Reading Danny Postel in Tehran

Feb 14th, 2007 12:04 pm | By

Scott McLemee’s interview with Danny Postel is a must-read.

“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here?” Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.

Let’s hope so, because that logic ain’t no logic, and the US government isn’t the only source of oppression and misery in the world. It does its bit, but it does not have a monopoly.

[A]fter reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to “speak truth to power.” An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.

It does. Then again, Scott asks in the interview portion, ‘isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?’

Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore.

Now it’s all about security, and threatening rhetoric.

That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country…What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons…Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe.

Okay then. I got worried about that, as I think I’ve mentioned here, when Ramin Jahanbegloo was released from prison and gave that interview to the students’ news agency, saying he’d been deceived by human rights groups in the west and urging other Iranian intellectuals not to be deceived. I got worried I might taint dissidents inside Iran via solidarity or publication or signing petitions – not because I’m a neocon, but just because perhaps any western contact would be a taint. I wasn’t sure what to think. But Maryam Namazie made short work of that worry when she interviewed me. She said no, definitely not, dissidents want the solidarity and support; never mind about any taint, just as the struggle against apartheid didn’t. Okay then, I thought. And it became a little clearer that Jahanbegloo’s interview was coerced, thus what he said there had to be discounted. Okay then.

Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.

Count me in.

There’s The Third Camp for one. Caroline Fourest has signed, so has Taslima Nasreen, so has Terry Sanderson. I got in early. Arash Sorx did an interview with me – it’s there (scroll down) but it doesn’t seem to open.

Read the whole interview; it’s great stuff. Solidarity with the dissidents of Iran.


Feb 14th, 2007 10:17 am | By

Alister McGrath is tiresome – in the same (agonizingly familiar) way so many theists and defenders of theism are tiresome. Tiresome via misdescription, is what they are. Strawmanism for short. They keep saying (over and over and over again) that atheists say X when atheists don’t say X, or Dawkins says Y when Dawkins never does say Y. Funny that (apparently) no editors ever strike them over the head and say ‘Stop that, he says no such thing.’ I would, if I were their editor. I’d love to strike them over the head.

Deep within humanity lies a longing to make sense of things. Why are we here? What is life all about? These questions are as old as the human race. So how are we to answer them? Can they be answered at all? Might God be part of the answer?

Sure, it ‘might,’ but so might a lot of things. Or not. That doesn’t get us very far.

Richard Dawkins, England’s grumpiest atheist, has a wonderfully brash way of dealing with this. Here’s how science would sort out this muddleheaded way of thinking: everyone else just needs to get out of the way, and let the real scientists, like himself, get to work. They would have these questions sorted out in no time…Science has all the answers…

Smack! Bad, Mr McGrath; do it over. He says no such thing. ‘Brash’ yourself. Accuracy counts.

This is what he says.

McGrath imagines that I would disagree with my hero Sir Peter Medawar on The Limits of Science. On the contrary. I never tire of emphasising how much we don’t know. The God Delusion ends in just such a theme. Where do the laws of physics come from? How did the universe begin? Scientists are working on these deep problems, honestly and patiently. Eventually they may be solved. Or they may be insoluble. We don’t know.

Maybe McGrath confuses saying ‘scientists are working on these deep problems’ with saying ‘science has all the answers.’ But if so, that doesn’t say very much for his care in reading and analysis.

See this gun? So shut up

Feb 13th, 2007 10:17 am | By

Poor Turkey, poor Orhan Pamuk.

Pamuk did not hesitate to publicly criticize the Turkish government, judiciary and society, which he held partly responsible for Dink’s death. “The murder of my courageous, golden-hearted friend has soured my life,” Pamuk confessed, “I am furious at everyone and everything, and I feel boundless shame.” As if to reinforce his words, Turkey was in an uproar last Friday over images of several police officers who were photographed in a chummy pose with the young murder suspect. The officers were suspended from duty, but not before the newspaper Sabah condemned the incident, writing that a nationalist murderer was being treated like a hero.

So Pamuk is in (very rational) fear for his life, and has left Turkey.

“Tell Orhan Pamuk to wise up!” one of the principal suspects in the Dink murder, right-wing extremist Yasin Hayal, a man with a criminal record, said publicly. The threat must have made a strong impression on the author. Last week the self-proclaimed “Turkish Revenge Brigade” (TIT) posted a video on YouTube depicting Dink’s corpse next to photos of Pamuk….The video ended with a shot of a Turkish flag and the head of a wolf – the symbol of Turkish ultra-nationalists, and the threat: “More will die.”

How I hate and despise people like that, and how little good it does me.

Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous writer and a man who ought to be the pride of this country as it seeks European Union membership, has been pursued by hate-mongering nationalists for some time, and he is not the only one. About a dozen Turkish writers, journalists and academics are currently the targets of hate-spewing, fanatical right-wing extremists. Pamuk’s hasty departure shines a spotlight on the clash of cultures and the climate of agitation, intimidation and fear dissidents in Turkey currently face, especially those who dare to tackle national taboos – of which there are many, including the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire…According to statistics compiled by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, close to 100 intellectuals have already been hauled before courts for voicing their critical opinions. Most have been charged with the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” or disparaging national institutions. Reactionary prosecutors use a notorious Turkish law known as Article 301 to persecute critical thinkers.

In a way it sounds not as distant and foreign and alien as I would like…

The hostile mood in Turkey reflects the country’s difficult relationship with its intellectuals and its deep distrust of its pro-Western authors who criticize the system from within. “We are always seen as potential runaways, if not potential traitors,” says writer Shafak. “Criticizing the country is considered practically the equivalent of hating it.” In a recent television interview, she was asked: “Did you ever say that you were not feeling at home in Turkey?”

Actually, to an American, it sounds unpleasantly familiar. The rage is not as murderous or as prosecutorial here, but the basic concept is, I’m afraid, the same. It’s the same and it’s deadly for independent critical thought.

Update. I said that last bit very clumsily, as you’ll see from comments. I’ll leave it so that the comments won’t look like gibberish, and for that matter because it serves me right for putting it clumsily. I didn’t mean that the US situation is comparable – I didn’t even mean to change the subject to the US; it’s the Turkish situation that horrifies me. I found the murder of Hrant Dink really upsetting, and still do; Pamuk’s comment on it – that the murder of his golden-hearted friend has soured his life – makes me want to throw ashes on my head. I just meant that it’s the same way of thinking, that’s all. It is; but the way of acting is a whole different ball game.

Pub Philosopher on Clare College

Feb 12th, 2007 11:04 am | By

Pub Philosopher is all over the Clare College thing, with useful links. For instance to a notice from the Senior Tutor:

Because of the publicity that has arisen, I strongly encourage you to return any copies of last week’s Clareification so that I can destroy them. Please post them as soon as possible through the slot in the outer door of my room, E5.

And…what will you do if I don’t? What will happen to me? What, exactly, does ‘strongly encourage’ mean? Is that meant to sound as threatening as it does sound? Or is it just mean to sound like concerned caring urgent advice?

PP provides also more loony tunes from the Cambridge Evening News and from the Local Cadre of the People’s Outraged Offended Insulted Party.

He emphasised Islam was not a violent religion, but like Mr Mumtaz, said he believed muslims in Cambridge would be outraged by the publication. Mr Arain also praised the quick action of Clare College in condemning the publication, and added he believed justice would be done through the college’s disciplinary system. He said: “What this person has printed is highly offensive and it has caused abhorrence and distress to many people. This person must realise what he has done and take responsibility for it and come out and make recompense for it.”

Understood. Because if person X does A, and many people opt to feel ‘abhorrence’ and distress and offendedness, then X must make recompense to those people. No need to inquire into whether the people have any genuine or valid or sensible reason(s) for feeling all that abhorrence. Well let’s all do that! Let’s give up the usual business of life and just buckle down to feeling abhorrence and demanding recompense, in the time we can spare from making our own recompense for all the abhorrent things we ourselves have said and done. Goodness, won’t life be fun in those days!

Alan Bennett on Identity

Feb 11th, 2007 2:09 pm | By

I read a lovely comment on group identity by Alan Bennett the other day.

6 April, Yorkshire. The new organic shop in the village continues to do well, the walk down the lane to the Nissen hut always a pleasure even in the bitterest weather…Today there are one or two customers in the shop. Everyone speaks, a little too readily for me sometimes, this friendliness engendered by the nature of the enterprise. It’s a kind of camaraderie biologique. In the same way, halted on my bike at traffic lights I will occasionally chat to another cyclist, cycling a similar undertaking with a creed and an agenda and its own esprit de corps de vélos.

I read an interesting one yesterday. (I’d read it before at some point, and it’s possible that I’ve even typed it into here before, so if I’m repeating myself and you’re aware of it, then your memory is a lot better than mine, and I apologize for self-repetition.)

10 August. Appalling scenes on the Portsmouth housing estate which is conducting a witch hunt against suspected paedophiles and the nation is treated to the spectacle of a tatooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.

The joy of being a mob, particularly these days, is that it’s probably the first time the people on this estate have found common cause on anything; it’s the ‘community’ they’ve been told so much about and for the first time in their lives each day seems purposeful and exciting.

Just so.

Some of the most senior staff are utterly distraught and disgusted

Feb 11th, 2007 1:55 pm | By

It’s the end of the world! It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened! It’s a catastrophe! It’s an outrage! It’s vile, evil, abhorrent, shocking, disgusting, terrifying, oh, hell, am I hysterical enough yet? Aaaaaaaaah!

Wassup? you ask. A student at Clare College, Cambridge ‘is at the centre of a race-hate probe after printing anti-Islamic material in a magazine’. That’s what. No words can begin to express the – the – the –

The 19-year-old second year student at Clare College was in hiding today (Friday, 09 February) after printing the racist cartoon and other vile material. The article is said to be so inflammatory the undergraduate has been taken to a secret location for his own safety…[S]enior college officials were locked in urgent talks about how the material came to be published and what action to take against the student at the centre of the scandal. A university spokesman said police had been made aware of the incident.

What action to take – quiet execution perhaps?

The student magazine, Clareification, printed a cropped copy of the cartoon of the prophet Mohammed next to a photo of the president of the Union of Clare Students. The cartoon was captioned with the president’s name and vice versa. There was also comment suggesting one was a “violent paedophile” and the other was “a prophet of God, great leader and an example to us all.” The cartoon was the same one which caused riots across the world when it was printed in a Danish newspaper.

No, the cartoon did not ’cause’ riots, some people chose to engage in riots in reaction to the cartoon. There’s a difference.

Enraged students have bombarded the Union of Clare Students with complaints…Clare College fellows have called a Court of Discipline which will sit in judgment on the youth responsible for sparking what is being regarded as one the most embarrassing incidents for the university in years…In a statement issued by Clare College, senior tutor Patricia Fara said: “Clare is an open and inclusive college. A student produced satirical publication has caused widespread distress throughout the Clare community. The college finds the publication and the views expressed abhorrent. Reflecting the gravity of the situation, the college immediately began an investigation and disciplinary procedures are in train.”

Quiet execution after torture, perhaps?

There’s a whole lot more of the same kind of thing. I find it absolutely staggering. You would think the guy had opened a local branch of Auschwitz. You would also think he’d broken a law. Publishing cartoons, even cartoons about the prophet, is not against the law. Do the officials of Clare College realize that? Do they even know the difference between ‘race-hate’ and religion-teasing? Do they know anything?

You’re upset? Say no more!

Feb 11th, 2007 11:02 am | By

This is worrying.

The challenges I face in the Religious Studies classroom today are unlike any I have encountered in more than three decades of teaching…it seems that the more religious people become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about their faith. For many years, I have begun my classes by telling my students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they are at the beginning, I will have failed. But now, as rarely in previous years, a growing number of religiously committed students consider such a challenge a direct assault on their faith…Religious correctness has become the latest version of political correctness. For those who are religiously correct, critical reflection breeds doubt and must, therefore, be resisted.

That is where the problem is, you know. That is what it boils down to – the refusal to reflect critically, and the making a virtue of that refusal. That’s the root of all evil – not religion, but dogmatic protected thought-refusing ‘faith’ of any kind, and yes I do include secular faiths in there.

(Okay, okay, not literally all evil. Don’t be so literal.)

A colleague recently told me that one of his best students reported that she did not like the course she is now taking from me, After God, because “it did not make her feel good.” I responded, “That is, of course, precisely the point.” The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when a university administrator at another institution where I was teaching called me into his office and asked me to defend myself against the charge of an anonymous student who claimed that I had attacked his faith because I urged him to consider the possibility that Nietzsche’s analysis of religion called the belief in absolutes into question. I was not given the opportunity to present my side of the story. The administrator assumed I was guilty as charged and insisted that I apologize to the student.

That reminds me of this item from last week.

Andrew McLuskey was sacked from Bayliss Court Secondary School in Slough after a Religious Education lesson discussing the pros and cons of religion. Pupils at the predominantly Muslim school claimed Mr McLuskey said most suicide bombers were Muslim. But he rejected the allegation and said the school was too quick to sack him without giving him right of reply…The school authorities denied they were being heavy-handed and said their first priority was pupils’ welfare. “I don’t think it’s important what I think,” said the school’s deputy head teacher Ray Hinds. “It’s what the pupils think that were in the classroom at the time. And they were very upset.”

Uh oh. Wrong. Ding ding. Go back, start over. Being upset is not the same thing as being upset for good reasons. I can vouch for that from my own personal experience. Don’t get dizzy and fall out of your chair, but I have been known to get upset or cross or bad-tempered for insufficient or bad or downright batty reasons. I have known other people to have the same problem. I’m going to go right out on a limb here and surmise that it’s not uncommon. Upsetness is not invariably a good or safe guide to what actually happened, or the malice of the other party, or to the intentions of anyone involved. Emotional blackmail is great fun, but it’s not what you’d call epistemically sound.

Buruma again

Feb 10th, 2007 9:36 am | By

More on Buruma. Because after another, slower reading I think the disagreement is not so elusive or subtle after all. There are some things he says that I disagree with quite strongly – though there are other places where it’s the implications of what he says (whether he’s aware of them or not) that I disagree with.

For instance, I wasn’t decided enough about that concluding sentence: ‘A free-spirited citizen does not tolerate different customs or cultures because he thinks they are wonderful, but because he believes in freedom.’ That’s a terrible assertion, because it is so wide open; it could mean anything. ‘Different customs or cultures’ could mean any damn thing, including the most awful tortures and oppressions. Well meaning liberals like Buruma have got to stop saying things like that! Because things like that just provide cover for people who want to go on exploiting or denying rights to or bullying people they always have exploited or bullied – it is their custom. It provides cover to archbishops who want to exclude gays from adoption on no rational grounds, it provides cover to people who want women to self-obliterate.

So let’s get this straight. I don’t in any blanket sense ‘tolerate’ any and all ‘different customs or cultures.’ It depends on which different customs or cultures we’re talking about.

Buruma does proceed to say that in the next paragraph, to be sure, but in doing so he simply contradicts the too wide-open claim he has just made. Why did he make it that way then? I’m seriously curious about that, because it seems so obviously too sweeping. Why would he want to say something obviously too sweeping? To show his heart’s in the right place?

At any rate, after he’s noted that ‘honour killings are murders,’ he goes on to say ‘But these are matters of law enforcement.’

No. I disagree. I disagree utterly. Maybe this is one place where we have a real, substantive disagreement as opposed to one over wording or rhetoric. I completely disagree that honour killings and violence against women and FGM are matters of law enforcement and nothing else (Buruma doesn’t say ‘and nothing else’ but that ‘But’ carries that implication). They are very much also matters of thought, consciousness, awareness; of consciousness raising. It’s much much better (I’d have thought this was obvious) to educate or persuade everyone (yes, everyone) into habits of mind such that they simply don’t think women are supposed to be beaten or genitally mutilated or forcibly married or murdered. The reasons are too many and obvious to enumerate. People who really think they ought not to do those things are less likely to do them than people who merely think they are illegal. And then life in general for women and even for men is a lot happier and more trusting when neither party expects the other to attack it. In short, there is nothing good to say about honour killings or violence against women, so why would it not be part of the agenda to persuade everyone to think so? Saying ‘But these are matters of law enforcement’ seems to deny that.

But if Islamic reform is the goal, then such denunciations are not the best way to achieve it, especially if they come from an avowed atheist. Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate. Not every Muslim, not even every orthodox Muslim, is a holy warrior in spe. Isolating the jihadis and fighting their dangerous dogmas is too important to be dealt with by crude polemics.

This may be another substantive disagreement. Buruma there seems to be arguing that it’s only the holy warriors and the jihadis who are the problem. But it’s not. The problem is that Islam does have particular rules or laws relating to women, gays, ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’ among others. Not just some Islam, but Islam itself. It’s not ‘indiscriminate’ to say that – again, check out the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.

Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists, but to Bruckner these concessions are akin to segregation in the southern states of America, and even Apartheid in South Africa.

Well, that’s quite a failure. Bruckner is right. These concessions are akin to southern segregation because – yo, Mr Buruma! – segregation is what they’re about. An Islamic hospital is ‘Islamic’ primarily via sexual segregation of doctors, nurses and patients. Reserved beaches for Muslim women are – hello? – segregated beaches. They are, indeed, a form of apartheid, of apartness.

So there it is; I think Buruma is mistaken about some things, and I think he argues his case by avoiding specificity at crucial points; I really dislike that tendency. By all means disagree with me (as plenty of people do in comments), but I think I do spell out what I’m saying. I intend to anyway. Let me know if I’ve obscured anything.

Spell it out

Feb 9th, 2007 12:52 pm | By

John Carter Wood has a different take on Kelek, Buruma and the rest. He thinks Bruckner did a hatchet job on IB and TGA. Maybe so, but I have more reservations about their replies to Bruckner than John does. They’re somewhat elusive reservations though…a matter of sensing, or thinking I sense, implications, of fitting statements into an existing context where they seem to me to take on a significance they wouldn’t have without the context. See what I mean? Elusive stuff. I wonder if I can pin any of it down…

Try Buruma.

Having turned from devout Islamism to atheism, she tends to see religion, and Islam in particular, as the root of all evils, especially of the abuse of women. Cultural traditions, tribal customs, historical antecedents, all of which are highly diverse, even inside the Muslim world, are flattened into a monolithic threat. Islam, as practised in Java, is not the same as in a Moroccan village, or the Sudan, or Rotterdam.

That’s a good example of what I mean. That first sentence is a familiar kind of thing. Atheists get told that kind of thing a lot at the moment, and there’s usually an agenda behind the telling. And I’m not sure I believe his account. Does AHA see religion and Islam as the root of all evils? I don’t know, I haven’t read enough of her work to know, but I wonder if that isn’t just the same kind of canard that gets tossed at Dawkins a lot. So I’m suspicious, doubly suspicious (of the agenda and the accuracy), but I can’t be sure it’s flat wrong. The third sentence is also a familiar kind of thing, and it’s one that’s very popular with defenders of Islam and not terribly popular with critics of Islam, for the reasons that Kelek indicates: in some important ways Islam is ‘the same’ everywhere; that’s why there is such a thing as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. There are reasons to think that fact should not be obscured by endless reiteration of the assumption that Islam differs from place to place. To put it another way, it may be true that the practice differs, but if the theory is 1) the same and 2) bad, it is still worth pointing that out. It’s much the same with the pope. Lots of Catholics ignore the pope; very good; that’s not a reason to think the pope is entirely harmless.

In Europe, even the issue of headscarves cannot be treated simply as a symbol of religious bigotry. Some women wear them to ward off male aggression, others because their parents insist on it, and some by their own choice, as a defiant badge of identity, even rebellion. Bruckner admires rebels. Should we only side with rebels whose views and practices we like? Or does living in a free society also imply that people should be able to choose the way they look, or speak, or worship, even if we don’t like it, as long as they don’t harm others? A free-spirited citizen does not tolerate different customs or cultures because he thinks they are wonderful, but because he believes in freedom.

Again – that paragraph seems more reasonable than it is. It’s sly. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s sly because it doesn’t say what ‘the issue of headscarves’ even is. It doesn’t say that the French ban is on headscarves in schools and government jobs, not everywhere, nor that even in a free society people can’t ‘choose the way they look’ in every possible situation and location. The paragraph is incomplete and manipulative and sly in a way that is all too familiar, and I don’t trust it. I don’t trust the intentions. And then in the last few sentences of it it’s all full of questions that desperately need qualification. ‘Should we only side with rebels whose views and practices we like?’ Well, yes, frankly. Depending of course on what is meant by ‘side with’ and ‘rebels’ and ‘like’ – but that’s just it. That’s another familiar ploy – rhetoric about freedom or tolerance or rebels or respect without specification of what is meant. But am I going to ‘side with’ ‘rebels’ who want to beat up women for refusing to move to the back of the bus or put on a niqab? I’m damn well not. Am I going to side with ‘rebels’ who would merely like to persuade women to do those things? No I’m fucking not. I choose my rebels, thanks, I don’t side with all rebels merely as rebels, I side with people I want to side with and I oppose people I don’t want to side with. Why wouldn’t I? Unless by ‘side with’ Buruma simply means something very minimal, but if that’s what he means he should say so. This is why I don’t like his article and why I think he’s being sly. And it’s all like that – full of innuendo and lacking needed specifications. John says it’s ‘carefully argued, well-written and – despite an understandable testiness – thoroughly reasonable.’ But I really don’t think it is. I think it looks that way on the surface, but that it’s terribly underspecified and elusive underneath. I think Buruma is trying to make his case while avoiding spelling out what he means by it – and I really do not trust that kind of thing. Bruckner may have been wrong, but I’m not convinced IB and TGA are right. I’m suspicious.

But then I sometimes overdo the suspicion, so who knows.

Used to be axiomatic among progressives

Feb 8th, 2007 1:53 pm | By

Oliver Kamm coments on that interview David Thompson did with your humble windbag the other day. I know, that was a week ago, but I get behind in these things – deadlines, you know. He wonders about that thing I wondered about and probably Johann wondered about and possibly Jerry wondered about and maybe some other people – people who liked Why Truth Matters for instance – wondered about. What’s a liberal neocon? Who is one?

He says something very good, too, in reply to an inanity from good old ‘Islamophobiawatch:

The only editorial amendment I would make to your headline would be to enclose the word “Islamophobia” in inverted commas, as I have just done. The notion that this fabricated, question-begging and illegitimate term bears any comparison to the great progressive causes of civil rights and opposition to racism is a linguistic feint that should not be allowed to pass by default. Criticism of religious doctrine and practice is an essential part of a free society and a vigorous intellectual culture. That is true for religion in general, and for religions in particular…The principles of the separation of religious and civil authority, and that government should protect the free exercise of religion but not the sensibilities of the faithful, used to be axiomatic among progressives. For some of us (I use the term “progressive” without irony in my case, but with plenty concerning the authors of Islamophobia Watch), they remain so.


Farther into the swamp of cultural relativism

Feb 8th, 2007 1:35 pm | By

Those German-Turkish women rock. Necla Kelek tells Ian Buruma what’s what.

Reading his response to Pascal Bruckner’s essay “Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?” one is tempted to say to Ian Buruma, “If only you had kept quiet!” He clearly felt himself caught out, and despite his insistence to the contrary, his reply only leads him further into the swamp of cultural relativism…Ash and Buruma are quite typical in their argumentation, and virtually exemplary in their politically dubious cultural relativism…[Buruma] maintains that one cannot make generalised statements about Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does. That is a rather astonishing statement from a man who is…a professor of democracy and human rights.

Astonishing but, as Kelek says, all too typical. Think Bunting, think Bunting on sharia. It’s one solution to the recurring problem: how to fend off (or better yet, shame out of existence) criticism of Islam and thus be kind to Muslims, at least to those Muslims who get all torn up inside when Islam is criticized. Say it’s various, or sharia is about spiritual improvement, or both. But…

Let us look at the question of human rights and women’s rights, for example. In those areas, Muslims are very united indeed. On August 5, 1990, 45 foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the highest international secular body in the Muslim world, signed “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.” In that document, Muslims from around the world expressed their common attitudes towards human rights.

Human rights in Islam are a little different from human rights not in Islam. Okay more than a little different. Kelek points out several of the ways.

Buruma’s third stereotype goes: Critics of Islam are denunciators. He writes that Hirsi Ali’s “denunciations” are not very “helpful”…In Mr Buruma’s view, she should not have done so because as an “avowed atheist” – next stereotype – she could not contribute to the reform of Islam. Another astonishing position for an academic specialising in human rights and democracy. Cultural relativists prefer not to hear about arranged marriages, honour killings (25 deaths in Istanbul last year alone) and other violations of human rights….If Mr Buruma wants to take a serious look at the disregard of “variations” in the Muslim world, he’s set himself a large task. To cite just one out of many possible examples: What to do with all the women living in the over 60 countries where Sharia law oibtains, who are not allowed to marry without a Wali, that is, without the permission of a parent or guardian?

Yes but the thing is, it’s not helpful for avowed atheists to denounce such things, because – um – well for the same reason it wasn’t helpful for black people to denounce Jim Crow laws, or for women to denounce legal and cultural constraints on women. See?

Cohere, dammit!

Feb 8th, 2007 8:54 am | By

It’s good that they’ve figured it out at last, but they do make me laugh while they’re doing it, sometimes.

The government must rely less on Muslim leadership organisations, Ruth Kelly said yesterday…The communities secretary said: “There are many people in Muslim communities who are already taking a brave stand…this new, more local approach will help reach directly into communities…”

In other words, the communities secretary used the word ‘communities’ several hundred times in the course of a short announcement. Oh well – I suppose it’s only to be expected.

“In the past, government has relied too much on engagement with traditional leadership organisations.” But there is concern in the Muslim community that the government is marginalising groups which represent large parts of the community, such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

The Guardian has the tic as badly as Kelly does, and the Guardian is not even the communities secretary. There is concern in the community that groups that represent large parts of the community are being – wait, where am I, I’m getting all tangled up here; community, groups, parts, community – oh never mind, let’s go be concerned about something else for a change.

Hazel Harding, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Safer Communities Board, said the funding would help, but warned that community cohesion involved effort from all groups.

Also parts of groups. And factions of parts of groups. And sects of factions of parts of groups. But once we get all that straightened out and lined up in rows – what about the cohesion thing? Isn’t community cohesion in some instances the problem as opposed to the solution? It depends on which group (or faction or community) is doing the cohering and to what end, doesn’t it. I can think of some cohering I wish had never taken place. There was that festive little outing to King’s Cross for instance.

The libidinal pleasure of gazing at torture

Feb 7th, 2007 2:34 pm | By

Johann Hari has some thoughts on the Chapman brothers.

In 2003, the Chapmans bought some of Goya’s original prints – and vandalised them. Where Goya drew with documentary clarity the agonised victims of war, the Chapmans painted the jeering faces of clowns and puppies over them. “Goya’s the artist who represents the kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the ancien regime,” Jake Chapman explained, “so it’s kind of nice to kick its underbelly.” Goya famously said “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. The Chapmans say the opposite: it is when reason is wide awake that it produces monsters…The Chapmans trashing Goya is a pure expression of postmodernist philosophy. They vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason – and what do they offer in its place?

Oh, you know, the usual stuff, Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, torture, ‘transgression.’

Jake Chapman echoes his hero. He talks about the “libidinal pleasure” that comes from seeing a real picture of a real person being tortured, because of the “transgression of the ethics that that image is supposed to trigger or incite”. A few years ago he was asked in the Papers of Surrealism: “Does Battaille’s formulation of the conception of transgression relate to the way that work like your own is sometimes suggested as being part of a necessary force?” He replied: “Yes – a good social service like the children who killed Jamie Bulger.”

Wo – dude, that’s hip. Or something.

Why are atheists atheists?

Feb 7th, 2007 2:32 pm | By

So Julian turns up on Comment is free.

If there’s one thing philosophers are not in short supply of it’s confidence and self-esteem…The unexamined life, we are fond of repeating, is not worth living. It sounds very noble, until you realise that the subtext is that not only are the Big Brother-watching masses unfit for existence, but even those engaged in less fundamental academic pursuits are lower forms of life.

But is that the subtext? It depends how you decide what a subtext is, I guess (the subness of a subtext gives a certain leeway for accusing people of saying things they haven’t actually literally said, which can be interesting but unfair or fair but uninteresting or various other things), but I have doubts. Saying a life is not worth living is not the same thing as saying that people who have lives of that kind are unfit for existence – it could be, for instance (and is, surely), rather advice to people in general to try to have such a life, one that is within reach of anyone not incapacitated by illness or desperate poverty or the like. I don’t think it has to be read as necessarily an elitist bit of self-congratulation, any more than an enthusiastic recommendation of ‘Hamlet’ does.

Of course, Julian knows a lot more philosophers than I do, and maybe he’s speaking from experience; maybe they do swan around preening themselves on their examined lives and pitying everyone else. But I’m not sure that bromide about the unexamined life has to be read that way.

Formal schooling in philosophy tends to teach you to listen for just one thing: logical consistency. That is as wrong-headed as learning to listen only to the melody of a piece of music and to ignore harmony, rhythm, timbre, phrasing and the rest. I’ve increasingly noticed this in debates about religion. Many atheist philosophers seem to think the value and nature of religion is determined purely by the truth or falsity of its creeds, understood literally. Religion’s other dimensions – practice, attitude, form of life and so on – are ignored as irrelevant at best, and secondary at worst. As an atheist myself, I find this spiritual tone-deafness detrimental to the cause.

Hmmm. Well, again, Julian would know about atheist philosophers, but all the same – I’m not convinced that that amounts to spiritual deafness. In fact – this just occurred to me – if the truth and falsity of the creeds aren’t primary for Julian himself, then why is he an atheist? If he thinks practice, attitude, form of life ought to be primary along with the truth and falsity of the creeds, then couldn’t he just be a non-believing religious person?

That’s why atheists are atheists, isn’t it? It’s certainly why I am. Even when we do value the practice, attitude, form of life, singing, and the rest, we can’t and don’t want to sign up to the whole thing simply because we don’t believe it. The truth or falsity question is primary and everything else is secondary because it is (for those to whom it is). I can see that there’s more to talk about, but I’m not sure I can see why truth or falsity should be anything other than primary.

And apart from that, the idea that truth or falsity should modestly step back a little makes me uneasy. Doesn’t that just open the door to all those instrumentalist arguments for why religion is so wonderful? It’s good for your health, it makes you happier, it’s consoling (unless you think things through), it provides community, it motivates many people to be good, so never mind that it’s all an invention. But it’s very hard not to mind that, and it’s also not intellectually honest. Does that amount to spiritual deafness? I don’t think it does.

Loitering at the intersection

Feb 6th, 2007 11:34 am | By

Speaking of groups and maintaining them and rights and related issues – my colleague is working on a book about identity, one which looks set to be very good and very interesting. We were talking about it on the phone yesterday, I was talking about Amartya Sen and his view that identity can and should be multiple and fluid and voluntary, and JS said (something like) yes but we don’t want all identities to be fluid and optional, we for instance want to stick to the Enlightenment (that’s very approximate; I wasn’t taking notes and besides he talks very fast and I get only about one word in ten). I said yes but is the Enlightenment a matter of identity? Is it not rather one of values or principles? I don’t remember where we went from there, but wherever it was he had a point, but so did I, and the intersection of the two is one I frequently find myself loitering at. It’s the obvious and familiar paradox: I believe in critical thinking; very well, so do I believe in critical thinking about critical thinking? Well, yes, of course, but I can’t help noticing that the result is always the same: I go on believing in critical thinking. To do anything else would seem to be a contortion beyond human ability. If I think critically about critical thinking and so decide it’s a bad thing and that I will be dogmatic and uncritical instead, then I no longer believe in critical thinking, so I’ve been consistent, in a sense, but I’ve also turned myself inside out. I suppose I can just answer by saying that no matter how critically I think about critical thinking, I still go on thinking critical thinking is necessary, but I do so for sound reasons. A dogmatist could just reply that I merely think I do so for sound reasons.

Maybe I can just resort to a brute fact. It’s a brute fact that we have to think in order to function well. That’s how we got here. We can decide to give it up, but it’s not the best way for entities like us to function, just as it’s not clever to poke our own eyes out or chop our own legs off. (Some people do chop their own legs off. I got a phone call from one such person a few months ago. He’d read an article I wrote for TPM on the subject, and phoned me to tell me about his recent leg-chopping-off. Oh god…)

This paragraph from Jerry’s book in progress is relevant to all that.

It is not only in tightly-knit groups such as Buford’s hooligans that this merging of personal and group identity occurs. Indeed, at least in part, we all define ourselves in terms of our membership of particular social groups. Thus, for example, the author of this book self-identifies as British, heterosexual and male. However, the part that such identities play in what might be called our narratives of self, and the emotional investment that we have in each of them, varies from individual to individual and from group to group.

And also from time to time, and situation to situation. For instance, I was probably much more aware (albeit in a background way, because slightly different thoughts were in the foreground) of my identity as a female while I was writing that back of the bus comment below. I’m more aware of my identity as an American when reading or hearing unaffectionate comments about Americans in for instance global media. I’m possibly slightly more aware of my identity as heterosexual when writing comments about anxious archbishops, although actually I doubt that, because (as queer theorists rightly point out) straight identity is generally so dominant and taken for granted that one doesn’t really think about it even when faced with a contrast; it’s the same (as whiteness studies theorists point out) with whiteness. Default identities recede way into the background in ways that less dominant ones don’t. Nationalism must have been a much punier thing before cheap rapid travel, because whatever you were was the default thing to be.

More later.

Life is not a museum

Feb 6th, 2007 10:47 am | By

Some tensions here.

Miriam Shear’s day quickly turned ugly when she was ordered by a religious man to move to the back of the bus, a common practice on many routes serving the religious population…[She] refused politely when he demanded her seat, pointing to several others nearby. He yelled and spat on her. Incensed, she spat back. In the 20-minute scuffle that followed, which was joined by four other men, she was slapped, pushed out of her seat and onto the floor, beaten and kicked…Shear’s case, which has gained notoriety here as a kind of religious Rosa Parks incident, is cited in a petition to the Supreme Court to review the segregated bus policy, in what is seen as a test case in balancing the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion against the basic human rights of all.

I am already very leery of that phrase, ‘the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion,’ and its cognates, and I get more so all the time, since they keep expanding and explanding and encroaching more and more on all other rights. To be blunt, I don’t think a minority (or anyone) should have ‘rights of freedom of religion’ except to the extent that such rights don’t encroach on other people’s rights. That’s a lot easier to say than to spell out, because what does and does not encroach on other people’s rights is, to put it laughably mildly, contested. But that’s my basic stance, all the same.

‘…when people are being sprayed with bleach on the street because their clothes are not considered modest enough, when women are being beaten on buses, when these things are going on and the rabbinical leaders say nothing, there is an appearance that it is condoned,” Ms. Shear said in a telephone interview from her home in Canada, emphasizing that she respects Haredi values but regards the violence as a tragedy that cannot be ignored.

Well, she has something of a problem then, whether she realizes it or not. It’s very very difficult to do both; perhaps impossible. It’s hard to ‘respect’ values and resist their real-world instantiation at the same time. If you decide to sign up to (or never decide to sign off from) a set of very conservative religious beliefs and rules, it becomes very difficult to justify resisting any of them. That’s because that’s how very conservative religious beliefs and rules work: they are given, they are a product of authority, they are dogma; change, flexibility, critical thinking, adaptation are not the goal and not valued. This means that people who ‘respect’ the overall picture are at a radical disadvantage if they want to select a few of the rules and beliefs to refuse.

[S]ecular passengers have reported being harassed or kicked off for what other passengers deem inappropriate dress, and even modestly dressed women have been verbally abused for refusing to board through a rear entrance and sit at the back…[T]he bus question is part of a growing trend of what observers say is an increasing drive for religious purity in some parts of Haredi society in the face of growing Western and secular influences…[R]eports have emerged of so-called bleach patrols trolling the religious neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, throwing bleach on the clothing of women they deem to be immodest…More serious is a new rabbinical ruling that has ordered an end to postsecondary degree programs for Haredi women, even within ultra-orthodox educational institutions.

Familiar stuff. Growing Western and secular influences. Oh dear; what to do? Crunch women some more. Squeeze them harder and harder and harder until there’s nothing left – just a husk. Just a dry empty weightless husk. The only safe woman is an emptied-out woman.

“There is a very strong feeling of attack from the outside world,” said Tzvia Greenfield, a Haredi woman and former left-wing member of the Knesset who holds a doctorate in political philosophy…The question for liberal thinkers is to find the right equilibrium between these two main concerns: women’s rights and human rights on one hand, and the right of the group to maintain its way of life.”

Well, that’s not the question for this liberal thinker (meaning me). The question for this liberal thinker is why Greenfield is concerned at all about ‘the right of the group to maintain its way of life’ when that way of life depends so heavily on squashing and controlling and bullying more than half of its members. What’s to maintain? What’s to be concerned about? Not all ways of life are good for all members of the group, so what’s all this curatorial fretting about maintaining them? The hell with them. The way of life of slaveowners was not worth maintaining; why maintain the way of life of any group that has no truck with equality or justice or rights except for the privileged sector of the group?

This one covers a lot of ground

Feb 6th, 2007 9:04 am | By

One comment I particularly liked in this review of Why Truth Matters, because it said we did a kind of thing that I like to see done, that I think is a worthwhile thing to do, so it was very gratifying to find that someone thought we had done it.

Benson and Stangroom’s WTM opposes unqualified relativism and thus allies itself with other books in this tradition. So if you are lured to it by the prospect of finding something extraordinarily startling, but have first familiarised yourself sufficiently with this type of literature, then you probably won’t find here anything shocking. However, to its great credit, and unlike other books of its class, this one covers a lot of ground (virtually every school of notoriety of radical relativism) in a few concise, enjoyable to read pages.

Well…good; I’m glad you think so. That was one of the goals. (Of course, we also wanted to startle and shock, and perhaps even terrify, but you can’t have everything.)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali can’t say that, can she?

Feb 4th, 2007 12:13 pm | By

Another conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose new memoir is titled bluntly and succinctly Infidel.

Strictly speaking Hirsi Ali is not an infidel but an apostate, a designation that in the Koran warrants the punishment of death. The distinction is not without significance. In a poll published last week, one in three British Muslims in the 16-24 age group agreed that ‘Muslim conversion is forbidden and punishable by death’. This figure comes as no surprise to Hirsi Ali…Liberals, she says, have shirked the responsibility of making the case for their own beliefs. They need to start speaking out in favour of the values of secular humanism. And they need to make clear that they are not compatible with religious bigotry and superstition.

Yup they do – even at the price of being called a liberal neocon.

She speaks in a language that makes no concessions to the softening euphemisms of political correctness. Those immersed in circumspection and ever vigilant to the contemporary sin of offence are bound to ask themselves if she’s allowed to say what she says…Writing in the New York Review of Books, the historian Timothy Garton Ash described Hirsi Ali as a ‘slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist’. Last year when Garton Ash chaired a discussion with Hirsi Ali at the ICA, he seemed both to admire the incisiveness of her quietly spoken logic and to wince at its unshakeable conclusions…She was one of the few intellectuals, for example, who rushed to support the Danes in the cartoon crisis last year. If you believe in the right of freedom of expression, she says, you have to defend that right. In a debate a few years back, Hirsi Ali challenged the Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, something of a poster boy for the multicultural left, to be more consistent and clear-cut in what he said…Ramadan responded by questioning Hirsi Ali’s adversarial style. ‘The question,’ he said, ‘is whether you want to change the mentality or please the audience.’…’Tariq Ramadan is filled with contempt for Muslims because he believes they have no faculties of reason…Like many believers in multiculturalism, he puts himself on a higher plane. The other thing is that it’s not about your style, it’s about your content. Are my propositions right or wrong?’

She also argues that it’s important to address white liberals because they need to overcome the self-censoring effects of post-colonial guilt. ‘If you want to feel guilty,’ snaps Hirsi Ali, ‘feel guilty that you didn’t bring John Stuart Mill and left us only with the Koran.’…’In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals,’ wrote Garton Ash, ‘she has gone from one extreme to the other’. The word on Hirsi Ali is that she is ‘traumatised’ by her upbringing and her subsequent adoption of a Western lifestyle. It’s the word that Ian Buruma uses to describe her condition in his book Murder In Amsterdam. Needless to say, she finds this appraisal of her ideas patronising.

So do I, so does Pascal Bruckner. Garton Ash and Buruma take exception to Bruckner’s account of their views, but he does directly quote them; I think it’s a fair cop.

Read the whole article; it’s very meaty.

A short but holistic PhD

Feb 3rd, 2007 3:26 pm | By

So Ben Goldacre reads Gillian McKeith’s PhD – all 49 stapled pages of it.

Inside is what I could only describe as Cargo Cult science: she’s going through the motions, but the content, only closer inspection, is like an eerie parody of an academic text. There are lots of grand statements about research, with nice superscript numbers relating to references in the back. But when you chase to the back of the book to see what these academic documents are, they include such august periodicals as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite: Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet…She expands grandly and uncritically – with anecdote, but no data – about her many dramatic treatment successes, like a physician from the dark ages. She talks about her own “clinical research”, with huge claims for its findings, but wherever this clinical research is, all you can find here are her anecdotes…Since people like me started digging, the McKeith industry – worth millions – describes her as a holistic nutritionist. There is no such thing as “holistic nutrition”: if you make statements about food and are backed up by academic/scientific research, as McKeith does, repeatedly, in her books, her shows, her semi-academic work, and products … then that’s just nutrition. The word “holistic” is at best a piece of branding; but at worst, it’s a cloak for accepting inadequate standards of referencing and evidence.

Ah yes…Did we remember to include ‘holistic’ in the Dictionary? What a silly question.

Everything good. Whole, pure, sincere, whole, integrated, spiritual, whole, centered.

And of course nutritionistic, and healthy, and natural, and (as an unexpected bonus) scholarly.

Bunting lays another egg

Feb 2nd, 2007 12:30 pm | By

Bunting produces another lead balloon. For once it’s worth reading the comments (well not all two million of them, but some) because they’re so uniformly, shall we say unconvinced. Of what? Of Bunting’s sweet suggestion that, good heavens, people, sharia isn’t as bad as all that.

Sharia’s basic meaning is “path to God”; it is a set of spiritual disciplines, which any serious Muslim abides by. The basics are such things as prayer, fasting and the Haj. But it also covers such instructions as no gambling, no backbiting, no alcohol and no cheating. Any devout Muslim is attempting to follow sharia. But that doesn’t mean they want to impose sharia on anyone who is not a Muslim, nor does it mean they agree with the most extreme interpretations of sharia law. Every faith has its laws – churches have canon law, Orthodox Jews have rabbinical courts – and no one argues that this represents separatism as Cameron did of Muslims this week.

No one? No one? Man, Bunting has a short attention span. The fight with the archbishops was only last week, Mads! Keep up!

Don’t get me wrong, there are some exceptionally horrible elements of how sharia has been interpreted – and still is, in some parts of the world – but reducing this vast body of thought to the barbaric practices of the Taliban is a gross simplification, which will do nothing to assist our understanding of the attitudes of Muslims in this country.

It might do something to assist your determination not to be subject to sharia though.