Good Conversation

Jan 13th, 2004 11:28 pm | By

Start the Week is always good (well just about always), but I particularly liked last week’s, which I listened to a day or two ago. Richard Dawkins was on, explaining that (contrary to popular opinion) he’s an anti-Darwinian on moral matters. He thinks we should do our best to be different from what our genes would have us be; that, being the only species that’s capable of deciding to over-ride our genetic predispositions, we should damn well do it. Then there was Tim Hitchcock, saying some fascinating things about a change in sexual practices that happened late in the 17th century and caused a sharp rise in population. Dawkins pointed out that what Hitchcock was describing was in fact a classic example of humans acting in a way their genes would not ‘want’ them to – avoiding penetrative sex in favor of other kinds, thus lowering the birth rate. That’s one of the great things about Start the Week: the way things connect up that don’t seem to.

And then there was a fascinating bit where Dawkins asked Anthony Giddings a detailed question about chaos. He wasn’t sure he understood it properly, and he was unabashed about asking questions about it on national radio. Some people would be too vain to do that, I think. I once read something by Dawkins – I think in Unweaving the Rainbow – about a very famous scientist giving a guest lecture when Dawkins was a student. Someone in the audience pointed out that Famous Scientist was wrong about something – and FS, far from getting huffy, thanked the pointer out enthusiastically, and (I think – if I remember correctly) said that’s the great thing about science. Everyone applauded like mad. I really love that story. (I may have told it before, but if I have it was months ago, so just pretend you don’t remember.)

A Secular Candidate? What an Idea!

Jan 13th, 2004 2:08 am | By

This is a heartening statement. It’s good to see something, finally, to counter the bilge about presidential candidates and religion one sees in a lot of the press.

In Campaign 2004, secularism has become a dirty word. Democrats, particularly Howard Dean, are being warned that they do not have a chance of winning the presidential election unless they adopt a posture of religious “me-tooism” in an effort to convince voters that their politics are grounded in values just as sacred as those proclaimed by President Bush.

Aren’t they though. And there aren’t nearly enough people saying what childish nonsense that is. Maybe they’re all too busy explaining why they call themselves ‘brights’ – no, I won’t believe that.

At any rate, this op-ed says something I’ve been muttering for years. Years.

Americans tend to minimize not only the secular convictions of the founders, but also the secularist contribution to later social reform movements. One of the most common misconceptions is that organized religion deserves nearly all of the credit for 19th-century abolitionism and the 20th-century civil rights movement…Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and the Quaker Lucretia Mott, also a women’s rights crusader, denounced the many mainstream Northern religious leaders who, in the 1830’s and 40’s, refused to condemn slavery. In return, Garrison and Mott were castigated as infidels and sometimes as atheists — a common tactic used by those who do not recognize any form of faith but their own. Garrison, strongly influenced by his freethinking predecessor Thomas Paine, observed that one need only be a decent human being — not a believer in the Bible or any creed — to discern the evil of slavery.

It’s not even only Americans. I heard Ann Widdicombe, the Tory MP, say the same thing on the BBC once – that religion is a good thing because it inspired the abolitionists. Well it also shored up their opponents, so that argument is at best a wash. And as Jacoby indicates, there were far more pious opponents of abolitionism than there were pious advocates of it.

Not a scintilla of bravery is required for a candidate, whether Democratic or Republican, to take refuge in religion. But it would take genuine courage to stand up and tell voters that elected officials cannot and should not depend on divine instructions to reconcile the competing interests and passions of human beings… Today, many voters, of many religious beliefs, might well be receptive to a candidate who forthrightly declares that his vision of social justice will be determined by the “plain, physical facts of the case” on humanity’s green and fragile earth. But that would take an inspirational leader who glories in the nation’s secular heritage and is not afraid to say so.

And of course with all the candidates uniting to nag each other to declare for religion, and columns like this one all too rare – we’d better not hold our breaths while waiting for that inspirational leader.

Confirmation Bias

Jan 11th, 2004 9:17 pm | By

The waiting socialists have a bit more on the hijab issue and our disagreement on same. (That link goes to the right post; Marcus at Harry’s Place pointed out that the waiters in fact do have Permalinks; I just overlooked them.) One comment caused me to ponder a bit.

We won’t go over the same ground again here, as we’ve responded in the comments section attached to her post, and she’s responded to us. Guess what? She hasn’t changed her mind, and neither have we changed ours. What that might say about blogging in general we’ll leave to people better able and more willing to generalise about blogging than we are.

What caused the pondering is the ‘Guess what?’ That seems to imply that non-changing of minds is not surprising, hence that we generally don’t change our minds in the course of these discussions – but I’m not sure that’s true. It seems to me I do sometimes change my mind when I see new evidence or arguments (new to me, I mean). But I don’t change my mind every single time – I don’t develop a new set of ideas with every post I read. If I did, B&W would be a pretty chaotic thing to read, wouldn’t it!

I do go into the discussion with some fairly firm presuppositions – that is to say, with plenty of opportunities for confirmation bias. I probably pay more attention to the articles that fit my presuppositions. I have frames through which I understand things, just as we all do. So I thought I would mention some of them, by way of clarification and full disclosure (or rather, partial full disclosure). I see the hijab as a badge of inferiority, as men controlling women, as misogynist and oppressive. I am aware that there are other ways to see it, but I’m not as sharply aware of that as I am of the first view. Then, I also see the hijab as having a lot of baggage – baggage that it wouldn’t have had twenty-five years ago. Wearing it now, after the Taliban, after what’s been going on in Iran, seems to me a different thing from wearing it before that. And not only wearing it, but being around people who are wearing it. It seems to me it can be seen as a poke in the eye to secularists, feminists, women who do not want all of that, who want to escape it, in a way that it wouldn’t have to such an extent before 1979. It’s a statement, a political statement, and in my view it’s a very reactionary, even brutal one. That means I’m less sympathetic to ideas about tradition, identity and so on – that’s my bias. And then, a third frame, I’m intensely hostile to religion (partly because of the history of the past twenty-five years), so I tend to favour efforts to keep it out of the public or secular realm. I’m not very good at seeing religion as a refuge from an alien culture, as the heart of a heartless world.

But another point is a bit different. I’m not convinced that I ought to do any mind-changing here, because I haven’t actually been arguing flatly that the ban on the hijab would be an unequivocally good thing and that’s all there is to it. I’ve been arguing against the view that it would be an unequivocally bad thing and that’s all there is to it. The people I’ve been disagreeing with are the ones who deny that there is any rational or non-racist reason at all to favor a ban. But if that position were accurate, there would be no such group as ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises.’ But the group exists. That is to say, there are French women of Muslim background who do support the ban. It seems to me opponents ignore them and their reasons. Surely arguing that there are people on the other side is not something I ought to change my mind about. I’m not so much arguing for the ban as I am arguing for taking all factors into account.

The Financial Pages

Jan 11th, 2004 7:08 pm | By

Following on from the last N&C on the way the Bush administration listens to developers rather than to environmental scientists in its own agencies – there is a post on corruption, and the history of attempts to limit the effects of money on political culture at Cliopatria. It is highly frustrating to see the open, unembarrassed acceptance of the role of money in politics in the US, and to see how little that changes, what a non-issue it is, how easily it keeps going, how cheerily everyone accepts it. Bribery and corruption are usually considered bad things, but the fact that huge corporations give enormous wads of cash to US political campaigns and parties is, for some reason, just taken as normal. The wads of cash are called ‘donations’ instead of ‘bribes’ and that makes all the difference. But they’re not donations, they’re quid pro quos, and everyone knows it. Yet no one cares. It’s very odd, and it’s maddening.

There is a very good article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic last November that does something to explain the lack of outrage. The article is about bad press coverage in general, rather than about corruption, but the last section deals with both – and needless to say, they are closely entangled: the corruption survives and thrives on massive public ignorance and indifference. It seems reasonable to think that if more people were more aware of the matter, there would be a lot more pressure to do something about it. To, in fact, stop it.

Republicans now expect lobbyists to support them all the time, even on issues of ancillary concern. In return, Republicans will take unpopular positions on issues like the environment and health care that benefit those same lobbyists. Yet this enormous shift, which impacts much of the domestic agenda, has not been woven into the narrative of political journalism. That omission, too, stems from the strange conventions of Washington reporting. It’s not that journalists fail to report on business influence; it’s just that such reportage tends to get segregated. One place it lands is the lobbying beat…It’s not that the press is shilling for Wall Street fat cats. It’s that money in politics is its own, distinct beat with its own, dedicated reporter (or set of reporters).

One is tempted to mutter about want of nails and wars being lost. Such a trivial reason, for such an important matter. The way jurisdictions are carved up among reporters helps to account for why political corruption is not a front page issue.

Another enclave of superb, but underexposed, coverage about the relationship between lobbyists and policy is the financial press. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has covered the nexus between K Street and the GOP particularly well. And shortly after the 2002 elections, the Post business section ran a terrific piece observing that “it’s payback time for the distributors and other business groups whose pent-up demands for policy changes, large and small, will soon burst into public.” The reason financial reporters can be so blunt, and therefore accurate, is that they could not do their job–conveying information about which businesses are succeeding in winning legislation that will impact their bottom line–if they didn’t convey the unvarnished truth. Political reporters play by a different set of rules. If a story like that ran on page one, it would have to be filtered through the lens of “evenhandedness”–“Democrats charge that Republicans are carrying water for their donors; Republicans disagree”–even if one side were demonstrably wrong. That’s why the practice of unbiased reporting, as journalists understand it, can actually impede the truth.

Isn’t that interesting. Just read the financial pages, and all will become clear. As a matter of fact, my brother told me that about the New York Times’ financial pages many years ago. Now, if only someone could persuade the political reporters to quote their colleagues on the financial beat…mabe word would begin to get out.

Wetlands Pollute! Rivers Need Barges!

Jan 11th, 2004 1:05 am | By

There is a very interesting article about the Bush administration’s interference with science in the Christian Science Monitor. I was a little distracted while reading it, because I kept thinking I had posted an article on the same subject fairly recently, but not so recently that I could remember when, or what it was called, or where it was from. But luck was with me (or perhaps it was my guardian angel, or baby Jesus, or both, one on each shoulder), and I found it anyway. It’s here. It’s well worth reading both: they are related but quite different. The Monitor article treats science in general; the Grist one discusses cases where the Bush administration forced federal agencies to adopt policies developers and other industries wanted in place of scientifically-based findings, with nasty results for the Missouri river and Florida’s wetlands.

From the Monitor article:

Nevertheless, several science-policy experts argue that no presidency has been more calculating and ideological than the Bush administration in setting political parameters for science. President Bush’s blunt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and his decision restricting stem-cell research are only the most obvious and widely publicized examples of what has become a broader pattern across the administration.

From the Grist article:

As we’ve seen before, this administration’s M.O. is simple: If you don’t like the science, change the scientist. That same motto could have been scrawled atop a resignation notice submitted in late October by Bruce Boler, a former U.S. EPA scientist in Florida who quit in protest when the agency accepted a study concluding that wetlands can produce more pollution than they filter. “It’s a blatant reversal of traditional scientific findings that wetlands naturally purify water,’ Boler told Muckraker. ‘Wetlands are often referred to as nature’s kidneys. Most self-respecting scientists will tell you that, and yet [private] developers and officials [at the Corps] wanted me to support their position that wetlands are, literally, a pollution source.’

Scientists who don’t obey are fired and replaced with more biddable ones, and the EPA muzzles its own employees. Pretty story.

An Argument With Too Much Left Out

Jan 9th, 2004 7:43 pm | By

It’s odd to discover that sometimes readers know more about what I’m doing than I do. I’d actually forgotten that I’d commented on the hijab-headscarf-veil issue all the way back in October, but Socialism in an Age of Waiting reminded me.

The issue of Muslim girls wearing, or not wearing, hijab in state schools in France has given rise to extensive comment and debate all over the blogosphere. We’d cite as the most interesting discussions so far the posts, and the comments, at Butterflies and Wheels, where Ophelia Benson has been blogging about it, on and off, since October and at Harry’s Place, where the debate was taken up in December partly in response to the news that “a government-appointed commission on secularism [had] recommended drafting a new law banning all conspicuous religious symbols from French state schools”.

Why so I have. What a terrible memory I have to be sure. I wonder what else I’ve been blogging about that I’ve forgotten. Monetary policy? Weaving? The Crimean War?

Then SiaW link to another discussion of the hijab issue, saying it cuts through the knot – which I find odd, since the post in question leaves so much out. There is this question, for example:

There are fashions that annoy the hell out of me, but by what possible logic are headscarves more offensive than, say, big hair? Is there any way in which headscarves are more oppressive to women than mini-skirts?

Yes of course there is. What an absurd question. There is no equivalent of the Taliban or the religious police of Iran forcing women to wear mini-skirts by beating the shit out of them if they don’t. There is no real, literal, physical, violent, bone-breaking coercion of women to wear short skirts. There is that kind of coercion of women to wear the hijab or the chador or the burqa. The problem with the hijab is not that it’s ‘offensive.’ (That’s a sub-topic I want to go into some day – another branch of the translation problem – the way people hear ‘offensive’ when offense is not the issue at all and no one said it was. Odd, that.) Or that it’s ‘annoying.’ Read or talk to some women who have lived through a transition from not having to wear the nasty things to being forced to by violent packs of men. Talking about annoyance and offense just trivializes the issue, but it’s not damn well trivial.

And the rest of the post is along the same lines. It ignores far too much to be useful, it seems to me. I agree that there are problems with the ban; that it may be counter-productive, that it violates the freedom of some people, that in a sense it discriminates against Muslims. But there are also problems with the absence of the ban, as I said last month. A discussion that just blithely ignores those is a bit beside the point, I think.

Academostars Light up the Sky

Jan 9th, 2004 1:15 am | By

Well my questions have been answered – the ones I asked a couple of days ago, about Why is Judith Butler a superstar and who the hell thinks comp lit teachers are superstars anyway and why don’t they embarrass themselves talking that way? Well no, I didn’t ask that last question, but it’s what I was thinking.

I should have realized. Silly me. The subject is a whole field, a discipline, it has an anthology and everything. The excellent Scott McLemee, of the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as other publications, dropped a word in my ear to the effect that he wrote a few words on this subject a couple of years ago. And sure enough, he did, and very good words too. The whole thing is pretty hilarious, frankly.

“I want to debunk the usual idea that this is some kind of illicit importation [into university life] from Hollywood.” The phenomenon owes less to popular culture, he argues, than to processes taking shape within academic culture. In particular, it is a side effect of the dominance of theory within literary studies. The steady growth of literature programs stimulated what Mr. Williams terms “the theory market.” By the 1980s, thinkers who offered powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis were becoming household names.

Household names?? Household names?!? In what households, sport? Do you get out much? I don’t get out much myself, but I get out enough to know that Stanley Fish and Gayatri Spivak are not instantly recognizable in your average American household. No, not even good old Eve or Cornel or Skip is that famous, whatever their colleagues may tell them.

But even better than that household name thing is that ‘powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis’ bit. Oh, please. More ‘powerful, capacious, and stimulating’ than anything you will find in physics or history or sociology or philosophy or economics or psychology or cognitive science departments, for example? You know – I really, really, really don’t think so.

As Mr. Williams notes in an interview, the discussion of academostardom emerged in earnest during the 1990s — a time of transition for the humanities, during which the academic profession underwent painful restructuring, despite the overall economic boom. In “Name Recognition,” his essay for the journal’s special issue, the editor underscores how scholarly celebrity met a basic psychological need during this wrenching period. “Against the common academic anxiety of ineffectuality, especially in the humanities,” he writes, “the star system heightens the sense of the academic realm as one of influence, acclaim, and relevance.”

Ah – now I understand. It’s a kind of comfort food. Or magical thinking. ‘I am, or will be someday, or could possibly become someday maybe if I’m very lucky and very hip, influential and acclaimed and, by golly, relevant, because of my powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis which are more powerful, capacious, and stimulating than almost anyone else’s. I can push down trees with them, I can store all of Manhattan in them, I can bring whole conferences to a frenzy with them. I am – Megacademostar!!’

From Below

Jan 8th, 2004 8:54 pm | By

Well I made good on my threat, and did that In Focus. I’ll be adding a lot more links, since it’s a large subject.

I also posted again at Cliopatria, about Romila Thapar. There are more interesting comments there, from people who know far more about history and historians than I do. Timothy Burke makes this excellent point:

This is one of those junctures where the tragic confusion of some scholars in the US and England about where their sympathies should lie potentially becomes pretty dangerous if not corrected. It strikes me that Hindutva’s self-representation is actually pretty fair in one respect: it is more genuinely popular, “from-below”, and less obviously “Western” than scholarly history practiced in Indian academies (though in the end, I’d say it’s actually quite resonantly “Western” in the same way that most forms of romantic anti-modernity modernism ultimately are). For some scholars, the mere notion that something is meaningfully “from-below” accords it instant moral legitimacy, particularly if it involves non-Westerners refusing or rejecting something that can be reasonably tagged as Western. But Hindutva is systematically repellant, and any intellectual or morally conscious person anywhere in the world ought to recognize it as such.

Just so. The old ‘from-below’ trap. It’s well-meaning, it’s understandable, but – it is such a mistake.


Jan 7th, 2004 8:27 pm | By

Well, really. I’ve probably said this before…but I’ll simply have to repeat myself then. This is one of those times I just have to shake my grizzled head and croak with the Wicked Witch of the North, ‘What a world, what a world.’

A kind and helpful reader, Chris of the blog Intelligent Life, alerted me to this horrible story in a comment on another story about gangs of religious thugs terrorizing people. There’s just no end to it, it seems.

Sanika Bapat, another post-graduate scholar merely questioned, ‘‘Why did they tear a Shivaji manuscript from this library? Are they Shivaji worshippers or patriots? They are worse than any militia. We are another Taliban now.’’ People sitting outside the library were at a loss for words. Said Dr M A Mehendale, ‘‘What can I say in the face of this destruction? Words really fail me.”

Everyone’s worst nightmare, or most people’s anyway. ‘We are another Taliban now.’ The worst kind of ignorant, narrow, aggressive, righteously-enraged, violent, destructive, red-eyed zealots breaking down the doors and smashing everything they find. Bullying, punishing, beating up, imprisoning women; destroying books and manuscripts; demolishing the Bamiyan Buddhas; smashing airplanes and heavily-populated buildings; burning down mosques; murdering publishers and translators; blackening the faces of women on billboards; threatening, threatening, threatening.

Another reader alerted me a few months ago to the matter of Romila Thapar – another historian that the Hindutva brigade doesn’t like.

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications. Claiming that “her appointment is a great travesty”, an online petition calling for its cancellation has, as of the last week in May, collected over 2000 signatures. Thapar, according to the petition, “is an avowed antagonist of India’s Hindu civilization. As a well-known Marxist, she represents a completely Euro-centric world view”. Protesting that she cannot “be the correct choice to represent India’s ancient history and civilization”, it states that she “completely disavows that India ever had a history”. The petitioners also aver that by “discrediting Hindu civilization” Romila Thapar and others are engaged in a “war of cultural genocide”.

At this rate, I’m going to have to put together an In Focus on Religious Outrages on Scholarship, or something. I certainly have more than enough material.

Update: I also posted about this at the group history blog Cliopatria which invited me to join them the other day. There are interesting comments from historians there.

Judith Butler Superstar

Jan 6th, 2004 8:17 pm | By

Okay, what’s the deal with Judith Butler. Why does everyone who writes about her call her a celebrity or a superstar. A superstar?? Someone who teaches gender studies at Berkeley? A superstar?

Berkeley’s Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s bad grammar and slippery use of the term “sovereignty.”

I’m not making it up, that’s from the Boston Globe, from a story on the MLA convention. Not a very affectionate or over-impressed story, either – and yet Scott Jaschik calls Butler a superstar. Well if she got married in Las Vegas and then had the marriage annulled the next day, would we hear about it? Would it take up time on the BBC World Service’s half-hour news report? If she were arrested for child molestation, would we hear about that, would the World Service consider that important enough to spend a minute or two on? I have to say, I kind of doubt it.

Well to be sure, Jaschik does call her a superstar of gender and literary studies – not just a superstar tout court. But then further questions arise. Do reporters write about superstars of nursing, superstars of postal work, superstars of meat packing? Do they write about superstars of history or Classics? I don’t think so. So what is it about Judith Butler that somehow hypnotizes people into calling her a superstar? Or is it something about her field that does that – and if so, what? And what does it mean – what does all this vocabulary of stardom and trendiness and hipness and fashion portend? Why is it catching? Why don’t people just laugh when academics are called superstars?

Even in Israel, even that far away and with other things to attend to, they are susceptible. Witness Ha’aretz.

Butler is an unusual figure in academia. On the one hand, she is a celebrity who has a community of followers and who exudes charisma. Groups of followers sometimes line up for her lectures, as though she were a rock star; and her major influence on feminism at the start of the 21st century is widely noted. On the other hand, many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her; nor have they come across her ideas, or been influenced by them.

Celebrity? Followers? Charisma? Rock star? Well at least Ha’aretz realizes some of the truth – ‘many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her.’ Yes, you could say that. Quite a few, I daresay. In fact I would venture to guess that the non-hearing of Judith Butler outside feminist academia is pretty nearly universal.

Rock star, celebrity, superstar. How do these rumours get started, I always wonder.

No Thank You

Jan 5th, 2004 9:52 pm | By

I read something interesting and even (very slightly) encouraging in a month-old New York Times magazine article on Pakistan by Barry Bearak.

Government by ”the mullahs” has long been a dreaded prospect by the vast majority of Pakistanis with less doctrinaire views, and the M.M.A.’s unexpected victories intensified fears that ”Talibanization” was creeping its way across the land.

It is good to know that the vast majority of Pakistanis (which I think is what that not very clear clause means: the vast majority of Pakistanis, who have less doctrinaire views, as opposed to the vast majority of Pakistanis-with-less-doctrinaire-views, which of course could be a much smaller number) dread the prospect of government by the mullahs. But it’s only a little good to know, only slightly encouraging, because superior numbers do not always prevent coups by people like mullahs or generals.

Seven months later, extremists — shouting the all-purpose invocation ”God is great!” — inflamed those anxieties by marauding through the city of Peshawar. As police placidly looked on, the crowd confiscated CD’s and tapes from stores and burned music and movies in a bonfire. They blackened the faces of women on billboards. In the meantime, politicians in the new government spoke of plans to not only enforce their version of Shariah law but also compel its obedience with patrols of religious constables.

Blackened the faces of women on billboards did they – yes I just bet they did. Imagining themselves doing the same thing to real live three-dimensional women, no doubt. The maniacal hatred of women among ‘Talibanizers’ is…well, interesting.

I read a novel by Nahid Rachlin the other day, Married to a Stranger. It was published in 1983 but takes place in Iran in 1975, and refers often to a fanatical religious group called Bandeh Khoda. The group wants women to put the chador back on, and all the rest of the program. The protagonists of the novel dislike and fear them just as much as I would if I were there. Nahid Rachlin no longer lives in Iran.

Jesting Pilate Goes to Hollywood

Jan 5th, 2004 12:24 am | By

The World Service, part 2. Another thing I heard this morning, while standing around with my nose in my first cup of coffee (or perhaps it was the second) and waiting for the living room to warm up a little, was a lively and too-brief discussion of the vexed question: does it matter if movies tell enormous lies about history? The historian Anthony Beevor argued that it does, some entertainment boffin whose name I instantly forgot argued (of course) that it doesn’t. If I’ve heard the boffin’s argument once I’ve heard it a thousand times. Movies are movies, they have to entertain (what does he mean ‘have to’?), they have to tell a story; nobody cares about the truth they just want to see a good story so that they can laugh and cry and tremble and faint; real history is boring the way real life is boring, it has to be shaped and formed and moulded into something dramatic and involving with lovable characters; at least people learn something from watching them even if what they learn is complete bollocks. Beevor pointed out that movies are powerful and that the untruths they put on the screen stick in people’s minds and become what they think they know about history. The boffin was entirely unpersuaded.

There’s an interesting book called Past Imperfect on this subject – the distortions and untruths in various historical movies, starting (amusingly enough) with ‘Jurassic Park’ analyzed by Stephen Jay Gould. It was published several years ago, but needless to say, movie-makers haven’t stopped telling whoppers in their movies. Mel Gibson seems to be making a career of it. In short movie-makers are another example (or really the same example, just different people) of the issue I talked about a few days ago – the issue of people who have disproportionate power and influence, people who are listened to because they are pretty or good at acting or rich or royal, rather than because they know what they are talking about, feeling free to use that power and influence without much care. People refusing to recognize that their power has anything arbitrary or irrational about it and that therefore they really ought to be cautious about using it. People simply accepting that power cheerfully and doing what they like with it. People being irresponsible, in short. Moviemakers ought to realize, and admit, that those things they make have huge, unprecedented power to get into all our heads and never get out again. If they’re going to make movies about nonfictional subjects, they really ought to do a good job of it! And by ‘good job’ I don’t mean be as entertaining as possible – I mean do their best to tell the truth.


Jan 4th, 2004 9:24 pm | By

I heard something very irritating on the BBC World Service on the radio early this morning as I was bumbling around in waking-up mode. In beginning a feature on the religious avowals being made by all nine Democratic presidential candidates, the reporter said ‘The United States is a deeply devout country…’ I gave a kind of mental yowl of disgust and rage. It is not! It does have a lot of religious believers in it, to be sure, but the figure is not 100% yet! And it is possible to ignore the stuff most of the time. Really it is. People who’ve never been here will hear that kind of thing and imagine that every other building is a church, priests and nuns lock up pregnant women and keep them imprisoned for years on end, contraceptives and divorce are unavailable, the streets are clogged with people crossing themselves or shoving bibles in your face…It’s not that bad yet! There is an enormous amount of religious nonsense flying around, especially in political rhetoric, but there are also huge swaths of the public realm that are entirely free of it. You can go to the supermarket and buy some pasta sauce and oranges without getting a sermon at the checkout counter. You can go to the post office and get stamps without being asked to pray with the clerk. There are no muezzins yelling into the air five times a day. Hey, supermarkets are even open on Sunday – in that way we’re far more secular than the UK is.

The fact is, the degree of our ‘devoutness’ gets badly exaggerated. I don’t even know any devout people. Of course I only know about three people, so that doesn’t prove much, but still – those three people don’t know any devout people either, and none of their friends do, and and –

No but seriously. It is exaggerated. I don’t know why – it’s probably partly the usual maddening way that Democrats fall all over themselves to imitate Republicans. Bush II is a religious zealot and some people like and approve of that, so instead of offering us an actual alternative to that way of doing things, the Democrats do their level best to give us more of the same. Well why bother having two parties then? Why not just drop the pretense and have one?

But why entities like the Beeb feel compelled to help them is beyond me. ‘Deeply devout’ indeed – two hurrah words when they could have been two neutral or even two boo words. ‘Devout’ – that makes it sound so nice, doesn’t it. Humble, loyal, grateful, all those good things. But there are other ways of looking at it, other adjectives that could have been used.

Those nice people at Socialism in an Age of Waiting cited one of my blasts at religion recently. They do say the sweetest things.

On this very subject see also Ophelia Benson’s comment “Theological Education” in the Notes and Comment section of Butterflies and Wheels (also in sidebar –>). As always Ophelia skewers some very well-known knowns that, in our more patient and optimistic moods, we’d like to think didn’t need spelling out any more.

You just can’t get much better than that. Not only do I skewer, but I do it always. My lifelong ambition has been realized.

What Problem?

Jan 2nd, 2004 6:59 pm | By

The nonsense continues. So there’s no point in ceasing to talk about it, not yet at least. (And I daresay we can be pretty confident that the nonsense won’t stop, it never does.)

There is this string of absurdities for example.

In a departure from past practice, a Dec. 27 Dean campaign event opened with a prayer from a minister. That same day, Dean told voters, “I think religion is important and spiritual values are very important, which is what this election is really about.” The faith-friendly tone follows a December cover story, “Howard Dean’s Religion Problem,” in The New Republic magazine. The article called Dean “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.” It quoted Dean, whose wife and children are Jewish, saying he doesn’t go to church “very often” and that “my religion doesn’t inform my public policy.”

Note the elision of religion and ‘spiritual’ values, whatever that means. Note the fact that Dean has a religion ‘problem.’ Note that in this context the word ‘secular’ is apparently an accusation. Note the default position – that Dean has a religion problem, not that Bush has a rationality problem.

In a Gallup Poll conducted Nov. 10-12, Bush held a 67 percent to 30 percent lead among religious voters over the Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Dean. In hypothetical head-to-head races with both Gephardt and Clark, Bush’s lead was 65 percent to 33 percent. “It seems that in the three years since the (2000) election, Bush has become the go-to candidate for those who feel that religion is important to their vote for president,” wrote Gallup religion and values editor Albert Winseman.

Note the combination not to say conflation of religion and values. Note how that subliminally (for those who don’t happen to notice the oddity) conveys the idea that people who lack the first also lack the second. Note how that subtly tells us that secular people have no values. Note how coercive it all is, without really seeming to be.

And this article in the Independent reminds us (in case we’d forgotten) how absurdly dysfunctional the US election system is. Terrific: all the Democratic candidates except Dean are shredding Dean with more energy than they are Bush, with what happy results for the future one can imagine. Flip a few pages on the calendar and picture all the tv ads quoting Lieberman and company on that turble turble secular fella Dean. Paid for by all those corporations that do pay for US elections, and then write US law in exchange for the favour. What a marvelous arrangement.

A Brief Journey

Jan 2nd, 2004 4:52 pm | By

Well, that was exciting! In a terrifying sort of way. I get on the computer only to find B&W not there. Missing. Gone. Not responding to my summons. I hate it when that happens.

But as you can see, all is well. The Webmaster got it back. So let that be a lesson to you, not to take the Webmaster for granted. He may be a bit on the quiet side at times (thanks to his many occupations), but there wouldn’t be any B&W without him (on account of how I don’t know the smallest thing about programming). Actually he probably staged the whole thing just to teach me not to take him for granted. Show-off.

Cross as Two Sticks

Jan 1st, 2004 8:48 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. Wyatt-Brown wrote the introduction to a new edition of Cash’s book in 1991 – and a very good introduction it is. I particularly like this comment (p. xxxvi):

We need to appreciate how the malady from which he suffered [depression] contributed to his special vision of the South…and provided the seemingly necessary sense of alienation and distance that the subject required. We must also ask ourselves this question: ‘If he had been less angry with himself and his surroundings, if he had lived the ordinary life of a newspaper reporter, how likely was it that he could have broken away, as he did, from the traditions of his childhood and discovered the underlying forces that had so long bedeviled the white South’s ethical history?’

How likely indeed. That’s a subject that interests me a lot: how entangled our ideas, thoughts, political views and commitments are with sub-rational aspects of ourselves like temperament, personality, psychic health or its absence in general. How mottled and patched what we think of as cognitive choices are by emotions, reactions, habits, aversions and attractions. How dependent our principled, committed decisions may be on what seem like irrelevancies or even intrusions.

A friend remarked jokingly to me the other day that he is an iconoclast in an immature kind of way – anti-everything. Well of course you are, I thought and said. We wouldn’t be friends otherwise. I never am friendly with people who are too much at ease in Zion.

It’s perfectly true, I’m not. I tend to think there’s something actually wrong with people who never think there’s much of anything to get exasperated about. It’s a state of mind so alien to me that I can’t really imagine it very well. It’s like trying to imagine what it’s like to be a bat.

It’s the same problem Lizzy Bennett has with Jane in Pride and Prejudice, and that Emma has with Mr. Weston in her eponymous novel – he’s too agreeable, he won’t join her in her dislike of Mrs Elton, and in fact he’s so horribly agreeable that he ends up inviting Mrs Elton along on the trip to Box Hill, exactly what Emma didn’t want. It’s no good laughing, it is a problem. If you like me but you also like that awful person, what good is your liking me? If you like absolutely everyone indiscriminately, what good is that? Not everyone deserves to be liked, and nor does everything. Some institutions, ideas, systems are very terrible and have to be said to be terrible. People who are too comfortably embedded in them, too cheerful and placid and optimistic, may not be very good at seeing beyond them. Oppositionists, nay-sayers, mockers, satirists, teasers, even angry or noisy or irritating or boring ones, even ones who are wrong, are necessary. One doesn’t have to be depressed for that, fortunately; hostility and irritation will do just as well, if not better. In fact I for one find hostility and irritation the very opposite of depression – more like exhilaration really.

I wrote one of the first N&Cs on this subject back when B&W was an infant. How it’s grown since then. Here we are celebrating its second New Year, the dear creature. It has a slight tendency to iconoclasm too, one might say.

What Right?

Jan 1st, 2004 12:29 am | By

I meant to say something about this article in the Guardian last week, but then that Soapy Joe business came along and pre-empted other ideas. The article discusses a book about Prince Charles and what academics think of his publicly expressed opinions on a range of important subjects.

The heir to the throne has used his position to sound off on architecture, the environment, agriculture and science in a curious blend of the vaguely alternative, the home counties nimbyist and the off-the-wall.

Here is what David Lorimer, the book’s author, has to say:

“He combines a spiritual world view with practical applications. He starts from the basic premise that nature is not a collection of accidents, but has an intrinsic sacred depth, so it must be respected rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. This theme runs through all his thinking, and informs both his position on the economy being a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and his approach to holistic medicine, which is based on the human body not being just a set of mechanistic particles. He is not, as some believe, a person who is locked into the past: rather he highlights the continuity between the past and present.”

Oh is that the basic premise he starts from – well no wonder he talks such a lot of crap then. Nature doesn’t have ‘an intrinsic sacred depth,’ whatever the hell that is, so if he starts from that basic premise he’s going to get everything all wrong, isn’t he. And he does.

Treading on toes or not, the prince has been known to exceed his non-political remit. Rather than being happy to use his position to champion the hard science of experts, he has sometimes tended to strike out on his own on the basis of limited evidence or on the advice of mavericks from within the intellectual community. So, long before he had even discussed GM with anyone who knew about the science, he was condemning the technology and doing years of harm to an industry that had the possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives…This gets to the heart of the mainstream academic opposition to the Prince of Wales. Highly respected scientists, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, argue that he operates on prejudice, not evidence, but because of his position he is listened to. They believe that overall he has done science a disservice.

(Uh oh, should I be Commenting on condition of anonymity? Oh well, I’m not eligible for a gong anyway.) But this is what I wanted to point out – ‘because of his position he is listened to.’ He is listened to because of his position. Does that ring any bells? Does that sound like something we’ve been talking about lately? Such as a well-known and talented actor using her fame and talent to take a very public stand on a controversy that should be decided on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice? A controversy that has a very real possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives – by so alarming them about the MMR jab that they don’t take their children to be vaccinated? That’s what it sounds like to me anyway. Exactly like.

For instance there is the Channel 5 view of the matter, reported in another article in the Guardian:

The charity Sense, which represents families whose children have become deaf or blind as a result of rubella, criticised her for her remarks. Stephen Rooney said: ‘Juliet Stevenson has no scientific or medical expertise and yet has given a number of interviews in which she has called into question the safety of the vaccine.’ But a spokesman for Channel 5 said last night that the actor had every right to make her views known. ‘Juliet Stevenson has never claimed to be a medical expert. She is expressing her views as a mother.’

But does she have ‘every right’ to make her views known? And does the Prince? In what sense of the word ‘right’? In a legal sense, Stevenson presumably does; with the Prince it’s a bit more iffy. But it’s pretty obvious that the spokesman for Channel 5 isn’t talking about legal rights, since he’s answering a moral criticism. He’s claiming (surely) that she has every moral right. But does she? What about the fact that she has far more ability to make her views known than most other people – than scientists, for a start. What about the fact that she can command attention out of all proportion to her real importance, and certainly to her actual knowledge or expertise, simply because she is a famous actor who has starred in movies and on tv? What about the parallel fact that Prince Charles also can command attention out of all proportion to his own real worth, simply because of whose son and grandson and great-great-great-grandson he happens to be? Might it not be morally incumbent on people in that situation – people with a particularly arbitrary and even absurd quantity of fame and influence – to use that situation, that fame and influence, with great caution? Rather than opting to take conspicuous positions on subjects they know little about? Subjects on which ill-informed opinion can get things badly, dangerously wrong? Might it be the case that they are in fact abusing their disproportionate fame and influence?

Theological Education

Dec 31st, 2003 2:11 am | By

I found a blogger today who motivated me to say a little more about religion (I’m going to end up writing a damn book, at this rate). The blogger feels a need to educate Dawkins and his cheerleaders, with me chief among them. I can always do with educating (I mean that literally), but this lesson didn’t quite take. Some of what the blogger says is true enough but I doubt that anyone including Dawkins disagrees with it, and the rest of it I maintain is not true.

This is what I would like to tell Dawkins and all of his cheerleaders: they need to go beyond their scientific atheism to a more mature vision of what it means to be a human being in a community, and the various kinds of knowledge which are required to make that community function. Intelligent and educated people have found many different ways to discuss the various and complex issues which arise for human beings. Science is only one mode of expression, and it is a very useful one, but there are aspects of experience which it systematically excludes. This is why even scientists continue to read and appreciate literature, a form of expression with no pretense to literal truth, but which describes some more general truths about human experience which it would be difficult to capture in scientific prose. Religion is, I think, similar to literature in its attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation.

Certainly – of course there are many different ways to discuss human issues; certainly literature is one of them. On the other hand – science is not primarily a mode of expression, and much more to the point, neither is religion. Religion does attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation, yes, but it is emphatically not a method ‘with no pretense to literal truth.’ That’s just it. That’s exactly why religion is indeed different from literature, and capable of vastly more harm. Religion does make truth claims about the world. It also tells people what to do, and in no uncertain terms. It is important not to lose sight of those two facts. I think it’s possible that well-meaning secularists tend to do exactly that – to think that religion is basically just a nice attitude. For some people no doubt it is, but at its core it makes factual statements about the world, history, the universe, reality as a whole; and it prescribes how we are to live. That being the case, surely we want to know on what it bases its truth claims and its claims to tell us what to do. Don’t we? Do we instead want to shrug all that off and just let religion get on with it because it always has? I don’t. If its truth claims are wrong, and its normative claims are either also wrong, or right but right for the same sorts of reasons that other normative claims are right, as I think is the case, then surely that’s relevant to discussions about both religion’s utility and its veracity.

In short, what we have here is, I think, a kind of thing that one sees a lot of from well-meaning defenders of religion: a resort to various maneuvers that redescribe religion in such a way that it seems more innocuous, benign, useful, and profound than it in fact is. Redefine it so that it’s essentially the same sort of thing as literature, when in fact the differences between the two are enormous and central. Omit to mention the destructive, coercive, cruel, vindictive aspects of it and dwell only on the emollient ones. Misattribute to religion what in fact belongs to other entities – to philosophy or rationality or common sense or secular ethics or all those.

But that just won’t do. When Soapy Joe tells his rivals they should talk about religion more, he doesn’t mean just Nice Thoughts – he means they should pledge allegiance to a supernatural deity of one kind or another. He’s not picky which one; religious people so often aren’t these days; one is allowed to believe in almost any deity, it’s only nonbelief in any deity that is not allowed. And all the supernatural deities in question have very nasty sides to them – yes, even dear old Jesus. There are bits of Matthew and John that make the blood run cold – and that didn’t do the Jews any good over the years, either. And when it comes to morality, none of them says anything better than other, secular thinkers have also said. Religion may be good at motivating people to be better – but alas, that possibility has to confront the other one, that religion is also good at motivating people to be worse. It may be that lukewarm secularists are on the whole safer than impassioned believers.

In any case I don’t think it’s possible to figure out anything about religion if we pretend it is what it isn’t and that it isn’t what it is. Obfuscation is not helpful.

A Thought from Susan Haack

Dec 28th, 2003 11:27 pm | By

Thought for the day. From Chapter 10 of Susan Haack’s Defending Science, ‘Point of Honor’:

‘In The Mind of God, Paul Davies, also a physicist, but a believer (and winner of the million-dollar Templeton Prize “for progress in religion”) concludes that “belief in God is largely a matter of taste, to be judged by its explanatory value rather than logical compulsion. Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper level of explanation than the laws of physics. Whether the use of ‘God’ for that deeper level is appropriate is, of course, a matter of debate.” This, from the idea that explanatoriness is just a matter of taste, through the play on “deeper,” to the insouciance about the meaning of “God,” sounds to me like – well, a million-dollar muddle.’

Blunt Instrument

Dec 28th, 2003 9:12 pm | By

So, as promised, or threatened, a little more of the Counterblast on Religion in Politics. Because it raises so many issues, that are so very often danced around rather than addressed directly. Because the whole subject is so hedged about with squeamishness and politeness and tact and unexamined assumptions and let’s pretend and refusals to admit the obvious. Not, certainly, because I have anything new or original or profound to say. I’m not that delusional. But because what I do have to say gets drowned out by what the soapy side has to say. It’s the same point as the one Daniel Dennett made in that Op-Ed piece about the Brights: that if atheists are politely silent while theists never shut up, then atheists start to think they are a tiny peculiar insignificant minority, and theists get more and more domineering and aggressive.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for “liberating” them. I hadn’t realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They’d never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn’t believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

We don’t realize. We lose sight of the way our polite silence becomes not just polite silence but actual assistance for the ill-mannered people who would force religion on everyone else.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power — by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call “the side of the angels.”…Most brights don’t play the “aggressive atheist” role. We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage the “godless” among us. From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter.

Try to disregard the unfortunate ‘brights’ usage. Apart from that, everything he says seems to me to be obviously true. That diplomatic silence is, surely, a terrible mistake. So this is some of the explanation for Dawkins’ bluntness, and for mine too. All this politeness and mealy-mouthedness just lets the theocrats get away with it.

So, allow me to be blunt. It is understandable but mistaken for theocrats to confuse religion with morality. It’s not entirely mistaken for theocrats to think that religion adds some motivation or stiffening to morality – it probably does. It’s understandable and not entirely mistaken for theocrats to value some of the good effects of religion (I say ‘some’ because most of the effects of religion are so mixed, the good effects so difficult to disentangle from the bad ones) such as loyalty, community and so on. It is entirely mistaken for theocrats to think and to tell the rest of us that belief or ‘faith’ is a virtue. It is not. Not in the sense they mean it. Faith in a friend or relative, faith in democracy or equality or liberty, may well be a virtue, but faith in the existence of a supernatural being for which there is no good evidence is not a virtue, it’s a vice. In any other context we know that perfectly well. We don’t want to hear engineers’ ‘faith’ that the bridge will stand up, nor the pilot’s that the plane will fly; we want considerably more than that. Religion gets a special dispensation, or rather two: first, it is accepted on the basis of authority rather than evidence, and then that very acceptance becomes a virtue. That’s a bad thing, not a good one. Pointing that out only seems ‘glib’ or too blunt or blowhardism because we’ve been trained to shut up while the theocrats shout. It’s time to stop doing that.