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March 2008


Cath Elliott, whose wisdom has previously been noted, today shares her insights regarding ethical consumerism. This, so far as I can make out, involves inordinate fretting over the morality of washing out empty peanut butter jars:

I usually just give up and throw it in the bin (as long as no one’s watching).

It also involves no end of bothersome contradiction and, of course, feelings of remorse.

I refuse to set foot through the door of Primark and yet I shop in Tesco. I make sure my vegetables are locally sourced, but then I eat mango like it’s going out of fashion. I cycle to keep fit and to minimise my carbon footprint, but I also smoke, not roll ups either, but cigarettes manufactured by a major tobacco company.

Oh, the humanity. I trust Ms Elliott is no less forgiving of others – say, people who shop at Primark.

No doubt some people would argue that I’m a textbook example of a hand-wringing liberal, making futile gestures so I can feel good about myself, and performing all sorts of intellectual contortions to try and rationalise any slip-ups.


After all, is my decision not to drink Coke realistically going to have an impact on a company that last year earned $5.98bn? Probably not; but just as I’m fairly sure my refusal to buy Cape fruit in the 1980s had no bearing whatsoever on the later dismantling of the apartheid regime, that’s not the point.

If not to have a discernible impact, directly or by example, what, then, is the point? What drives this level of anxiety over soft drinks and peanut butter residue? Unless much of this is indeed about seeking out pretentious guilt and then wringing one’s hands for public display and personal gratification?

Continue reading "Credentials" »

Umbrage and Flummery

I wasn’t going to comment on Geert Wilders’ short film, Fitna, largely because it’s been done to death elsewhere and because, despite the ridiculous fuss, it’s actually rather boring. Fitna’s content, such as it is, will be familiar to anyone who reads Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom or the MEMRI media archive. Juxtaposing acts of terrorism with the sermons and Qur’anic verses that are used to justify them is old news, at least among those who pay attention. And while the texts cited certainly are used to mandate atrocity, and have been for centuries, there’s no attempt to explain the theological context or the lineage of these ideas, or how they’re propagated and rationalised. A much better film, which does provide some context and analysis, is Islam: What the West Needs to Know.

But while Wilders’ film is unoriginal and insubstantial, the reactions to it have been instructive. The company hosting Fitna online pulled it after receiving threats to its staff “of a very serious nature”, which confirms the dismal fact that Islamist thuggery - whose roots we must not speak of – all too often works. (However, such is the nature of the intartubes, the film can still be found on any number of sites.) And, as expected, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the “offensively anti-Islamic film” and claimed, unconvincingly, that, “the right of free speech is not at stake here.”

In the Guardian, Ali Eteraz described Fitna as “an effort to turn the entirety of Islam into a demonic edifice” – which may or may not be Wilders’ personal view, but is a somewhat loaded reading of the film. Wilders may well be an objectionable self-regarding oaf, as Eteraz and others claim, but that doesn’t address the fundamental issues. It simply avoids them. Instead we get: “Most people familiar with the Qur’an… accept that you can have the Qur’an say pretty much whatever you want.” This is another variation of the “Oh, but all religions can be twisted to mean anything” evasion (discussed at length here) and is based on an idle assumption that Islam has no theological features and precedents that make it unusual among religions. Eteraz also bemoaned the “disgusting conflations of the Qur’an with acts of violence, murder, kidnapping and anti-Semitism” – a statement that reveals an ignorance of Islamic history and jurisprudence that is almost, but not quite, funny.

As usual, umbrage and disgust are directed at those who point to the sacralising of terror by others, rather than those who actually make terror a matter of pious obligation. Would such reactions have been very different if more elevated minds – say, Robert Spencer, Ibn Warraq or Andrew Bostom - had made a film, any film, on the subject? Somehow, I think not.


I’ve often heard it argued, or rather asserted, that “Islamophobia” makes it more difficult to combat jihadist ideology and those who propagate it. But there’s an obvious problem with this. What is very often deemed “Islamophobic” is any attempt to highlight the roots of jihadism within Islamic history and teaching, and ultimately in the purported revelations of Muhammad himself. Thus, efforts to provide essential theological and historical context, as for instance by Spencer, Warraq and Bostom, are routinely denounced as “inflammatory”, “Islamophobic”, even “racist”. To mention the unedifying aspects of Islam’s prophet - which are central to any credible understanding of the jihadist phenomenon - is therefore very difficult to do without being denounced as xenophobic, hateful or in some way nefarious. The irony of this should not need pointing out.

Friday Ephemera

The chocolate anus. // Chicago from 36,000 ft. // Stop-motion Tron. // Crayon Physics Deluxe. // Dreamlines. How it works. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Unusual instruments. Including the bubble organ and the bowafridgeaphone. // High end watchmaking. // “Dr” Charlene Werner’s “homeopathic lecture.” A world of stupid. // Mary Jackson on “hegemonic masculinities” and other gratuitous plurals. // Steven Malanga on poverty and family structure. // Robert Spencer on “defaming” Islam. // At home with the Ahmadinejads. // Bert Teunissen’s domestic landscapes. (h/t, Mick Hartley.) // Islands of the world. // The door to hell, Uzbekistan. // Remarkable bulbs. // Tokyo taxi lights. More. // There’s so much to know about shoelaces. // The Puma “speed legs” advert. // Body Care and Grooming. (1948) // Things to do with your body. (h/t, DRB.) // Balloon animal anatomy. // Teddy bear skulls. (h/t, Ace.) More. // Giant mechanical animals. // Comic vendors of yore. // Science fiction book covers. (h/t, Coudal.) // Via Drunkablog, Arthur C Clarke’s The Sentinel. Sausages on the Moon. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Mr Mel Torme.

MilneWorld (3)

Seumas Milne’s readiness to abandon facts and rhetorically fellate theocratic thugs has been noted many times, along with his fondness for Stalinism and nostalgic Communists. At the Guardian, under Milne’s editorial wing, Milosevic groupies and other assorted rogues have been favoured with a platform from which to misinform readers. In today’s Guardian, the former comment editor and current associate editor accelerates his descent into cartoonish absurdity and attempts to paint religion as an ally in some radical crusade against the evil capitalist system. A system of which Seumas, son of Sir Alasdair Milne, is a notable beneficiary.

Milne sees the scope for

Stronger alliances between the secular left and religious progressives against poverty, capitalism and war… Religion can play a reactionary or a progressive role, and the struggle is now within it, not against it. For the future, it can be an ally of radical change.

Well, perhaps. But given Milne’s extensive history of regarding religious fantasists and bigots as “progressives” and worthy of propaganda space in a “progressive” newspaper, some doubts may spring to mind. This, after all, is a man who gave space to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and apologists for ritual murder, and who describes Tariq Ramadan, who dreams of an Islamised Europe, as “progressive” and a “liberal academic.” Even less convincing is Milne’s depiction of those who take a different view – say, by criticising aspects of Islam or insisting on the separation of church and state – as

Secular absolutists whose attitudes uncannily mirror those of religious literalists.

Thus, an advocacy of critical thought and self-determination is deemed to “mirror” an urge to impose on others the purported will of hypothetical deities. The arguments of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are, it seems, in no way distinguishable from those of people who do this. Or this. Or this. Perhaps Seumas has started channelling the wisdom of his colleague, Madeleine Bunting, whose search for “authenticity” and disdain for Enlightenment values - of which she, a female journalist, is another beneficiary - are aired at regular intervals. Certainly, a sense of déjà vu is hard to miss, not least when those who criticise religion, and one in particular, often for very good reasons, are denounced by Milne as

Apologists for western supremacism and violence.

As Alan Johnson pointed out, and as was subsequently confirmed, it’s a signature of Milne’s commentary that practically no-one may disagree or refute his claims, even on matters of basic fact, without immediately being labelled a “NeoCon”, “Islamophobe” or “warmonger”. Words which, among some, are immensely effective in shutting down rational thought. One particular passage stands out to illustrate Johnson’s point and highlight Milne’s contortions:

Panicked by the rise of radical Islamism and the newly assertive religious identity of migrant communities in a secular Europe, the anti-religious evangelists are increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance. At the same time, they are unable to recognise the ethnic dimension of their Islamophobia, let alone the deeper reasons why people continue to search for spiritual meaning in a grossly destructive economic environment where social alternatives have been pronounced dead and narcissistic consumption is king.

One might wonder if the above also illustrates how the mind of a true believer, in this case Mr Milne’s, can so easily come undone.

Novelty, Tights and Beer

On Radio 4 this morning, Quentin Letts asked, not unreasonably, What’s the Point of the Arts Council?

The reason Arts Council officials demand “challenging and contemporary” work is not that the new is necessarily better; it’s because the new gives them an edge. They can be its arbiters and make sure it follows approved creeds.

To hear a glittering cast opine, along with the notion of subsidised beer and what may be the first broadcast use of the term “tickboxery”, click here.

Friday Ephemera

Pink-eyed fascination. (h/t, Mick Hartley.) // Earthquake van. // Christvertising. Do you have the best brand-prayer alignment? (h/t, Chastity Darling.) // The electromagnetic spectrum. (h/t, Infosthetics.) // BSG teaser. // “I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Dangerous computers. // On HAL’s programming conflict. A detailed breakdown. // The Dawn of Man and Discovery, rendered in Lego. Yes, the pod bay doors do open. // Things turn ugly between HAL and Dave. (h/t, Ace.) // The BigDog robot. Sounds like a fly, walks like a horse. // Dog and machine in perfect harmony. // Wooden elephants. // Wooden horses. // Knit your own squid. // Stefan Kanfer on misplaced pacifism. // Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism podcast. // Madsen Pirie on poverty. // Mary Jackson on a failed accountant’s jihad. // Iranian schoolbooks. Shaping young minds. // Remarkable crushing machines. // Luminescent gravel. // The luminescent pillow. (h/t, Ace.) // Prequels are evil. // Alarming intersections. // And, via The Thin Man, Janis would like some wheels.

Evil Axis

The readiness of many Guardian commentators to assume that the views of their own modest readership reflect those of the country as a whole, and perhaps all enlightened beings, has previously been noted. Some project their personal dramas onto crushing social forces like Heat magazine, and Madeleine Bunting rarely misses an opportunity to tell us how we feel about things she doesn’t like. Yesterday’s Guardian leader, titled Fear and Flying, provides another example of this phenomenon while denouncing the use of aircraft as a means of covering large distances. Flying is, apparently, an “addiction” – one which must be curbed for the sake of Mother Earth. The piece states, a tad presumptuously, 

It is easy to preach about the need to restrict air travel...

Actually, I find it quite difficult to preach about the need to restrict air travel, but clearly that’s a sign of my moral inadequacy. More upstanding, and less inhibited, Guardian readers voiced their own ecstasy of indignation:

Air travel is disgusting both in the air and on the ground.

NOBODY who flies casually can call themselves ethical. 

Of note, however, is the article’s opening claim that,

Flying has become a modern middle-class hypocrisy, a source of guilt and pleasure all at the same time.

This belief that the rest of us must, simply must, share in some kind of titillating remorse caught the eye of Mr Euginedes

Now, I'm willing to accept that I may not have a finger on the pulse of the nation, but are people really “guilty” about flying? Are there actually people outside the Guardian / Independent Axis of Hand-Wringing who hesitate at the “checkout” screen at Expedia, their pointers hovering, shaky with guilt, over the “Buy” icon, before going back and booking trains to Cornwall instead? And if so, who are they?

It would, I feel, be of tremendous public benefit to repeat the phrase “Axis of Hand-Wringing” at regular intervals in the hope that it will be imprinted on the popular consciousness. Then, given time and sufficient repetition, everyone will come to feel exactly as I do.


Visitors via Tim Blair may also be interested in a condition that afflicts quite a few Guardian regulars, Phantom Guilt Syndrome.


In light of recent rumblings on bias in academia, Fabian Tassano has some not unrelated thoughts.

Imagine the following scenario. A bunch of intelligent people get together and create — using funding that is more or less unconditional — a system for generating intellectual output. However, this output does not have to pass any particular test except whether a majority of system insiders agree it is worthy. So the members of the system are entirely insulated from assessment other than their own. Like any social group, they create a hierarchy of rank, in which some are allowed to progress to the top of the ladder depending on criteria which the group as a whole decides on. What is the likely outcome? And what happens if there also starts to be an ideology which places pressure on them to produce results which fit with, rather than go against, that ideology?