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November 2007


No matter how many times I’ve read variations of the same, there remains something jarring about these lines,

The protesters gathered in Martyrs Square, outside the presidential palace in the capital, many of them carrying knives and sticks. Marchers chanted ‘Shame, shame on the UK’, ‘No tolerance – execution’ and ‘Kill her, kill her by firing squad’.

being immediately preceded by this one.

The marchers took to the streets after Friday prayers.

Friday Ephemera

The advantages of learning English. // Egg vending machine, Japan. More. // 1000 frames of Hitchcock. Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, the whole shebang. (h/t, Coudal.) // Bid for this bear. He’s called Muhammad. // Animals preserved in formalin. // Kim Keever’s aquarium art. // Shark versus octopus. // Underwater babies. // Animated short by Christoph Grosse Hovest. (h/t, Savage Popcorn.) // Remote control air ray. // The early aviator. Zeppelins, fantasies, aerial combat. // Aero-medicine. Part 2. (1956) // Planet Earth: plaything of sci-fi. // Batman by Dostoyevsky. // Batman Mystery Club: The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall. mp3 (1950) // Mary Jackson on vegetarianism. “Vegans are whey-faced, cadaverous lunatics, but they are consistent.” // Devil’s Kitchen on liberty, property and the evils of Socialism. Discuss. // Peter Hitchens visits Pyongyang. “The sensation of living in an enormous institution, part boarding school, part concentration camp, is greatly enhanced by the sound of mass alarms.” // Wim Delvoye’s gothic machinery. Yes, it’s him. // Metal shutter houses. // The panoramas of Will Pearson. // A minor history of miniature writing. // Jean Pierre Lepine’s ergonomic pen. Stationary hell. // Assorted drafting templates. (h/t, Vitruvius.) // The museum of reel-to-reel tape recorders. // Rome’s museum of ancient art. // The museum of high-heeled shoes. // Robert Full on cockroach legs and robotic feet. // And, via The Thin Man, Your Feet’s Too Big.

Act Casual, Say Nothing (2)

Robert Spencer responds to Ed Husain’s Guardian article, in which he claims that Spencer, Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are playing into the hands of jihadists:

The contention is that because I - and Hirsi Ali, and Ibn Warraq, and others - point out that there is a broad and deeply rooted tradition of violence and supremacism within Islam, therefore we are marginalising other Islamic traditions and legitimising bin Laden. In saying this, Husain implies that jihadism is a clear Islamic heresy, and that there is a broad tradition within Islam that rejects violence against non-Muslims and Islamic supremacism - and that Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and I are ignoring or downplaying it out of some base motives. Bin Laden or someone like him invented jihadism and grafted it onto a religion that has otherwise peaceful teachings.

In reality, however, while there are a few courageous reformers out there, all - not just one, or a few, but all - the orthodox sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence teach that it is part of the responsibility of the Islamic community to wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law (references can be found here). There is no sect or school recognised as orthodox that rejects this. It is not playing into bin Laden’s hands to point it out; in fact, it is playing into bin Laden’s hands to deny it and denigrate those who point out that it is so, for there can be no reform of what one will not admit needs reforming.

Indeed. What’s interesting to me is how Husain’s transformation from extremist to ‘moderate’ seems to involve a denial of jihad’s historical and theological lineage and ultimately hinges on a conception of Muhammad that is, to say the very least, open to question: 

For me, it is [Muhammad’s] guidance, compassion, humanity, warmth, love, kindness that rescued me, and others, from Islamist extremism… His was a smiling face. His tomb in Medina today radiates the peace and serenity to which he was called.

And herein lies a problem. Any remotely critical, contextualised reading of Muhammad’s life, rule and purported ‘revelations’ will call into question Husain’s rather sugary imaginings. Assertions of Muhammad’s “compassion” or “kindness” are easily contested, often abrogated, and do little to inhibit jihadists who know their theology and history quite well, perhaps better than Mr Husain. Those who use Muhammad’s own words and example as a mandate for violence, coercion and atrocity are unlikely to be convinced by talk of “smiling faces” and radiant tombs. And the phenomenon of global jihad, arguably the issue of the age, will not be made to go away by ignoring its deep and problematic roots.

There are, of course, countless degrees of religious affiliation and many believers will be remarkably ignorant of their supposed prophet’s life and less edifying deeds. Many will know only the sketchiest and most sanitised accounts of who and what Muhammad was. More to the point, there will among many be a strong emotional disinclination to look critically at the founder of their religion - and at what that might imply about their own credulity. The potential for dissonance and resentment – to say nothing of embarrassment - is pretty obvious.

Judging by his Guardian article, Ed Husain seems to have lurched from Islamist to ingénue without pausing to reflect on the question of whether his belief in Muhammad as a numinous figure is fundamentally misplaced. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising. If a believer were to look critically at the most reliable accounts of Muhammad’s life, it would, I think, be difficult to reconcile the man’s supposedly numinous status with his actual behaviour. Could such a questionable figure really be a timeless example and inspired by the divine? And doesn’t that kind of question risk undermining the entire, dubious, edifice?

Update: Mary Jackson has more on Mr Husain’s contortions.

Related. And. Also. Plus.

Bankroll my blasphemy.

Villainy by Default

In an essay on victimhood, self-loathing and pretentious guilt, I wrote:

The free-thinking capitalist societies referred to as “the West” are widely regarded as... the quintessential oppressor… It’s therefore all but unimaginable that Western societies, or representatives thereof, could ever be the good guys in any situation. Should the West need to defend itself and its interests against hostile action, consternation is obligatory and almost any Western response to aggression can be denounced as “disproportionate” on the basis that military advantage should, at best, count for nothing. According to some devotees of this outlook, the inferior (non-Western) force should prevail because of its military disadvantage, as this would be “fair”. This ideological preference is based on a belief that power is intrinsically very, very bad, except when others have it, in which case it suddenly becomes good, regardless of how it may be used. This remarkable sequence of ideas may help explain Iran’s nuclear armament efforts being defended by Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 

The director of Indoctrinate U, Evan Coyne Maloney, explores a similar theme, along with the finer points of victimhood’s hierarchy.

Once you understand… the Multicultural Pyramid of Oppression, you can begin to understand how to turn to your advantage certain circumstances that are beyond your control: such as where you were born, the type of genitalia you were born with, into what race you were born, and the religion of your parents. You see, the fewer things you have in common with The Oppressors, the more you can cast yourself as The Victim. And as The Victim, you are virtuous, so there are certain things you can get away with that others can’t: like actually oppressing people.

According to the rules of Multicultural Hierarchy, oppression can be excused if the oppressor comes from a more exotic group — to Western eyes — than the oppressed. If a documentary filmmaker were slaughtered in broad daylight for making a film about domestic violence among, say, Christian evangelists in the American south, an outcry would rightfully ring out from Hollywood denouncing the violence that’s intended to silence legitimate social commentary. But a documentary filmmaker killed for making a film about violence against women perpetrated in the name of Islam isn’t worth any comment at all… Identical crimes would have to be interpreted two different ways, because the only variable that matters is the corpse’s placement on the Multicultural Hierarchy relative to that of the murderer.

Consider what happens when you apply this thinking on a societal level: if we convince ourselves that all of the blame for the current state of the world should be placed at the feet of Western civilisation, then why would any Westerner think that our civilization is worth fighting for? Or even worth saving? The rules of Multicultural Hierarchy require us to pre-emptively surrender, because any crime committed against us by a more worthy Victim is somehow deserved. And if we deserve it, then fighting against what we deserve amounts to fighting the administration of justice.

Maloney’s point is, alas, not entirely flippant. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told - with remarkable certainty and enthusiasm - that the West “had it coming” (and presumably still does), or that “we” invented slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide and almost any sufficiently monstrous activity. Attempts to highlight the numerous non-Western precedents for such things, or to suggest that, say, the Crusades didn’t happen in the ahistorical vacuum so often imagined, are unlikely to have much effect. Nor are lengthy expositions on the costly (and apparently unprecedented) efforts by “Westerners” to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire and beyond. The imagining of one’s own society – to which so many souls wish to relocate – as uniquely, irredeemably malign has, for some, become a cultural reflex. And, in the strict sense of the word, a decadent one.

Related: Victimhood Poker.

Feel My Pain, Do As I Say

Richard Chappell has been pondering claims of victimhood in a pseudo-sensitive age

We've developed a disastrous social norm according to which anyone can win instant brownie points by claiming to be a “victim” - and doubly so if their claim is made qua membership in some “community” (“As an X, I’m offended...”). Maybe the thought is that all communities are equal, so if one is feeling a bit hard done by, this must reflect some injustice, and certainly not any shortcoming on their part.

Indeed. As we’ve discussed here several times, there’s apparently no end of people who want us to feel their pain before we do exactly as they say. It’s the passive-aggressive approach to coercion, and it’s enormously popular among shameless opportunists and the terminally dishonest. The appeal to hurt feelings is particularly noxious as it implies - at least to some who see themselves as champions of the underdog - that the complainant is entitled by default or is somehow being oppressed. Insofar as “communities” are often ideological groupings with unrealistic, even ludicrous, ideas about the world, and with rules regarding what members of said group are permitted to say and do, then “communities” are unlikely to be equal in their merits or their fostering of success. The woes of a given group, whether real or imagined, may depend in very large part on the ideas and beliefs shared by many of its members. 

There’s no more vicious character trait, we’re taught, than being insufficiently “sensitive” to others’ feelings. Manipulative liars are hunky dory - nobody cares about intellectual honesty - but the moment you make someone feel bad, social disapproval is sure to follow. Maybe this is legitimate when it comes to personal interactions: as private individuals, we should of course be considerate of others. But the public sphere should not be governed by the same norms.

Well, civility is generally a good thing and one should, wherever possible, avoid being a horse’s arse. But in the public sphere, one may well be obliged to explain why it is one doesn’t belong, or wish to belong, to a particular “community”, or why one doesn’t accept irrational or unilateral demands, not least regarding the range of facts that can be stated and questions that can be asked. And, however civil, a realistic exchange may still upset those who choose to be upset, prompting howls of indignation and the rending of garments. But hurt feelings aren’t arguments; nor are they proof of wrongdoing. Regardless of how much howling is involved, and regardless of how many people choose to join the howling, some feelings are simply unwarranted, or dishonest, or just thuggery disguised.

Speaking of which

Looking Good

Comics are above all a visual medium and how they look is a matter of no small importance. Lapses in writing can to some extent be redeemed by very strong artwork, but a badly drawn comic is much more difficult to forgive. Thankfully, Frank Quitely draws very well indeed and is once again working with Grant Morrison, whose writing is often rather good. Quitely’s previous collaborations with Morrison, on New X-Men and We3, are among the finer examples of the comic book form. Their latest collaboration, All-Star Superman, lends subtlety and charm to what is, for me, an otherwise tedious character. Quitely and Morrison manage to give the well-meaning man of steel a measure of personality, and mortality, and pleasing emphasis is placed on how the central characters relate. The overall tone is one of affectionate nostalgia, with small character details set against amusing spectacle.

Allstar_superman1_2 Allstar_superman2_2 Allstar_superman3_2 Allstar_superman4_2

The most recent instalment finds our hero usurped by a pair of long-lost Kryptonian astronauts, Bar-El and Lilo, whose detachment from the “squalor” around them is refreshing in its candour and logic. (We also learn that the influence of Earth’s new champions extends to fashion, with Jimmy Olsen taking inordinate pride in his new Krypton-style “overpants”.) The inevitable tussle between Superman and his replacements is brief and visually witty, not least when Superman is hurled into the Moon, cracking it rather badly and prompting a hasty repair job involving several national landmarks. It’s a moment of pure visual whimsy, one of many. All-Star Superman doesn’t have the psychological grit of New X-Men or the emotive edge of We3, but Quitely and Morrison spin an engaging yarn that’s always a pleasure to look at and that even makes Superman an interesting character. Which is something Bryan Singer failed to do, armed with $200,000,000.

Friday Ephemera

Dr Zeus and his musical Tesla coil. More. Video. // The sound of Durex. // Live webcam sunsets. Follow sunset around the globe with 280 webcams in 52 countries. (h/t, Discarded Lies.) // The Shakespeare Country Park, with duck pond, maypole and stocks, in Maruyama, Japan. // Thames Town, China. “Authentic British-style town.” (h/t, Things.) // The global incident map. Terrorists, doomsday cults and suspicious goings-on. (h/t, Maggie’s Farm.) // “Transgressive” artists keep quiet about radical Islam. “I would be lying if I said we would show something like the Danish cartoons.” // Taking pictures from your window seat. // Atomic flight not entirely successful. More. // Nuclear tests, French Polynesia, August 24th, 1970. // Burnt offerings. Cigarette paraphernalia. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Playing card architecture. (h/t, Coudal.) // Further to this, pencil sculptures. // The pencil museum. (h/t, The EQ-ualiser.) // Via 1+1=3, a minor history of giant spheres. // The Big Bounce. (1960) // Conversation clock. // Teeth. Not for the squeamish. // Comic book movies that must be stopped. // Bat Thumb. (h/t, Protein Wisdom.) // The Hulk goes shopping. // Massimo Silenzio’s 10,000 globes. // Tattered posters on the Paris metro. // WWII propaganda posters. // New Labour, New Liberty™. // Jonathan Kay on anti-racism dinosaurs. “Challenging the received pieties of identity politics renders you a presumptive racist.” // Christopher Hitchens on Martin Amis, discrimination and the Guardian’s Ronan Bennett. // Burble. // Pig Olympics. // Ten space videos. Rockets, meteors, the Hubble Deep Field. // And, via The Thin Man, the mighty Herb Alpert.

Rival Tribes

On identity politics in the classroom. From Education’s End, by Anthony Kronman.

The more a classroom resembles a gathering of delegates speaking on behalf of the groups they represent, the less congenial a place it becomes in which to explore questions of a personally meaningful kind, including, above all, the questions of what ultimately matters in life and why. In such a classroom, students encounter each other not as individuals but as spokespersons instead. They accept or reject their teachers as role models more on account of the group to which they belong and less because of their individual qualities of character and intellect. And the works they study are regarded more as statements of group membership than as creations of men and women with viewpoints uniquely their own.

Related: On Humanising the Humanities. And.