Oh That Old Thing

Jul 19th, 2004 8:02 pm | By

This again. Will it never go away? (No, of course not, because it serves a purpose, however wrong-headedly.) The old ‘atheism is a belief just as theism is’ number. This time it’s in a thread on secularism at Harry’s Place, in which Harry points out how indispensable active secularism has become.

Once was a time when the National Secular Society gave the impression of being one of those curious leftovers from the 19th century, membership of which was the preserve of eccentrics who enjoyed rehashing their Oxbridge debates about theology. Sadly, given the times in which we live, it is now a much-needed organisation and one which I intend to join and urge others to do so. The weekly round-up of articles, Newsline has become essential reading for any secularist who is concerned with issues such as the Blunkett proposal, faith schools and other examples of creeping clericalism.

Very good, but in the comments Peter Cuthbertson of Conservative Commentary insists that secularism itself is a belief system. But it isn’t. It’s not about beliefs, it’s about what to do. There are plenty of believers in various religions who are also secularists. I know several myself. Then farther down, the claim becomes one about atheism as a belief – partly in order to separate that from the claim about secularism. But atheism is not a belief either, it’s the absence of one, as I tried to argue in terms you’ve all heard a million times already, so I won’t bother repeating them here. I’m just noting the oddity of the fact that people can so easily accept that not believing in X amounts to a belief as opposed to, precisely, a non-belief. Not believing in X doesn’t entail believing in something else to take its place. I don’t believe in gremlins. That doesn’t mean I’m committed to a belief in, say, rmlniges instead.

I think part of what’s going on is some kind of fancy footwork about what kind of ‘belief’ is meant. Some kind of secret elision of the difference between warranted belief and just plain belief; between believing something because there is evidence for it, and belief that’s independent of evidence.

Ten Books That Shook the World

Jul 19th, 2004 6:34 pm | By

Now that’s an idea. There are all these lists all the time – Prospect’s list of the top intellectuals, the BBC’s list of Favourite Reads or whatever it was called, Norm’s lists of everyone’s favourite movies, three novels (was it?), rock groups (that last one actually incited my colleague to vote, though he usually thinks he’s too good for such frivolities) (that’s a tease, obviously), and so on. Now Norm has a new list, just his own this time, of

10 great books of my life (sort of). Though I’ve been thinking about the list for some time, I protect myself against assault by saying that these are not necessarily what I judge to be the 10 most important of the works that I’ve read in my life (on whatever criterion, or set of criteria, or scale). But they’re all ones which have had a marked and lasting influence on the way I think about the world.

What a good idea. I want to do that. Let’s do that. I’ll do one, or perhaps I’ll do several (on account of how I’m terrible at making up my mind, I’m mushy and vacillating and unstable and fickle and undiscriminating, I like everything, or not everything but a lot of things), and if you feel like it you can do yours in comments or by email.

And while you’re at it, check out a new blog by Jonathan Derbyshire. He’s a colleague of my colleague’s and his colleague (if you see what I mean) – that is to say, he’s Reviews Editor of TPM. There’s a delightfully eclectic note to the blog, with a post on Jeeves and Wooster cheek by jowl with one on secularism. I love eclecticism (see above about fickleness and mushiness which is actually eclecticism, breadth, wideness of views, love of variety and multiplicity, etc.).


Jul 17th, 2004 11:35 pm | By

Interesting. I was about to type up a quotation from Simon Blackburn for something I’m working on, and before doing so thought I might as well check our Quotations in case we already had it there (then I would only need to copy it instead of typing). We don’t, but we do have one that is pleasingly relevant to the subject we’ve been discussing lately, along with Brian Leiter. So I thought I would put it here. It’s from Prospect, April 2003.

It is not the slavish remnant of a religious worldview to admit that the person who has gone and looked is more of an authority than one who has not. It is not just convention which dictates that years of surveying, or years in the archive or laboratory give you a better title to be listened to on your subject than years spent ignoring the issue.

And I also thought I might as well give you the quotation I typed up. It’s from the ‘Postmodernism’ entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

While the dismantling of objectivity seems to some to be the way towards a liberating political radicalism, to others it allows such unliberating views as the denial that there was (objectively) such an event as the Second World War or the Holocaust…The postmodernist frame of mind…may seem to depend on a cavalier dismissal of the success of science in generating human improvement, an exaggeration of the admitted fallibility of any attempt to gain knowledge in the humane disciplines, and an ignoring of the quite ordinary truth that while human history and law admit of no one final description, they certainly admit of more or less accurate ones…

Good stuff.

What Dictionary?

Jul 17th, 2004 11:03 pm | By

Ah good. Amazon has corrected the little oddity whereby it named the alphabetically first author of the Fashionable Dictionary and disappeared the alphabetically second one. I filled out the correction thing last week, but it looks as if Amazon has also heard from the publisher, because the jacket flap copy is now on the page, which it wasn’t last week. So here is the page. You can order your copy or copies right now, thus making a first printing of fifty thousand copies necessary. Or at any rate you can admire the page, and the jacket copy, and the presence of two names instead of just one, and the mention of B&W. Or you can just roll your eyes and ignore me, but I had to mention it. Of course I did.


Jul 15th, 2004 7:13 pm | By

This is a nice bit of dovetailing, of convergence, of two minds with but a single thought, of – okay, we get the idea. Brian Leiter was talking about different examples of exactly the same kind of thing I was talking about two days ago, in ‘Close Reading’. The Little Professor noticed the parallel. Leiter’s post is really interesting; it touches on several issues I have on my sort of mental list of things to discuss sometime. It quotes Andrea Lafferty, director of something called ‘the Traditional Values Coalition’ (oh please) saying ‘There’s an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American.’ Well – uh – yeah. Because they probably do, ya know? Seeing as how the ‘average American’ has a very good statistical chance of thinking the sun travels around the earth. But, you know, that there’s against the law around these parts, thinking you know better than the average American. The average Lithuanian, now, that’s okay, and as for the average Frog – ! But I’ll stop ranting for a moment and let Leiter take over.

In fact, of course, scientists do know quite a bit better than the “average American” about the matters for which their scientific expertise equips them. Those with knowledge, surprisingly, know more than those who are ignorant. Is that arrogance? As Chris Mooney remarked, ‘science is not a democracy,’ and in a democratic culture, that inevitably becomes a cause of resentment, as Ms. Lafferty’s comment attests.

Which might be a good reason to stop having a democratic culture. Maybe it’s time to learn to separate a democratic political system from a democratic culture? Or if not, if that’s too drastic – at least learn to think a little more clearly on the subject. First step: read Tocqueville and Mill. Try to get your mind around the idea that the majority is not automatically right about everything, that sometimes (often, in fact) minority ideas are better than majority ideas, and (most difficult of all, it seems) that knowledge really is better than ignorance, that people who know something really do know more than people who don’t, and that on any particular subject that is likely to be a minority situation.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much room for compromise in this domain. Knowledge and competence can not become meek and abashed merely to avoid offending the vanity of the undereducated, the parochial, and the unworldly. The Enlightenment dream was to extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible. In the United States, that Enlightenment project has been stymied: at the highest echelons of the culture, the material and institutional support for the pursuit of knowledge and competence is unparalleled, yet the fruits of these labors are often either regarded with suspicion and resentment in the public culture at large–or simply go unrecognized and unnoted altogether.

Exactly so. And often in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘anti-elitism,’ too, which is hugely ironic, not to say pathetic. What’s really anti-elitist is to ‘extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible,’ not to prevent that extension by discrediting, mocking and despising those secular blessings.

Good Moves

Jul 14th, 2004 2:27 am | By

That’s quite amusing. I wrote the comment below before I read Julian’s new Bad Moves, which also has partly to do with Prince Charles’ medical expertise compared with that of mere, you know, medical experts.

The strict dietary regime in question is the Gerson Therapy, which eschews drugs in favour of coffee enemas and fruit juices. It has the support of well-known medical experts such as Prince Charles, interior designer Dudley Poplak and Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. Their opinions, of course, carry more weight than those of the American Cancer Society, which warns that the treatment could be dangerous.

Pure coincidence, that. And then he goes on to make an excellent point about language that helps question-begging to do its thing.

Begging the question – assuming what needs to be argued for – is often a result of a careless use of language. More specifically, we often use “success” words where more neutral vocabulary is needed. For example, we say learned French when really we only studied it and never developed any real competence…The unjustified use of success words is not the same mistake as begging the question, but it is often the means by which question begging occurs.

Ain’t it though. Another example I notice a lot is saying someone realized or understood or recognized or saw something when the something in question is precisely what’s in dispute. ‘She realized that logic is a patriarchal imposition.’ Oh yeah? How do you ‘realize’ something that isn’t true, huh?

I suppose you do it by scrupulously avoiding logic because it’s a patriarchal imposition. How useful language can be!

Close Reading

Jul 13th, 2004 11:48 pm | By

I re-read an article yesterday or Sunday that I kept wanting to do a comment on as I read it. Line by line, even word by word, in places. I wanted to comment not just on the article as a whole, but on each bit of sly rhetoric as I read and noticed it. Not a macro-comment but a micro one, not an overall comment but a close-up.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

But that’s all a digression. The article in question is from Lingua Franca, July-August 1996; it’s the response of Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, editors of Social Text, to the Sokal hoax. ‘Mystery Science Theater,’ they call it with the masterful irony Ross is famous for. Now, it may seem slightly in the breaking a butterfly on a wheel department, to bother with an ephemeral article from nearly ten years ago. It may even be in that department, as well as seem to be. But the kind of rhetoric it resorts to is still around, and still percolating through the larger culture, and then this article is such an egregious example of it, that I think it’s worth a look anyway. Or maybe I just mean that I feel like it. So. There are several bits I want to look at; this one is near the end. (The article, alas, is apparently no longer online, at least all the links I found were dead, so I’m quoting from the version published in The Sokal Hoax by Lingua Franca Books, University of Nebraska Press, pp. 54-8.)

Our main concern is that readers new to the debates engendered by science studies are not persuaded by the Sokal stunt that this is simply an academic turf war between scientists and humanists/social scientists, with each side trying to outsmart the other. Sadly, this outcome would simply reinforce the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters that affect all of us. What’s important to us is not so much the gulf of comprehension between ‘the two cultures,’ but rather the gulf of power between experts and lay voices.

There are several things to say about that passage; I’ll just mention one for now. Consider ‘the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters.’ What does ‘speak their minds’ mean, for a start? Surely we all have a right to speak our minds on scientific matters – don’t we? I don’t know if we have a credentialed right or not, but then I don’t know what that phrase means, either. That’s just it. It’s supposed to imply a lot, without actually saying it, because if it said what it means too plainly, it might be too obvious how silly it is – so that’s where meaningless phrases come in handy. What they seem to mean is something more like ‘only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters and be listened to.’ Which is another matter. I can ‘speak my mind’ all I like, on the human genome project, on virology, on GM crops, on anything I like; so can you, so can anyone. But that doesn’t mean we’ll say anything valid, or true, or useful, or worth paying attention to in any way, does it. And it seems reasonable to think that ‘professional scientists’ are more likely to be able to say valid, true things about ‘scientific matters’ at least in their own fields than non-scientists, doesn’t it. Which is not to say that scientists and only scientists should be the ones to discuss the consequences of science, but then that’s not what the passage says either.

And then consider ‘the gulf of power between experts and lay voices’. Ah yes, that gulf. Like the gulf between, say, cancer researchers and Prince Charles? Researchers who know something about autism and the MMR vaccine, and Juliet Stevenson? That gulf? No, not that gulf. That’s not the one they mean, but it ought to be. The result of hand-wringing over this ‘gulf of power’ between people who know something about a subject and impassioned people who know nothing about it but want to ‘speak their minds’ is – that we get science according to celebrities and journalists in place of science according to ‘experts’. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes.

A Quick Twirl

Jul 11th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

Another miscellany, because there is an ever-growing backlog of items I want to point out and perhaps say a few words about – and I only have six hands you know. Be reasonable. I’m going as fast as I can, here, but I can’t do everything. And besides I have this mosquito bite or spider bite or moth bite or whatever the hell kind of bite it is just right at the bend of my elbow, on top where it gets maximal chafing from my sweatshirt, and it itches, dammit! It’s been itching for days and days and days and days. Normally bites stop itching after a few days, am I right? But this one just keeps on going, like the Eveready battery rabbit. Nasty thing. So naturally this interferes with my ability to write an individual N&C for every item I see. Besides I have burnout. No I don’t, that’s a joke. P Z Myers mocked bloggers who whinge about blogger burnout at Pharyngula yesterday.

There is another excellent post at Black Triangle on quackery and suckery. Anthony also quotes from an article which is one of the items in that backlog I mentioned, about Prince Charles and his presumptuous advice on medical matters. The doctor who gives the Prince what-for makes exactly the point I made about both P.C. and Juliet Stevenson a few months ago – the fact that they and people like them abuse their fame and influence. They ought to recognize that they are famous out of all proportion to their actual importance, for one thing, and that they are famous for things that are entirely separate from any kind of medical expertise, for another, so they really ought, morally speaking, to use immense caution before making the world a present of their opinions on such subjects. In cases where people can do real harm by getting things wrong, celebrity non-experts ought to think and think and think again before going on Radio 4 or talking to journalists about what vaccinations to get and how to cure cancer.

Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. Furthermore, your public utterances are worthy of four pages, whereas, if lucky, I might warrant one. I don’t begrudge you that authority and we probably share many opinions about art and architecture, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies. There is no equivalent of the GMC for the monarchy, so it is left either to sensational journalism or, more rarely, to the quiet voice of loyal subjects such as myself to warn you that you may have overstepped the mark.


And speaking of Stevenson, it was the MMR ‘debate’ she was opinionating on, and Harry’s Place has an interesting post on a Washington Post article on that subject. There’s a fair bit of silly verbiage at the beginning of that article, talking about Wakefield’s charisma and so on, but it settles down after awhile, and it does make the point that media coverage of this kind of thing tends to be grotesquely distorted – to pretend that it’s a 50-50 thing, that expert opinion is split, when that’s not the case at all.

And finally I thought this post at Brian Leiter’s about the state of Nietzsche scholarship was worth a read. I haven’t the slightest idea whether he’s right or not, but the look at the way institutional necessities can distort things is interesting.

Leiter thinks I’m a prat, by the way. But I’m not sure he’s chosen a very good example of my prat-hood. He just doesn’t like an article I linked to in News, that’s all. But I didn’t write it, after all, I only linked to it, and I don’t invariably agree with every single word of every article in News. If I had to go by that standard, our front page would be a tad dull.

So why are they posting prominent links (this used to be on B&W’s front page) to tabloid trash like this, which misstates Foucault’s views from top to bottom, and offers no rational criticism of any view he actually held, while offering up a series of fallacious arguments (ad hominems primarily–you would think Ms. Benson of B&W might notice that references to Foucault’s homosexuality do not refute his ideas).

Huh? Of course they don’t, but who says I think they do? The author of the article itself doesn’t even think they do, as far as I can see, and even if he did it wouldn’t follow that I do. A small point, but then I specialize in making small points.

Borrowing From Chomsky

Jul 10th, 2004 8:23 pm | By

There is a common element in the two examples of political rhetoric about religion we’ve been looking at recently – Steven Waldman’s last weekend and David Blunkett’s this past week. Both of them argue at least partly from perceived alienation or resentment or anger or grievance, or all those, of religious groups or ‘communities’. Alienation and resentment of religious believers at being ignored by secular Democrats or Democratic secularists, and alienation and grievance of Muslims at not being protected by the Race Relations Act, because it doesn’t cover religion. ‘While Jews and Sikhs are covered under the existing law, those of Islamic faith and Christians are not,’ as Blunkett put it on the ‘Today’ programme. One interesting thing about that argument is that grievances and alienation can be manufactured and constructed. As there is manufactured consent, so there can be manufactured grievance, manufactured anger, resentment, outrage, indignation, offense. So all these claims and announcements that voters will be alienated by candidates who don’t, or don’t appear to, or don’t obviously enough appear to, share their religious beliefs – all these claims are doing more than describing a situation, they’re also calling the situation into being. They are in fact doing their best to create the very situation they purport to be predicting and warning against. Of course, all political discourse does that to some degree – but it’s as well to be clear that that’s what’s going on.

Also of course that’s emphatically not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an excellent thing, even the best thing. Waking people up out of their apathetic slumbers, bringing injustices to their attention, inspiring them to want and demand changes – that can be one of the most moving and valuable things humans can do. Think William Lloyd Garrison, John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. But it can also be the other thing – think Pope Urban II, Savonarola, Luther, Hitler, Paisley, Khomeini, bin Laden. Sometimes apathetic slumber is infinitely preferable to wakefulness. So one ought at least to be attentive to such things, and not simply to assume that all mentions of the indignation of some ‘community’ or other is automatically justified and righteous.

I have a profound inner knowledge of all this, a source of deep insight and intuition and wisdom, on account of how I’m a genius at manufacturing and then wallowing in grievance myself. To put it another way, I’m a petulant brat. Perhaps it comes from being the youngest child – hmm? (Of course if I were the middle child I would say it came from that, and if I were the eldest, that it came from that. Anything will do.) I mean after all, you know – my sister and brother did get to put their feet on the sofa when I didn’t. Therefore I get to whine and pout whenever I feel like it for the rest of my life. Right? Of course.

It’s the old Smothers Brothers (yes I know hardly any of you will know what that is, never mind that) recurring line ‘Mom always liked you best,’ which for some reason always made me laugh like a drain. I suppose because it’s about sibling rivalry, and as I said, I have this deep insight into sibling rivalry. It’s a useful corrective, the line is. Whenever I have a bad manifestation of Adult Onset Transferred Sibling Rivalry-Positional Jealousy Syndrome, I simply say to myself, ‘[Insert name here] always liked you best,’ laugh maniacally, and become magically sane again.

Well maybe not sane, exactly, that’s probably expecting too much, but in the manner of Bertha Rochester, a little quieter.

How About Religious Mild Dislike?

Jul 9th, 2004 2:41 am | By

As I promised or threatened yesterday, more on the ‘attempt by various well meaning people to legislate religious hatred as a ground for prosecution on the same basis as racial hatred,’ as Meghnad Desai put it in The Independent. Desai also thinks it’s a bad idea. Good, that. Let’s hope many people think so and say so.

A secular tolerant democracy needs to get away from privileging religion as a mark of citizenship rather than giving it a special status. The Anglican Church needs to be disestablished and its privileges such as the Blasphemy Law removed. Human rights should adhere to one’s humanity regardless of special characteristics. In a truly equal society we will all be citizens protected under the law, regardless of our race, colour, gender. To progress to that state we need to reduce, not increase, divisions. We need to put equality in the public sphere as a top priority rather than enshrine separatenesses into our law.

Yes, and there’s more to it than that. Religion should not be protected the same way race and gender are, because religion is not a given, it’s not inherited. There seems to be a strange Lamarckian thinking going on here, that insists on thinking of religion and race as the same kind of thing. And that kind of thinking leads to a discouraging kind of identity-entrenchment if not identity-imprisonment – as if one is never allowed to escape from or simply leave or change the situation one is born to. But people aren’t born Muslims or Christians, they are raised as Muslims or Christians. The tensions between separateness and equality that Desai refers to, tensions between identity and universality, only get tenser if contingent, chosen, cognitive categories – religion, politics, systems of thought – are treated as part of our DNA.

Johann Hari makes a similar argument here. And a blogger I haven’t read before says what I’m always saying:

But religion must be protected, because it’s special, it’s spiritual, it’s precioussss. Why do we draw a ring around religion to prevent it being questioned? Because it wouldn’t last five minutes in a straight fight with logic and reason.

Precioussss indeed. And part of the problem with that of course is that the more people are told that their religion is precioussss and must not be criticised sharply, the more they believe it, and we get a nice self-reinforcing grievance-hugging circle going. Let’s not do that.

And Anthony’s post at Black Triangle informs us that Rowan Atkinson criticised this bright idea the first time it came up, after September 11.

Some of the criticism at the time came from comedians. The debate was started by Rowan Atkinson when he wrote a letter to The Times, saying he had spent “a substantial part of my career parodying religious figures from my own Christian background”. The Blackadder star was also responsible for a sketch in which footage of Muslim worshippers bowing in a mosque was accompanied with a voice-over stating “The search goes on for Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens.”

Now, how do we know whether Blunkett and the judges would think that was ‘sensible’ or not? Hmm? We don’t. So let’s not risk it, okay? Let’s let A Devil’s Chaplain and Why I Am not a Christian and Why I Am not a Muslim and, indeed, The Satanic Verses sit on the bookshelves in safety. Okay?

Blunkett on Today

Jul 8th, 2004 3:42 am | By

Wow – that was scary. I just listened to David Blunkett on the Today programme, talking about this new law against inciting hatred against religion. It’s – let’s see – 3:30 in the morning in the UK, so a new Today will be starting in two and a half hours, and I think the archive is only good for one day – until it’s replaced by the next one. So only a few Yanks, if anyone, will likely listen to this, but I’m going to stick it in here anyway.

Update: Oh, the link does still work. I was wrong about ‘Today’s’ archive. So listen – it’s scary stuff.

Because it really is quite disgusting. He wants unity and community and tolerance, and he doesn’t want us expressing strong opinions about religion if they might get in the way of unity. Of course, we’re allowed to express opinions about religion – as long as they’re sensible. He actually said that. Oh I see – you can say anything you like as long as it’s sensible. Oh that’s all right then.

He was very ridiculous, too – accused John Humphreys (was it? I think) of playing chess, of just trying to win at some silly game, but in fact he did a very good job and asked serious questions, that I for one wanted to hear the answers to. It’s not a game! Being threatened with losing the right to criticise religion freely is not a damn game!

As I said – scary. And thanks to Anthony Cox of the excellent Black Triangle for alerting me to this ridiculous story.

More tomorrow.

There Are Limits, After All

Jul 6th, 2004 11:21 pm | By

Okay, that does it. I’m going to have to put my foot down. (Ooh, scary.) I’m going to have to get all authoritarian and domineering – all prescriptive instead of descriptive. There’s no help for it.

There was a discussion on Crooked Timber the other day about the odd usage whereby ‘argue that’ means the opposite of what it means. The example that caught Harry’s attention was this one: ‘Though few would argue that children should be protected from exposure to Internet pornography, COPA, the law designed to protect them has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.’ You see the problem? It’s confusing, and stupidly confusing – you realize (from the context) when you get to the end of the sentence that it means the opposite of what you took it to mean when you were in the middle of it. The fool who wrote it meant ‘few would dispute or disagree that’, not ‘few would argue that’. It is stupid and bad, especially with a sentence as long as that because you have plenty of time to think it means one thing so then when you realize it means (because of a silly mistake by the writer of it) the opposite you have to go back and re-understand the sentence. What a waste of time and effort.

Right. Few sensible people would argue I mean disagree that that’s a mistake worth not making, because it causes confusion. Or you would think few sensible people would disagree, but actually some would. Some would say that we can figure out the meaning from the context. Well – yes, sometimes, but at the price of extra effort, which is not normally the goal of using words, so why do it? Isn’t it better to use words to mean what they mean rather than what they don’t mean? Is there some benefit in forcing people to puzzle over the meaning of a word when it ought to be quite straightforward and clear? Rather than guessing at the meaning from context, isn’t it better to know the meaning because the right word was chosen? It seems better to me. Why write or say ‘I’m going to the North Pole tomorrow, I hope it won’t be too hot,’ and expect your readers or hearers to figure out from the context that by ‘North Pole’ you happen to mean Atlanta?

And besides, it’s not even true that it’s always possible to figure out the meaning from the context, and in the case of this particular idiotic usage, it can be impossible, and the meaning of everything one is saying can be entirely misunderstood. This isn’t a mere nuance or shade of meaning. It’s more like standing up in court and saying ‘Guilty’ when you mean ‘Not guilty’ or saying ‘That’s true’ when you mean ‘That’s false.’ Basic. And I’ll give you an example – the example that made me say ‘That does it’ and decide to do this N&C. The example was mentioned at the bottom of that thread at CT. It’s from Matthew Yglesias.

It’s one of the fixed-points of the American national security discourse that it would be A Very Bad Thing if Iran had nuclear weapons. And I won’t argue that it would be preferable for them not to go nuclear.

Since I’ve prepared you with all this ranting, perhaps it won’t seem as bad as it is. But it is just hopeless. The reader has to think too much to figure out what the hell he means. Except I suppose not the reader who has become wholly used to this mistake, but then won’t that reader be confused when ‘argue’ is used to mean ‘argue’ instead of ‘dispute’? No, probably not, because the people who use argue to mean both argue and dispute have only a very hazy grasp of what anything means. Maybe to them ‘argue’ means argue, dispute, laugh, ice cream, hair pin, Ferrari, smoke, armadillo, popcorn, shoe. Whatever. But people like that don’t read B&W. So here’s my foot down. Nobody gets to use ‘argue that’ to mean dispute. Period.

Judy, Judy, Judy

Jul 6th, 2004 8:17 pm | By

Here we go again. What is it about Judith Butler that makes people come over all delusional? That causes them 1) to exaggerate her fame and celebrity and stardom and name-recognition in an utterly grotesque manner and 2) causes them to overestimate her real as opposed to apparent or fame-related importance, interest, originality, ‘insight’, profundity, originality, and brilliance?

Well, I suppose one answer is, shall we say, a certain lack of nous. At least on the evidence of this article in Salon that seems to be one answer. [Note: you have to click through a brief advert to read article.] For instance there is the sentence ‘Butler even made headlines in the New York Times when she won an award for “Bad Writing” — writing that was too theoretically obtuse, a trademark of postmodern critique.’ Oh dear. That freshman Comp mistake of conflating ‘obscure’ and ‘abstruse’ and thus saying ‘obtuse’ when it’s not at all what one means. That’s embarrassing (doesn’t Salon have editors?), especially coming from someone who is in such a frenzy of excitement over Butler and her way with language. Of course it’s also pretty funny. Yes, a trademark of ‘postmodern critique’ is indeed that it is way too ‘theoretically obtuse’ but I bet you didn’t mean to admit it!

And there’s also the fact that Nussbaum’s famous takedown of Butler was not in the Atlantic Monthly. (Were all the editors in the Hamptons that week, or what?) So, who knows, maybe the answer to the question in this case is just that that’s what one does for a sloppy puff piece. But all the same, the level of coercive flattery is remarkably high.

These were the Culture Wars, and fighting on the front lines were tenured humanities professors from America’s elite universities, proponents of what has come to be known simply as Theory. Armed with the insights of postmodern philosophy, they shocked and awed through their intellectual acrobatics…

Hmm. Wars, fighting, front lines, armed with – yeah, right. Muy macho. And insights, intellectual acrobatics that shocked and awed. In your dreams. And that sly bit about ‘what has come to be known simply as Theory’ – no it hasn’t ‘come to be known’ as that, the ‘Theorists’ themselves have done their best to force the rest of the world to think of what they do as ‘simply’ ‘Theory’, by calling it that three times in every sentence. And yet still, the only people who think that what English and comp lit teachers do is ‘Theory’ are – wait for it – English and comp lit teachers. And the writers of articles like this one.

…author of the now classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, one of the defining works of queer theory…academia’s equivalent of a platinum album…her seminal work…provocative political essays…immense success…there was even a fanzine, Judy!, printed in her honor…fellow academics, who may or may not have envied her popularity…

And then we move directly to mention of the Nussbaum article. You know, I really, really doubt that Nussbaum has the faintest shred of envy of Butler’s putative popularity. I really strongly doubt that Nussbaum would prefer to have written the books Butler wrote rather than the ones she herself wrote. I know I wouldn’t. I know if I could wave a magic wand and have written either, say, The Fragility of Goodness or Sex and Social Justice, or Butler’s Collected Works, I would not choose the latter. No verily, not even if I could be a ‘superstar’ by doing so, nor would I bother envying Butler her supposed stardom, any more than I envy Britney Spears hers.

That sounds like just mockery but it isn’t; there’s a real point behind it. There’s something badly wrong with the kind of thinking that mixes up fame with quality – that gets in such a fever of excitement over Butler’s superstardom and popularity that it becomes quite unable to see that her actual books are not particularly good. In fact it’s just another version of the kind of thing we were looking at the other day: of groupthink and social pressure, coercion and majority opinion-mongering. (It’s especially ironic since another basic idea of the article is that ‘Theory’ and its epigones are Outsiders, radicals, embattled martyrs of thought, nonconformists.) It’s such a basic point – popular is not the same thing as good, majority opinion is not the same thing as truth. And the attempt to admire people for being hugely popular and radically nonconformist at the same time is something of a mug’s game, frankly.

The Fahrenheit 9/11 Files

Jul 6th, 2004 2:30 am | By

And now to be serious again. Or maybe not so much serious as slightly less egomaniacal. The discussion of Michael Moore’s new movie rages on. Or not really rages, perhaps, but several people are talking about it. Todd Gitlin, for example, who has some reservations –

But now a pause for a moment of conscience. Let intellect have its due. Moore cuts plenty of corners, so how good can that be? Compelling? Useful? Moore specializes in hodgepodge. He jokes his way past the rough edges. He’s neither journalist nor documentarian, for he doesn’t set out to discover what he doesn’t already know. To patronize Michael Moore by calling him useful is to give him a pass for shoddy work, sloppy insinuations, emotional blackmail and all–around demagoguery.

I haven’t seen ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ so I can’t comment on that in particular – well I can, of course, and I’ve been known to comment noisily on movies I haven’t seen, but I won’t right now, is what I mean. I haven’t seen ‘Bowling for Columbine’ either. But I watched ‘TV Nation’ when it was on, and I’ve seen the earlier movies – so I certainly do know what Gitlin means. But I also know what Gitlin means later on in the article:

So give Moore a cheer for this…because, in the thick of a rolling political emergency, he’s packing in blue–state crowds and blue–niche–of–red–state crowds and who–knows–what–color–in–purple–state crowds. Fahrenheit 9/11 opened as the highest–grossing nonfiction (some would quarrel with the label, but never mind) film of all time. Its average box office take per theatre beat out – good God – Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

Yep. I’m in two minds, I suppose, because I think nonfiction movies ought to be actually nonfiction movies, but on the other hand – the left is so pathetic and hapless and ignored over here, it is very difficult not to rejoice that his movie is packing them in and his books are best-sellers. Very difficult indeed, so difficult that I don’t even try.

The issue is also being discussed at Crooked Timber and Normblog and Crooked Timber again.

Big Al

Jul 3rd, 2004 1:07 am | By

That article of Steven Waldman’s has sent me to dear old Alexis de Tocqueville, the darling percipient frog that he is. Because Waldman’s whole schtick in that article is just exactly the kind of thing Tocqueville, and, inspired by him, John Stuart Mill, had in mind. The old majority opinion trick – the old ‘We all think this so you’d better think it too or else, and never mind whether it’s true or not just shut up and think what you’re told.’ I actually don’t think Waldman is really talking about Kerry there, I think that’s just a pretext – a disguise, a mask, a beard for what he really wants to say, which is that Most Americans believe in God and so all of them ought to and they should be subject to non-stop social pressure and accusations of elitism, coastalism, intelligentsia-wannabeism, and any other kind of thought-crime we can think of if they refuse. (Waldman for instance is toying with the idea that people who refuse to believe are racists, because a lot of African-Americans are believers. He doesn’t actually say as much, but the implication is there, like a faint but bad smell.)

So here is some wisdom from Democracy in America, Volume I chapter 15.

The authority of a king is physical and controls the actions of men without subduing their will. But the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy…
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution…He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth…
Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce.

1835, this was published. Isn’t it interesting how consistent we are.

Absolute monarchies had dishonored despotism; let us beware lest democratic republics should reinstate it and render it less odious and degrading in the eyes of the many by making it still more onerous to the few…
…there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but there is no public organ of infidelity.

Unbelievers are to be met with, that’s still true. But do they fill the newspapers and airwaves? Not on the planet I live on, they don’t. Some of our commenters seem to have found a different planet – and I hope they’re right and I’m wrong. I hope any day now the mass media will fill up with articles and comments urging Kerry to honor the separation of church and state. But, once again, I’m going to avoid breath-holding.

Proud to be Abnormal

Jul 1st, 2004 9:10 pm | By

We’ve seen some stupid stuff in the You-Have-to-Believe-in-God department, but this pile of steaming nonsense in Slate is really – well, hard to believe. Get this part, for example:

But in general, most Republicans and most Democrats are pretty religious. The stark differences are at the extremes of each party, and, as so often is the case, the big question is whether the extremes will define the party as a whole. Most Republicans aren’t conservative fundamentalists, although it sometimes seems that way given the proclivities of the leadership. And the Democrats have their own version of that same dilemma, and it’s affecting the most important arena there is-this year’s presidential race: Will Kerry’s Democrats act like the Party of Secularists even if they aren’t?

See? Catch the sly move there? Define secularism as ‘extreme’ – and bob’s your uncle, the job is half done. This is a very, very popular move in US public rhetoric, of course: invent two ‘extremes’ by deciding in the echoing vaults of your own mind that This is the Polar Opposite of That and that therefore the truth of the matter lies between the two. But of course that’s a ridiculous approach for a lot of reasons – reasons having to do with the arbitrariness and artificiality of the categories, just for one thing. But even more, that idiotic formula ignores the need to examine the issue on the merits – on the truth, and on political questions about secular versus religious government.

Of course, that’s not what the author wants to do with this article. He wants to coerce everyone to avoid ‘extreme’ secularism and head for the safe middle with everyone else. Moral blackmail, is what that kind of thing is. David Brooks went in for the same kind of moral blackmail the other day, and Steven Waldman quotes the very line that I quoted in the News link: ‘New York Times columnist David Brooks (who’s still my favorite conservative)) nailed it precisely when he said of his fellow countrymen, “Their President doesn’t have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.”‘ But Waldman, of course, quotes it approvingly, whereas I quoted it with disgust. He has to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward a figment of their imaginations. Oh does he. Notice he’s not required to be engaged in a personal voyage toward Zeus, or Athena, or Ganesh, or Ra, or Ashtaroth – and that in fact if he were, that would not go down very well. Nor is he supposed to be on a trip toward Spock, or Hogwarts, or Julien Sorel, or Hamlet. No, there’s just one literary character that we’re supposed to pretend is not a literary character but Really Real and kindly looking after us in spite of all the evidence that nobody at all is looking after us in any way.

But then the article gets even worse.

First, if Kerry’s uncomfortable with religion then he’s uncomfortable with Americans. Media managers love having him photographed riding a motorcycle because it shows he can connect with regular folks, who apparently all ride motorcycles, too. If Kerry’s really secular, he’s abnormal.

Abnormal? Abnormal?? Is that really what he meant to say? Couldn’t he have chosen a slightly better word or phrase? You know – not like the majority, that sort of thing. Non-conformist, non-majoritarian, different. But abnormal? But. Perhaps it’s useful to know what they think of us.

Second, the fact that people view Bush as a man of faith is very much connected to their viewing him as decisive and steadfast, two of his strongest assets. A man of faith is a man of conviction, and vice versa. So, Kerry’s unwillingness to talk about his faith feeds into one of his great weaknesses, his reputation as a waffler.

Well, see, I would put that quite differently. I don’t admire Bush’s decisiveness and steadfastness, because it’s notorious that he’s unreflective and uninformed – that he prides himself on making snap decisions and then refusing to budge. Well guess what – that’s not always the best way to do things, especially not for someone who’s ignorant and unthinking to begin with. Viewed that way, Bush’s ‘faith’ probably gives him far too much confidence in his own judgment. He thinks God is helping him. Yes, but what if he’s wrong about that? Then that conviction is not such a great idea, is it.

Finally, he needs to talk about his faith because it would strengthen him on the most important issue of the campaign—terrorism…when the country is at war, people appropriately look for signs that the president has real strength. Americans believe that one of the most important sources of inner strength is faith.

One, no they don’t, because I’m an American and I don’t. Speak for yourself, pal. Even if 95% of Murkans agree with you, you still don’t get to speak for all of us. And two – inner strength is another one of those dual-edged swords, isn’t it. We can all think of some other people who got a lot of inner strength from their ‘faith’ too, can’t we. Enough inner strength to go to flight school, and buy plane tickets, and get through security with their box cutters, and – you know. No thanks. I prefer the kind of ‘inner strength’ (whatever that really means, in fact) that’s based on open eyes and rational thought.


Jul 1st, 2004 12:07 am | By

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration is not entirely popular with scientists. The Independent tells us that more than four thousand of them have signed a petition by the Union of Concerned Scientists demanding an improvement.

“Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world’s most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy,” the report says. “Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle.”

A good point, but of course the Bushies aren’t going to care. They care about other things, and petitions from however many scientists don’t seem like the kind of thing that will change their minds. A loud voice from the clouds might, but probably nothing short of that.

What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper’s Magazine, which he edits, has been “the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare… [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn’t prove what it’s been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party”.

Just so. And it’s not (obviously) only the trendy academic left that goes in for that kind of thing, even though it’s the trendy academic left we’ve mostly chosen to pick on. (Because they’re funnier, that’s why. Next question.) That’s a very good point that Lapham makes (the Indy seems to have spelled his name wrong). Woolly people like to accuse science of too much certainty (along with scientism), but it’s ideologues (and, often, woolly people) who really go in for certainty, who take belief to be something like parental or romantic love, something you’re supposed to commit to unconditionally and never under any circumstances change your mind about. Individual scientists of course can make that mistake, but science as a discipline quickly slaps them upside the head and makes them stop. Ideology smiles sweetly and says ‘Well done.’

Piling On

Jun 25th, 2004 8:39 pm | By

Poor old Theory. It’s getting attacked from all directions these days. (Hurrah! Oh that’s not kind. But hurrah!) We read Dawkins on the subject a couple of days ago, and yesterday saw that Theorists were almost absent from Prospect’s List of Top Intellectuals, and now here’s the Australian and the New Statesman joining in. (Hurrah!) Poor Theory, how sad. (Good for us though. Perfect timing for dear Dictionary of Fashionable Bollocks, eh.)

Both articles are really quite scathing. (Hurrah! Now stop that at once or I’ll take the keyboard away and send you outside to play.) Really quite unmealymouthed.

Drat. Between the time I linked to the NS article in News, and now, the NS has (I guess) stuck the article in its paid section. At least, I could read it an hour or two ago and can’t now. So won’t be quoting from that one then! You’ll have to take my word for it (unless you’re a subscriber of course) – it was not bland or ‘respectful’. Neither was Luke Slattery in the Australian:

This sounds, I admit, like a specialist subject. But nothing could be of more universal interest than knowledge, learning and education…The disturbing thing is that once theory poured into the academy, it set like concrete. By the mid-’90s it had become a suffocating orthodoxy. A professor confided in me around that time that theory had become the desiderata of all new work in the humanities – it was the only way of being intellectual. In this period I began challenging theory in print, and then parrying the many histrionic responses from academics who seemed to think theory was above criticism (certainly from a journalist). In hindsight it was not theory that I found so alarming (a few weeks ago I found myself re-reading Barthes); it was the servility of its academic acolytes, the herd mentality of entire branches of learning, and the fragility of intellectual pluralism.

Yup. Some Theory is quite good, if one can manage to read it at a distance from the baa-ing of the sheep. Some of it, on the other hand, isn’t. But, poor thing, it seems almost cruel to say so now.

And speaking of the Dictionary (yes we were, right when you dozed off) – I got a copy yesterday. Of the bound proofs. It looks – well I just can’t tell you. Elegant, gorgeous, stunning. And you can leaf through it. Just imagine. You can flick through the pages, if you see a cross-reference you can go right to it. It’s so easy. Really, seriously, it is a beautiful typeface and layout. You’ll like it.

Where are the Rock Stars?

Jun 24th, 2004 9:16 pm | By

Lists are always good fun. Top ten this, favourite fifty that, best one hundred the other. A few years ago when a US publisher issued a list of the best 100 English-language novels of the past century, there was quite a frenzy of discussion and disagreement. We all had quite a good time shrieking at one another ‘Tobacco Road?!? Are they kidding??’ Then a few weeks or months later there was a piece in the NY Times Book Review (I think) by A S Byatt (one of the judges) who pointed out how limited the pool of books was they had to choose from, and how further limited their choices were by the rules of the judging. The upshot was that they were forced to pick books that more of the judges had read as opposed to ones the judges thought were actually good. So yes, they were kidding. The Siege of Krishnapur (say) was not chosen because not enough of the panel had read it, and various mediocrities or worse were chosen because a lot of the panelists had read it. So the criterion was (it turned out) not actually best at all, but simply ‘read by the most members of this particular set of people, regardless of whether they’re any good or not’ – quite a stupid criterion, really, and not how the list was billed. So lists can turn out to be even sillier than they look.

But that’s no reason not to discuss them, is it. So let’s discuss the Prospect list of Top intellectuals. Or maybe not so much the list as someone else’s discussion of the list. It starts off well, and goes on for several paragraphs well – simply noting what sort of intellectual is not on the list, as opposed to hand-wringing about it. (Not that hand-wringing about it is necessarily a bad thing – it depends on what sort of intellectual, or indeed ‘intellectual’, is in fact not on the list, doesn’t it.) There’s even one bit of quite good news.

Perhaps even more spectacular is the demise of literary and cultural theory from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eagleton (again) is the sole survivor on this list. Otherwise, theory remains isolated in its academic tower, cut off from the general culture by jargon and obscurantism.

And by a third thing, perhaps, which is their tendency to think they know quite a lot about every conceivable subject and ought to say so on every possible occasion. Anyway, it’s cheering to find that there aren’t great preening crowds of them on the list.

And this is a good sign too –

Another strong group are the social and political essayists. Again, the variety is noticeable. Instead of “isms” or Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies,” we have diverse styles and approaches. The personal voice stands out – Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Noel Malcolm. They have other features in common: a strong sense of political morality, internationalism and most of them are first-class writers. They are Orwell’s children, taking on big issues in good prose.

I’m not keen on John Gray and don’t know Noel Malcolm, but I like the rest, some of them a lot. And I like the genre. I like essays and essayists, and social and political essays and essayists in particular. I like writers who actually have something to say. I would disagree with the ‘Orwell’s children’ line, because I think they’re better than Orwell. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that Orwell is over-rated. I used to over-rate him myself, but I’ve been re-reading him lately, and frankly a lot of his writing was just plain tired and flat. Hack writing. Hitchens writes rings around him even on a bad day. But that’s a quibble, and I agree with the paragraph overall. But then things get strange.

The list may also seem curiously old-fashioned. It offers little room for the new “isms” that have broken through in recent decades: feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism. There aren’t many young voices: few under 45, hardly anyone under 40. It is very middle-aged, and also very male and very white.

Well is it really all that surprising that a list of public intellectuals is heavy on people over forty? Intellectualism is a cumulative thing, after all, because knowledge is. And for that matter so is fame, and reputation, and the CV. The people on the list have been doing their intellectual stuff for enough decades so that people recognize them as public intellectuals. A few people can manage that by age thirty or thirty-five, but it usually takes longer. (I agree about the male thing though, if only because the first name I looked for was Marina Warner’s, and I was annoyed not to find it. It’s absurd that she’s not there.)

Then it gets worse. A lot worse.

The absence of new cultural forms and the media may surprise some. Why does this list smack of the common room and the think tank and not Britart and cool Britannia? Two names from television, none from advertising and no film directors. Of these, film is perhaps the most striking absence. There are some first-rate British film critics (David Thompson, Mark Cousins and Anthony Lane among them), and major British directors (Mike Leigh and Ken Loach among an older generation, Roger Michell and Michael Winterbottom among the next)…Youth culture is another striking absence. Instead, we have the traditional intellectual: scientists and historians, social theorists and policy advisers. It feels very grown-up and sane, maybe even dull. Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.” Are the criteria which inform this list now out of date, part of a vanishing intellectual culture that disappeared with Noel Annan’s dons and the Third Programme? Is that why there are so few representatives from popular culture?

Advertising? Advertising?? Since when is advertising anything to do with being a public intellectual? It’s public all right, but what’s intellectual about it? It takes some verbal skills, to be sure, but that doesn’t equate to being an intellectual. And advertising’s close connection with lying for profit surely disqualifies it. And as for directing movies – isn’t that an art or a craft or both rather than an intellectual activity? I would have thought so – unless we’ve suddenly re-defined the word when I wasn’t paying attention. And then youth culture. Huh? Again, what’s that got to do with intellectualism or intellectuals? All of this might be mere observation, except for that word ‘problem’. ‘Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.”‘ Or perhaps it doesn’t, because perhaps there is no problem. Perhaps what you see as dull because grown-up and sane, other people see as interesting because grown-up and sane. Lunacy and childishness are not absolutely always fascinating, as a matter of fact they can both be immensely boring. So if you long for the young and the hip and the consumerist, start your own list, and don’t call it a list of public intellectuals.

Delicate Regard

Jun 23rd, 2004 10:35 pm | By

This is a brief but interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. (My colleague did a longer and of course much more thrilling one which is included in What Philosophers Think.) For one thing, he talks about a subject we too are interested in, as you may possibly have noticed. He answers the very odd question ‘Another of your pet peeves is Post-Modernist scholarship, and you satirize a few writers from this school in your book, A Devil’s Chaplain. Isn’t your problem with these academics simply that they are poor writers?’

I don’t think they are poor [writers] at all. They are dominant alpha males in the academic jungle and, in some cases, are ruining the careers of honest scholars who would make an honest contribution.

To be fair, or do I mean strictly accurate, a lot of ‘Post-modernist’ writers are very bad writers indeed – but they are not necessarily the ones Dawkins has in mind, and others are indeed good writers but crappy thinkers. All rhetoric and no thought. You can find traces of such ‘scholarship’ in various corners of B&W.

But even more, I like his reply to a question about his ‘polemic voice’ –

I do it because I feel strongly about things … especially about double standards, hypocrisy, failure to think clearly…I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that, well, it’s harmless. I think it is harmful, partly because I care passionately about what’s true.

Well, same here. No doubt that’s one reason Dawkins is one of my favourite writers. The double standards problem is one we’ve been noticing a lot lately. I was a bit shocked to find a glaring example of double standards – of explicit, declared double standards, which is to say a declaration of ‘special’ status, of need for special protection, on the part of religion – in Martha Nussbaum’s new book (Hiding from Humanity). I shouldn’t have been shocked, because I’ve read such an argument from her before, in her reply to Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ – and I think I did a N&C on my shock at the time. But I was shocked anyway, even though I shouldn’t have been. Nussbaum admires John Stuart Mill, and bases much of her argument in this book on On Liberty – but she also takes him to task for not being ‘respectful’ enough of citizens’ comprehensive doctrines:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

I hate to say it, because I admire much in Nussbaum, but I find that idea truly staggering. I did read and re-read, and go back and forth between the various places where she discusses all this, to try to clarify whether she is talking about laws and the state, or about writing and public discourse. Some of the time she is talking about the former, but not all of it. She really is – as far as I can tell – saying that Mill should not have written what he did about Calvinism, and that no one should say such things ‘in the public sphere at least.’ That ‘such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ So people ought (in order to be decently respectful) to ‘adopt’ a public conception of truth that will not contradict religious claims. People ought to choose their ‘conceptions’ of truth on the basis of whether they are respectful enough of the sensitivities of other people as opposed to – well, you know, whether they in fact think they get at the truth or not. That’s a pretty good description of just exactly what B&W was set up to oppose: deciding what is true on the basis of extraneous factors like ideology or whose feelings might be hurt, rather than on the basis of one’s best understanding of the evidence and logic of the matter.

So in short that is a very forthright statement of exactly the idea I’ve been puzzling over for a few months now: the idea that religion ought to have some sort of special, protected status that no other kind of human thinking gets to have. But what it doesn’t do is say why. Why religion should be immune from challenge when socialism and capitalism, for example, are not. Why religion should not simply accept public discussion and disagreement and argument on the same terms as any other set of human ideas. For the sake of ‘respect,’ yes, she does say that, but she doesn’t explain why that should apply to some kinds of ideas and not others. Because religion is consoling? But so are other ideas and beliefs that are not protected, so that’s not it.

But for my part, I have to agree with Dawkins. I don’t think double standards and ‘special’ protection and delicate regard and ‘not showing up the claims of religion as damaging’ (especially not that!) are a good idea at all.