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.

The Underground Grammarian

Dec 28th, 2003 1:48 am | By

On a lighter note. Somewhat lighter anyway. I’ve been reading Susan Haack’s wonderful new book Defending Science – Within Reason, which I strongly recommend you all read without delay. I was amused to find her twice (at least) quoting the Underground Grammarian – whom I also suggest you read without delay. This amused me partly because only a few days ago a reader emailed me with an apposite quotation from the dear Grammarian, and added that it was via B&W that he’d learned of that irascibly witty writer. That did make me feel useful.

Here’s a brief sample – although not as brief as usual, because there is no worry about copyright: the dear Grammarian gave blanket permission to use as much of his material as our little hearts desired, and the site continues that tradition.

The truth, at last, can be told. That Aristotle fellow was, in fact, not a literate man. He never developed positive feelings about barbarians. Indeed, the more he came to learn about them, the less he appreciated them. Franz Kafka wasn’t literate either, you know. Like so many other illiterate “writers”-who can count them?-he was never able to develop any positive feelings of self-worth and importance…But don’t worry about it. Our schools are doing everything they can to assure that we will be less and less troubled by such pseudo-literates. The true literates are in the sphere—or is it the arena?—of education. In that sphere, or field, it is almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t developed impregnable feelings of self-worth and importance…The quality of their relationships with others is amazing; they never, never disagree or contend, and they always hail enthusiastically each other’s bold innovative thrusts and experiential programs of excellence. And what could be stronger testimony to their fulfillment of individual potential than the fact that they have somehow persuaded the rest of us to pay them for all the stuff they do?

And a bit farther down (this is volume 6 number 2, by the way):

Among the great successes of our schools is the fact that they have always been able to prevent serious and widespread outbreaks of hyperkinetic reading behavior syndrome. This is a remarkable feat, since most young children, even when they first come to school, already exhibit morbid curiosity behavior and persistent questioning behavior, dangerous precursors that must be replaced quickly with group interaction skills and self-awareness enhancement. (Children who are properly preoccupied with themselves and with some presumed distinctions between individual whims and collective whims hardly ever fall into hyperkinetic reading behavior syndrome.) Although a few intractable cases can still be found, we realistically expect, and before long, to eradicate this crippling disability and usher in the age of true literacy.

The Grammarian did not think much of US schools of education. He didn’t worry much about hurting those schools’ feelings, either. He was a lovely fella.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Dec 27th, 2003 9:00 pm | By

Part of what is so grotesque about Lieberman’s tactic (and I realise it is indeed a tactic, and part of a political campaign, and that people will say whatever they think will work in those situations [which is one of the more irritating and destructive aspects of democracy] and so in a sense perhaps not to be taken too literally – but then again if the candidate thinks the tactic will work, perhaps that makes it still worth examining) is the fact that Dean hasn’t exactly been campaigning as an atheist. Has he? Not that I’m aware of. No, it’s just that he ‘has run a steadfastly secular campaign’ as the Times put it.

So he’s not even allowed to be neutral. Not allowed simply to be silent on the matter, to take no position one way or the other, to keep his opinions to himself, to keep his own counsel. Neutrality on this subject is not permitted. He has to declare, and he has to declare for one side and not the other. Public avowed ‘faith’ in a pious fiction is mandatory if you want to win high office in the US. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with that, think it’s a fine thing, an excellent guarantor of moral principles. That’s one argument, but let’s at least be clear about it. We can’t have the argument at all if most of the terms of it are forever being covered up, prettified and fuzzied and blurred and confused. If we pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious about demanding public declarations of faith in a fictional supernatural entity as a condition of election to a secular office.

I’ve noticed a couple of clichès in play that help this fuzzification process along.

“I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

That’s a very popular one, almost as popular as ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,’ that unanswerable retort to people who favor equal treatment for gays. One has to wonder what people mean by it. We can have freedom of religion but not freedom from religion? Does Lieberman really want to say that? Religion is mandatory? We are free to choose one but we’re not free to choose none? Funny, I would have thought that the constitutional separation of church and state does indeed promise freedom from religion in the realm of the state. But then that would rule out all those invocations and prayer breakfasts and ‘in God we trust’ on the money, and that would never do.

The other banality is from the Atlantic.

Dean signed a gay-civil-union bill and is suspected of having culturally elitist values-a point made by Scott Spradling, the co-moderator at the New Hampshire debate. “Governor Dean said recently that religion does not play into his policy decisions,” Spradling noted. “Do you believe this could hurt the Democratic Party’s chances in areas of the country like the South, where politics and religion tend to go very much hand in hand?”

Culturally elitist values? Making policy decisions on grounds other than religion? That’s culturally elitist?

Well, maybe it is, maybe it is. Or maybe not. But then, surely lots of things are in some sense ‘culturally elitist’ that one would think would be useful qualifications for the job in question. Things like, you know, knowledge of the world, politics, society, history; ability to think and talk well and quickly; wisdom, understanding, judgment. Those are all minority attributes, though they’re also all attributes we can all aspire to, they’re all attributes we can all develop in ourselves if we put some effort into it, they’re not like being seven feet tall, which only a few of us can do. But even more than that, consider the way such assertions function as directives; the way the descriptive becomes the normative in the act of being uttered. ‘Most people ______.’ Therefore (the implication goes) you’d better _____ too if you don’t want to be abnormal and weird and geeky and, ooh er ah ugh, ‘culturally elitist.’ So both religion and being like Everyone Else become mandatory, and we get yet another drearily mediocre talent-free guy for president. The resounding banality has done its work again.

Asymmetry Again

Dec 27th, 2003 7:50 pm | By

A couple of our readers are cross with Dawkins and with me for being blunt about religion, or perhaps for oversimplifying it. Of course that’s one of those perennial irregular verb things that I’m always noticing. One of those eye of the beholder things, one of those glass half-full or half-empty things, one of those Well it depends on which way you look at it things. Granted, I did speak bluntly and even rudely – I said as much at the time. But this is part of my point. How odd that hardly anyone rushes to upbraid Lieberman for being rude about atheism or secularism. How odd that there’s such a radical asymmetry in public rhetoric about the whole question, and that we’re so used to that asymmetry that we never even notice it. Why is it all right for Lieberman and other believers to chastise non-believers, but not all right for non-believers to chastise back? This set-up is bizarre and inequitable in at least two ways. One, it’s just unfair on the face of it. They can say we’re wrong, and we’re not allowed to say that they’re wrong. Two, it’s particularly absurd because they are in fact so very much more likely to be wrong than we are – and that’s putting it politely. That, you see, is why I put it so rudely. Because surely there is something grotesque about the fact that religious people get to scold non-religious people for, precisely, not sharing their ‘faith’ or ‘belief.’ What does faith mean in that context? It means believing something is true without good evidence. The word itself carries the implication that one is supposed to overlook the lack of evidence and just believe anyway – a procedure which is not considered intellectually respectable in other contexts. We don’t just have faith that the earth moves around the sun or that the Holocaust happened or that viruses cause colds, do we – we rely on evidence. Granted it’s not evidence that we ourselves have examined or produced. Even if we are astronomers or historians or medical researchers, we still have to rely on researchers in other fields to examine that evidence in our place; nobody can examine the evidence for everything we believe. But that’s not the same thing as no evidence at all. There are no equivalents of astronomers in religion – theologians don’t look for evidence, that’s not in the job description.

So that’s why it is grotesque that religious people think they are entitled to scold non-religious people – because they are urging people to believe something that there is no good reason to think is true. We are so accustomed to the grotesquery that most of us don’t notice it, but that doesn’t make it less grotesque – arguably it only makes it more so. Hence the need to point out, loudly and firmly, to windbags on the campaign trail, the epistemologically shaky status of what they believe. However rude it may seem.

Richard Dawkins

Dec 26th, 2003 8:57 pm | By

Soapy Joe again. I asked Richard Dawkins to say a few words on the subject, and he kindly obliged. You will see that he’s just as impressed with the seriousness and intellectual depth of our political campaigns as I am:

“The fact that political candidates, even those of education and intelligence like Howard Dean, are obliged to feign religious faith in order to stand a chance of getting elected, makes the United States the laughing stock of the civilized world.”

Richard Dawkins

Soapy Joe is all Wrong

Dec 26th, 2003 8:08 pm | By

Religion on all sides. How it does keep coming up, and how it does shape (and often distort) the debate – for that matter, how it does shape our lives. It’s inescapable, and massively influential, and yet it’s taboo to discuss it honestly. What a bizarre situation.

It’s kindly meant, of course. It’s about protecting people’s feelings and sensitivities. But the trouble is, if we give religion a permanent free pass, it can go ahead and trample on other people’s feelings and sensitivities, not to mention their freedoms and rights and bodies and lives. Religions are the foundation of a lot of the glaring systematic injustices in the world, and the more kindly-meaning people are too polite to say so, the more such injustices can carry on their merry way.

And then of course even apart from the physical harms religion can do, there is also the cognitive harm. There is the damage done to everyone by the pervasive pretense that religion is true. That’s another obvious fact that simply gets systematically overlooked, in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. But at what a price! And besides, why doesn’t it ever work the other way? Why aren’t religious people too polite to hurt the feelings of non-religious people by disputing their truth claims? Hmm? Religious people don’t hesitate to say that atheists have it all wrong, so why do atheists keep their mouths shut when theists are talking? Why does Soapy Joe Lieberman get away with scolding Democratic presidential candidates for not talking about religion enough?

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut called on Tuesday for strengthening the role of religion in public life and took a veiled swipe at Howard Dean, who has run a steadfastly secular campaign. “I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Some people forget that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose and our individual lives.”

Yeah, and some other people forget that ‘faith’ is not central to all our individual lives. But much more basic than that – people like Soapy Joe forget one important thing: that religion is not true. He’s rebuking people for not talking about a fiction as if it were true. He’s rebuking candidates for high office for not taking a fairy tale seriously, he’s whingeing about the putative failure of people seeking a secular political office for not loudly and often enough avowing their belief in a supernatural being for which there is no evidence. He doesn’t rebuke his rivals for not declaring their ‘faith’ in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Hobbits or wizards or elves or talking animals, does he? Not that I’m aware of anyway. But rebuking them for neglecting to talk about that other made-up, invented, fantasized, magical being – that’s another matter, that’s normal and acceptable, and nobody answers him, ‘We don’t talk about the deity because we have no reason to think it exists, that’s why.’ Well why not? Because it would be rude and insensitive, no doubt. You may think I’ve just been very rude and insensitive. But what is the difference? Why is one invented supernatural being taken with the utmost seriousness when the others are not? Custom, habit, precedent? Not very good reasons, I would think, and certainly highly circular. Psychological need, wishful thinking? But our desire for something to be true doesn’t make it true, as surely we realize once we grow up. Group think? Everyone else does so I might as well too? Yes, no doubt, which is precisely why it would be nice if more people were willing to drop the ridiculous pretense and point out the truth. Soapy Joe should stop urging his rivals to join him in peddling a pack of lies.

Agenda in Plain View

Dec 25th, 2003 7:51 pm | By

RC makes a good point in a comment on the post below. Guilt by association certainly is a classic Bad Move, one that functions just as the word ‘brown’ does: as an attempt at intimidation via guilt-tripping. Maybe that’s one of the uses of entities like B&W, actually – to make moves like that just a bit less likely to work. That would be a worthy goal. If we could, by just a little, detach inquiry from ideology – maybe we could do some shaming in our turn, but in our case, I hope, by legitimate means and to good effect. If we could get people to realize and notice and accept that saying a given truth-claim is associated with a particular group or political stance is not the same thing as saying that it’s not true – that would be useful.

But there is also a tactical question, and that’s another matter. It’s also one that comes up endlessly. Feminists who oppose pornography find themselves on the same side (on this one issue, and for different reasons) as conservative Christians. Various human rights campaigns find themselves on the same side (on some issues) as libertarians with whom they disagree strongly on other issues – and so on. There’s no end to it, which is not at all surprising, since politics is a very large field with many possibilities, so the notion that there could be only two possible answers to any and every question, and they would all neatly harmonize each time, is an odd one. So it comes up endlessly, and one just has to keep deciding afresh each time, it seems to me. On one issue one might decide it’s not worth giving support to a party or movement one doesn’t agree with, while on another one might decide it is. It boils down to deciding which enemy trumps which, really.

But one thing it is possible to say very flatly indeed. There is no need whatever to spy out some hidden racist agenda to explain my, at any rate, opposition to and dislike of the hijab. [I call it the hijab, by the way, because the English alternatives seem unsatisfactory. It’s more than a headscarf, because it wraps around the neck and the whole face: it looks far more like a nun’s headgear than it looks like those triangles the royal women wear when out with the horses. But it’s not a veil in the English sense either, because it doesn’t cover the face. Ibn Warraq tells us ‘The Arabic word “hijab” is sometimes translated as veil, but it can signify anything that prevents something from being seen – a screen, a curtain, or even a wall…’ {Why I am not a Muslim, p. 314} So since both headscarf and veil are a bit misleading, I’m going to go with hijab.]

I loathe and detest and despise the damn thing, not because I’m a racist, but because I’m a woman. It’s not about tender concern or sympathy or piety or altruism – it’s about sheer gut loathing and fear. That’s how all women would look, all over the planet, if the Islamofascists got their way. The hijab is a badge of inferiority, slavery, obedience, submission. Of course I hate it! Are Jews fond of yellow stars and tatooed numbers? Are slaves and the descendants of slaves fond of shackles and brands? Would they take them up as either a fashion statement or a religious one? You can tell me it’s voluntary and chosen all you like, but I don’t have to believe it, and I don’t. And I’m not going to, either, until men start wearing them.

Of course, it doesn’t follow from that that the ban on conspicuous religious garments is a good idea. It may well be that the believers’ right to wear what they like ought to trump all other rights, not only the right of women and girls in general not to have to see symbols of their own putative inferiority in school all day, but also the right of girls who want to resist pressure to wear the hijab not to have extra pressure applied by compliant schoolmates. But I think it’s far less debatable what the basic meaning of the hijab is. I think it’s evasive and dishonest to pretend that it’s solely an expression of identity or religion, to deny that it is at least also a badge of submission, inferiority, degradation, and powerlessness.

Which Coercion?

Dec 24th, 2003 7:26 pm | By

The issue of the possible French ban on the hijab or headscarf in public schools raises a lot of interesting questions – also a lot of strong emotions, not to say plain rudeness. There was a discussion of the subject at Crooked Timber a few days ago that was quite interesting at the beginning, but I abandoned it in disgust after being accused of patronizing ‘subdued and voiceless brown women’ one too many times.

But it’s not that simple, obviously – well it’s obvious to me, but clearly not to everyone. That is to say, whatever one thinks about the proposed ban, it’s too simple to say that the ban is exclusively about seeing Muslim women as subdued, voiceless and brown. (The brown bit, of course, is pure rhetoric, pure attempted intimidation, pure browbeating and guilt-mongering. Just for one thing, not all Muslims are ‘brown.’ For another thing, even if they were, would that mean that no ‘Muslim’ custom or law could ever be disagreed with? There might be some dangers in an idea like that, I would think.) It’s not exclusively about that for the compelling reason that a good many Muslim women (and women of Muslim background as opposed to religion) are strongly opposed to the hijab and in favour of the ban. So why are ‘white’ non-Muslims forbidden to agree with them, one wonders.

The BBC has a good article on the subject.

Samira Bellil, a 30-year-old Algerian-born Frenchwoman is just as passionate as Antoine in her rejection of the hijab. She has become involved in a Muslim women’s campaign against the headscarf in schools. She says girls are being pressurised to wear it, as much to protect themselves from the casual violence of the ghetto, as by their families or religious leaders. Samira herself was raped not once but twice as a teenager in the Paris suburbs. Her attackers were also Muslim. Later, she was told by one classmate that she wouldn’t have been attacked if she had been wearing the hijab instead of flaunting herself bare-headed. It was that sort of attitude, Samira told me, that she was campaigning against. It was the idea of women as objects, told what to do and how to dress by men. That, for her, is what the hijab symbolises.

Interesting, isn’t it. One wonders to what extent rape is used as an enforcement tool in those Paris suburbs. ‘Either stop flaunting your wicked seductive self, put on this bag that covers your wicked seductive hair and neck and ears and in fact looks like a nun’s headgear – or else I’ll rape you.’

Yet people opposed to the ban insist with great indignation that wearing the veil is a free choice and that it’s thought-crime to wonder if that’s always true. Well – but is it always true? That quotation above would certainly seem to hint that it might not be.

People think of the state as highly coercive – and of course it is. It has an army, and a judicial system, and prisons, and access to the media, and control of funding for a lot of necessary institutions. But the fact remains that the state is not the only source of coercion in the world, and that it can sometimes (indeed often) use its coercive power to protect some people from the coercion of some other people. Peer pressure is coercive, the family can be coercive, as can men, fathers and brothers, religion, Islam. Yes, girls can still make a free choice (at least in theory) to wear the hijab. But how free are the girls who don’t want to, to refuse to wear it? If their fathers and brothers order them to, and their classmates tell them they’re inviting rape if they don’t, and neighbours rape them if they don’t…is their choice really as completely free and uncoerced as it might be? One has to wonder, it seems to me. What if it’s not a simple choice between coercion and freedom, but rather a choice of who gets coerced? In that case, why should it be the girls who don’t want to bag themselves who are coerced, and the ones who do want to (or have been coerced to) who are ‘free’?

One advantage of state coercion, it seems to me, is that it’s obvious. We know it’s coercion. Things like peer pressure and threats of rape and what happens behind closed doors in the family, are less obvious, so more difficult to resist, also more difficult to point out and quantify. But that does not necessarily make them less coercive. On the contrary, surely.

Some writers of letters to the Guardian make similar points.

Secular states, not religious ones, most effectively protect the rights of minorities. Where would Madeleine Bunting prefer to live if she were a Muslim woman: France or one of numerous Islamic states where her freedoms would be at best challenged, at worst removed? If she were a Jew, a Sikh, or a Baha’i, which state might she expect to protect her beliefs: France or a Muslim country? The headscarf move is a sensible school uniform measure designed to stop the French school system from becoming the Northern Irish nightmare I was taught in. Multiculturalism gets you Northern Ireland: integration gives you tolerance and the rule of law for everyone.


Madeleine Bunting’s article on French moves to ban headscarves (Secularism gone mad, December 18) made no reference to what is happening in the quartiers sensibles in urban France, where many Muslim girls are pressured into wearing Islamic headdress by their young brothers. Showing their hair or even wearing jeans are seen as signs of western depravity by their menfolk, who abuse and threaten them. Ms Bunting should be aware of the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises movement organised by Samira Bellil and her book about gang rapes of young female Muslims who dare to rebel.


As an Iranian who experienced the Islamic revolution, I applaud a ban on headscarves especially in educational institutions. Which seven-year-old, without family pressure, would opt to wear a headscarf? The codes of “modesty” for women in Islam can be interpreted in many ways. The raw facts are that subjective and arbitrary interpretations in Islam have become the norm and women coerced into behaving according to them. Women are being used as tools, this time in a political movement which is making the question of Islamic headscarf a political issue.

Anti-banners also like to point out that the French xenophobic right wing is also in favour of the ban. Fair point. But by the same token, the kind of people who like to beat up women who refuse to wear it are opposed to the ban, so again, it’s a matter of choosing one’s undesirable allies, rather than a matter of one side’s having loathsome supporters and the other side’s being free of such entities.

The World at Large

Dec 21st, 2003 8:42 pm | By

Here, on the other hand, is a comment on the MLA and hipness [in the comments on the post] that is quite another matter – and says (from inside the academy as opposed to outside it) what I’ve been thinking for a couple of days, as well as for many years:

At the moment (ask me again on Dec. 30 how I feel), the bottom line seems to me that many serious scholars of literature and culture, who would very much like to engage in a serious, generous, forthright way with the world-at-large, often find themselves prevented from doing so by both the internal demands of the scholarly universe (publishing in the “right places” demanding certain kinds of technical language and attention to trends) and by the jeers of that world-at-large (the technical language and trendiness taken as evidence of our irrelevance).

There. This is what I’m saying. Academics of all stripes, and especially, for heaven’s sake, literary academics, serious scholars of literature and culture, ought to want to engage with the world at large. Not necessarily every single one of them, I don’t mean that; some people would rather just concentrate on research, and are better at it; but some of them. It ought to be within the possible realm of thought for the discipline. That’s why I take exception to that ‘We’re professionals and this is our turf and it’s nothing to do with you so shut up and go away’ line. The quotation above is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to see.

It’s common knowledge that engagement with the world at large, that popularization and public education are not the way to get ahead in universities. To put it mildly – they are in fact a ticket to oblivion. I’ve heard this from many relatives, friends and acquaintances. It’s only established stars who can afford to popularize or engage with the world at large. Carl Sagan was kept out of the National Academy of Sciences because he was a popularizer – because he did such a damn good job of turning people on to science. Well, brilliant – that’s a good way to run things. Wouldn’t it be nice if that system could begin to change. (People have been saying that for as long as I can remember, which is awhile. But one might as well go on saying it.)

The End of the Trilogy

Dec 21st, 2003 7:20 pm | By

Chapter 3. (And I still had some items I wanted to examine from the fuss over ‘Hear the Silence’ – some of the odd assumptions behind the rhetoric – but that’s such a long time ago now. I’m just not speedy enough, clearly.) Because there is still a little more. And it really is quite interesting, how very defensive and righteously indignant the defenders of the ‘professional discourse of the humanities’ get. As if people who tease them were committing lèse-majesté, invading the Temple, polluting the inner sanctum. Why? Why do they take themselves so very seriously? Why is a joke (and a damn funny one at that) seen as an outrage? Why are professional discoursers so deaf to humour on this subject? Is that an occupational hazard? If so, it would be an interesting research topic to discover why. Something for a social psychologist, perhaps, or a sociologist of work.

Along with the humour-deficit there is an odd sort of professional gigantism – an unwarranted assumption (as I mentioned yesterday) that all intellectuals are academics, that only academics are intellectuals, and that to tease ‘the professional discourse of the humanities’ is to attack intellectuals. There is something very sinister and unpleasant in these two ideas: one, that academics have a monopoly on intellectualism, and two, that non-academics are forbidden to criticise ‘the professional discourse of the humanities.’ So they have a double monopoly, and the rest of us are doubly excluded. We’re not intellectuals ourselves, and we’re not allowed to tease the people who are. It really does sound very like the medieval priesthood, that used Latin as a fence to keep the people out.

Now, of course, the people who complained that the Chronicle article was a jihad against intellectuals may well not have meant such an implication – but in that case, their clumsiness with language doesn’t give us non-intellectuals out here in the cold much confidence in their highly-trained ability to be aware of their own discourse, does it.

One more thing. Among the several excellent things McLemee said was this –

by all means say hello at MLA. Just do me a favor. If I ask you what papers you have heard that are interesting, please don’t translate my question. What happens every year is that people respond by saying: “Hmmm, what’s ‘hot’ this year?” And then they proceed to tell me what is “hot.” They dilate upon what is “trendy.” I do not care at all what is hot and trendy, and would never use such terms in my writing without displaying conspicious levels of sarcasm. Talk about what you found interesting, important, an addition to the conversation. I’m as concerned with the actually developing substance of scholarship as any of you are. After all, I spend at least as much time as you do reading it. But if you do insist on talking about what’s hip, hot, and happening, I will regard you as part of the nominating committee for next year’s Provokies.

Regular readers may remember that I’ve talked about that very maneuver of translating, many times. I’m interested to see that I’m not the only one who’s noticed. No indeed, interesting is not the same thing as hot or hip. I wonder if there’s some connection between excessive defensiveness and pomposity and humour-deficit, and ambitions to be hip and hot and happening and edgy. That would be ‘ironic,’ wouldn’t it?

Professional Convention

Dec 20th, 2003 9:01 pm | By

I have some more comments I want to make and others I want to quote. Comment boards on blogs are not always the best place to do research on attitudes, naturally, because the people commenting can be anybody and everybody – people who’ve misplaced their meds, people who haven’t been prescribed any meds yet, people who are just that little bit too interested in aluminum foil. So keep that in mind. But the comments at Invisible Adjunct do seem to represent some real attitudes in that sector of the academy that’s under discussion. So let’s dissect one or two of them on that assumption – the attitudes are worth a look even if these particular exponents of them are bogus.

For instance this from comment 25:

I repeat: the MLA is a professional convention. Its audience is _not_ the general public. We don’t ask particle physicists to defend big words and opaque paper titles. Why literary and language scholars? Because while we recognize the expertise inherent in a field like particle physics we _all_ feel we have some intuitive claim on language and literature? Because language and literature are about our opinions and emotions? Not. Get thee to Literary Research Methods 101.

Particle physicists – there it is. I love it when literary theorists compare themselves to physicists, particle or otherwise. It’s so funny, for one thing, and such a giveaway, for another. One feels an overwhelming urge to start exclaiming like a Valley girl, ‘You wish! In your dreams; as if; yeah, right; etc.’ Apparently the assumption is that if a discipline is to be found at universities, it therefore follows that they are all of exactly comparable difficulty and rigor. But it doesn’t follow, does it. No.

And then – and here we move from funny and pathetic to rather disgusting – there is the business about ‘professional’ and the repudiation of the general public, and then the brisk removal of literature from the public domain. And yet literary theory on the whole considers itself a left-wing, liberatory, progressive enterprise – doesn’t it? Am I wrong about that? I don’t think so. But one of the first defensive moves in the face of criticism is to proclaim how professional and expert the whole subject is, and none of the public’s damn business. But that’s nonsense. Certainly there is much to learn about theory and criticism, but that does not alter the fact that literature in fact is a public subject in a way that physics (obviously) is not. People don’t generally do amateur physics for fun and pleasure, but people do read novels and poetry and essays and plays for those reasons. All the time! This is a common practice! Why, non-experts are even permitted to read Shakespeare and Wordsworth if they feel like it – and they get a lot out of it, too, without ever asking permission of literary theorists. That’s simply a fact. So, yes, that is one reason the MLA gets more attention than other conventions do – and a good thing too. Universities aren’t some sort of sacred mystery, after all. Academics are not medieval priests, their subject matter is not the Ark of the Covenant. So this indignant relish for the professionalization of the academic study of literature is deeply repellent.

The Provokies

Dec 19th, 2003 11:43 pm | By

Well, this is a rich resource at Invisible Adjunct. Sort of a treasure-chest of lame alibis, bogus analogies, whining, flag-self-wrapping-in, efforts to seem important via association, verbiage, accusation, attempted guilt-mongering, accidental self-revelations, messenger-blaming, conceit, and much much more. It’s funny but it’s also rather depressing. However, it’s not exactly a news flash that people in the literary theory game have gone a little odd lately, is it.

The fuss is about a hilarious brief piece Scott McLemee wrote for the CHE about ‘The Chronicle’s First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles (also known as the Provokies).’ There’s an Award for Transgressive Punctuation, the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness (if you’ve read Strange Weather you know how funny that is), the Award for Best Slavoj Zizek Knockoff, and more.

Criteria for the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness incited heated debate among the judges. Some held that the award should go to a title reflecting scholarship that keeps up with recent cable-television listings. They nominated the paper “Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication,” by David S. Escoffery and Michelle Sullivan, of Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, respectively. Others contended that the winner should be “très 1990s,” just like Mr. Ross’s own bad self. They argued strenuously for “Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to k.d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies,” by Kim L. Emery of the University of Florida.

Don’t you just want to stampede off to the bookstore or library and snap those titles up so you can start not reading them? I know I do. But alas, some people were not amused. (Others decidedly were, which is a relief. I mean, if you’re going to be all playful and ironic and dangerously hip for the MLA but then go rigid and purple with deadly-earnest rage when other people are playful and ironic – why, people might start to think you’re not really all that playful and amusing after all, mightn’t they.) Comment 15, for example:

The point, as far as I’m concerned, is that these articles are nothing more than a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon. Is it too much to ask that the freaking Chronicle — our own paper-of-record, one would have thought — resist getting in on the action? Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn’t?

Well, frankly, lots of people are not as ridiculous as the titles of those articles are. Let’s see – historians, sociologists, astronomers, mathematicians, biologists – I can think of lots and lots of disciplines that don’t attract the kind of derision the MLA does (remember the article last year? ‘Theorists make the snappiest dressers?’). So teasing the MLA is not equivalent to teasing (or bashing) all intellectuals. It’s just teasing the people at the MLA. Do they take themselves to coincide exactly with the set ‘intellectuals’? Do they think there are no intellectuals outside the MLA? Do they think literary theorists exhaust the definition of ‘intellectual’?

And then there’s an old acquaintance of ours, talking with his usual politeness and depth of learning to the author of the article:

The fact that these few paper titles out of hundreds offend your parochial sense of what literature professors should do is not particularly surprising; but the Chronicle hasn’t gone broke by perpetuating ignorant stereotypes…I guess they don’t give you the Microsoft-style brainteasers at the Chronicle job interview. But do you know what I bet is a de facto prereq? Unsuccessful attempt at being an academic. You see you’d be delivering papers at the MLA if it weren’t for all the “queer theorists” and “blaxploiticians,” right? It’d make me bitter too.

Amazing, isn’t it? He thinks delivering papers at the MLA is a desirable fate. He thinks people want to be like him! That may be the funniest thing on the whole page.

No But I Played One on TV

Dec 18th, 2003 7:45 pm | By

Catherine Bennett has a very funny piece in the Guardian today mocking the Big Read by suggesting further installments of the idea. Favorite religion, animals’ favorites (why did no one ask them, anyway?), best operation, greatest tits, Cherie Blair’s best PR move – and my favorite favorite, ‘She’s just an actor, OK?’

Stevenson is a fine actress, but who, until now, would have thought she could be convincing enough to be taken by Channel 5’s current affairs team for the real thing? She was not, after all, regarded as a spokesperson for grief-stricken young widows or expert on ghosts following a brilliant performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply. This is not the first such confusion. Around the time of The Deal, the actors Michael Sheen (Blair) and David Morrissey (Brown), both so much more handsome and amenable than their originals, were treated, rather wistfully, as if they might be able to offer genuine political insights. On Saturday’s Big Read, an actress who played Miss Bingley in 1995 appeared as an expert witness for Pride and Prejudice.

No, this is certainly not the first such confusion. Look at all the deeply convincing, sincere-looking, craggy, strong-jawed actors who have played US presidents. Martin Sheen, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Harrison Ford, Henry Fonda – how much more reliable, sensible, confidence-inspiring they seem than the shifty-eyed, lip-biting, stammering, forgetful, whining, paranoid crew who fill the office in real life. Oh if only the real ones could be more like the pretend ones – or in fact if only the pretend ones could just replace the real ones. We keep trying that, and it doesn’t seem to work out all that well, but – maybe if they had better script-writers…

After all, communication, persuasion, conviction are hugely important aspects of most jobs, aren’t they? Of course they are. Doctors perform their expertise and confidence. Scientists dress up in lab coats so that people will take them seriously. Government officials always have a lot of subordinates standing around looking subordinate when they give press conferences so that everyone will know how important they are. Right? Obviously. Display is what it’s all about. So why shouldn’t really good, convincing actors play the parts of all these experts and bossy people? Wouldn’t they do a better job of it than the shlubs with bad haircuts or squeaky voices who do it now? Naturally. And actors are just as likely to be right about anything as anyone else is, aren’t they? It’s all a crap shoot after all. Am I right? You know I am.

The Debate Keeps Going and Going

Dec 16th, 2003 10:33 pm | By

There’s one bit of good news, ‘Hear the Silence’ didn’t do as well as expected – did rather badly, in fact. 1.2 million instead of the 2 million that movies in that time slot usually get. So that’s 800 thousand people who won’t be swayed by that bit of manipulation, at any rate. Other bits yes, but not that bit. That still leaves that 1.2 million, but there it is. Thank goodness for that sex therapy drama ‘Between the Sheets’ which is so popular. Sex outcompetes feisty mothers then – there’s a surprise.

I found quite a good harsh review of Channel 5’s drama by Mark Lawson from last week, too. It was on Front Row that I first became aware of this peculiar bit of agitprop, and so began commenting about it.

Timothy Prager’s script is full of anecdotal polemic, and from its first moments assumes and then pursues a connection between the needle and the speechless, troubled children, which does not yet seem remotely justified by the medical evidence. A series of distracted, sarcastic or conventional doctors representing conventional medicine are systematically shamed and humbled by Saint Mum and Saint Doctor. Scenes in which the Wakefields’ phone is bugged and they receive threatening phone calls are casually dramatised, without any explanation of whether it’s the drug companies or the NHS or the CIA that is being fingered for intimidation. If you walked into a doctor’s surgery looking as lopsided as this drama, you would be sent for emergency orthopaedic surgery at once.

Good line! I’ll have to remember that. But the news is not all cheery, of course. Some people, not at all surprisingly, were persuaded by the drama. The Guardian discussed the show with two London mothers. One was more resistant than the other.

“Elesha is two and although this programme has made me think more about the consequences, I’m still going to give her the booster injections when she’s old enough, because in the end this was a drama not science, and I don’t think there is enough real evidence to back up what was said.” She thought the programme could have a dangerous impact on parents already worried about the triple jab. “A lot of people don’t have the jabs now, and I think that number will grow following this programme, and that could mean a more serious outbreak of measles in the future. There needs to be more research into the possible affects of MMR, but maybe it was not a great idea to make a drama about such a controversial subject, because it’s difficult for the audience to know what was true and what wasn’t.”

Exactly so. But the other woman was more worried.

If it keeps the debate going I think it has to be seen as a good thing. So many people are worried about the possible links it is important that they are not just dismissed. I’ve been putting off taking Kara in because I’m getting increasingly worried about the health risks and this programme certainly did not make me want to rush to the doctors to get the jabs.

Yes, a lot of people say it’s a good thing to keep the debate going. But of course that’s highly dubious. If there were evidence of a link between the jab and autism, then it would be, but since there isn’t – then how can it be a good thing? How can it be a good thing to keep a nonsensical debate over a factual issue going? And even if it were a good thing, would that make it a good thing to have a tv drama keeping the debate alive? If we want to keep such debates alive, is it not preferable to have them kept alive by people who know something about the facts and the evidence? One would think so.

Poisoning Children, Whatever Next

Dec 15th, 2003 2:23 am | By

Just a few more jottings on ‘Hear the Silence.’ It was reviewed on Saturday Review yesterday. I already liked Tom Sutcliffe, and I like him a lot more now, because he was very harsh about it, even outraged. He said it was dreadfully biased, and that (just as I’ve been whining for the past two weeks, without even seeing it, just that one bit of dialogue I heard was enough of a warning) it was totally on the side of the angry mother, so that her point of view is the one that the audience sympathizes with. And that it makes the GPs absolute monsters. ‘I’ve never met any GPs like that!’ he said indignantly. One of the guests, though, Ruth Richardson, liked it and thought it was good and a good thing – ‘It will open the subject up to debate,’ she said.

Is that a good thing? Why? What’s the point of ‘opening up to debate’ something that doesn’t need debating? It’s not a moral or political or ethical or philosophical issue, it’s a factual one. You don’t decide facts by debating them, you decide by considering the evidence. Sometimes that also involves debate, when the evidence is not clear-cut, but does it involve debate with the general public, or with people who know something of the subject? Should we open everything up to debate as long as someone somewhere has made a scary claim about it? What if someone who’s forgotten to take her Lithium for awhile decides that toothbrushes cause high blood pressure – should we debate whether or not to stop brushing our teeth? If someone decides seatbelts make men impotent and women deaf, should we debate whether or not to stop using seatbelts? Why should we take the MMR scare seriously when there is no evidence for it?

And above all, why should we let entertainers set the terms of the debate? Why should people who write or produce or direct or act in movies have such a large role in matters that they know nothing whatever about? They have power – we all know that – they have huge power, because we love our movies and tv dramas, we love our actors, we love to be entertained and moved. And that’s exactly why people who have that kind of power ought to be very damned careful about using it. They really ought to think twice, three times, a hundred times, before making a dramatization that will persuade people not to have a vaccination against a serious illness that is fatal in 1 out of 500 cases. Stevenson complains (you can hear her do it on that Start the Week I linked to) that the government is patronising people, and in the Independent she says she doesn’t want to be told the fears are nonsense. But what if they are nonsense?! Does she want to be told they’re not when they are? Would that not also be a tad patronizing? Is it patronizing to tell people they’re wrong? Even when they are in fact wrong? Does she want never to be told she’s wrong about anything? She admits she doesn’t have the science – so why doesn’t she just note the fact that no scientists agree with Wakefield, and realize she might have the wrong end of the stick? Why doesn’t every single person connected with this drama realize how irresponsible they’re all being, and give it up? Because they’re in the entertainment biz, I guess.

Sutcliffe pointed out – with considerable heat – that there’s a bit at the end where Stevenson’s character tells a GP something like ‘You won’t get to give him a jab, all you doctors want to do is poison children to make money.’ ‘That’s outrageous, it’s libelous!’ Sutcliffe exclaimed. It does sound a bit extreme, doesn’t it – poisoning children, dear dear, what a way to behave.

Gone, Gone, Gone

Dec 14th, 2003 5:30 pm | By

Well, whatever one thinks of the war, or US hegemony, it’s hard not to rejoice at this. I’m not even going to bother to try – which is no great feat, of course, I don’t think too many people are trying, though I did see an odd comment from George Galloway. But good news is good news. Not a shot fired, no one so much as got his hair mussed, as dear General ‘Buck’ Turgidson put it in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Just a murderous ruthless tyrant caught like a rat in a trap, lying in a spider hole under ground, hauled off to be shaved and examined and pushed around. He’s still alive, he can be tried in court. He may use the occasion to make a rhetorical case for himself, as Milosevic is doing at his trial, but it still seems worth it. Surely it is worth it, to make tyrants testify before open tribunals. That almost happened with Pinochet, it is happening with Milosevic and some of the guilty in Rwanda and South Africa. Maybe some day bin Laden, maybe some day Kissinger – no, that last is not likely.

It was quite startling, hearing the live press conference by the military spokesman on the radio – the shouts that suddenly erupted when the pictures of Saddam were shown. What it must be like to live in a situation like that. It’s hard to imagine when you never have, and have never even had a serious likelihood of it. The permanent nightmare, that you can’t wake up from becase it’s real. He could come back. He’s out there. Maybe he’ll be back, and then he’ll punish us all. Now at least that’s over. He won’t. He’s not coming back, he’s not going to punish anyone. Not never not nohow.

From Here to There to There

Dec 14th, 2003 1:47 am | By

It can be interesting sometimes, seeing the way a thought goes from one blog to another to another – forming a little cyber-chain. I noticed this one yesterday. First I saw this post at normblog:

Well, I’m sometimes dazed, actually, more than I’m confused, about the way certain others of Marxist persuasion, or merely formation – and indeed others, more generally, on the left – have found it possible to align themselves lately on matters relating to human rights.

That post directed me to this one at Harry’s place, which quoted from and linked to an interview with Christopher Hitchens that I posted in News a few days ago – a very interesting interview it is, too. Harry says this about it:

Hitchens doesn’t appear to have much interest in belonging to either camp. He has his principles, his views on the main issues and is willing to lend his backing to those who he sees as acting in a progressive fashion. That he has more in common with neo-conservatives than the psuedo-left is obvious – any leftist who supported the armed removal of Saddam was (and is) in the same position. Hitchens’ response to taunts that he is no longer part of the left is generally a defiant “so what?”

And Harry’s post sent me to Socialism in an Age of Waiting, the new blog we met the other day – where I find, writing this and following the link today, that there is a whole slew of new, long posts on the subject, as well as (keep scrolling down – there are no permalinks there yet) the post Harry originally linked to, dated December 9. I’ll quote this bit from the December 9 post:

It seems to us that, whether as socialists, liberals, conservatives or “none of the above”, too many of those who comment either on politics, or on non-political matters from an avowedly political perspective, still approach each issue in terms of total acceptance or total rejection. It is as if you must be either pro or anti, progressive or reactionary, on-message or off, and must never admit to doubts, or hesitations, or second, third or fourth thoughts.

Yup. And among the many problems with that approach is that it leads to orthodoxy-hugging and heresy-sniffing. Maybe one unforeseen side-benefit of the Iraq war will be to teach people to tolerate ambiguity and expect complexity when it comes to political thought. That could be good.

Socially Maladjusted Loner? Excellent!

Dec 13th, 2003 11:07 pm | By

Another remark or two on that discussion at Invisible Adjunct (and I have the link right this time, which makes a change). There is something one person said, about what it takes to become an academic, that strikes such a chord with me.

The problem, of course, is that such people are not much fun to be around and aren’t well adjusted socially. I know this description fits me pretty well, and almost everyone I know (other than my colleagues) finds me odd beyond belief. In short, the best traits for success in grad school are being a socially maladjusted loner with the dedication of a religious penitent. Like priests, others won’t and can’t understand your sacrifices, and can’t even imagine how your life could be happy without all those things you have sacrificed. But you are happy. If you can’t imagine happiness as a relatively celibate, materially deprived (relative to other middle class folks, of course), misunderstood, and largely isolated person, don’t dream of being a professor.

But see those are the kind of people that I do think are fun to be around – for a few minutes every few months or so, which is all the time they can spare. But what’s wrong with that? People set too much store by sociability and conviviality and gregariousness and likability and social skills and all that trivial nonsense. What’s so great about nice people? Give me a good obsessive maniac any day! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I. So such people are ‘odd beyond belief’ – why is that a problem? Odd people are the best people! Normal people are a dime a dozen, it’s the odd ones who make things interesting.

Graduate School?! Don’t Do It!

Dec 13th, 2003 2:30 am | By

Update. Er – the link now goes to the right place. So much better that way.

This is a fascinating blog discussion – it takes off from a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the angst of deciding whether or not to go to graduate school. There are (as of this writing) 104 comments, including several from Jane Galt, who wrote the Chronicle piece. The discussion started on December 4, and it’s still going on. It’s surprising (at least to me) how strongly the tide is running in the direction of ‘don’t go.’ Well I don’t know why it surprises me, come to think of it, since it’s not something I ever wanted to do. But it does – I suppose because I assumed that even though I didn’t want to, other people did, and went on wanting to and were happy they had. But apparently people like that are the exception.

I was especially struck by this remark (among a lot of others I was especially struck by) at number 40:

I’m a first-term graduate student in English, and I’m seriously reconsidering my decision to go for the doctorate. The probable length of time it’ll take to get the degree…and the overwhelming competition are all convincing me to rethink my choices. The fact that English departments are rapidly becoming cultural criticism departments isn’t really helping either–I know it’s pathetically naive to say so, but I came for the literature, not ivory-tower political “activism.”

Hm. Why’s it pathetically naive? It’s not, of course, it’s only the people who’ve turned English departments into ‘cultural criticism’ departments who think so and have managed to intimidate other people into thinking so. But it’s just as I’ve been saying for years, the theory types are not just boring themselves and their students into fits, they’re also turning people away from the field.

Feisty is as Feisty Does

Dec 12th, 2003 11:22 pm | By

I was going to write about something else, about several other things in fact, but I was so struck by one thing in that Guardian article on the MMR issue I just put in News, that I have to point it out. Have to.

Justine Picardie does a photo feature on Wakefield, his house, and his family, for the Daily Telegraph Saturday Magazine. Andy is, she tells us, “a handsome, glossy-haired hero to families of autistic children”…Then we hit ground zero: she fantasises about a Hollywood depiction of Wakefield’s heroic struggle, with Russell Crowe playing the lead “opposite Julia Roberts as a feisty single mother fighting for justice for her child”.

Oh, gawd. There you have it. Swap Juliet Stevenson for Julia Roberts – gee, they were so close, with the name and all – and there you are. A ‘feisty’ single mother – gosh, that doesn’t sound familiar does it? Hmm. No, surely we’ve never seen Julia Roberts play that part before, right? Right? I wonder why Justine Picardie didn’t fantasise a feisty single mother who dresses like a prostitute and works for Albert Finney, just to make sure we all had the same fantasy.

Feisty. Feisty. That word has a lot to answer for, you know? Not that it’s always bad – there was feisty Norma Rae, and feisty Karen Silkwood. But we’ve moved on now, from boring old union struggles in a North Carolina textile mill – I mean how unhip is that?! No, now we have to have feisty woolly thinkers, like Laura Dern in ‘Jurassic Park’ earnestly informing Richard Attenborough, ‘You can’t think your way through this, John, you have to feel.’ Oh yes, that’s good advice. Especially when evaluating medical evidence. When will people start fantasising about movies featuring feisty single researchers who tell ill-informed reporters they don’t know what they’re talking about, and win the day? I’d go see that movie!