Thursday, 30 April 2009

Faith, evolution and secularism: a couple of links

Never let it be said that you only read negative stuff about religion on this blog. Here's a couple of links to thoughtful pieces written from a believing perspective:

On yesterday's Today programme, John Humphrys interviewed an American scientist, apparently a good friend of Richard Dawkins, who argued against the teaching of 'intelligent design', which he saw as little more than creationism with new window-dressing. The surprise of the interview was when the scientist revealed himself to be a practising Roman Catholic. You can read Professor Kenneth Miller's thought-provoking explanation of why an understanding of evolution deepens rather than threatens his Christian faith here.

And here's Red Maria, also writing from a Catholic perspective, on why Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor should refuse the offer of a seat in the House of Lords when he retires as Archbishop of Westminster. As I've always argued, religious faith and secularism (rightly understood) are not incompatible: indeed, a clear separation of church and state is ultimately in the interests of believers.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Eagleton's evasions

Whenever I read anything by Terry Eagleton (see these posts), I understand what Bob and others mean by the roccoco left. Eagleton's column in yesterday's Guardian was positively baroque, byzantine even. I challenge anyone to summarise the article in a few simple sentences, or to identify a coherent, logical argument in its multiple twists and turns. This may be because it was a boiled-down version of a longer review piece in the latest London Review of Books. Or it may be because, like previous Eagleton articles, it uses many of the bewildering rhetorical sleights-of-hand that we've come to expect from partisans of the pseudo-left.

The piece starts off innocently enough, reflecting on the ways that 'the liberal state deals with its anti-liberal tendencies', and arguing that the war on terror has prompted a 'crisis of liberalism'. So far, so familiar, and Eagleton even hints at sympathy with anti-totalitarian liberals when he wonders how you can remain open to the 'Other', when 'the Other detests your openness as much as it does your lapdancing clubs'.

But then there's an odd bit about how 'socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state, so what is to be done about them?' Then Eagleton backtracks, remembering how the working-class movement fought to secure many of our basic liberties. Even so, he concludes that 'there is a fundamental conflict between liberals and leftists', though he never really explains the nature of this. It's a misleading generalisation, of course, and only really applies to the revolutionary 'hard left' with which Eagleton once identified. (Does he still? I think we should be told. One of the consequences of Eagleton's allusive, evasive style is that it's impossible to pin him down, or identify precisely where he stands.) A couple of paragraphs later, he clarifies a little, arguing that the left 'objects to the liberal case...because it rules out the kind of partisan state that socialism requires'. It depends what kind of socialism you mean, of course. Eagleton's argument seems to gloss over the experience of communist totalitarianism and to sit loose to notions of socialist democracy.

Then, in the strangest move in the article, Eagleton has a go at all his least favourite secular, liberal, and anti-totalitarian writers, in one tightly-packed paragraph. See if you can make any kind of sense of this:

If the test of liberalism is how it confronts its illiberal adversaries, some of the liberal intelligentsia seem to have fallen at the first hurdle. Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism. Dawkins strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but preaches a self-satisfied, old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism that can be wielded against a benighted Islam. The philosopher AC Grayling has an equally starry-eyed view of the stately march of Western Progress. The novelist Ian McEwan is a freshly recruited champion of this militant rationalism. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.

Here, Eagleton seems like a drunk hitting out at any target that comes his way, hoping to land a punch on at least one of them. Do Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens really have a greater desire than anyone else to 'lock terrorists away'? And does that mean Eagleton thinks they shouldn't be locked up? And where's the evidence for their supposed 'western cultural supremacism'?  I don't agree with everything Dawkins has written, but calling his rationalism 'old-fashioned' merely avoids having to engage with his arguments. As for condemning his scepticism because it might be used against a 'benighted Islam': well, it can also be used against the right-wing Christianism which I would guess Eagleton opposes (does he?), and is 'benighted' an appropriate adjective in the context of (say) the Iranian revolution, or the Taliban victory in the Swat valley? As for Grayling and McEwan, they each get dismissed in a throwaway sentence. The former comes in for a longer condemnation in the original LRB piece, his offence apparently being that he dares to praises Enlightenment values without acknowledging that they have been responsible for western racism, imperialism, etc.  

Eagleton never really explains how he thinks such a diverse bunch of writers have become 'weapons in the war on terror' (assuming that's a bad thing). As in his suggestion that the agnosticism of Dawkins and Hitchens 'is part of late capitalism's everyday routine', Eagleton is a master of the classic pseudo-leftish 'guilt by association' move. If you can get your audience to see your opponents as part of a wider, sinister movement - the war on terror, neoconservatism, late capitalism, imperialism - this relieves you of the necessity of engaging with their arguments. (It's rather like the feature of po-mo leftism that I noticed in the previous post, where characteristing an idea as merely an expression of power becomes a substitute for debate.) Nowhere in this article does Eagleton argue that Dawkins is wrong about religion, or Hitchens mistaken about the reactionary character of Islamism, or present any evidence to counter their arguments.

In the final section of the article, Eagleton goes on the attack, accusing the writers he's mentioned of 'the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult.' To which one might respond: first, show me an example of this reductionism in any of these writers; second, you can't 'slander' a religion; and third, isn't it the likes of al Qaida and the Taliban, rather than western liberals, who have been responsible for any 'blood cult' associations?  Eagleton then suggests that the 'genuine liberal' is 'appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it.' This sounds like the politics of excuse. Try using this argument with any other kind of unsavoury politics and see if it works. Can you imagine Eagleton arguing that the 'genuine liberal' is appalled by the BNP, but conscious of the injury and humiliation that have inspired their views?

He then claims that none of the writers he's mentioned 'is remarkable for such balance' and concludes that 'they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule'. Are they, really? Again, Eagleton's piece is free from any quotations in support of his claims, so it's impossible to verify such sweeping statements. One might as easily reverse the sentence and say that Eagleton and his ilk are so caught up in their anti-imperialism that they neglect the importance of freedom of expression. Either way, the effect of such lazy rhetorical devices is to suggest that it's impossible to support both kinds of freedom.

After attempting to make sense of Eagleton's peculiar logic, one is tempted to play the same kind of rhetorical game as he does. If he can airily dismiss all the writers he disagrees with by tarring them by association with the war on terror, western supremacism, etc  - then what's to prevent me from characterising Eagleton's own pro-faith, anti-secular, anti-western leftism as 'merely' a manifestation of a left in terminal decline, or to argue that his attempts to 'understand' Islamist terror are dangerous because they provide a boost to reactionary fundamentalism?


I recommend the debate in the comments below - and also Russell Blackford's excellent post on Eagleton's piece, which includes this:

It sounds [...] as if Eagleton is getting very close to telling Dawkins and the others to shut up. The choice of the word "slanderous", which denotes a form of illegal speech, is very troubling. Is Eagleton seriously suggesting that the speech of Dawkins, etc., should be regarded as slander - as a form of defamation - and so prohibited? Perhaps not, but it would be a relief if he clarified this. If he doesn't actually want to use force to shut up his rationalist opponents, he's chosen his words poorly. Talk of slander may be colourful hyperbole, I suppose, but it's not very amusing at a time when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supported by other influential players such as the Vatican, is continuing its campaign to ban "defamation of religion".

Further update

And the comments just keep coming - probably more than for anything else I've written. Meanwhile Max provides some helpful links to other posts on the evasive Eagleton.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Some thoughts on the post-modern academic left

I was at a seminar the other day, when one of the speakers, a prominent feminist academic, made some remarks about racism after 9/11 that both annoyed me and prompted some thoughts about the inadequate response of the post-modern academic left (a broad-brush term, I admit, but I think you'll know what I mean) to recent world events. 

In her lecture, the speaker suggested that racism had not gone away in recent years, but since 9/11 had mutated into a hostility to the culture, values and religion of the (implicitly Muslim) 'other'. Part of my frustration at this claim (which wasn't followed up by considered argument, but was almost a throwaway line, as if the speaker knew her like-minded audience would instinctively agree) derived from the fact that I had spent the previous evening watching this compelling exchange between Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie (recommended by Max here), in which these two writers from Asian Muslim backgrounds argued passionately that white liberals should not hold back from criticising Islam out of a wrongheaded fear of causing 'offence' to particular faiths or cultures. Now this white, liberal academic appeared to be suggesting exactly the opposite: that any critique of Islamic ideas and practices was a manifestation of racism and therefore off-limits.

This prompted a number of thoughts. Firstly, that those elements of the academic left who cite (as did this speaker) Foucault as a major influence on their thinking, often have a remarkably un- or pre-Foucauldian take on the operations of power. As I read him, Foucault was trying to move away from what he saw as a crude Marxist view of power as only held at the centre - by the state - and operating in a unidirectional, transmission-belt kind of way, thinking of power instead as something dispersed throughout society and as having positive as well as negative effects. However, some of these po-mo post-Foucauldians seem precisely to assume that 'real' power only exists in one place - broadly, the capitalist / imperialist / racist west. All else is the  'resistance' of the powerless. Therefore, when any new event occurs in the world, the instinct of the po-mo leftist is to look beneath the apparent causes, to see how it's 'really' the result of actions by 'us'.  (I'm not suggesting, by the way, that because these people mis-read Foucault, the latter was somehow 'right': see this post for the political consequences of his theories).

Secondly, po-mo theorists like my feminist academic appear to have a strangely static and un-dynamic vision of the world, in which there's no room for progressive change. Rather than charting the ways in which racism, for example, has been fought over the years, and acknowledging that there might (just possibly) have been some diminution in oppression and discrimination, she instead conjured up a picture of racism as some unchanging, ahistorical 'thing', standing outside and looming above history, unable to 'really' change but capable only of appearing in new guises. This is philosophical idealism and reification, not historical materialism. So po-mo leftists see the military-industrial complex, or imperialism, or capitalism, not as dynamic, contested processes involving real people, but almost as entities with a transhistorical life of their own. It's close to a conspiracy-theory view of history, and perhaps helps to explain why some on the po-mo left have succumbed so easily to myths about the influence of the supposed Zionist lobby, etc.

Thirdly, I was reminded of how po-mo academic leftists have been unable to face up to the new phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalist terror, and instead have often tried to change the subject. When they discourse about the 'post-9/11 world', they're not interested in analysing the roots or nature of Islamist ideology. No, they'd much rather talk about the west's reaction to it - the supposed threats to our liberties, the rise of 'Islamophobia', and so on - as if this was the 'real' story. What a gift the Bush administration's response was to this brand of leftist theorist! The Patriot Act, Guantanomo, Iraq - these all enabled po-mo leftists to turn their attention back to something they felt comfortable criticising - yet another manifestation of that same old western power complex. You could almost hear the sighs of relief in the seminar rooms and lecture halls.

Of course, if po-mo theorists don't succeed in changing the subject, and end up having to engage with the phenomenon of militant Islam, all they can do is attempt to fit it into familiar categories. If 'the west' is the only real nexus of power in the world, and is unequivocally oppressive, then those who oppose it must be the 'resistance', and therefore progressive. So you get the distasteful phenomenon of leading feminist theorist Judith Butler claiming that the misogynist, racist Hamas are part of the 'global left.' Or the media studies professor, injured in the 7/7 attacks, writing an imagined 'open letter' to one of the bombers, in which he attempted to 'understand' their rage at British foreign policy, while wishing they had chosen a different means to express it. Can you imagine someone injured in the bombing of a gay pub a few years back writing to the homophobic bomber trying to 'understand' his anger at anti-discrimination legislation? - and yet the perpetrators of 7/7 were just as reactionary and anathema to all progressive values. Or imagine a left-wing academic in the Thirties suggesting that, since Nazism was born out of anger at Germany's humiliation by the European powers, it was part of the global resistance to capitalism (hmm, having read Nick Cohen's book, maybe that's not so unimaginable).

These are unconnected, semi-articulate thoughts at the moment, but I'd be interested to hear of any more considered critiques of post-modern academic leftism, in the wake of 9/11. One of the reasons I find the whole thing so annoying and frustrating is that people who express these views are often those whose work I've admired in the past - people who have fought against oppression and inequality, but now seem to be avoiding facing up to the biggest threat to progressive values in the world today.  More on all of this another time, perhaps.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Seven more songs of spring

Has it really been a year since I was last tagged for that 'seven songs' game? Now it's come round again, and TNC has sent me this message:

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they're listening to.

OK then, in no particular order, here goes:

Mor Karbasi, 'Shecharhoret', from The Beauty and The Sea
I've been playing this album pretty continuously since Christmas, and this is probably my favourite (and the most haunting) track on it. See this post for an earlier mention of Karbasi's music.

Paquito d'Rivera, 'Linda's Moody', from The Best of Latin Jazz
I was turned on to Paquito by my clarinet/saxophone teacher, and put this sweet, laid-back song on my iPod, along with a load of other Latin jazz tracks, in preparation for our recent trip to south Florida.

Bobo Stenson Trio, 'Song of Ruth', from Cantando
Nordic jazz is not to everyone's taste, I know, but this trio are not as ice-cold and rhythm-less as some other ECM artists. A lovely, simple, repetitive melody that gets inside your head and won't let you go.

Al Green, 'Fountain of Love', from Don't Look Back
Really difficult to know which track to choose from this underrated come-back album of a few years ago. My teenage son has just got into Green's music so it's pretty much always with us at the moment.

Neil Cowley Trio, 'Dinosaur Die' from Loud...Louder...Stop!
Piano, bass 'n' drums jazz, with rock tinges, from this always inventive band. Like the Stenson trio, they show just how imaginative you can be with very simple instrumentation and arrangements.

Ludovico Einaudi, 'The Waves' from Le Onde
I resisted Einaudi for a long time, put off by the Classic FM / easy listening associations, but succumbed after I was told that my own modest piano compositions sounded a bit like his. OK, so it's film music / wallpaper stuff, but done very well.

Major Boys Feat. Aurelia Ikor, 'Sous le Soleil (Cuba Acoustic Mix)' from Hotel Costes, Vol. 4
More ambient music, I'm afraid, but it has its place, and this has a real summery latin feel, so no apologies.

Now, who to tag? TNC has already nicked some of my regular blogging contacts, and I can't repeat the names I chose last time, so here are 7 more - I might get round to emailing them, but otherwise they can find their way here (it's hot this afternoon and I'm feeling lazy). As always, feel free to ignore if it's not your kind of thing - or if someone else has already got to you. I tag:

The other Martin

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Miami musings

Still feeling a bit jet-lagged after our extended journey home (see previous post), so in lieu of a coherent account, here are a few unconnected comments on our recent trip to Miami Beach:

On the outward journey I watched Frost/Nixon, which was much better than expected, overcoming my resistance to movie adaptations of stage plays - and anything to do with David Frost. Michael Sheen's impersonation of Frost was typically impressive, but it was overshadowed by Frank Langella's absorbing portrayal of the disgraced president. The climax of the movie, when Nixon comes as close as he ever did to admitting guilt, was both suspenseful and genuinely moving. 

I also watched the first episode of Generation Kill, the new drama from the team behind The Wire, which tells the story of a US marine company in Iraq through the eyes of an embedded reporter. If anything, it was even more enthralling than the Baltimore cop drama. Given the length of time it's taken the latter to reach British terrestrial TV, it looks like I'll have to make Generation Kill my next DVD boxed set purchase.

And so to Miami Beach, where the temperature hovered between 80 and 90 Fahrenheit for most of our stay: on the odd day it dipped down to the 70s, locals complained about the cold. This was definitely a week for relaxation rather than sightseeing, but we made sure we took in the main attractions of South Beach. The guide books will tell you that Lincoln Road Mall is now the place to see and be seen, and that Ocean Drive is tacky and only for the tourists. But although we frequented the Italian restaurants of Lincoln Road most evenings, and enjoyed late afternoon walks to Books & Books and the Ghirardelli chocolate shop, we also brought away fond memories of strolls along the beach-side walkway (where we saw part of the triathlon in progress on a humid Sunday morning) to view the Art Deco frontages of Ocean Drive.
Certainly the southern end of the strip is rather touristy - you're likely to be besieged on the sidewalk by waiters brandishing menus and claiming to offer the cheapest breakfast in town. But the top end of the road is somewhat 'tonier' (as they say over there), particularly early in the morning before the crowds arrive:

While we were in Miami I read Ann Louise Bardach's Cuba Confidential, which views the relationship between the US and Cuba through the prism of the Miami exile community, with a focus on the Elian Gonzalez affair, seeing the tragic history of the past fifty years as a tale of broken family relationships. It's a gripping account, packed with revelations about everyday life in Cuba, Cold War skullduggery and the vitiating influence of exile groups on American national politics (among others, the Bush clan and Joe Lieberman come out of it rather badly). As with all good books, I was left wanting to find out more: recommendations for books on Cuba - ones that don't glorify either Castro or American Cold War policy - would be very welcome.

One of the joys of holidaying in America, for obsessive followers of US politics like ourselves, is being able to watch uninterupted cable news, rather than brief video extracts via the internet as we do at home (yes, it's sad, I know). Our hotel room TV stayed tuned to MSNBC most days: we woke every day to Morning Joe, and on getting back in the evening sat down to great dollops of Hardball, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow: sheer luxury (we were less keen on the brand new Ed Schulz Show, a liberal mirror image of Fox News / Limbaugh-style ranting). One of the myths about the States perpetuated in Britain and Europe is that its media coverage of politics is superficial and sensational, compared to the supposed old-world gravitas of our own. As with many myths about America, almost the opposite is true. While the shows mentioned above have popular and accessible formats, they give political issues much greater time, seriousness and analysis than most programmes on British TV and radio, and their presenters and guest commentators display a greater knowledge of - and genuine belief in - the political process than many of ours.

Finally, South Beach is supposed to be a top location for celebrity sightings, but I think most of them had fled before the avalanche of spring break crowds. Our only confirmed sighting was of stand-up comic turned TV presenter Steve Harvey, apparently in town for a book signing - though our Argentinian-born taxi driver claimed that the previous week he'd transported Sharon Osbourne and 'that Mr. Piers' to the local auditions for America's Got Talent.

Monday, 13 April 2009

A marginal escape

We arrived home today from a week's holiday in Miami Beach: of which more another time. Our return was marred by an irritating and momentarily terrifying diversion. A few hours out from Miami on Saturday night, the pilot announced there was a smell of smoke in the cabin and that we'd be diverting to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our descent, through fog and driving rain, was distinctly hair-raising. At one point, there was a loud bang and flash of light, and we were convinced the plane had lost an engine. The next half an hour, until our bumpy landing at Halifax, was probably the most frightening of my life. It turned out the explosion had been lightning striking the aircraft: not as serious as we'd thought, but still distinctly disconcerting.

Our fear and relief soon turned to extreme weariness. After an hour waiting on the plane, we were 'de-planed' into a holding area for another hour or so, before being told that repairs would need to be done overnight, so we would be put up in local hotels. In the early hours of Sunday morning we were marched through Canadian immigration, then penned in the arrivals hall until buses could be found to transfer us to downtown hotels - another half hour's journey through driving rain, then queuing for a further hour and a half to check in. Finally, at about 7 local time yesterday morning, we fell into bed for a couple of hours fitful sleep. We woke to a damp, chilly Easter Sunday morning in Halifax, and to these views from our hotel window:

Without wishing to offend my Canadian readers, I'd have to say that Halifax is not a city I'd choose to visit, especially after a week in tropically hot Miami and en route home. We were hugely relieved to hear that our aircraft had been fixed and that we would be flying out on Sunday night, arriving back at Heathrow early on Monday morning. There was one last delay: a couple of inches of snow fell in Nova Scotia yesterday evening, and we spent a good hour on the tarmac, watching the ice being cleared from the plane's wings.

The worst thing about the diversion (leaving aside the temporary but very real fear of our imminent demise) is that it has all but erased the memory of our time in Miami. I'm hoping that a good night's sleep and then uploading my holiday photos to the computer will bring it all back - in which case, I'll tell you all about it in the next post.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Spring blog break

Typical. Just as we're about to leave for our first visit to America since Obama was elected, the man himself decides to leave the country for a few days.

It'll be quiet around here for a week or so, as we're off to Miami for a spot of sunshine.

Best wishes for Passover/Easter/ Spring to all my readers.

Playing at revolution

I wasn't feeling too well yesterday, so I spent an inordinate amount of time lying on the sofa, watching BBC News 24's coverage of the pre-G20 formalities, as well as the protests in the City.

A few disconnected thoughts on the latter:

At one level the organisation of the protest was impressive (four different marches converging at the same time on the financial heart of London), but it was odd that nobody had given any thought to what all those people would do when they arrived at their destination. As far as I could see there were no speeches, and very little in the way of planned entertainment. So you were left with the spectacle of thousands of people hanging around the Bank of England, wondering what to do next. It seemed like a complete failure of political imagination, and symptomatic of the intellectual bankruptcy of the anti-globalisation movement.

And that may be part of the explanation for the window-smashing at the Royal Bank of Scotland. It was as if the crowd, penned in by the police, were casting around for something to do to express their 'anger', and the bank's plate-glass windows presented an easy target. But there was something half-hearted and adolescent about the attack on the building, and the odd bit of jostling with the police. 

It also seemed like a show put on for the ubiqitous cameras. As well as the massive media presence, many in the crowd appeared to have come along just to record the event on their cameras, and even the serious protestors spent a lot of their time taking pictures of each other. Talk about society of the spectacle. And it was odd to hear activists bemoaning the materialism and greed of our society while wielding their iPhones and digital SLR cameras....

As for the make-up of the crowd, a large proportion of them seemed to be London University students out for an end-of-term carnival, plus a hard core of balaclava and keffiyeh-wearing activists playing at being revolutionaries for the day.

Sam Leith says it all much better here.

And for an alternative view read Martin Higson here.