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March 2007

February 2007

"Truth is not a Defence..."

As I write this, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is being sued by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organisations for reprinting unflattering cartoons of Muhammad. Closer to home, a Cambridge student who did the same in a low-budget college paper has been in hiding “for safety reasons.” Naturally, I find myself thinking about King Charles II and those troublesome colonies.

Charles_iiIn the 17th Century, Charles II ruled what is now North and South Carolina. When exiled, Charles briefly became ‘King of Virginia’, but that’s another story. Noted comments from the period include this little nugget, by the Virginian Colonial Governor, William Berkeley: "I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy into the world; and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both."

Other colonies had strict laws against ‘defaming’ the Christian faith and the political power associated with it: “During the period, thousands of people are brought before Virginia and other state assemblies and punished for daring to criticize them, even in the mildest terms. Truth is not a defence in such cases. In fact, truthful criticism is seen as even worse since it further undermines authority.”

“Truth is not a defence.” Hm.

But, of course, no-one would say that now. And no-one would use words like 'authority' and 'power.' Not about Islam. Not out loud. Now we hear about much fluffier things, like 'feelings', 'prejudice' and 'sensitivity.' It's the passive-aggressive approach.

More Clerical Umbrage

Yes, I know. I’ve already written about cultural equivalence and its various stupefying effects. But in some quarters it seems to be the default way of fudging almost any contentious issue. Here’s another illustration of how it dulls the senses to grimly comical effect. Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Stuart Jeffries struggled to imply some bogus symmetry between religious zealots and those of us who view them as absurd and sometimes dangerous. In what seems an attempt to be ‘even-handed’, Jeffries described Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, as “voguishly intemperate”, before announcing, “The backlash against Dawkins' abusiveness, as well as his arguments, has started.”

Bishop_of_london_1Well, the backlash may well have started – indeed, it seems to have always been with us - but a convincing argument has yet to materialise. Though we have heard fits of sanctimonious umbrage and vaguely threatening noises like those quoted in Jeffries’ piece, made by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres: "If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow."

Ominous rumblings aside, if the Bishop wanted to muster a counterargument to “fundamentalist atheism”, he could, for instance, suggest that agnosticism is more epistemologically sound than atheism. (Provided, that is, atheism is defined as a belief in the non-existence of God – a definition that is, I think, open to debate.) To the best of my knowledge, no rational, empirical or statistical tools exist for making a meaningful determination either way. One can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence by any conventional means; nor can one calculate the probability of His existence. But this isn’t the kind of objection we’re hearing from the Bishop of London, who nonetheless assumes he should be taken seriously.

Continue reading "More Clerical Umbrage" »

The Concept of Rescue

After much rummaging, I managed to find Paul Vester’s 11-minute animation, Abductees.

Maybe it’s the bobbing heads, the Ray-Bans or the rock-step. It could be the four-dimensional surgery, or the way the 'surgeons' walk through walls. Maybe it's the cream-cheesy soundtrack and the layers of irony. Or it could be the line, “We are interested in the concept of rescue.” It’s hard to say for sure. But there’s something oddly beautiful about this.

Vester can be contacted via Duck Studios, Los Angeles.

Abductees_2  Abductees_3

Feel free to fund my rummaging.

Islam's Hagiographer

In my review of Robert Spencer's The Truth About Muhammad, I wrote: "In his book, Islam and the West, the historian Bernard Lewis argued: 'We live in a time when… governments and religious movements are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe that it was.' This urge to sanitise unflattering facts is nowhere more obvious than in biographies of Muhammad, of which, Karen Armstrong’s ubiquitous contributions are perhaps the least reliable." I've since received a number of emails asking me to clarify why Armstrong is unreliable in this regard. To that end, here's a brief catalogue of Ms Armstrong's errors and distortions, a version of which was first published by Butterflies & Wheels. Some of her rhetorical airbrushing is, I think, quite spectacular.

"Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives. One therefore has to ask how we defeat an opponent whose name we dare not repeat and whose stated motives we cannot mention..."

Shilling_for_islam_1Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the world's most provocative and inclusive thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world.” Armstrong’s efforts to be “inclusive” are certainly provocative, though generally for reasons that are less than edifying. In 1999, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave Armstrong an award for media “fairness.” What follows might cast light on how warranted that recognition is, and on how the MPAC chooses to define fairness.

Continue reading "Islam's Hagiographer" »

They're Gaining On Us

Human_foolsI knew it all along. The image to the left is actually a stern warning of things to come: "No fewer than 22 times, researchers documented wild chimpanzees on an African savanna fashioning sticks into 'spears' to hunt small primates... In each case a chimpanzee modified a branch by breaking off one or two ends and, frequently, using its teeth to sharpen the stick. The ape then jabbed the spear into hollows in tree trunks where bush babies sleep... Anthropologist and study co-author Paco Bertolani witnessed... a chimpanzee successfully extract a bush baby with a spear." 

(H/T, Butterflies & Wheels)

Update: This macaque monkey has a thought-controlled robot arm. Built by humans, I hasten to add.

Anamorphic Street Art

Anamorphic_wenner  Anamorphic_coke

The anamorphic pavement drawings of Kurt Wenner and Julian Beever have graced the streets of Europe, the U.S. and Australia, albeit temporarily. Using hugely distorted aspect ratios, a fine eye and a sense of humour, Wenner and Beever create illusions of 3D solidity, from fastidious recreations of past masters to superheroic interventions and oversized objects in improbable places.

Anamorphic_batman  Anamorphic

For more on anamorphosis, from Holbein’s Ambassadors to humble road markings, see here and here (PDF). A BBC profile of Beevers with additional images can be found here. Kurt Wenner answers some practical questions, including how to deal with council permits, bicyles and rain, at his website.

Support the arts.

Terry Eagleton Fights the Power

Professor Terry Eagleton continues along his bizarre moral trajectory in today's Guardian:

"It is easy to see why a diversity of cultures should confront power with a problem. If culture is about plurality, power is about unity. How can it sell itself simultaneously to a whole range of life forms without being fatally diluted? Multiculturalism is not a threat because it might breed suicide bombers. It is a threat because the kind of political state we have depends upon a tight cultural consensus in order to implant its materially divisive policies."

Untroubled by the number of loaded assumptions in that barrage, he continues:

"So culture today means not just sonnets and string quartets, but history, origins, language, kinship and identity."

Wait a minute. Hasn't culture always had quite a lot to do with "history, origins, language, kinship and identity"? Isn't that a very large part of what culture is? And doesn't it matter what kinds of plurality we're dealing with, and their moral particulars? And note the repeated use of the word 'power', as if it were an entity in its own right and had no connection whatsoever with the preferences of other people - say, those who disagree with Mr Eagleton. For instance, people concerned by the social fragmentation that often follows in the wake of identity politics and demands for special treatment. As when disreputable religious organisations assume their irrational taboos should supersede all other considerations, irrespective of practicality and reciprocity, and at great public expense. Presumably those who question multicultural ideology are to be dismissed as blindly serving the interests of this reified 'power' that only embittered Marxists can see.

But let's get back to suicide bombing, a topic Mr Eagleton has touched on before, admiringly.

"Tony Blair believes in a common culture... It is just that what Blair means by a common culture is that everyone should share his values so that they won't bomb tube stations. In fact, no cultural value is ever extended to large groups of newcomers without being changed in the process. This is why the Blair project is... culturally supremacist. There is no assumption in Downing Street that such values might be challenged or transformed in the process..."

Erm, I'm sorry, but wait a minute. What's the looming assumption here? As so often with Mr Eagleton, one isn't entirely sure. Though from bitter experience one tends to fear the worst.

Is Eagleton implying that people - or "those in power" - shouldn't regard the killing of random tube passengers as unacceptable? Is our revulsion at such acts to be "challenged" and "transformed" somehow? What about, say, the choices available to women? Are those to be challenged too, at least for some - or just recalibrated slightly? And what about people who feel entitled to threaten and intimidate when their metaphysical delusions aren't indulged? Are they to be indulged more as we loosen our "tight cultural consensus"? And in what sense is it "culturally supremacist" to think that the testing of ideas is preferable to creaking prejudice and unthinking zealotry? Alas, we're not told. But, as so often, vague insinuations hang in the air.

Update: Tom Freeman has some apposite thoughts on this.

Update 2: Protein Wisdom wonders whether Eagleton realises "just how full of shit he is."

Update 3: Ophelia weighs in, magnificently, over at Butterflies & Wheels.      

Moral Asymmetry

Last week, in a piece called Phantom Guilt Syndrome, I argued: "Many of those who use the term 'asymmetric warfare' focus on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. This follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available."

Today, the estimable Norman Geras has some further thoughts on asymmetry, Israel and Hamas, and the curious moral compass of the latest Guardian leader.

On Flies and Jet Packs

The essays on cultural equivalence and the Guardian's strange love affair with Islamic extremism are, apparently, going down well. Heap big traffic. But I think we'll have something lighter today. A frivolous interlude. First up, an homage to the jet pack, complete with video (courtesy of Wired Science).


More on rocket belts, aerocycles and other magnificent cold war devices can be found at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum. Readers eager to build their own jet pack can buy detailed blueprints here. The equipment is, we're assured, "fully controllable."

For readers who aren't so sure about meddling with large amounts of high grade gasoline or superheated steam, here's a less hazardous aeronautical project, involving flies, glue and matchsticks.

Work_well_with_others_3  Work_well_together

Research funding always welcome.

al-Guardian & the Brotherhood

The following article outlines how the mainstream organ of the British left has given a sanitised promotional platform to the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time this piece was written, the Guardian's comment editor was Seumas Milne. When not promoting obnoxious Islamist mouthpieces and calling 9/11 a “self-inflicted wound,” Milne felt obliged to praise Stalinism for, among other things, its “genuine idealism.”  However, as noted over at Harry's Place: “the real source of Milne's disgrace is that he... is responsible for making fascism respectable on the left.” 

"One has to wonder how contempt for pluralism and free speech, along with the theological mandate of arbitrary murder, have become such obvious causes for a 'progressive' newspaper. Granted, the Brotherhood shares with much of the left a hatred of U.S. ‘imperialism’, which is, allegedly, the cause of all evil in the world. Though, again, I’m not sure how these anti-imperial credentials sit with the slogan that still adorns the Brotherhood’s literature and website: 'Islam will dominate the world'..."

The_strange_and_wonderful_faisal_bodiIn his Guardian columns, Faisal Bodi, a news editor of the Islam Channel TV station, has said many strange and wonderful things. In March, during the Abdul Rahman apostasy case, Bodi championed the orthodox punishment for those who leave the Religion of Peace™ – despite it being rather permanent and involving ritual murder: “It is an understandable response from people who cherish the religious basis of their societies to protect them… from the damage that an inferior worldview can wreak.” In a climate of cultural equivalence, it’s somewhat refreshing to hear a Guardian columnist openly refer to an “inferior worldview.” Though I suspect one might disagree with Bodi’s estimation of which worldview is less enlightened.

Taken in isolation, Bodi’s advocacy of Islam Taliban-style might seem little more than an attempt to be contentious. But in matters of Islamist zeal a remarkable pattern of endorsement runs throughout the Guardian’s commentary. It began, more or less, in January 2004, when the paper published a speech by Osama bin Laden  in the form of a regular opinion piece, prompting waggish comments about the al-Qaeda figurehead being “recruited as a Guardian columnist.” Dubious humour aside, at least readers were clear about the author’s political affiliation. However, the Guardian has subsequently published no fewer than 14 opinion pieces by members of, or advocates of, the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical group whose militant ideas directly inspired bin Laden. Curiously, the commentators’ links with the group were not disclosed to readers.

Continue reading "al-Guardian & the Brotherhood" »