That Book

Sep 1st, 2006 1:12 am | By


Dan at Muscular Liberals cites Why Truth.

Considering the response of some to what can only only be described as Hezbollah propaganda dressed up as reporting called to mind a passage in Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s “Why Truth Matters”, a great book I read whilst on my travels a couple of weeks ago.

Well – that’s pleasing, because I suppose that was the idea. That generally is the idea in books of the ‘let’s all try to think just a little bit carefully’ variety: the hope is that things will link up that way, so that the abundant examples of propaganda dressed up as reporting the world is blessed with will seem not like bizarre one-offs but like examples of a nameable phenomenon such as propaganda dressed up as reporting. Sometimes patterns are illusory but other times they’re very useful; sometimes connections are merely paranoiac imaginings but other times they make sense of apparently random mistakes.

This is the passage he quotes (emphasis his):

There is a frivolity, a lack of responsibility, an indifference to canons of coherence, logic, rationality and relevance – which are reminiscent not of the Left or progressivism, but, as Richard Wolin argues, of counter-Enlightenment and reaction.

That is not an accidental association, it is what counter-Enlightenment and reaction are all about: the rejection of reason, enquiry, logic and evidence, in favour of tradition, religion, instinct, blood and soil, The Nation, The Fatherland. That is the sort of thing that remains standing once canons of coherence and relevance are stripped away. The Left is not well-advised to discredit or undermine reason and respect for truth, because those are ultimately the only tools the Left has against the irrationalist appeals of the Right.

Well, thanks, Dan. I quite like that passage myself.

And it’s pleasantly revelvant to the running argument over cultural relativism and rational argument that’s been going on here lately.

If you don’t like anything, just say

Sep 1st, 2006 1:09 am | By

Another museum caves.

A Bangladeshi-British photographer is complaining that her work has been censored by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. A documentary work made in Bangladesh by Syra Miah and shown as part of the museum’s Art and Islam exhibitions was removed because it contained an image of a semi-naked woman.

Update: See these comments at Mediawatchwatch for more. A reader wrote to the museum, and the museum replied with a different take. It explains the decision, which sounds less loopy than the Guardian account did, and adds “The gallery discussed the matter with Syra Miah, and the photograph was
removed on 18 July with her full agreement. Our understanding following
these discussions was that Syra Miah said that she understood the reasons
for the removal and accepted the decision. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
had not heard from the artist about this matter since the time the work was
removed 7 weeks ago in July.”

I had amused myself composing a good old fulimination, but since it may have been inaccurate and hence unfair, I snarled gently and then decided that truth matters, so it’s gone.


Sep 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

The Interrogations Archive

Cultural Barriers

Aug 31st, 2006 2:09 am | By

What about healthy invigorating sport?

But is everyone getting excited about sport? Not according to the organisation Sport England which encourages nationwide participation of sporting activities. Its figures show that Muslim women are significantly less likely to take up exercise compared to other groups.

Wait, you said sport first, then you made it exercise. Different thing. But never mind that’s not the part that caught my attention.

In addition, there are cultural barriers involved in the take up of sport as a professional career option for many Muslims, both male and female…Shahid Saleh, a young British Muslim who has five sisters, explains how he does not like the idea of them playing games. “I wouldn’t want them to play sports,” he said. “You’re not allowed to uncover yourself like wearing tracksuit bottoms and all that, and play football or badminton, you have to cover yourself.”

Oh, mind your own business, Shahid. Get your mind out of the gutter and leave your sisters alone; they’re not your property. But that’s not the part that caught my attention either.

Cultural barriers remain in taking up a career in sport. Twelve-year-old Zahir Ahmed says that his parents encourage him to study hard rather than to waste time playing.

That’s the part. Wait – studying hard is a ‘cultural barrier’ to taking up a career in sport? For one thing, careers in sport aren’t just lying around littering the streets ready to be ‘taken up,’ they’re extremely rare, especially at the big money level. But for a more basic thing, studying could be construed as something other than a cultural barrier to sport. It could, actually, be regarded as a good in itself as well as an instrumental good; it could be regarded as both a source of enrichment, expansion, understanding, critical thinking, skill, excitement, and as a tool necessary for a very wide range of jobs, such as for instance being a BBC reporter. So frankly it seems a little twisted to look at it as merely a ‘cultural barrier’ to sport. Some cultural barriers have a lot to be said for them.

Harris on Collins

Aug 29th, 2006 11:32 pm | By

Sam Harris has harsh things to say about Francis Collins’s book. “His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind,” he observes, then he quotes from the book:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted….

You are “right”? What does he mean? Morally right? To “hold fast” to truths that aren’t truths? To hold fast to certainty? Not much sign of a scientific frame of mind there, all right.

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

Because…JC put the waterfall there? And froze it? And arranged that it should be a beautiful fall day when this one particular guy saw it? But what about this other time when someone else rounded a corner on a cold rainy windy day and couldn’t see the waterfall at all because she was too wet and miserable and busy wishing she were home with a brandy and some out of season strawberries?

Harris comments:

One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it was not obvious to him as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will not be obvious to many of his readers. If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.

Collins rhapsodizes:

No, this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein…. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law … this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness…. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.

Oh, right. The special moral goodness of humans shows how specially moral god is, and thinking so is more rational than not thinking so.

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

Well, bud, I tell you what, if you cannot see how nature could have created itself, I cannot see how a supernatural force could have created itself, so there. I know, the idea is that it did it by being supernatural, but, see, that’s not actually an explanation, it’s just a hand-wave. When you come to something you can’t see how it happened, the right answer is not ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ but just ‘I don’t see how.’ That’s because they come to the same thing, but ‘I don’t see how’ is more honest.

There’s more. More recycled bad arguments from Collins and protests from Harris. Worth reading.


Aug 29th, 2006 8:30 pm | By

Salman Rushdie has noticed.

Spiegel asked him, “Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to Bush’s and Blair’s policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong?”

There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there’s one thing we must all be clear about: terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn’t one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people.

Spiegel protested a little, “And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others — and of oneself.

Well obviously there must be reasons; these things aren’t causeless eruptions; but that doesn’t mean there must be sane or reasonable or sensible or genuine political reasons; that doesn’t mean there must be reasons that anyone is obliged to take at all seriously, much less so seriously as to credit them with being a criticism of UK-US foreign policy. One might as well say football hooliganism is a criticism of UK-US foreign policy, one might as well say gang-rape is a criticism of UK-US foreign policy.

Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission which pushes people towards “actions.” Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There’s the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there’s the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role too.

Spiegel protests again, even more foolishly. “Do you seriously mean that terrorism is glamorous?” Do you seriously mean you think it isn’t? Come on. All that media attention, those glam “martyrdom videos,” the outfits, the drama, the “courage,” the self-importance? How could it possibly not be glamourous? This is what I meant after 7/7 by saying everyone should make fun of them and call them bedwetters and pathetic attention-seeking dweebs. I mean that.

Yes. Terror is glamour – not only, but also. I am firmly convinced that there’s something like a fascination with death among suicide bombers. Many are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic that is inherent in these insane acts. The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other peoples lives. There’s one thing you mustn’t forget here: the victims terrorized by radical Muslims are mostly other Muslims.

Absolutely. It’s a little scary and depressing that so many people don’t get that and don’t even find it plausible. Look: terrorists are young men: that’s probably the most crucial fact about them. This is young guy stuff; it’s the same stuff that fills prisons with young men; it’s a lot more about young guyism than it is about serious political criticism. The foreign policy is mostly a fig leaf, a smoke screen, a pretext, a pseudo-explanation. It’s the glamour and the herd mentality that really crank thing up. (No, you’re right, I don’t know that for a fact, I’m just saying it as if I do. But like Rushdie, I’m convinced of it.)


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.