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February 2008

Unwilling to Pretend

I thought I’d highlight a few of the comments on Friday’s post about the Muhammad cartoons, partly because the discussions are sometimes overlooked, but chiefly because they highlight the remarkable unrealism of Faisal al Yafai’s Guardian piece, and many others like it.

Jason Bontrager set things rolling with this neat summary of al Yafai’s underlying assumption:

If [as al Yafai suggests] the cartoons caused the damage resulting from the various Muslim riots, then the Muslims, not being the cause themselves, can only be thought of as unconscious puppets whose actions are dictated by the decisions of non-Muslims thousands of miles away.

Brendan quoted a Swedish commenter on al Yafai’s article:

I predict that this will not be the last showing of the cartoons. The last showing will be the first one that no one reacts to.

Which brought to mind this comment from MediaWatchWatch:

These cartoons have become the equivalent of a naughty step for violent Muslim toonophobes. Like tantrum-prone toddlers, their behaviour is unacceptable, and if they continue to misbehave the cartoons will continue to be published far and wide. They do not like it, but they must sit on that naughty step and think about their actions until they understand the rules.

And Matt pointed out a rather pivotal fact somehow overlooked in al Yafai’s piece:

The cartoons were drawn and published because of previous acts of violence in the name of Islam.

Indeed. See, for instance, here. And the latest publication was an affirmation of solidarity and free speech in response to the arrest of several Muslims accused of plotting to kill the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard - one of a growing number of artists, authors and scholars now in hiding or under police protection.

It’s remarkable how readily these little details were overlooked by Mr al Yafai, and their omission highlights just how unrealistic the MoToons debate can be. To avoid printing the cartoons – or any public suggestion that Islam is anything other than a Religion of Peace™ - would not only show that death threats and violent thuggery work; it would also imply that such thuggery is a morally legitimate response. It is not. Burning down schools and destroying libraries is simply not a sane reaction to the publication of a cartoon. Likewise, threatening to “take to the streets” because an author critical of Islam has had her visa extended is a display of ludicrous vanity and moral incontinence.

Urges to outlaw and punish such satire and dissent ignore the realities of the history and founder of Islam. Censorship not only blunts critical judgment and perpetuates unrealism; it also extends Islamic ticks and neuroses to non-believers and the broader population. Outlawing such mockery (even if it’s truthful), or discouraging it out of fear or pretentious “sensitivity”, makes the taboos of Islam everyone’s taboos. It obliges everyone to pretend that they respect a religious figure who is by any rational standard undeserving of respect, and whose religion is intellectually trivial and philosophically absurd.

And some of us at least aren’t so ready to pretend.

A Conspicuous Omission

After a brief flickering of clarity at the Guardian, normal service has, alas, been resumed. Today, Faisal al Yafai shares his wisdom on the recent republication of the Muhammad cartoons:

It’s been two years since I ran down the street from my flat in Damascus to see the Danish and Norwegian embassies burning, because of a cartoon published two thousand miles away. Now Danish newspapers have reprinted the same cartoons, of the Muslim prophet Muhammad with a bomb on his head, despite the controversy and lives that were lost because of it.

Note the repeated word because, and its implications. As so often, it is confidently suggested that the cause of the deaths, intimidation and property destruction was the publication of cartoons, rather than the actual perpetrators of those acts, who chose to respond to unflattering illustrations with arson, violence, murder, even threats of genocide. Hold that thought. Linger for a moment on the displacement and curious moral inversion, and note just how readily, and how often, this contortion is performed.

Mr al Yafai offers no analysis of preceding events and no reflection whatsoever on the moral incontinence of Islamist indignation, or its deranged disproportion, or its coercive intent. Nor does he pause to consider whether those who do commit atrocities in the name of Islam – say, by detonating babies, or children, or the mentally disabled – do so because they believe they’re following Muhammad’s own teachings and example. Which is, after all, an implied point of the cartoons. Needless to day, Mr al Yafai chooses to disregard the 80 or so known jihadist groups whose actions helped prompt the illustrations, and those, like Mukhlas Imron, the Bali bombing ‘mastermind’ and leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who explain their actions as advancing Islamic imperatives. On his capture, Imron repeatedly cited Muhammad as his mandate and inspiration:

You who still have a shred of faith in your hearts, have you forgotten that to kill infidels and the enemies of Islam is a deed that has a reward above no other? Aren’t you aware that the model for us all, the Prophet Muhammad and the four rightful caliphs, undertook to murder infidels as one of their primary activities, and that the Prophet waged jihad operations 77 times in the first 10 years as head of the Muslim community in Medina?

Also disregarded is the stated reason for the cartoons’ republication – i.e., an affirmation of free speech following the arrest of three Muslims accused of plotting to kill one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard. Such trifling details are, apparently, not to be thought about. Instead, Guardian readers are encouraged to believe that the only conceivable motives are trivial and malicious: 

There are so many sacred cows to be slain in the name of freedom of speech: Barack Obama’s colour, the private life of Princess Diana, Kylie Minogue’s chemotherapy. Why pick on just one? Don't be respectful and discuss these things in private: shout them from the rooftops! Instead of a few cartoons on one theme every couple of years, the Danes could run a new one every day… So come on, Danish newspaper editors, let’s see some cojones. Desecrate a few idols, push some old lady icons down the stairs and damn the consequences. Then we can all revel in how modern and free and European we all are. But don’t just pick on one weak minority over and over: there’s a word for that and it’s called bullying.

Again, pause for a moment to consider the assertion that the cartoons must constitute the deliberate “bullying” of a “weak minority”, albeit one that claims around a billion or so members. Here, al Yafai echoes a number of his Guardian colleagues, including the chronically disingenuous Karen Armstrong, who denounced the same cartoons as both “aggressive” and published “aggressively”, and Tariq Ramadan, who implied a parity of extremism between those who published the cartoons, or argued for the right to do so, and the devotees of Muhammad who made homicidal threats and set fire to occupied buildings. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that unflattering cartoons can hurt a person in exactly the same way that, say, fists, bricks and fire do.

But what is perhaps most curious about Mr al Yafai’s piece is that it shows a familiar and conspicuous disinterest in whether the cartoons do in fact depict some truth about Muhammad, his teachings and how they are used. A detail which might help explain why they arouse such preposterous rage.


Oh, yes. I forgot.


Bite me.

Friday Ephemera

The robotic fly. // Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns. Air traffic density and flow. (h/t, Coudal.) // A map of the sky. // A panorama of London. // World’s largest wind turbine. Each blade measures 126 metres. (h/t, 1+1=3.) // Time-lapse Wii. // Self-tuning guitar. // Electronic pitch correction. Aka “the bitch shifter”. // Five neglected musical instruments. (h/t, Dark Roasted Blend.) // The Stribe. Looks better than it sounds. More. // Dickie Goodman’s sampladelica. (1961) // Wooden iBox. // Phone boxes. // The cell phone booth. // Heavy Everywhere catalogue. (pdf) More. // Octopus ornaments. // Snow walker. // Green politics, black shirt. // Andrew Bostom interview. On Islamic anti-Semitism and the teaching of contempt. // Robert Spencer on Juan Cole. // Norman Geras on the Lancet’s Richard Horton. // Callimachus on teaching “social justice”. (h/t, Maggie’s Farm.) // Iowahawk on Rowan Williams and the Tale of the Asse-Hatte. // 100 scary movie scenes. // Sunspot 10982. // “You have 10 seconds to reach minimum safe distance.” Prangs, bangs and auto-destruct. // And, via The Thin Man, Nichelle Nichols takes disco to a whole new level.


Amid the customary hokum, there’s a flickering of realism in today’s Guardian. Further to this, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association picks up on yesterday’s piece by Andrew Anthony and spies a possible explanation for Rowan Williams’ rhetorical contortions.

So, if the Catholic church wants exemption from laws to protect gay people from discrimination, you give them your support and even when you have to accept the case for abolishing the legal protection your own religion has from “blasphemy”, you can still salvage something by raising the spectre of offence caused to other religions (as the archbishop says, “The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear”).

And if you want to protect the special status of the church and Christianity in law, then you speak up for the rights of those of other religions to have their religious law recognised (to quote the archbishop again, “Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences”). Replacing “Church of England” with “faith” makes any defence of special treatment seem a whole lot more reasonable.

And replacing Williams’ “secular unitary system” with something clearer and more precise - say, “the law” - makes his claim to special treatment, whether for Anglicans or Muslims, rather less reasonable. Which is presumably why the archbishop chose to deploy such opaque and circuitous language. And there I was thinking dishonesty is a sin.

Artful Vacuity

Theodore Dalrymple on the mellifluous flummery of Rowan Williams.   

British intellectual life has long harbored a strain of militantly self-satisfied foolishness, and the present archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a perfect exemplar of the tendency. In an interview with the BBC on February 7, the archbishop said that it “seems unavoidable” that some aspects of sharia, or Islamic law, would be adopted in Britain: unavoidable, presumably, in the sense in which omertà seems unavoidable in the island of Sicily…

Rarely does philosophical inanity dovetail so neatly into total ignorance of concrete social realities: it is as though the archbishop were the product of the coupling of Goldilocks and Neville Chamberlain. Those more charitably inclined point out that the archbishop is an erudite man, a professor of theology who reads in eight languages and who was addressing a highly sophisticated audience, employing nuanced, subtle, caveat-laden arguments. He was not speaking in newspaper headlines, nor did he expect to make any headlines with his remarks.

Charity is a virtue, of course, but so is clarity: and it is the latter virtue that the archbishop so signally lacks. He assumes that the benevolence of his manner will disguise the weakness of his thought, and that his opacity will be mistaken for profundity.

Over at B&W, Ophelia Benson also trawls through the verbiage.


At last. Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, Japanese style.   

(Via Samizdata.)


Our resident Archivist of Such Things, Dr Westerhaus, writes to inform us that Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water was inspired by a Frank Zappa concert at Montreux Casino in December 1971, during which the venue’s velvet ceiling caught fire, thanks to a fan’s recklessly aimed flare gun, leading to the complete destruction of the venue. Other accounts suggest the fire was caused by the rubbing together of the wrong notes. The quite literal ‘smoke on the water’ can be seen here

And This Is How We Feel

More of that presumptuous “we” so favoured by Guardian columnists, this time courtesy of Jackie Ashley.

As we have grown richer, we have become less confident and optimistic about the future. Our increased material competitiveness has not made us happier. Our frenzied activity leaves us stressed. The days when free-market theorists believed we would be liberated and happy through privatisation seem a world away. The answers are the same as they ever were. To adapt the famous slogan, the government needs to be tough on pill-popping, and tough on the causes of pill-popping.

Echoing the assertions of her chronically sorrowful colleagues, Madeleine Bunting, George Monbiot and Oliver James, Ashley rushes with undue confidence to the claim that,

People get depressed because they don’t have enough money to keep up in a materialistic and competitive society.

Setting aside the question of whether optimism and happiness per se are legitimate goals of any government or policy, or indeed of capitalism, it isn’t at all clear that Ms Ashley has in fact established that the above is the primary cause of unhappiness, or even that unhappiness is, as she implies, a remarkable new phenomenon, at least in its prevalence. Perhaps, like her colleagues, she speaks of her own feelings and presumes “we” must feel as she does for reasons that escape me. Either way, it’s interesting to see just how readily the most tendentious things are asserted, based on nothing much.

Campus Counterforce

There’s this general misconception that there’s a right not to be offended, and that it’s okay to punish students and faculty members for engaging in speech that offends someone, even if that speech would be entirely constitutionally protected.

Samantha Harris, FIRE. 

Evan Coyne Maloney, director of Indoctrinate U, and Andrew Marcus have produced a short film about FIRE, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The film outline’s FIRE’s principles and highlights some of the PC follies and coercive unrealism with which the organisation contends. Watch it here.

The case mentioned in the film is discussed here.

Related. And. Also. Plus.

Free Money

Further to this, the Devil’s Kitchen highlights a bold welfare proposal

Every newborn child should have a ‘personal welfare’ fund opened, into which the government should pay, say, £5,000 each year until the child reaches 18. The fund should be private, like a pension fund, and thus invested, not a state operated fund financed from present tax receipts. The fund would accumulate £90k in static terms and should provide well over £100k after investment returns on maturity… This fund should be the only handout from the state, ever, to citizens. No more child benefit, no more unemployment benefit, housing benefit, tax credits, etc. The fund can be used [by] the individual as they see fit…

The advantages of such a system are many. Easy to administer, no perverse incentives/disincentives caused by benefits, promote personal responsibility, equal start for every individual, eliminate poverty trap, and it’s fair and reasonable. Even though at 18 you are effectively being handed £100k of ‘free’ money, it is now yours to spend as you wish. If you are ill or unemployed would you spend it so freely compared to current benefits when you know you will receive them month after month? When it becomes your own money you become more careful how you spend it. The fund would give people a lift up, whether to buy a house, start a business, go to university, start a family, etc.

The key to the concept is that beyond the initial payment there is no other help from the state. It would help pay for the expense of children, but not distort decisions by paying benefits per child, for example. It would totally remove distortions inherent in a ‘real time’ benefit system (week to week, month to month, year to year).

To which, the Devil adds,

[Nationmaster] gives the total population as 60,609,153 and the percentage of those aged 0–14 as 17.5%. This gives us 10,606,602 (to the nearest whole person). Next, the total number of those aged 15–19 is 3,992,998. This gives us a rough total of 14,599,600 (to the nearest whole person). Therefore, 14,599,600 x 5,000 = £72,998,000,000 or £72.998 billion.

So, how does that compare to current welfare spending? Well, I worked this out some time ago, from the government’s own statistics [PDF]. The most massive single item is, indeed, social security benefits at £134,463,000,000 for 2006/07 and £140,900,000,000 projected for 2007/08. When you add up all of the different sections, however, the total figure for benefits is somewhere just north of £200 billion. So, Vindico’s idea does actually compare pretty favourably in terms of government spending. Plus, of course, it has all of the other benefits that he listed.

Economists among us may have clearer views than mine, but a few initial thoughts occur. Perhaps the most obvious practical problem is one of transition. The advantages of a scheme like that above would be deferred by, say, a generation or so and would become clear only gradually - while (presumably) running in parallel with the existing welfare system. This may well be prohibitively expensive. Those employed by the state to run the existing benefits system would no doubt have issues of their own, and a generation of 18-year-olds with a sudden £100,000 windfall could have serious effects on, for instance, the property market. (To say nothing of sales of alcohol and scratch cards.) There are also issues of political expedience – of whether one generation of voters would be happy with a change of this kind benefiting the next.

Still, it’s a provocative idea.