Aug 28th, 2006 10:32 pm | By

Time for a little religion-bashing. (A former acquaintance once kindly informed me that he didn’t like B&W because of the religion-bashing. Ruined my day. Or month, or year.) This bishop again. I want to look at what’s worrying him, once more.

The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation…The toleration of sexual perversions among inverts, widespread contraception, easy access to “no fault” divorce, the killing of the elderly, radical feminism, embryonic stem cell research…

I want to look at the remarkable, and rather shameless, distortion of some of those. Especially that “the killing of the elderly.” The…killing of the elderly? Libbruls and Democrats want a new law to mandate the execution of everyone over 80? 70? 60? Funny – I wasn’t aware of that campaign. I read the Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent, Harper’s, the Progressive regularly and I’ve never seen a word about that campaign. That of course would be because it don’t exist. The episcopal bastard means (of course) laws that would permit voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide (with many safeguards) for people who are terminally ill and suffering and want to end it – and for no one else. They have nothing to do with the elderly: here’s why: terminal illnesses are not restricted to elderly people, and not all elderly people get terminal illnesses, and those who do don’t always suffer much, and those who do don’t necessarily want to end it. So – what’s the bishop doing calling voluntary assisted suicide “the killing of the elderly”? He’s violating one of the ten commandments, that’s what. I won’t say which one, in case he’s a litigious bastard as well as a [coughcoughcough] one.

The other striking thing is how agitated he is about embryonic stem cell research and abortion and contraception. Why do bishops and popes and priests get so agitated about cells and leave much of suffering existing human beings unmentioned? Why do they spend so much energy and discourse on cells instead of on actual people? Why the disproportion? Why the fretting over trivia? It’s a top-down thing, I gather; the Vatican sets the tone and the priests and bishops follow, but why is the Vatican so worried about trivia? I don’t know, but I suspect. (What? Oh, that it’s basically about keeping women down. If embryos become all-important, women become incubators; that kind of thing.)

There. Yet another reason to dislike B&W.

Rational Argument is Cultural Relativism?

Aug 28th, 2006 9:30 pm | By

Here’s another thing I’m curious about: this idea (if it is an idea, as opposed to a mere ad hoc ploy snatched up for the purposes of evasive argumentation) that rational argument is the same thing as cultural relativism. Is that an idea? In the sense that several or many people think that, as opposed to one idiosyncratic person commenting on a Note and Comment?

Well I suppose it is an idea, yes, come to think of it, but surely it’s an idea that belongs to the, how shall I say, the fervent moral majoritarian fundamentalist right wing crowd, not the multiculti diversity-celebrating Islamophobia-spotting crowd. That’s a favourite ploy with the fundies: doing things by contraries, declaring opposites to be identical and themselves to have won the argument. They like to say atheism is a religion, and secularism is another, and “Darwinism” another, and “radical feminism” another, and fill in the rest of the blanks. The gentle and reasonable Bishop of Rockford sees things that way, or pretends to for the purpose of firing his flock to rush out and tell lies about Democrats and libbruls. ‘The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.’ Same kind of thing. “Secular culture” has sacraments, atheism is a religion, and rational argument is cultural relativism. Sure: coercive domineering theocratic types do like to claim that rational argument is identical to relativism and boils down to saying anything goes, everything’s good, all must be tolerated, if it works for you it’s groovy, there are no rules, take your pants off and stick around for awhile. But they like to claim that for their own nasty coercive theocratic reasons: they like to claim it so that they can claim that there is nothing between authoritarian inarguable Holy Book-ratified take it or go to hell dogma, and whoopee let’s bugger all the infants. They like to claim that (apparently this needs spelling out) so that everyone will pale with terror and cling to the dogma for dear life lest they find themselves copulating with a newborn. But that is a tactic, a ploy, a trick, not a genuine or legitimate argument, and it’s not true. Rational argument is not the same thing as relativism. That’s common knowledge, isn’t it? I’d have thought so, but perhaps I’d have been wrong. But take a look at, oh, I don’t know, Mill’s Subjection of Women, or Rawls’s Theory of Justice, or Sen’s Argumentative Indian; they’re none of them examples of cultural relativism, but you can find traces of rational argument here and there in all of them.

The crux here is my “The “up to a point” has to be defended and defensible, it has to be justifiable, it can’t be just a because God says so” answered with “NAMBLA are certainly prepared to have an argument about whether it’s bad to have sex with 12 year old boys, and the reason that they can’t is going to have to depend on some absolute statement of (im)morality.”

Why? Why is the reason going to have to depend on that? Any more than, for instance, the arguments for gay marriage do? It’s noticeable that most of the arguments against gay marriage are not very good, are not conspicuously rational*, and that’s probably why they’re not thriving all that well with rational people. They flourish with theocrats (maybe partly because they don’t flourish with rational people: it’s part of the whole anti-“elitist” schtick that fundamentalists go in for) but they don’t flourish with people who are at least somewhat reachable by rational argument. Surely it would be the same with NAMBLA’s projected argument about whether it’s bad to have sex with 12 year old boys, or any other moral issue. Either they’re rationally arguable, or they’re not, in which case they’re arbitrary, and their force becomes extremely questionable. Since I’m arguing here that precisely such arbitrary unjustifiable unarguable moral commands are coercive and should not be automatically respected or tolerated or celebrated or deferred to merely on the grounds that they belong to another culture, I fail to see why or how that makes me a cultural relativist, and I’m curious about the whole idea, and curious about leftists who apparently think their view is progressive and mine is conservative. Very curious.

*Harry Brighouse posted a request for “a really good article, by someone philosophically sophisticated, which argues against gay marriage” at Crooked Timber the other day, because he didn’t have much. That would seem to indicate it’s not an abundant commodity.

Bishops Aren’t What They Used to Be

Aug 28th, 2006 1:11 am | By

Just in case we ever go thinking the Southern Baptists or the redemptionists or the other protestant flame-throwers have a monopoly on being as disgusting as they can possibly manage to be – here’s the bishop of Rockford.

We know, for instance, that adherents of one political party would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people. The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation. These things they unabashedly espouse, profess and promote. Their continuance in public office is a clear and present danger to our survival as a nation.

Well if they would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people it sounds more as if their continuance in existence is a clear and present danger to everyone and everything. In other words – the bishop is playing with some dangerous language there. Lynch mob language.

The toleration of sexual perversions among inverts, widespread contraception, easy access to “no fault” divorce, the killing of the elderly, radical feminism, embryonic stem cell research — all of these things defile and debase our human nature and our human destiny.

Radical feminism defiles and debases our human nature and our human destiny – while guys like the bishop purify and elevate it, I suppose. No, I think not.

Thanks to George Scialabba for sending me a link to the bishop’s gentle musings.

George reminds me that I ought to have mentioned our engagement. Fair point. You know I favour the impersonal note, but there is a limit. George got his first look at B&W recently, and naturally his first thought was to say let’s get hitched, and naturally I said why not old bean.


Aug 28th, 2006 12:44 am | By

And so begins a happy life.

Yanti greeted her future husband with a handshake and the merest flicker of a smile as he arrived with relatives. He gave a nod and quickly moved on to the next person in line…They were disinclined to cuddle up, even when cajoled by the photographer. The truth behind the frostiness is a sinister and sad indictment of the traditions that persist in many parts of Indonesia. Not only had Yanti, 22, a restaurant cook, and Tri, 24, a maize and sweet potato farmer, just met, they barely knew anything about each other.

Oh well – what’s to know? What need is there to know something about someone you sign up to live with and have sex with and probably have children with and go on living with for the rest of your life? One person is much like another, surely; what difference can it make?

It is impossible to know how many Indonesians end up in such marriages. Saman, the cleric who married Yanti and Tri, said ‘extreme’ stories such as theirs, where the couple had not even met, accounted for perhaps 1 per cent of marriages. ‘But there are many marriages organised by the parents where the children do what they’re told,’ he said. Tini, a maid in Jakarta who ran away for three days after her parents tried to force her, at the age of 15, to marry a 28-year-old, reckons about a third of all unions in her district are undertaken without the participants’ full consent. ‘It’s not as bad as it was but from what I hear it is still very prevalent in rural areas,’ she said. World Vision, an international aid agency, describes the practice as ‘still common’ and experts say it is unlikely to die out soon. ‘It’s the tradition and it’s hard to go against traditions,’ said Gadis Arivia, the executive director of the women’s group Jurnal Perempuan…A significant contributing factor is that in many communities traditions and religious leaders are more highly respected than national legislation.

It’s hard to go against traditions. Yes. So the world is full of lives that are a lot worse than they might be. That’s too bad.

Truth in Advertising

Aug 26th, 2006 5:15 pm | By

I’m getting very curious about this advertising question. A couple of commenters on Inquiry have disagreed with my characterization of advertising as having the goal of selling a product as opposed to finding (or disseminating) the truth. I’m becoming increasingly interested in finding out what is controversial about this. Am I just wrong? Have I got my facts wrong? Am I confused? Here I’ve thought all this time, even from earliest childhood, innocently gazing at rice krispies elves and bald giants in T shirts, that the purpose of advertisements was to get people to pay money for the objects the ads were talking or singing or dancing or enacting little playlets about, whether it be spearmint gum or a cleaning product or a sexually exciting automobile. Did I somehow get the wrong end of the stick? Were all those mini-dramas and songs and limpid sylvan landscapes not intended to inspire us to spend money on the cereals and beers and cigarettes in question, but rather to inquire into or convey the truth about said products?

I gotta tell you, I don’t think so. I have to say, I’ve been reliably informed on more than one occasion that the purpose of such entertainments and didactic offerings was and is, indeed, to move the viewer to buy the object of attention. I think I can offer abundant evidence that that is indeed the purpose of advertising. But – but one can always be wrong; I could be wrong; perhaps all my informants were wrong; perhaps it’s all a misunderstanding. Perhaps advertising is in fact a branch of education, and I’ve simply never grasped that. You have your schools, and your universities, and libraries, and museums, and then you have advertising, and they’re all doing the same thing, for the same reasons, with the same motivations, using the same methods and adhering to the same norms. Or perhaps advertising is a branch of research and inquiry; perhaps it’s a giant long-term multi-generational social science experiment that was started in the middle of the 18th century and is nowhere near complete yet. I never realized that.

I don’t think so though. I don’t think advertising is there to educate us, or to do disinterested research. But commenters keep disputing me. For instance: “Actually, being horribly pedantic and all, there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling even if it is also about persuasion, it really all depends on the ethical standards of the advertiser, the two things are not mutually exclusive.”

I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think it’s true that “there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling.” That is not the same thing as saying that advertising can’t possibly ever tell the truth, although I would argue that advertising can’t really ever be “about” truth telling, because it is in fact “about” something quite different. But the “no reason” thing first. It’s just not true to say there’s no reason to claim that advertising and truth telling are mutually exclusive: there is a reason, a perfectly sensible and widely recognized reason: advertising has an agenda, an axe to grind, a bias, which is different from truth telling and could very well interfere with the motivation to tell the truth. That’s obvious enough isn’t it? Here’s a thought experiment in case it’s not. You’re an advertiser: your new account is this cookie: you taste it: it tastes like shit. Is that what you decide to say in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, they taste like shit!” Put it more objectively: you do marketing research: you give the cookie to lots of people to try: they all say it tastes like shit. Is that what you put in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, everybody says they taste like shit!” Granted, most cookie makers would try to improve the cookie before selling it. But what about cigarettes then? Do cigarette ads say nothing but: “Smoke these, they’re addictive, they’ll make you smell bad, they’re expensive, and they’re highly toxic!”

Now just apply the basic principle to any product and any ad for it and you’ll see what I’m driving at. Advertising is not in fact “about” truth telling, it is “about” selling a product, and the two are not invariably mutually exclusive, but they certainly are in tension. Advertisers have no inherent motivation to tell the complete truth about the product unless they have the rare perfect product with no harmful side effects.

But I’m told I have “a very jaundiced view of corporate ethics” because I make this claim. But I don’t buy it (so to speak). I don’t think that is a jaundiced view, and it’s also not a personal one; it’s simply an observation about the inherent function of advertising. Unless, as I say, I’m completely wrong and confused and misinformed about what that function is. New information sought and welcomed.

Lotta People

Aug 26th, 2006 2:10 am | By

I don’t like this.

Americans remained critical of the influence of both the right and the left on religion. Sixty-nine percent agreed that liberals have “gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government” — an increase of 3 percentage points, which is not statistically significant. At the same time, 49 percent agreed that conservative Christians have “gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country,” also a 3 percentage point increase.

Sixty-nine percent think ‘libbruls’ have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government? Well…it’s presumably Pew’s question, and Pew who phrased it that way, so it may be that sixty-nine percent of Murkans wouldn’t have actually volunteered that crack-brained opinion. Maybe it would have been only sixty-five percent or so who would actually formulate the opinion themselves. But all the same, that’s a pretty staggering figure. Sometimes I’m afraid to leave the house.

Why dost thou lash that whore?

Aug 26th, 2006 2:06 am | By

So…let’s see how religion and piety inspire people to be kind to their fellow humans.

President Pervez Musharraf has opened a new and especially bitter confrontation with radical Islam by trying to rewrite Pakistan’s controversial rape laws. These place an almost impossible burden of proof on women by compelling them to produce four “pious” male witnesses to prove rape or risk being convicted of adultery and face 100 lashes or death by stoning.

So…these laws make it impossible for a woman to charge anyone with rape. Why, one wonders? What did Allah have in mind with that? That…women are such liars and sluts that they deserve to be raped except on the rare occasions when there are four pious males in the room when a fifth gets a crazy impulse to rape a woman? Is that it? Well, apparently.

A powerful militant Muslim lobby regards this code as sacred and based on Koranic texts and sharia law…Gen Musharraf’s allies in parliament sparked the fury of the militant opposition by introducing a Women Protection Bill. This would remove the requirement for four male witnesses to prove rape and set 16 as the age of consent for sex with girls. When this measure came before parliament, Islamic radicals responded by tearing up copies of the bill and storming out. “This bill is against the Holy Koran,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the militant opposition. “We reject it and will try to block it in any possible manner.” Other MPs chanted “death to Musharraf” and “Allah is great.”

Do they ever think, these militant types? If so, what do they think about? Do they ever think about why Allah who is great would makes such a law? Do they ever wonder why they want men who rape women to have impunity? Are they so confident that all women are whores and liars (their own daughters, sisters, mothers?) that they deserve to be raped with impunity, and stoned or lashed to death if they charge someone with rape and can’t persuade the four pious witnesses to testify?

I don’t know, but I wonder.

Leaders, Take a Break

Aug 26th, 2006 1:34 am | By

Ehsan Masood talks sense.

One of the problems we face in the search for better community relations is our insistence on sticking to the idea of the “community leader.” In a modern democracy, the idea that there is such a thing as a community leader and that he has the ability to prevent extremism among “his people” continues to be an important plank of government policy. But it needs rethinking. Each time there is news of Muslim terrorism, ministers invite television cameras to film a cavalcade of mostly male Muslims who appear to have been summoned to explain themselves to government ministers.

I wish he’d said a little more about the ‘mostly male’ part. But no matter.

[G]overnment should understand that command and control through third parties might be how you run an empire of sceptical Muslim subjects, but it isn’t a smart way to build a sense of belonging among sceptical Muslim citizens. Among other things, it allows Muslims to see themselves as separate from the rest of the society – which all too many would be happy to do. The community leader, too, has to recognise that his job of trying to represent his community to those in authority is over. It will be hard, because some of them enjoy being snapped standing next to the prime minister or foreign secretary. But Muslim citizens can look after themselves…

And many of them simply don’t want to be ‘represented’ by self-appointed (all male) leaders anyway.

Up to a Point

Aug 25th, 2006 7:20 pm | By

Norm has more on the paradox. He also had more a few days ago, answering my mutterings on the subject. To jump to the end first, he explains further what he had in mind.

So why my suggestion of a tension or paradox in the first place? I suppose because I think some liberals disguise from themselves that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework that they favour. Neutral in many ways it is, but only up to a point.

Ah. Is that it. Right – well then I won’t try to resolve the paradox any more, because I entirely agree with that, and bit that bullet long ago. (I scribbled four pages in my notebook on the subject yesterday morning and kept returning to and emphasizing the phrase ‘up to a point’ [and didn’t see Norm’s comment until today], so we’re on the same page here.) Yeah – if there’s one thing I don’t do it’s disguise from myself that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework I favour. I’m sharply aware of that; the awareness is basic to the ‘Cultural Relativism’ In Focus among other things. Hence the insistence on ‘up to a point’ – that point is where neutrality or pluralism or tolerance or liberty or multiculturalism or cultural relativism bump up against, for instance, subordination of women, or persecution of homosexuals or ‘apostates’ or ‘blasphemers’ or other outgroups merely for being outgroups. I definitely have substantive moral commitments that trump commitments to tolerance or libertarianism. They even trump, for instance, my commitment to democracy, especially democracy understood as simple majoritarianism; I don’t care how big a majority wants to oppress women or atheists or queers or Jews: I want a strong bill of rights to trump that majority will.

So to return to Norm’s original point – “Call this framework ‘pluralist liberalism’. Is it not itself premissed, then, upon principles for which universal validity is claimed by its adherents?” – I would say yes, it is, and furthermore that it applies only up to a point – which is perhaps another thing that some liberals disguise from themselves. In fact there are perhaps three of those (I’m starting to write a Spanish Inquistion sketch here). Substantive moral commitments, the fact that pluralism is believed in only up to a point, and the related fact that democracy is believed in up to a point. They’re all related. The vocabulary (the hurrah vocabulary) of tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism, diversity, and democracy, are very often flung around as if they were all quite unqualified, unlimited in their application, when the truth of course is that none of them are. Hardly anyone actually believes in tolerance of everything, pluralism in all matters, democracy no matter what the majority decides – yet people often talk as if they do believe exactly that. It’s worth reminding each other of the point up to which.

Suffer the Little Children

Aug 25th, 2006 2:07 am | By

I wanted to add just a couple of quick things about the Scruton piece on irony and Islam. I like to nail these things down, man.

One, I think Scruton was using the “gratuitous” to have it both ways: placating people who think jokes about “people’s beliefs” should be taboo while still arguing that non-gratuitous jokes are not taboo.

Now of course it is wrong to give gratuitous offence to people of other faiths; it is right to respect people’s beliefs, when these beliefs pose no threat to civil order…

“Gratuitous” is a very flexible word that way. Many people were absolutely certain that Rushdie’s humour in The Satanic Verses was utterly gratuitous, and many people were just as certain that it wasn’t; and so with other jokes, other movies, other plays, other novels, other performances at the Edinburgh fringe, and so on. Scruton may have been doing a spot of CYA there.

And then the bit about suffering –

Ordinary Christians, who suffer a daily diet of ridicule and skepticism, cannot help feeling that Muslims protest too much, and that the wounds, which they ostentatiously display to the world, are largely self-inflicted.

Suffer can easily mean two things there, and actually the less obvious meaning fits better. Suffer means not just endure pain, but simply endure: put up with, take, allow to happen. You can suffer something to happen without being pained by it and without its being painful. I think what he means there is primarily Christians daily put up with ridicule, without making a big fuss about it – rather than, Christians are daily tormented by ridicule. And yet, as I said, it’s tricksy, because it means both, and most people will probably read it the more usual way. But then again maybe it’s not really tricksy, since the two meanings overlap.

There; I’m glad we got that straight.


Aug 24th, 2006 8:00 pm | By

A N Wilson disputes Roger Scruton’s account of the reasons for his lack of universal popularity.

In the chapter “How I Became a Conservative”, Scruton meditates on the consequences of his political-cum-emotional decision. “…It became a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals…to write, if possible, damning and contemptuous reviews of my books, and to block my chances of promotion…” This analysis of what it is about Scruton which irritates overlooks the fact that he must know, in today’s climate, the likely effect of such regular Scruton standbys as a defence of foxhunting with hounds and a defence of social hierarchies, even of snobbery itself. There are plenty of right-wingers who, in various branches of intellectual life in England, have received good reviews for their books, and also been offered prestigious jobs…If Scruton is rather more marginalized than once he was, it perhaps has more to do with the error of judgement he made some years ago, when he accepted a back-hander from a tobacco firm, for the loose but undeclared general purpose of defending the tobacco lobby in his journalism…[F]or a man whose calling and raison d’être is that difficult business – not just telling the truth but finding out what the truth would be like if we told it – it was a huge blow to be exposed as the lickspittle of tobacco giants. If your job is inquiry, you cannot accept money for providing the answers before the question has been examined.

Well there you go. Exactly. And as a matter of fact, if your job is inquiry, you can’t accept anything for providing the answers before the question has been examined, because it’s the one thing you can’t do given that conditional. Inquiry, if it is to be inquiry, rules out providing the answers before the question has been examined. If you provide the answers before the question has been examined then what you’re doing is not inquiry, it’s some other thing. We say this somewhere in chapter 8 of Why Truth Matters. In fact (she says, having looked) it’s in the final extract we provide on the website.

And real inquiry presupposes that truth matters. That it is true that there is a truth of the matter we’re investigating, even if it turns out that we can’t find it. Maybe the next generation can, or two or three or ten after that, or maybe just someone more skilled than we are. But we have to think there is something to find in order for inquiry to be genuine inquiry and not just an arbitrary game that doesn’t go anywhere. We like games, but we also like genuine inquiry. That’s why truth matters.

There. That’s how it is. You can have inquiry, or you can have something else, but you can’t have both in one. You can’t have inquiry that isn’t inquiry, so you can’t have inquiry that cheats. If it cheats it immediately turns into something else, as if a magician had transformed it.

Jerry S and I argued about this a little after he did the Little Atoms interview a few weeks ago, after he’d told the great radio-listening public that actually he doesn’t think truth does matter, so, like, you know, never mind. We argued a little but I think he ended up admitting that I was quite right in what I said. Well okay not that exactly but I think he grudgingly agreed to my characterization of what he said. The case he made on Little Atoms was that truth doesn’t always matter, for instance between individuals. Well of course not, I said sharply, but then we never said it did; we were talking about disciplinary inquiry and truth, not truth in every nook and cranny of life. I think he raised some feeble objection to the effect that not all disciplines are engaged in inquiry or truth-seeking, but again I brushed that ruthlessly aside as a red herring. We weren’t talking about pottery or art appreciation, for Christ’s sake, we were talking about inquiry. I think at that point he gave in and agreed I was right, or perhaps he changed the subject; one of those. But anyway, I stick to that. We’re talking about truth in truth-seeking contexts in WTM, we’re not saying everyone should run around telling each other how nasty those shoes are and how sinister everyone looks in that shirt.

But we are saying, at least I am and I think JS is too, that philosophers should not pocket money from tobacco lobbyists in exchange for ‘defending the tobacco lobby in [their] journalism’. Actually I don’t think anyone should do that, for moral reasons as well as epistemic ones; but for philosophers, the epistemic reason is pretty compelling all by itself.

Isn’t There an Exam or Something?

Aug 23rd, 2006 8:01 pm | By

The Bush attention deficit is attracting some unfavourable comment again. It’s a bit late now, but there you go.

Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post for one.

George W. Bush, the most resolutely incurious and inflexible of presidents, was reported last week to have been surprised at seeing Iraqi citizens — who ought to be grateful beneficiaries of the American occupation, I mean “liberation” — demonstrating in support of Hezbollah and against Israel. Surprise would be a start, since it would mean the Decider was admitting novel facts to his settled base of knowledge and reacting to them. Alas, it seems the door to the presidential mind is still locked tight…Even conservatives have begun openly assessing the president’s intellect, especially its impermeability to new information…The president was asked yesterday whether the failure of the U.S.-backed “unity” government to stem the orgy of sectarian carnage disappoints him, and he said that no, it didn’t. How, I wonder, is that possible?…[D]o 3,438 deaths really just roll off his back after he’s had his workout and a nice bike ride?

Well…frankly, yes; at least, as far as anyone can tell from out here. He doesn’t pay attention, he doesn’t let in new information, and he doesn’t care. That’s been obvious all along, and now that it’s much too late even some Republicans are noticing. (Actually some Republicans noticed quite awhile ago. I know rock-ribbed Republicans who voted for Kerry, because they’d noticed.)

Fred Kaplan in Slate also notices.

Among the many flabbergasting answers that President Bush gave at his press conference on Monday, this one – about Democrats who propose pulling out of Iraq – triggered the steepest jaw drop: “I would never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.” George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like … well, it’s like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world.

Not to mention the part about not questioning the patriotism (or loyalty) of people who disagree with him. That’s a real thigh-slapper.

[Bush:] “What’s very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy.”…The key reality that Bush fails to grasp is that terrorism and democracy are not opposites. They can, and sometimes do, coexist. One is not a cure for the other.

Well, Bush, like a lot of people, seems to mean by ‘democracy’ just ‘being like us’ or ‘doing things the good way.’ So naturally he does think it’s the opposite of terrorism. It would be better if a man in such a powerful position had a somewhat more informed idea of the word, but he doesn’t seem to.

As for Iraq, it’s no news that Bush has no strategy. What did come as news – and, really, a bit of a shocker – is that he doesn’t seem to know what “strategy” means. Asked if it might be time for a new strategy in Iraq, given the unceasing rise in casualties and chaos, Bush replied, “The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and dreams, which is a democratic society. That’s the strategy…The reporter followed up, “Sir, that’s not really the question. The strategy – ” Bush interrupted, “Sounded like the question to me.”…”[H]elping Iraqis achieve a democratic society” may be a strategic objective, but it’s not a strategy – any more than “ending poverty” or “going to the moon” is a strategy…Could it be that he doesn’t grasp the distinction between an “objective” and a “strategy,” and so doesn’t see that there might be alternatives? Might our situation be that grim?

Oh, yes. Easily. He doesn’t grasp most distinctions – he’s not that kinda guy. Again, that’s been obvious all along. He’s The Decider, sadly, but he’s not a thinker. He doesn’t have the right skills for the job. That ought to have prevented him from ever even making it into the primaries, but unhappily our system doesn’t work that way. I think that’s bottomlessly unfortunate.

Irony Meet Gratuitous Offence

Aug 23rd, 2006 7:26 pm | By

Aren’t philosophers supposed to avoid contradictions? Or do I have that wrong.

Now of course it is wrong to give gratuitous offence to people of other faiths; it is right to respect people’s beliefs, when these beliefs pose no threat to civil order…

I disagree with that, to the extent that it’s meant to apply to public discourse as opposed to private conversation; but accept it for the sake of argument. But then –

Whenever I consider this matter I am struck by a singular fact about the Christian religion, a fact noticed by Kierkegaard and Hegel but rarely commented upon today, which is that it is informed by a spirit of irony…Such irony is a long way from the humorless incantations of the Koran. Yet it is from a posture of irony that every real negotiation, every offer of peace, every acceptance of the other, begins. The way forward, it seems to me, is to encourage the re-emergence of an ironical Islam, of the kind you find in the philosophy of Averroës, in Persian poetry and in “The Thousand and One Nights.” We should also encourage those ethnic and religious jokes which did so much to defuse tension in the days before political correctness. And maybe, one day, the rigid face of some puritanical mullah will crack open in a hesitant smile, and negotiations can at last begin.

Well which is it?

I hope it’s the second; I go with the second; but it doesn’t mesh seamlessly with the first. Actually the first simply seems to contradict the second, and quite thoroughly. Did Scruton just lose track of his own thought in the course of the article?


Aug 22nd, 2006 5:13 pm | By

I’m a little perturbed and repelled by this idea (expressed in comments on Difficult Daughters) that the murder of a girl is ‘worse’ than the murder of a woman. Actually, I think I’m more than a little perturbed and repelled by it. And no one but me has even taken issue with it yet, so perhaps that indicates it’s conventional wisdom, even a truism. But I think it’s all wrong, and not only wrong but sinister. I’m perturbed not only by the specifics of the ranking but by the idea that ranking of murder is a valid and sensible way of thinking about it. But why would it be? Why should it be? Why don’t we all have an egalitarian reaction which says that qualities and attributes are fundamentally and radically beside the point when it comes to murder, that there is no better or worse, that nobody wants to be murdered (masochists excepted) and that’s that. What is this impulse to say that murder of children is worse? It seems to me to border on saying that the murder of cute people is worse than the murder of uncute people, which borders on saying the murder of pretty people is worse than the murder of ugly people.

Now, mass media do in fact say exactly that, albeit implicitly. The weird obsessive coverage of Jon-Benet Ramsay is one glaring example, and there are plenty of others. But why do rational people want to follow their lead? Why does anyone want to try to argue that some murders are worse than others? I can see why in certain very extreme circumstances, so extreme as to be very rare in the rich world, people might be forced to try to decide how to rank the worth of various people for the sake of triage. If death is inevitable for some members of a group because the water and food are limited, then calculations are one way to decide who is saved – but it’s well known (isn’t it?) that they’re a damn horrible way, which is why people often decide to draw straws instead. Sophie’s choice was not a choice she wanted to make.

There seems to be an idea that it’s a natural and instinctive thought that the murder or death of a child is ‘worse’ (in what sense? I don’t quite know, but the meaning seems to be taken for granted) than the murder of an adult. But I don’t think it is. I think that’s basically a sentimental idea, which is probably a product of the 19th century, of Dickens and Stowe and their fans and epigones. Dickens at some point realized that the death of a child could be milked for emotional reactions, and milk he did. You don’t find that kind of sentimentalism about children before Dickens. Even the cult of sensibility was mostly a sensibility about other things – about adult griefs and sorrows, on the whole. But Dickens had a winning formula, and Hollywood carried on his work; Little Nell and Little Eva have been haunting us for a long time now. But tear-jerking tricks of popular novelists aren’t necessarily the best possible guides to moral reasoning.

And I don’t buy it. As I said in the comments, I can see that the death or murder of a child is more poignant than that of an adult, for obvious reasons (innocence, defencelessness, helplessness, trust etc) but poignant is not the same thing as worse. It is true that one variable can be easily quantified: age translates directly into amount of potential life taken away. Okay; so if you’re in the village in a famine with stocks dwindling fast and no relief on the way, or in the lifeboat with one bottle of water, then one way to decide who starves is to say it’s the people with the least time left to lose. But that doesn’t translate directly into saying that the murder of a child is worse than that of an adult. And there are other criteria that (if one wants to take such criteria into account, which I don’t) cut the other way. You could easily argue that the murder of an adult is much worse than the murder of a child because an adult has a far clearer idea of what’s at stake, and because an adult probably has goals and plans and dreams that she wants to try to fulfill, and because adults are much more likely to have adult friends who value them, and because adults have probably invested a lot of time and effort in training or education that is just wasted if they are murdered, and because adults may have dependents who need them, which children don’t.

But I don’t want to make that calculation, because I don’t want to claim that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of another kind. Because I don’t think it is. I think claiming that amounts to saying that some lives are intrinsically (not circumstantially, in the sense of having dependents or making a contribution) worth more than others. And frankly I think there’s something deeply icky and regressive in the idea that children are, intrinsically, as children, worth more than adults. I think that’s sentimental and sinister – as if people deteriorate by growing up; as if innocence were necessarily better than experience; as if ignorance were better than learning and potential better than actuality. It depresses me to think that anyone believes Hina Saleem’s murder would actually be worse if she’d been twelve instead of twenty one – as if she’d done something corrupting and tainting and compromised by growing up.

I hadn’t thought of this until I started typing, but Hannah Arendt talks about this whole issue in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She is scathing about the way the Jewish councils helped the Nazis by (among other things) coming up with various privileged categories of people who should be saved, and she’s adamant that they shouldn’t have done it.

What was morally so disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged catagories was that everyone who demanded to have an ‘exception’ made in his case implicitly recognized the rule…Even after the end of the war, Kastner was proud of his success in saving ‘prominent Jews,’ a category officially introduced by the Nazis in 1942, as though in his view, too, it went without saying that a famous Jew had more right to stay alive than an ordinary one; to take upon himself such ‘responsibilities’ – to help the Nazis in their efforts to pick out ‘famous’ people from the anonymous mass, for this is what it amounted to – ‘required more courage than to face death.’

We just don’t need to do that. We don’t need to collaborate with murderers by saying that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of some other kind. We’re under no obligation to sort people into the more and less murder-worthy; so let’s not.

You Can’t Say That

Aug 22nd, 2006 12:00 am | By

Uh oh.

A criminal investigation has been started by Scotland Yard into an advertisement from the Gay Police Association (GPA) that blamed religion for a 74 per cent increase in homophobic crime…Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Campbell, who leads the domestic violence and hate crime unit, disclosed the investigation in a letter to Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP. He wrote: “The original advertisement has been recorded as a religiously aggravated hate crime incident following a crime allegation by a member of the public.”

The original advertisement is a hate crime (incident). That’s interesting. Where I come from it’s things like murders and assaults that are hate crimes, not just ads. But that’s okay, maybe I come from a silly place. But – isn’t this what everyone said? Not everyone, but everyone who thought this here religious hatred bill was not such a hot idea? Atkinson and Rushdie and people like that there? That it would be used to punish and prevent criticism of religion? And didn’t everyone who thought the religious hatred bill was indeed a hot idea say that no no, no no no no no, it wouldn’t do that, good heavens no, it wouldn’t impede or suppress legitimate criticism of religion at all, no no, it wouldn’t have a chilling effect on humour or satire or mockery or polemic about religion, it would be used strictly to prevent – um – the kind of thing that needed to be prevented, and nothing else. Trust them. It would. Honest. So – now you get someone making an allegation of crime and Scotland Yard wheels majestically into action? But – what exactly is the crime here? Expressing an opinion about the connection between Biblical literalist religion and homophobia? That’s a crime? Well jeez, welcome to 1589, enjoy your stay.

Widdecombe, a Christian who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993, was angered by the advertisement. “It seems a deliberate attempt to stir up hate against Christians,” she said. By using that famous line of worship, In The Name of the Father, the association is effectively alleging that Christians are solely responsible for hate crime. “The implication of this advertisement is that Christians stir up assault and abuse against homosexuals. This is not true, as Christians are specifically taught not to hate; not just to refrain from acts or expressions of hatred, but not to give in to hate itself.”

That is an absurd thing to say. Really profoundly absurd. Some Christians are specifically taught not to hate, but she must know (and if she doesn’t she ought to; it’s her duty as an MP, especially one who talks to newspapers about this subject) that not all Christians are taught any such thing. If she really thinks that no Christians anywhere are taught to hate homosexuals, she’s living in a dream world. (Perhaps she means that Christians who pay attention to what Jesus actually said are taught not to hate. But that’s not true either. It’s true of what Jesus says in some parts of the gospels, but it’s not true of what he says in other parts.)

Bernard McEldowney, the deputy chairman of the association, which is an independent body, said: “We wanted to focus on what we regard as a problem of faith-based homophobia, not just Christianity. “But when most people think about religion they think of the Bible which is why we agreed to illustrate the advert pictorially with a Bible. In hindsight maybe we should not have used the Bible but we wanted to highlight serious homophobic incidents on the grounds and justification of religious belief.”

Well you can’t, because saying things like that is a crime. Amen.

Liberal Internationalism

Aug 21st, 2006 1:38 am | By

Catching up with le blog Bérubé again, and found something relevant to thoughts about universalism and human rights and pluralism and discussion.

We have not yet devised the political means to realize this utopian vision, and perhaps we never will: utopia, to date, is a place we know only by way of speculative fiction. But over the years, as we’ve developed family/clan relations, city-states, empires, kingdoms, caliphates, constitutional monarchies, theocracies, military dictatorships, communist autocracies and liberal democracies, we’ve come to learn that liberal democracies stand the best chance of realizing some approximation of that ideal, and – just as importantly – the best chance of changing their collective minds, so to speak, about how to approximate the ideal as they go along. Because they allow for plural, disparate, multiply competing political constituencies and modes of advancing political argument, liberal democracies seem best suited to realizing the kind of social self-reflexivity necessary for any significant political—or personal—change of understanding with regard to human rights.

That’s from Michael’s new book; he adds now:

But universalism with regard to rights and liberal internationalism with regard to foreign policy will perform a very useful function for any useful left: they will absolutely prevent you from expressing even the slightest degree of “solidarity” with Hezbollah, or the Iraqi resistance, or Slobodan Milosevic, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, simply on the grounds that they are opposing the Hegemon, the Empire.

Yeah. And then he adds a bit more after a discussion of Chomsky:

I would be so much happier if Chomsky were to take a moment to criticize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. I think that would be just great. Because, in my humble opinion, the left should have no part in such an enterprise, any more than we would take part in the International Committee to Defend Augusto Pinochet.
Or the International Committee to Defend Henry Kissinger.
Or the International Committee to Promote the Triumph of the Iraqi Maquis.
Or the International Committee to Point Out that Osama Bin Laden is Higher on the Moral Scale than Bush/Cheney.
Or the International Committee to Assert That We Are All Hezbollah Now.


How to Resolve the Paradox

Aug 21st, 2006 1:03 am | By

Norm said something interesting today.

A framework for public life based on accepting that there is no single ‘road to salvation’, or – put otherwise – no single overriding moral truth, or that there is no way to be completely certain about whatever moral truth there may be, would seem to be the only alternative to permanent warfare between people of different belief systems (and that applies, of course, not only to religious belief systems). Call this framework ‘pluralist liberalism’. Is it not itself premissed, then, upon principles for which universal validity is claimed by its adherents? Some would say no, but I’ve never seen a persuasive argument for that. Liberalism makes a claim of its own to moral truth, but it’s a moral truth permitting those who believe in competing moral truths to live together, provided they don’t try to impose these on one another by violence. Which means that liberalism has to exclude the attempts of antithetical belief systems to monopolize the public domain for themselves. If there is an air of paradox about this, I don’t know how to resolve it.

Well…one way might be by saying there is a difference between a single road to salvation – which is, for instance, the kind of thing David Horowitz and Jamie Glazov kept trying to pin on Norm and Nick and the whole of the left in that misbegotten interview in Front Page a month or two ago – they kept insisting that the left as a whole believed in utopianism – like this:

But if you are on the Left, are you not part of an ideology that holds that human redemption, accompanied by human equality and a classless society, is possible and that it can be engendered through social engineering?

No. Next question. Or rather, back to what I was saying when I interrupted myself – that sentence isn’t even finished, which is a disgrace. Ahem: by saying there is a difference between a single road to salvation, and a framework based on accepting that there isn’t one (or, pluralist liberalism). By saying that universal validity isn’t exactly the same thing as a single road to salvation or a single – single, mark – overriding moral truth. By saying that a single road to salvation, a single overriding moral truth, and certainty about whatever moral truth there might be, are all on one side of this divide, all fit into one definitional box, while a framework based on accepting that there is no such thing, and plural liberalism, and claims of universal validity, are on the other. Perhaps it’s the secular aspect that separates them. Roads to salvation and single overriding moral truths tend to be theistic, and handed down by authority, and thus immune to questioning and reason; a framework that says there is no such thing isn’t. All the words Norm chose for the first half of the equation smack of taboo, of hands off, of don’t touch, of the holy of holies; the words he chose for the second half smack of the human and the discussable. The first half can be delivered by fiat; the second half relies on reasons. The first can’t be explained; the second can.

That’s how I would resolve the paradox. I would say that universal validity is not the same thing as a single overriding moral truth, because it’s a human thing not a goddy thing.

How would you resolve it?

Difficult Daughters

Aug 20th, 2006 7:28 pm | By

Another pesky disobedient unsubmissive daughter eliminated.

In the garden, buried under a metre of soil and with her jeans and blouse soaked in blood, was the body of the missing girl. Her throat had been slit.

(Why is the Independent calling her a girl? She was twenty-one. Do men of that age get called boys? No. So why is the Indy calling Hina Saleem a girl? Especially in this context? Some strange unconscious desire to trivialize her or make it seem that she really belonged to her father in some way? Or just dumb as a post habitual belief that women really are childish?)

At the beginning of July, she was said to have refused her father’s insistent demand that she return with her mother and sisters to the city of Gujarat in Pakistan, where she was born, to get married. Police believe that her father, a brother-in-law, Mohammed Tariq, and another man, Mahmood Zahid, tried to persuade her one last time. The female members of the family had already departed. It is thought that Hina was told: “Either you come back with us to Pakistan or you’re not going anywhere.”

So now she’s not going anywhere.

Italy’s Interior Minister points out the obvious but still necessary:

The case of the Pakistani woman murdered by her father says a lot about the aims of citizenship, because it is clear that it is not enough to require adhesion to the values of the Italian Constitution. Adhesion to fundamental rights is also necessary, such as the fact that women are to be respected according to rules which I consider universal.

The Indy finds a retort:

In the midst of the rising tide of indignation, some small voices have made the point that not long ago Italy would have understood Mohammed Saleem’s feelings better. The law offering the possibility of clemency in cases of “honour crimes” – still far from rare in the south – was only repealed in 1981.

Yes – and? What of it? What follows from that sly observation? The Indy doesn’t say, it leaves it to us to determine.

Flowery Shakespeare

Aug 19th, 2006 10:34 pm | By

John Sutherland on Shakespeare stuff. Harold Bloom, for instance. I like early Bloom, but I really hated his Shakespeare book.

…the Falstaffian Harold Bloom with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Before the Bard, Bloom argues, we were only semi-human. We didn’t know how to express those feelings that separate us from the brutes (so much for Dante and Chaucer).

Not to mention Homer, Euripides, Seneca, Montaigne, and quite a few other people. But one can go too far in the deflationary direction too.

Stanley Wells is the acknowledged dean of the reviser school….[Shxpr] was a “working man of the theatre” – arguably (but not in every respect) superior to Dekker, Middleton, Jonson et al, and no different in kind…If you brought Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare to the present in H.G. Wells’ time machine and asked him “what are you doing, Will?” he would never have said “inventing the human, dear fellow”. He would have said: “turning an honest penny. And, by the way, can I interest you in buying a few tons of malt which I’ve just bought on spec?”

He wouldn’t have said either (as Sutherland is pointing out). The inventing the human thing is very silly, but so is the turning an honest penny thing. If he had been merely turning an honest penny and nothing more, there are thousands of lines he would have written quite differently. The plays are riddled with vocabulary, images, thoughts, effects, speeches, fireworks, that he didn’t need just to get bums on seats or feet in the pit. They are full and overflowing with excess. It is quite possible that he could have made even more money if he had written more simply: then he probably could have written more plays. He wouldn’t have written ‘Troilus and Cressida’ at all; ‘Hamlet’ would have been half the length; ‘Lear’ would have had the happy ending Nahum Tate gave it; the Sonnets wouldn’t exist; and so on. Yes he liked making money, but that’s not all he liked.


Aug 19th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

This is a rather uninformative piece about yet another Islamic group, this one called Tablighi Jamaat, which is ‘believed by western intelligence agencies to be used as a fertile recruiting ground by extremists.’ It looks as if the reporter, not surprisingly, wasn’t able to find out much. But one thing he did find out he doesn’t really seem to have noticed; at least, he doesn’t comment on it. It jumps right out at me.

Thousands of young Muslim men are attending meetings in east London every week run by a fundamentalist Islamic movement…On Thursday evening, the Guardian witnessed around 3,000 men from as far afield as Great Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight stream through the backstreets of Stratford to the meeting. There, at the gates of a seemingly derelict industrial site, men in fluorescent jackets waved those who are known to the Tablighi Jamaat hierarchy under a security barrier…Seconds later, the main man stood next to his red van in Islamic dress and a smart blue waistcoat as hundreds of men, many carrying suitcases and sleeping bags, filed past him…The English-speaking room heaved as a sea of faces, white, black and Asian, spilled into the hallway. Most were teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s dressed in Islamic dress, caps and beards. Some came in suits and ties, others in jeans and hoodies. There were old men too, who weaved slowly through to the front of the room, and a few young boys.

Well there’s part of your problem right there. Frankly it’s very difficult not to think that a lot of this just boils down to stupid guy stuff. To men segregating themselves and then egging each other on to do stupider and stupider guy stuff. It’s so difficult that I won’t even bother to try.

The Times also tells us a little about Tablighi Jamaat.

Some suspects, including Mr Sarwar, 25, joined Tablighi Jamaat, an international missionary sect encouraging followers to live like the Prophet, growing beards and praying five times a day. Volunteers are sent around Britain from mosque to mosque, bringing only a sleeping bag and provisions. By day they tour Muslim communities, knocking on doors to discuss faith with the men of the house and inviting them to evening gatherings.

To discuss ‘faith’ with the men of the house. See? Women aren’t even on the map, aren’t on the radar, aren’t anything to do with anything. They’re just furniture, cattle, household appliances. Well, that’s part of your problem right there.