by death, that wife-beating is sometimes justified and that the world is dominated by a Jewish conspiracy?

Would he indeed.

Your Own

Jan 17th, 2005 10:29 pm | By

I had a thought earlier today [medium close-up of Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey after Hacker has told him he’s just had an idea – expression of delighted surprise: ‘Prime Minister!’]. Yes very funny; anyway, I had this thought.

A bit from Daughters of France, Daughters of Allah:

Amiri was the first Muslim woman I contacted in Paris, and she cried as we spoke on the telephone. That day she had received an e-mail saying, “Do you realize what you are doing to your own people?” It was, she told me, one of many threatening messages she had received, and they were not to be taken lightly.

The thought was just about the meaning of that phrase – ‘your own people.’ Specifically of ‘your own.’ I mentioned that the other day – the way ‘own’ can be used as a bit of rhetorical manipulation or coercion. It’s one of a long list of words that get used that way. ‘Community’ is one of the most popular right now, and ‘own’ is another way of saying ‘community.’ At least the way it’s used there it is. Your own people=your community – and don’t you forget it. Right? That’s the point, right? Choose this community, be loyal to this particular set of people, and not any of the other possibilities.

But there’s more than one community, and more than one ‘own.’ There are usually lots – especially for people who’ve had some education – which is one of many compelling reasons why everyone should have as much education as possible, throughout life: to keep increasing the number of possible communities. (Of course, that’s scary. I realize that. The more communities there are, the less mandatory any one community will be. The more there are, the freer we are to go from one to another, to belong to several, or many, to choose our allegiances with due deliberation, to leave if we want to. And that’s scary for communities and own people who don’t want to lose members, who don’t want to be left looking forlorn and unwanted because everyone has run off to the disco. That’s always been the threat of education. But there it is. That doesn’t mean good progressives should agree to limit access to education in order to keep people in the communities they were born into.) One’s own people may be other people interested in politics or science or movies or popular music or mountaineering, rather than or in addition to being people of the same religion or ‘ethnic’ background as oneself. But the assumption in that email is that there is only one meaning of ‘your own people.’

One way to force people to choose one ‘own people’ instead of others is via hostility. Start the Week had an interesting discussion of that last week, in talking about the movie ‘Yasmin.’ Someone pointed out that al Qaeda got what it wanted: it shoved a lot of Muslims back into the mosque because of the hostility towards them that September 11 triggered. Yeah. Victimization can work that way. People who could escape, or widen their horizons without escaping, may choose not to because they want to be loyal to people who are not being fairly treated. A good thing to do; an admirable, touching, moving thing to do. But also a very sad one. It would be better if the choice were not forced by such considerations, especially for the people whose decision to stay amounts to a kind of self-imprisonment.

An Observation

Jan 17th, 2005 9:12 pm | By

Here’s a good passage. Not apropos of anything in particular, I just happened to read it and I liked it so thought I would pass it on. It’s from Three Seductive Ideas, by Jerome Kagan, page 44.

Some scientists are uncomfortable with this level of uncertainty because they seek facts that are unlikely to be proven wrong. They resemble hunters who, having trapped a secret of nature, want it to stay fixed on the trophy wall forever. Other scientists are chess players who derive joy from following the many complex rules for doing science – the correct assignment of subjects, the proper balancing of conditions, the most appropriate statistical analyses. Those who are butterfly chasers – a third group – are willing to work years for an aesthetic moment that follows a discovery, no matter how infrequent or transient. These investigators accept the temporary nature of all scientific generalizations and are bothered least by the message ‘maybe.’


Jan 16th, 2005 8:09 pm | By

Well this is good. Meera Nanda’s article in the New Humanist is apparently being widely read and discussed. Someone who edited it says so here:

It’s moments like these I like best about my job: getting some recognition, even from total strangers, for a piece I spent hours and hours editing: Meera Nanda’s piece on the intellectual treason of postmodernist scholars from the January 2005 issue of New Humanist is being picked up on various arts&ideas websites and personal blogs, people are reading it, some are even commenting on it. It’s good to see these ideas going beyond the narrow readership of NH – thanks to the internet.

There is another comment on the diffusion of Meera’s New Humanist article at A Voyage to Arcturus. Go, Meera!

An Open Letter and a Petition

Jan 14th, 2005 7:46 pm | By

A couple of signing opportunities.

Labour Friends of Iraq. This is an open letter to the Stop the War Coalition asking why they have not spoken out clearly and forcefully on the murder of Hadi Saleh, International Officer of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.

StWC leaders view the “resistance” as a legitimate national liberation movement. StWC leaders view as ‘collaborators’ the IFTU, all election workers, and all democratic parties participating in the January elections, whether Iraqi Communists, Kurdish Parties or Shia.

This view is quite wrong. The leaders of the ‘resistance’ are an amalgam of Baathists, Islamic fundamentalists, pro-al-Qaeda militants and criminals. There is nothing progressive about their political programmes. If they were ever to take state power then it would be a disaster for every worker, woman, lesbian and gay, Christian, Jew and democrat who would be left in Iraq. There would be years of unbridled reaction.

And the International Campaign against setting up Shari’a court in Canada. You already know what that is, so I won’t bother explaining.

Another Undeniable Fact Denied

Jan 12th, 2005 7:52 pm | By

Nick Cohen said something interesting in the Observer the other day:

To take it from the top, the scandal about Britain’s television stations and many of its other cultural institutions is not that they are run by people who are motivated by anything so high-minded as converting the public to a political philosophy, but that they are run by well-educated and very well-paid men and women from the upper-middle class who protect themselves and their privately educated children from competition by feeding the masses mush – the favoured policy of aristocracies down the ages. That they do none the less read liberal newspapers and pretend that their pursuit of profit and market share is a radical blow in the anti-elitist class struggle is merely a sign that they have fooled themselves along with everyone else.

Yeah. [waves small flag of indeterminate hue and pattern] That’s one of the things I always don’t get about this supposed anti-elitism thing. Why is it considered right-on and good and of the moral high ground to tell everyone that putative ‘high’ culture (which is a very debatable category anyway, and remarkably often consists simply of popular culture that’s older than immediately contemporary popular culture) is ‘elitist’ and therefore tainted and reprehensible? Why is it not considered far more elitist to withold putative ‘high’ culture from people who might well like it and get quite a lot out of it, might in fact have their lives changed by it? Ever seen Ken Branagh’s ‘A Mid-winter’s Tale’? That’s about having one’s life changed by ‘Hamlet,’ as Branagh in fact did. It’s about being perfectly ordinary, not an aristocrat or otherwise privileged or ‘special,’ being a lower-middle-class provincial teenager like millions of others (like Shakespeare himself in his day, like Marlowe, Jonson, Clare, Mary Anne Evans) and being shaken to the roots by a 400 year old play. Does that make Branagh an ‘elitist’? Should he have resisted the life-changing? Should he have told himself that Shakespeare was only for posh people and gone back to Reading and got a job selling paper? Should Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi? Should Keats have stuck to his pills, as John Gibson Lockhart advised him, and leave poetry to the well-born Harrow and Cambridge types like Byron? If not, why is it now considered elitist to think it’s worthwhile to offer people of any class or status a chance to read Lear and The Tale of Genji and the Iliad and Don Quixote?

Jonathan Rose has a lovely article on this at City Journal. (If you haven’t read Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, do yourself a favour and read it now. The article should inspire you in that direction.)

In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. It was, she asserted, an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.

Rose gives many examples of why that statement is flat-footed nonsense, and repulsively insular to boot.

For all his gentle liberalism, even E. M. Forster shared that class prejudice. In his 1910 novel Howards End, the pathetic clerk Leonard Bast tries to acquire a veneer of culture, but his efforts are hopeless…The reality was profoundly different. The founders of Britain’s Labour Party identified Ruskin, more than anyone else, as the author who had electrified their minds and inspired a vision of social justice. At the time, the brightest working-class boys often entered clerkdom, one of the few professions then open to them, and they often brought to their office an incandescent intellectual passion…None of this interested Forster or, for that matter, most literary scholars of the past 25 years. Some of the latter did investigate the responses of readers, but not “common” readers. The audience that mattered, wrote Cornell University deconstructionist Jonathan Culler, consisted of “oneself, one’s students, colleagues, and other critics”—all members of the academic club…As a result, academic literary criticism became ever more ingrown, disengaged from the general public, and fractured into several mutually unintelligible theoretical sects.

But no matter, because the struggle against ‘elitism’ is in great shape. People are being told to put down that book and turn the tv on, so the hell with the WEA and all its works. Right? Right.