Truth Does Matter

Jul 26th, 2006 10:55 pm | By

This is absolutely fascinating.

When the University of Colorado moved last month to fire Ward Churchill, there was not much of an organized defense among professors – even among those in the academic left. That may be changing, although some believe it shouldn’t change and risks devaluing what the academic left stands for.

Sound belief. Because if the academic left turns out to stand for left more than for academic, then it does indeed risk devaluing what the academic left stands for. If you’re an academic (as opposed to an advertiser, or a public relations expert, or a movie-maker, or a novelist) you’ve undertaken a commitment not to let your leftism or rightism trump your academic responsibility, which is first of all to get at the truth as best you can. It is certainly not to claim that fraud and plagiarism should be overlooked if they are detected under unfortunate circumstances.

The debate might be summed up in an analogy offered by one of the faculty panels that reviewed Churchill and found that he committed, intentionally, all kinds of research misconduct. Committee members said that they were uncomfortable with the fact that Colorado ignored serious allegations against Churchill for years, and took them seriously only when his politics attracted attention. The panel compared the situation to one in which a motorist is stopped for speeding because a police officer doesn’t like the bumper sticker on her car. If she was speeding, she was speeding — regardless of the officer’s motives, the panel said. A group of professors…have joined forces to say that the officer’s motives do matter, and may matter more than the speeding. And they are organizing a petition drive, drawing support from some big-name academics, against Churchill’s dismissal.

Very few big-name academics, though. At least so far. But there is one big name that got my attention: Andrew Ross. Ross makes a cameo appearance in Why Truth Matters, saying some – hmm – provocative things about the truth-value of science.

Others on the left disagree. Campus Progress, published to provide a liberal take on issues for college students, came out against Churchill last week, releasing an article that said: “Progressive advocates of academic freedom should not rally to Churchill’s side. They should oppose the targeting of professors for their beliefs, even vile ones like Churchill’s. But the charges against Churchill justify his termination because fraud and plagiarism, as much as censorship, threaten academic integrity.”

Just so. And having scholars get up a petition that makes fraud and plagiarism a matter of academic freedom does not do much to protect academic integrity.

“I support his right to academic freedom, but not his right to plagiarize, not his right to create a fraudulent identity, nor his right to do faulty research,” said Oneida Meranto, a professor of political science and director of Native American studies…[S]he is also among a number of Native American scholars who for years have been complaining about the quality of Churchill’s scholarship. But the left, and specifically the white left in academe, didn’t much care about all of these problems until some saw him as an academic freedom case, Meranto said. There are academic freedom issues in his case, she said, and she’s not entirely comfortable with the way it has been handled. But she added that she would “not support Ward Churchill – the man or the myth” and that it was unfair for “academic freedom absolutists” to portray Churchill as a cause around which others should rally.

There you go. She doesn’t support his right to plagiarize, nor his right to do faulty research. Nor should she, nor should the rest of the left.

So long as it’s this hot

Jul 26th, 2006 6:30 pm | By

Never mind. I thought B&W was about to be closed down due to circumstances beyond my control.

Life is precarious you know. You never know when that piano is going to fall on your head.

Not That Kind of Faith, the Other Kind

Jul 26th, 2006 1:20 am | By

And then this review of books on science and religion. This ploy again:

Nowadays, when legislation supporting promising scientific research falls to religious opposition…scientists have to be brave to talk about religion. Not to denounce it, but to embrace it. That is what Francis S. Collins, Owen Gingerich and Joan Roughgarden have done in new books, taking up one side of the stormy argument over whether faith in God can coexist with faith in the scientific method.

Stop right there. That’s the same equivocation Mary Gordon used at that ‘Faith and Reason’ conference.

Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen.

Faith in God is not the same kind of faith as faith in ‘the scientific method’ just as none of Gordon’s cited versions of faith are straightforwardly ‘belief in the unseen’. There is an immense amount of evidence that ‘the scientific method’ works, so belief that it works is not the same kind of belief as belief that God exists, for which there is no real evidence at all. It’s sly and tricksy to pretend the two things are the same kind of thing.

PZ has a great post on the review at Pharungula.

More Godbothering

Jul 26th, 2006 1:06 am | By

Creeping theocracy, chapter 472. There’s the court-stripping, and that park in San Diego for instance.

Perhaps you noticed an interesting confluence of events on Wednesday, July 19. On that day, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have authorized the expanded use of federal funds for stem-cell research, the House of Representatives voted to enact legislation depriving the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear any case challenging the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the House voted to purchase a municipal park in San Diego on which a 29-foot-high cross stands.

Impressive stuff, isn’t it. Very grown-up, very rational, very sane.

In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a “conflict between science and ethics.” But what, exactly, is the “ethical” side of this conflict? Clearly, it derives from the belief that an embryo smaller than a period on this page is a “human life” – indeed, a human life that is as valuable as those of living, breathing, suffering children…What the President describes neutrally as “ethics” is simply his own, sectarian religious belief.

Yeah, that’s a good one – ‘a conflict between science and ethics’ when he means ‘a conflict between science and my irrational conviction.’ But it’s typical of course. Religious believers have a real knack for assuming they are the only people who ever think about ethics and morality. Hence the feverish need to buy little parks on the opposite edge of the country, just in case we run out of 29-foot crosses some day.

Well No Kidding

Jul 25th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

There’s an oddity in that piece in the Indy yesterday about Stephen Hawking’s rebuke of the reactionaries on the stem cell question.

President Bush and some religious authorities, notably the Catholic Church, argue that the microscopic, four-day-old embryos from which stem cells are derived are potential human lives.

Is that right? I don’t think it is. Because surely everyone argues or rather simply takes it for granted that any embryos, four day old or four second old, are potential human lives. We know that – that’s not disputed. What’s disputed is what follows from that; what’s disputed is whether potential human lives should be as protected as actual human lives. So – why did the reporters put that ‘potential’ in there? To make Bush and the Catholic church sound more rational and reasonable than they are? To make people who disagree with them sound less rational and reasonable than they are? A little of both? Don’t know, but it’s odd.


Jul 25th, 2006 6:46 pm | By

I’m not in a position to dispute the substance of this snide review of Hirsi Ali’s book due to the small inconvenience that I haven’t read the book that the snide review is a review of. But what I can do (and will) is point out the snideness, and the markers of same. (Now, you’ll be thinking, ‘But OB, you go in for a certain amount of mockery yourself on occasion, so do you not pause to murmur to yourself about stones and glass dwelling places?’ Fair point. Yes, I do pause, but not for long, for the simple reason that I have invincible Feelings of Superiority – I’ve been told that on very mediocre authority. No actually that’s not why my pause is briefer than that of a hummingbird; the reason is rather that there is a considerable difference between Notes and Comment and the New Statesman. I curb my mockery when writing for publication in places other than Notes and Comment. Also, frankly, I do a better job of it. Dispute me if you will.)

Snideness. Markers.

It’s obviously what I’ve been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader – armed with Enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom – swooping into my harem and liberating me from my “ignorant”, “uncritical”, “dishonest” and “oppressed” Muslim existence. At least that is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I’ve been waiting for.

Secular crusader, the stamp of the liberal establishment (what the hell is that? and what rock concert does it get you into?), swooping, my harem – and a very odd conjecture as to what Hirsi Ali thinks presented as a fact.

She soon became a prominent and controversial politician, a brown face made welcome by her shrill denunciations of Islam…However, the publication of The Caged Virgin couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hirsi Ali, a woman who has built her career on portraying herself as a victim.

Shrill – cf. ‘strident’. And as for the career built on self-portrayal as victim – I would have thought the career was built on a considerable amount of courage along with refusal of victimhood.

Now that doubt has been cast on the personal history Hirsi Ali relies on to give her arguments authority, her new book reads more like a whimper than a bang.

Shrill…victim…whimper. It’s all belittling stuff – and sexistly belittling at that; it’s unfortunate when women use sexist rhetoric and epithets against other women. It’s a wonder Alam doesn’t call her a bitch.

Hirsi Ali is not breaking new ground. Others, such as the controversial Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, have been here before, except their work is meatier, making reference to classical texts and engaging in important historical debates.

That’s not so much snide as, in my view, mistaken, even if it’s true. Hirsi Ali doesn’t have to be breaking new ground; she could be just publicizing existing ideas and research, for instance that of Mernissi and Ahmed; more people (at least in certain places) will read her book than will read theirs; there is a place for polemics and simply making existing material more widely known.

These brave women sadly do not have the luxuries of monetary resources, bodyguards, spin-doctors and PR agencies that she takes for granted.

That she takes for granted? Really? Does that seem likely, given Hirsi Ali’s history? She started out doing menial work in the Netherlands, after all. And as for bodyguards – she wouldn’t need them if it weren’t for the death threats, so it’s a bit much to throw them in her face.

It’s all rather nasty, and rather long on sneering and short on substance. Geoff Coupe (who alerted me to the review) has a good comment here – and he has read the book, so is in a better position to argue.

I can well imagine that if, as Hirsi Ali did, I worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and refuges for battered women, then I might see the world through a jaundiced eye, but that does not remove the reality of those observations and experiences. One chapter entitled ‘Four Women’s Lives’ gives the stage to others to tell their story. One of the strengths of Hirsi Ali’s book is that she does provide the source references to her claims – although Alam sneers that: “she provides little evidence to back up her claims that the Muslim woman is a caged virgin – sexualised, segregated, denied human rights – and that Islamic theology is responsible for this”. Really, I wonder whether we’ve actually read the same book.

Anyone want to write a review for B&W? Geoff?

Do You See Any Misogyny?

Jul 24th, 2006 9:03 pm | By

I don’t see any misogyny. Do you see any misogyny?

Afghanistan’s notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was set up by the Taliban to enforce bans on women doing anything from working to wearing nail varnish or laughing out loud, is to be re-created by the government in Kabul. The decision has provoked an outcry among women and human rights activists who fear a return to the days when religious police patrolled the streets, beating or arresting any woman who was not properly covered by a burqa or accompanied by a male relative.

Whores. Putains. They just want to go outside and walk around and work and do stuff. They even want to laugh aloud! Can you believe it?

“This is a very bad idea at a bad time,” said Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Asia research director of Human Rights Watch. “We’re close to the edge in Afghanistan. It really could all go wrong and it is alarming that the United Nations and western governments are not speaking out on this issue.”…“They haven’t even bothered to change the name,” said Malalai Joya, a courageous female MP whose outspokenness means she has to travel with bodyguards and move every day because of threats to her life. Joya, 28, was physically attacked in parliament in May after she criticised warlords.

Well what kind of whore gets herself elected as an MP and be’s outspoken and criticizes warlords? With whores like that around, of course it’s time for some Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – duh.

“In my opinion what we have in power under the mask of democracy are the brothers of Taliban — fundamentalists, warlords and drug lords,” she added. “Our country is under the shadow of their black hands. They are against women and re-creating the [department] is proof of this.” Afghan women recall with horror the department’s religious police who ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Women were publicly beaten for wearing white shoes or heels that clicked; using lipstick; or going outside unaccompanied by a close male relative. The department banned women from educating their daughters in home-based schools as well as working or begging, leaving thousands of widows with no means of supporting their families.

So they starved; big deal. What else should happen to whores?

The government’s decision to re-create the Taliban religious police is seen by critics as the most shocking in a series of backward steps designed to appease conservatives.

Backward steps all over the place, from reinstating the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to deciding to keep forced marriage legal at the behest of the [expletive] MCB. Backward backward backward.

What Misogyny?

Jul 24th, 2006 8:47 pm | By

Misogyny? What misogyny?

The lives of young women might be ruined by the Government’s failure to make forced marriages illegal, a senior police officer has warned. Commander Steve Allen of the Metropolitan Police said that a decision by ministers last month to drop proposed legislation had been greeted by some ethnic minorities as a signal that forced marriage was acceptable. His concern about the about-turn, which was partly prompted by fears that the new law would stigmatise Muslims, is shared by a Crown Prosecution Service director and the head of Scotland Yard’s Homicide Prevention Unit. The head of a South Asian women’s charity said yesterday that girls were already suffering the consequences of the decision.

A couple of questions. Why is there more worry about possible stigmatization of Muslims than there is about the wrecked lives of women? And why is there such a worry anyway when the new law was intended to help (among others) Muslims – Muslim girls and women subject to forced marriage?

Although the proposal was welcomed by many victims’ groups, some organisations complained that it would increase racial segregation. The Muslim Council of Britain gave a warning that such a law might become “another way to stigmatise our communities”.

Oh. That’s why. Because the MCB piped up, that’s why. And when the MCB speaks, unfortunately, the gummint listens. Victims’ groups can welcome all they like, but if the MCB squawks about ‘our communities’ – well that’s that. Misogyny? What Misogyny?

Mr Allen, who tackles honour-related violence…, told The Times: “…For me the persuasive argument is about the message we send out. We have already received feedback from community groups suggesting that the decision not to make it a criminal offence means it must be all right.”…Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service director for London West, said that a new law would have helped campaigners in minority communities to stamp out forced marriage. “I have heard it said that a new criminal offence would be just another stick to beat the Muslim community with, but my belief is that we should be carrying our own stick,” he said…”I hear dialogue from victims but I don’t hear a great deal from Muslim men.”…Jasvinder Sanghera, of the Nirvana Asian Women’s Project, which helps victims, said: “A new criminal offence would have given the victims the power to say to their family, ‘You can’t do this to me. It’s against the law.’ It’s a chance missed and it’s already doing damage. Political correctness is not an excuse for moral blindness.”

Read the whole article; read it and wonder yet again why the MCB outweighs Jasvinder Sanghera and Nazir Afzal.


Jul 24th, 2006 8:20 pm | By

Want to read this book. I’m intensely and permanently interested in misogyny, and where it comes from and why it’s so pervasive and universal and chronic and hard to get rid of.

You see, darling, I could have said, lots and lots of grown-up men don’t like women. For as long as there have been two genders, men have made enormous efforts to enforce and institutionalise the oppression of the female. Even in a supposedly enlightened and “post-feminist” society such as ours, hatred of women stinks out the whole shooting-match like a bad drain. Young women are bitches and sluts who absolutely force men to rape them by not wearing enough clothes. Old women are either invisible or grotesque, and when they get too old to shag, they have the temerity to take a man’s money if he goes off in search of something fresher.

Because men, of course, as we all know, never get too old to shag, hence all those Hollywood movies (written directed and produced by men) featuring men in their sixties and seventies pairing up with gorgeous women in their twenties. Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen, they’re all out there collecting the glowing glimmering sparkling women age 25. Women are not people but consumer goods – when they get a little worn and chipped you’re supposed to trade them in for a newer one. Misogyny is pervasive and universal and chronic and hard to get rid of.

Every year, an estimated 5,000 women are murdered globally by their own relations for damaging the family “honour”. Millions of girls have their clitorises cut off and their labia stitched together. Millions more are expected to go about their lawful occasions shrouded from head to foot.

Millions are forcibly married to men not of their own choosing. Millions are aborted. Many millions are raped, beaten, coerced, exploited, overworked and underpaid.

This prejudice, he says, is the oldest of the lot, and runs so deep that it is almost invisible. “Was there,” he wonders, “a women’s history BC — ‘before contempt’?” If so, he has not found it…Misogyny is “a Gordian knot of interwoven dependencies” and can be attributed to the basic natural differences between men and women. But as Katharine Hepburn says in The African Queen, “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above.”

Damn right. Be careful not to hold your breath while waiting though.

External Resources

Cool School

Jul 23rd, 2006 11:35 pm | By

St Luke’s sounds like a fun school, doesn’t it?

The National Secular Society and Liberal Democrat peers used the Human Rights Act to force New Labour to give pupils over the age of 16 the right to boycott school assemblies. The climbdown followed a revolt by children at St Luke’s, a Catholic sixth-form college in Bexley, south London. They signed a petition that said their faith school was ‘more concerned with religion than education’…Instead of learning about computing, the use of English and other fripperies, pupils heard gruesome lectures at assembly from one Barbara McGuigan, an American anti-abortionist and founder of Voice of Virtue International.

Voice of Virtue International – that’s good, isn’t it? We are virtue and you are not. I know people like that – people who are brilliant at pointing out the faults of other people, ever on the alert to find a new one to make a fuss about, always wide awake and keen as mustard to spot any little foolishness or mistake or mere eccentricity – while being blind as a whole Arizona cave full of bats to their own glaring faults – one of which is in fact this propensity for playing Spot the Boo-boo and Then Point it Out. The Voice of Virtue International is also reminiscent of people who think, or assume, that whatever they think is synonymous with virtue (or kindness, justice, compassion, benevolence) and whatever people who disagree with them think is the other thing. I must say, I wish I had thought of founding something called the Voice of Virtue International. An opportunity wasted. Maybe it’s not too late – maybe I’ll found The Voice of Perfection International. You guys can join but I’ll be the most Perfect.

The head, who has since been suspended, also made them carry a statue of the Virgin Mary around the college while singing hymns and excluded for a day pupils who refused to attend Mass.

Yup – sounds like a fun school all right.

More From the ‘Community Leaders’

Jul 22nd, 2006 11:53 pm | By

More good stuff*. More on the Community Pitching a Fit.

Residents and traders in Brick Lane, east London, have threatened protests and street blockades to prevent filming of a screen adaptation of a book by bestselling novelist Monica Ali which they claim is “racist and insulting” toward the Bangladeshi community…Last night, after a series of public meetings about the film, community leaders vowed to do “anything it takes” to block filming, labelling the book “a violation of the human rights of the community”.

Monica Ali’s novel is racist, insulting, and a violation of the human rights of the community – those community leaders certainly have the jargon down pat, don’t they. They know what you’re supposed to say – and the dear Guardian comes trotting up to help them say it.

Abdus Salique, chair of Brick Lane Traders’ Association, who is coordinating the campaign from his sweetshop, said he feared the book would enrage younger members of the community…”Of course, they will not do anything unless we tell them to, but I warn you they are not as peaceful as me. She [Ali] has imagined ideas about us in her head. She is not one of us, she has not lived with us, she knows nothing about us, but she has insulted us.”

She. She, she, she, she, she. Is it paranoia to think that five repetions of the female pronoun in quick succession are used on purpose to rile up ‘younger members of the community’? Any bets on what gender those ‘younger members’ are? Any thoughts on the whole air of menace and threat? She is a racist and has insulted the community and violated its human rights, and the young men (lots of them) are enraged and we’re not sure we can hold them back…Threatening enough? Bullying enough? Disgusting enough? Yes, I think so.

“She is definitely a good writer,” said Mahmoud Rauf, chairman of the Brick Lane Business Association. “But she didn’t use her skill to the benefit of the community. We will take this as far as it has to go.”

Because…any writer from ‘the community’ is obliged and required to use her skill ‘to the benefit of the community’ according to our lights, and if she fails to do that, we will ‘take this’ as far as it has to go, by threatening everyone in sight. We all know what happens to writers who piss off ‘the community,’ don’t we.

Repulsive stuff.

*thanks to Paul of Pulpmovies for the link.

Stop Her!

Jul 22nd, 2006 7:59 pm | By

Here we go again. The community. Offend. You can’t. Protest. Warn. Prevent. You mustn’t, you can’t, you shan’t, we’ll stop you, shut up, don’t write, don’t talk, don’t say, shut up, The Community.

But to many of the residents on Brick Lane…the novel offers such a negative portrayal of the community that they have mobilised protest groups against a film being made…[R]esidents and traders gathered to prevent filming after hearing that a crew were to begin their work along the Brick Lane area. Some residents have warned of blockades to stop the film from being made…”Yes, you create a work of fiction, but you do not create fiction which offends a whole community.”

Authoritarianism and do-what-I-tell-youism raises its nasty scaly pustulant head again, brandishing its usual coercive banner of The Community to put a sanctimonious gloss on the revolting thing. And – gee, what a coincidence – yet again the author being told what to do is a woman. Fancy that. What do you know. ‘Behzti’ ‘offended’ a ‘whole community’ and got slapped around and shut down and now it’s time to do the same to ‘Brick Lane’. It’s doubly if not triply or quadruply offensive when a woman ‘offends’ ‘The Community.’ Why isn’t she locked up somewhere instead of running around in the world writing books or plays and getting them published and offending The Community? It’s an outrage. Up go the blockades.


Jul 19th, 2006 11:43 pm | By

Jeremy Waldron in the LRB:

A more troubling reading, however, is that Nazi speech is worth protecting even if a consequence of that protection is that someone gets hurt or killed. ‘I will defend your right to say it, even if your saying it makes violence more likely against the people attacked in your pamphlets.’ Is that what is meant? Defenders of free speech squirm on this point…they assure us dogmatically that there is no clear evidence of any causal connection between, say, racist posters and incidents of racial violence…

Yeah. The assurance often seems very dogmatic to me – it just somehow has to be true that there is no causal connection between racist speech and racial violence, and hence no clear evidence of same either. It has to be true because defenders of free speech want it to be true because – um – otherwise they find themselves defending free speech that could get people killed and they’d rather not but they’d also rather not think in detail, rather than in dogmatic generalities, about free speech? That’s what I often suspect, anyway.

…in other contexts, American civil liberties scholars have no difficulty at all in seeing a connection between speech and the possibility of violence. They point to it all the time as a way of justifying restrictions on citizens’ interventions at political gatherings. If Donald Rumsfeld comes to give a speech and someone in the audience shouts out that he is a war criminal, the heckler is quickly and forcibly removed. When I came to America, I was amazed that nobody thought this was a violation of the First Amendment…So there is an odd combination of tolerance for the most hateful speech imaginable, on the one hand, and obsequious deference, on the other, to the choreography which our rulers judge essential for their occasional public appearances. The Nazis can disrupt the streets of Skokie, but those who disrupt Rumsfeld’s message will be carried away with the hands of secret service agents clamped over their mouths. I have given up trying to make sense of any of this.

I still sometimes try, but I get lost quickly, like those people who set out to get a PhD in political science and accidentally end up in the English department.

Putcher Glasses on, People

Jul 19th, 2006 11:42 pm | By

And there’s this interesting article by Scott McLemee which is a good read in itself and also the cause that – there is much silliness among the commenters. Why does a piece by an omnivorous reader like Scott attract so many people who can’t read at all? People who read the label on a can of pineapple juice and think it contains Crisco? Dunno, but the result is pretty funny. Somebody started off by reading Scott’s “There are plenty of conservative publicists in America now. There are not many conservative thinkers, proper, worthy of the name” and, first, paraphrasing that as “America has lots of conservative pundits. But thinkers? Not so much,” which is a pretty bad job of paraphrasing (also pointless: why not just paste in the actual words?), and leads to an even worse retort: “You should do some reading then.” But then even better, people start giving examples of conservative thinkers [not publicists, remember – the whole point is thinkers as opposed to publicists] in America now. Like these:

“Frederick Hayak. Ayn Rand. Milton Friedman (or any of his fellow Nobel/economics winners). George Will. Pope John II.” “I would also add the late Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and Peter Viereck.”

See? They’re nearly all at least one of 1. dead 2. not in America 3. publicists but not thinkers. I find that sidesplittingly funny, somehow. Hey – what about Confucius! He was pretty conservative, right? Genghis Khan? Lycurgus?

Didja Drop Your Compass?

Jul 19th, 2006 8:49 pm | By

One remark in this CHE piece on learning to hate literature in order to get a PhD in it particularly caught my attention. It’s so expectable and yet so odd.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest. They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays…It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects. When I asked about that, one said, “If I wanted to be a politician, I’d major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I’d major in sociology.”

Well exactly. Exactly. How terribly odd it is that Thomas H Benton (presumably not that Thomas H Benton, nor that one either) is surprised that none of his students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive for studying literature. Why would they? Why on earth would they? What is the connection? Why, on earth, would someone who is fired up with a commitment to social justice or to a political ideology sit down with a beer and a dish of cashews to ponder what kind of advanced degree to get, and come up with – literature? Literature? Why that? Why not opera, or interior design, or mincing and prancing? Those make just as much sense. That is what I always wonder about these bizarro world people who orate about their concern with social justice instead of actually saying anything about literature despite the inconvenient fact that they are, in truth, teachers of literature. Did they take a wrong turn in the corridor and simply keep going until they had the wrong PhD and it was too late? Why don’t they have exactly the same limpid thought the student offered Benton? If they want to do politics, why don’t they get their degrees in political science instead of literature? Why are they so…lost?

Stride me no Strident

Jul 19th, 2006 8:44 pm | By

So Katha Pollitt talks a little more about that imbecilic review of her book. Perhaps I’m not the only one who thought it was jaw-droppingly stupid.

Emily Amick: There’s a discussion raging on the blogosphere right now about Wonkette’s ‘post-feminist’ review of your book in the New York Times.

Ah. I rushed over to Google blogsearch to find out about that, and the comments seemed to be running heavily in the ‘jaw-droppingly stupid’ direction. Good. But – what did the Times ever run a review like that for? What is its point? What next? Assigning a stand-up comic to review Amartya Sen’s next book? Assigning Tom Cruise to review a book by John Searle? What is their point? That US public discourse isn’t stupid enough yet, they have to put their shoulders to the wheel and make it even stupider?

Katha Pollitt: You certainly wouldn’t know from the review that the book is not, actually, one long grim fulmination against high-fashion shoes and the young women who wear them. It’s fine that she hated the book (well, not really!), but I wish she had accurately conveyed its contents.

Oh but that wouldn’t do, because that would have been non-stupid, so would have defeated the whole (deeply opaque) purpose.

Katha Pollitt: There are pieces about Republicans, Democrats, Greens, fundamentalists ( of all stripes), creationism in Kansas, sexism in the media…and daycare workers sentenced to long prison terms for sex abuse that almost certainly did not occur. There are pieces about Muslim women’s rights – a topic Wonkette says I’m “fixated” on, which is an odd choice of word, don’t you think? Maybe she’ll tell us someday exactly how much concern is the right amount to have.

Yes, I do think. I very much think, and I’m not the only one. I was telling JS about Cox’s review yesterday via Messenger and he interjected – ‘Fixated?’ Just so: fixated: this is what we have come to. We’ll have to be writing another book about this kind of thing. The grindstone is whirling, the knives are stacked up ready for sharpening.

E.A.: Yet many young women believe the feminist movement doesn’t allow them to wear stilettos and lipstick. So where is the line between “stridency and submission?” K.P.: We’re still on Wonkette, I see. Have you ever heard that word “strident” applied to a man? I can’t believe the conversation is stuck on this idiotic plot point: Feminists with loud voices and hairy legs versus girls who just want to have fun.

Exactly. ‘Strident’ is of course a word largely reserved for feminists, and boring feminists versus fun sexpots is an idiotic plot point. Wonkette should sit on the naughty stool for a very long time.

‘Hadiths are serious stuff’

Jul 18th, 2006 2:19 am | By

This is a piece of really very good news. The author says it hasn’t had much attention in the West – or elsewhere either. So let’s pay attention.

In a bold but little-noticed step toward reforming Islamic tradition, Turkey’s religious authorities recently declared that they will remove these statements [such as “If a husband’s body is covered with pus and his wife licks it clean, she still wouldn’t have paid her dues.” – OB] , and more like them, from the hadiths – the non-Koranic commentary on the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad…Hadiths are serious stuff. More than 90 percent of the sharia (Islamic law) is based on them rather than the Koran, and the most infamous measures of the sharia – the killing of apostates, the seclusion of women, the ban on fine arts, the stoning of adulterers and many other violent punishments for sinful behavior – come from the hadiths and the commentaries built upon them. Eliminating these misogynistic statements from the hadiths is a direct challenge to some of the most controversial aspects of Islamic tradition.

The most controversial and the most life-ruining and misery-producing. What a tremendous step toward the improvement of the lives of millions of people, especially women, it would be if all religious authorities removed such hadiths. Let’s earnestly wish them every success.

The media and intellectuals of Ankara and Istanbul largely welcomed last month’s decision, which the Turkish government supported…Yet, despite the rhetoric about the need to make alliances with progressive Islam in the midst of the fight against terrorism, Turkey’s move toward reform has been widely overlooked in the West, and there has been little acknowledgment of it in other Muslim countries.

I wonder if the BBC has asked the MCB what it thinks about it yet.

“I can’t imagine a prophet who bullies women,” said Hidayet Tuksal, a feminist theologian in Ankara. “The hadiths that portray him so should be abandoned.” Similarly, in proposing to create its new standard collection, the Turkish Diyanet intends to look beyond the chain of transmitters to logic, consistency and common sense. In many ways, this is a revival of an early debate in Islamic jurisprudence between rival camps known as the adherents of the hadiths and the adherents of reason – a debate that ended with the triumph of the former.

Go, adherents of reason. Sayings from the 9th century that can’t be second-guessed in the light of reason are not the kind of thing that ought to triumph.

An Analogy That Isn’t

Jul 16th, 2006 10:26 pm | By

Here’s something I don’t get. Or maybe I do get it and just think it’s silly. One of those. It’s from an article by Michael Ruse in Robert Pennock’s collection Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics, “Methodological Naturalism under Attack,” page 365. Ruse is making the distinction (which featured heavily in the Kitzmiller trial) between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism; he’s making the distinction and explaining it and arguing for it.

This is not to say that God did not have a role in the creation, but simply that, qua science, that is qua an enterprise formed through the practice of methodological naturalism, science has no place for talk of God. Just as, for instance, if one were to go to the doctor one would not expect any advice on political matters, so if one goes to a scientist one does not expect any advice on or reference to theological matters.

Just as? Just as? I think not. Not just as at all, I would say. Because claims about God are claims that God is real and really exists. They may (or may not) be metaphysical claims, but they are pretty much always truth-claims about God; the claims may include the stipulation that God is supernatural, outside time and space, but since they mostly also include claims about the way God creates or acts on this world, that stipulation seems a tad half-hearted. Especially when it comes to fans of ID, which is Ruse’s subject matter. The whole point of the ID God is that it designed the universe and the earth and wonderful us. So – that means the doctor analogy is an absurd analogy. It is not the case that science is to theology as medicine is to politics. Theology is about is, politics is about ought. You can always define God (and hence theology) as supernatural and metaphysical but in that case no one has anything to say about it, including theologians – it is by definition out of reach and unknowable. But if it is within reach and knowable, then it’s accessible to anyone who looks. Theologians don’t get special technical training that enables them to find God (how to use a special kind of microscope perhaps, or a special microtelescope), they don’t learn research methods and equipment-use that no one else knows, nor do they learn magic tricks. So it’s just bizarre to say that scientists have nothing to say about God while at the same time pretending that other people do have something to say about God. That involves pretending there is some kind of expertise or special knowledge that scientists don’t have. There is no such expertise or knowledge. That box is empty.

The physician may indeed have very strong political views, which one may or may not share. But the politics are irrelevant to the medicine. Similarly, the scientist may or may not have very strong theological views, which one may or may not share. But inasmuch as one is going to the scientist for science, theology can and must be ruled out as irrelevant.

But how can it be irrelevant unless the theology in question concerns something that is wholly outside the natural world and thus inaccessible to human investigation altogether? How? They want to have it both ways; that’s the problem. They want to say that God and theology are in this special magical category that is completely different from science and that science therefore has nothing to say about, while at the same time saying that they are perfectly entitled to lay down the law about God and theology. Well I do not see how it can be both! And I think the idea that it can be both rests on some kind of weird hocus-pocus about what theology is. Either that or it just rests on plain old rhetoric. Or, the original suggestion, that I just don’t get it. Okay let’s assume that I just don’t get it. Somebody explain it to me.

Atheists in America

Jul 16th, 2006 6:38 pm | By

Sometimes I think I should keep a suitcase packed at all times, ready to grab when I hear the sirens approaching.

Penny Edgell, Doug Hartmann and I published a paper in the American Sociological Review called “Atheists As ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.

That’s not in the least a surprise, but it’s a useful sharpening.

How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality. To many Americans, “Atheists” are people who lack any basis for moral commitment.

I’m not sure that is the main answer though – although it’s presumptuous to say that since they did the research and I didn’t. But still…I don’t think that accounts for the gut hostility as well as other reasons do. One, people who think god is real and really exists take atheism as personally wounding, hurtful, insulting, to god even more to themselves. I think – it’s a hunch, but it’s also based on conversations and what theists say – it’s a feeling rooted in loyalty, and love. An admirable feeling, actually, but unfortunate because directed at an imagined being; unfortunate because the source of hostility towards existing people for the sake of an imagined one. Two, atheism is threatening to theism, because of course theists suspect that their reasons for believing in the god they believe in are vulnerable. Three, given this threat, this suspicion and vulnerability, theists suspect that atheists think theists are deluded. This suspicion opens the door for all sorts of class, hierarchical, populist, anti-‘elitist’ tensions and worries. In short, theists think atheists think theists are stupid, and (naturally) it pisses them off. I think all those bite deeper than the idea that atheists have no reason to be moral. I don’t have the research; that’s just a sort of hermeneutic or interpretive guess. Why do I think it? I suppose because I think the morality explanation doesn’t have the kind of emotional kick that the others do. I certainly think it matters, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that makes the lower lip tremble or the blood boil, whereas the others are.

Wonkette, Phooey

Jul 16th, 2006 2:53 am | By

Okay, what’s the deal here? I thought Ana Marie Cox was supposed to be so clever, or witty or interesting or something – ? Isn’t she? I thought she was. I’ve never read or even glanced at Wonkette, because life is short and time is scarce and blogs are many and the subject matter – beltway gossip? Urrgghh – is so very unappealing; but I’ve gathered (how? I don’t know – as one does) that she’s good in some way. But clearly there has been some mistake. That “book review” is a piece of crap; it’s stupid and smug and truly staggeringly predictable. So if that’s Wonkette, I’m glad I’ve never wasted so much as a nanosecond on it.

Strident feminism can seem out of place – even tacky – in a world where women have come so demonstrably far. With Katie Couric at the anchor desk, Condoleezza Rice leading the State Department and Hillary Clinton aiming for the top of the ticket, many of the young, educated and otherwise liberal women who might, in another era, have found themselves burning bras and raising their consciousness would rather be fitted for the right bra (like on “Oprah”) and raising their credit limit.

Oh right. Of course. How stupid of us not to think of it. Because Hillary Clinton married the right guy and there’s – gasp! – one woman reading the news on tv, therefore feminism has nothing further to say, and if it says it it’s (oh christalmighty) “strident”. That’s the kind of thing that makes grizzled old feminists like me (and Pollitt, I daresay) want to send smug smirking young postfeminists off to – where, exactly? Let’s see. How about northern Nigeria. Or southern Afghanistan. Or Iran. Or Egypt. Or rural India, or China, or Congo. Sound good, Wonkette? Sound like a fun way to find out how far women have come? Hmmm?

Her new collection of essays, “Virginity or Death!,” culled from her columns for The Nation over the past five years, shows her to be stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women’s rights in the Middle East. In the midst of our celebration of Katie’s last day, Pollitt is the one who would drown out the clinking of cosmo glasses with a loud condemnation of the surgery available to those women who would sacrifice their little toes the better to fit their Jimmy Choos.

Fuck. I can’t even read any more. That’s only the first paragraph, and it’s some of the stupidest shit I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s in the New York Times, which still keeps insisting it’s a good newspaper! What is their problem? Why do they publish insulting garbage like that? Are they trying to show that they’re “hip” or not some bunch of latte-swigging elitists or what?

Okay, sorry, beg pardon. It’s the feminist in me – do excuse me, I mean the “strident” feminist – again. I’m sure I’ve told you, probably more than once, about seeing a panel of feminists – Pollitt was one – at the Los Angeles Book Fair a few years ago, on C-Span, and seeing a glam young French woman stand up and ask the panel why they were all so angry. They were all, to a woman, absolutely dumbfounded, and I was scarred for life. Seriously – Wonkette needs to learn about something beyond D.C. gossip. She also needs to learn to write better. A lot better.