Preference for Fairness

Oct 22nd, 2006 2:23 am | By

Did you read Jeremy’s article on justice? It’s very good.

One bit reminded me of something else I’d just read. Serendipity kind of thing. This bit reminded me.

If this is right, it does not follow that one cannot account for the existence of retributive feelings. Mackie, for example, employed Darwinian principles in order to explain their ubiquity and persistence. His argument was roughly this: individuals achieved an evolutionary advantage to the extent that resentment of injuries became a deeply ingrained psychological disposition in their personality structures; this disposition was then universalized for broadly sociological reasons, so that certain harms came to be cooperatively resented, which is the mark of retributivism generally.

It reminded me of this article in the New Yorker about the brain and psychology and behavioral economics and neuroeconomics. Especially this bit:

A good way to illustrate Cohen’s point is to imagine that you and a stranger are sitting on a park bench, when an economist approaches and offers both of you ten dollars. He asks the stranger to suggest how the ten dollars should be divided, and he gives you the right to approve or reject the division. If you accept the stranger’s proposal, the money will be divided between you accordingly; if you refuse it, neither of you gets anything. How would you react to this situation, which economists refer to as an “ultimatum game,” because one player effectively gives the other an ultimatum? Game theorists say that you should accept any positive offer you receive, even one as low as a dollar, or you will end up with nothing. But most people reject offers of less than three dollars, and some turn down anything less than five dollars.

See? It’s the same thing. Resentment of injuries, of perceived injustice, trumps economic benefit. I know damn well I’m like that. I’d happily spurn the two or three dollars for the sake of punishing the greedy unfair stranger on the bench. I would probably also pick up a nearby branch or tennis racket and smack the stranger with it then run away.

Cohen and several colleagues organized a series of ultimatum games in which half the players – the respondents – were put in MRI machines…When respondents received stingy offers – two dollars for them, say, and eight dollars for the other player – they exhibited substantially more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with reasoning, and in the bilateral anterior insula, part of the limbic region that is active when people are angry or in distress. The more activity there was in the limbic structure, the more likely the person was to reject the offer. To the researchers, it looked as though the two regions of the brain might be competing to decide what to do, with the prefrontal cortex wanting to accept the offer and the insula wanting to reject it…Maybe human beings have an intrinsic preference for fairness, and we get angry when that preference is violated—so angry that we punish the other player even at a cost to ourselves. Or perhaps people reject low offers because they don’t want to appear weak.

See? Same thing. It’s interesting. It’s why small children spend all their time measuring the size of each other’s pieces of cake to make sure they’re not getting stiffed – they’re making sure nobody’s dissing them.

Grayling and Blackburn on Religion and Respect

Oct 21st, 2006 9:01 pm | By

Well this is what I keep saying.

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule. It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions.

That’s all. It’s quite simple. Faith is not a virtue, and it shouldn’t endow privilege. It’s not noble to believe in unsupported claims, especially in the guise of ancient superstitions. ‘Faith’ keeps insisting on throwing its weight around in public matters, so it can’t reasonably claim kid glove handling at the same time. It does claim exactly that; but not reasonably.

Grayling is forthright.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so. It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world’s many religions.

Simon Blackburn said much the same in that article ‘Religion and Respect’ [pdf] that I commented on a year ago.

But, I argued to myself, why should I “respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed angry.

But the rules change for (established) religion. And they not only change, they creep.

People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

Or not finally; there’s another step: obedience and submission, along with silencing and censorship. In some places and on some subjects, we’re already there.

Grayling concludes:

But no organised religion, as an institution, has a greater claim to the attention of others in society than does a trade union, political party, voluntary organisation, or any other special interest group – for “special interest groups” are exactly what churches and organised religious bodies are. No one could dream of demanding that political parties be respected merely because they are political parties, or of protecting them from the pens of cartoonists; nor that their members should be. On the contrary. And so it should be for all interest groups and their members, without exception.

Yup. Time for the worm to turn.

Catching Up with Jesus and Mo

Oct 20th, 2006 6:14 pm | By

Hmph. I’ve been too busy lately – I’ve missed some great Jesus and Moze (it’s hard to make a plural Jesus and Mo in writing). Such as this one. Haw. What’s he going to do, sit on us? Haw!

And this one. I love the barmaid. Can I play the barmaid in the movie? Can I, huh, huh? I’d be perfect.

And this one. Catchy. Violent, and catchy.

And this one. ‘That laws-of-physics-defying explanation never even occurred to me.’ Try to keep up, Mo.

And the niqab one is brilliant. Oh, Mo, I feel so liberated.

Participation on equal terms

Oct 20th, 2006 2:31 pm | By

Polly Toynbee says a secular state would be a good idea.

Here is a conflict between two principles – respect for a religious minority and respect for women’s equality…The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.

She’s right you know. That’s how it works. You can’t have the one without the other – you can’t have the concealment without the reification – the concealment is reification. That is essentially what it’s all about: erasure of every recognizable attribute of the human, leaving only anonymous amorphous colourless interchangeable blocks of fabric that look more like upended sofas or nonfunctional lampshades than like people. Well big surprise that they’re treated with contempt and hostility instead of respect. People who have to be buried in yards of upholstery so that they can’t be seen are, pretty obviously, objects of some form of loathing and suspicion, not of admiration and respect. Why else do we hate the things so much? Why do you think? It’s because they’re such an obvious, blatant, hyper-visible sign of intense ineradicable unappeasable loathing.

The veil is profoundly divisive – and deliberately designed to be. No one need be a Muslim to understand the ideology of the veil, because covering and controlling women has been a near-universal practice in Christian societies and in most cultures and religions the world over.

Of course the veil is divisive and designed to be. Dividing is what it does. It’s a portable form of gender segregation; segregation is, obviously, divisive. It’s only relatively recently that women haven’t been formally and informally segregated in ‘the West’ too; it’s only relatively recently that we’ve been allowed to mix with the world at large. We understand what segregation is, and most of us don’t want it reimposed, formally or informally.

No citizen’s face can be indecent because of gender…It was left to Harriet Harman to make the unequivocal case for women’s rights: “If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it,” she said. “The veil is an obstacle to women’s participation on equal terms in society.”

Just so; because that’s what it’s for; that’s the point of portable segregation. It’s not just a neutral religious symbol, it’s not just a sign of devoutness, it’s not just a ‘choice,’ it’s a barrier between women and the wider world. That’s why sensitive liberals need to give up pretending otherwise.

Harman is astute about the way choice is culturally determined: do women really choose the female roles societies assign them? She is not alone in meeting Muslim woman who are appalled that their own daughters might adopt the veil as a political gesture. It’s a danger to other women’s “choice” if all “good” Muslims are forced to prove their faith by submission.

By submission to the imperative to be things. Don’t do it. Be people.

The higher learning

Oct 19th, 2006 5:11 pm | By

More on Dabashi’s article. I’ve gritted my teeth and read it all now. It’s bad all the way through – it doesn’t take a surprise turn for the better on page 7 or 10.

One thing he wants us all to get is that literature is crucial to empire; in fact it pretty much makes it happen and keeps it going. Without literature – none of it would have happened. Therefore people who teach comparative literature are immensely important. Right? Right.

From Edward Said to Amy Kaplan and Gauri Viswanathan, we now have a sustained body of scholarship, extended from the US, through Europe, to India and by theoretical implication all around the colonised world, a persuasive argument as to how the teaching of English literature has historically been definitive to the British, and now by extension American, imperial proclivities.

Ooh, all the way from one person to two more people, we now have a ‘sustained’ body of scholarship about how – mmph – the teaching of English literature has historically been definitive to imperial proclivities. Hahahahahahahaha! Oh, that’s a good one. (As for what it means, well, don’t press these questions. Surely you know what being definitive to proclivities means, don’t you? All sophisticated scholars know that.)

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s [RLT] is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. [geddit? manufacturing consent] The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement [he means she has some neocon friends] and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture,…glorifying instead a canonised [ooh, canonised – she’s one of those canon people – that’s bad] inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” [eww] are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

Right. She has neocon friends and she writes a book about reading in a small private group, and that places her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire. Case proven; take her away.

I find it prophetic, were it not so obscene, that in the space of the front and back covers of [RLT] we have an updated pedophiliac Orientalism documented so succinctly: on the front cover the picture of two veiled Iranian teenage “girls” and on the back the endorsement of Professor Humbert Lewis of Orientalism himself.

That’s the first of three times he does that – he calls Bernard Lewis Humbert: either Humbert Lewis or (throwing caution to the winds) just plain Humbert Humbert. Because? Well, he hates him; isn’t that a good enough reason?

And now he buckles down to some serious abuse.

The cover of [RLT] is an iconic burglary from the press…In the age of “the end of history,” as Azar Nafisi’s fellow neocon Francis Fukuyama has theorised it…Here again, Azar Nafisi proceeds to crop the picture she portrays inside her book in a fashion similar to the visual burglary she and her publisher commit on its cover–stealing a part of truth to tell a bigger lie.

Nafisi is not in fact a neocon. She has neocon friends; she’s not a neocon herself. But Dabashi feels entitled to go from innuendo about her ‘connections’ to simply calling her something she isn’t – in the very same breath ranting about a cropped picture and burglary, stealing, and a bigger lie. He’s a nasty piece of work.

Decades into a sustained struggle against the domination of Eurocentric curriculum in the US academy, fighting to restore democratic dignity to the world literary scene, Nafisi once again pushes the clock back for about half a century by a singular and exclusive praise for the Eurocentricity of the literary imagination. Promoting the racist cause of a singular literary canon in the United States and Europe goes hand in hand with denigrating, dismissing, or ignoring the existence of non-Euro-American literary and cultural traditions. No one will ever know, reading [RLT], that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own…

Okay stop right there. What’s on page 6 of RLT? “We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherezade, from A Thousand and One Nights…”

Oh never mind that, she’s still trampling the democratic dignity of the world literary scene, and by golly she’s certainly still promoting a racist cause, because that’s an automatic fifty points for Dabashi, even if it doesn’t happen to be true.

But joining the neocon takeover of the democratic institutions of the US by a band of militant renegades, and thus helping build a literary canon for a predatory empire, is an entirely different matter. In the former project you restore dignity and hope to a nation and its cultural resistance to imperial domination; in the latter you seek to steal such dignity and hope from them.

Well he’s already told us, or ‘demonstrated’ as he keeps asserting of scholars he approves of, that Nafisi (or her publisher) is a burglar who steals bits of pictures; clearly she steals everything that’s not nailed down.

Nafisi has never taught at any liberal arts college or university in the US. She is entirely ignorant of or indifferent and hostile to the decades of struggle that racialised minorities and women’s and minority studies have endured to make a dent in the vacuum-packed curricular terrors of the white establishment. At a time when the entire nation is engaged in a radical debate about the necessity of curricular diversity, Azar Nafisi joins ranks with the worst reactionary elements singing the praise of the “Western masterpieces.” After decades of consistent struggles, native-Americans, African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans, feminists, and scores of other denigrated and disenfranchised communities, have successfully engaged the white male supremacist canon of the US higher education…

Translation: Nafisi is not a hotshot at Columbia like me, so it’s an outrage that people bought her book. She’s entirely ignorant, unlike brilliant erudite but radical me, and she’s hostile to minorities, unlike radical anti-racist wonderful me (did I mention I teach at Columbia?) and she’s in cahoots with the curricular terrors of the white establishment (what terrors? You know what terrors!) and she is not one of the Good People who have fought a bloody war with the white male supremacist canon (those canon wars, they’re the worst). She’s clueless and out of it because she doesn’t realize that the entire nation is engaged in a radical debate about the necessity of curricular diversity – how can she not know that? Because she’s evil, and I’m good. Stern, but good. End of translation.

Imagine taking a class with that guy.

An illegitimate tone

Oct 18th, 2006 8:59 pm | By

Right, Hamid Dabashi and his rebuke of Azar Nafisi. Good stuff, is it? Readable? Persuasive? Eloquent? Reasoned? Thoughtful? Fair? Dispassionate?


Let’s sample it.

This body of literature, perhaps best represented by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), ordinarily points to legitimate concerns about the plight of Muslim women in the Islamic world and yet put that predicament squarely at the service of the US ideological psy-op, militarily stipulated in the US global warmongering…”Islam” in this particular reading is vile, violent, and above all abusive of women–and thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men. “White men saving brown women from brown men,” as the distinguished postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak puts it in her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

The distinguished postcolonial feminist, mark, in her seminal essay. Already (this is only page 2 of 11 in the printed version) we are in deadly familiar territory, where the in-crowd is always awarded nice little heaps of flattering adjectives like ‘distinguished’ and ‘seminal’ (those are both favourites – it’s remarkable how predictable Theory-heads allow themselves to be) while the out-crowd is scrupulously forbidden such wanton luxury. Already, only on page 2, we begin to feel the familiar queasy disgust at the mix of abuse and sycophancy. And we read on, and the mix gets more so and then more so – until we feel so sick we can’t read any longer. And it’s only page 4.

…one can now clearly see and suggest that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan…Meanwhile, by seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India…through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an “Oriental” woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies…Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home–all in one act.

And so bloody on. Veering from spit-flecked abuse to vulgar testosteroneish sneering but never losing the overwrought inquisitorial tone – as long as he is talking about Nafisi; but when the Good People enter the picture, of course that’s another story. (Dabashi fumes about Bush and the axis of evil but is apparently too stupid or too excited to realize that he thinks in exactly the same terms himself.)

In his study of the cultural foregrounding of imperialism, Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said examined the overlapping territories, as he called them, between the literary and the political, the cultural and the imperial, in the Euro-American imperial imaginary. This, as he was never tired of repeating, was not to reduce European literature to the political proclivities of any given period, but in fact conversely to posit the political fact, in his proverbial contrapuntal hermeneutics, as the principal interlocutor of the literary event–of the European literature of the period in particular. In her similarly groundbreaking work on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies of an empire and their cultural manifestations, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (2002), Amy Kaplan has demonstrated the link between domestic and foreign affairs in the manufacturing of such an imperial project. In this extraordinary work of literary investigation, Amy Kaplan demonstrates how at least since the middle of the nineteenth century etc etc…From the other side of the same argument, in her pioneering investigative scholarship, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, Gauri Viswanathan has traced etc etc…The study of English literature, as Viswanathan has ably demonstrated etc etc…

Why is this combination of spraying thuggery on the one hand and groveling ass-kissing on the other so repulsive? Because (I guess) it’s a combination of spraying thuggery and groveling ass-kissing. The two just do make a nasty, repellent, stomach-turning pair. Vituperation and accusation immediately followed by beaming smirking licking are a sign of something horribly amiss, of someone with too much bullying rage and too much slavish bootlicking unpleasantly yoked together in one person. And the combination is, of course, especially repellent in an academic. In a corporate executive or an advertising genius or a marketing guru or an entertainment boffin it wouldn’t be attractive, but it wouldn’t be all that astonishing or out of place, either. But academics really aren’t supposed to be that out of control. The writing in that article is just intellectually out of control. It’s swamp thing.

And the guy teaches at Columbia. I don’t want to go all Horowitzy on everyone’s ass, but I find that…disconcerting.

Schools should cross boundaries

Oct 18th, 2006 6:35 pm | By

Is it just me, or does this seem a little confused?

Measure to make all faith schools open their doors to children from other religions are to be considered in an attempt to break down barriers between communities. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, will announce today that he plans to look at the intakes of existing religious schools as part of a review of the admissions code for schools…In remarks likely to alarm supporters of faith schools, Mr Johnson will say in his speech: “Young minds are free from prejudice and discrimination, so schools are in a unique position to prevent social division. Schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and certainly not increase them, or exacerbate difficulties in sensitive areas.”

But then…why are they expanding religious schools? I think Johnson is quite right that schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries (cf Brown v Board of Education for some of the reasons to think that), but then their policy on the issue is – how to put this – wrong, isn’t it? Maybe they’ve decided that.

Emily Bourgeois

Oct 18th, 2006 5:55 pm | By

Update: I now have the crucial bit: contact information. The name of the group is Masaka Children’s Fund. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and therefore donations are tax-deductible. Checks may be sent to:

Masaka Children’s Fund

c/o Loretta Thomas

7450 S. 114th Street

Seattle, WA 98178


I ran into a friend in the library yesterday afternoon. She’s a retired judge, an omnivorous reader, a novelist, and an activist (she did election monitoring in 2004, for instance). She told me she was thinking of going to Uganda for Thanksgiving. I probably looked quizzical, or surprised, or frightened; anyway, she explained: she has this friend, who has a house in Uganda where she shelters orphans and pays for their schooling – with her own savings from a lifetime of working. She’s up to 45 children now. My friend Katharine found out about her via this article in the Seattle Times; she was so impressed she phoned the reporter who put her in touch with Emily Bourgeois. Bourgeois is back in the US now, because she’s used up her savings and plans to work some more so that she can finance more children. I said hey, I can flag her up on B&W. Any readers who have deep pockets and would like to help Emily Bourgeois pay for the schooling of Ugandan orphans, there she is. (She has, Katharine said, now set up a foundation so that she can accept donations.)

Without being co-opted

Oct 16th, 2006 11:31 pm | By

According to The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, read Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article, about the Bush admin’s plans to whack Iran, with dismay.

The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran…His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration’s plans for regime change in Iran. He drew heavily on the late scholar Edward Said’s ideas about the relationship between Western literature and empire and the fetishization of the “Orient” to attack Reading Lolita in Tehran as a prop for American imperialism…In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” he told the magazine.

No difference. Interesting. And pleasant, and reasonable, and conducive to rational dialogue.

I saw the article via Crooked Timber just now, and it grabbed my attention with some violence. It is a subject I think about. The aftermath of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s release brought the subject sharply into relief, and I worried about it a good deal – specifically about the possibility of tainting Iranian reformers, in or out of Iran, by supporting them; or endangering them; or both.

Coincidentally enough, I was interviewed briefly by Maryam Namazie yesterday for her tv programme, and blurted out my worries on this subject. I had a feeling as I was blurting that it wasn’t the ideal thing to say, but it was what came into my head – and it gave Maryam an opportunity to be eloquent about internationalism and solidarity, so perhaps it was all right. (She is damn eloquent, Maryam is.) At any rate, under the circumstances, it really is hard for an American not to worry at all that she could be tainting people with suspicion of being in cahoots with the Bush administration, however unwittingly. As the Chron points out –

The conundrum, say these scholars, is how to voice opposition to the actions of the Islamic Republic without being co-opted by those who seek external regime change in Iran through a military attack. “All of us are mortified about the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran,” says Janet Afary, an associate professor of history and women’s studies on Purdue University’s main campus and president of the International Society for Iranian Studies.

But Tim Burke blows some nonsense out of the water.

But read further, and you’ll see one more thing, which is the underlying manner that a great deal of ostensibly “postcolonial” literary criticism is basically nationalism in disguise, because to Dabashi the greatest sin of Nafisi is that she doesn’t like Iranian culture. E.g., this is not so much about whether or not the post-1979 government is or is not repressive. Dabashi isn’t about to be enough of a tool to argue that it is not repressive. This is about diasporic struggles over national identity, and a pretty crude attempt to rough up someone who speaks as a “national” but commits cultural treason against the nation. Anybody who on this blog, commenter or otherwise, has ever railed against the bullshit cultural nationalism of the American right – the calling out of Sontag et al as traitorously “European”, the argument that any time an American intellectual expresses distaste or disgust for American culture, should recognize what Dabashi is doing here. He is posing the sheer impossibility, in his view, of ever being a native who hates or criticizes his native nation (not government, but nation-as-culture, culture-as-nation). In Dabashi’s reading, the moment that a postcolonial subject expresses that perspective, they MUST, inevitably, be a hollow vessel within which lurks the empire. Whereas “Western” subjects still retain the liberal privilege of hating or disliking their nation; they are choosing subjects. This is noxious on a great many levels, not the least of which is the political puppeteering that is going on here. Western subjects choose and so long as they choose to become anti-national, they are good choosing subjects; native subjects must be loyal to their nation or be nothing more than pawns of empire. Two different kinds of human subjectivity here: what could be more faithful to the colonial bifurcation of the world into West and non-West?

Beautifully said.

To be continued.

Meet the authors

Oct 16th, 2006 5:50 pm | By

See Jeremy and Julian being silly – I mean having a serious (albeit brief) discussion of aesthetics, elitism, cuisine, jazz, preferences, and alphabetization.

Religion and Rationality

Oct 16th, 2006 5:38 pm | By

Martin Newland tells us plaintively that ‘these days people find it hard to accept that religion and rationality can co-exist.’ Well, maybe; some people; other people clearly find it very easy. And as for ‘these days’, I would say the social pressure is running more in the other direction ‘these days’ than it did, say, twenty years ago. But maybe by ‘these days’ Newland means ‘these past three hundred years’.

At any rate, he shows us how well religion and rationality can co-exist.

I am a Roman Catholic. As such, I believe that God took the decision to be born into a poor family in Roman-occupied Palestine. I believe that His short life on earth was spent setting down the rules by which He expected us to live, and I believe that as a sign of His love for us He humbled himself on a cross, died and rose again. I believe that He left behind a church which is infused with His Spirit but also subject to sin. I further believe, if pressed, that the fullest incarnation of God’s plan for his church resides in the Roman Catholic Church, with the successor of St Peter at its head and the Apostolic Succession as its historical guarantor.

Okay [Interlude. My eyes happened to move up from the screen to the window while I thought for a second, and they caught the most lurid rainbow – I had to get up and go stare at it for awhile. You should see it. It happens to end right in the bit of Puget Sound I can see from that window – grey water, grey clouds, and this luridly glowing arc of colour transecting them, hovering above the water. It’s moved closer now and is over the marina and ends on the shipping pier. Now it’s fading. Going…going…whew, that was pretty.] Okay do I think it’s rational to believe those things? No. I can see wanting to believe them, and so deciding to believe them; I can agree that I have plenty of irrational beliefs myself; but I can’t say that I think those beliefs are rational; so in that sense he’s right: I don’t think religion and rationality can co-exist. I think rational people can have irrational beliefs, but I don’t think the irrational beliefs become rational merely because rational people have them; I think they remain irrational. So if Newland’s point is that we should think those beliefs are religious and also rational, it’s a fair cop: I don’t.

He says other things along the way, some of them rather unpleasant.

Reactions in everyday secular society to manifestations of religiosity, such as the veil, range from a patronising accept-ance to the downright insulting…Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims that the veil is not mandated by the Qur’an. But what is mandated is that women cover themselves. What is also mandated is that men dress plainly. And the original texts have been followed, as in all the mainstream faiths, by teachings and interpretation which are also considered by the faithful to be linked to the will of God.

What does that mean, ‘linked to the will of God’? Linked how? In what sense? In what way? By whom? But more to the point – does he not realize what a repulsive phrase that is, ‘what is mandated is that women cover themselves’? Especially when followed by the asymmetrical mandate that men dress plainly? Does he not know how that sounds? Does he not get that it sounds like sheer revulsion and hatred? That it sounds like a visceral reaction to women as both seductive and disgusting? That it frames us as purulent heaving steaming piles of sex organs? He probably doesn’t, but he damn well ought to. He ought to imagine for one second walking down the street in ordinary clothes and having someone shout at him in a voice of rage ‘Cover yourself!’

But I feel a kinship with those Muslim women because the world is full of Jack Straws, who imply by their actions that religiosity entails something vaguely misguided or sinister, something that is ill at ease with public life. By involving the nation in an intensely critical, secularised debate on their personal religious observances, Straw has insulted these women in the same way that I feel insulted and hurt by Madonna aping Christ crucified, by part of the Act of Settlement, by the burning of papal effigies in southern England and by the use of a compulsory BBC licence fee to broadcast the offensive Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But the ‘personal religious observances’ in question are also public, and what we do in public has the potential to be the subject of debate. That’s how it is. (That’s why I never go out. Everybody’s a critic.) At least until theocracy becomes universal (at which time it might not be Newland’s religion that is the favoured one, and he will get all nostalgic for secularism).

Friends in Bangladesh

Oct 15th, 2006 9:12 pm | By

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. He goes on trial on Thursday. He could get the death penalty. For what? ‘His crime is to have tried to attend a writers’ conference in Tel Aviv on how the media can foster world peace.’ Ah yes – that’s a good reason to kill someone.

But few stories better illustrate the Islamist tinderbox that Bangladesh has become than Mr. Choudhury’s. “When I began my newspaper [the Weekly Blitz] in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel,” he says in the first of several telephone interviews in recent days. “In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world’s realities.”

So he was beaten up for ten days, then spent 16 months in solitary confinement, until he was released on bail.

In July, the offices of the Weekly Blitz were bombed by Islamic militants. In September, a judge with Islamist ties ordered the case continued, despite the government’s reluctance to prosecute, on the grounds that Mr. Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and spoiling the image of Bangladesh world-wide. Last week, the police detail that had been posted to the Blitz’s offices since the July bombing mysteriously vanished. The next day the offices were ransacked and Mr. Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob of 40 or so people. Over the weekend he lodged a formal complaint with the police, who responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him. Now he’s on the run, fearing torture or worse if he’s taken into custody.

So it’s time to turn the glare of public attention on Choudhury and his fate. Jeff Weintraub alerted me (and a slew of other people) to the matter, and particularly urged Juan Cole to make a statement about it on Informed Comment. Norm already has a post (Jeff noted that Norm beat him to the punch). Pass it on.

The Wall Street Journal is not letting the Bush admin off the hook on this one.

The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka has kept track of Mr. Choudhury and plans to send an observer to his trial. But mainly America’s diplomats seem to have treated him as a nuisance. “Their thinking,” says a source familiar with the case, “is that this is the story of one man, and why should the U.S. base its entire relationship with Bangladesh on this one man?”…The Bush administration, which every year spends some $64 million on Bangladesh, has made a priority of identifying moderate Muslims and giving them the space and cover they need to spread their ideas. Mr. Choudhury has identified himself, at huge personal risk, as one such Muslim. Now that he is on the run, somewhere in the darkness of Dhaka, will someone in the administration pick up the phone and explain to the Bangladeshis just what America expects of its “moderate and tolerant” friends?

Good luck, Mr. Choudhury. Be well. Solidarity.

It’s wot?

Oct 15th, 2006 12:04 am | By

More on that Eagleton review. I have my doubts about other parts of it.

For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.

Well, for one thing, that depends how you define mainstream Christianity (and I’m not too sure about that ‘always,’ either, in fact I think it’s wrong – for most of mainstream Christianity’s history, honest doubt has damn well not played an integral role, but led straight to the nice hot bonfire). For another thing, it could be seen as a contradiction to say that doubt plays an integral role in belief. For another thing, Eagleton doesn’t do a great job of modelling honest doubt himself.

He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning…The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end. Because the universe is God’s, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom.

How does he know? Where is the honest doubt in all this?

And what does he mean? There’s a lot of it that I can’t make head or tail of. It scans, it makes grammatical sense, but I cannot figure out what it’s saying. Maybe I’m thick. Or maybe there’s no head or tail to be made.

Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.

What does all that mean? Why is believing in God not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist? Why is God not a celestial super-object? And what on earth does it mean to say that theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe? And the bit about transcendence and invisibility? I’m lost. It all seems like pure blather – grand words that fail to refer to anything.

He asks how this chap [meaning God] can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.


For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

Except that ‘he’ (who is not a person, remember – yet ‘he’ does have a gender) is not the answer, because that’s not an answer. It’s just a lot of declaration, most of it incomprehensible.

After that he gets onto Jesus, and that part is much better. Jesus is compelling, and Eagleton puts the rhetoric to better use there. There’s one thing though –

On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.

No, what’s really far more likely is that it will be both. It will be Islamists offing Musharref and taking over Pakistan – and bye bye misbelievers.


Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s. In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago.

But he overplayed his hand, Eagleton ends up. He’s clear enough once he leaves God behind.

One suspects

Oct 14th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

I was stopped cold by a paragraph in Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins’s book in the LRB (it’s subscription, so I can’t link to it; a kind reader sent me a copy). I’ll show you why.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature.

Staggering, isn’t it? One suspects – one suspects – that very few of ‘those’ ‘right-wing’ dons had read much Derrida; one suspects, but one doesn’t know, and one certainly doesn’t offer the reader a shred of reason to share one’s suspicion, or evidence that would back it up, but, nothing perturbed, one immediately proceeds to spring off from one’s own unexplained and unargued suspicion to point out that the ‘right-wing’ dons would doubtless be cross with students who hadn’t done the reading. But one has forgotten – how very quickly, in the space of one sentence – that one doesn’t know (or one would have said so) that the ‘right-wing’ dons hadn’t read much Derrida, one merely suspects it. One has forgotten that one doesn’t know, and one blithely proceeds to use the suspicion to bludgeon someone else, as if a suspicion were the same thing as an established fact.

Then he has the brass to call Dawkins bumptious. One suspects that it is not altogether unfair to think Eagleton is a little bumptious himself, and one directs a bumptious and suspicious raspberry in his direction.

Run like hell

Oct 14th, 2006 6:27 pm | By

Catherine Bennett notes that the Rational Dress Society protested against dress fashion that ‘impedes the movements of the body’ with the result that after three or four decades, women were able to ride bicycles. Well, yes. Clothes and dress codes seem like a comparatively trivial matter, but they’re not. They’re immensely important. I’ve felt that literally all my life – from earliest earliest childhood. I always wore jeans when I could, I always fought wearing a skirt whether for school or for social occasions, I always fought binding or uncomfortable clothes. I remember fussing (okay probably whining) about a dress that was too tight or pinchy somewhere when I was a child; my mother said something to the effect that a little discomfort was the price of looking elegant; I rejected the principle absolutely. And it’s gone on that way ever since. I loathe the dress code for women, and that includes the secular dress code as well as religious ones – I loathe all the things women are expected to wear that impede the movements of the body. Did you know the streets of lower Manhattan were littered with high heeled shoes on September 11? Women are expected (and expect themselves) to dress for work in such a way that they can’t even run. They even, ‘Wonkette’ tells us, amputate ‘their little toes the better to fit their Jimmy Choos’ – and it’s been little more than a century that we’ve been able – and allowed – to ride bicycles, run, play sports, swim freely. Imagine not having that option. Imagine always having to wear a long dress, a corset, little flimsy shoes; imagine never ever being able to run, breathe freely, lounge, jump around – never being able to use your own body in an unconfined untrammeled way. Imagine life imprisonment.

Over a century on, this is just one of the many freedoms that young, enthusiastic female proponents of the jilbab and veil are content, apparently, to deny themselves. Yes, they freely choose not to be able to see properly nor to be able to communicate directly, nor move freely, nor play sports, swim in a public place and willingly embrace all the attendant limitations on their professional and social lives. Meanwhile, they are happy to watch their menfolk caper about, bareheaded, in western trainers and jeans.

Imprisonment for me, freedom for you – ‘freely’ chosen.

All this free choosing, according to Straw’s critics, we should accept, uncritically, at face value, because – here’s their trumping argument – what does freedom mean, if it doesn’t mean being free to oppress yourself? What does freedom mean if you can’t feel comfy in a niqab? Or happy to shave off your hair and wear a wig instead? Or comfortable – if you so choose – with footbinding? Or keen – if that’s what you want – to have a clitoridectomy?

The irony is beautifully stark in this item on a teacher suspended for wearing the niqab in class (the students, not surprisingly, couldn’t understand what she said).

She said: “The veil is really important to all Muslim women who choose to wear it. Our religion compels us to wear it because it’s in the Koran.”

As Edmund Standing pointed out when he sent me the link, note the juxtaposition of the liberal language of choice with the anti-liberal language of religious compulsion. She chooses to be compelled to wear it – and presumably not to fret too much about the women in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iraq and many other places who are unable to choose not to be compelled to wear it.

We do not now have the understanding

Oct 13th, 2006 8:57 pm | By

Sorry – a couple of people have reproached me for linking to Nagel on Dawkins when it’s subscription. Sorry. I got access via bugmenot (which will probably now be taken away) a long time ago, so I forget that it’s subscription. I thought it might be on the Dawkins site but it isn’t, at least not yet. Try bugmenot – it doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does. It’s cheating, but then again, one can read magazines at libraries, and that’s not cheating.

It’s worth the effort (no surprise there).

One of Dawkins’s aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization. He does this by persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and practices. This kind of thing was done more entertainingly by H.L. Mencken (whom Dawkins quotes with admiration), but the taboo against open atheistic scorn seems to have become even more powerful since Mencken’s day.

Just so, perhaps especially in the US (although it seems to me to be pretty powerful [in public discourse] in the UK too). I was saying just that to Jeremy the other day – that yes Dawkins and Dennett are rude about religion, but that I think they do that not because they are smug or arrogant but because the default assumption has become that it is taboo to be scornful of religion, with the result that unbelievers can feel very isolated and peculiar, especially young ones; I think what both are doing is at least partly performing the fact that it is and ought to be permissable to be scornful of religion. They’re performing for that high school student that Dennett talked about in his NY Times Op Ed – the one who felt so isolated and peculiar until Dennett spoke at his school and was quite matter-of-factly atheist. At least I think they are, I think that’s one possible and even likely explanation, though they may also just be being irritated.

I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen Jay Gould’s position that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are other possibilities besides these two that have not even been thought of yet.

That’s just it, in a way – other possibilities. That’s interesting, where saying ‘God’ is the opposite of interesting. It’s about as interesting (and plausible) as saying Joe.

A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation, to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.

You bet. I’m happy to admit that. I resent the ‘God’ answer partly because it claims we do have the knowledge – because it’s content with an answer that’s not an answer, and uses the non-answer to close off the question. It’s doubly annoying.

Then again

Oct 13th, 2006 4:37 pm | By

One the other hand – to be fair – Lakoff disputes Pinker’s review and says it says he says the opposite of what he says.

We been framed

Oct 13th, 2006 4:28 pm | By

Steven Pinker gets off some good zingers at George Lakoff.

If Lakoff is right, his theory can do everything from overturning millennia of misguided thinking in the Western intellectual tradition to putting a Democrat in the White House…Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors, with beliefs determined by the metaphors in which ideas are framed. Cognitive science has also shown that thinking depends on emotion, and that a person’s rationality is bounded by limitations of attention and memory. Together these discoveries undermine, in Lakoff’s view, the Western ideal of conscious, universal, and dispassionate reason based on logic, facts, and a fit to reality. Philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge and ethics, it is a succession of metaphors…Citizens are not rational and pay no attention to facts, except as they fit into frames that are “fixed in the neural structures of their brains” by sheer repetition.

Hmph. I don’t believe it. (Nor does Pinker.) Thinking can depend on emotion without completely ruling out reason based on logic, facts, and a fit to reality – can, and has to, and does.

Finally, even if the intelligence of a single person can be buffeted by framing and other bounds on rationality, this does not mean that we cannot hope for something better from the fruits of many people thinking together–that is, from the collective intelligence in institutions such as history, journalism, and science, which have been explicitly designed to overcome those limitations through open debate and the testing of hypotheses with data. All this belies Lakoff’s cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality.

That captures what I’ve always disliked about Lakoff’s ‘framing’ stuff – its anti-thought, anti-cognitive, anti-intellectual, pavlovian advertising approach. Never mind substance, never mind rational thought about substance, never mind actually thinking about what political candidates say, just offer slogans to counter Their slogans, reflexes to trump Their reflexes, and let it go at that. Meet baby stuff with baby stuff. No thanks, I’d rather do better than that.

Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and not to pay attention to polls. Instead they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ brains. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda, he writes: it is part of the “higher rationality” that cognitive science is substituting for the old-fashioned kind based on universal disembodied reason.


Lakoff’s faith in the power of euphemism to make these positions palatable to American voters is not justified by current cognitive science or brain science. I would not advise any politician to abandon traditional reason and logic for Lakoff’s “higher rationality.”

Yeah. Lakoff’s euphemisms are a tad on the obvious, self-undermining side, also (as Pinker notes) the self-congratulatory side (they almost boil down to ‘just call us The Nice People and all will be well’). His popularity with the Democratic party is 1) suprising and 2) a bad sign.

Picking and choosing

Oct 12th, 2006 12:28 am | By

But David Edgar sees things differently. He sees them strangely, too.

For most of the past 30 years, being in favour of free speech meant being in favour of good things (notably honesty about sexuality) and against denial and repression…Now we are having to defend things we disapprove of, such as the glorification of terrorism or, indeed, calls for censorship. The conundrum that one of the things liberals have to tolerate is intolerance hasn’t needed to be at the forefront of debates on free expression before. It is now, and it should be.

‘One of the things liberals have to tolerate is intolerance.’ No it isn’t. I don’t subscribe to any principle that requires me to tolerate intolerance or to defend things I disapprove of; one of the principles I subscribe to is that things should always be judged on their merits. I think free speech is a good but I don’t think it’s the only good and I don’t think it should always trump other principles; I think it depends. I think free action is a good too, for that matter, but that doesn’t commit me to defending all actions; it depends.

Yes, it is bad for wives to have to obey husbands, or for parents to renounce gay children, but such attitudes were common among this continent’s indigenous peoples until relatively recently – and people coming to live in Europe should not be asked to disavow them as a condition of entry, any more than they should be forced to express opinions on any other matter.

Ah, but that’s not the issue – you’ve given yourself too easy a case there. What about ‘people – men, perhaps? – coming to live in Europe’ who beat their wives or daughters, who take their daughters out of school, who coerce them into marrying someone they don’t want to marry? Or who beat up their gay children rather than merely renouncing them? That’s the issue – not disavowals in airports, but actions.

The title of that bit of wisdom is ‘Sorry, but we can’t just pick and choose what to tolerate’ – which is quite laughable, in a depressing way. Yes we can. That’s exactly what we can do, and have to do, and do in fact do, all the time. We tolerate some things and not others, some actions and not others. Think again, David Edgar.

Houzan Mahmoud

Oct 11th, 2006 11:55 pm | By

Houzan Mahmoud says it clearly enough.

The veil is not merely a piece of “cloth”, but a sign of the oppression of women, control over their sexuality, submissiveness to the will of God or a man. The veil is a banner of political Islam used to segregate women born by historical accident in the so-called “Islamic World” from other women in the rest of the world.

She’s surprised to find herself agreeing with Jack Straw, but also thinks he’s a bit late.

Jack Straw’s government has always been proud of its “multicultural society”, in which all kinds of backward and anti-human cultures are respected and given space by the state. Women from an Islamic background will be among the most oppressed…More than ever I hear many women claiming that wearing the veil, burqa or niqab is their own choice. I totally reject this view. Not wearing the veil can create harsh problems for women – if it doesn’t cost them their life, as in Iraq, it can cost them long-term isolation from their community…The policies of cultural relativism have claimed the lives of many women in the UK, with their killers not properly brought to justice because “culture” and “religion” are taken into account by the courts. Women’s rights are universal…Imagine if a girl has been told to wear the veil from as early as four or five years old, where is the choice in this?…I understand why girls would veil, but I cannot see it as anything other than a solitary confinement prison.

It’s not just a piece of cloth, she says, it’s a political statement, ‘the banner of a political movement, political Islam, in the Middle East, Europe and worldwide. We must take a firm stand against this by demanding secular laws, secular education and equality for all.’ Count me in.