Saturday 30 May 2009

Saturday afternoon saudade

Sarah Correia, who blogs at Caf√© Turco, is on the move: from Portugal to Norway. I wish her all the best, and hope she’ll carry on blogging from her new location.

Sarah writes in her post about saudade, a supposedly untranslatable Portuguese word meaning nostalgia tinged with fatalism and ‘strongly connected with the act of leaving’. It’s obviously a feeling shared by Portuguese speakers in other countries, including Cabo Verde. Here’s Cesaria Evora:

Reading Sarah’s post reminded me that it’s three years to the day since I visited Lisbon - drawn by my growing attraction to the language, literature and music of Portugal - and immediately fell in love with the city. To wish Sarah 'boa viagem', here's Mariza at the Torre de Belem, with the lights of Lisbon in the background, singing ‘Gente da minha terra’ (People of my land), a song that’s about as full of saudade as you can get. The fact that it’s a setting of a poem by Fernando Pessoa, perhaps the greatest Portuguese writer of the last century, is a bonus.

Friday 29 May 2009

The internet: social interaction for introverts?

Following a recommendation from The New Centrist (to whom warm congratulations are due, by the way, on the birth of a junior TNC), I've discovered Jonathan Rauch's website, which collects together the contrarian commentator's contributions to various print and online journals. Apparently the article of his which has prompted the most discussion is one in which Rauch poses this question:

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If this seems like someone you recognise, writes Rauch, then 'chances are that you have an introvert on your hands.' And Rauch confesses that the description fits him exactly:

Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or misanthropic. Usually. I am far from shy. I love long conversations that explore intimate thoughts or passionate interests. 

He goes on to explode many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that attach themselves to introverts. For example, they aren't shy or antisocial: unlike extroverts, they're just content with their own company:

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

I would guess that much of the interest in the article has been the result of readers recognising themselves in this characterisation. And here I'm going to propose a theory, based on little more than personal experience and speculation: introverts are probably over-represented among regular internet users, and especially among bloggers. My hypothesis is that the internet enables those who tend towards introversion (and yes, I include myself among them, though I usually hate all that Jungian / Myers-Briggsian categorising of people by 'type') to express themselves, interact with others, and even make friends, without all that awkward socialising-and-small-talk business, and to do all of this in their own time and at their own pace. For some of us, the advent of email was a blessed release from the exhausting routine of having to pick up the 'phone, or worse, arrange to actually go and see someone, with all its inevitable unpredictability and open-endedness. Blogging, and commenting on other people's blogs, is a further step forward for us introverted types, enabling us to engage in full-blown, back-and-forth debates, without any awkward eye contact: indeed, without ever leaving the cosy cocoon of home or office.

I was thinking about this the other evening, as I sat on the sofa with my laptop, composing a post in which I mentioned a certain author's book. Within the hour, and before I'd even got up from the sofa, said author had responded with a comment. In the meantime, I'd been reading the latest posts by my virtual 'friends', and catching up on emails from some of my online family history contacts. Just one little snapshot of how the internet has transformed this particular introvert's life.

Seems like they only had the vaguest inkling of all this back in 1969:

Thursday 28 May 2009

Recommended reading

I'll try and do some proper posting tomorrow, but in the meantime, here are a few recommendations:

Via Harry's Place: a speech by Elena Bonner, widow of Russian human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, in which she vigorously defends Israel's right to exist and expresses alarm at the rise in anti-Israel sentiment and anti-semitism.

From Oliver Kamm, an analysis of the 'degeneration of progressive idealism', and some qualifications from Bob.

Via Poumista (recently added to my blogroll), reflections on Portugal's cultural revolution, and its betrayal by the Stalinist PCP (which I wrote about here), 35 years on.

And from Martin Meenagh, some thoughts on President Obama's selection of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

God (TM)

Now here's a theological and political conundrum: who owns the rights to the name of God? According to the BBC

A Catholic church in Malaysia which prays to Allah has prompted a court case over who can use the word. Muslim leaders say Islam should be the only faith to use it, saying its use in other faiths could lead to confusion and conversions.

The priest at the church in question regularly directs prayers to  'Allah' during Mass, arguing that this is simply the accepted word for God in the national language. I was surprised to learn that this was controversial. I have a CD of medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic music from around the Mediterranean, which includes a traditional Lebanese Arabic version of the Kyrie eleison, in which God is quite clearly addressed as 'Allah'. This reflects the back-and-forth borrowings between Christianity and Islam: an example on the other side would be the Muslim veneration of Jesus and Mary (should Christians in the region have slapped a 'TM' label on those names?).

The controversy raises the question of whether Christians, Muslims and indeed Jews are all praying to the same God, or to different gods. From an atheist standpoint, all gods are human creations, so Allah, Yahweh and the Christian God are, in fact, distinctive projections of the human imagination, reflecting diverse historical and cultural contexts. For some fundamentalist Christians, too, 'God' and 'Allah' are substantially different beings: one good, the other evil. During the first Gulf War, I found myself (for family reasons) at a service in a charismatic Baptist church, where one of the elders prayed that our forces would prevail against the 'false religion' of Islam, behind which, he assured us, was not God, but the Devil.  

However, among mainstream Christians in these multi-faith times, it's common to claim that all believers, and especially those adhering to the three main monotheisms, are actually worshipping the same God, even if they differ about the details of his nature and identity. This has become increasingly important as 'people of faith' have found a common interest in defending religious interests against the supposedly 'aggressive' advance of secularism. But the Malaysian case is a challenge to the woolliness and fudge that surrounds these inter-faith discussions. Can the Christian God who demands faith in Jesus as his one true representative on earth really be the same Being who requires adherence to the Torah, or strict observance of the law of the Koran?

At another level, the Malaysian case is also one of religious freedom, and is a further example of militant Islam flexing its political muscles in certain parts of the world. But surely it's a sign of weakness, rather than strength, when a religion is worried that merely hearing God's name used by a different set of believers will lead to 'confusion and conversions'? 

Monday 25 May 2009

Alzheimer's and atheism

There was a very affecting piece in Friday's Guardian about a woman in her early 60s with dementia, and the experience of her husband and other carers. The article traced the progress of the condition, starting with an early premonition:

One night, shortly after Carla White had a blackout at work, she sat bolt upright in bed. 'She woke up and said to me, "I'm losing my brain"', says David, her husband. 'I think Carla knew straightaway. I almost find it eerie.'

After some years of caring for Carla at home, David now resorts to leaving his wife for long periods in a residential care home:

'The first time I visited she said something about coming home but now she never mentions it. I can sit there for half an hour and hold her hand. When I leave, there is no scene. I say, "See you next time." There's no point in saying "tomorrow" because she no longer understands what it means'.

The fear of dementia has almost overtaken that of cancer among people of a certain age. What could be worse than losing not only a lifetime's memories, but your very ability to remember, and with it your sense of who you are and have been as a person? (There's a poignant moment in John Bayley's memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch's descent into dementia when she asks him, 'Did I used to be some kind of writer?')  Would it even be 'you' who lived on? And if not, would there be any point in remaining alive? 

In my evangelical Christian youth, one of the most popular books passed around the prayer groups was Richard Wurmbrand's Tortured for Christ, a Romanian pastor's account of his sufferings under communism. The author confesses that the only time he experienced religious doubt was after periods of unconsciousness following torture. Where was his soul, he wondered, when he blacked out? Reading accounts of people with dementia has always prompted similar thoughts in me. If everything that makes a person an individual, an 'I', can disappear so completely, then how is it possible to believe in a soul that survives death?

Doesn't Alzheimer's confirm that our unique selfhood is a product of biological and psychological processes in a social world, coming into being when we are born, developing in richness and complexity through life, but ending inevitably with the death of the physical body?
Believers might argue that, even when the brain dies, a certain 'something' of us survives, but doesn't the experience of dementia sufferers suggest that this 'something', even if it could live on, would be far removed from any of our ideas of personhood? What do religious people think will survive of Carla White after she dies? Will it be the person who exists now - without reason, will or memory of who she is or has been - or will God somehow reconstruct the personality that disease has slowly crumbled away? Isn't it more logical to believe that the person who was Carla White has already in a sense 'died' and can never be brought back (which isn't to deny that she continues to be a unique and valued person to those who love her)?

In debates about evolution and faith, the impact of Darwin's theory on ideas of the soul is rarely discussed. Believers who attempt to reconcile science and religion tend to concentrate on demonstrating that faith in a creator God is compatible with belief in an evolving universe. But even if we accept that belief in an ultimate Being who kicked off the whole process is at least rational, surely all religions also depend on the notion that human beings, rather than being an accidental by-product of that process, are a unique and special part of it? And isn't this notion completely undermined by the whole idea of evolution?

At the heart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is the belief that the purpose of life is some kind of relationship with God, and crucially that it's possible for this to continue after death. But the capacity for this relationship, and its survival, surely relies on some notion of a 'soul' that transcends and outlives the body. If we accept that human beings evolved over millenia from 'lesser' creatures, who presumably were not fortunate enough to have this capacity for relationship with God, then at what point did 'soul' enter in? Do we have to resort to some deus ex machina notion of the Creator intervening in the process and 'ensouling' some of his creatures at a certain point in evolution? I suppose if you believe in an all-powerful God, then you have to believe that this is possible, but knowing what we do about the way the world works, is it likely? And at what precise point did the transformation from finite, soulless mammal to 'ensouled' and potentially eternal human being take place? Was there a generation of almost-human hominids that had no capacity for knowing God and didn't get a shot at eternal life, but their offspring - now fully human - did?

It's not that what we know about evolution, or dementia, makes religious faith impossible, but surely it makes its claims seem less likely? And it puts the onus on religious spokespeople, instead of banging on about 'militant atheists' and 'aggressive secularism', to respond intelligently to some of these questions, and rather than retreating into a defensive ghetto, try to present a vision of faith that makes sense to thoughtful, twenty-first century seekers after truth.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Something for the long weekend

Some cool jazz for a Saturday morning from the Tord Gustavsen Trio. Have a good Bank Holiday/Memorial Day weekend.

Friday 22 May 2009

Scandals and secularism

The revelations of industrial-scale child abuse in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland are truly horrifying. The victims have been made to suffer terribly, firstly as children who were physically and sexually abused, then as adults, trying to have their stories believed and the perpetrators held to account. Needless to say, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is a massive body-blow to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Not only did clerical and lay church personnel commit unforgivable crimes against defenceless children, but their superiors covered up their offences and did little to stop them.

However, I disagree with those who regard the scandal as evidence for atheism. One of my bugbears, as regular readers will know, is the tendency of contemporary religious apologists to defend faith on the grounds of its personal and social usefulness, rather than its truthfulness. And one of my criticisms of some anti-theists is the way they muddle up arguments against the claims of religion with endless lists of the shortcomings of religious individuals and institutions.

To me, this has always seemed like a pointless and unresolvable argument. For every scandal I cite, you can produce a saint; for every rabid fundamentalist I mention, you will point to a thoughtful religious philosopher; for every authoritarian reactionary, a nice Christian liberal, and so on. But if we’re going to argue that the example of saintly believers doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, then equally we have to accept that the existence of wrongdoing by some believers - even wrongdoing as dreadful as revealed in the Irish child abuse scandal - isn't a clincher for unbelief either.

I don't say this very often, but Madeleine Bunting has actually written a half-decent article about the whole sorry affair, from the perspective of a Catholic whose faith has been sorely tested by this and other recent clerical abuses. She writes: 'For years now, I've had an intermittent conversation with an admirable and devout relative: How long can we hang on? When do our fingernails break?' A number of commenters on the article urge Bunting to let go and make the break with Catholicism. But surely the only valid reason for leaving a religious organisation is that you no longer agree with its core beliefs, not because of the antics (however terrible) of some of its representatives? In this sense, a church is unlike a political party, where beliefs have to be shown to 'work' to be valid. When Krushchev revealed the crimes of the Stalin era in the 1950s, thousands forsook Communism because the revelations demonstrated (in their eyes) that this political creed led not to liberty but to tyranny. Religious faith, by contrast, depends on the acceptance of core beliefs about the nature of the world and the purpose of life, and these aren't necessarily invalidated (though they may be tested to the limits) by the actions of its adherents.

However, even if it's not an argument for atheism, the Irish child abuse scandal is certainly an argument for secularism. One of the reasons why the abuse was able to continue for so long, and be covered up so effectively, is that the state virtually contracted out the care and rehabilitation of troubled and troublesome children to the Church, and allowed the values and priorities of the Church to stand in for those of the nation. The scandal should give pause to those who argue for 'faith-based' welfare as a viable alternative to state-run services.

As well as reinforcing calls for a stricter separation of church and state, the affair might also have the positive outcome of inducing a little humility in religious spokespeople, especially those who have the gall to suggest that secularists and atheists are 'not fully human'. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good description of those devoutly religious people who beat and raped children in Irish children's homes.

The Catholic blogosphere has been strangely silent about the whole affair so far. I'd be really interested to read the reflections of thoughtful Catholic bloggers, such as Martin M and Maria, on this sorry business.


When I wrote the above, I hadn't read Martin Meenagh's post here - apologies.

Postal veto?

Following on from my last post: it looks as though my experience of receiving a BNP leaflet this week was just bad luck. If I lived in parts of north-west England, I wouldn't have to put up with the far-right party's rancid propaganda, or indeed any election literature at all, dropping on to my doormat.

Apparently some postal workers at a delivery depot in Macclesfield have refused to handle BNP bumf, and have accused Royal Mail of breaking a 'conscience clause' which allows staff to refuse to deliver material they find offensive. The depot manager has told workers that if they won't handle BNP leaflets, they won't be allowed to deliver any election literature at all, thus depriving them of the extra money they receive for doing so.

Leave to one side the issue of whether Royal Mail went back on an agreement with the union, or whether it should have made such a dubious undertaking in the first place. And let's acknowledge how awful it must be for postal workers to handle BNP literature, and in doing so feel they are somehow advancing the electoral fortunes of a bunch of racists... 

However, their demand to be let off delivering material they find 'offensive' raises serious problems. Who gets to define what's offensive? It's in the nature of being offended that it's a thoroughly subjective business. What if I'm a Conservative postal worker who finds the ideas of the far left offensive: can I plead the right not to deliver SWP or Respect leaflets?

And what if, the precedent having been set, other groups decide to take advantage of this kind of 'conscience clause'? Could a Muslim postman refuse to deliver advertising material from Oddbins, or an evangelical Christian postwoman be let off handling leaflets advertising 'Jerry Springer: the Opera'?

A woman in Hazel Grove, Cheshire, who was handed a BNP leaflet by her postman, was outraged: 'It was full of inflammatory statements relating to Muslims and asylum seekers. It annoyed me greatly, but how will people from black and ethnic minority groups feel about having this stuff pushed through their letter box?'

I sympathise: it's how I felt when I found the BNP leaflet in our mail yesterday. But if you genuinely believe a party's election literature is an incitement to racial hatred, then the answer isn't to let postal workers make arbitrary decisions about whether it should be delivered. The answer is to refer the matter to the police. Any other course of action threatens the democratic electoral process, and ultimately freedom of speech. I don't like having to receive BNP propaganda, but neither do I want the postman to have a veto over what comes through my letter-box.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Bin the BNP

Yesterday, for the first time ever in this leafy corner of eastern England, we received an election flyer from the BNP. It was in a bundle of junk mail and I didn't notice it until I cleared the kitchen table this morning. Naturally, it went straight in the bin: I felt as though the house had been soiled by its overnight presence.

I was going to retrieve the leaflet so I could dissect its rabid propaganda in this post, but it's now lost beneath the tissues and food wrappers, which is probably where it belongs. I remember something about 'British jobs for British workers', and a photo of a smiling (white) family (I hope they gave their permission).

The general opinion seems to be that the BNP will do well in the forthcoming European elections. I hope the general opinion is wrong, but I fear it's not. The party seems to have become a repository for white working-class disillusionment with New Labour, and for a general alienation from mainstream politics. What went wrong? 

Some of the erosion of working-class support for Labour was probably inevitable, given the decline of manufacturing industry, bourgeoisification, etc. But the steep decline in the working-class Labour vote in the last 10 years must also owe something to New Labour's cavalier attitude to its historical base, its re-styling as a party of Daily Mail-reading 'middle Britain', and its reckless disregard of the members who delivered its landslide victory (Barack Obama: take note). The number of communities that regard themselves as 'naturally' Labour is now perilously few, and the days when people saw the party as 'on the side of working people' have almost gone. Mix into the cocktail some concocted grievances about 'preferential treatment' in housing and jobs being given to 'newcomers', and a gap opens up for other parties to lay claim to being the voice of the white working-class. And into that gap the noxious BNP have quite cunningly and unscrupulously stepped, toning down the overt racism and fascist leanings, and playing up the grievance politics.

I had the dubious privilege of being at university with BNP leader Nick Griffin: we were at the same college, though he was a couple of years below me. (I ask you: how can someone study history at one of our top universities and remain a fascist?) In those days he was a luminary of the Young National Front, and I'm pleased to say that, even at our fairly conservative college (you were a dangerous radical if you voted against increased funds for the boat club) he was regarded as beyond the pale and given the cold shoulder by most of his fellow-students. But that was then: now he presents himself as a mainstream politician who would like to hobnob with the Queen at Buckingham Palace garden parties, and the BNP is winning seats in local councils all over the place. 

How can decent, democratic political parties reverse the BNP tide? I like the approach of this video  , from the 'Nothing British about the BNP' campaign, which calls the party's bluff on its supposed 'patriotism' (actually, a mean-spirited, xenophobic white nationalism), and advances an alternative, inclusive definition of Britishness. I think that's also what Edmund Standing is getting at in his new blog, which is even-handedly dismissive of the BNP and of Islamic and far-left extremists (though I'd be careful about the pillorying of Marxist academics, Edmund: although I have my own beef with elements of the academic left, your little list had just the faintest whiff of McCarthyism about it).

I know the video has been aired a lot on other blogs, but the more people who see it the better: 

Raindrops on roses, etc.

I've been tagged again. This time, Norm has challenged me to list seven things I love. Previous participants in the game have used up one of their choices on 'my family' or similar, but I'm going to cheat a little and take that as read. So here's my list, arranged in roughly the daily order in which they are experienced (on an ideal day, that is):

Reading in bed in the morning
The first coffee of the day
My MacBook
The piano
Summer evenings in the garden
Cool jazz
Glenlivet single malt whisky

Since most of the people I'd tag have already been approached, and I don't want to risk alienating those I've tagged before, I'm going to defy superstition and break the chain. 

Festival surrenders to boycott blackmail

With apologies to Keith Olbermann: this blog's Worst Person of the Week Award goes to film director Ken Loach, who has blackmailed the Edinburgh Film Festival into refusing a grant from the Israeli embassy.

The donation, a small matter of around £300, was not a direct contribution to the funding of the festival, but would have paid the travel costs of young Israeli film-maker Tali Shalom Ezer. Nevertheless, after an approach from the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Loach used his considerable influence to threaten to organise a boycott of the festival if the cash wasn't handed back.

The EIFF had previously resisted a mass e-mail campaign by the SPSC, arguing that to refuse funding from one country would set a dangerous precedent and risk politicising its artistic mission, but Loach's intervention brought about a u-turn, and led to this cowardly statement from the organisers:

Although the festival is considered wholly cultural and apolitical, we consider the opinions of the film industry as a whole and, as such, accept that one film-maker's recent statement speaks on behalf of the film community, therefore we will be returning the funding issued by the Israeli embassy.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the former chief executive of Channel 4, has said that he is 'horrified' by the festival organisers' acceptance of Ken Loach's claim to speak on behalf of all British film-makers, and has described Loach's intervention as an act of censorship:

Ken Loach has always been critical of censorship of his own work, albeit it was many years in the past. The idea that he should lend himself to the denial of a film-maker’s right to show her work is absolutely appalling.

In its report of the affair, the Scotsman describes Loach as someone who is 'well known for his support of Palestinian rights'. It doesn't mention that he is a member of the national council of the SWP/Islamist front organisation, Respect, nor that he is notorious for saying he was 'not surprised' at the recent upsurge in antisemitism, which he blamed on Israel. Renowned film-maker he may be, but his politics have always been naive and simplistic (he's a kind of John Pilger of the cinema): his 1984 film about the miners' strike, Which Side Are You On?, suggested that the only choices available were Thatcherism or Scargill's Stalinist demagoguery.

As for the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, any claim it might make to be a high-minded supporter of human rights in the Middle East has been compromised by its support for anti-Jewish violence and its palling around with spokesmen for racist terror groups.

Ken Loach's bullying of the Edinburgh International Film Festival is enough to make me want to boycott his films from now on. But I won't. Unlike him, I detest political censorship and believe in freedom of artistic expression.

(Via Mick)

More reaction over at The Daily Kos.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

A reasoned response

As an antidote to the muddled thinking scrutinised in the last post, here's something to welcome with open arms. The Reason Project is a new nonprofit foundation 'devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society'. It 'draws on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers in a wide range of disciplines to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.' And if that's not enough to make you want to sign up, then perhaps some of the names on the advisory board will. They include Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Anthony Grayling, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ian McEwan.

In the interests of balance: a cautious welcome to the project, with some thoughtful caveats, is offered by Philip Hall here.

Monday 18 May 2009

A second helping of Fish

I'm not sure I can be bothered with this, and those with a better philosophical training will probably make a better job of it, but here goes anyway:

Stanley Fish has written a sequel to his casuistical article in defence of 'faith'. As in the first instalment (and like the shifty rhetoric of his inspiration, Terry Eagleton), Fish's argument once again twists and turns, refusing to be tied down to supporting an actual position, and firing scatter-gun insults at assorted secularists and rationalists. Reduced to its bare bones, his argument seems to be that the 'evidence' against religion put forward by Dawkins, Hitchens et al can't be taken seriously, not because it's faulty, but because:

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions ... that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

This is the standard post-modernist, anti-realist position: there are no facts 'out there', only different ways of looking at the world, shaped by the assumptions and world-views of those who hold them. As I've noted before, this relativism enables you to trash the views of those you disagree with, not by disproving their arguments, but by showing that their opinions are influenced by the wrong kind of world-view, as Fish does in this paragraph:

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? 

This is the familiar po-mo 'guilt by association' move again: Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and autonomy are discredited because they had the misfortune to come to the fore at the same time as nasty capitalist individualism. Note the weak, unsupported causality of 'emerges alongside', and the reductivism involved in claiming that the author is 'merely' a 'site traversed by meanings'. Of course, Fish would never do anything as straightforward as state that this is his view of the world: 'I am not affirming this view', he goes on, 'I am just observing that there are many who hold it' . (Of course you are.)

So faith can't be subjected to the cold light of reason, since 'reason' is just another kind of faith (neat). The way Fish goes on to develop this argument is both simplistic in the extreme, and at the same time wrapped up in the kind of post-modern verbal trickery that makes it look as though he's saying something clever. Rather than responding to his critics by arguing for the validity of religion's claims, Fish sidesteps their arguments by casting doubt on all notions of objective reality. Falling back on philosophical relativism is a strange way of defending belief systems that claim to hold the key to Absolute Truth, and the anti-rational evasions of Eagleton and Fish discredit the very cause they claim to defend.

As before, Fish's rhetorical contortions have sparked a lively debate - see the comments below, and over at Butterflies and Wheels, in addition to a mention of my post, you can find a link to Brian Leiter's dissection of Fish's philosophical incompetence. And see here for John Casey's analysis of Fish's equivocations.

...and there's more from Norm here.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Obama looks for common ground with Catholics

President Obama's commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame today has been surrounded by controversy, with some Catholics angry that a 'pro-choice' politician has been granted this honour. In fact, Obama's position is much more nuanced than his opponents allow. In common with leading Catholic Democrats such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, he believes that abortion should be a rare occurrence but that the state shouldn't override a woman's right to choose. 

Not all Catholics oppose the Notre Dame invitation. Brennan Bolman, the class valedictorian and pro-life biology major who will share the stage with the President today, has said she believes that Obama practises Catholic values in his administration. A group of priests who worked with Obama on community projects in Chicago have spoken out in his support. Rev. Bill Stenzel said: 'He doesn't view abortion as a positive, good thing. It needs to be addressed in ways that can make a difference. His approach wouldn't be all that different than the approach we might take in any parish: How do we bring people together? I see him as committed to reducing the rate of abortion'.

Catholic historian James Carroll congratulates Notre Dame for taking a stand against fundamentalism and argues that Obama's 'already unfolding social and health programs, including support for impoverished women, will do more to reduce the number of abortions in America than the glibly pro-life George W. Bush ever did'. And Catholic author Sean Michael Winters has written the speech he thinks Obama ought to give at Notre Dame. Here's an extract:

I believe that common-sense proposals to try to reduce the abortion rate are the only available common ground. I believe that if we stop shouting at each other and listen to the women who are actually facing an unplanned pregnancy, we will find plenty of work to do to help them through a difficult chapter in their lives. I believe that if we as a nation and as a culture rally to the support of women facing crisis pregnancies we will both protect women's constitutional rights and promote what Pope John Paul II called 'The Gospel of Life'.

I believe that if we seek common ground on this most divisive of issues, it will be easier for us to work together on the other urgent moral tasks facing our nation. We must continue rebuilding our economy so that a day's work earns a just wage and that the dignity of work becomes the ethical foundation of our economy, not the mere glorification of profiteering which has turned Wall Street into a synonym for greed and worse. We must work together to bring peace to Iraq. We must work together to enact humane immigration reform that honours our nation's tradition of welcoming immigrants while securing the border from those who wish us ill. We must work together to protect the environment, to show ourselves to be good stewards of God's creation.

Catholic blogger David Gibson comments:

So is such an approach foolish to try? I suspect Obama can never win over his enemies, but I hope he will show greater grace and intelligence than than they, and if he does he will carry the day among the great majority disposed to agree with him.

Here's hoping.

There was a really good roundtable discussion of the Notre Dame affair on today's Meet the Press:

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy


And here's the actual speech (looks like it was a success):

Royal slush

According to the Mail on Sunday, the Queen has told Gordon Brown that she is 'deeply troubled' by the scandal over MPs' expenses.

In 2006, it was revealed that the royal family cost the British taxpayer £37.4m, of which £5.5m was for travel, including £44,885 for a 'reconnaissance trip' to the US by Clarence House staff ahead of a visit by Prince Charles. In 2000 it was reported that the annual cost of transporting the royal family to their holiday home at Balmoral was £17,065. In 2005 Prince Andrew was criticised by the National Audit Office for spending £3,000 on a royal helicopter to fly him 50 miles to lunch with Arab dignitaries; in the previous year he cost the RAF £32,000 for supersonic jets to fly him between London and St. Andrews.

In other news: a pot was said to be 'extremely disturbed' by the blackness of a kettle.

Friday 15 May 2009

Unflashy mob

After the living statues at Grand Central Station and the T-Mobile dance-in, it was only a matter of time before the Church got in on the flashmob craze. Actually, 'Dream' (sub-title: 'Re-imagining Church' - don't you just cringe at that omission of the definite article?) is described as a 'fringe Anglican group' (how does that work? do they hang around on the edge of the cake sale?). On Easter Saturday they congregated in the Liverpool One Mall and, at a pre-arranged signal, took off their shoes (to signify that even shopping centres are 'sacred ground', apparently) and made their way to a grassy space where they formed themselves into a human cross. 

Unfortunately, the whole thing comes across as somewhat sheepish, low-key and - well, Anglican. The solitary heart-shaped balloon let off at the end looked rather forlorn. And, to tell the truth, the cross was somewhat shapeless. I know, I know, 'my kingdom is not of this world', etc, but if you're going to steal the secular world's methods you need to match its flair and pzazz. (Incidentally, guys: isn't the whole 'guerilla worship' thing a bit dated? That logo of Jesus looking like discredited Stalinist Che Guevara is just so Seventies, and with the best will in the world, your little throng of mums, dads and kids with shopping bags look nothing like insurgents.)

By the way, I've nothing against Anglicans. Some of my best friends, etc.  As regular readers will know, this is an equal-opportunities secularist blog: we mock all religions (and secular ideologies, when they deserve it) without distinction.

Anyway, see what you think:

Prince of the New Age

Your thought for the day:

Nature, I would argue, reveals the universal essence of creation. Our present preoccupation with the individual ego, and desire to be distinctive, rather than “original” in its truest sense, are only the more visible signs of our rejection of Nature. In addition, there is our addiction to mechanical rather than joined-up, integrative thinking, and our instrumental relationship with the natural world. In the world as it is now, there seems to be an awful lot more arrogance than reverence; a great deal more of the ego than humility; and a surfeit of abstracted ideology over the practical realities linked to people’s lives and the grain of their culture and identity.

Who do you think said that? Some New Age guru, perhaps, addressing a gathering of the gullible? No, it's our future head of state (God help us), speaking to a meeting of the Royal Institute of British Architects earlier this week. In his speech, Prince Charles argued for what he called 'organic' architecture and against the 'mechanical' fashions of modernity. His overall message seemed to be: modern world and cities bad, 'Nature' and rural life good.

It's all profoundly, and dangerously, conservative, valuing reverence for ''culture' and 'tradition' over original thinking, and the mystical collective over the free-thinking individual. What really sticks in the gullet (and explains how he gets away with it) is the Prince's cunning linkage of this woolly 'holism' to a phoney populism, in which he portrays himself (the hereditary wealthy landowner) as speaking up for 'communities' against professionals in thrall to new-fangled ideologies. 

Charles' revulsion from some of the worst of Modernist architectural experimentation - soulless Sixties housing estates for example - is widely shared. But the answer doesn't have to be a complete rejection of modernity, individuality and innovation in favour of some imaginary harmonious past. 

The Prince once expressed a desire, as monarch, to be a defender of all faiths, rather than just the Defender of Anglican Christianity. His speech this week, in which he espoused a vague traditionalism that seemed to be a boiled-down gloop mixing together elements from many different religions, gave us a glimpse of what this might mean. The thought of having to endure endless New Age sermons from King Charles III makes Rowan Williams' wishy-washy Anglicanism seem not half so bad after all...

Thursday 14 May 2009

Musical interlude

Two new musical discoveries to share with you: both young jazz singers with Iberian connections.

First, Esperanza Spalding, from Portland, Oregon, who describes herself as being of African-American, Welsh and Spanish descent, and who opened proceedings at Barack and Michelle's poetry jam the other night. Here she is (via Clive) performing at an earlier White House event in honour of Stevie Wonder (there’s a bit of Tony Bennett at the end for good measure):

Second, Lisbon-born but New York-based Sara Serpa, discovered via the Blues Alley website (she was performing there on Tuesday night: I've joined their mailing list, as we're hoping to visit Washington later in the year). Here she is, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village back in February:

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Burchill, the burkha and the British left

I've never been a big Julie Burchill fan. Her habit of taking on and casting off ideas and identities (communism, lesbianism, Christianity) like so many passing fashions, and simply for their shock value, exemplified one of the least attractive characteristics of the punk era (see also Joe Strummer's Brigate Rosse t-shirt, Siouxsie's swastika armband, etc).  

Julie redeemed herself somewhat (in my eyes, anyway) with Not in My Name, the book in which she and Chas Newkey-Burden had a go at various modern liberal hypocrisies. (I see that Chas, bless him, has been displaying Burchillian tendencies of his own lately, with his cheerleading for Bibi Netanyahu. The reasoning seems to be: the rest of the left have turned anti-Zionist, so let's support the most hardline Zionist we can find. 'The middle ground' is not a term that has much appeal for these guys. Great blog, though, Chas.)

Fortunately, Burchill is just the kind of maverick, counter-intuitive commentator that the Guardian adores. Which means she can get away with saying things about the British left, and the paper itself, which would normally be ruthlessly excluded from its pages, as in today's conversation with Julie Bindel. Here's a taster:

Bindel: I know you get really pissed off with what seems to be a liberal consensus which results in a love-relationship between the British left and fascist Muslim fundamentalists. Is the Guardian also guilty of this?

Burchill: Very much so. It's really weird how many allegedly leftwing men are prepared to forgive and even justify the most reactionary statements and behaviour so long as those peddling it are darker-skinned. Amazingly babyish and simple-minded.

Bindel: You are very outspoken about the burkha being a tool of women's oppression.

Burchill: Apart from the obvious repressive and misogynist offensiveness of the burkha - and it insults men as well as women, implying as it does that they are slavering beasts who will turn into rapists with one glimpse of an ankle - it strikes me as extremely disrespectful to the Creator. We are saying that the body He created is sinful and must be hidden away like a nasty little secret. God created women to look like women; he didn't create them to look like parrot cages with a nightshade chucked over it.

Christianity under threat in the Middle East: secularism the answer

To mark the Pope's visit to Israel, yet another article on the decline of the Christian community in the Middle East:

Christians used to be a vital force in the Middle East. They dominated Lebanon and filled top jobs in the Palestinian movement. In Egypt, they were wealthy beyond their number. In Iraq, they packed the universities and professions.

But now, 'a region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping.' The cause? Emigration, as a result of 'political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam.' On the latter: 'With Islam pushing aside nationalism as the central force behind the politics of identity, Christians who played important roles in various national struggles find themselves left out.'

The verdict of Sarkis Naoum, a Christian columnist for the Lebanese newspaper Al Nahar, is telling: 'Unless there is a turn toward secularism in the Arab world, I don’t think there is a future for Christians here'. Christian leaders in the west, like Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who see secularism as the enemy, should take note, and be careful what they wish for.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Well done, Your Holiness

Now there's a headline you probably never expected to see at this blog. But all credit to Pope Benedict XVI for walking out on an interfaith event in Jerusalem, when Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority (they're the moderate ones, remember) took advantage of the occasion to deliver a 10-minute rant against the state of Israel.

During his tirade Tamimi called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel, and invoked the name of Saladin, the Muslim sultan who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, claiming that, unlike Israel, Saladin 'upheld the religious freedom of all faiths'. 

According to Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, 'in a meeting dedicated to dialogue this intervention was a direct negation of what dialogue should be'. But the organisers should have known better: according to the Jerusalem Post Tamimi 'staged an identical verbal attack against Israel during Pope John Paul II's visit in March 2000.'

Monday 11 May 2009

Roxana Saberi released

Some good news from Iran for a change. Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist originally arrested for buying a bottle of wine, then tried in secret on spying charges that President Obama described as 'baseless', has been freed from Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed delight at Saberi's release, but said it remained concerned about the plight of other journalists still imprisoned in Iran.

Azarmehr asks us to remember other Iranians who languish in prison, without the benefit of the world's attention focused on their plight.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Godot, Alice and Abercombie

Yesterday we were in London to see the new production of 'Waiting for Godot' at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Some reviewers have suggested that by emphasising the comic aspects of the play, and by making the two main characters more explicitly into old entertainers, director Sean Mathias has somehow undermined its serious, philosophical content. Don't believe it. This is certainly a hugely enjoyable production, but if anything the rich comedy deepens the existential drama.

Then there's the treat of watching some of our finest actors at their peak. Even the smallest part, that of the mostly-mute slave Lucky, is taken by veteran character actor Ronald Pickup, whose nonsensical 'thinking' speech is an almost unbearably intense tour de force. I love Simon Callow and I'm always pleased to see him on the cast list: his Pozzo was certainly a compelling, larger-than-life monster, but it was just a bit too Simon Callow-ish for me, if you know what I mean. By contrast, Patrick Stewart's Vladimir and Ian McKellen's Estragon were completely fresh and newly-imagined characters. McKellen especially was almost unrecognisable as the forgetful, put-upon old tramp 'Gogo', and his performance, in particular, made me realise that, as much as anything, this is a play about ageing.

However, ascribing 'meaning' to Beckett's many-layered masterpiece is probably a pointless exercise. I was struck by a comparison that hadn't occurred to me before, but which I'll probably discover others have written about. Last week, thanks to a post over at 'On A Raised Beach', I found myself watching part of Jonathan Miller's 1966 TV strangely wonderful production of 'Alice in Wonderland' on Youtube. Watching Callow and Pickup yesterday, it occurred to me that Pozzo and Lucky resemble some of the outlandish characters encountered by Alice, and that to ask what they 'represent' is as pointless as asking what is signified by the Cheshire Cat, or the hookah-smoking Caterpillar. At a deep level we 'get' their meaning, and any attempt to put it into words risks simplifying it.

Beckett's play is the same kind of philosophical fantasy, brimming with profound existential and spiritual portent (and whatever the man himself said, the religious undertow of 'Godot' is inescapable), but it's also, like 'Alice', a mad, metaphorical entertainment. It's Mathias' achievement, and that of his stellar cast, that the rich comedy of this production draws us towards its dark, serious heart, and not away from it, so that its many layers of meaning linger in our thoughts and our dreams long after we have left the theatre.

H. and I reflected that, incredibly, it's been about 27 years since we last saw a production of 'Waiting for Godot': it was back in the early '80s that we saw Trevor Peacock and Max Wall take the leading roles at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. No wonder I was sensitive to the ageing theme yesterday. To think of the Royal Exchange in those days is to conjure up at once the distinctive spicy, wholefood-y smell of the theatre bar, to remember queuing in the early morning for banquette tickets in the 'lunar module', then retiring to the Danish Food Centre for coffee, all the whole thinking that we really must get back to the John Rylands Library and do some work on our unwritten theses...

Yesterday, the price for dragging our two sceptical teenage offspring to a play in which 'nothing happens', was a spot of West End shopping, including an hour spent mingling with the beautiful people at Abercrombie and Fitch. What can you say about a shop that has no sign outside, yet has customers queuing around the block before it opens, is so poorly lit that you can't be sure of the colours of the clothes you're buying, and employs staff just to dance and to pose stripped to the waist in the entrance lobby, not to mention having a queue to pay that snakes half-way round the shop? Having said all that, the beautiful and well-toned young assistants are always charming and helpful, even to fifty-something parents who feel embarrasingly out of place (as I say, I was feeling old yesterday). But you can't help longing for the day, surely not far away, when A&F loses its exclusive image (in the US, there's now one in almost every city mall, but the London branch is the only one in the UK) and has to do a bit more for the comfort and ease of its customers.

Oh, and to get to London we had to stand like cattle, crammed into a train carriage with Stevenage supporters, some of them already cracking open the Stella, on their way to Wembley for the FA Trophy final (I think they won). But it was worth it.


I quite liked this Garland cartoon in the Telegraph last week (in case you're wondering: no, I haven't changed my political colours - my Tory-voting in-laws read it):

Friday 8 May 2009

Something for the weekend

Eva Cassidy performing 'People Get Ready' at Blues Alley, Georgetown, Washington DC: