Better Than Being in the Phone Book

May 9th, 2006 2:12 am | By

I found something at Wikipedia. It’s quite amusing.

The entry is: Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

“Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” is a quotation from Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot of 1735, which has entered common use and has become associated with more recent figures.

Ah – has it? Who’s that then?

The philosopher Mary Midgley used a variation on the phrase in an article in the journal Philosophy written to counter a review praising The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, where she cuttingly said that she had “not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” Dawkins replied that this statement would be “hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic.” The name Butterflies And Wheels was then adopted by a website set up to oppose Pseudoscience, Epistemic relativism and those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents.

Why – that’s us. (By ‘us’ I mean all of us, here, reading this and occasionally writing it.) They’re talking about us – me, you, the butterflies, and the wheels. Don’t know why they didn’t make the name a hyperlink, the silly prats, but anyway – it’s fun to make a cameo appearance in an entry.

What Care I For Evidence, Peasant?

May 9th, 2006 1:53 am | By

A reader sent me an article from Nature Immunology a couple of weeks ago – it’s about the part that immunology played in the Dover trial, and very interesting it is. Immunology and the stacks of evidence for how it evolved blew Behe and his black box out of the water. There’s a nice illustration of a tall pile of books with another thick pile of papers on top of it; the caption reads “We can look high or we can look low, in books or in journals, but the result
is the same. The scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system.” The footnote of course is to Darwin’s Black Box.

Here’s the best part:

That background set the stage for the crucial
face-off at the trial…Rothschild then presented
Behe with a thick file of publications
on immune system evolution, dating from
1971 to 2006, plus several books and textbook
chapters. Asked for his response, Behe
admitted he had not read many of the publications
presented (a small fraction of all the
literature on evolutionary immunology of the
past 35 years), but summarily rejected them as
unsatisfactory and dismissed the idea of doing
research on the topic as “unfruitful.”

Judge Jones commented in his decision on that summary rejection:

In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe
was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that
science would never find an evolutionary explanation
for the immune system. He was presented
with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine
books, and several immunology textbook chapters
about the evolution of the immune system;
however, he simply insisted that this was still not
sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was
not ‘good enough.’
We find that such evidence demonstrates that
the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically
unreasonable burden of proof for the
theory of evolution.

That reminds me of something Dawkins says in ‘Root of All Evil?’ to the effect that no matter how much evidence scientists present of evolution or natural selection, it makes no difference at all; creationists don’t trouble to look at it or worry that there’s so much of it, they simply ignore all of it – summarily. A mountain of evidence has exactly the same effect as a grain of it: none whatever. That’s a good point, you know – there’s something badly wrong with a way of thinking that is as blithe about dismissing a mountain of evidence as it is about dismissing a thimblefull.

Bless This Laundry Room

May 8th, 2006 10:08 pm | By

Nnnnnnokay, time for another spot of mockery and ridicule. I’ve done plenty of real work today – plenty, I tell you. Finishing an article, subbing, official correspondence, all sorts. (Of course, I also took an hour or so to go for a walk in the fat leafy yellow-green lush spring streets, but hey, I’m not a vegetable, here, I can’t sit at the desk for twelve hours straight.) So it’s time for dessert. (Yes, besides the orange, and besides the chocolate cookie. Be quiet.)

Well, after all, what do you expect, when you get real estate agents and vicars together? Rational dialogue? I don’t think so. On the one hand you got people who talk about fabulous homes with cozy stoves and divine soffits and the original reputable hand-carved Torrescino marbled antiqued spotted louvered hatchukas, and on the other hand you got people who talk to an imaginary playmate, so you see what I’m getting at.

The Church of England is going into partnership with estate agents to offer blessing services to people moving home. From this week, house buyers in a number of dioceses will be offered the services of a vicar, who will say special prayers to cover almost every eventuality.

The hatchuka breaking down, the soffits going mouldy, the hand-carved Torrescino marbling peeling off and dribbling onto the Swedish hand-sanded birch flooring, the spiders taking over the bathtubs completely, the den filling up with bears, the flat-screen tv not being flat enough – all of it will have been foreseen and prayed about and warded off and prevented by an honest to god authentic hand-dressed black and white two-eyed church of England vicar. Now that’s exciting.

As the vicars go from room to room, they will lay hands on everything from the bed, praying for a healthy sex life, to the lavatory, asking for “good health and to give thanks for sanitation”.

Wait – wait, wait, wait, you forgot the prayer of protection, and the going in with the left foot first, and the facing not Mecca, and not the opposite of Mecca, but the side (the side of you, towards Mecca, so that you’re facing the side, instead of Mecca – see?), and the squatting, and the door closed, and the not doing it in front of fifteen people who have just sat down to three-cheese lasagne and spinach salad and don’t want to watch, and the making sure to do what the prophet did, because only the prophet knows how to use the toilet the right way, even though he never actually clapped eyes on one. Just asking for good health and saying thanks for the sewer system is nowhere near enough. Pikers.

In the kitchen they will say: “O Lord, to all who shall work in this room that, in serving others, they may serve you and share in your perfect service and that in the noise and clutter of the kitchen they may possess you in tranquillity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” A prayer for the garage says: “Almighty and everlasting God, be to this household a guide in all their journeys and a shield from every danger.”

The noise and clutter of the kitchen! What noise and clutter? Who are these people, how do they think they know what our kitchens are like? My kitchen happens to be exactly like an undisturbed expanse of new snow: chilly, pale, clean, pure, and silent. Noise and clutter indeed. I save that sort of thing for the living room, thank you.

Mr Painter said: “We will pray for people who are anxious about dry rot that they will be given guidance about how to tackle it. There will be those who are worried about security and we will ask God to watch over the house.”

So…praying is a way to get guidance for people who are worried about dry rot? Not just, you know, looking up dry rot in the yellow pages, or online, or in one of those Yes of Course You Can Do House Repairs Yourself books? No no, I know, that’s a silly question. Anyway, I gotta go: I’m going to go back to school to get a degree in real estate divinity.

On Euthanasia

May 8th, 2006 2:17 am | By

George Felis wrote such an elegant and apposite comment in reply to another commenter that I wanted to put it on the main page.

You apparently missed the word “voluntary.” You typed out the word, but then you talked about doctors and relatives instead of focusing on the choices available (or denied) to suffering people – and not necessarily just the elderly. (I will simply ignore your instant degeneration into Nazi comparisons, which in reasoned argument is always the first resort of a scoundrel.) Have you actually read anything about the specific proposed law? Or are you opposing it on general principle and your vague suspicions about doctors’ and relatives’ nefarious “utilitarian” motives? Because the actual bill being proposed by Joffe is very clear about specifics like multiple explicit consent decrees, and has a mental health clause as well. The proposed law makes euthanasia genuinely voluntary, and a nearly identical law has worked very well in Oregon with absolutely NO evidence of any of the horrible consequences that slippery-slopers always predict (with confidence inversely proportional to their actual evidence).

In fact, Oregon ranks very high (if not highest) among U.S. states in terms of number and quality of palliative care facilities, the very opposite of what opponents to voluntary euthanasia always predict. The failure of euthanasia opponents’ slippery slope scenarios is unsuprising, because their fears about life becoming “de-valued” are predicated on a warped view of what constitutes valuing life in the first place. To value life simply is to think that no one should suffer needlessly, and to think that everyone has a basic right to self-determination (among other things). To insist that valuing life requires the preservation of life no matter what – without regard to the choices of the person whose life it is, without regard to their suffering – ignores freedom and happiness, which are surely chief amongst those things which give human life value. Such a view fetishizes mere metabolism, reduces the value of life to the continued ticking of the body’s workings.

As for the fears of the elderly… If you think the elderly don’t fear wasting away in agony and/or in a humiliating fashion, then you haven’t spoken to that many elderly people about this subject. I’m not particularly elderly myself, and I fear that sort of death. Having watched my father waste away in agony over the course of several slow months as cancer consumed him, it is a very well-grounded and rational sort of fear at that.

On the more practical/legal side of the argument, the anti-euthanasia case is even worse. There is no law in the UK or the US against suicide as such, but the law prevents those who would willingly and with clear mind make that choice for themselves from carrying out their wishes in the best fashion by denying them medical help. By denying patients that right, current law actually makes it easier for non-voluntary euthanasia to be carried out by those utilitarian doctors you implicate. You are no doubt correct in your suspicion (implied) that some doctors, using overprescription of opiates and similar covert methods, do what they (or the patient’s relatives) think is best – with or without the active voluntary consent of the patient: Since a majority (or at least a significant minority) of people of good will support a patient’s right to choose an end to his or her own suffering, but the law forbids a physician to aid the patient to that end, there is a very natural tendency to assume that a terminally ill patient who dies suddenly chose death of his or her own free will – but that no one (doctors, relatives) can say so without running afoul of the law. In the face of this very commonly made assumption, the absence of any evidence against voluntary consent is taken blindly as evidence for voluntary consent – a gross logical error, of course, but a common (and emotionally easy) error to make in this situation. A law that allows physician-assisted suicide only under conditions of very explicit consent undermines this pernicious assumption, ensuring that every case of euthanasia is genuinely voluntary – and encouraging investigation into sudden deaths where euthanasia has not been explicitly requested.

ICA Talk on Troof

May 7th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

So, those of you in or around London have a joyous opportunity to go to a talk on the question ‘Does Truth Matter?’. It sounds like fun to me. I’d go if I were in or near London – if I could scrape together the 8 quid.

Truth has become a nebulous, even unfashionable notion in our contemporary society. Relativism and postmodernism have undermined our belief in the importance and certainty of truth.

On what basis can we now investigate the validity of claims by our politicians – the existence of weapons of mass destruction, for example? Is there still a moral imperative to tell the truth?

Speakers: Simon Blackburn, professor of Philosophy at Cambridge; Stephen Law, lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College and editor of the journal Think; Nick Cohen, journalist for the Observer, New Statesman and New Humanist. Chair: Jeremy Stangroom, author and co-editor of Philosophers’ Magazine.

Lucky you – maybe you’ll get to hear Jeremy say ‘No, it doesn’t,’ and giggle.

Religion-bashing #978

May 7th, 2006 8:04 pm | By

Here’s one reason we don’t want to pretend that morality and the meaning of life are the work of religion and only religion – the bishops.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will lead the opposition in the House of Lords this week to a bill that aims to allow voluntary euthanasia…The bishops of Oxford, Portsmouth and St Albans are among senior figures who will back the archbishop in the debate.

Senior. Meaning what. They’re old? Or they have some kind of elevated standing? But elevated standing in and on what? The Anglican church – which has no special expertise in the subject, and is in some ways handicapped for discussing it or thinking about it sensibly, by the fact that it takes orders from a supernatural being who probably isn’t there.

The Catholic Church in England has been campaigning against the bill and has urged members to write to MPs and peers expressing their opposition to voluntary euthanasia.

Thus making Peter Fosl’s point for him.

Like other ideologies, religion instructs and even commands people about what they should value and how they should conduct themselves…Many clerics actually tell their congregations how to vote. It’s simply not acceptable for a participant to enter public debate, have such a powerful effect upon it, and then claim immunity from the sort of treatment to which other participants are subject.

It’s simply not acceptable, and yet it is exactly how things are. Religion gets special protection and immunity, and it is casually granted monopoly rights over all sorts of fundamentally important questions which concern everyone and which religion often makes a mess of. Bad situation.

Lord Joffe says the campaign has turned nasty. He has received bags of hate mail including letters accusing him of being a Nazi and comparing his euthanasia bill to actions during the Holocaust. “Malice and aggression pervades (some of) these letters without any wish by the authors to debate,” he said. “It is a matter of faith but there is no Christian compassion and plenty of blind hatred.”

Matters of faith are all too susceptible to this vice of blind hatred. Hence the need to be cautious about ‘faith’.

Veto That Demand

May 7th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

Earlier this morning while working on something unrelated to B&W (which I do occasionally) I was reading this review by Judith Shulevitz of books on the conflict between evolution and creationism by Eugenie Scott and Michael Ruse respectively, and I was brought up short by this gloss on Ruse’s argument:

Nonetheless, he says here, we must be careful about how we use the word “evolution,” because it actually conveys two meanings, the science of evolution and something he calls “evolutionism.” Evolutionism is the part of evolutionary thought that reaches beyond testable science. Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective.

Okay not so fast. Hang on a minute. What do you mean all the work of a religion? Who says that is the work of a religion? and even if you concede that other disciplines or ways of thinking or systems of ideas also do that work, who says that’s the work of a religion at all? why is it the work of a religion? What qualifications does a religion bring to the task? What tools of inquiry does it use? What kind of logic does it apply? What are its criteria for accepting or rejecting evidence? What is religion’s special knowledge or expertise or insight into those questions that is available only to religion and not to any other interested human inquirer? I’m serious, now – please name one. People never do. When one asks that question, people never do answer – at least not that I’ve seen. What tools does religion have that no one else has that enable it to ‘do the work’ of addressing those questions? I want to know. And if the answer is, ‘Er, don’t know,’ then why is that platitudinous falsehood so endlessly recycled? I want to know.

It’s just a big damn falsehood, it seems to me. The part of evolutionary thought that reaches ‘beyond’ testable science is the kind of necessarily (because of the reaching beyond bit) speculative thought that is open to anyone to pursue. There is no magical third category where the thought is still speculative but it has some sort of voodooish instrumentation and rules of logic or llojick and special weird untestable evidence or evvedentz that is accessible only to graduates of theological seminaries. Nuh uh. There ain’t no such. There’s only the real world of empirical inquiry of various kinds, and the unreal world of speculation and supernaturalism (or if you prefer the reaching beyond testable science), where the findings may or may not be true but are (by definition) not subject to verification. That second world is wide open. By its nature, it has no expertise, because there is nothing for it to have expertise in. Expertise in speculation about The Beyond is a peculiar kind of expertise – which is to say, no expertise at all. Thus religion doesn’t get to declare a monopoly on the subject. So it’s just flat-out false to say or imply that evolutionary thought is as it were trespassing on religion’s territory, or committing some kind of lèse majesté or blasphemy or violation of the sacred by addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. Don’t people think about what they’re saying? Don’t they realize that it is a disaster to claim that only religion is allowed or qualified to address those questions, that those questions are its (and implicitly only its) ‘work’? Do we want religion and only religion addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it? I sure as hell don’t! I want good, sane, rational answers to those questions, not woolly pious authoritarian rootless ones. Those questions are public ones, wide open ones, ones that benefit from rational inquiry; they’re not special, sacred, fenced-off, taboo ones, and religions don’t get to declare them such. Some religious believers want them to be able to declare them such, but the rest of us have to veto that demand. So if Ruse is claiming that evolutionary thinkers should forbid themselves to address such questions, by way of placating and mollifying religious believers and the ID crowd – I just think he’s wrong.

A Mensch

May 7th, 2006 1:58 am | By

Now, to stop messing around and being so silly for a moment – don’t miss this blog about Ramin Jahanbegloo’s case. It’s full of useful information, which saves us the trouble of looking via Google news. But it’s all pretty alarming.

A prominent Iranian-Canadian arrested in Tehran, reportedly under accusations of espionage, is being held under circumstances similar to those of murdered Montreal photojournalist Zara Kazemi because Iran is loath to let foreign diplomats meddle in domestic cases, government officials and those connected to the Kazemi case warned yesterday. Ramin Jahanbegloo, an internationally known human rights advocate, was arrested around April 27 when he stopped at the Tehran Airport on his way from India to attend a conference in Brussels…When the former University of Toronto professor failed to arrive in Brussels on Saturday, his colleagues contacted Canadian officials. Ottawa has already made inquiries of Iranian officials in Tehran and in Canada. Even with reports last night that Mr. Jahanbegloo has already been placed under medical care, Ottawa has been unable to secure a visit with the Canadian citizen…Mr. Jahanbegloo is reportedly being held in the notorious Evin prison, where many political prisoners have reported being tortured until they confessed to crimes…A friend of Mr. Jahanbegloo, Shahram Kholdi, said the academic has already been transported to hospital for unknown medical treatment, CBC reported yesterday.

I do not like the sound of that at all. Or of anything else in that article. It’s very very worrying. Don’t do it, Iran.

I’m outraged,” said Mohamed Tavakoli, a professor of Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Toronto who worked with Mr. Jahanbegloo and invited him to Toronto for the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in 2004. “He represents a political trend in Iran that focuses on the civilization of dialogue, respect for difference and calls for tolerance,” Mr. Tavakoli said in an interview. “As an intellectual, he takes pleasure in conversing with people of various political cultural persuasions. His love for difference should not be a political charge against him.”…Mr. Tavakoli called his colleague, “charismatic, a mensch of a guy” and “a global intellectual, a truly cosmopolitan intellectual.”

Cosmopolitan intellectuals are just the kind we want to hold onto for dear life. Plus he’s a mensch. (I do love it when guys named Mohamed call a friend a mensch. It makes me get all chokey. It’s so cosmopolitan.)

Turn Around at Once!

May 7th, 2006 1:30 am | By

So we’ve been wrestling with some very technical issues – specifically, with how the injunction that it is ‘unacceptable for Muslim inmates to face Mecca while using the toilet’ works out in practice. We’ve been wondering whether it’s unacceptable to face Mecca while using the toilet but acceptable to turn one’s back on Mecca while using the toilet, and if so, why, since it would seem to be at least as rude to defecate at Mecca as it is to look towards Mecca while defecating away from it. So an inquiring commenter (or a commenting inquirer) found out, and now we know.

The Qur’an states that one should enter the restroom with left foot first while saying a prayer of protection. It is not permissible to enter a restroom while carrying anything that bears the name of Allah, such as the Qur’an, or any book with the name of Allah in it, or jewelry such as bracelets and necklaces engraved with the name of Allah.

Gee – it dawns on me that I’ve never in my life given any thought to which foot is the first over the threshold of the room with the toilet in it – it’s always just whichever one gets there first. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. It’s never both though – I never jump in. But, frighteningly, I also never say a prayer of protection while whichever foot it is is making the transition between the bedroom or hall and the room with toilet. Never. It’s never occurred to me. Isn’t that funny now. I suppose it’s because I’m not aware of the dangers? Which are? That the sharks or Komodo dragons or Loch Ness monsters or crayfish that live in the toilet might come leaping out as I pass between the outer space and the toilet-containing inner one, and fling themselves onto my carotid artery and neatly sever it? That the spider that’s sitting peacefully in the bathtub wondering why it keeps doing this will suddenly race up the side and catapult itself into my face and deliver a poisonous bite? That the floor will give way and drop me into a tank full of serial killers swimming in acid? Oddly, I’ve never considered any of those possibilities. I’m curiously unimaginative, even phlegmatic, apparently. From now on I think I’ll have a minor nervous breakdown every time I enter that room, and wish I knew a prayer of protection.

“When the Prophet felt the need of relieving himself, he went far off where no one could see him”. It is implied that one should be out of sight, thus doors of toilets should be securely closed.

Because of the prophet. Otherwise it would never have occurred to anyone. Christians and atheists of course relieve themselves wherever they happen to be when they feel the need: at parties, in the middle of other people’s living rooms, at the dinner table, on the bus, wherever. We’re a gregarious, uninhibited, sharing bunch. Plus it saves all that trouble with keeping track of the feet and dodging the sharks.

Now we get to the bit we were looking for.

Islam prohibits facing the Qiblah while defecating. The Prophet said “if you go to defecate, do not face the Qiblah nor turn your back toward it. Instead, you should turn to your left side or your right side”…[I]t is something forbidden in both open and enclosed areas and it is best to refrain from doing so as much as possible out of respect for the Qiblah.

This thing about turning to a side makes me uneasy. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the front and the back are wide, but the side is narrow. Have you ever noticed that? We are so, like, not symmetrical that way – not cubic. We’re not the same on all four sides; we’re like a handkerchief box instead of like an orange box. We’re flat. Not really flat, of course, but not cube-like. So if we turn our sides to this Qiblah, we’re not really facing away from it, and we don’t really have our backs turned away from it either. It seems a little unfortunate to me – an unsatisfactory compromise. We can look toward Mecca out of the corner of one eye while we’re on the can, and one side of our bum is facing that way too – so we’re sort of offending both ways. I tell you what, I don’t like it. I think it should be changed so that it’s respectful to face the Qiblah, because that way the bum is as far away from the Qiblah as it can get, and there is no ambiguity with these skinny sides. But that’s not what the prophet said, of course, he said sides, so sides it is. I’m glad I’m an atheist and get to go just any old where.

Free Exercise 2

May 5th, 2006 8:40 pm | By

A further thought on The Righteousness of Blasphemy.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas. Here’s why.

Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines.

Actually I’m not sure that’s quite true (unless I misunderstand what Peter Fosl means by ‘formally’ and/or ‘discourse’, which is quite possible). In the US, for one thing, the free exercise clause of the Constitution results in the fact that, in a legal sense, there is something special about religious doctrines: they have special protection. This is unfortunate, I think, but it’s a fact. How that clause should be interpreted in practice is a highly contested issue, as we saw last month in Free Exercise. Different courts decide differently, and things change as circumstances (and attitudes) change.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle.

But that doesn’t detract from the basic point – although some religious people would argue that indeed it does: that the right to free exercise of religion does indeed entail protection from ridicule, jokes, searching questions, and blasphemy. There is a large strain of thought that thinks the right to free exercise of religion requires interfering with all sorts of other rights and the free exercise of all sorts of other activities. Some people think they can’t freely exercise their religion in Arkansas if there is an atheist freely talking in Seattle. And at the moment the tide is running more in their favour than in that of the atheists.

Oh Look, it’s the Pontiff

May 5th, 2006 5:34 pm | By

Actually of course it’s quite funny in a way. I keep laughing about it. I find myself having written a book (a whole book, mind you, not just an article or a wee pamphlet) about why truth matters with someone who isn’t quite sure Afrocentric history shouldn’t be taught in universities. There is something very funny about that, in a banana peel kind of way. Especially since there is a whole thick section of Why Truth Matters that talks about Afrocentric history, in some detail. And it doesn’t talk about it from the point of view that it’s kind of a good thing, or that it has its virtues; rather the contrary. So apparently the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke. It’s kind of like having written a book about the faults and errors of the Catholic church with someone who turns out on closer inspection to be the pope. Oh, oops! My mistake!

Yup. Pretty funny.

Doing My Bit

May 5th, 2006 2:28 am | By

Oh come on, Todd, tell us what you really think.

Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of “No Child Left Behind” while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a “Christian nation.” When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings…his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.

Yeah, so? You got a problem with that? You a Naleetest or something?

In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists’ resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics.

Hey Todd! [jumps up and down, waves, whistles] Over here! One dissenting intellectual* doing her best to stand for reason and asking how it came to pass and exploring the subject and studying contrary tendencies. That’s me, you’re describing me.** I just thought you’d like to know – there are some like that.

Among the topics they might explore: the academic left’s ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory” from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification.

Nope, not me, I do that other thing you said: I explore the tropism for foreign saviors, the reliance on intricate jargon, the commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory”. That’s what I do – down the nights and down the days, that’s what I do. Little children flee from me, because I try to tell them about the hybridity of the subaltern, and it makes them cry.

It don’t pay well, but it’s steady work.

*or pseudo-intellectual, or would-be intellectual, or crawling toadying lickspittle, or pathetic pretentious ignorant Shakespeare-reading snob.

**except probably for the intellectual part, on account of I’m not qualified.

Charlie Brown and Lucy Go Another Round

May 4th, 2006 9:05 pm | By

The HERO interview is kind of a risible train wreck. It starts off by referring to ‘The [B&W] site’s editors Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’ which of course is nonsense: there’s only one editor, and I’m it. JS has nothing to do with the content. (That’s not HERO’s fault: it no doubt got that from the Why Truth Matters jacket, which calls both of us editors of B&W. I wanted to correct that, but I was overruled.) So it starts off with an inaccuracy, and then proceeds to serve up a series of clashing replies, where I say something and JS says the opposite. (Maybe that’s a good thing – maybe it’s interesting and piquant. Maybe readers will think ‘how did these people ever manage to collaborate on a book, and what can it possibly be like?’) It ends with a grand flourish as JS cheerily disavows everything the book is about. Makes for quite a surrealistic read.

But, as I say, who knows, maybe that’s brilliant; maybe something so ludicrous and shambolic (and slightly sadistic) will make people eager to read the book. Maybe it’s postmodernism, its hour come round at last.


May 4th, 2006 5:10 pm | By

More than one identity again. More than one community again. Things aren’t quite that simple again. Take a closer look again.

But speaking of a “Muslim community” is as misleading in the Balkans as it is in Western Europe…In Albania — declared the world’s first atheist state in 1967 – Islam is the dominant religion, but the majority of the population is secular…Kosovo, apart from the Serb minority and a few pockets of Roman Catholicism, is almost completely Muslim, but pronouncedly secular.

But there are people who would like to change that.

Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, has been actively promoted within the region’s Islamic communities over the past 15 years, both by (mainly Saudi) humanitarian groups and by locals returning from religious studies in the Middle East.

An unhappy development.

But while these streams may be radical, they’re also marginal. In Albania, as well as in Macedonia, the overwhelming majority of Muslims practice their faith in a peaceful and tolerant manner. Perhaps due to the communist heritage, religion for many is more a matter of preserving their tradition than devotion with political implications.

Read the rest. It’s a long and interesting article.

Not so Much Roasted as Fried

May 4th, 2006 4:44 pm | By

So Bush wasn’t all that pleased and flattered by the attentions of Stephen Colbert. Huh. I thought he was supposed to have such a great sense of humour – I thought he was supposed to be such a kidder. (He was awfully funny about Tanya Faye Tucker pleading for clemency, and there was that great joke about Trent Lott’s front porch. He’s a funny guy. Gets it from his mother, apparently – those jokes about the good life at the Houston astrodome were real thigh-slappers.) But apparently he looked more as if he had a mouthful of bleach.

Mr. President and first lady, my name is Stephen Colbert and it’s my privilege tonight to celebrate this president. He’s not so different, he and I. We both get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.

Well, I think that’s funny. I’ve heard more than enough drivel like that to find mockery of it pretty funny. Bush needs some vitamins or something.

I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world…But I just have one beef, ma’am. I’m sorry, but this reading initiative. I’ve never been a fan of books. I don’t trust them. They’re all fact, no heart. I mean, they’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen.

Yep. Anti-gut, that’s what they are.

The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

That one’s more like straightforward reportage than a joke.

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

May 4th, 2006 12:39 am | By

Another one of those too-easy marks, but I can’t let it go. I never can. I’m bad that way. [voice rising to a shriek] I just can’t let anything go! It’s Giles Fraser daydreaming again.

What is fascinating about the ill-fated combination of the BNP and Christian Voice is that it demonstrates how deeply resistant Christianity is to all forms of racism. It has not always been apparent that this was the case. After all, Christianity had a hand in slavery and apartheid.

Sorry, people of Putney, but I find that hilarious. It has not always been apparent that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. Why? Because it had a hand in slavery – meaning, for not just a few minutes or a week or two or fifty years but centuries, official Christianity and most of its practitioners slept soundly every night and ate a good dinner every noon despite the presence of slavery in their midst, sometimes so in their midst that it raised and cooked the good dinner and generated the wealth that paid for the fluffy pillows and the houses that sheltered them. But nevertheless it was (because it is) the case that Christianity is deeply resistant to all forms of racism. This tranquil ability to live happily and prosperously right alongside it and often right off it, with whippings and overwork and broken-up families all complete, was a mere appearance, you see; the resistance was the reality. A deeply buried, hidden, undetectable reality, to be sure, kind of like the structure of the atom, but a reality all the same. Only for a long, long, long time, while generations of slaves were born and lived crappy lives and died, this hidden fact was not apparent. These things take time, you know. The apparent does not always become apparent just right away – sometimes it takes thousands of years. But finally the mills of god deliver the goods, and they do it right around the time that modern compassionate vicars who think slavery is a bad idea are on hand to look at the view. Then lo! the vicar looks at the view, and he sees the Christianity of his own day, and he sees a religion that is deeply resistant to all forms of racism – not just at the moment, contingently, but of its essence, and for all time – only not in a way that is apparent.

But Christianity also played a decisive role in the dismantling of both. For every bigot wanting to exploit Christianity in the service of racist ideology, there is a Wilberforce or a Tutu reminding Christians of what’s in the Bible.

Oh well that’s fine then. Christianity propped slavery up for a few centuries, and then finally when it got its wits together, it inspired a tiny minority of Christians to think slavery was a bad idea. And as for the second sentence – bullshit! Are there in fact as many Tutus as there are racist bigots? Of course not. Racist bigots are a dime a dozen, and Tutus are not. So what does he mean by saying their numbers are exactly equivalent? Nothing, he just wasn’t thinking, that’s all; he wanted to say what sounded good and he didn’t think about his own meaning.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say it’s not admirable and moving when religion does stiffen people’s resistance to racism and other injustice. It’s just to say that ‘apparent’ lack of resistance to racism is something more than mere appearance. It’s the genuine article.


May 2nd, 2006 9:27 pm | By

This is very funny. At least I think so. Apparently what it is, is a blog set up by an English teacher at a small US college (or perhaps university), where students are supposed to post as part of their coursework. Actually that’s not funny; given the level of difficulty of what they’re doing and the fact that this is a college or even a university, it’s bottomlessly depressing; given the fact that some of them are seniors and juniors, it’s – oh never mind. Anyway, their first assignment was to post urls of five misleading websites and explain why they are misleading. Well (you’ll have realized where I’m going with this) – guess who made the cut! I’m so proud. The others are just obvious choices like weight-loss sites and diploma mills and sites that give you free money, but with the last item we hit pay dirt – we hit a really, genuinely, bafflingly misleading site. Misleading not because it pretends it can make you lose 200 pounds in a week or because it’s going to tell you how to make millions of dollars with just a spoon and a Jack Russell terrier – no, that’s kid stuff, this site is misleading because for one thing what the hell is the name supposed to mean?! What butterflies? Where? I don’t see any fokkin butterflies! And what’s with the wheels bit? And what is all this stuff, and what are they trying to do, and where am I?

This site is misleading because its title is butterflies but it talks about issues other than butterflies. The information doesn’t seem legitimate. Topics aren’t clear to me. It seems that this website is based on opinions and not real facts. Not sure what this website is trying to accomplish. The look of the website isn’t appealing and not very clear as to where I should go. It has links to other sites but I don’t know if I would trust the information given.

Very true. Why do people do that? Have titles with words in them but talk about issues other than those words? And information that doesn’t seem legitimate? It’s puzzling.

Mind you, it’s also puzzling that a bit of writing that brief and with such short, clause-free sentences (and such minimal research and sub-minimal thought) should constitute an acceptable assignment in a college English class, but so it is.

The Royal George

May 2nd, 2006 1:42 am | By

Okay, what does Bush mean by it?

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution…Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush’s assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ”to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ”execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional.

Because – why? Because he’s a constitutional scholar? Because even if he’s not a scholar he knows more than most people about what’s constitutional and what isn’t? Because he knows anything at all about what is constitutional? Because it says in the Constitution that if a president ‘believes’ a given law is not constitutional he can just ignore it? Because the US president has unlimited, monarchical powers? Because magical powers to interpret the Constitution correctly pass to the new president the moment CBS news says who won Ohio? Because presidents who are elected because their father was president sometime in the previous decade have special rights to ignore laws whenever they dang well feel like it? Because presidents who have signed more death warrants than anyone else in the country are empowered to bypass laws? Because presidents who are in office when people fly airplanes into buildings are permitted to tear up all laws that they find pesky?

No, none of those reasons, I don’t think, on account of how none of those are true. So, why, then?

Far more than any predecessor, Bush has been aggressive about declaring his right to ignore vast swaths of laws — many of which he says infringe on power he believes the Constitution assigns to him alone as the head of the executive branch or the commander in chief of the military. Many legal scholars say they believe that Bush’s theory about his own powers goes too far and that he is seizing for himself some of the law-making role of Congress and the Constitution-interpreting role of the courts.

Well that certainly is what it sounds like.

Bush administration spokesmen declined to make White House or Justice Department attorneys available to discuss any of Bush’s challenges to the laws he has signed. Instead, they referred a Globe reporter to their response to questions about Bush’s position that he could ignore provisions of the Patriot Act. They said at the time that Bush was following a practice that has ”been used for several administrations” and that ”the president will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution.” But the words ”in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution” are the catch, legal scholars say, because Bush is according himself the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution. And he is quietly exercising that authority to a degree that is unprecedented in US history.

Gee – here was I thinking the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution was supposed to be a Supreme Court thing, not a president thing. I must have done more sleeping in government class than I thought.

Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said the American system of government relies upon the leaders of each branch ”to exercise some self-restraint.” But Bush has declared himself the sole judge of his own powers, he said, and then ruled for himself every time. ”This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy,” Fein said. ”There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.”

There’s something deeply enraging about the whole thing. Who does that man think he is? (God’s chosen, I know. Don’t remind me.)

Blasphemy Rocks

May 1st, 2006 1:30 am | By

Someone should have said this long ago.

Something terribly important has been missing from discussions orbiting around the Mohammed cartoons…What’s been missing has been an acknowledgment that blasphemy isn’t just something that must be tolerated. It’s something that possesses a special political value of its own. Blasphemy, in short, is a good thing. It’s something admirable, noble, and, yes, even respectable.

Actually…now you mention it…somebody ought to start a magazine called Blasphemy. And mean it.

It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticize and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas…Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines. Like other ideologies, religion instructs and even commands people about what they should value and how they should conduct themselves…Many clerics actually tell their congregations how to vote. It’s simply not acceptable for a participant to enter public debate, have such a powerful effect upon it, and then claim immunity from the sort of treatment to which other participants are subject.

Exactly! They don’t get to mix it up so thoroughly in public debate and then demand immunity. They don’t get to dive head-first into the profane and then demand (with threats and menaces) to be treated as sacred.

The article is in an Open Debate at TPM: you can reply to it, and Peter Fosl will reply to three of the best, which will (I think, although it doesn’t say that on the page) be published in the magazine.

One for the Dictionary

May 1st, 2006 1:14 am | By

Here’s something I’d like to know. Why do people keep calling Galbraith an ‘unapologetic’ liberal? Why is being a liberal something one is expected to apologize for?