Thursday, August 31, 2006

Craziness, good and bad: Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve just finished reading, back-to-back, Hunter S. Thompson’s two classic works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It must be about 15 years since I last read them. I kept up with a few of his later articles in Rolling Stone and other places, but at some point I sort of lost track of him. That changed last year, but that was, unfortunately, for the worst of all possible reasons.

I’m pleased, though, to find that I enjoyed these books as much – and I think even more – than I did when I first read them. Of course, when I discovered them as a teenager in the mid 1980s, they struck me in a rather different way than they do now. Then, their absurd, druggy antics sparked too much hysterical laughter (as well as a perhaps misguided admiration) to really appreciate either the incredible darkness which haunts these works or the abiding political rage which – along with a constant supply of mescaline – fuelled Thompson’s writing. There is a deadly seriousness and desperation in these books which I’m not sure is always recognised today, and it’s far too easy to write Thompson off as some kind of bizarre counterculture clown. (Not that the books aren’t still hilarious after all these years. They are.)

The grimness is particularly distilled in the second book. His in-depth reporting (and reporting from the depths) of American politics in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 left me a bit cold the first time through. Having read Thompson's tripped-out, semi-autobiographical Las Vegas book first, I think I expected more of the same but with a political chaser. However, what I found was a more serious book altogether. I enjoyed parts of it then, but I didn't really get it. I suppose you have to have two decades of political disillusionment and frustration behind you before this insightful reporting from the 1972 election can really say anything meaningful to you. I was partly inspired to re-read it because of all the references to George McGovern which have been circulating in analysis of what’s happening to the Democratic Party since Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. The comparison is usually meant to be unflattering.

It is a prophecy of doomed idealism.

George McGovern led a dynamic, largely grassroots campaign in the Democratic primary, and his popularity among the party’s more liberal wing was propelled by his consistent stance against the Vietnam War. His campaign, however, was also aimed at the Democratic establishment, the ‘hacks’ (in Thompson's words) and fixers who kept the party from representing any kind of real alternative. Thompson despised the Republicans, and Richard Nixon was his favourite bête noire, representing ‘that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise’.

However, by necessity, much of the book focuses on the Democratic primary (Nixon was the incumbent), and it sometimes appears that Thompson’s most acidic venom was saved for the Democrats:

That same gang of corrupt and genocidal bastards who not only burned me for six white sharkskin suits eight years ago in South Dakota and chased me through the streets of Chicago with clubs & tear gas in August of ’68, but also forced me to choose for five years between going to prison or chipping in 20 percent of my income to pay for napalm bombs to be dropped on people who never threatened me with anything; and who put my friends in jail for refusing to fight an undeclared war in Asia that even Mayor Daley is now opposed to…
(That bit about the sharkskin suits is classic Thompson, and refers to a story which is too long to go into here...)

For all Thompson’s cynicism, though, McGovern’s surprising primary victory gave him hope that there was an alternative, the potential for not only driving Nixon from the White House but also in turning America in a fundamentally different direction. These heightened expectations made the subsequent disaster of the general election (McGovern was wiped out, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) all the more bitter. Facing polls which – accurately – showed a Nixon landslide before the election, Thompson’s anger is blunt but eloquent:

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
It is impossible, though, to classify Thompson as simply a liberal America-hater, as conservatives so love to do whenever someone has the temerity to criticise US society or policy. As absurd as it might at first sound, Thompson was a patriot, and his political instincts were rooted in a discontented libertarian tradition and – admittedly strange – idealism which is out and out American. His anger was stoked by the conviction that he was being forced to watch as the violent and nasty side of his nation got the upper hand. He foresaw, with the deepest anxiety, the death of the American Dream.

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.
I, for one, find these words still resonate. It should, moreover, be obvious to all but the most blinkered right-wing hacks (who associate free-thinking critics with traitors) that there is a vast difference between ‘tearing down’ one’s country, and trying to drag it upwards toward a better place.

One might say that in Thompson’s case this would also have been a far stranger place. Considering his own political campaigns in Colorado (under the ‘Freak Power’ banner), that’s undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, what I think comes out clearly in these books is the notion that while the resort to consciousness-altering drugs might led to some very heavy wierdness, that paled in comparison to the bizarre absurdity of the reality Thompson confronted. ‘Bad craziness’ was the way his alter ego Raoul Duke put it frequently in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

His libertarian opinions, his pro-drug stance and his enthusiasm for firearms meant that Thompson was, however, a figure who fit awkwardly on the liberal-left, if, in fact, he fit precisely there at all. (Not that I think this definitional problem would have bothered him much. Nor, I think, should it.) I haven’t read most of his later work (which I now plan to get to at some point), but he made his opinion of the current occupant of the White House clear enough.

If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today -- and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don't rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.
If his own reporting is to believed, Thompson had an almost unerring ability to call political races in 1972; sadly, he was somewhat off his stride in 2004, when he predicted a Kerry victory.

But Thompson’s pithy, lively and amphetamine writing style appealed to me from the beginning. It still does, but my recent re-reading has helped me recognise other qualities as well. One was a keen observational eye for all variety of squalid compromise and dishonest hucksterism. Another was his willingness to castigate not only his obvious political enemies, but also those who were ostensibly ‘on his side’. For example, although decidedly opposed to the Vietnam War, he despaired of some parts of the anti-war movement, as was apparent at the Republican convention in Miami:

With the lone exception of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the demonstrators in Miami were a useless mob of ignorant, chicken-shit ego-junkies whose only accomplishment was to embarrass the whole tradition of public protest … If the Rolling Stones came to Miami for a free concert, these assholes would build their own fence around the bandstand – just so they could have something to tear down and then 'crash the gates'.
The most important thing I’ve recognised, though, which I missed on all my other readings, was something that might sound surprising. If you read carefully and look past the bile and rage, there is a tremendously sensitive core to this writing. That, I think, was the most unexpected thing I could hear emerging from the crazy vortex of Thompson’s writing: an extremely humane voice in deeply dangerous times. (William F. Buckley Jr.'s dismissive claim that Thompson subsumed everything to mere 'vitriol' says a great deal about Buckley's ability to read and nothing about Thompson's to write.)

I saw Thompson once during a public speaking tour in 1989, in the grimy confines of one of my favourite haunts in those days, the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. (‘You never know exactly what kind of terrible shit is going to come down on you in that town,’ he wrote, ‘but you can always count on something. Every time I go to Chicago I come away with scars.’ I’m sorry Hunter, I really am.) It was a difficult evening: he showed up two hours late and then spent about 90 minutes speaking furiously and quickly, and often incomprehensibly, meanwhile making serious headway into a bottle of Chivas Regal. It was a strange – but unforgettable – evening.

He took his own life last year. This saddened me when I heard it. And it saddens me even more now that I’ve spent some more time with his work. It might seem to some that his perspective and approach was out of date. There certainly is something to the question of whether the early twenty-first century has much room for gonzo journalism of this variety. If anything, I think the acceptable margins for this kind of raucous individuality have become even more narrow since the early 70s. Perhaps Dr. Thompson did belong to another era.

Which is unfortunate, as there’s still plenty of bad craziness around.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Terror and glamour

In a kind of bizarre synchronicity, an interview with Salman Rushdie from today's Spiegel online (in English) makes similar points to those raised in my last post. I'm not much of a fan of Rushdie's writing, actually, but he has some sensible things to say here.

SPIEGEL: While researching your books -- and especially now after the recent near miss in London -- you must be asking yourself: What makes apparently normal young men decide to blow themselves up?

Rushdie: There are many reasons, and many different reasons, for the worldwide phenomenon of terrorism. In Kashmir, some people are joining the so-called resistance movements because they give them warm clothes and a meal. In London, last year's attacks were still carried out by young Muslim men whose integration into society appeared to have failed. But now we are dealing with would-be terrorists from the middle of society. Young Muslims who have even enjoyed many aspects of the freedom that Western society offers them. It seems as though social discrimination no longer plays any role -- it's as though anyone could turn into a terrorist.

SPIEGEL: Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to Bush's and Blair's policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong? Don't the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the cynicism of Guantanamo contribute to extremism?

Rushdie: I'm no friend of Tony Blair's and I consider the Middle East policies of the United States and the UK fatal. There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there's one thing we must all be clear about: terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn't one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people. If the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, were to be miraculously solved from one day to the next, I believe we wouldn't see any fewer attacks.

SPIEGEL: And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others -- and of oneself.

Rushdie: Lenin once described terrorism as bourgeois adventurism. I think there, for once, he got things right: That's exactly it. One must not negate the basic tenet of all morality -- that individuals are themselves responsible for their actions. And the triggers seem to be individual too. Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission which pushes people towards "actions." Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There's the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there's the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role too.

The rest of the interview can be found here.

And I have just seen, via Butterflies & Wheels, that Eurozine has another relevant article on a related topic.

So much to read, so little time.

Chickens, eggs and terrorist violence

Explaining the causes of terrorism is a tricky business, and it is difficult to generalise. Others are less hesitant, but I often find that the most confidently stated reasons - religion, western foreign policy, psychopathy, alienation, racism, poverty - somehow insufficient or too simple. The fact is, there are many different routes which lead someone to the point at which they think that taking lives (including their own) for their cause is a very good thing. This doesn't mean that there are no commonalities to be identified or causes to to be discerned and combatted, just that one-issue blanket assumptions or solutions need to be approached skeptically.

Killing and dying for belief is also, of course, not entirely a new phenomenon.

David Aaronovitch takes a look at recent terrorism from a unique perspective, considering the question of which came first: the politico-religious cause or the violent aggression?

Aaronovitch outlines the characteristics of the two murderers Truman Capote had researched in his book In Cold Blood. He then considers Richard Reid, the failed 'shoe bomber':

Richard Reid fits almost all these criteria. The barrister Peter Herbert visited the unsuccessful 2001 shoe-bomber in prison in the United States. Reid, a former mugger, described to Herbert his desire to blow up the plane in purely political terms. Specifically, “the foreign policy of the US Government, which . . . had resulted in the murder of thousands of Muslims . . .”. But Reid was not born a Muslim, and his parents weren’t Muslims, nor did he come from a Muslim community. When he did convert in prison, he embraced the most extreme form he could find. “The sermons of [Abu] Hamza and others,” says Herbert, “gave him a greater understanding of how to interpret his faith in a way that supported the use of violence. It also reinforced his view about the scale of US aggression . . .” Reid, in other words, was violence in search of a cause, not the other way around.

'Violence in search of a cause' is likely a good way of describing a lot of terrorists. (And, more broadly, likely a good description of a lot of young men in general.)

I don't think for a moment that this explains the making of every terrorist. But some of them? Probably. If nothing else, this emphasises that the problem will have to be thought through and dealt with from a variety of directions. It is also a useful warning not to take the self-justifying statements of terrorists themselves without a hefty shovelfull of salt.

Monday, August 28, 2006

E.P. Thompson: Uncommon

As if a rainy Monday weren't melancholy enough, The Virtual Stoa reminds us that today marks the anniversary of the death of E.P. Thompson.

Thompson's writing, in particular his work on culture and custom (such as the essays collected in his book Customs in Common), was tremendously influential on the way I came to think about history. It's hard to summarise that sort of thing, but two aspects stand out.

The first is that, long before the 'cultural turn' in the humanities, he took 'culture' seriously as a historical force, something he managed without oversimplifying or abstracting it. Emphasising that culture was a product of conflict, he described this process in a way which anchored it firmly in social and economic relations while at the same time avoiding any reduction of culture to some kind of bland 'superstructure' built on top of the mode of production. To the contrary: the cultural world revealed by Thompson was grubby, contradictory and very, very lively.

The second virtue of his work was that while he drew a vivid picture of the 'customary' world which was being destroyed by enclosure and industrialisation, he (for the most part) avoided presenting this world in overly-romanticised terms.

Although a relentless critic of ruling-class oppression, he refused to idealise the oppressed.

For example, one of Thompson's most famous contributions was in his analysis of community punishment rituals known as 'rough music'. These were a means of maintaining local discipline, often through things like effigy burning, singing and (often symbolic) violence aimed at shaming local deviants.
This sounds folksy and even reassuring. But rough music could also be an excuse for drunken orgy or for blackmail. It could legitimise the aggression of youths, and (if one may whisper it) youths are not always, in every historical context, protagonists of rationality or of change. I make the point strongly, arguing in a sense with part of myself, for I find much that attracts me in rough music. It is a property of a society in which justice is not wholly delegated or bureaucriticised, but is enacted by and within the community. Where it is enacted upon an evident malefactor – some officious public figure or a brutal wife-beater – one is tempted to lament the passing of the rites. But the victims were not all of this order.
Thompson admits to the very real struggles involved for a historian when he or she identifies with (or even comes to love) the subjects under study. Moreover, there is something so appealing about the kind of community law enacted by rough music:

Rough music belongs to a mode of life in which some part of the law belongs still to the community and is theirs to enforce. It indicates modes of social self-control and the disciplining of certain kinds of violence and anti-social offence (insults to women, child abuse, wife-beating) which in today’s cities may be breaking down.
However, Thompson follows this up with an extremely important ‘rider’ relevant not only to the past societies he studied, but also to many today. In a time when a word like ‘community’ makes some people go all dreamy-eyed, it is more important than ever to remember something like the following:

Because law belongs to people, and is not alienated, or delegated, it is not thereby made necessarily more “nice” and tolerant, more cosy and folksy. It is only as nice and as tolerant as the prejudices and norms of the folk allow.
(All quotes taken from E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, New York: The New Press, 1991, p. 530.)

Reciprocal Altruism and the Beethoven Fallacy

At Der Spiegel, an intriguing interview with primate researcher Frans de Waal. It covers several topics, from the inescapability of hierarchies in primate societies and (inevitably) the role of sex as, erm, a social lubricant amongst bonobos.

During the interview, the question arises of whether apes are 'moral beings'. De Waal thinks they're not, but it's more complicated than that:

SPIEGEL: They're unlikely to be familiar with the categorical imperative.

De Waal: But they are. They're very familiar with the motto "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's precisely the principle of reciprocity that I see, in addition to empathy, as the fundamental element in the psychology of all primates. We did an experiment in which we gave chimpanzees watermelons and then documented how they divided up the fruit among themselves. In the hours leading up to the experiment, we recorded which animals groomed which other animals' fur. The results were clear. The ape that divided up the watermelon gave significantly more to those apes that had groomed him earlier on.

SPIEGEL: You also mentioned empathy...

De Waal: Oh yes. For example, chimpanzees are quite good at comforting one another. If a friend is suffering, they hug him and attend to him. It's only our arrogance that makes us doubt that this is even possible. When someone brutally kills someone else, we call him "animalistic." But we consider ourselves "human" when we give to the poor.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said: "Homo homini lupus," or "man is a wolf to man."

De Waal: The evolutionary struggle for survival is really a self-serving series of blows and stabs, and yet it can lead to extremely social animals like dolphins, wolves or, for that matter, primates. I call the notion that we are nothing but killer apes the Beethoven fallacy. Beethoven was disorganized and messy, and yet his music is the epitome of order.
The (convincing) argument that 'reciprocal altruism' has been one of the main motors in the development of human morality has been most importantly developed by Robert Trivers. It is not, though, the only one.

Peter Singer's development and discussion of the evolution of ethics - involving, in his view, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, empathy, group selection (which, I know, is controversial among evolutionary theorists) and reason - effectively summarises some of the issues involved (though I think he's rather too harsh on poor old Hobbes in this context).

(The article linked to here doesn't really get to the bits about reason and empathy, which come later in his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York, 1981). I am, moreover, aware that there are problems with Singer's philosphical perspective and limits to his utilitarian ethical outlook; nevertheless, I find that this book is very good.)

What follows, I think, is an important likelihood: rather than having a single basis, morality and ethics are derived from a variety of different sources. This suggests that human ethics, instead of being something which developed whole cloth based upon a single principle, are distinctly situational: the kinds of mental calculus that people use in connection with family members are likely different than those applied to strangers. And for good reason. Thus, elaborate, all-purpose ethical systems based upon a single notion - be it reason, utility or biology - will, by definition be incomplete. (Nonetheless, evolutionary theory also, in my view and contrary to what is commonly assumed, offers the rather encouraging notion that there is, in fact, some kind of deeply-ingrained ethical intuition with regard to some situations, at least on a very basic level.)

I can't think any further than this, though, at the moment. Not on a Monday. When it's raining.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ahead of the curve

It seems that at least some parts of the left are beginning to reconsider at least a few of the more wacky bits about their faith (and that seems a good term for it) in multiculturalism.

All I can say is: it's about bloody time.

Not that I'm claiming any particular powers of prescience...however, the following is an extract from an essay of mine written during that dimly remembered summer of 2001:

"Multiculturalism" is now a familiar narrative in all western post-industrial nations facing increased migration and globalisation. The term has many uses, but a popular and superficial version of multiculturalism argues both that it is "respectful" of other cultures and that it is "inclusive". In fact it diminishes other cultures by choosing what is emblematic of them -- alternatively celebrating or condemning isolated elements -- while at the same time failing to provide real assistance for people in actually living together. The events in Bradford, among other examples, raise serious questions about the worth of a vague and conflicted notion of multiculturalism that has been applied like a Band-Aid across the real social wounds which have been opened up by the frictions of cultural confrontation.
The rest of it, for those who are interested, is available here.

Second thoughts

From my wife’s bedtime reading come the following insightful reflections:

Why is it that I have lived my whole life with people who are automatically against authority, ‘agin the government’, who take it for granted that all authority is bad, ascribe doubtful or venal motives to government, the Establishment, the ruling class, the local town council, the headmaster or mistress? So deep-rooted is this set of mind that it is only when you begin to climb out of it you see how much of your life has been determined by it. This week I was with a group of people of mixed ages, all on the left (or who had been once), and someone happened to mention that the government was doing something – quite a good thing, but that isn’t the point – and at once every face put on a look of derision. Automatic. Push-button. This look is like a sneer or a jeer, a Well, what can one expect? It can only come out of some belief, one so deep it is well out of sight, that a promise of some kind has been made and then betrayed. Perhaps it was the French Revolution? Or the American Revolution, which made the pursuit of happiness a right with the implication that happiness is to be had as easily as taking cakes off a supermarket counter? Millions of people in our time behave as if they have been made a promise – by whom? when? – that life must get freer, more honest, more comfortable, always better. Has advertising only set our minds more firmly in this expectant mode? Yet nothing in history suggests that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, sickness, bad times, calamities, while good times are always temporary. Above all, history tells us nothing stays the same for long. We expect gold at the foot of always renewable rainbows. I feel I have been part of some mass illusion or delusion. Certainly part of mass beliefs and convictions that now seem as lunatic as the fact that for centuries expeditions of God-lovers trekked across the Middle East to kill the infidel.
From Doris Lessing, Under My Skin (London, Flamingo, 1994), 15-16.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Non-contingent tales of bubbles and potatoes

For further comment on the article linking evidence-based reasoning and fascism which touched off my article, see this post at Stats, whence comes the following insightful passage:

And yet, one presumes that the authors of this paper – much like those who will defend its contents – engage in a form of life that explicitly contradicts the critical principles they presently avow: they wash their hands after using the bathroom, they boil water, they turn ignition keys on machines that are driven by the principles of internal combustion (cars) and not by the will to power or supernatural force, they balance their checkbooks, look both ways before crossing the road, cook chicken thoroughly – and expect the earth to keep revolving around the sun.

Even if they do all these things merely because they hold them as contingent beliefs, they still hold them as contingent beliefs for good reasons: if the bubbles don’t appear in the water, the potato will not cook.

There are also some good links to what other people have been saying about the article in question.


The very fine web site Butterflies and Wheels has kindly reprinted one of my recent posts as an article. Which is not only a real pleasure but also a great honour.

Many thanks to Ophelia Benson for her interest and support (and, of course, for her hard work in maintaining the site).

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Muddling through

Norman Geras wonders what a collective noun for a group of professors might be? (I.e., as in a gaggle of geese or a murder of crows.)

My suggestion: a muddle.

Conspiracy Theories

Well, I'm glad that's all cleared up.

As I mentioned on Monday, this attempted bombing of two German trains has been preoccupying me (and many, many Germans, of course) recently, though it still seems to be something that the rest of the world is not all that interested in.

(This brings up an interesting question. Which is more serious and newsworthy: a terrorist attack which would have been very large and catastrophic but was still in fairly early planning stages when it was disrupted, or a smaller one that actually got to the point of being carried out and was only hindered by technical failure?)

In any case, it seems that we know who did it and why, as reported by Der Spiegel:

This just in: The Lebanese men suspected of having deposited bombs on German trains last month were hired hands -- in the employ of the German government itself.

That, at least, is what one 27-year-old from Saudi Arabia believes. "It's all a Protestant crusade," the man explains. "All of northern Germany is Protestant, isn't it? And so is President Bush." Then the man launches into a melange of confusing arguments and historical facts. The bubonic plague, Martin Luther and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl all make a cameo. It's all connected somehow, the man is sure of it.

Somehow, yes. Through those famous, er, Protestant conspiracies. I think there is material here for Dan Brown's next book: it would certainly be a way for him to mend fences with the Vatican.

Seriously, though - and I think this is very serious and disturbing - it is apparent that this guy is not alone: as the Spiegel piece points out, conspiracy theories are a euro cent a dozen in Germany's muslim communities.

And there I was thinking that this kind of thing was more an American specialty.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Guilty pleasures

Browsing normblog, I saw that a new one of those university ranking list thingies has been published by Newsweek: 'The Top 100 Global Universities'. I'm not sure how much worth these are. But I must say I feel strangely pleased that the University of Maryland (MA '94; PhD '01) is at number 45.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Poseurs of the World Unite

It's not every day that you come across an article such as 'Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism', which appears in the current issue of the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare. Oh no. This is something special.

The article has already taken a rather good (though comparatively gentle) shellacking from Ben Goldacre, he of 'Bad Science' fame. (A source, incidentally, which is essential reading for all who want to keep abreast of the latest in anti-scientific tomfoolery.) Goldacre makes some very trenchant points regarding the authors' casual linking of the professional legacy of Archie Cochrane, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, with 'fascism'. He also ably defends the notion of evidence-based investigation, which, for various reasons, the authors of this 'scholarly article' see as an agent of creeping 'totalitarianism' affecting the health sciences. (I would have thought that any discipline calling itself a 'science' - whether in the singular or plural - would by definition be based on both evidence and reason, but I may thus be showing symptoms of what comrades of an earlier time might have called 'deviationism').

There are, as Goldacre points out, a variety of reasons not to like this article. Some take us beyond the article itself, which is, after all, only a single example of a much wider phenomenon: the alarming spread of irrational and sloppy thinking.

However, my perspective on the article is necessarily different than Goldacre's. I do not have a science degree (nor am I in the medical or health sciences field). I am, in fact, one of those beings much maligned by Goldacre: a humanities graduate. As such, I went through the ritual bathing in postmodern theory which is part of the process of receiving a modern liberal arts doctorate. I have, in fact, cited Foucault in my book on violence. I can use the word 'discourse' correctly in a sentence and can do so without either needing to be ironic or breaking out into laughter. Moreover, I perceive myself to be, in a phrase that for some reason suddenly strikes me as quaint, 'on the left' - where I presume the authors of this article would also locate themselves. Thus, in theory (so to speak), I should be eating up the utterances of the doctors (and near doctor) Holmes, Murray, Perron and Rail. They are, so to say, my sort of people.

It is perhaps for this reason that what they have produced bothers me so much. The frustration and rage which results from being let down by your own side is something with a very distinctive and special kind of sting. You feel it at times such as when Michael Moore depicts Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a happy and prosperous fun park or when prominent writers and thinkers refer to a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist organisation as a 'resistance'. Perhaps for this reason, this strange little screed has lodged itself in my mind and won't let me go, because it seems to exemplify things which have gone wrong not only on the left but also in the realm of cultural theory. And this, I think, the crux of my irritation with it. In its incoherent ravings about totalitarianism, it discredits two things dear not only to my heart, but to my mind: the scholarly analysis of society and culture as well as the intellectual honour of the left.

It is, thus, an intellectual own-goal of the worst sort. Hence, my aggravation and need to waste my time writing about it.

The argument of this weird rant, such as it is, seems to be that something referred to as the 'evidence based movement in the health sciences' is 'outrageously exclusionary' and 'dangerously normative'. Not only that, but the evidence based health sciences (EBHS) has, in fact, become a 'dominant ideology' which has come to exclude 'other' forms of knowledge. Now, again, I'm not in the health sciences field, so, therefore, my own knowledge of this topic is admittedly limited. (However, as very little time is spent in the article actually talking about health sciences, this might not matter much.)

I'll have to rely, first, on their own definition of the scourge we all face:

As a global term, EBHS...reflects clinical practice based on scientific inquiry. The premise is that if healthcare professionals perform an action, there should be evidence that the action will produce the desired outcomes. These outcomes are desirable because they are believed to be beneficial to patients. (181)

What follows is some description of the 'Cochrane Collaboration', an organisation which has gathered and organised research materials on health issues as a resource for health-care professionals. In particular, Cochrane argues that articles must be based upon 'randomised controlled trials' (RCTs). (According to Goldacre's commentary, their depiction at this point is terribly incomplete and ignorant, something about which I can't speak, but he does.)

The problem as the authors seem to see it is this: EBHS (with its reliance on RCTs as the 'gold-standard' in evidence) has become canonised as the only form of 'truth' in the health sciences. The authors believe, in contrast, that 'the health sciences ought to promote pluralism - the acceptance of multiple points of view' (181). Additionally, EBHS is being used as a handy tool for cuts in healthcare funding, since it serves the setting of 'goals' and 'targets' (I can feel the chills going down my spine already).

I think that one can follow things fairly reasonably to this point. There is a methodology, which they think is wrong and which is increasingly dominating the health field. It is being employed to cut healthcare funding. OK. Leaving aside the whole fascism label, one might say: interesting start.

Assuming, then, that these are the problems to be addressed, I would have thought a good way forward would have been 1) to explain what other methodologies there are and why they are equal (or even superior) to EBHS and 2) to provide an analysis of the financial and political power struggles over health care funding.

But this is where things begin to get a bit...bizarre. (I suppose one could say that they were already quite bizarre in the introduction, where that whole goofy bit about fascism was introduced, but I don't want to talk about that yet.) Having built up the problem to one of 'fascism' and having described this 'dangerous' hegemonic beast, what is the solution which they present? Mass political organising? Legal action to provide equal consideration of other methods of health-knowledge production? Going to the press? Taking to the barricades? No. The answer to the clear and present danger of fascism seems to be...wait for it...deconstruction.

Now, 'deconstruction' has been subject to all kinds of abuse. Some of it deserved, some of it less so. There are many who think that deconstruction is just a stupid joke played by wacky French theorists on a gullible Anglophone world and who see it as the main culprit in turning the humanities into a factory for unbelievable quantities of unreadable, jargon-ridden nonsense. (Its critics might be surprised to find that some of the people who think this are actually inside the fields of literary and cultural studies, but, it's true.) I have to admit: if my only exposure to deconstruction were articles such as this one, I'd hate it too. Suffice to say - in order to spare a much longer argument - there are better examples of deconstruction in action in other places, by other authors. I think, moreover, that most of its practitioners are content to see it as a useful means of analysing texts without immediately taking it up as a wonder-weapon for undermining the various sinister conspiracies of the world. It is a tool, among others; it is helpful in some cases but not in others.

A screwdriver is a great tool too, but you can't build a whole house with it.

There is, furthermore, quite a lot to be said for the broader notion of 'discourse' (as in culturally-shaped and historically-specific ways of thinking about the world). Some form of 'social constructionism' seems only sensible to me when trying to analyse human societies: people understand their worlds through particular narratives about it, and these narratives are both culturally and historically specific. The ways that people in 17th century Europe or 19th century China or 21st century Baghdad define their values and the basic parameters in which their morality is shaped are different. Culture, to put it simply, matters. Furthermore, science is a discourse (more on this below), and it is undeniable that 'scientific' discourses have been misused (both in the past and in the present) to justify all sorts of unpleasant things. There is also a way in which poorly grounded appeals to 'science' are wrongly used to trump all other arguments without sufficient attention to the assumptions which underlie them. Finally, science does not have the answer to everything.

I think all these things are true. And yet, I think this article is nonsense. Why?

One: Regardless of what Deleuze and Guattari say, 'fascism' is not an all-purpose word for Anything Which is Really, Really Bad.

'Fascism' - as a label - is experiencing a real renaissance lately. Usually for the wrong reasons. It seems that the authors at least spent a little time thinking about using this term. As their opening line states: 'We can already hear the objections'. Well, they should have listened a bit more closely...and then left out their nifty turn of phrase. Of course, they don't mean that EBHS is really like the fascism which comes to mind when you hear the term (you know, like, they don't suggest that epidemiologists are going on torchlight parades, committing genocide and engaging in total war). No, they don't think that. But what do they think?

It comes right at the beginning, wrapped in what I suppose they imagine to be a rather clever and perhaps even playful postmodern word game:

Although it is associated with specific political systems, this fascism of the masses, as was practiced by Hitler and Mussolini, has today been replaced by a system of microfascisms - polymorphous intolerances that are revealed in more subtle ways. Consequently, although the majority of the current manifestations of fascism are less brutal, they are nevertheless more pernicious. (180, emphasis added)

Let's consider this supposed clarification. My dictionary defines 'pernicious' as 1) 'tending to cause death or serious injury; deadly' 2) 'causing great harm; destructive', or 3) (archaically) as 'evil ; wicked'. OK, we are not more than a hundred words or so into this article and we've already been told that the topic they are to be discussing - which, remember, is using evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of health-care procedures - is 'more pernicious' than the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. (While we're at it, why not throw in Franco: why 'privilege' only the best-known and most commonly cited fascists? How dare they be so normative about fascist crackpots.)

I have to say this again: think about this. Think about it.

Now, if someone makes this sort of claim, I think it is only fair for to expect it to be, shall we say, corroborated. (What, in any case, does that mean, exactly: 'less brutal' but 'more pernicious'?) After all, one's expectations get rather seriously raised when one is promised something more pernicious than the SS, the death camps and tens of million deaths.

How disappointing, then, that what follows is actually an intra-disciplinary spat about measuring effectiveness in health care.

There is, of course, a very clear reason for using this kind of language. It does, certainly, get attention. (Responses such as this, admittedly, may simply enable this hunger for attention. I apologise, but I had difficulties broadcasting a sufficiently hostile wall of silence in their direction. A blog post was the second best choice.)

More than merely generating interest, though, such florid prose also sets the stage for a massive dose of self-aggrandizement of this variety:

Critical intellectuals should work towards the creation of a space of freedom (of thought), and as such, they constitute a concrete threat to the current scientific order in EBHS and the health sciences as a whole. It is fair to assert that the critical intellectuals are at 'war' with those who have no regards other than for an evidence-based logic. The war metaphor speaks to the 'critical and theoretical revolt' that is needed to disrupt and resist the fascist order of scientific knowledge development. (185) (Emphasis, emphatically, in original)
Apparently the authors see themselves as part of this critical intellectual project. Rather than doing what other health researchers do - which, I presume, means finding ways of improving health care - the authors instead imagine themselves engaged in a much more exhilarating activity: fomenting (metaphorical) revolution. From their university desks, they can work toward creating 'spaces of freedom', they can take part in 'revolt', they can even engage in 'war'. Oh, how the heart pounds with adrenalin.

Two: Specifics are always helpful.

Having set off for war with much fanfare, however, the authors launch their attack on evidence based health sciences without actually confronting them directly. They make much of EBHS (or sometimes EBM - 'Evidence-based medicine', but the difference is never really made clear) as a 'regime of truth' which is based on 'a strange process of eliminating some ways of knowing' (181). Two problems here: this process does not seem to 'eliminate' some ways of knowing but rather to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments based upon a clear (not a 'strange') set of criteria. Second, the authors never identify (not once) the other 'ways of knowing' which might be equal or superior to EBHS for the purpose of finding out the effectiveness of particular medical treatments or procedures. All they do is go on about 'pluralism' of ways of knowing, without suggesting what they might be. ('Do they mean voodoo?' asked my wife when I read parts of this article to her. To be honest, my admittedly non-specialist reading would suggest that they do in fact mean voodoo. Or, if they don't, their approach would deny them any coherent reason for excluding voodoo, faith healing, crystal-energy or any other variety of charlatanism as part of a the 'pluralist' health science regime they seem to recommend.)

What is 'strange', if anything, is not EBHS's process of eliminating demonstrably ineffective medicine (or, at least not demonstrably effective medicine), but rather the authors' attempt to attack EBHS without ever presenting a single specific instance of how this allegedly sinister, hegemonic means of knowledge production actually comes up short. If it is so all-pervasive and malevolent, then one would think that there's got to be gobs of evidence for this lying about. Nonetheless, in this article, the procedures of EBHS are never critiqued in terms of any clear criteria which could replace it. The only 'evidence' presented that there might be something wrong with EBHS consists of a lot of quotes from a handfull of writers and theorists - none of whom were medical scientists - and a discussion of a well-known novel. (This arduous 'research' was funded by the Research Council of Canada: life is hard under fascism, isn't it?)

I suppose presenting evidence to back up their arguments would be too...well, evidence-based, wouldn't it?

Nonetheless, say it with me: something is not true simply because Foucault, Deleuze or Guattari (or Einstein or Newton for that matter) say it is true. Now, repeat ten times.

I have myself used quotes by theorists - it goes with the territory - but it is normally because they express something in a very effective or thought-provoking way. However, such statements are not evidence in themselves (or, at least, they are not evidence of anything more than that the person in question said them). Foucault, for instance, said some very sensible and important things. He also, at times, talked a lot of rubbish. So it is with prolific thinkers.

And Orwell...I don't even know where to begin on their (mis)use of 1984. The authors, for instance, seem to be very pleased with themselves about having discovered Newspeak, and they go on about it at length (the better part of a page in a seven page article). But while I can appreciate that they think something similar to Newspeak is now infecting the health sciences field, they seem to miss an important point: in the novel, Newspeak is implemented by a totalitarian state which almost completely controls it population through a variety of other means as well. It is, additionally, a novel, and (however good it is) it is not evidence - in any way - of the points they're trying to make.

But still, they drone on:

...[A]fter an in-depth reading of 1984, we feel that Orwell's vision is gradually becoming a reality. Currently, a large number of scholars in the health sciences follow their colleagues in medicine down a narrow path leading to uniformity and intolerance. There is therefore in our opinion, the creation and advancement of a new 'language' that is supplanting all others, attempting to discredit or to eliminate them from the discursive terrain of health. This is scientific Newspeak. It is a highly normative and recalcitrant scientific language that stands in opposition to that sense of hope that sustains every freedom-loving individual. (184)
Yes. Things must be looking very grim indeed in Ottawa these days. Of course, it's not as if there hasn't always been a lot of all-too-flippant use of the novel. Some CCTV cameras appear in a train station and some of the more sensitive among us declare we're all suddenly living in a totalitarian state. This is another long digression in the making, but, briefly, I just don't believe that bit about the 'in-depth' reading. Really, I don't, since this is one of the most shallow readings of the novel I've ever seen in print. (Peer-review is just not what it used to be.) And I think that Orwell - who took rationality, clear thinking and language all very seriously - would be most pissed off to hear his 'vision', his totalitarian nightmare, reduced to something like this.

Along with being someone who went off to fight a frightfully real (and hierarchalising and normativising) version of fascism, Orwell also had quite a few things to say about the malevolent and thought-killing force of jargon and cliché in writing. Lessons the authors could well do with considering. The essay is 'Politics and the English Language'. It is available here.

Three: Knowledge is power...but this a good thing, isn't it?

The authors make what is sadly a common assumption in postmodern writing about science. That is that scientists, rather than primarily being interested in investigating diseases, developing medicines, peering into the universe, cataloguing new species of butterflies or whatever, are mainly engaged in propping up some kind of illegitimate, oppressive political regime. I mean, I think we can be all grown-up enough to avoid idealising 'science' as always merely describing the activity of spotlessly moral people engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth. But the scientific method, evidence and reason, I think one would have to say, are about the best means this clever sort of primate has come up with for understanding its world. They have led to astounding improvements (and, yes, some very real new-fangled problems) in human life.

Furthermore, there is nothing inherently contradictory between some versions of social constructionism and science. After all, recognising that all ways of knowing are 'discourses' is not the same as the relativist claim that all discourses are equally valid. For some purposes, certain ways of knowing are better than others. Sometimes far better. This is something the authors seem to deny, however. Ignoring the possibility that EBHS is becoming dominant because it is better (again, it's not my field, but even as an outsider, it seems clear that this possibility is likely), they see it simply as part of an imperialist ('colonising') intellectual power-grab.

The solution for the 'problem' they've invented is this:

A starting point for health sciences would be to promote the multiplicity of what Foucault describes as subjugated forms of knowledge (savoirs assujettis): these forms of knowledge are ways of understanding the world that are 'disqualified as non-conceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naïve knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, [and] knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity' (p. 7). These forms of knowledge arise from below, as it were, in contradistinction to the top-down approach that characterises the hegemonic thrust of EBHS. For Foucault, a subjugated knowledge is not the same thing as 'common sense'. Instead, it is 'a particular knowledge, a knowledge that is local, regional, or differential' (pp. 7-8). (183)
Now, I think there's all kind of value (and sweet sugary goodness) in many forms of diversity and 'pluralism'. But there are times when I don't have so much of a problem with a hierarchy of discourses. One of them is when I'm being operated upon. In that circumstance, I want one 'particular', proven and - give it to me - evidence-based discourse to be appealed to by the person who cuts me open.

If it is effective, I do not mind - in fact I demand - that it becomes hegemonic.

Whatever the ubiquity of discourses, the idea that they are all equal is a profoundly stupid and obviously false one. Richard Dawkins put it most famously, correctly and pithily (originally in River Out of Eden, but the version I have is in The Devil's Chaplain):

Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite...If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there - the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field - is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. (18)
But the attitude of the authors of this article reflects a peculiar and long-extant postmodern obsession with 'pluralism', regardless of whether it is really appropriate in a certain context. Indeed, they are positively absolutist on the issue of pluralism. A decade ago, Terry Eagleton took this particular issue up in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism. He noted that postmodern theorists

would seem to imagine that difference, variability and heterogeneity are 'absolute' goods, and it is a position I have long held myself. It has always struck me as unduly impoverishing of British social life that we can muster a mere two or three fascist parties. [Note: Eagleton, like Arendt and Orwell before him, is referring to the real kind of fascism, not its allegedly more pernicious and polymorphously intolerant micro-variety.] We also seem stuck with far too few social classes, whereas if the postmodern imperative to multiply differences were to be taken literally we should strive to breed as many more of them as we could, say two or three new bourgeoisies and a fresh clutch of landowning aristocracies.
The opinion that plurality is a good in itself is emptily formalistic and alarmingly unhistorical. (127)

I think that this is something that Foucault himself - who was interested in history even if he was at times a rather bad historian - would have understood. While Foucault very often focused on the dominance which some discourses achieved without having any more essential truth value than others (so, simply as a result of social power), I don't think there's anything in what I've read by him which suggests that he thought there is no way of evaluating discourses based on their correspondence with reality. (And if he did say this, he was wrong on that point.) He might often, for instance, have condemned the ways in which hierarchies were formed; however, stating that hierarchies themselves are a bad thing is quite another step, and one which, I think, he did not make.

Furthermore, without intellectual hierarchies (though alternative ones), and without norms (though different ones) what tools does a 'resistance' have?

Any effective political movement has always understood this. Which brings me to my final point.

Four: Fighting pretend problems with pretend politics.

There is an assumption often made that this kind of postmodernist thinking is in some way 'left-wing' or radical. This is a mistake. What makes it difficult to recognise as such is that it is a mistake which is often made by the same people who put this sort of thing forward. They seem to think they are radical. But beyond throwing around some ill-judged and hard-to-digest verbiage, what political relevance do their arguments have? I mean, the authors of this article seem to think that deconstruction is the primary weapon against the fascist menace they depict. This point, too deserves some consideration.

If it were true that the problem we face is fascism, I would suggest that deconstruction is not exactly going to help us much. Fascism is physically violent and scary. Deconstruction - whatever its merits - is...a method of textual analysis. Outside of a text, it's not going to protect you. Staring down real fascism requires other means.

Woody Allen made this point far more amusingly long ago. In his film Manhattan, the following discussion takes place among a group of intellectuals:

Allen: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey, you know? I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to 'em.

Man: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.

Allen: Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point, I think.

Woman: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Allen: No, physical force is always better with Nazis, 'cause it's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

Fortunately, as I think is clear, we are not facing a real fascist crisis in the health services. Perhaps even the authors would agree. They might say that the fascism they identify is purely metaphorical. To which I would respond: given the variety of problems facing the world today (including the very real problem of effectively managing health care systems), is pursuing a metaphorical revolt against a metaphorical fascism really the most productive way of spending one's time?

Nevertheless, with breathtaking self-regard, they cite Hannah Arendt's Human Condition for guidance to 'combat totalitarianism'. (I mean, think what you will about Arendt's views on totalitarianism and whatever else, but at least she was writing about the real deal.) The stakes are indeed high, as the authors thunderously proclaim:

When the pluralism of free speech is extinguished, speech as such is no longer meaningful; what follows is terror, a totalitarian violence. We must resist the totalitarian program - a program that collapses words and things, a program that thwarts all invention, a program that robs us of justice, of our meaningful place in the world, and of the future that is ours to forge together. (185)

They are, indeed, people who will spare no sacrifice in facing down 'totalitarian violence'. They have received their research funding. They have issued their call to arms (or at least their call to words). They are on the front lines of resistance to fascism ('polymorphous intolerance' division). And where is one of the key hot zones where this conflict being fought? Yes, you guessed it. In Ontario.

Part of me can't help thinking that if they're so bored with their own field that they need to invent violent fantasies of fascism and resistance to make it interesting, they should perhaps choose a different profession.

But not as writers. Please, no.

Monday, August 21, 2006

"If he had paid more attention, the bombs would have exploded."

It seems to me that, so far, there has been remarkably little international attention to the attempted bombing of two German trains on 31 July and the subsequent capture of one of the alleged bomb-makers.

In these days of big Hollywood-style terror plots, the attempted bombing of a mere two trains may seem like small change. Compared to what seems to have been in the works for transatlantic flights between Britain and America, the intended bombings would indeed have been relatively unspectacular.

I find that merely the fact it is possible to think this way shows how grim things have gotten.

However, the train bombs in question were seriously scary constructions, and it seems that it was only because of a fault in their construction that they did not detonate as planned. (They had been planted with timers: these were not attempted suicide bombings, rather they were merely the more old-fashioned homicide-only kind.) As Der Spiegel reports:

The makeshift bombs, consisting of gas cylinders, plastic bottles filled with gas and detonators, were found in suitcases placed on regional trains in western Germany on July 31, 2006. The devices were discovered when the trains stopped in the cities of Koblenz and Dortmund. The detonators made of alarm clocks and lightbulb components functioned but failed to trigger the bombs. If the bombs had gone off they would have sent shockwaves and a fireball through the carriages and may have caused the train to derail, police said.
The relative lack of international attention to this drama may have a lot to do with the restrained way in which the attempted bombing was handled here: at first, the possible terrorism angle was downplayed and a possible criminal attempt to blackmail the Bahn (rail transport agency) presented as a more likely motivation. In the meantime, we had the London bomb plot and the War With No Name in the news.

Then, a few days ago, the police showed videos of those who had left the bombs. The next day, one of them was caught. He is a 22-year-old Lebanese man who has been studying in Germany. Specifics are still hard to come by, but it may be that he became involved with the plot to express anger over Lebanese deaths the recent conflict between Hisbollah and Israel.

Why this would lead him to want to kill Germans on trains remains, however, difficult to fathom. And, moreover, it suggests the insufficiency of reading terrorism as merely a 'reaction' to any particular foreign policy.

We will have to wait a bit to see what this was really about, but it is suggested in another Spiegel article that 'Youssef Mohamed E.', as he is thus far being referred to, may not have been the brightest student.

Indeed, this may have averted a lot of death and destruction on German trains:
An East European student, who didn't want to be mentioned by name, described the young Lebanese man as having "below average intelligence." His German was not particularly good, and he didn't impress when talking to him. Jürgen Müller, who was head of the Kiel community college until the beginning of August, shares this assessment. Youssef took preparatory courses there before starting his mechatronics studies. Müller taught Youssef physics and described the student as "completely unremarkable," saying "he just muddled through." In retrospect, Müller says he is pleased by this: "If he had paid more attention, the bombs would have exploded."

It is in no way comforting to think that we depend on terrorist incompetence to prevent this kind of thing...but on the other hand, perhaps this is a timely reminder that terrorists are not superhuman.

As reported on the television news tonight, it seems that his capture was made possible through another lapse: it was suggested that he called his family in Lebanon after seeing video surveillance camera footage of himself on German television in stories related to the attempted bombing. That call was intercepted by Lebanese intelligence services, who informed German authorities, allowing his capture in Kiel.

As Christopher Hitchens wrote recently, they don't make terrorists like they used to.

It seems unclear so far whether there was a larger organisation supporting Mr. E. and his companion, who is still on the run. But the suggestions in the media are that they must have had some help.

Great: first planes and now trains.

I may have to start riding my bike to Britain from now on.

The BBC calls vegetarians "maniacs"...

...or at least they did once in 1928.

Today, another in my continuing - if irregular and occasional - series of serendipitously found historical newspaper articles. (Previous installments can be found here and here.)

This one comes from the Daily Mirror, 11 July 1928 (p. 5) and concerns indignant vegetarians.

Note the intriguing parallels with modern debates about political correctness (back then, it was simply known as "tact") and the tantalising reference to a recently lifted "ban on controversial subjects" on the BBC.

(I presume the "2LO" referred to is a radio station, but if anyone can clarify that for me, I'd be grateful.)

I'm pleased to see the vigorous defence of vegetarianism at such an early date. I must say, though, that while vegetarianism is still going strong, it seems the "fruitarians" have rather faded from the scene since then.

Finally, of the articles so far presented so far, I think this one has the best opening line.



Storm Over "Diet Maniacs" Description by B.B.C.


"Unfortunate" Word in Comment on To-day's Talk

Are vegetarians maniacs?

According to the B.B.C., they are, and a storm of indignation has been aroused among those who don't eat meat for reasons of heath, by this description of them.

In the current issue of the "Radio Times" a talk by Miss E. G. Clarke on "Food Values in Cooking-Food Theorists" from 2LO is announced for four o'clock this afternoon, and in describing the talk the "Radio Times" states that "most of us have known, and suffered from, the diet maniacs-vegetarians, fruitarians, enthusiasts for vegetable marrows and nut cutlets and artificial simulations of meat."

Amazement and indignation in the ranks of vegetarians has followed this sweeping condemnation and those listeners who feel that, according to the B.B.C., they should be inside the walls of an asylum, are awaiting the talk with the greatest interest to see if the charge of "lunacy" is sustained by Miss Clarke.

An official of the B.B.C. admitted to the Daily Mirror yesterday that the word was "perhaps unfortunate."

"So far as I am aware, however, the term will not be used in the talk itself," he said, "although vegetarians may be described as faddists or cranks."

Writing to the Daily Mirror, a correspondent urges that more tact should be exercised by the B.B.C. in describing people who happen to think along different lines from themselves.

"The B.B.C. appear to be taking full advantage of the lifting of the ban on controversial subjects and this latest effort is more insulting than controversial," he writes.

"Publicly to describe as maniacs a body of men and women who have seriously studied the science of dietetics over very many years, and who have come to the conclusion that vegetarianism relieves them of many of the ills which beset the meat-eater, is not only tactless; it reeks of bias and arrogant ignorance."


"Whether vegetarians and fruitarians are right or wrong does not seem to me to matter, but I do know that many doctors and surgeons are now recommending diets for some of their patients which were adopted by these 'maniacs' many years ago.

"If the B.B.C. propose continuing on these lines they are going to precipitate a crisis-or crises.

"Will they extend the use of such terms to other spheres of life, such as religion?

"If so, Buddhists and Mahomedans must be insane because they do not believe what we believe, and all foreigners must be quite mad because their views do not always coincide with ours.

"In conclusion, I would remind the B.B.C. that a favourite hallucination of lunatics is that they are the only sane people in the world, and that the rest are all mad.

"Let that be a warning to 2LO!"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sunday Humour Special

For your viewing pleasure:

'Look Around You' : A satire on 70s/early 80s British educational television. In this episode, Maths, you learn quite a lot I bet you didn't know about the world of numbers.

(For other episodes, see the discussion at Click Opera.)

And 'Talking to Americans', a Canadian show hosted by Rick Mercer. How dumb are Americans? Well let's just take a look:

(For further episodes, see this entry at Boing Boing)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

More on Religion and Education

Over at Pharyngula there's an interesting post on that always current topic of fundamentalist religion and higher education. Apparently, there is a great deal of concern amongst some born-agains that American colleges and universities are undermining the radical doctrines they so carefully drilled into their children. After all, these institutions of higher learning are - horror of horrors! - actually exposing them to people with different views, some of which are actually opposed to literal biblical truth.

Imagine that. (You would think though, that a faith which could not withstand a confrontation with critical opposition would not be worth the name, but I suppose that's a different discussion.)

However, it appears that alongside additional courses in biology, born-again christians should be taking a few extra courses in basic statistics, as one of the chart's they're using to back up this charge of enforced university-driven apostasy is less convincing than it tries to be:

But wait…the graph actually says nearly nothing at all about the state of secularism in our universities. It's missing too much information, and it's been selectively skewed. The first thing they did was start with a population of "born-again" Christians, and ask how many were still "born-again" when they graduated: that's a number that can only go up. For all we know from these data, 5% of the students enter public universities as "born-agains", a quarter of that cohort goes apostate (the only figure that is plotted), but another 95% of the godless freshmen become Southern Baptist seniors. That's not likely, I know, but it means this chart can't be used to make the argument that university educations convert people to freethinking secularists.

It's a meaningless scare graph designed to finagle the data and worry people. I have to wonder about a religious organization (this is from Focus on the Family) that makes such an effort to convince the faithful that getting a higher education imperils their soul—it's almost as if they want to keep their donors and supporters ignorant and stupid.

Er, Yes. Almost. I think Dr. Meyers might have put his finger on something there.

A priceless excerpt from the original article in the American Family Association Journal:

“Being a ‘good kid’ wasn’t going to be nearly enough to survive college. …” Wheaton wrote of his first few weeks at Stanford University. “My (paltry) desire to adhere to the Christian values with which I had been raised was overwhelmed by the temptations and pleasures of college life.”

These temptations can turn to assaults when exacerbated by sin. Kaufman said students should expect to be assaulted intellectually, emotionally and socially.

Um... 'survive'? Being 'assaulted'? Was this college or a tour of duty in Baghdad? Is it just me or is it a bit overblown to compare the 'temptations and pleasures of college life' and the possibility that people might strongly disagree with you with 'survival' and what sounds like actual bodily harm?

Given the fact that a significant majority of Americans identify themselves as very religious and Christian, doesn't it seem that there is more than a whiff of an overdeveloped martyr complex in all this?

After all, the tendency to whine about one's victim status is something which the right-wing has long criticised among liberals.

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Endless continuity

I am, more and more, becoming convinced of the role of continuity in history. And, apparently, I am not alone.

As my better half puts it:

‘Even fashion people should understand how the past unfolds within the present. Yves St. Laurent designs of the 1970s were – all prophetic liberationism of the trouser suit notwithstanding – retro, looking back at the 1930s and 40s (notably, the style of Marlene Dietrich), hence if we look back to the 1970s as a source for our retro styles, we must realise that we’re already duplicating a historical stance.

Fashion is a wonderful repository of historical reality. Which is why it bugs me that every season people pretend that they are reinventing the wheel when really they are only quoting.’

Roland Barthes put it this way: ‘le texte est un tissu de citations, issues des mille foyers de la culture.’

Or, as my wife keeps telling her students: ‘You all look like my mum in 1975.’


If there's anything The Wife hates, it's what she calls Gewissenspop, i.e., overwrought, pseudo-political pop music With a Message.

In her view, a good pop song has no more than three chords, a clever hook, an unexpected bridge, lots of cow-bell and plenty of 'luuuuurve' in it. It follows that Paul McCartney's poseur-experimentation with Revox audio recorders in 1966 (during the recording of the band's classic Revolver - as reported in this month's Musikexpress) was the beginning of the end of the Beatles. (I mean, they still had a few good years in them, but the great heights of 'Please, Please Me' were never again reached. This does, incidentally, take a lot of the hostility off of Yoko Ono: it was all Macca's fault in the end.)

Anyway, at the top of her to-be-hitlist - immediately followed by the likes of Sting, Herbert Grönemeyer and Xavier Naidoo - is the ubiquitous (at least at high-flying international political and business gatherings) Paul Hewson, better known to you as Bono. Happily enough, John Harris at The Guardian has gone to the trouble of putting finger to keyboard to voice the thoughts she has long harboured but not dared to utter.

Thanks, John, for your wit, courage and discerning taste.

We (both of us) appreciate it.

Graphic entertainment

Here's something enjoyable to look at...even if your German is not that good. 'Kleine weisse Spinne' (Little White Spider) is a short comic from young German artist Sascha Hommer. (When you're at the Spiegel site, click on the panel to go to the next one in the series of 17. Or, alternatively, zurück is back and weiter takes you further.)

This is the first I've heard of his work, but I have to say that
the gallery at his website evokes a curious mixture of cute and disturbing which I find very appealing. (Note: The relatively small amount of text on his site is in English.) His book Insekt seems to update Kafka, focusing on a boy who - much to his surprise and that of his classmates - discovers that things are not as he thought they were.

By the way, has
a very nice little comics page, where various German artists are introduced. It's worth browsing.

As is
Orang magazine.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Evolution and Unrealpolitik

Over at Click Opera, Momus has an interesting discussion (with charts and everything) of different societies' beliefs about evolution (and other things). The US, unsurprisingly, scores low on the belief-in-evolution scale. But what is striking is how rapidly this seems to have emerged:
The researchers, who found that American anti-Darwinism is growing quite quickly (from 7% of skeptics to 21% in the past 20 years), blamed "widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States" for the difference between the US and Europe and Japan.
As he points out, however, this is not the only way in which US culture is exceptional.

I'm not so sure that the connections he draws are necessarily the right ones (such as with Israel), but they are worth thinking about.

It is, furthermore, hard to argue with this conclusion:
Isn't there something tremendously dangerous in this combination of stubborn irrationality and tremendous geo-political power? Unrealpolitik, we could call it.

All You Need Is Löw

Admittedly, there's a comparatively large amount of gloom and doom commentary here at Obscene Desserts. So, it's all the more pleasant to be able to mention last night's highly enjoyable 3-0 German victory over Sweden. New coach Joachim Löw's debut match had all the ingredients that made the Germany team's World Cup performance so surprisingly effective, such as a fast, attacking style and solid teamwork.

The World Cup effect lingers on...

Last night's win comes on the back of news that Germany seems to finally be emerging from its economic doldrums.

If this keeps up, I might be forced to be a bit more cheerful about things.

An appropriate time, perhaps, for a little football nostalgia (it does seem like ages ago, though it is only a matter of months.)

I never get tired of this song:

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Age of (Un)reason?

There I was, wondering slightly whether my earlier post today about Ann Coulter and evolution was perhaps...not so timely. Maybe even a bit out of date. After all, her book's been out for a while.

Sadly, though, this issue remains evergreen...and far from one limited to the USA.

As reported in the Guardian yesterday, a surprisingly large number of UK university students say they believe in creationism or intelligent design.

From the article:
In a survey last month, more than 12% questioned preferred creationism - the idea God created us within the past 10,000 years - to any other explanation of how we got here. Another 19% favoured the theory of intelligent design - that some features of living things are due to a supernatural being such as God. This means more than 30% believe our origins have more to do with God than with Darwin - evolution theory rang true for only 56%.

Opinionpanel Research's survey of more than 1,000 students found a third of those who said they were Muslims and more than a quarter of those who said they were Christians supported creationism. Nearly a third of Christians and 10% of those with no particular religion favoured intelligent design. Women were more likely to choose spiritual explanations: less than half chose evolution, with 14% preferring creationism and 22% intelligent design.

Also surprising, it seems that 'religious studies is now the biggest growth subject in schools'.

At the same time, we learn that subjects such as physics and chemistry are facing seriously dropping, and even 'plummeting', enrollments. Coincidence?

Perhaps not. Could this in fact be part of a broader cultural turning away from rational thought and evidence-based thinking?

Thinking along these lines, (also yesterday and reacting to the same survey) A. C. Grayling had some good - if unsettling - commentary on the decline in intellectual rigor and the decaying emphasis on reason in British education. He sees a growth in appeals to 'faith' to justify opinions not only about spiritual matters, but also beliefs about the real world. This is disturbing:

"With faith anything goes": here is why the claim that the resurgence of non-rational superstitious belief is a danger to the world. Fundamentalism in all the major religions (and some are fundamentalist by nature) can be and too often is politically infantilising, and in its typical radicalised forms provides utter certainty of being in the right, immunises against tolerance and pluralism, justifies the most atrocious behaviour to the apostate and the infidel, is blind to the appeals of justice let alone mercy or reason, and is intrinsically fascistic and monolithic. One does not have to look very far to find shining examples of this pretty picture in today's world, whether in the Middle East [or] the Bible belt of the United States. The rest of the world is caught between these two appalling instances of basically the same phenomenon, so it is perhaps no surprise, though no less regrettable, that the infection should spread from both directions.

More regrettable still, though, is the fact that the civilised quarters of the world are not taking seriously the connection between the world's current problems and failure to uphold intellectual rigour in education, and not demanding that religious belief be a private and personal matter for indulgence only in the home, accepting it in the public sphere only on an equal footing with other interest groups such as trades unions and voluntary organisations such as the Rotary Club.


As part of the strategy for countering the pernicious effects that faith and dogma can produce, we need to return religious commitment to the private sphere, stop the folly of promoting superstitions and religious segregation in education, demand that standards of intellectual rigour be upheld at all educational levels, and find major ways of reversing the current trend of falling enrolment in science courses.

Some very sensible proposals.

But, sadly, unlikely to come true any time soon.

The alternative, Grayling suggests, is grim: 'a return to the Dark Ages, the tips of whose shadows are coldly falling upon us even now.'

Goodnight. Sleep well, people.

Depthless: Ann Coulter and Evolution

There are few things, in my view, more infuriating than calculated mendacity. Particularly when it makes those who espouse it successful.

One of the best recent examples would have to be the half-baked notion of Intelligent Design, which, as became clear in the recent Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial, is nothing more than a slightly modified descendent of more literal forms of creationism. This body of 'thought' has no scientific basis and has yet to produce a single peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal presenting results involving experimentally-provable hypotheses.

Nonetheless, large majorities of Americans think this silliness should be taught in science classes alongside a body of knowledge - Darwinian evolution - which has repeatedly proved itself over nearly a century and a half to become the core of modern biological research.

The reason why such a discussion can even be taken halfway seriously has a lot to do with the decline in the level of American political discourse. Not that there was any golden age of reasoned discussion, but the current dominance of political spin, talk-radio bullies and cable news scream-fests would, I think, be seen by any reasonable person as hardly the sort of environment in which sensible and productive debate can occur. (And anyone putting forth the notion that this enormous media realm has a 'liberal bias' is being either delusional or tendentious.) The problem here is not so much partisanship itself, but rather the replacement of debate by ranting propaganda.

It is difficult to think of a more ideal exemplar of all these trends - from scientific illiteracy to bug-eyed fanaticism - than Ann Coulter. There's little point in describing her if you don't already know who she is, as it's so hard to know where to begin. But a very good beginning is Professor Jerry Coyne's demolition of her stupid recent book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

The book's attack on Darwinism has been, I think, somewhat overshadowed by Coulter's comments regarding a group of women whose husbands were killed in the September 11th attacks and who had the gall, from Coulter's point of view, to question post-9/11 American policy. Her comments about them (that they were 'harpies' who were essentially cashing in on their husbands' deaths) raised such a (predictable) media storm that the more significant obscenity of her book was overlooked.

Coyne does the great service of revising that gap, and - given Coulter's long history of extremist rhetoric - his review is appropriately harsh (if anything, it's more restrained than she deserves).

One worthwhile excerpt:
What is especially striking is Coulter's failure to tell us what she really believes about how the earth's species got here. It's clear that she thinks God had a direct hand in it, but beyond that we remain unenlightened. IDers believe in limited amounts of evolution. Does Coulter think that mammals evolved from reptiles? If not, what are those curious mammal-like reptiles that appear exactly at the right time in the fossil record? Did humans evolve from ape-like primates, or did the Designer conjure us into existence all at once? How did all those annoying fossils get there, in remarkable evolutionary order?

And, when faced with the real evidence that shows how strongly evolution trumps ID, she clams up completely. What about the massive fossil evidence for human evolution -- what exactly were those creatures 2 million years ago that had human-like skeletons but ape-like brains? Did a race of Limbaughs walk the earth? And why did God -- sorry, the Intelligent Designer -- give whales a vestigial pelvis, and the flightless kiwi bird tiny, nonfunctional wings? Why do we carry around in our DNA useless genes that are functional in similar species? Did the Designer decide to make the world look as though life had evolved? What a joker! And the Designer doesn't seem all that intelligent, either. He must have been asleep at the wheel when he designed our appendix, back, and prostate gland.

There are none so blind as those who will not see, and Coulter knows that myopia about evolution is a lucrative game. After all, she is a millionaire, reveling in her status as a celebrity and stalked by ignorazzis. I have never seen anyone enjoy her own inanity so much.

Of course, a great part of her enjoyment is the fact that her inanity has made her so rich. And this is the kind of successful stupidity which makes my head hurt.

A more detailed refutation of the bad 'science' contained in Coulter's book - and thus, by extension, of the broader creationist positions being espoused by the ID fanatics - is provided by James Downard at the great evolution resource Talk Reason. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

I don't think, of course, that this kind of rational information is going to appeal to dyed-in-the-wool creationists. They are, rather by definition, beyond reason and in the realm of faith-based science.

While these views have suffered some recent defeats, they're not going away soon.

And people like Coulter are going to be making money on them for a long time to come.