What else is disposable?

Oct 10th, 2006 6:53 pm | By

The BBC also discussed the limbo question.

But limbo has long been a problem for the Church. Unease has remained over reconciling a Loving God with one who sent babies to limbo and the Church has faced much criticism.

So – there’s unease about a loving god who sends babies to limbo, but what about a loving god who gives babies diseases, or one who lets babies get scalded, or raped (it happens), or beaten, or crushed (slowly) after earthquakes? What about a loving god who hands babies and children over to parents who neglect them or tell them they’re ugly and stupid or sell them into slavery or yank them out of school and force them to marry strangers? What about a loving god who allows all the suffering that sentient beings undergo on this particular planet? I’m curious about that. I’m permanently curious about it. Curious and also worried: because I think the resolution or repression of the problem has some unpleasant consequences – a justification or minimization of suffering that is not morally healthy. I don’t think we ought to reconcile a loving god with the way things are for sentient beings; I don’t think it can be done, and I think the attempt is corrupting.

But, that’s a separate issue, so never mind that for now.

But there are those who argue that it is not simply a “hypothesis” that can just be swept aside; that the notion that unbaptised children do not go to heaven has been a fundamental part of Church teaching for hundreds of years. Then, of course, there is the argument that if this can be abolished, what else is disposable?

My point exactly. If it’s been a fundamental part of Church teaching for hundreds of years then members of the church were expected to take it seriously; they were expected to believe it and take it as true, not just think it was an interesting notion of the church hierarchy that they could take or leave. And given that, it is surely bound to give believers pause to have the hierarchy suddenly say ‘Oh, wait, we’ve changed our minds.’ It just is. They’re bound to wonder why, if the idea has turned out to be as revisable as all that, they were told it was true for so long. And as the BBC shrewdly points out, if they wonder that, they’ll also wonder what else is disposable. Why would they not?

The War on Religion

Oct 10th, 2006 2:09 am | By

You know the US is in the grip of a war on religion, right? Sure. That’s why there are all these religious exemptions cluttering up the place.

Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.

Well that’s good thinking. State licensing requirements were tightened presumably to improve the safety of day care centers – but church day care programs are exempt. On what grounds? Because if children in those programs crack their skulls on the concrete under the swing set, they’ll go to heaven so it’s okay? Because the church needs the money? What?

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly. Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

Some legal scholars and judges see the special breaks for religious groups as a way to prevent government from infringing on those religious freedoms.“Never forget that the exercise of religion is a constitutionally protected activity,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan who has written and testified in support of greater legislative protection for religious liberty. “Regulation imposes burdens on the free exercise of religion. Exemptions lift those burdens.”

The free exercise clause has some unfortunate effects, in my view – such as zealots suing for the right to post bible verses in their offices saying homosexuality is a sin. Run-amok exemption would be another. Regulation imposes burdens on everything, which is precisely why it should be universal.

Read it all. It’s intensely irritating.

Custodians of their own morals

Oct 8th, 2006 6:54 pm | By

I usually disagree with Cristina Odone, but she makes a reasonable point here.

In our romantic vision, these bearded men and apron-clad women offer the possibility of etching out a distinct path, removed from the ugly materialist world of big business and commercialism. The families’ tragedies is unbearably moving, yet the way this community is dealing with a gunman killing five young schoolgirls (and then himself) is disturbing…It’s not just TV and iPods they reject: it is schooling beyond 14, the emancipation of women and scholarship that questions a single interpretation of the sacred texts…Given their uncompromising ways, the Amish live in an apartheid of their own choosing. This can be dangerous, as we have seen with Catholic paedophile priests: when community leaders become the custodians of their own morals and are not subject to scrutiny, all kinds of wrongs can take place and all manner of fundamentalist tendencies thrive.

It’s interesting to note that pretty much all the comments on this piece indignantly reject her criticism – which is unfortunate, because she’s right. Amish isolation does protect for instance domestic abuse. There was a long article about just that in Legal Affairs in January 2005. I commented on it at the time. Odone for once absolutely nails it: when community leaders become the custodians of their own morals and are not subject to scrutiny, all kinds of wrongs can take place. Indeed they can, which is why isolated patriarchal groups should not be given an automatic free pass and exemption from scrutiny. Not Jonestown, not David Koresh’s setup, and not the Amish.

Infallible cannoli

Oct 7th, 2006 5:43 pm | By

We’ve been hearing something lately about the expertise and, how shall I say, the best-mindedness (in the sense of being among the greatest minds of the past thousand years) of theologians. I’m not convinced. Actually I could put it more strongly than that, but I’ll just say I’m not convinced. No one has ever accused me of not being tactful. Okay lots of people have accused me of exactly that, but it was always a misunderstanding.

There are several reasons I’m not convinced; this article in the Times illustrates one or two.

The Pope will cast aside centuries of Catholic belief later this week by abolishing formally the concept of limbo…This week a 30-strong Vatican international commission of theologians, which has been examining limbo, began its final deliberations. Vatican sources said it had concluded that all children who die do so in the expectation of “the universal salvation of God” and the “mediation of Christ”, whether baptised or not. The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. “In effect, this means that all children who die go to Heaven,” one source said.

Okay – you’ve got your Vatican commission of theologians, thirty of them, and they have been ‘examining’ limbo. They’ve been what? What does that mean? How have they been examining limbo? They’ve been looking at it through a telescope? Through a microscope? Both at once? Both in alternation? Fifteen theologians on the tele and fifteen on the micro, and they combine their findings? Or they X-ray it? Run it through an MRI scan? Shave off bits of it for radio-carbon dating? Or is it that they sit limbo down and ask it a lot of questions? Or do they give it a written exam, with two hours to complete it and proctors walking up and down to prevent cheating? Or what?

Well, apparently none of those, since the pope is going to abolish the concept itself, which would seem to hint that there’s nothing physical or material to examine. But then what? What does it mean for theologians to examine limbo? To talk about it, apparently, and decide whether they feel like believing in it or not.

In propelling limbo out of its own uncertain state, the Pope is merely acknowledging the distress its half-existence causes to millions…One of the reasons Baptists and some other Protestant denominations resist infant baptism is because they believe the souls of babies are innocent and that it is for adults to choose a life in Christ or otherwise.

In other words, all this stuff is about what people want or don’t want to believe. That’s understandable. But it’s not some sort of body of specialist knowledge that only panels of theologians are qualified to pronounce on, because real knowledge isn’t in play here. What is in play here is how people want things to be arranged. The ‘Vatican international commission of theologians’ looks remarkably like a bit of hocus-pocus designed to disguise the fact that the pope is just making a political move, giving people what they want. It’s another one of those ‘ignore that man behind the curtain’ scenarios. Maybe the theologians just got together to eat cannoli and chat, and after enough time had passed for dignity, emerged to announce what they’d been going to announce all along. Or maybe they talked seriously about ‘limbo’, but the effect is the same. It’s all cannoli and chat, if you ask me.

Note, especially, the somewhat riotous non sequitur: ‘The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. “In effect, this means that all children who die go to Heaven.”‘ That ‘finding’ is rich. But the non sequitur is even better: God’s ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known, therefore all children who die go to Heaven. But if God’s ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known, how can it be known that all children who die go to Heaven? If one thing cannot be known, how can another, related thing be known? Isn’t it all or nothing in this department? To put it another way, why can’t God’s ways of ensuring salvation be known? Because…well, because there’s no one to ask, and nothing to examine, and no publication to peer review, and no experiment to replicate, and no claim to falsify. But if the Vatters admits that about one aspect of god, why do they get to make flat assertions about other aspects? What magical powers do theologians have to make all this kind of thing authoritative? Especially when they don’t even have the papal perk of infallibility.

Read David Luban Instead

Oct 6th, 2006 8:08 pm | By

A reader wondered in comments why B&W hasn’t done more to protest Bush’s torture bill. There are items on it in News, I pointed out. It’s also true that if you type ‘torture’ into B&W’s ‘Search’ you’ll get a lot of items, some of which are about FGM or ‘witchcraft’-related torture in Africa or India, but many of which are about Bush & co. Then there’s the fact that I only have two hands, as the saying goes, and I’m a bit pressed for time right now, and there are a lot of subjects to cover. But having said all that, I have been wanting to mutter something (but have also felt inadequate to the task), or rather squawk something or bark something or howl something or yell in a cracked but deafening voice something. What can I say? That it’s a shameful spectacle, Bush going to Congress to lobby for a torture bill. But who doesn’t already know that?

See David Luban in Slate for adequate muttering.

The Nuremberg Principles, like the entire body of international humanitarian law, will now have no purchase in the war-crimes law of the United States. Who cares whether they were our idea in the first place? Principle VI of the Nuremberg seven defines war crimes as “violations of the laws or customs of war, which include, but are not limited to…ill-treatment of prisoners of war.” Forget “customs of war” – that sounds like customary international law, which has no place in our courts anymore. Forget “ill-treatment” – it’s too vague. Take this one: Principle II, “The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.” Section 8(a)(2) sneers at responsibility under international law.

The Bush administration started sneering at international law almost as soon as it took office. I suppose that’s one reason its reported 90% approval rating right after September 11 has always surprised me. So it goes.

O what a sensitive surrender

Oct 6th, 2006 7:20 pm | By

I liked this letter in the Independent. It said what I wanted to say but didn’t have time to say about that Vallely piece.

I found Paul Vallely[‘s] piece disturbing. He states that Theo Van Gogh “routinely described Muslims as ‘goatfuckers’, before one of them murdered him”. Whether or not Van Gogh described Muslims thus, the point is that he was murdered for expressing an opinion in the form of a work of art. Vallely, by emphasising Van Gogh’s “vile”‘ vocabulary, appears almost to be justifying his killing.

Yes. I did want to point that out – and it wasn’t just his emphasizing the vocabulary, it was also the peculiar, sly phrasing – that ‘before one of them murdered him’ sounds unpleasantly pleased, unpleasantly as if he needed to be murdered.

Vallely then gives examples of works of art being self-censored, because of a growing “sensitivity” towards Muslim feelings. These works of art were not self-censored out of sensitivity, but out of fear of a Muslim backlash.

Indeed. Vallely cites as his first illustrative example ‘that a new sensitivity is developing in many quarters’ is the cancellation of ‘Idomeneo’ – but that decision was made strictly on security grounds. Fear is not the same thing as sensitivity, any more than submission is the same thing as peace. There’s something truly repellent about calling a surrender to anticipated threats ‘a new sensitivity’.

It’s all his fault for wearing that tight skirt

Oct 4th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

There’s some nasty stuff around.

From Paul Vallely in the Independent for instance.

Cherished traditions, such as freedom of speech, the alarmists complain, are being surrendered out of political correctness and appeasement…Everywhere have sprung up champions of freedom of expression and crusaders against religious darkness in the name of Western values.

Everywhere? Not really – not in the places for instance where people who sneer about ‘cherished traditions’ have sprung up, for instance. And some of us don’t defend freedom of speech or resist religious darkness ‘in the name of Western values’ at all, we do it for quite non-geographical reasons.

This is not so much a clash of civilisations as one between religious and secular fundamentalists…Take the article in Le Figaro written by the French high-school philosophy teacher Robert Redeker…The problem was that, for good rhetorical measure, he also added that the Koran was “a book of extraordinary violence”. And that the Prophet Mohamed was “a pitiless warlord”, a “murderer of Jews” and “a master of hate”…The trouble with debate carried out in this adolescent fashion is that it obscures rather than enlightens…it is simply gratuitously offensive.

Is it? How does Vallely know it’s gratuitously offensive as opposed to being Redeker’s considered opinion? That’s not obvious to me, at least.

But in many places there is a growing realisation that freedom of expression is not absolute but needs to be governed by a sense of social responsibility.

In the sense of taking note of the potential for riots, arson and murder, and being silent in consequence. Hooray.

That was a refreshing contrast to the hyperbole about art and free speech being “the elixirs of an enlightened society”. Instead of a power struggle, or a test of wills, it opens the way to a more mature approach. Instead of an emotional debate which closes down rational discourse, it is the way to build common values – ones which recognise the inalienable right to freedom of expression but which, at the same time, demand it be exercised in a measured way.

A more mature approach and a more measured way, meaning, shut up about Islam. Creepy stuff.

And there’s Tariq Ramadan, too, as quoted in the Times:

Some Muslims have accused M Redeker of courting trouble for publicity. Tariq Ramadan, a leading university teacher, said: “The philosophy teacher is free to write what he likes in Le Figaro, but he must know what he wanted — he signed a stupidly provocative text.”

A stupidly provocative text. Saying some not obviously false things about the Koran and the prophet is stupidly provocative, and an open request for death threats. Creepy stuff.

And the Guardian’s article on the subject is very nasty: full of ‘it’s all his fault’ tattletale crap, from the headline ‘French philosophy teacher in hiding after attack on Islam’ to the accusatory subhead Writer calls Muhammad ‘mass-murderer of Jews’ to the body of the story:

But the case has divided opinion in France, with some human rights groups and academics condemning the death-threats but at the same time accusing Mr Redeker of deliberately writing a “stupid” and “nauseating” provocation.

It’s all blame the victim all the time. It’s nasty creepy submissive stuff. Some more secular fundamentalism would be welcome.

It opened a window

Oct 4th, 2006 7:17 pm | By

Meet Ruth Simmons. She’s a hero of mine – I’ve mentioned her here several times, I think. She’s a hero for a variety of reasons; she forms a little cluster of examples of what can be thought and said and done that it’s popular to say can’t be thought and said and done, so I reach for her often, in different contexts. It all comes from just one interview on the US news show 60 Minutes – her being the twelfth child of Texas sharecroppers, her discovery of books as a child, school as a doorway to a better world, her wide interests. The best bit was when Morley Safer asked her why a black woman would want to take a class in French Renaissance poetry – a question which caused me to scowl in instant fury, and then light up like a Christmas tree at her answer – which was pretty much Terence’s answer: nothing is alien to me. She grandly repudiated the nastly limiting bantustanish assumption behind Safer’s horrible question, saying it’s all for me, everything is open to me. I loved her for that.

Things looked up after the family moved to Houston when she was seven. “The neighbourhood was shabby, there were bars on every corner, and crime and alcoholism were part of the daily routine,” she says. “And yet I was blissfully happy. People bothered to insist I went to school, and I loved it. There was a calm and order that was missing elsewhere in my life. But, above all, there were books. My parents were deeply suspicious about my reading, but for me it opened a window into a different reality, where it was possible for someone like me to be accepted.”

As it did for Fredrick Douglass, for example, which of course is why there was a law against teaching slaves to read. It’s not very popular to think of books and reading that way; all too many people are deeply suspicious about anyone’s reading; it has that whiff of elitism, you know. That’s unfortunate. That closes that window into a different reality.

Natural Nontoxic Herbal Cleansers

Oct 3rd, 2006 7:50 pm | By

Here’s a funny thing I happened on yesterday. Sort of happened – I was looking up the Dictionary because it’s being released in the US this month, so that’s why I saw this, but I happened on it now rather than a year ago, and that’s happening because Nick just mentioned Richard Carrier the other day and I put the article he mentioned in Flashback – quite unaware that he had written to Skeptical Inquirer about the Dictionary. So that’s amusing. To me.

But Richard Carrier’s letter is much more so.

I found it quite amusing to find the last page of Phil Mole’s review of The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (May/June 2005) making the correct observation that “natural often serves as a synonym for good, thereby implying that all natural herbal remedies are better than ‘artificial’ scientific” ones, then quoting the Dictionary’s lampooning of “herbs” as “natural, organic, pure, wholesome” and “much better because not chemical–chemicals, of course, are toxic.” Okay. Now look down on the very same page where you put the “Top Ten Best Sellers” in the science category. Look at number seven: The Naturally Clean Home: 101 Safe and Easy Herbal Formulas for Nontoxic Cleansers.” That hits the trifecta! Natural. Herbal. Toxic. A science best seller? I guess fashionable nonsense really is fashionable.

Hah! On the same page. Very cool.

Bassam Tibi

Oct 3rd, 2006 5:39 pm | By

Bassam Tibi seems an interesting guy.

Recently we have been seeing more and more acts of submission, the most recent case being the Pope’s apology. When it comes to Islam, there is no freedom of the press nor freedom of opinion in Germany. Organized groups in Islamic communities want to decide what is said and done here. I myself have been dropped from numerous events because of threats…Even the comparatively moderate Turkish organization DITIB says there are no Islamists, only Islam and Muslims – anything else is racism. That means that you can no longer criticize the religion. Accusing somebody of racism is a very effective weapon in Germany. Islamists know this: As soon as you accuse someone of demonizing Islam, then the European side backs down. I have also been accused of such nonsense, even though my family can trace its roots right back to Muhammad and I myself know the Koran by heart.

Spiegel asks if it doesn’t help defuse the conflict if people back down ‘when something insults Muslims’.

No. That is simply giving up. And the weaker the partner is viewed by the Muslims, then the greater the anger which they express. And this anger is often carefully staged. The argument over the cartoons for example was completely orchestrated. Nothing was spontaneous…Protests like these are weapons in this war of ideas…The accusation of cultural insensitivity is a weapon. And we have to neutralize it.

Read the whole thing.

Banville and Fodor on Frayn

Oct 3rd, 2006 5:09 pm | By

It’s amusing to compare John Banville’s review of Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch with that of Jerry Fodor. Frayn is a novelist with a philosophical background, Banville is a novelist, Fodor is a philosopher.

Banville is keen.

In his opening “Prospectus” he modestly insists that, although he has studied philosophy, his book is not an attempt to do philosophy – “I shouldn’t have the courage to make any such claim” – but then goes on to take a sly dig at the extreme specialisation and technicality of much of modern-day philosophical research…From his acquaintance with philosophy and his readings in the work of physicists such as Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr…he has got hold of a simple fact about the world, which is its indeterminacy. What you see is not what you get, and Frayn is here to tell us how it is not…But Frayn is concerned with far more than physics. In his vast overview of this anomalous universe in which we find ourselves thrown, he takes a good-humoured crack at a broad range of our certainties, from the laws of nature – or “the laws of nature” – through the chimera of free will, the dubious status of truth and the ambiguousness of language, to, at the close, the question of the self itself. The breadth of his reading is awesome and he is fearless in interpreting, and in some cases attacking, the philosophical or scientific dogmas of this or that revered savant. Everywhere he is eminently sensible, especially when he is making nonsense of our illusory certainties.

Fodor not so much.

For one thing, it’s clear at a glance that this is no joke; it’s a book of philosophy, not a book on philosophy, and I can’t imagine an author who is more in earnest. It’s also clear that the thing is much too long. These days nobody writes philosophy in chunks of four hundred pages (plus notes). Partly that’s just fashion; partly it’s tenure politics; but mostly it’s because the problems philosophers work on have turned out to be much more subtle than we used to suppose them, and much more idiosyncratic. You have to do them one at a time, and the progress you make is generally inch by inch…Frayn, however, doesn’t approve of all that picking of nits…the range of issues Frayn takes on is staggering…And these topics are not treated narrowly: one gets a whole spectrum, from Frayn on quantum mechanics to Frayn on the psychology of perception, to Frayn on the ontology of numbers, to Frayn on Chomskian linguistics, to Frayn on personal identity, to Frayn on the phenomenology of dreaming, with many, many intermediate stops. Could anybody conceivably have views worth hearing on all those topics?…The basic idea is to undermine the authority of science (and, indeed, the authority of common sense) by launching a general attack on the notions of truth and knowledge. What a Copernican astronomy taketh away, a relativist epistemology giveth back…And finally, with a flourish: ‘The story is the paradigm. Factual statements are specialised derivatives of fictitious ones.’

To which Fodor replies, crisply, ‘Piffle.’ In between, where all those elipses are, he says why it’s piffle, but I didn’t need all that to illustrate the difference in tone. Wondering awe from the novelist, amused irritation from the philosopher. There’s making nonsense of our illusory certainties for you.

Crimes Against the People of X

Oct 2nd, 2006 9:12 pm | By

Cheney said in a tv interview that the US would have invaded Iraq ‘even if we knew [had known, he means] that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction.’ Prominent legal scholars sent him a letter in response. That’s good – but there’s one part of what they say that I think is worrying.

Alternative justifications offered by vice-president Cheney during the recent interview are clearly legally insufficient for military action. A capability to produce weapons of mass destruction in the future, the use of weapons of mass destruction in the past, crimes against the people of Iraq, possible connections with terrorist organisations – all of these qualify as grievances which the United States might bring against Iraq in the United Nations, as we did, but do not constitute grounds for the first use of force without UN approval.

Bracket Cheney and that other fella for the purposes of this discussion, and also bracket the legality question; it’s the moral (and consequential) aspect I think is worrying. It’s that ‘crimes against the people of Iraq’ bit. The problem is obvious, and has been discussed endlessly, but it remains just as worrying. What if the crimes against the people of [wherever it be] are really huge crimes? And what if UN approval for the use of force is not forthcoming? What if there are only two choices: unilateral intervention (i.e. aggression) or standing by and watching a genocide continue?

That’s the worry. It’s not that I want to give Cheney and his gang a blank check, it’s not that I trust them an inch, which is why I said bracket them; but the principle is a worry. It’s related (obviously) to the whole national sovereignty question, which has been changing lately. It’s also obviously related to Darfur, and to future Darfurs. I don’t know what the answer is; I just wanted to point out the worry.

Far Beyond our Comprehension

Oct 2nd, 2006 6:21 pm | By

Marek Kohn reviews The God Delusion.

Turning to agnosticism, he dismisses it as a principle and reaches for Bertrand Russell’s teapot…This move is something of a reflex among atheists: they should adopt the teapot as their symbol. Their point and Russell’s was that not being able to disprove the existence of such an object does not warrant belief in it; their implicit message is that gods are also trivial human artefacts. God is thus detached from the terrible and exhilarating question of why anything should exist at all. Instead, Dawkins recasts agnosticism as a humdrum matter of probability captured by a spectrum of opinion-poll responses. But it is possible, along with Dawkins, to be a de facto atheist who lives on the assumption that there is no God, while remaining awed by the possibility that we cannot begin to comprehend how far beyond our comprehension the question may be.

Of course it is. But I see that from an angle opposite to the one from which Kohn (apparently, if I understand him correctly) does. The awe he cites has to do with how far beyond our comprehension the question may be – really how far, really beyond. But it seems to me that answering ‘God’ to such questions simply reels the answer in from that far beyond to make it near and local again. I know some people say god is distant, beyond comprehension, not to be pinned down by our poor words, all that, but if they call it ‘God’ at all they don’t really mean it, or at least if they call it ‘God’ that’s deceptive labeling. God is local, God is a person, God hears our prayers, God is a character in a book. It’s no good pretending that’s not true, because that’s how the word is generally used – it is not generally used as a word for ‘far beyond, unknown, incomprehensible’. (If it were, believers would shut up about God, but they don’t.) I think the implicit message that Kohn cites is quite right: gods are trivial human artifacts. If you do in fact remain awed by the possibility that we cannot begin to comprehend how far beyond our comprehension the question may be, then you find the pat one-syllable answer ‘God’ to be laughably unsatisfactory, irrelevant, provincial, and, frankly, trivial.

And another thing.

Dawkins does not admit sympathy for believers, or acknowledge the extent to which religion may constitute their sense of identity. He disregards the risk that attacking a people’s religion may amount to an attack on them as a group. Some comments and quotes in this respect are reckless.

Reckless? But if there is a risk that attacking a people’s religion may amount to an attack on them as a group, then there is also a risk that attacking a people’s politics or hobby or profession may amount to an attack on them as a group – but people aren’t generally frowned at for attacking a people’s politics or profession, are they? So why should religion be in a special category? I know that’s a question I’ve asked before, more than once; I’m asking it again.

Comrades Fall Out

Oct 1st, 2006 6:43 pm | By

Interesting. Eric at Drink-soaked Trots notices an early stirring of (let us call it) Eustonism, in an article called ‘Afghanistan: a Just Intervention’ that appeared so long ago as 2002. He helpfully highlights some passages.

The attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were terrible events, they were also acts of barbarism…In attacking New York, the Islamo-fascists of Al Qaeda attacked one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world…Moreover, it was an attack mounted by people who hate the United States of America not only (and probably not even mainly) for its inequality or its acts of injustice in the world or for its place in an unequal international order, but rather because of its democracy, its pluralism, its sexual libertinism, and all the other things that the left ought to like about the United States. By and large, the left discredited itself by its reaction…Some on the left, have gone even further, appearing to urge backing for the radical Islamists…Why then, did the British left react in such a manner? Partly, it did so because of an ingrained cultural anti-Americanism…But the moral stakes are now very high and many of the ‘facts’ deployed by the left in recent debates are, at best, of dubious character. (They are the kind of ‘facts’ that support conclusions people have already reached.)

The surprising thing about that is who wrote it. It’s surprising because the author, who is a blogger, frequently writes posts about Eustonism which seem to betray (before reading Eric’s post I would have said simply ‘betray’) intense hostility and anger. For instance there was this post a couple of weeks ago on Ted Honderich’s tv appearance (a discussion of which among a few Bristol philosophers will appear in the next TPM), which included this bizarrely (I thought) gratuitous remark:

Honderich repeatedly tells the viewer that 9/11 was a crime, but rather gives the impression that this is because people were killed without his pet principle being advanced…The whole thing ended up being rather a gift to the Euston Manifesto crowd. God knows whether any of them watched it, but it will have given them no end of material to moan about: endless whataboutery and apologetics for appalling acts. Just what we don’t need, in fact.

The same person wrote those two passages. That surprises me – indeed, it puzzles me. Why the contempt for a ‘crowd’ that would endorse everything in that first passage? I don’t know. The hostility to preEuston Eustonism (let’s call it) has puzzled me for a long time, and now it puzzles me even more.

Read the comments on the Trots post, too; they’re very meaty.

Offend One, Offend All

Oct 1st, 2006 1:17 am | By

The Guardian talks some creeping sneaking nonsense.

It is now exactly a year since a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims found so insulting that 140 people died in the ensuing violence.

No. That’s wrong, and it’s a misleading way of putting it. Some Muslims found the cartoons ‘so insulting’, and a much much smaller number found them ‘so insulting that 140 people died in the ensuing violence’ – that is, to interpret that foolishly meaningless phrase, either found them so insulting that they caused lethal violence or found them so insulting that they thought the deaths of 140 people made an appropriate response. Not all Muslims found the cartoons insulting at all; not all Muslims who did find them insulting found them also worthy of protest or criticism of the act of publication; not all Muslims who found them worthy of protest also found them deserving of outright censorship or government action; and so on. Why do so many people – especially, of all things, well-meaning liberal people who (clearly) see themselves as being kind to and trying to help ‘Muslims’ – equate some Muslims with all Muslims that way? Why do they chronically and repeatedly assume that if some Muslims feel insulted or offended then all do? Why do they not pause to remember that as a matter of fact there are some Muslims who are insulted or offended not by cartoons or papal speeches or operas but by their insultable co-religionists and by liberal columnists who assume that all Muslims are offended by what some Muslims are offended by? Why do they not also pause to remember that there is, in fact, something quite searchingly insulting about assuming that all people in a particular group think exactly the same thing, particularly on a controversial and contested issue? Why are they so fokking patronizing? And why are they so fokking patronizing while thinking they are being kind and empathetic and helpful? Why don’t they think a little harder and look a little farther?

These incidents all hurt Muslim sensibilities – and generated agonised debate about freedom of expression and its limits.

Same again. No they didn’t – not all ‘Muslim sensibilities’. Some Muslims are actually grown-up enough and rational enough not to let their sensibilities be hurt by every pimple on the media horizon merely because some people stage shouting fests about them. I’m guessing that quite a few Muslims are that grown-up and rational, actually.

Salman Rushdie won sympathy on the basis of that classic Enlightenment stance in 1989 when his Satanic Verses generated an Iranian “fatwa” – the first incident of its kind in our globalised world.

Note the shift of agency. It was Rushdie’s novel that generated the fatwa, not the ayatollah. Thus, if anyone writes or draws or sings or stages anything that someone elects to find insulting or offensive or blasphemous or just not quite the thing, if you know what I mean, and sets about getting the writer or drawer killed, it is the fault of the writer or drawer for perpetrating this Object of Insultingness. So therefore – all things are to be considered presumptively guilty, because if anyone decides to find one guilty, then it becomes guilty. So this post right here is guilty, all the books in this room are guilty, all the paintings in all the museums are guilty, all plays, all songs, all everything – they’re all, all guilty, because they can’t know in advance that there is no possibility that no one on the planet will be insulted by them. That’s an interesting way of thinking about the subject. If the Guardian buys that it really ought to shut down right now, for safety reasons.

Behzti, a controversial play set in a temple, was axed after it offended Sikhs.

There we have both stupidities in one short sentence. ‘Behzti’ didn’t offend ‘Sikhs’, just as Brick Lane didn’t offend ‘the Brick Lane community’ – both offended a few men in each group, and in any case saying ‘”Behzti” offended Sikhs’ again makes it sound as if ‘Behzti’ is guilty as charged and to blame for its own axing.

…where the west needs to recognise its responsibilities, stop employing double standards, refrain from equating Islam and terrorism, and thus help isolate the fanatics who give ordinary Muslims a bad name.

You’ve just done a pretty good job of giving ‘ordinary’ Muslims a bad name yourself, Graun – not to mention giving your newspaper a bad name.

Clinton on Cognition

Oct 1st, 2006 1:16 am | By

David Remnick’s account of Clinton’s trip to Africa is a good read, with some interesting truth-related points along the way.

“The Republicans are brilliant at creating bogus issues, cartoon cutouts,” he said, “and the press, even if it doesn’t agree with them, brings it along…This deal with Iraq makes me want to throw up,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of being told that if you voted for authorization you voted for the war. It was a mistake, and I would have made it, too. And Congress made it once before, at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.” The blame was with the White House: “The Administration did not shoot straight on the nuclear issue or on Saddam’s supposed ties to Al Qaeda prior to 9/11.”

Garbage in garbage out. If people are given bad information they may vote to authorize a war when they wouldn’t have so voted if they’d had better information. Fiddling with intelligence reports does make a difference.

Clinton said that he had read Ron Suskind’s article in the Times Magazine in which an unnamed Bush aide says, mockingly, that journalists and Democrats languish in a “reality-based community” while the White House, as the vanguard of an American empire, creates its own realities. “That’s an amazing paradigm,” Clinton said. “We ought to run on that.”

Yes. They won’t though. Too busy being folksier than thou. Picking on the anti-reality crowd might not play well with The Folk; better not.

Remnick ‘asked Clinton if he thought intellect was an essential part of being President…’

“I keep reading that Bush is incurious, but when he talks to me he asks a lot of questions,” Clinton went on. “So I can’t give him a bad grade on curiosity…I’ve never been worried about his intellect so much as his ideological bent…But the thing that bothers me about having an ideology as opposed to a philosophy is that, if you have an ideology, then the outcome is dictated before the facts are in, before the arguments are heard. And that, I think, can cause problems.”


Like weird double standards for instance.

Rahm Emanuel told me that this was too harsh an interpretation, that the attack on the Clintons in the nineties was so severe and baseless, in his view, that a moment of anger over dinner was nothing. He mentioned a recent report in the Chicago Tribune which revealed that the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, began his career in Congress with a net worth of three hundred thousand dollars and now has assets of six million, owing largely to an almost fantastical increase in the value of land near a highway project that he helped push through Congress. “The Speaker came in with three hundred thousand dollars and now has six million in real estate and no one asks a question? Your question is ‘Why is Clinton so angry?’ My question is ‘Why are you so stupid?’”

Fair point, it seems to me.

Answering the Question with the Question

Oct 1st, 2006 1:14 am | By

I read a bit of Keith Ward this morning, looking for some sophisticated theological arguments, since we keep being told there are some and we don’t respect them enough. Various thoughts occurred to me as I read. On pages 13-14 of God, Chance and Necessity, for instance, Ward says ‘The argument of this book, then, is that a theistic interpretation of evolution and of the findings of the natural sciences is by far the most reasonable…and that it is the postulate of God, with its corollary of purpose and value, that can best provide an explanation for why the universe is as it is.’

That’s just the introduction, not the argument itself, but all the same, it prompts me immediately to notice that the meaning even of that summary sentence depends heavily on what Ward means by ‘best’ and ‘explanation’. It strikes me that by ‘best’ he means ‘one I like best’ – one he finds comforting, familiar, unfrightening, nonalien.

And then, as always, it also strikes me how easy, and empty, that word ‘God’ is in that usage. You could say that about anything and everything; it’s just as explanatory, just as comfortable, and just as empty. You find a beautiful garden, a painting, a building, a statue; how do you explain this? ‘A genius.’ Okay – but which one; where; when; in what context; why; in short, tell us more. Just saying ‘a genius’ doesn’t say anything, because we already know that much; we want to know the details. The same applies to ‘God’ as the explanation for why the universe is as it is. What is ‘God’ there? The thing that caused the universe to be as it is. Well – we sort of know that something caused the universe to be as it is (unless we think it was uncaused, which is tricky), but what? Just saying ‘God’ amounts to the same thing as saying ‘don’t know’, except with all sorts of smuggled (and unwarranted) baggage. Theists claim the ‘God’ answer is explanatory but it isn’t because it argues backward, so it’s really just repeating the question – looky here, look at this, it’s special, so something special made it, and of course that something special=god, so there’s your explanation. No. Just pointing at an explanandum – where did this come from? – doesn’t provide its own answer. Of course ‘god’ is a better explanation in many senses of ‘better’ – it’s more appealing, more intuitive, more human-like – but it’s not better in the sense of being a real answer; it’s more of a disguised non-answer.

And then – when there is no explanation, or no explanation that we can get at, yet and perhaps ever – then providing one by supplying a name – God, or A Q Genius – is not better than saying ‘don’t know’. So the argument is spurious. Saying that god is a better explanation for the universe than (say) naturalism plus don’t know, is absurdly deceptive. It reassuringly soothingly says yes there is an answer when in fact there may not be – we may just not know.

And the god answer is just too generic – hence, again, too easy. It’s like seeing a poem and saying ‘a poet did this!’ A crime scene: ‘a criminal!’ It’s generic, it’s circular, it answers the question with the content of the question: ‘this is big, great, impressive, so who made it?’ ‘someone that can make things that are big, great, impressive.’ Er – that doesn’t answer.


Oct 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

The Interrogations Archive

Here’s three on’s are sophisticated

Sep 27th, 2006 8:35 pm | By

There is sophistication and then there is sophistication.

In this age of terror fueled by the ideology of Islamic extremism, some old insights of the liberal historiography of the roots and nature of Nazism remain relevant. In works published in the 1960s and 1970s, two of Nazism’s preeminent historians…made a similar point about the political significance of ideological fanaticism…This underestimation, the refusal or inability to understand that Hitler meant what he said was thought to be a mark of political sophistication in the 1930s…The great classic of the postwar years which did take Nazi ideology seriously, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, took specific issue with this liberal and left-wing reductionism. Arendt…redefined the meaning of political sophistication so that it came to mean a willingness to pay very close attention to the ravings and rantings of political fanatics. In so doing, she implicitly reversed the meaning of sophistication and naïveté.

I’ve been there. No doubt most of us have. It’s the old ‘behind the mask’ thing, the old appearance and reality thing. Ideas are just the frosting, just the superstructure, just the defense mechanism, just the wishful thinking, just the presentation of self; the reality, underneath, is money or sex or power or status. Sometimes that’s true, of course; there are oceans of pious platitudes offered up to veil the greed or self-aggrandizement or strategy that is really at work. But that doesn’t mean it’s always true, nor that the safest bet is to assume that it’s always true. Some ideas are a lot more dangerous than mere self-interest or lust.

It remains difficult for political and intellectual elites in liberal democracies to give fanaticism the causal impact it deserves…The traditions of liberal historiography of the Nazi era have powerfully addressed the problem of underestimation. Frank and frequent talk about what the radical Islamists are saying should not be primarily the preoccupation of right of center politicians and journalists…[I]n order that the history of radical Islam not again be the history of its underestimation, liberals should foster a kind of political sophistication that rests on the lessons of this most famous previous case of underestimation of political fanaticism.

It’s not all that sophisticated to fall asleep at the switch.

Danny Postel and Samira Mohyeddin on Hossein Derakhshan

Sep 27th, 2006 1:52 am | By

Did you read this? I put it in News a few days ago. It’s Danny Postel’s openDemocracy comment on Hossein Derakhshan’s article, also in openDemocracy, about Ramin Jahanbegloo’s release from prison. It’s interesting. I thought Derakhshan’s article was quite worrying and depressing and discouraging, and Postel says that and a good deal more.

Derakhshan asserts that Jahanbegloo’s “confession” was authentic – Indeed even “the possibility of it being imposed on him by his interrogators” is, according to his logic, “rule[d] out”. The most obvious and immediate question involved is: how in the world could Derakhshan lay claim to such knowledge, let alone rule out the very possibility that Jahanbegloo’s “confession” was coerced or imposed?

Well, yes. One does wonder.

Essential to Derakhshan’s assertion is his view that Jahanbegloo is in fact guilty. Of what? Of “indirectly helping the Bush administration in its plans for regime change in Iran through fomenting internal unrest and instability.” And how, precisely, did Jahanbegloo do that? By conducting “comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran” with “financial support” from American think-tanks.

That was the really depressing and discouraging bit. I have some reformist contacts inside Iran as well as outside, and I started to fret that perhaps I ought not to have such contacts, lest I contaminate them or implicate them or generally mix up their work with Bush’s plans. That’s a horrible thought: it would mean no one could try to reform or improve anything for fear of helping the colonialists. So I’m glad to see people rejecting Derakhshan’s argument with energy. Samira Mohyeddin for instance in an article at Iranian.com.

First, let me begin by saying that I will not comment on Ramin Jahanbegloo because as far as I am concerned Jahanbegloo’s comments or retractions upon being released from prison are of no consequence and should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly while the government holds the deed to both his house and his mothers. It is unbelievably naive and audacious of Derakhshan to say that Jahanbegloo saw the error of his ways thanks to his interrogators. “Thanks to the work of the reformists who governed the country until 2005, Iran has passed the stage of state terror.” – Derakhshan…[T]his is an apalling statement at best, and a slap in the face to all those Iranians who have given their lives for the cause of freedom both in and outside of Iran…Would Hossein dare make such a statement to the son of Zahra Kazemi, who was indiscriminately raped, tortured, and murdered while in Evin prison? Would he have the audacity to make such statements to the family of Akbar Mohammadi who died in Evin just last month? Or to the family of 16 year old Atefeh Rajabi who was hung in the Iranian town of Neka for “engaging in acts incompatible with chastity”? Or to the family members of the thousands of prisoners of conscience who have perished in the jails of the Iran of the Islamic Republic over the past twenty-seven years?

La lutte continue.