Archive for the 'The Guardian' Category


In my last post I highlighted a phenomenon whereby some opponents of the Iraq war attempt to reduce the conflict to a force of nature – like a fire – in order to redirect moral blame away from those actually doing the killing. Today, in The Guardian’s Comments is Free, one Pankaj Mishra does precisely that.

Many [critics of totalitarian Islam] championed the misbegotten wars that have already killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and ruined innumerable more lives.

In phrasing things this way, he avoids mentioning who – i.e. insurgent groups and, strangely enough, the representatives of totalitarian Islam – are actually slaughtering Muslims. Instead it’s simply an abstract concept – “wars” – that have killed them. And the wars were supported by the critics of Islam. It’s a trick – and it’s become tiresome. Keep an eye out for it.

Update: Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels deals with different guff in the same article.


Imagine you’re a journalist at a reputable newspaper writing an article on how pupils of a Spanish primary school (after some slanted pedagogy, one guesses) sent pro-Palestinian postcards – some of which trespass into anti-Semitism – to the Israeli embassy in Spain. Also suppose you need to illustrate the story with a photo. Presumably, you would choose, if possible, a picture of the postcards in question. Failing that, you might pick an image of the school, of the embassy or of the ambassador making the complaints. At the very least you could go for the “middle-east conflict map” in which Israel is one colour, bordering Arab states another and the Palestinian territories an intermediate shade.

What you would not choose, I would have thought, is an image of a Palestinian woman standing in the remains of her home after it’s been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, nor caption said photo as if you were drawing a comparison between the destruction of Palestinian homes and the sending of the postcards.


A Palestinian woman outside her destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Jabalya in northern Gaza. The Israeli embassy in Madrid has complained of antisemitic postcards from Spanish schoolchildren.

You wouldn’t do that as it would suggest you are partial, editorialising and sneering at the seemingly-legitimate complainant. It’s possible I’ve loaded this thought experiment by using the term “a reputable newspaper”, but that, anyway, is what the Guardian chose to do.

(Via Normblog)

The Truman-Byrne Show

The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is certainly no bastion for solid, conscientious journalism. In fact, I’ve come across less non sequiturs and discombobulated arguments in the writings of pre-pubescent Korean children. However, it was still something of a shock to come across Agnès Poirier – vainglorious Myspace photo included – profile on the Guardian’s website.

The first two articles I read contained:

1. The most frivolous defense of Foie Gras I have ever encountered.
2. A violin sonata on the arrest of Roman Polanski.

You’d be tempted to think she was some sort of postmodern and oh-so-sophisticated French correspondent. Wait…

Here is her – oh isn’t it all just a big joke? – argument regarding the potential banning of the pâté:

Another pleasure to go down the drain after smoking, drinking and parental spanking. If we ban foie gras, I suggest we also ban human force-feeding, you know, obesity, and make it a crime for all who encourage it and all who indulge in it. Cadbury should be forced to close down, so should Häagen Dazs and many others, and let’s lock up everyone with a BMI above 25. Yes, you, filthy foie gras eater.

And here she is on the arrest of a self-confessed statutory rapist:

There is a feeling in France that the US justice department is acting out some kind of prudish revenge against a great talent who never abided by American rules even when he was the most celebrated director in Hollywood.

Sometimes I really think it’s all a big scripted joke.

Kindergarten Con

A gaudy crucified Jesus, painted blood flowing down his wilted body, stared down at me in the silent classroom. My Italian classmates, also staring at me, sat around a circle of dilapidated desks that looked to be built out of detritus reclaimed from one of Mussolini’s tanks. The teacher was waiting for my reply. Under pressure to defend my doubts about the existence of God, I was trying to translate something my father had once challenged me with:

If God is omnipotent, can he create a stone so large he cannot move it?

I scratched my head. What was this? It sounded like a trick; maybe he was trying to make me look stupid.  If God could create such an object he was not omnipotent, and if he couldn’t, he had the same problem. I thought it through again. The answer confirmed my suspicions. It was a trick, the old smug bastard. Maybe this was part of the ruse though… Maybe he was still going to come out on top? I stayed silent. He took the fag out of his mouth and looked over at me, “Well?”

I explained my problem with the question. “What does that tell you about God then?” he asked. I still didn’t get it. Best keep quiet. “It shows that there is a problem with the idea of omnipotence.” It was slow to dawn on me but I finally got it… there was a problem there! Furthermore, it was one without an immediate solution. Well, at least one that a dull eight year old could think of.

Anticlimactically, however, delivering the Problem of Omnipotence had no discernible epistemological effect on my Roman Catholic teacher and comrades. There was no problem, they replied, God can do whatever the blue fuck he likes, whenever he likes. I tried to explain that that was precisely the problem. But it was no good; they’d grown up in a tiny village in the mountains with catholic parents, teachers and priests. Some of them believed that clouds were made out of cotton wool and that metal teaspoons would float in water.

Of course, this is the problem with children: they’ll believe any old shit. Unfortunately, however, this is not a feature particular to children. The Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s chief education officer, believes that parents have a right to raise their children in any philosophical or political framework they wish. Here she is on the issue:

If parents wish their children to be brought up as Christians, or, for that matter, atheists, what right do others have to stop them?

And again:

It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live. It is also consistent with that role to want to have those beliefs and world view acknowledged and affirmed as part of their children’s education.

First off, it is worth noticing Ainsworth’s rhetorical ploy in her first quote. The inclusion of Christians and atheists in the same question is a deployment of the same tired old rhetoric that there is no relevant epistemological difference between these positions: both are fundamentally faith based. However, as I’ve argued before, this is false:

To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

Atheism, the probabilistic doubt in the existence of God, is a straightforward consequence of our knowledge gathering processes. The same processes would return a higher probability of his existence were there any good evidence. If God, in his infinite mercy, decided to unequivocally reveal himself to all of us miserable unbelievers tomorrow there would be none of us left by dinner time. However, as we already know, God works in mysterious ways. So mysterious, in fact, that he’s convinced a large fraction of the world’s population to not believe in his existence. Funny that. The salient point here though is that raising children as Christians is fundamentally different from the atheistic equivalent. Whereas the former requires threats of everlasting violence, manipulation and dogma to establish its primary ontological belief, the latter does not  –  as far as I can remember, I have never been threatened with even a mild kicking for a failure to believe in the non-existence of God.

The second, and perhaps more relevant, point is Ainsworth’s claim that no one has the right to interfere with what parents teach their children.  Does she really believe, however, that Ku Klux Clan parents should be permitted to “pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live”? Is she of the opinion that many conspiracy theorists’ demented belief that our governments are run by a shape-shifting reptile bourgeoisie from the constellation Draco should be ‘acknowledged and affirmed as a part of their children’s education’? Of course not. None of us, apart from those in the grip of these delusions, think such things should be taught to our children. Why? Precisely because there is no good reason to believe them in the first place. If you want others to believe claims about the existence of gods, vampires, perpetual motion machines, shape shifting lizards or anything else for that matter, then you are shouldering the burden of proof.

The Dawkinsian point is that raising children in a religious framework, one based on faith and often other surreptitious methods of inducing belief, is taking advantage of a child’s cognitive vulnerabilities. Apart from the inherent dishonesty, Dawkins goes on to say that:

…the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

Making a child believe there is a hell where the misbehaved are forever castigated is a merciful and necessary favour if true. If it is false, however, and if there is no good reason to believe it, the theist has done the child a serious harm.

Davis Talks a Load of Guff

There’s a piece in the Guardian today about how drugs experts think the current UK drugs classification system is total nonsense. No doubt they’ll be ignored just like numberless others have been ignored before them. It’s good to see it in the media anyway even if it is, by now, a case study in “the bleeding obvious”. But then there’s blustering Tory David Davis with some of his mindless but perhaps entirely predictable comments:

[T]he shadow home secretary, David Davis, rejected any changes that would confuse the public. “Drugs wreck lives, destroy communities and fuel other sorts of crime – especially gun and knife crime. Thanks to the government’s chaotic and confused approach to drugs policy, young people increasingly think it is OK to take drugs,” he said, adding that he was against downgrading of ecstasy. “It is vital nothing else leads young people to believe drugs are OK.”

Yes, drugs, currently, cause crime – because they’re illegal. And they’re illegal because they’ve been arbitrarily and unscientifically classified. Seemingly, Davis thinks it’s “vital nothing else leads young people to believe drugs are OK” even if the “thing” that might lead them to believe drugs are OK is the truth or drugs policy actually based on facts and evidence instead of conservative prejudice and dogma or, as a result, their legality. Confused approach to drugs policy indeed.

Special Privilege for Religious Values

There’s a feature on religion by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian today. It’s positively riddled with things that piss me off.

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

Is it appropriate to describe Dawkins as a fundamentalist? I suppose it depends entirely on how you’re defining the term. Well, whatever, for the sake or argument let’s assume it is. But there’s fundamentalism and there’s fundamentalism. There are some things it’s not quite so bad to be an extremist about as it is others. For instance, being absolutely adamant about needing evidence for belief is very different from being absolutely adamant about needing to kill everyone who doesn’t worship the right God. Even if Dawkins is as much of a fundamentalist as the bigots and the jihadis, then he’s certainly not fundamentalist about the same sorts of things or in the same ways as they are. That’s quite an important distinction. It’s precisely the reason you don’t see people like Dawkins and Harris committing mass murder in the name of their beliefs. Slee looks to be evoking a variation of the epistemological equivalence tack that Jim posted on. It’s a crock. But there’s more of it from John Gray:

Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. “It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself.”

As far as I’m aware both Hitchens and Dawkins are unbelievers because, in short, they have seen no evidence to warrant belief. Their unbelief is not fixed; it’s evidence dependent. So, unless they’ve been exposed to decisive evidence for the existence of God and yet they stubbornly refuse to believe, it’s hard to see how they’re epistemologically equivalent to believers.

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

So, “if you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Apart from when you don’t accept there’s doubt in that sentiment, presumably. You could be forgiven for thinking a Rabbi would be on very thin ice with a statement like that. If, where their beliefs that we’d be better off without religion are concerned, Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling are simply dogmatic then, presumably, at least one of the following has to be true:Either: They have stated directly that whatever the evidence they will continue to believe that we’d be better off without religion. Or: They have been exposed to decisive evidence that we’re better off with religion yet continue to believe we’re not. Now, I’m pretty sure the first is false, and to suggest the second would be to beg a central question. It would presuppose such evidence exists.

If someone seeks to deny your existence, I suppose you may want to fight to assert it. But is Azzim Tamimi’s ontological status really being disputed? Denying the very existence of the faithful is hardly a corollary of arguing that religion is pestiferous and its manifestation in the public sphere inappropriate. Who knows though? That fact may not prevent Tamimi or some of his acolytes from expressing their “violent religiosity” regardless.

The refrain of Christians like [Nick] Spencer is that unless religion is a part of public-policy debates, then society will be impoverished. Last November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he distinguished between programmatic and procedural secularism. The former meant that in the public domain, everybody had to silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality. For Williams, this was a hopeless way of carrying on public discourse in a bewildering society that embraced not only many faiths but many anti-faith positions, and in which real disputes over very different values needed to take place. Better was procedural secularism, which promised that different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy. This would involve, said Williams, “a crowded and argumentative public square that acknowledges the authority of a legal mediator or broker whose job it is to balance and manage real difference”.

It is an idea similar to one set out by Yahya Birt, research fellow at The Islamic Foundation. “One form of secularism suggests that religion should be kept in the private sphere. That’s Dawkins’ position. Another…, is to do with establishing a modus vivendi. It accepts that you come to the public debate with baggage that will inform your arguments. In this, the government tries to find common ground and the best possible consensus, which can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. Of course, there will be real clashes over issues such as gay adoption, but it’s not clear to me that that’s a problem per se.”

Argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

I’m not sure we should accept that religious people will “come to the public debate with baggage that will inform [their] arguments.” They may well come with baggage that will motivate their arguments, but not inform them. Furthermore, I’d have thought that the only time we should feel obligated to “treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable” is when those value systems are, indeed, coherent, reasonable and even valuable. Not at any other time nor for any other reason. Not, for example, because they’re religious values. Religious values that might not actually be coherent, reasonable and valuable but instead deranged, irrational and disgusting. Moreover, how could this proposed public mediation even work? Yahya Birt doesn’t think it’ll be “a problem per se”. Oddly enough though, he doesn’t feel the need to go into detail. Without engagement on the foundations, however, it looks somewhat intractable. If one side, for instance, is arguing that homosexuals should enjoy freedom from discrimination and the other that they should be executed because their God says so then how does one mediate such a thing? And how about when two faith positions themselves are in direct opposition? You can embellish the matter with woolly terms like “common ground”, “mediation” and “the best possible consensus” all you want. But the idea that we should exempt certain values from being judged purely on their merits by granting them special privileges on religious grounds seems, putting it mildly, unsettling.

P.S. David Thompson, Ophelia Benson, Jim Denham, Caspar Melville, Ben at Religion is Bullshit and the peculiarly monikered “Shuggy” also have a go. The Guardian has also posted some letters in response to the piece.

Unite and Conquer

Here’s Terry Eagleton (the one who thinks suicide bombers are “tragic heroes”) with a typically fuzzy piece in the Guardian. Apparently, the reason those in power criticise multiculturalism is because it threatens their abilities to invoke “materially divisive policies”. I don’t know whether that’s their reason or not, but it certainly isn’t the only reason they might have.

There is an insuperable problem about introducing immigrants to British values. There are no British values. Nor are there any Serbian or Peruvian values. No nation has a monopoly on fairness and decency, justice and humanity.

There’s that “British values” term again. This sort of thing is part of the reason I don’t like it. Bringing nationality into it is counterproductive, equivocal and offers this kind of easy-out. Either way though, I don’t understand his point. Evidently, Terry Eagleton values writing vague articles in the Guardian. But he doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Not by a long shot. But that doesn’t mean writing vague articles in the Guardian is not an Eagletonian value or that, because all his values may overlap with those of others, Eagletonian values don’t exist. Anyway, it’s more the liberal, egalitarian, modern and progressive values themselves that are important. If they’re the ones being proclaimed to be, conceptually speaking, “British” then fine. It’s secondary who else holds them. Maybe it’s the fact that some seem to be transgressing these values – and others allowing them to do so – in the name of cultural plurality that’s prompting concern.

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.

So, if it’s a threat to those in power in because it challenges a “tight cultural consensus” (whatever that means and even though we’ve been given no reason to think it, but let’s just assume that’s true for a moment) then it can’t be a threat because it might breed suicide bombers (or misogynists or homophobes or archaic theocrats)? And this is because things can only be threats for one reason? Or because being a threat to a “tight cultural consensus” necessarily excludes being a threat for more legitimate reasons? Perhaps it’s none of the above and these are just two unrelated and unsupported assertions. And perhaps Eagleton just writes for the sake of writing.

Incidentally, David Thompson, Ophelia Benson and Rosie Bell all beefed Eagleton rather more articulately than I just did.

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