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May 2008


Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke highlights two recent academic news stories and finds a common theme.

This is what I call the porcupine strategy. Make yourself as pointy, sharp and inflated as you can, and hope that any predators will just go away. The problem with this particular porcupine act is that it’s not fooling anyone. Scholars who know something about the theories [Aliza] Shvartz is fumbling to deploy know full well that she’s said very little that makes sense in this passage, that it’s close to being a random assemblage of words. Observers who don’t know anything about those theories just see it as babble.

In fairness to casual readers, several, more seasoned, purveyors of postmodernist theory have also lapsed into random assemblages of words. Even those figures held in great esteem by other likeminded theorists have often proved no less impervious to comprehension. Oddly, this tendency hasn’t stopped many of their admirers from hailing the results as “skillfully poetic”.


Sam Harris chances his arm at the Huffington Post – not an obvious venue for realistic debate - and comments on a “psychopathic skewing of priorities.” Specifically, the tensions between free enquiry and deference to traditional Islam:

The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name.

A point that’s been illustrated here more than once.

Our capitulations in the face of these threats have had what is often called “a chilling effect” on our exercise of free speech. I have, in my own small way, experienced this chill first hand. First, and most important, my friend and colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali happens to be among the hunted. Because of the failure of Western governments to make it safe for people to speak openly about the problem of Islam, I and others must raise a mountain of private funds to help pay for her round-the-clock protection. The problem is not, as is often alleged, that governments cannot afford to protect every person who speaks out against Muslim intolerance. The problem is that so few people do speak out. If there were ten thousand Ayaan Hirsi Ali's, the risk to each would be radically reduced.

For more on this, see my post quoting Robert Tracinski and Salman Rushdie.

Harris offers another, personal, illustration.

As for infringements of my own speech, my first book, The End of Faith, almost did not get published for fear of offending the sensibilities of (probably non-reading) religious fanatics. W.W. Norton, which did publish the book, was widely seen as taking a risk - one probably attenuated by the fact that I am an equal-opportunity offender critical of all religious faith. However, when it came time to make final edits to the galleys of The End of Faith, many of the people I had thanked by name in my acknowledgments (including my agent at the time and my editor at Norton) independently asked to have their names removed from the book. Their concerns were explicitly for their personal safety.

Several examples of backstage trepidation are listed, including this, which is far too typical.

Nature, arguably the most influential scientific journal on the planet, recently published a lengthy whitewash of Islam (Z. Sardar Beyond the Troubled Relationship. Nature 448, 131-133; 2007). The author began, as though atop a minaret, by simply declaring the religion of Islam to be “intrinsically rational.” He then went on to argue, amid a highly idiosyncratic reading of history and theology, that this rational religion’s current wallowing in the violent depths of unreason can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism. After some negotiation, Nature also agreed to publish a brief response from me. What readers of my letter to the editor could not know, however, was that it was only published after perfectly factual sentences deemed offensive to Islam were expunged.

And there’s the rub. If unflattering statements and facts are excised in the name of respect and sensitivity - or quite often, fear - a realistic and honest discussion is unlikely even to begin. (This is the approach favoured by, among others, Tariq Ramadan, who forever speaks of “dialogue” while dictating the terms on which any discussion should, eventually, take place.) It is, for instance, difficult to take any meaningful kind of stand against the barbarities of Islam without challenging the specific religious beliefs that justify and perpetuate that barbarism. And how can one honestly discuss how such things might be ended without suggesting, at least by implication, that those beliefs - and their originator - are immoral and disgusting?

The whole thing is well worth reading.

The Horror

I wasn’t going to comment on Boris Johnson becoming the next mayor of London, but I couldn’t resist airing a few reactions to that prospect from the pages of a certain newspaper.

A breathless Zoe Williams writes

God alone knows what this moneyed creep would get up to… He despises gays and he despises provincials… and he despises Africans. He despises them, and he despises those of us who would hold such judgments to be bigoted and inhuman.


He despises people who are not of his class because he is a snob.

An ironic statement, one might think, coming from a Guardian columnist, especially one whose own elitist affectations have entertained us so. This denunciation of snobbery is almost immediately followed by,

We know what London is. Boris is not London.

So no snobbery there.

Williams’ piece concludes with some quotes from notable Londoners. The actress Arabella Weir, daughter of former British ambassador Sir Michael Weir, offers this:

How do we trust a guy who says he knows about London, when he’s just taken three of his kids out of state school and put them into private schools?

Then there’s this, from fashion designer Vivienne Westwood:

Boris as mayor? Unthinkable. It just exposes democracy as a sham, especially if people don’t vote for Ken.

Ms Westwood appears to have difficulty grasping the concept of democracy, which generally entails the possibility that other people – perhaps a great many of them – will have preferences that differ from one’s own. Still, there’s an almost charming megalomania to the implication that a system which allows people to vote on those preferences must be a “sham” when the people doing the voting disagree with Vivienne Westwood.

It’s a safe bet that the Guardian’s imperious dowager in residence, Polly Toynbee, won’t be too chuffed either. Toynbee famously said of Johnson,

Perhaps because he was not born to great wealth… he revels in everything elite - intellectual, social or monied.

Unlike Polly - a member of the rather grand Toynbee family and descendant of the Earls of Carlisle - who was born into wealth. As Guardian readers will know, Polly’s peeves include private education and other people’s money:

He earned more than £400,000 last year in journalism and after-dinner speaking on top of his MP’s salary.

Oddly, while Toynbee makes a point of announcing the earnings of others, supposedly on principal, she refuses to disclose the details of her own salary and extracurricular income; though one might assume her Guardian salary alone is comfortably within six figures. And it’s worth noting that Johnson earned less than Polly’s employer at the Guardian, the privately educated Alan Rusbridger, who last year was paid £520,000.

Johnson’s reply to Toynbee is worth reading in full, but here’s a taste:

She joins the usual Labour snarling against fee-paying education, and selective education of all kinds. In reality, of course, she is the beneficiary of a highly selective education and also sent her own offspring to one of the most expensive public schools in the country, an establishment way beyond the means of most people. Of course there will be those who accuse her of monstrous hypocrisy, and wonder… how on earth she can insist on imposing a one-size-fits-all comprehensive system on the rest of the country, and close down the opportunities of so many poor but bright kids, when she has so ruthlessly maximised the opportunities of her own children…

Then there will be those who complain that it is hypocritical of Polly to have her lovely second home in Italy, to which she doubtless repairs on so many cheapo flights that she has personally quilted the earth in a tea-cosy of CO2; to which I say, yes, it probably is wrong of Polly to keep calling for higher taxes when that would put such opportunities - for air travel to second homes - beyond the reach of millions slightly less fortunate than her. But never mind the hypocrisy: look at the fundamental Tory behaviour. At least she's renting the villa out at pretty keen rates.

For that alone, I’m quite pleased Boris is London’s new mayor. And besides, what could possibly go wrong?

Friday Ephemera

Air jelly. // Neo Cube. (h/t, Artblog.) // Nano photos. // Molecule-sized switches. // The tunnels of Niagara Falls. // Architecture in Dubai. // Tokyo’s automated multi-story bike parking. // When galaxies collide. // Brian Greene on superstrings. Vibrating in 11 dimensions. // Heather MacDonald on poisonous “authenticity”. (h/t, Cookslaw.) // PoMo professor threatens to sue ungrateful students. They “discriminated” against her by pointing out she’s incompetent. More. // Parody of gender studies flyer constitutes “violence”. // “My epiglottis is full of bees.” // Bubble cars. // Traffic jam shockwave. // Iron Man: Secret Origins. 1, 2, 3, 4. // The museum of unworkable devices. (h/t, Maggie’s Farm.) // Muppetstar Galactica. // Magic lanterns. Brass, glass and kerosene. // Unusual plants. (h/t, Ace.) // Orange Sunshine. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // The Hendrix sex tape. He’s dead, Jim. (h/t, Protein Wisdom.) // The Kleenex Pillow. // Ten annoying alarm clocks. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s a footwear thing.

Tears and Role-Play

Further to Amanda Marcotte’s ongoing tussle with the Even More Righteous Sisterhood, this seems relevant. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to an item on the tribal agonies of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and their struggles to be sufficiently sensitive and inclusive. Each year the festival is shadowed by an organisation called Camp Trans, whose activities include a “radical masculinities workshop,” “flirting workshops” and

Protesting the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, most notably the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

Writer and activist Michelle Tea explains the origin of this dispute:

In 1991 a transsexual woman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was evicted from MWMF. Transsexual women, for those not up-to-date with the growing transgender revolution, are women who were born in male bodies and have been fighting against that ever since. They may or may not be on hormones, which can be costly or unavailable. Same goes for sex reassignment surgery, which is often prohibitively expensive and not covered by insurance… A lot of women inside the festival want to keep trans women out. Some staunchly insist that these individuals are not women but men in dresses trying to ruin the feminist event. Others concede that trans women are women, but because they were born boys and may still have penises, the festival is not the place for them.

Feelings continue to run high in both camps, as it were, and the list of possible identity subgroups continues to grow, along with a helpful lexicon of radical spellings, as can be seen from a recent festival communiqué:   

I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organisers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honour space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honourable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of colour, trans womyn or trans men… I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.

Such is the drama of identity politics and the competitive victimhood it necessarily engenders.

A reader, R Sherman, highlighted the following comment, made in response to the MWMF’s attempt at conciliation.

What really makes me angry about this whole situation is non-trans people deciding what is and is not transphobia… The sentiment of this release is blatant transphobia, and the section calling it otherwise is just rhetoric. I don’t really believe that anyone has the right or ability to accurately gauge their own actions as phobic or not. The community being harmed is the only one with the perspective necessary to make that distinction. It is overstepping and disrespectful, to say the least, for the non-trans authors of this release to say that their policies are not transphobic and further to attempt to explain why.

The implications of this claim did not go unnoticed among other regulars of this site. The Thin Man added,   

Let’s transpose the object of that phrase and see what happens:

“I don’t really believe that anyone has the right or ability to accurately gauge their own actions as witchcraft or not. The community being harmed is the only one with the perspective necessary to make that distinction.”


“I don’t really believe that anyone has the right or ability to accurately gauge their own actions as heresy or not. The community being harmed is the only one with the perspective necessary to make that distinction.”


“I don’t really believe that anyone has the right or ability to accurately gauge their own actions as counter-revolutionary or not. The community being harmed is the only one with the perspective necessary to make that distinction.”

Quite. And throughout the Farce of Marcotte™ similar sentiments were internalised and expressed, with one reader of Ms Marcotte’s website offering the following pearl of wisdom:

As a white woman, though, I’m not the one offended, so it’s not my call as to what an appropriate response is.

And thus any claim to moral agency is surrendered to those members of a favoured group who happen to be shouting loudest. But despite the howls of victimhood, which so define our age, it’s hard to excuse the opportunist denial of any objective criteria or coherent ethical rationale. Thus, injustice is defined, unilaterally, by feelings, or claims of feelings - and, of course, by leverage. Phobias, prejudice and oppression become whatever the Designated Victim Group, or its representative, says they are. And the basis for apology, compensation and flattery becomes whatever the Designated Victim Group says it is. The practical result of this is egomaniacal license and the politics of role-play.