Sunday, December 31, 2006

Once more around the sun

Unlike many other holidays, I find something terribly moving about New Year. This is probably because it's not tainted by all variety of strange religious fairy tales (e.g., Easter, Christmas) and/or historical ambiguities (e.g., Thanksgiving).

A year, after all, is not an arbitrary thing. Once more around the sun we have gone and another unit of our brief time on this blue-green sphere has flown by.

It's a good time to look back at things accomplished (and not) or to consider what is to come, with, we might say, the standard mixture of hope and dread which we try to cultivate here at Obscene Desserts.

So, to you all (at least those people we don't actively dislike): best wishes for a happy and healthy 2007!

There are far, far more important things going on in the world (which you all know about) and in our lives (which, really, are none of your business), but since this blog got going around a half year ago, I thought it might be worth taking a brief look back at some of the highlights of its brief existence.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order), the top Obscene Desserts posts of 2006. (If you have your own favourites which are not included here, please do let me know.)

1. Manliness-ness

On conservative calls for a return of the traditional, 'real' man:

It seems to me, then, that Mansfield and the other people mentioned by Young as longing for some kind of return of manliness (and is it just me or is there something creepy about conservative women getting together at supposedly intellectual roundtables and celebrating the return of the stud?) really don't know what it is they're talking about. They can't really want 'manliness' in its traditional form - since the hard-drinking, hard-fighting and womanising behaviour it entails would seem to contradict their other core values.

2. Craziness, good and bad: Hunter S. Thompson:

A tribute:

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.)

3. Poseurs of the World Unite

Evidence-based medicine is fascism. Yep, sounded stupid to me too. And to make this post all the more special, it was reprinted as an article at Butterflies and Wheels.

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?)

4. A design for living

A trip to IKEA can be...thought provoking.

The world outside might be in a state of violent, terminal decline, but here, there is no sign of distress. Nothing out of place. All the bookshelves have, at most, about five books on them. And they’re in Swedish.

There is a lot of choice. There are, in fact, far too many choices.

But, in a seeming contradiction, all these choices begin to blend into one: all these things are so different, but simultaneously all the same. The collision of unity and diversity begins to eat away at my sense of well-being. I reach out for what comfort I can, but I find myself referring to furniture not by its description but rather by a proper name. A name, like a person: usually something which is cute and functional and alien, a combination which I find vaguely threatening.

It’s not a chair, it’s Ingolf, Harola or, what seems most strange for some reason, Roger.
5. Invasion of the academic faith healers

A contribution from The Wife on life in the world of people who think for a living (or who don't, as the case may be.

Quite obviously, the critics of Western rationality will not be satisfied with the cushy kind of “light-a-scented-candle-and-meditate-on-the-awesome- reflections-of-the-flame-in-my-magic-crystal” spiritualism its newly appointed defenders might be thinking of when they use the term. They don’t mean the mellow Buddhist capitalism still popular in Hollywood, folks!

No, theirs is a hardcore spiritualism based on total abandonment and an absolute willingness to face and perpetuate destruction as a means to purge the planet of the godless. That violent spirituality of course is the basis of Christianity, although its secularised, mainstream (and 'Enlightened') forms have fortunately transcended it. Present and powerful during the Reformation in continental Europe, it also characterises radical Evangelical sects in the twentieth century dreaming of the apocalypse as their ticket to eternity. Again, this is not something I think should be revived, especially by Western academics who should know better.

6. Novel Campus

The university: a refuge of reason, right?

The (comparatively simple) idea that universities themselves should be given more freedom in designing their programs, organising their funding, rewarding their high-performance staff and selecting their students does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the ministry.

This may be in part because there's a widespread opinion that reforming the universities along more competitive lines is some kind of scary, neo-liberal import from the brutal capitalists and cultural philistines on the other side of the Atlantic. This is profoundly mistaken. As Clark's book points out, in a curious way, a reforming spirit was already present at the birth of the modern university, implicated as it was in the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire's political map.

7. Random thinking

Breadcrumbs left in an intellectual maze.

I was long plagued by the feeling that 'real' historians developed their conceptual and methodological approach to the world and its mysteries in a coherent, organised way. So, that they systematically and cumulatively increased their understanding of the world starting, let's say, from about secondary school. I have always envied those people, if, in fact, they truly exist. However, I don't think I'll ever be one, as my intellectual development, such as it is, has in retrospect been a rather haphazard undertaking.
8. The theory and practice of literary misreading and The (Blit)con-game: or, exercises in deliberate misreading, part II

My (apparently fruitless) efforts to strangle a sinister, mutant meme in its cradle.

Initially, I must admit to the sense while reading this piece that it was written simply to allow Mr. Sardar to deploy what he must think is this very clever neologism in the hopes that it will sprout vigorous little meme-like wings and make a name for himself in the hothouse world of the chattering classes. And that’s fair enough, I suppose. I mean, real flashes of innovative thinking are rare enough things (including for yours truly), so when what feels like a genuine brainwave comes along, it’s perfectly understandable that you just want to shout it out joyfully to the world.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Peter, (un)principled

I see, (via Geoff Coupe) that Peter Hitchens has been talking nonsense again, this time under the cover of calling for 'open-minded debate'.

Once again, it's about evolution and creationism (masquerading, as has now become typical, as something more scientific-sounding called intelligent design theory), about which our Peter deludes himself there is a debate worth having.

Fortunately, Jason Rosenhouse takes him to task.

Dr. Rosenhouse, however, is a bit too generous when he speculates that Hitchens, before writing his piece, might have thought along these lines:
I certainly can't endorse creationism or ID. I mean, those guys are just nuts. Don't want to be associated with them. How about if I just tell everyone to be open-minded and skeptical? That could work.
No: as far as I know Peter Hitchens has never shied away from asserting arguments which are 'just nuts'.

But otherwise, a fine response. Thank you, Dr. Rosenhouse.

For something more compelling than Peter Hitchens's little intervention, take a few minutes to consider this quite wonderful depiction of evolution narrated by Carl Sagan (from Cosmos, via fellow Carl Sagan blog-a-thon contributor andy69):

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Music of Our Year

Usually, on driving into work, The Wife is bombarded by random and weird musical pleasures. Always at around ten kilometres from home, the reception of her (and our) favourite station becomes fuzzy, and she begins to fiddle around with the radio.

Inevitably, she ends up listening to ‘Rockland’, a station entirely dedicated to playing what they call ‘Classic Rrrrawk’, better known to the rest of us as classic rock.

Sometimes fate smiles, and it’s not Bon Jovi that she has to listen to. There have been those good moments when ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was followed by ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; I don’t know what you think, but I find that combination quite a nice accompaniment to the morning drive-in (but what it has to do with ‘Classic Rrrrawk’ remains mysterious).

‘Centrefold’ (by the J. Geils Band for those of you too young to remember) is nice song for an aging academic to blurt along to in a traffic jam, recalling, as it does, the bittersweet memory of early puberty. (Something which I can confirm from my side as well…which is odd, since back when we were both listening to that song the first time there were about four thousand kilometres between us.)

It being the Christmas season recently, they’ve been playing 70s and 80s seasonal pop up and down the dial and, lo and behold, there it was: Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’, the ultimate knicker-dropping, table dancing, office party favourite – at least in Britain. You don’t get to hear it that much here in Germany. Actually, I can’t tell you what is the favourite this side of the Channel, though Wham's ‘Last Christmas’ (yuk!) might be a safe bet.

Speaking of music and our relentless march across the calendar to a new year (which might finally see the much delayed bird-flu apocalypse finally victorious), it is also the season for year-end best-ofs in all the glossy music mags to which we eagerly subscribe.

Our problem, though, is this, and the realisation was as unpleasant as it was sudden. As late as last year, we could still count ourselves as reasonably cool. Of the groups represented in the top fifty ‘albums of the year’ in something like Musikexpress or Spex, we recognised, appreciated and had, possibly, financially supported a good quarter of them.

This year: it’s a different story. Not only have we not heard many of the most recent bands around, we haven’t even heard of them. (And what’s more, to be honest, were not all that bothered to change that.)

Nonetheless, we can both say with great certainty that music has remained an important (indeed a central) aspect of our lives. And, as much as we enjoyed finding some things which were new (at least to us) there we also had plenty of opportunity in the last 12 months to rediscover some old favourites (or things we had previously missed). So, rather than offering up a ‘top ten’ of the last year’s important music – in the sense of what was important and new – we offer a more truthful, if meandering, list of the music which we found important to us in the last year, regardless of when it originated.

So, without further ado, the Obscene Desserts Important Music To Us Awards for 2006. (In no particular order.)

Oye Como Va

The monsters of our unconscious are bizarre and bothersome things indeed. We can’t remember what sparked this vague memory, but it manifested itself in a question.

(The Husband, with inquisitive and hopeful expression.) ‘You know, Schatz, that song…Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh…duh duh duh…duh duh…UUrgh! Badda baappa bah. Dah DAH dah...’.

This partially coherent fragment of some dimly remembered melody (well, rhythm more than anything) had been haunting me for a week at least. The Wife knew it too, but couldn’t immediately place it. However, it quickly turned out that she has the better sense of rhythm. At, after several of my own failed attempts, she successfully found the source of my obsession. Santana’s 'Oye Coma Va'.

This led to an immediate shift to and the purchase of a cheap, used copy of Santana’s Greatest Hits. Which, as it turned out, became one of the most listened-to albums of the autumn in our household and, more importantly, in the car, especially on our September trip to Normandy. (A particularly memorable moment: listening to this album 4 times in a row while on the return journey from visiting the Normandy beaches.)

The Voice of John Watts (and others)

[A guest contribution from The Wife]

Another “now what is that?” story. Delving into the pile of CD-cases on the floor of the car during a boring moment at a red light, I stumbled across one a home-burnt CDs that could contain anything from Counterstrike to Mystical Chants. Fortunately, in this case, it was neither, though I must say I wish my brother were a more diligent labeller of CD cases. What I heard on courageously sliding the shiny disk into the narrow slot to the right of the steering wheel was a rather distinct voice, which I recognised from my younger days.

Think: nights spent partying. Think: driving around in the morning mists with a carload of sleeping friends. Think: a dim, haunting background fear of nuclear annihilation.

Think: tapes.

Anyway: the CD contained a relatively recent album by John Watts, to whose voice I had listened for a whole summer back in the eighties. Already then I liked the voice – as distinct almost as that of Joe Strummer, bless ‘im – more than the songs, though the album somebody had taped me then (Red Skies over Paradise, with the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Side B) has a few good tracks. The Husband and I agree that his albums are overproduced and he should just stick to a guitar and micro (much like Jill Sobule and Elvis Costello). And I have a nagging feeling that if he’s not careful he might become another of those whining pop-do-gooders who I have ranted about in the past.

But: the line: “I think I’ll stick a Luger down my dress” from the excellent ‘Walking the Doberman’ (on BigBeatPoetry) can’t be beat. Or maybe it can: “What’s wrong with a little destruction” from Franz Ferdinand's 'The Fallen' comes a close second.

The issue of voice reminds me of another highly recommendable band: the Notwist, from darkest Bavaria. The fragile beauty of 2002's Neon Golden (and the eerie but somehow consoling voice of Markus Acher) came back to us recently while watching Jörg Adolph's excellent making-of documentary On/Off the Record.

The Flaming Lips

Although I first discovered the Flaming Lips in 2004 with their album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, it wasn’t till this year that I managed to pay attention to the releases which preceded and followed that one. And I am certainly happy I did. At War with the Mystics is full of all those elements which The Wife dismisses as ‘Prog rock’ and which I…well, which I celebrate as ‘Prog rock’.

But it's an amazing album about…well, mainly about sex, death and science as I can tell. Then I bought 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which is also about…well, sex, death and science.

But this is a far more musical mix than you might think. As I described them on my website once: ‘If aliens were to land in the Midwest and make music, this is something what it would sound like.’

Sufjan Stevens

Stevens is apparently interested in releasing one album for each American state. So far, he’s managed Michigan and Illinois. So, as far as I’m concerned, he’s just about done. (Michigan’s not so important, but Illinois, for obvious personal reasons, is. He just needs to do Maryland, and then he’ll have crossed off the states-that-are-important-to-me list. And then he can retire.) Come on feel the Illinoise is very listenable, especially on quiet, moody autumnal days. Particular highlights: ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, ‘Chicago’, ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’


Console is a project by the Notwist member Martin Gretschmann. I quite enjoyed Console’s 2002 album Reset the Preset. This year’s Mono was something else. Icy, spare, relaxed…but compelling. It sounds like background music and, then again, it's something much, much more. With more than a nod to Eno’s Music for Airports.

Here's a video from Reset the Preset, 'Suck and Run':

Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun

Um, yeah, what can I say about this. I used to be quite a Dead fan in my youth. Like the rediscovery of Hunter S. Thompson (and perhaps related to it), I've been finding a lot of other things recently which I once loved but, somehow, in the meantime lost track of. I ordered Anthem of the Sun, since it was one of the albums which I wasn't so familiar with and I wanted to discover them anew. quite an extraordinary album. Even without used to accompany my love of the Dead back in the day.


I was a bit worried about Jarvis Cocker. I loved Pulp, and seeing them live in Washington, D.C. after the release of Different Class is one of those concerts I'll never forget.

But...then Pulp broke up. And then..., well, then Jarvis got…kind of depressive and strange.

So, it’s good to see, just in time for this list, that he’s gotten his act together. ‘Fat Children’ is not only an anthem for the lost (fat, lazy and fucking useless) youth of our times (and the not so youthful that they torment)…it also…rocks.

The Mountain Goats

Not only was 'Woke up New' a great song…but the album turned out to be excellent as well. Though…not for the faint of heart or temperamentally suicidal.

Just as a reminder:

And the rest of the best:

Belle & Sebastian
I haven't yet bought The Life Pursuit, but as part of some kind of sampler, I got to enjoy the excellent song, 'Another Sunny Day'

Death Cab for Cutie
The album Plans, especially 'What Sarah Said' and 'I will Follow You Into the Dark'

The Books
Lost and Safe

Lieder vom Ende des Kapitalismus

Sportfreunde Stiller

Who can forget this? The real anthem of the 2006 World Cup. I mentioned it here.

Texas Lightning

Germany's entry for this year's Eurovision Song Contest was...from a country band. With a drummer who is a well-known comedian in Germany. And...the song was...excellent. So excellent it makes me weep.

And it was unjustly treated in the contest. I blame the new eastern block.

For those of you who missed it:

Warren Zevon

2006 also marked my rediscovery of the much-missed Warren Zevon.

I think this says it all.

Robocop Kraus

Long before British bands rediscovered the music of the late 1970s, some Franconians were already at it with a vengeance. The Wife had been planning to write a longer piece on the mystery of English-language lyrics by German rock bands (which, you never know, she might still find the time to write). For now, let it suffice to mention a beautiful one-liner from by The Kraus (not, Krauts), from 'In Fact You're Just Fiction': 'You are alone to the greatest extent'. (Now if someone didn't consult a thesaurus before writing this one...)

Mind you, the Park are good at this sort of thing too: 'You react to my riposte' comes damned close to Fränglisch all on its own....

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What's the British word for 'duh'?!

Apparently, 82% of British people questioned in a recent survey 'say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people'.

I'm...less than astounded.

Pre-Xmas reading list

Two things worth reading this weekend:

1. 'Lesbians of mass destruction' by William Saletan at Slate.

James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, says Cheney's pregnancy is a bad idea because a father "makes unique contributions to the task of parenting that a mother cannot emulate," such as "a sense of right and wrong and its consequences." You must be kidding. Cheney's partner is a former park ranger. They met while playing collegiate hockey. If they want a night out to catch an NHL game, Grandpa Dick can drop by to read bedtime stories about detainee interrogation.
The rest of Saletan's very sober and reasonable argument against the arguments against gay marriage is equally worth reading.

2. 'Parasites of Plunder?' Richard J. Evans's review of Götz Aly's book, Hitler's Beneficiaries at The Nation. It is, apparently justifiably, not entirely positive.

A taste of Evans's tone:

Hitler's Beneficiaries, it has to be said, does not begin well. The opening pages on prewar Germany contain many sweeping claims that have long since been exploded by serious research. Thus, contrary to what Aly says, the German middle classes were not impoverished by the hyperinflation of 1922-23 (it was great for debtors, mortgage holders and the like); relatively few Communists went over to Nazism in the early 1930s; the plebiscite that brought the Saar (an ethnically German region on the French border under the control of the League of Nations since 1919) back to Germany was not a free election; and the Nazi leadership did not make automobiles "affordable to everyday Germans." Nazism preached equality, but as with so many aspects of Nazi rhetoric, the reality was very different, and to speak repeatedly, as Aly does, of the Nazis' "socialism" is to mislabel what is better seen as populism; real socialist regimes were very different in their basic political thrust, and few things in this book are less convincing than its attempt to show that the Third Reich was a genuinely redistributive regime that robbed the rich to pay the poor.

If you're interested in the history of Germany or of the Second World War this makes for concise, well-informed reading.

Moreover, it stands as a salutary warning against overly monocausal explanations of historical development. (Statement of interest: I'm not an expert on German history, though I'm a great admirer of Evans's book In Defense of History. Evans's response to criticisms of that book is available here.)

Social climbing

Well, this was rather bizarre. But also not entirely inaccurate.

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
His Highness John the Prickly of Great Leering
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

(Via Pharyngula, aka, His Most Noble Lord PZ the Liminal of Tempting St Mary)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Troll the ancient Yuletide peril

My wife informs me that Timothy Garton Ash has been singing some Christmas carols and doing some thinking about religion:

In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative.

Believe me, I was practically bursting with anticipation to see what came next. Which was...this:
It seems to me self-evident that we would not have the European civilisation we have today without the heritage of Christianity, Judaism and (in a smaller measure, mainly in the middle ages) Islam, which legacy also paved the way, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, for the Enlightenment.

Try as it might, my modern historian's brain cannot quite work its way to finding any meaning at all in this passage.

The first half is a truism: it is self-evident (though meaningless) that if European civilisation had been built on different foundations it would look rather different today.

The second half is even more confusing. If this religious heritage didn't foresee (i.e., the 'unwittingly' bit) and resisted ('unwillingly') the Enlightenment, what credit does it get for the benefits which flowed therefrom?

Moreover, I can think of a rather different way to join these two clauses: wouldn't 'the European civilisation we have today' have been much better off if our 'religious heritage' had given way a little less 'unwillingly' to rational thinking?

And then there's this:

Routinely, almost instinctively, we distinguish between the belief and the believer. To be sure, it's easier to do that with some beliefs than it is with others. If someone is convinced that 2 + 2 = 5 and the earth is made of cheese, that will impede everyday coexistence a little more. Yet it's amazing what diverse and even wacky beliefs we do, in practice, coexist with quite happily. (The widespread popular faith in astrology is a good example.)

Well, I, for one, am rather less than 'quite happy' about astrology's popularity. I have to also say that my opinion of someone declines (almost instinctively) if I discover that they put much 'faith' in it.

More importantly, though, I suggest there is a certain apple/orange problem here.

It's one thing (and quite annoying enough) that someone spends ten seconds reading his (or more likely her) horoscope over breakfast; it would be quite another thing if fanatical astrology advocates systematically tried to infiltrate school science courses, issued death threats against those who disagreed with them or went so far as to wage war in the name of their wacky little belief system.

Which of these two things is a better description of the comparative contemporary history of religion?

Back to the holiday punchbowl with you, Mr. Ash.

And a happy winter solstice to us all, every one.

The (Blit)con-game, or, exercises in deliberate misreading, part II

As feared, the 'Blitcon' meme which Zaiuddin Sardar recently set free in the garden of cultural commentary is being nourished by those who should, I would think, know better. It is thus receiving an extended lease on life rather than being allowed to die the natural death it so richly deserves.

It has, for example, (thanks to Geoff for pointing this out to me) been picked up by Sunny Hundal, in his essay 'Unequal Standards of Outrage', at Comment is Free.

Considering Hundal's outrage at western militarism it is perhaps ironic that his comment resembles nothing so much as an American cluster bomb: loud, imprecise and annoyingly prone to leaving a lot of dangerous debris lying around. (Judging from his words, and curiously for an article which ostensibly demands equal standards of outrage, it is only western violence which really drives his condemnation.)

Hundal, though, is not entirely in agreement with Sardar. He says he has only one 'contention' with Sardar's concept of 'Blitcon' literature: 'the assertion that Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie dominate the British literary landscape.'

So, to some extent, I could simply refer back to my criticism of Sardar's original version of this notion while at the same time noting that Hundal's single caveat about these authors' significance (which is likely intended to have been an insult, but it merely succeeds in sounding catty) would seem to make the whole issue far less important, indeed, possibly irrelevant.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to respond to the few unsightly mutations which Hundal has added to the original idea.

Hundal says:

neocons and their supporters have moved on to the notion that this is a global war against mad terrorists who threaten the very existence of "western civilisation" as we know it, and any progressive thinkers who want a slightly more nuanced approach or suggest the military's own actions are exacerbating the problem are surrender monkeys who loathe the very free society they live in.

Well, 'neocons' is already a fairly imprecise term, but when supplemented by 'and their supporters' it just becomes even more vague. More seriously, though, when he is confronted with a more nuanced approach to the matters at hand, he, like Sardar, responds with a clumsy sleight of hand which turns - seemingly - anyone who disagrees with him into a card-carrying member of the club of lying-right-wing-western-imperialists.

Three words: pot-kettle-black.

For instance, he cites selectively from the same interview with Ian McEwan I cited in my previous posting in which McEwan proposes a 'civil war' within Islam.

Hundal responds to McEwan thus:

Except, it's too easy to blame this on a civil war within Islam instead of taking responsibility for years that were spent arming the mujahadeen, arming Iraq and Iran, and helping feed the paranoid delusions of al-Qaida.

Consider this sentence carefully.

First, its elements could be reversed and Hundal's complaint ('it's too easy') would be at least equally (and possibly even more) valid. I.e., one could continue chanting that, really, everything in the world is 'our' fault while at the same time ignoring any elements/tensions/ideologies within the Muslim world which should be taken into account when constructing the 'nuanced' view being urged here. (Or does Hundal think that 'nuanced' means something other than what it does?)

But, second, why must one choose between holding either view? Are they mutually exclusive? Can one believe both of the following ideas without being mentally ill?
  1. movements within Muslim countries and within Islamic thought (perhaps spiced during their evolution by 'outside' influences such as European fascism) contribute not only to violence against 'us' in the west but also - as we can see every day in Iraq - against other Muslims
  2. there has been a history of American mistakes which have contributed to some of these problems.
McEwan is not asked the question in the interview, but I have little doubt that he would, for example, agree that sending masses of arms to an army of religious fanatics (or alternatively to dictatorships) was not really such a grand idea in hindsight.

Does Hundal know that McEwan thinks there is no role for these issues in an analysis of terrorism? No, he doesn't. Does he present any evidence of this? No.

What evidence does Hundal present that McEwan believes, like the neo-con caricature he has created, that 'this is a global war against mad terrorists who threaten the very existence of "western civilisation" as we know it'?

Erm...also none.

Let's consider this last point. In an interview on PBS, McEwan was asked about the influence of 11 September 2001 on his work and whether it provided a 'new theme, or perhaps even a new responsibility, in the way you approach your own work?'
IAN McEWAN: I think we should be careful not to over-inflate the matter. I mean, in the first half of the 20th Century, we lived through human disasters on a scale unimaginable. The Holocaust was once suggested would be the end of not only civilization, but art, too. And yet art, and especially literature, rose to the occasion. And I think the novel, you know, its business is the investigation of human nature.

This terrible event caused some people to say -- I think completely mistakenly -- that it would be impossible ever to write anything ever again. And this is a nonsense. I mean, it actually generates the need for more investigation. We barely know ourselves. And I think the novel, with its marvelous ability to take us inside other people's minds, to give us the flavor and fine print of thought and consciousness, is well-placed to keep on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your way of doing that is to insert history into your story, or your story right into history?

IAN McEWAN: Yes. I mean, if you set a novel in the mind of a thinking man going about his day, on such a day, Feb. 15, inevitably he is going to dwell on this. He doesn't really know, unlike many people around me, he doesn't really know his own mind almost. He's very torn; he thinks the occupation will probably be a mess, and he's sort of against it. But there's another part of him that just longs for Saddam Hussein to be overthrown. In that sense, he's rather rootless, but from my point of view, ambivalence is much richer than certainty. (Emphasis added)

Yes, 'ambiguity is much richer than certainty', the voice of a true imperialist.

Again, one may agree or disagree with McEwan's perspectives on this. One may even disagree with the kind of ambivalence about the Iraq War which he summed up in the interview partially quoted by Hundal (I quoted this in my previous piece too, but I think it's important so here it is again):

I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it. (Emphasis added)
However, whatever one thinks of this point of view, it should on no account be (mis)used to suggest the following, as Hundal does:

Those who want a more intelligent approach to dealing with the issue are told that anything less than an overwhelming military response means giving in to the enemy.

Is this really what McEwan said? Really?

Is McEwan expressing his support here for the American will-to-supremacy, his belief in the ultimate superiority of American culture and the desire for Americans to impose their culture on other peoples? Or is he expressing an insightful critique of the all-too-easily won moral superiority and smug certainty of one section of the anti-war movement. (Even as someone who opposed the war, I can tell you that I think McEwan's point was worth making.)

Even in the case of Rushdie, I think it is impossible to make the argument that Sardar/Hundal do that the 'Blitcons' (oh how I hate this word...) have a 'simplistic view of the world, rather like that of George Bush'.

Well, let's take a look at the same pre-war interview of Rushdie that Hundal cites. Rushdie, indeed, makes the case that insufficient attention was being given (particularly by the left) to the atrocities in Iraq, and he suggests that a genuine 'war of liberation' in Iraq may be justified. He even has some ringing lines about supporting a war to remove Saddam, but a careful reading suggests that they are hedged in by a lot of qualifying commentary.

To be honest, I find Rushdie's argument here somewhat ambivalent and confused. However, it is only possible to label this as a 'neocon' view if anyone who supported the war, with any amount of doubt and qualification and from any point of view is a neocon. And this would seem to be an unjustifiable extension of the term. (As confused as Rushdie's commentary is, though, it's far more subtle and thought-out than Hundal's.)

Where, for example, is the simplistic, neoconservative viewpoint in the following?

Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Takrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell. This pretty obvious truth is no less true because we have been turning a blind eye to it - and "we" includes, until pretty recently, the government of the United States, an early and committed supporter of the "secular" Saddam against the "fanatical" Islamic religionists of the region. [Note: If this last line sounds familiar, it is: Hundal made largely the same complaint about 'arming Iraq', and if you scroll up again you'll find it.]

And where, precisely, is the heartless 'Blitcon' who is primarily concerned with ensuring that 'their children can feel safe on the tube' and whose 'primary concern is their only safety, even if means thousands continue to die in other countries' in the following comments from Rushdie?

It should, however, be said and said loudly that the primary justification for regime change in Iraq is the dreadful and prolonged suffering of the Iraqi people, and that the remote possibility of a future attack on America by Iraqi weapons is of secondary importance. A war of liberation might just be one worth fighting. The war that America is currently trying to justify is not. (Emphasis added)
Hundal's screen of deceptive verbiage gets even better. At a later point, he says, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Al-Qaida may be the new global enemy but Osama bin Laden and his minions have played little obvious part in Hamas or Hizbullah's suicide attacks in the past. Turning a conflict over land into an ideological clash of civilisations only makes this intractable problem worse - and that is exactly what the neocons and al-Qaida are trying to do.

OK. It may in fact be true that both 'the neocons' and al-Qaida are trying to do that; however, the issue at hand is whether the writers in question have been furthering this goal. (We're talking about the 'Blitcons' Mr. Hundal, please do try to keep your eye on the ball. But...erm, the Israel-Palestine question really just 'a conflict over land'? I think you may have missed something there.)

Throughout both pieces, there has been a continuous (and very, very obvious) elision between McEwan-Rushdie-Amis and 'neocons' so, yes, I think we can assume that Hundal wants them included in this over-simplistic effort to reduce all issues to a 'clash of civilisations'.

Well, have they?

Let's see. Rushdie put it this way recently:

SPIEGEL: Of course there can be no justification for terrorism. But nevertheless there are various different starting points. There is the violence of groups who are pursuing nationalist, one might say comprehensible, goals using every means at their disposal ...

Rushdie: ... and there are others like al-Qaida which have taken up the cause of destroying the West and our entire way of life. This form of terrorism wraps itself up in the wrongs of this world in order to conceal its true motives -- an attack on everything that ought to be sacred to us. It is not possible to discuss things with Osama bin Laden and his successors. You cannot conclude a peace treaty with them. They have to be fought with every available means.

SPIEGEL: And with the other ones, the "nationalist terrorists," should we engage in dialogue with them?

Rushdie: That depends on whether they are prepared to renounce their terrorist struggle under a certain set of conditions. That appears to be showing at least initial signs of working with the Basques of ETA. I think we have Bin Laden to thank for that to no small extent -- the Basque leaders didn't want to be like him. And with the IRA it was the loss of credibility among their own people, who no longer saw any point in fighting violently in the underground. Remolding former terrorist organisations into political parties in the long term is at least not hopeless. It might work with those groups that are not primarily characterized by religious fanaticism -- the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, a group which virtually invented suicide bombings, have no religious background at all. They have clear objectives: an independent state.
(A comment which should also be sufficient to respond to Hundal's bizarre implication that the 'Blitcons' think that all obscene violence - such as suicide bombing - is somehow Islamic: 'We are solemnly informed by each of the three above', Hundal claims, 'that American and British foreign policy had very little to do with shaping that nihilistic mindset. If this is all to do with militant Islam, why were some of Hizbullah's suicide bombers secular and others Christian?' Well, I assume that this is because none of these writers assumes - and have in fact all stated quite explicitly that they do not believe - that radical Islamism is the only form of insanity around these days.)

And then Hundal provides us with this little logical gem:
Zia Sardar's critics say none of the three were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war or big fans of George Bush but that misses the point.

No. No, no, no. No.

It is precisely the point. The argument that Sardar made was that these three authors promoted a 'neo-con' agenda. He defined the 'Blitcon project' as based on three 'conceits' (and I quote): 1) 'the absolute supremacy of American culture' 2) 'Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation' and 3) 'American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world'.

Thus, the central issue (perhaps the only issue) in responding to this ridiculous, simplistic and thought-killing exercise of Sardar's is, in fact, to analyse what these authors have said and written in the light of these accusations.

Because if one does that, one finds that all three of them have been critical of US actions in Iraq and elsewhere, have drawn attention to the ambiguities and ambivalences inherent in reacting to the present world, have sought to express the complex nature of violence and terrorism, have carefully distinguished between Islam and the radical ideologies related to it, and have expressed the problem of a broader conflict between reason and irrationality (does Hundal think that any of these writers is unaware of - or in agreement with - the 'Christian evangelicals in the American heartland' which he mentions?)

I think one must conclude that rather than an exercise in complex thought, this little name-calling game is an exercise in the opposite of thinking, and it is based upon a caricature that can only be sustained by twisting the actual comments of these writers into shapes that have little to do with the forms they took when uttered.

One may agree or disagree with their arguments, by all means. Even vehemently. But in the process can we please avoid the sort of cheap intellectual dishonesty which makes real debate impossible?

Die, miserable Blitcon meme, die...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Number one super guy...

Joe Barbera died on Monday. Oddly enough, we were looking up a clip of Hong Kong Phooey last night.

Hanna-Barbera cartoons were a frighteningly important part of my childhood.

And I was especially fond of this guy:

Carl Sagan remembered

December 20th marks the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death. Via Boing Boing I've run across this excellent blog, 'Celebrating Sagan' which seems to be collecting material remembering him. (The 'sounds of Sagan' on the right sidebar is definitely a highlight.)

Joel's Humanistic Blog is also helping to organise a blog-a-thon on Sagan's life and work. He has posted a useful list of Sagan-related material online.

And then there's the man himself:

'The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.' 'Wonder and skepticism', Skeptical Inquirer, 1995

I'm far from a Sagan expert, but I have very fond memories of watching him on TV when I was a young boy (mostly public television). I still think of him sometimes whenever I say the word 'billions'.

So, let this small comment (and link to people who know more than I do) stand as a humble contribution to remembering him.

New Jersey is the new Kansas...

I have a new hero. Strangely enough, he's a braces-wearing high-school student from New Jersey.

His name is Matthew LaClair.

As reported in the New York Times (thanks to Butterflies and Wheels for the link), he was disturbed by the proselytising efforts of his history teacher, David Paszkiewicz. Concerned that school authorities wouldn't believe his story if he complained, he taped what Paszkiewicz said.

And what he said, really, is quite breathtaking:

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

(How timely, just yesterday I posted something with regard to 'flaming assholes'. There are so many...)

Now, this was apparently a high school constitutional history course, so you might be wondering (I know I am) what business Paszkiewicz had using his valuable class time wittering on about evolution not being science and urging students to accept Christ into their hearts.

I suppose it's not all that shocking to see someone making a confused evangelical rant. There are, after all, a lot of people around who hold views like that. Particularly in America, where about half the population seems to believe that the world is around 6,000 years old. People without the slightest idea of what science is, let alone the ability to critique it intelligently.

On one of the tape excerpts available at the Times article - which are unfortunately of rather poor quality - you can hear the usual line about evolution being simply another faith and also the one about the nasty state which unfairly prohibits people like himself from using their position of authority (and captive audience) to spread the gospel. It seems, indeed, that Paszkiewicz was well programmed at the creationist factory with all the standard-but-meaningless throwaway lines which only total idiots seem to find insightful and convincing.

So, the existence and activities of someone like Paszkiewicz are not at all surprising, even if he seems to have been a lot more brazen about shouting out the Good News in a public school than most of his ilk.

No, what is somehow surprising and disappointing (although I know it shouldn't be...when will I learn?!) is the reaction of those around him:

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.
(What the hell is going on there? A student gets a teacher in trouble and his classmates take the side of the authorities? What kind of obsequious generation of toadying ass-kissers is being cultivated at this school? That wouldn't have happened in my day, I tell ya...)

Here is an example of the kind of justification which people are using to stand up for a teacher who so clearly is abusing his position of authority to spread religious doctrine in a public school:

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his [Baptist] youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.”

No doubt Ms. Coelho learned about the First Amendment in Mr. Paszkiewicz's class, where I'm sure he spent rather less time on the part of it which forbids the establishment of religion and which has, over and over again, been interpreted to prohibit the sort of explicit preaching which this sad excuse for an educator engaged in.

Does that sound harsh? I hope so. No, really, I'm very skeptical that he really is - as the principal has stated - an 'excellent teacher'. The tape excerpts available online show him not only to be ignorant about the topics he discusses but also to be clearly imposing his fairy-tale view of the world on his students as...revealed truth.

By the evidence here, he is - like most fundamentalists, deep down - a bully.

He was not 'teaching'. I know what teaching looks like from both sides of the classroom. No, what Paszkiewicz was engaged in was indoctrination.

Furthermore, judging by his former student's comments above, it's clear that he spent so much time trying to save his students' souls he forgot to actually teach them anything about the subject they were supposed to learn.

To be honest, there seem to be more than one confused teacher at this school:

One teacher, who did not give his name, said he thought both Matthew and his teacher had done the right thing. “The student had the right to do what he did,” the man said. As for Mr. Paszkiewicz, “He had the right to say what he said, he was not preaching, and that’s something I’m very much against.”

No wonder he didn't want to give his name...since what he said makes no sense. Both of them, logically, cannot be right.

Moreover: Paszkiewicz was preaching and his behaviour was so clearly over the line that, as the Times notes, even people you would expect to be on his side don't support him:

“It’s proselytizing, and the courts have been pretty clear you can’t do that,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that provides legal services in religious freedom cases. “You can’t step across the line and proselytize, and that’s what he’s done here.”

Yes. And that should be apparent to anyone - even Christians - who are willing to honestly look at this case. But instead, as seems typical, this is going to be spun by the offended believers as an issue of 'rights' and 'free speech'. It is another opportunity for believers to cast themselves as martyrs of that bad-old, 'arrogant' secular worldview. Poor babies.

But very much like the reasonable sounding 'we just want to show both sides of the debate' discourse through which creationists try to package their extremist clap-trap, the 'free speech' angle here is disingenuous. People like Paszkiewicz are not interested in a serious, free, logical and open-ended debate. They are purveyors of revealed 'truth', a 'truth' which logically excludes other views. (Or, rather, which illogically excludes other views, but I think you know what I mean.)

They have merely adopted the language of reasonableness to push an extremist agenda.

I have to say that the more I examine even good-will attempts to somehow reconcile religion and science the more I think this is ultimately fruitless. I've been watching some of the video from the Beyond Belief conference earlier this year. Even ostensibly sophisticated calls to somehow find a common language for spiritualism and reason - such as the frankly bizarre and unconvincing critique of the arrogance of scientific certainty and 'locker room bravado' offered by Joan Roughgarden in session 3 - ultimately, I think, fall flat. (Roughgarden's talk, also available in different parts at YouTube, is, I find, really little more than a not-fully-reheated, sub-Thomas-Kuhn-style 'sociology of science' rant seasoned with badly applied discourse theory, whimsical spiritualist burblings, and a not very subtle personal-is-political agenda. Richard Dawkins's reply is quite good...even if, undoubtedly, some will find it 'nasty'. But I digress...)

Back to the topic with which I started: If ever there was a demonstration that the key issue is not one of arrogant secularism but rather one an aggressive and uncompromising fundamentalism, this New Jersey case is it. (Which is also discussed here and here at Pharyngula and which, incidentally, gave a reasonable and generous critique of Roughgarden's somewhat batty-sounding book on sexual selection.)

I don't know you Matthew, but I wish you the best.

You did the right thing, but I can imagine that high school is going to suck a little bit more than it usually does, surrounded, as you are, by a 'larger community' with more than its share of brainwashed fundamentalist yahoos. (Which is all the more worrying, as Ophelia Benson notes, since we're not talking about the rural hinterlands here but rather somewhere near New York City...)

[UPDATE]: Pharyngula urges: Leave a message of support for Matt on the local community's message board. I concur.

[UPDATE]: A letter from Paul LaClair, Matt's father, with a great deal more background on the case. Long, but well-argued and worth-reading.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Recalling the (not so) good old days...

Dr. Myers has been reminiscing about graduate school.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn't sound as if it was always the best time:

It is a fact that you will find honest-to-god flaming assholes in positions of considerable power in academia.

He is a biologist. I am a historian. But I can honestly say that this is ONE statement which bridges the two cultures.

Can I get this on a t-shirt?

Fortunately, there are also some quite wonderful, inspiring and very helpful people in academia (whether in positions of power or not). So, it's not all grim (and maybe no less grim than other fields of endeavour, but not being a banker or engineer, I can't say...)

His story is not a pretty one. It did, however, have a happy end. And it is instructive.


Speaking of flaming assholes... especially juvenile stunt organised by arch-Creationist (and arch-idiot) William Dembski is also discussed at Pharyngula.

In a response Richard Dawkins calls Dembski 'a real loser.'

Less pithy than Dawkins's usual ripostes. But no less accurate for that.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The L word

Though, I suppose, strictly speaking, there are two of them.

You may decide for yourselves which one you think is more accurate.

Colin Powell, as reported at today's New York Times:
“We are losing — we haven’t lost — and this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around,” General Powell said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”
Though, precisely what those kinds of strategies would be remains anyone's guess.

General Powell was deeply skeptical about proposals to increase troop levels in Iraq, an idea that appears to have gained ground as President Bush reconsiders the United States’ strategy there.

“There really are no additional troops” to send, General Powell said, adding that he agreed with those who say that the United States Army is “about broken.”


That doesn't sound promising.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The postmodern carnival

A special weekend guest posting from The Wife, who has been on a creative streak recently. This is good, as it means I don't have to come up with something worthwhile to say today. She's already beat me to it.

Pay attention.

I have recently had a few weird encounters with “radical constructionists” that seem to have disturbed me enough to want to share the experience with anyone who is willing to listen.

Not too long ago, I found constructionism a very appealing way of thinking about life. The notion that human identity is not mapped and shaped by nature – biology, genes, etc. – but rather by language and culture, is a curiously rewarding one.

Not only does the reference to the constructed nature of our selves entail immediate political rewards (unsurprisingly, the term “master discourse”, tattered though it has become in the eyes of some of us, flows with disturbing ease from the lips of individuals who have never even read a single line of Foucault), it also promises the subversion of these constructed constraints. If we are constructed by our culture, which in turn is entirely man-made, then nothing stops us from unmaking and redoing the norms according to which it works. Hence the continuing popularity, in academia and elsewhere, of terms like empowerment, subversion and performance. Only to use this slightly dusty jargon gives us a pleasant feeling of having resisted … something.

I must admit that I find these ideas increasingly dubious. Of course it is true that we all play roles and perform identities depending to where we are and who we talk to. But this insight is neither new (role theory was popular in the 1960s), nor does it plausibly support the argument that there is no part of our identity that is beyond the rules of culture and language.

This is not to dismiss the real power of culture over individuals and its function as a differentiating agent. Culture, to put it simply, matters. Specific groups at specific times and in specific places use it to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy, the powerful from the powerless. And don’t I know it? I grew up a non-believer in rural Catholic Franconia. For a while I tried to be happy as a German in Britain, learning that they are two countries separated, if not by a common language, then by a familial psychosis. And today I sport the scars I earned while surviving as a female academic in the testosterone jungle of a German university. Believe me, I'm all too aware of the culture and power nexus.

Social role-play is clearly both a product of and a means to sustain cultural differences and their effects. If you play well enough, it can also give you a tool to use these differences to your own benefit. I probably would be less troubled by my academic surroundings if I were a better actress (or more confident hypocrite). But while constructionists may be able to describe these cultural differentiations, they cannot explain (entirely) where they come from. Actually, come to think of it, I'm pretty certain that they don’t even really want to explain them - not least because the mere hint at the possibility that much of our culture may have a material – i.e. biological – base is considered “fascist” by cultural relativists.

Reality, however, proves such ideas wrong. Our bodies persistently remind us that they won’t be fooled by our self-constructions, unsettling us with undesired somatic responses such as flushing, sweating and trembling, and ultimately and inevitably, letting us down in the worst possible way by dropping dead. They are a powerful testimony to the limits of constructionism, but they also provide a convincing explanation as to why we have culture: culture consists of the stories we tell about how and why we react the ways we do. The dominance of our bodies over our lives also suggest something else. It reminds us that constructionism, as a set of theories that deny bodily reality, is a form of transcendentalism – a dream of going beyond the limits of these living, breathing, digesting, decaying - and finally expiring - bodies.

Not only is this aspiration futile, it reeks of hubris.

Furthermore, it echoes those theoretical precursors from whom many contemporary theorists wish to distance themselves. Rather than a radical rejection of the bête noire of Humanism, constructionism is its unloved love-child which denies its own paternity. But while being ashamed of your parents may be normal, erasing your ancestry ain’t so easy – in fact, it is wishful thinking.

Watching a recent lecture by Richard Dawkins has confirmed the sneaking suspicion I’ve been harbouring for a while, namely that the only place where we can ever expect to find subversion is material reality, including the body. (Thanks to onegoodmove for bringing this to my attention.) The title of the lecture, adapted from a quote from J. B. S. Haldane, is “Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science.” "Queer" is here used in a very general sense, meaning “strange” and not in the way contemporary literary and cultural theory has redefined it.

Only marginally linked to the term denoting homosexuality, “queering”, in Michael Warner’s words, broadly means "the resistance to regimes of the normal" (Fear of a Queer Planet). The buzzword is used by flocks of eager, aspiring and established academics to describe the subversive power of anything from real-life transvestism to literary style, from Madonna’s antics to Modernist polyphony. And, inevitably, South Park.

Two things have always troubled me about the concept of “queerness” applied in this fashion. First, “resistance to the normal” typically leads to the reinstallation of a new norm (or normative ideal), which is all-too-often pursued with its own authoritarianism. (This is the gist of a terribly nasty piece I once co-wrote on a celebrated novel by Michael Cunningham, which only pretends to transcend difference.)

Second: all this relativist norm-surfing boils down to is the kind of carnival which already Mikhail Bakhtin identified as society’s fun way of maintaining its hierarchies. Queering, then, is politically ineffective because its champions are only playing – they don’t bite (which is only appropriate, since in the ideology of harmonic relativism, biting is forbidden anyway).

What Dawkins explains in this lecture – taking Hamlet very seriously – is that our world is even queerer than we ever will be able to understand. Our petty, little academic queerings pale in the face of the absurdities that make up our reality and that will always remain beyond the reach of our theoretical games.

In this context, the way we see the world is indeed a construction, but it’s one over which we have little ability to influence and much of which happens beneath the level of cognition and language. As Michael Gazzaniga has argued, our relationship with the world is steered by the interpretation of reality of our brains.

I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Hard-core constructionists have it, at best, half-right: human beings certainly do “construct” the world (and, as social, language-using beings, construction usually takes place through narrative); nonetheless, it is wrong to suggest that those constructions either transcend the physical realities of our evolved bodies and minds or that they are limitlessly free-floating.

But see for yourselves what Dawkins has to say (and please just ignore the tiresome opening sequence brought to you by a particular, well-known Bavarian carmaker). His lecture is not only a brilliant exposition on the evolutionary processes which shaped our ability to make sense of our surrounding environment – what he calls the “middle world” – in a way which is meaningful, but, of necessity, limited.

It is also a wonderful testimony to good academic practice: calm, composed and unassumingly witty, Dawkins is refreshingly different from the egocentric histrionics of some of the self-appointed radicals I’ve had the "pleasure" to listen to over the years.

PS: There are some good discussions of similar issues over at Butterflies and Wheels, which can be found here and here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Scenes of fear and loathing

There is what looks like quite a remarkable exhibition of photographs by Hunter S. Thompson at M+B in Los Angeles.

From the press release:

Notoriously fond of firearms and hallucinogens, Thompson lived in his self-described "heavily fortified compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado. One of his most famous quotes summed up his anarchist and acerbic philosophy on life, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."

The photos are definitely worth a look.

And that's a good thing is it?

I have indeed heard (or, since the reviews are finally starting to come out on the book, read) my own work described in a variety of ways.

And, yes, not all of them have been pleasant.

However, it has fortunately never (as of yet anyway) been described as 'relentlessly spasmodic'.

This is apparently what Rock Sound magazine had to say about the latest album from Momus. It's unclear, though, whether he thinks this is a good thing or not.

I have to say...I'm not sure myself.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Orthogonal to reason

As my wife pointed out in these pages a few days ago, a truly spectral spectre is haunting intellectual thought these days: that of 'spirituality'.

As a timely reminder and example of that threat, I can think of nobody better than Deepak Chopra, who, as Dr. Myers at Pharyungula explains, has been blathering again:

I also don't know what Chopra means by this fuzzy word "wisdom" he's throwing out in his little essay, but he writes as if he thinks it is something completely orthogonal to reason, but of course it isn't—unreasoning people can't be wise, although they may pretend to it, and other irrational people may believe them. He's using the word in an utterly meaningless way, the same way his kind of people use the words "spirituality" or "vibrations" or "quantum", as subliminal tokens for indefinable emotions they might have; it's shorthand for empty pseudo-profundity. It's the hook the con artist uses to persuade his mark to fork over his respect, but it's all a lie.

The rest, as well as the other delightful essays Myers has written about Chopra, are well worth reading.


Chris Brooke asks:

As I get older, I get less and less interested in painting and more and more interested in architecture. Is this usual, or is this just me?

No, it's not just you. If I think about it, I'd have to say the same thing.

Though I really don't know why...

He must have been there in winter...

I've just finished reading Jack London's novel The Iron Heel. Written in 1908, the book is a dark dystopian vision of the creation of a brutal capitalist dictatorship - 'the Oligarchy' - and of the early, futile resistance to it by a dedicated band of revolutionaries. It is narrated from the point of view of an autobiography 'found' in some distant socialist utopia several centuries hence.

I'm sad to say (sad, since I do like some of London's other work) that it doesn't read very well and parts of it even reminded me of a left-wing version of Ayn Rand's fiction - which is a harsh judgement, I know - even if it is mercifully much shorter.

But it does have some redeeming qualities. The mixture of dystopia and utopia (which is hinted at in the 'footnotes' added to the main narrative) is intriguing and there are a few very harrowing and exciting passages (such as that recounting the doomed 'Chicago Commune').

I can't, in the end, improve on what Orwell said about it in 1940, in his essay 'Prophecies of Fascism', in which he compared it to H.G. Wells's The Sleeper Wakes (reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. 2, pp. 45-49):

As a book, The Iron Heel is hugely inferior. It is clumsily written, it shows no grasp of scientific possibilites, and the hero is the kind of human gramophone who is now disappering even from Socialist tracts. But because of his own streak of savagery London could grasp something that Wells apparently could not, and that is that hedonistic societies do not endure.

In this essay (which is what originally inspired me to read the book), Orwell denies what seems to have been a common opinion of his time, that The Iron Heel was an accurate forecast of fascism. He does, however, credit London with having insight into the difficulties of promoting a transition to socialism (something that Orwell - like London - advocated) and also into the psychology of fascism.

In an intellectual way London accepted the conclusions of Marxism, and he imagined that the 'contradictions' of capitalism, the unconsumable surplus and so forth, would persist even after the capitalist class had organized themselves into a single corporate body.

(Incidentally: that London 'accepted the conclusions of Marxism' is something I definitely do not recall learning when we read 'Call of the Wild' back in high school...)

But temperamentally he was very different from the majority of Marxists. With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in 'natural aristocracy', his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain. This probably helped him to understand just how the possessing class would behave once they were seriously menaced.

In any case, the book's 'footnotes' (added by an 'editor' writing from a post-Oligarchy socialist future) are full of references to real people, events and texts from London's time. My favourite has to be the following one, about a city which is very close to my heart:
Chicago was the industrial inferno of the nineteenth century A.D. A curious anecdote has come down to us of John Burns, a great English labor leader and one time member of the British Cabinet. In Chicago, while on a visit to the United States, he was asked by a newspaper reporter for his opinion of that city. 'Chicago,' he answered, 'is a pocket edition of hell.' Some time later, as he was going aboard his steamer to sail to England, he was approached by another reporter, who wanted to know if he had changed his opinion of Chicago. 'Yes I have,' was his reply 'My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.' (The Iron Heel, Penguin, 2006 [1908], 221)

(If anyone can confirm the original source for this quote, I'd be grateful: the only thing I can find online is a reference to Ashley Montagu referring to it sometime later.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Micro-fascism: the sequel that is irksome indeed.

Apparently someone has published a defense (in an academic journal, no less) of the article, 'Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism', which I wrote about not all that long ago.

That's not the irksome bit. What bothers me is that in taking issue with the the 'ill-informed, reactionary responses' to the article in question (in the words of he who has taken it upon himself to defend the original authors), my own carefully crafted blog posting and article are not even mentioned.

What, wasn't I being ill-informed, reactionary or 'micro-fascist' enough? How disappointing.

Still, the new article (and a whole bunch of well-informed responses to it) can be found here at badscience.

Life, the universe and the awe of understanding

On one of my recent London research stints, a good friend took me to one of his local pubs, where - strangely, I thought - there were an awful lot of books ranged around on different shelves. Apparently, they were for sale (for a mere 50p dropped in an honesty box) and went to benefit the local green party. My pal found a rather decrepit but still endearing edition of a comic collection he fondly recalled from his youth, and after we'd sat down, I noticed on the shelf next to us a copy of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series.

I had read and re-read the series countless times as a teenager, it being one of the key common cultural interests in my circle of friends, who had committed long passages to memory; however, I hadn't looked at the books for years, and somehow my copies got lost or sold in one of my many changes of address.

So I bought it (there seemed something so cosmically right about buying a Hitchhiker book in a pub...) and, of course, I enjoyed it very much.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help feeling somehow sad every time I laughed. That morning in 2001 when my radio alarm told me Adams had died far too suddenly and far too young is for some reason deeply embedded in my mind.

In any case, re-reading that long-lost favourite has had me tracking down bits of Adams-related material online (there is, happily, quite a lot of it), and I've discovered things I never knew about him, such as that he climbed mount Kilimanjaro dressed as a rhino to benefit a wildlife charity and once played guitar onstage with Pink Floyd. (Which is doubly impressive to me, as Pink Floyd was one of the other key cultural touchstones of my youth...)

I'd also never realised that he was, as he put it, a 'radical atheist'. There's quite a good interview with him from American Atheist available online.

One very nice line: 'I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.'

Me too, Douglas, me too.

Also of note: his memorial service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church was the first online broadcast by the BBC from a place of worship.

Even in death, he got the last laugh.

(On science and awe, see also this post - with video - at onegoodmove. Thanks to Geoff Coupe for bringing it to my attention).

Monday, December 11, 2006

The theory and practice of literary (mis)reading

As even semi-regular readers of this blog will realise, there are many things with which I strongly disagree. Nonetheless, there is an important distinction to be made between views with which one is at odds but nevertheless respects and those which – by virtue of their ignorance, hypocrisy, poorly-thought-out intellectual foundations or viciousness – are simply to be dismissed.

A good example of the latter is offered at the New Statesman by Ziauddin Sardar. (A mercifully shorter version which still gives you the important bits is also available at the Guardian's comment site.)

Sardar is in a snit about what he dubs ‘Blitcon’ literature, a kind of British literary neoconservatism which, in his opinion, is represented by Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. (If you're surprised to see these three very different authors lumped together this way, then, no, I assure you, you're not alone. I was dumbfounded too.)

Initially, I must admit to the sense while reading this piece that it was written simply to allow Mr. Sardar to deploy what he must think is this very clever neologism in the hopes that it will sprout vigorous little meme-like wings and make a name for himself in the hothouse world of the chattering classes. And that’s fair enough, I suppose. I mean, real flashes of innovative thinking are rare enough things (including for yours truly), so when what feels like a genuine brainwave comes along, it’s perfectly understandable that you just want to shout it out joyfully to the world.

Sadly, though, in this case, the nifty new word has little substance (and much silliness) backing it up.

Consider, for instance, its intellectual framework, signalled in the introduction, which asserts that famous novelists are now like 'international brands':

Novelists are no longer just novelists - they are also global pundits shaping our opinions on everything from art, life and politics to civilisation as we know it.

And this is new is it, this effort by novelists to have an impact on the world around them and influence opinion? Dickens, Zola, Lawrence and the rest of them were just sort of fiddling about with cute little imaginary worlds, what? When exactly was it that novelists were ‘just novelists’? Wolfe? Vonnegut? Orwell? Sinclair Lewis? Defoe? Swift?

(Hell, even Douglas Adams tried valiantly to shape people’s opinions about nature and technology.)

And then there’s that curious little ‘we’.

It gets better…

What we want from them is clear: insight into the human condition.

You see: there’s that pesky ‘we’ again. I’m not so sure what and how Ziauddin Sardar reads his novels, but I question whether the relationship between writer and reader is really so ‘clear’?

Do people always simply seek ‘insight into the human condition’ from literature? Don’t some of them seek also entertainment and a good story? Indeed, some might wish to expand their intellectual horizons; others, however, merely want to have their existing assumptions confirmed. (I think I may not be going on too much of a limb if I suggest that, judging by his subsequent attack on Rusdie, Amis and McEwan, Sardar is among the latter.)

Some seek humour, some an excuse to cry. Some are bored, while others just want to be able to keep up with what others are reading so they won’t be known as philistines. Some just want to be seen carrying books around.

So, no, I don’t think the reason people read literature is ‘clear’ at all, even though I would agree that one aspect of literature is, of course, an engagement with what it means to be human.

But, weirdly, Sardar here presents an image of passive, hopeful – and largely empty-headed – readers who seek wisdom from those anointed geniuses we call novelists. This perspective serves a useful purpose for Sardar: it grants authors an, ahem, authority (potentially misused) which justifies his obsession with ‘literary neoconservatism’.

The sinister potential of wayward novelists established, we move on to discussing the real world, or at least some version thereof:
From the most favourable conditions in human history, we have generated terror, war and a proliferation of tensions grounded in mutual fear and hatred.

No, Mr. Sardar, ‘we’ have not generated all of this – please, could you be a bit more precise about who is to blame? (Though, as we shall see, this is, for Sardar, a fundamental problem indeed.)

And what’s this about ‘the most favourable conditions in human history’? I assume that as a good leftist (I assume this is where he would locate himself, based on his rhetoric…) Sardar is aware of the massive inequality in wealth, the increasing competition for raw materials and the many irrational and vicious ideologies which characterise the world which we – 'we' as in all of us – share. (Not to mention the fact that ‘tensions grounded in mutual fear and hatred’ seem to be among those things which we could safely describe as characterising more or less all periods of human history.)

OK, so far in this essay we have already encountered a fairly delusional vision of literature, novelists, readers and reality. Not bad for a few hundred words, but at this point in Sardar’s essay, things then turn toward the specific. Specifics – rather than just vague and ponderous abstractions – often make arguments better.

Here...that is not the case.
The British literary landscape is dominated by three writers: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. All three have considered the central dilemma of our time: terror. […] In their different styles, their approach and opinions define a coherent position. They are the vanguard of British literary neoconservatives, or, if you like, the "Blitcons".

And there I was thinking that the British literary landscape was dominated by J.K. Rowling, hordes of Helen Fielding clones, violent militaristic thrillers a lá Andy McNab and masses of scenic, tourist-friendly historical kitsch.

Perhaps Sardar means serious literature, even if this kind of distinction would probably go against his apparent disdain for such elitist canon-defining divisions. Were this so, he hasn’t been paying attention, as there have been plenty of writers on the British scene who have mouthed opinions which have been far more to Mr. Sardar’s liking (you know, showing contempt for America, blaming terrorism solely on the West, etc.) Admitting this would undermine his neat vision of the Rushdie-Amis-McEwan troika’s dark hegemony, but it would have had the benefit of more closely matching reality.

Reality, however, doesn’t seem to be Sardar’s main concern, and his essay not only quickly verges off into a rather desperate attempt to identify commonalities among his Gang of Three but it also grants them far more influence than they most likely have. After all, not even another best-selling book, written by Washington insiders and released last week, seems to be having all that much affect on Bush administration policymaking. Considering his disdainful opinion of the literary landscape, it is ironic that it is only from a perspective within the small, incestuous and self-important British literary world that his own arguments would be taken seriously.

But let us pretend to take this seriously for a moment.

The Blitcon project is based on three one-dimensional conceits.

Said conceits are 1) celebrating the absolute supremacy of American culture 2) identifying Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation and 3) asserting that American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world. (Incidentally, do three, one-dimensional conceits equal a single three-dimensional one? I'm just wondering.)

Though I’m most familiar with Ian McEwan, even a brief consideration of Rushdie’s and Amis’s recent ‘literary soundbites’ suggests that Sardar has presented a terribly narrow (indeed, one-dimensional) characterisation of their views. (And, incidentally, I'm not a particular fan of either man's work.)

In a recent interview with Spiegel, Rushdie responded to a question about the role of Western foreign policy in driving terrorism.

See if you can spot the Islam hatin', American-supremacy-lovin’ neo-con in these words:

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.

Rushdie goes on to cite Lenin’s depiction of terrorism as ‘bourgeois adventurism’ (so, not as something specifically Muslim), identifies at least one important factor in terrorism as human (and particularly male) psychology, and differentiates between terror's role in nationalist causes and it's centrality in movements bent on nihilistic destruction.

As to the greatest threat facing civilisation, Rushdie is rather more ecumenical than Sardar admits:

Rushdie: Fundamentalists of all faiths are the fundamental evil of our time. Almost all my friends are atheists -- I don't feel as though I'm an exception. If you take a look at history, you will find that the understanding of what is good and evil has always existed before the individual religions. The religions were only invented by people afterwards, in order to express this idea. I for one don't need a supreme "sacred" arbiter in order to be a moral being.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps not, but many people seem to need a god. Religions worldwide are experiencing a comeback. Striving for spirituality is more pronounced than ever. Is this a negative development in your opinion?

Rushdie: Yes.

Agree or disagree, but I think it’s difficult to twist this into some kind of anti-Islamic prejudice. (Besides, as Ophelia Benson has pointed out, there just might be a fairly good reason why Mr. Rushdie is a bit sensitive about Islamic fundamentalism. Lest we forget.)

Much the same could be said of Amis. He has certainly expressed hostility and contempt toward violent Muslim extremists bent on causing civilian carnage (but…isn’t that...a good reaction?). However, many of his public comments have, again, suggested that the problem lies in the general - and historically recurring - emergence of ‘death cults’ which seduce young men into joining their fanatical crusades. Amis seems careful to distinguish 'Islam' from 'Islamism'.

Let's consider one of Amis's comments, which is even cited (though it was possibly not carefully read) by Sardar.

Amis said:

So, to repeat, we respect Islam the donor of countless benefits to mankind, and the possessor of a thrilling history. But Islamism? No, we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination. More, we regard the Great Leap Backwards as a tragic development in Islam's story, and now in ours. Naturally we respect Islam. But we do not respect Islamism, just as we respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta.

Seems clear enough.

He goes on to refer to Donald Rumsfeld as ‘the architect and guarantor of the hideous cataclysm in Iraq’.

Yeah. Very neo-con, that.

Of the three authors in question, though, I think it is Sardar’s efforts to tar Ian McEwan – via his most recent novel, Saturday - with the 'Blitcon' label which is the most desperate and absurd.

Let’s follow the logic, shall we? Hang on tight, it’s a twisty journey!

Sardar starts by accusing Amis of being ‘obsessed with the preservation of the [literary] canon’ based upon his assertion in The War Against Cliché that the only writing which matters is that of ‘talent’. Amis’s alleged ‘obsession’ is transferred through a (terribly visible) sleight of hand to McEwan.

If we are to read McEwan's beliefs and intentions through his fiction, the western canon is the very essence of humanity.

OK, first wrenching-twist-in-logic first, and one which literature students should, I would think, learn in their first class in their first year of study: the author and the narrator are two different things. (Say it with me…now repeat five times.)

, I think it's fair to say, authors put words in the mouths of their characters with which they do not fully agree, or even with which they disagree. I hate to state the breathtakingly obvious, but sometimes the ‘intentions’ of an author are obscured in a text (not least by things such as irony). Sometimes authors use fiction to express the ambiguities and ambivalences of ‘the human condition’ or of the politics of the day.

Can we agree on this? Good.

Now, back to the winding logical road:

His novel Saturday (2005) is set on 15 February 2003, when almost two million people marched in London to protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. Its neurosurgeon protagonist, Perowne, is a "professional reductionist" who cannot appreciate great literature. In order to cure him, his daughter, Daisy, spoonfeeds him Flaubert, Tolstoy and other "Great Writers". We are supposed to see this as a joke. But the joke evaporates as soon as we realise that Saturday really assigns a mystical dimension to western literature: the poetry of Matthew Arnold not only serves as an antidote to brutish violence, but literally saves the day at the end of the novel. As a corollary, we are forced to conclude, those who have never read War and Peace, for example, are not fully human.
Re-read, if necessary, that last bit carefully. Somewhere between ‘…at the end of the novel.’ and ‘As a corollary…’ there appears a vast and yawning chasm which no sane logic, I think, can possibly leap: since in a novel a certain type of poetry (white, dead, male…) plays a crucial role in defusing a violent situation, the author must be diminishing the humanity of those who in the real world are not well-versed in it.

This we are 'forced' to conclude.


Has Sardar even read Saturday? Would it in any way have seemed realistic that its two lit-obsessed characters (one an old-school literary curmudgeon, the other a precocious - and somewhat precious - student, neither of whom - incidentally - is depicted in an unquestionably positive fashion) started spouting Islamic verse? Would something more aboriginal have been more appropriate? Should McEwan have depicted them responding with something more suitably post-colonial in the context of the tense scene of latent violence they face? And just what does Sardar have against Matthew Arnold anyway??

Beyond McEwan’s apparent interest in quality literature, though, what seems to irk Sardar is McEwan’s subtle critique of the moral certainties of those who opposed the Iraq war, expressed through his protagonist, Henry Perowne.

Indeed, we don’t have to guess where McEwan’s own position lay. He has, quite openly, suggested that Perowne’s internal debates about the war indeed contained elements of his own concerns.

SPIEGEL: In your book, the Iraq war still hasn't happened yet. And the day in which the book takes place, Feb. 15, 2003, is the day in which massive peace demonstrations took place in London. Henry's daughter Daisy is among the protesters and he is full of ire and sarcasm about them. He doubts they can rightfully claim morality for themselves. Do these passages echo your own ambivalent views on the matter?

McEwan: Yes, it does. I never thought that in the run up to the war we were discussing simply the difference between war and peace. We were discussing the difference between war and continued torture and genocide and abuse of human rights by a fascist state. I missed any sense of that complexity in the peace camp. I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it.

Sardar may possibly disagree with this view (in fact, I’m quite sure he would), but it verges on intellectual slander to construe the complex ambivalence which Perowne embodies (and which McEwan states) as expressing the view that ‘American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.’

Sardar may be interested in reading (or rather in not-reading) McEwan’s book, The Innocent (set in the early Cold War), which presents a not-all-too flattering view of American power. He might, furthermore, not-consider Atonement’s horrifying depiction of war and its subtle questioning of the role of an all-too-idealised historical memory in British identity. He may wish to carry on not-reading McEwan’s excellent (and underrated) book Black Dogs, which, through its characters’ meditations on post-Second World War Europe, is directly concerned with violence and the all-too-human capacity for destruction.

An excerpt:

As they drank from their water bottles, he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than any one could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise.
[Black Dogs (1992. London, 1998), pp. 164-65]

I may be being particularly stubborn about this, but considering McEwan’s writing on topics such as war and the human potential for horror, I see a distinctive lack of Western triumphalism, anti-Islamic fervor or justification for imperialism.

Finally, keeping in mind the haunting beauty and nearly endless sadness of a passage such as that above, it is all the more infuriating to re-encounter the clanking, self-important prose of Sardar’s conclusion:

The real world is not a fiction. The ideology of mass murder has a history and a context in all its perversity and evil. But the wild imaginings of the Blitcons are not an appropriate guide to the eradication of this horror. Turned to this end, the manipulative power of literary imagination is nothing but spin. And such spin is simply hatred answering, mirroring and matching hatred. Like minds reach across intervening swaths of the world and, in their hatred, embrace each other. That is all Blitcons tell us. But it is hardly enlightening for those of us desperate to find a sustainable path from destruction and slaughter.

There is indeed a lot of spin on offer, but not at the hands of the authors who are maligned here.

Beyond that, I'm not sure that this paragraph tells us anything at all.

Considering not only the blinkered and simplistic view of literature but also his apparent blind spot regarding the causes of destruction and slaughter (e.g., religious and ideological fanaticism of all kinds), I hope I am not alone in finding more value in the insights of writers such as McEwan or Amis than in the ‘wild imaginings’ of Mr. Sardar.