Saturday, February 26, 2005

Time, mind and language

Laura Spinney has a fascinating piece, worth close attention, in the 24 Feb Life section of The Guardian.

It concerns the Aymara, who inhabit remote high Andean valleys in northern Chile, and research by Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who is interested in how humans develop abstract ideas like time:

Núñez now believes that he has definitive evidence that the Aymara have a sense of the passage of time that is the mirror image of his own and almost every known culture: the past is in front of them, the future behind.

The Aymara case shows that there is a degree of arbitrariness in the way time is presented in human language (backwards or forwards). There are, however, underlying brain functions that are universal to the species:

The only thing that all humans have in common when it comes to temporal experience is their brains' perceptual mechanisms. "There is change in our environment, there is motion in our environment, and we need to be able to deal with that information," says [Vyvyan Evans, a theoretical cognitive linguist at the University of Sussex]. The human brain has therefore evolved to be able to recognise three basic components of time: duration, simultaneity and repetition.

Time, Spinney writes, is a hard concept to pin down, and all languages resort to metaphor to express it:

In fact, with staggering monotony, they all resort to the same metaphor: space. If an English speaker says: "We are approaching the deadline," he or she is expressing imminence in terms of nearness, a property of physical space. Anyone listening will understand exactly what he or she means, even though the deadline is not an entity that exists in the physical world. Núñez says: "There is no ultimate truth that you could discover that is outside that metaphor."

As I understand it - and I may be wrong here - there are ultimate truths about time that can be discovered, but only in mathematics and physics. Language has to use metaphors but that is a shortcoming of language, not an indication that there is no underlying reality.

And that underlying reality is that time doesn't exist. The physicist Brian Greene quotes Albert Einstein:

In a condolence letter to the widow of Michele Besso, his longtime friend and fellow physicist, Einstein wrote: "In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn't mean anything. For we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent."

Returning Spinney's article:

Núñez thinks that the reason the Aymara think they way they do might be connected with the importance they accord vision. Every language has a system of markers which forces the speaker to pay attention to some aspects of the information being conveyed and not others. French emphasises the gender of an object (sa voiture , son livre), English the gender of the subject (his car, her book). Aymara marks whether the speaker saw the action happen or not: "Yesterday my mother cooked potatoes (but I did not see her do it)." If these markers are left out, the speaker is regarded as boastful or a liar.

What an excellent language and culture!

I suppose if Kierkegaard had been Aymara he would have said life must be lived backwards but can only be viewed forwards.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"The earth is finished"

Aubrey Meyer and colleagues at the Global Commons Institute have done a service by making Michael McCarthy's 12 Feb article Slouching Towards Disaster available online.

Unfortunately, the front end of the GCI site is way out date, and you can't find most things from there (if you go to C&C Articles you can find my spring 2002 piece on environment and security, labelled Caspar). Resources obviously needed, and I owe Aubrey more than a phone call.

I must get my Jan 2000 interview with James Lovelock onto the web.

UNEP's tsunami report

The United Nations Environment Programme report on the Dec 04 Indian Ocean tsunami appears to confirm what I wrote in my 7 Jan article, Tsunami coming for us all.

New Scientist summarises UNEP as saying that in areas where natural barriers - such as mangrove swamps and coral reefs - had not been degraded by human activity, there was less devastation (see here).

Hard Rain

I met yesterday with two wise heads working on responses to climate change. At the end, I asked both what for them was iconic of the situation.

One mentioned Bob Dylan's Hard Rain.

The other told me something I cannot reveal, but also suggested "the real hockey stick" - that is, the sudden plunge in ocean pH occasioned by rapid CO2 flux. This is on the bottom of page 16 of Reviewing the impact of increased atmospheric C02 on oceanic pH and the marine ecosystem by Turley at al (here).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Messy Design

Jim Holt's 20 Feb piece in the New York Times, Unintelligent Design, is on the money:

From a scientific perspective, one of the most frustrating things about intelligent design is that (unlike Darwinism) it is virtually impossible to test...

But if we can't infer anything about the design from the designer, maybe we can go the other way. What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?

The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases -- cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis -- the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.

And there's another reality check in the media today, with a report on operation in Egypt to remove a baby's second head.

Smile Story

A nice piece by John Harlow on smiles in The Times, picked up by Arts and Letters

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Writing about action

Tim Parks has a thoughtful piece in the 19 Feb Guardian book review about the literature of violence and action, from Homer to Hemingway and beyond (the piece is partly a plug for his new book Rapids, which is about a whitewater kayaking expedition in the Tyrolese Alps):

Mountaineering, hang-gliding, parachuting, canyoning - these challenges return the modern middle classes to the realm of risk and heroic action but in a way strangely and perhaps perversely uncoupled from either private or public commitment. Here the opportunity to exhibit courage is to be found in abundance, but always with the slight frustration that despite the adrenaline and the self-esteem that comes with mastering fear, something is missing; we are not searching for WMDs or returning a country to democracy or even exploring the extremities of the globe. There is not even any pretence of exploration or discovery.

Product of a domesticated and disillusioned world, extreme-sports man yearns for the moment when his adventures will push him to the brink, when it will all become real. One need only read (or watch) Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, about a mountaineering expedition that became a terrifying ordeal, to appreciate all the ambiguities here. Having survived, Simpson is clearly not unhappy that things went so badly wrong; he learned so much about himself. At the same time, the expedition remains completely cut off from any larger concerns, in a way meaningless, and hence a curious sadness hangs over it.

Zoo riddles

Paul Kingsnorth, who on 15 Feb wrote a nice reflection in his blog on activism that criticised excessive zeal surrounding gay penguins in a German zoo, may enjoy this story:

Two women sacked from their jobs caring for a gorilla in the US have sued their ex-employer for allegedly ordering them to show their breasts to Koko the "talking" gorilla as a way of bonding.. Koko knows 2000 words in sign language.

Zoos are on borderline areas of humanity, where the cruelties and paradoxes of the human place in the world are often clearly apparent. What do we do to animals? What do they do to us? (Franz Kafka’s Report to the Academy remains an important text in this regard).

I continue to struggle with the concept and practice of zoos. A classic illustration of where they can work for good is Howletts , where the late John Aspinall pioneered the captive breeding of endangered species including lowland gorillas and Siberian tigers. I once spent an amazing day there with the scientist Roger Short and Aspinall himself – a good deal of it communing with gorillas. Aspinall was a remarkable man, but not a pleasant one.

Another important figure is David Hamilton, who played a role in turning such places as the Seattle Zoo and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum into more humane and progressive institutions.

David, who I who I met and wrote about in the late 90s, was an architect by training and is real visionary. He went to work in zoos because he hated them (as a student in the 60s he had a summer job in the London Zoo where Guy the Gorilla was locked for years in a small concrete cell, rocking backwards and forwards like Kaspar Hauser) . Last I heard, David Hamilton went to Australiato run the Museum of Victoria. If anybody knows his whereabouts, I’d love to hear it.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Worse than a crime

"Never strike a man. For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, it is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise” - Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens quoted by James Meek, Nobody is Talking, The Guardian 18 Feb.

Tin Eye Stephens, the commander of camp where suspected spies were held, said this in 1942 when, as Meek writes, “British cities had [been subjected to] a Nazi bombing campaign that had killed 42,000 civilians and destroyed 130,000 houses. Britain's merchant fleet was losing 50 ships a month. Most of Europe was under fascist rule and millions of civilians were being slaughtered and enslaved. Britons did not know they would win the war”.

Fast forward to shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Meeks quotes a CIA veteran as saying "A lot of people are saying we need someone at the agency who can pull fingernails out." Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, wrote that judges should be able to issue warrants licensing the torture of suspects where the authorities somehow knew that the suspects were concealing information about "an imminent large-scale threat".

Meeks goes on:

In a recent paper for the New England Journal of Public Policy Alfred McCoy, a history professor at Wisconsin-Madison University, surveys the CIA's use of torture over half a century in Vietnam, Central America and Iran, and marvels at the recklessness of the commentators of 2001. "In weighing personal liberty versus public safety," he writes, "all those pro-pain pundits were ignorant of torture's complexly perverse psychopathology, that leads to both uncontrolled proliferation of the practice and long-term damage to the perpetrator society."

Further insight comes in David Simpson's reviews of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth and The Torture Papers edited by Greenburg and Dratel in the 17 Feb edition of the London Review of Books (subscription only) . His piece is ever better than, and perhaps a source for, Meek. Simpson writes:

All the [official] reports share a rhetorical emphasis on the ‘few bad apples’ argument…This is constantly undercut, however, by the evidence of [these] authors, who argue for ‘insitutional and personal responsibility at higher levels’, and discover clear permission for stronger than normal interrogation techniques in a number of memos and findings.

Simpson reminds that legal advice to the US president described the Geneva conventions as ‘quaint’ and that persons would only be treated in accordance with them ‘to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity’. Further, this framework set the terms of a policy that was not revised when the enemy ceased to be al-Qaida or the Taliban and became Iraq, whose citizens obviously qualify for the protections of Geneva. (It has become clear, Simpson notes, that few if any of the Abu Ghraib detainees were other than completely innocent, let alone in possession of critical information, never mind the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario that the Israelis consider a justification for torture).

The New York City Bar Association is explicit in using the word ‘torture’ for US policy. The more ingratiating Red Cross, says Simpson, consistently favours the term ‘ill-treatment’:

Detainee 28, who died in custody, received his fatal injury from being ‘butt-stroked’, a weirdly punning and oxymoronic coinage that (one infers) indicates being hit on the head with a rifle butt to ‘suppress the threat he posed’.

When I had the impertinence to (as he described it) “goad” Douglas Murray with Mark Danner’s 6 Jan comment in the New York Times We are all torturers now, Murray responded “The 'bad apples' defence stills stands”.

This argument has long since been abandoned by rational people regardless of political prejudice, including Andrew Sullivan (see his 13 January comment Atrocities in plain sight or a17 Feb post on his blog titled crucifixion, linking to this.

Those who advance the ‘bad apples’ argument should know better and, if they have not already done so, retract. Not to do so is to provide material assistance to the enemy.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

“Menem even privatised the monkeys”

I've never been to Buenos Aires, but it's moving to read Mariano Aguirre's memoire on a recent return to the city of his youth (openDemocracy 16 Feb).

A tribute, too, to David Hayes, who did and does so much to help make this sort of thing possible.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thinking beyond Kyoto

The world and his or her spouse is looking at the Kyoto Protocol as it comes into force today.

Articles by Gregg Easterbrook and George Monbiot articulate two sets of thinking that are familiar and worth taking account of when thinking considering how to make progress. George Monbiot writes:

When terrorists threaten us, it shows that we must count for something, that we are important enough to kill. They confirm the grand narrative of our lives, in which we strive through thickets of good and evil towards an ultimate purpose. But there is no glory in the threat of climate change. The story it tells us is of yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until it is poisoned by its own waste. It is too squalid an ending for our anthropocentric conceit to accept.

… But if our political leaders are to save the people rather than the people's fantasies, then the way we see ourselves must begin to shift. We will succeed in tackling climate change only when we accept that we belong to the material world.

I don’t think the way the contrast is drawn in the first of the two paragraphs quoted above is especially helpful. It’s reaching for effect. The main point in the second paragraph – accepting human belonging in the material world – is more to the point, and potentially more constructive. It does, however, leave open what is to actually be done.

In an article datelined 14 Feb for The New Republic (subscription only), Easterbrook writes:

Last July, Bush announced an international agreement for global reduction in emissions of methane, the most potent of the common greenhouse gases. Discussion of action against global warming centers on carbon dioxide, which receives the bulk of attention for reasons we will get to in a moment. But molecule by molecule, methane has 23 times more atmospheric warming effect than carbon dioxide. The White House's July 2004 agreement requires the
United States, United Kingdom, India, Ukraine, Mexico, and Italy to reduce global methane emissions by an amount equal to roughly one percent of all greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere by human activity. Surely you are thinking, One percent--that's not much. But the best-case outcome for the Kyoto treaty is roughly a one percent reduction in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas.

...Yet reporters who write reams about carbon dioxide rarely mention methane, and some environmentalists become actively upset when the potential for methane reduction is raised. Why? Because the United States is the world's number-one emitter of carbon dioxide. (At least for the moment; if current trends hold, China will pass us.) Keeping the focus on carbon dioxide is the blame-America-first strategy. The European Union, on the other hand, is a leading emitter of methane, given the natural-gas energy economies of many Western European nations. Talk about methane reduction makes Europe uneasy. In the regnant global warming narrative, the United States is always bad and the European Union is always good. Raising the methane issue complicates that narrative.

Easterbrook has a point on the need to avoid excessively simplistic narratives and stage villains. He is right that much of the press hasn't been up to the mark, although I think there has been more coverage of the methane issue in mainstream press than he allows (including in the New York Times and influential semi- specialist publications like Scientific American).

But I don't think he's right to say, for example, that the EU is uneasy about methane reduction. The EU is a leading consumer, not emitter, of methane (combusted, it produces C02 and water).

I wrote this for openDemocracy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Darkness visible

Somebody I know received this note:

I work in [a place in Britain] which has a majority of Muslims ... in its population. In the state schools, the percentage is even higher and there's a very segretated school system where some schools are 90-100% Muslim while others have very few Muslim pupils.

In my job, I supply schools with resources to teach the National Curriculum and the Holocaust is taught as a topic at Key Stage 3 [of the UK secondary education curriculum] ; also in primary schools it's quite often brought up when looking at World War II. Unfortunately, it's becoming very difficult to teach the Holocaust in Muslim dominated schools because of pressure from pupils and parents who deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

I understand the reasons for this. The Holocaust is often given as a reason why the State of Israel should exist and, of course, Muslims say that Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust and yet they are the ones who have been ethnically cleansed from their ancestral lands to make way for Europeans fleeing persecution. It's a short step - although an illogical one - to say that the Holocaust did not take place so that there is no reason for Israel to exist.

It seems to me that this is a serious issue. Although there's no reason why people in the Middle East should know about the Holocaust, since it's not part of their history, it's quite a different matter when people living in Europe should be so ignorant.

I mentioned the gist of this note (without revealing clues to its origin) to another friend and colleague, who thought hard for a moment and suggested that a solution could be for British schools to widen the context in which these events was taught, and include something on the nakbar, as Arabs term the creation of the State of Israel.

This, said the colleague, was being suggested as part of the way forward in Israel and Palestine - a place of which the colleague had some experience. In that case, no equivalence was supposed between the Shoah and the nakbar, but it did free some space for teaching actual history.

But the problem, we agreed, is that the UK national curriculum leaves no space for adaptation and initiative of this kind.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Politics and going sane

In the flurry of press attention around Adam Phillip's new book Going Sane, this observation from Sean O'Hagan in The Observer (13 Feb) struck me as among the more interesting:

What is striking about the new book is how the symptoms he identifies in his patients - dissatisfaction, despair, hopelessness - reflect the collective anxieties that are abroad right now. What this betokens, among other things, says Phillips, is 'a profound political despair'.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

NIC 2020 project: plus ca change?

Mapping the Global Future, a report of the US National Intelligence Council's 2020 project, looks worth the reading. Lindsey Hilsum comments:

It can only be good that the US has people at the heart of its intelligence structures who are both forward-looking and clear-eyed - proof there is thinking beyond ideology.

I've only read the introduction, and am looking forward to the four scenarios (Davos World, Pax Americana, A New Caliphate and Cycle of Fear). Having done scenario work myself in the past, I come with a sceptical - but not cynical - eye. Sometimes ficitional future scenarios can be another way we dress up an analysis of the present, or present fears, without fully realising what we're doing.

For example, the description on page 14 of the introduction: "Pervasive insecurity...globalisation will profoundly shake up the status quo...the transition will not be painless and will hit the middle classes of the developed world in particuar...weak governments, lagging economies, religious extremism, and youth bulges will align to create a perfect storm for internal conflict in certain regions". This looks like an imminent situation, not one twenty years hence.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

So it goes – firebombing, politics and memory

Firestorms can be a natural. They can also be manmade. Their awesome power can exert an almost mythic hold, a grip on the conscious and unconscious mind.

13 Feb is the sixtieth anniversary of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Soul-searching and finger pointing reach a small crescendo.

The 9 Feb International Herald Tribune, for example, reports concern that the occasion will be exploited by the National Democratic Party (NPD), an extreme right movement that stresses German “victimhood” during World War Two (see here).

The NPD was elected to the Saxony State Parliament in September 2004 with 9.2 percent of the vote, and hopes to break the national 5% floor so that it can get representation in the Federal Parliament.

What to make of this?

Clearly, the NPD is abusing history in order to manipulate widespread psychological insecurity arising from conditions of great economic uncertainty (5 million Germans are employed, disproportionately in the old East Germany; and more jobs are disappearing to Central and Eastern Europe and beyond). And there’s a touch of irony in the name of a key NPD ideologue: Peter Marx. Who says history does not repeat as farce?

What to be done ? Theodore Dalrymple’s piece in the City Journal, published by The Manhattan Institute, concludes with paralysing gloom:

As I walked through Dresden, I lamented the loss of an incomparable city, while thinking how difficult it must be to be a German, for whom neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation.

This doesn’t get us very far. But Dalrymple’s piece shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, because – in addition to important reminders of the position taken after the war by the likes of Victor Gollancz – it airs at least three important points even if it doesn’t explore them effectively.

First, the post war cultural formation in which the “comforts of victimhood” have been largely unavailable to Germans:

Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever. “We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”

Second, a reminder of how the old East German government used Dresden to deny history in its own way:

A sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were Mitarbeiter—collaborators with the…Stasi—and had spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even spouses. [note: Nicole Wissbrok advises this is an exaggeration: a more reliable estimate is that one in fifty GDR citizens was an informer for the state]

Despite this, the communists made use of the destruction of Dresden for propaganda purposes throughout the four decades of their rule. The church bells of the city tolled on every anniversary of the bombing, for the 20 minutes that it took the RAF to unload the explosives that created the firestorm that turned the Florence of the Elbe into a smoking ruin as archaeological as Pompeii. “See what the capitalist barbarians did,” was the message, “and what they would do again if they had the chance and if we did not arm ourselves to the teeth.” Needless to say, the rapine of the Red Army went strictly unmentioned.

Third, the sheer horror of what happened (an issue profoundly explored in W G Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction):

I don’t think any decent, civilized person can look at pictures of Dresden after the bombing without being overcome by a sense of shock. The jagged ruins of walls emerging from fields of rubble, as far as the eye can see or the camera record, are a testament, of a kind, to human ingenuity. Only the long development of science and knowledge could have achieved this.

Dalrymple is, however, wholely wrong-headed in his condemnation of Kurt Vonnegut’s influential novel Slaughterhouse Five with the category error that it takes no account of the historical context.

He also criticises Vonnegut for relying on David Irving’s “inflated estimate of the deathtoll” in the latter’s 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden. But, according to another historian I spoke to, this is a mistake because Irving was actually one of the historians who established that the number who died in the February 1945 Dresden raid was much lower than estimates of 250,000 to 400,000 that had been widely circulated in Germany since the event (Irving estimated between 50,000 and 100,000. More recent research seems to largely agree on a of around 35,000 . The largest single loss of life due to non-nuclear bombing in World War Two is thought to have been the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah on Hamburg in 1943, in which some 3,000 aircraft killed 50,000 people in just one of 69 raids on that city).

[As Dalrymple acknowledges, in 1963 Irving was some way from the Holocaust (or, more correctly, Shoah) denier that he later became, writing that Allied bombing was “carried out in the cause of bringing to their knees a people who, corrupted by Nazism, had committed the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded time.”]

For a better grip on the historical context, and a wiser view on the potential significance – or otherwise – of the NPD’s recent political gains, I spoke to Gitta Sereny.

Gitta’s books include: Into that Darkness, an exploration of the life and mind of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka (a reviewer is correct to write:“Sereny's masterpiece takes us deep into the soul of man and examines his reasons for evil. This book cannot be recommended too highly - it is a mammoth contribution to our understanding of human nature and evil”); Albert Speer, his Battle with Truth (arguably her most significant book); and The German Trauma.

It was Gitta who said that Irving, for all his later catastrophes, had actually done valuable historical work in the 1960s in determining more accurate figures for fatalities at Dresden.

And she has no time for the idea (by no means limited to the far right) that the Allies were out solely to destroy a cultural treasure and civilian lives with next to no military value. Dresden was an important troop movement centre…and yet this wrong idea [of targeting a cultural treasure] has become entrenched in people’s minds”.

The worry, she thinks, is that the notion is almost impossible to remove even though it’s not true. “Mistakes of this kind become deeply entrenched in popular memory and imagination. This is an important psychological phenomenon, and not only over Dresden”.

But she is sanguine about the NPD. “They are and will be marginal, insignificant…This can even be a good thing because it gets what is underground out in the open, where people can see it for what it is, and defeat it ”.

Gitta Sereny’s faith in German politics and culture – rebuilt and strong – is based on years of hard experience, observation and thought. It rings sounder and truer than Theodore Dalrymple’s gloom, which verges on lazy.

The Dresden raid may “only” have killed around 35,000, but that firestorm was a hell. So along with Gitta’s optimism I also listen to a warning from Kurt Vonnegut, still with us but frail and talking to the BBC earlier today.

Vonnegut reminds that revenge was a – if not the – motivation for the Allied bombing (and, whatever its military value, it was explicity presented to the British public as revenge, and widely seen that way, at the time). He also raised a concern that revenge had largley driven the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. But revenge on its own, he said, is a profound mistake.

In 1945 the Allies took particular pains to get Deutsche Gramaphon up and running again, recording the great treasures of Western music. In 2003 US troops stood by as the Baghdad Museum was trashed.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


RealClimate, a blog on the science of climate change, is a tremendous resource - as witnessed by the most recent post Strange Bedfellows (8 Feb).

Today I recommended it to friend and colleauge Susan Canney, who had not seen it before. She said she knows one of the contributors, Stefan Rahmsdorf, describing him as "a good scientist and very bright".

Monday, February 07, 2005

Islamophobia and populism

I did not have time before leaving for Brazil on 24 Jan to comment on an important article by Kenan Malik in the Feb edition of Prospect titled The Islamophobia Myth.

Malik referred, among other things, to criticism of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee by the Islamic Human Rights Commission:

Toynbee's defence of secularism and women's rights, and criticism of Islam, was, the IHRC declared, unacceptable. Isn't it absurd, I asked Massoud Shadjareh of the IHRC, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he replied. "We need to engage and discuss. But there's a limit to that." It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures are unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks. It would be tempting to dismiss the IHRC as a fringe organisation. But it is not. It is a consultant body to the UN. Its work has been praised by the Commission for Racial Equality. More importantly, its principal argumentthat in a plural society, free speech is limited by the need not to give offence to particular religious or cultural groups has become widely accepted.

(Toynbee's article from last year on the issues is here).

openDemocracy's publication on 7 Feb of Salman Rushdie's Defend the right to be offended, based on an earlier speech to PEN, has a useful link to PEN's own campaign, including their Letter to Members of the House of Lords, which includes the following:
  • Helena Kennedy QC...has warned the Islamic Human Rights Commission that they might be the first to suffer from the existence of such a law, since it could also be used against them in attacks against their own teaching...
  • many moderate Muslims are against the law, seeing it as divisive and likely to cause or legitimise intolerance in certain Muslim quarters for the non-Muslim world
  • Kenan Malik in the February issue of Prospect magazine writes that "in practice the law could be a nightmare to enforce. Every Muslim leader I have spoken to wants to use the law to ban The Satanic Verses. Malik, a Muslim, also writes that "Having encouraged exaggerated fears about anti-Muslim prejudice, and led Muslims to believe that the new law has been designed to meet their concerns, ministers might find it difficult to dampen Muslim demands. The current view of the courts is that any material that encourages public disorder can be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred. So the new law may actually establish an incentive to create public disorder as disgruntled groups attempt to censor what they regard as offensive".
Sad to see yet more dangerous populism by the Labour government (although not yet as shameless as that of the Conservatives). Can we forget that Tony Blair, who claims to be serious about science, accords creationism equal status with evolutionary theory? Is the Enlightenment - and those who stand for it - to be burnt for the price of a few marginal seats where large numbers of voters embrace the more backward forms of Islam? Hasn't Labour already lost those voters over the Iraq war?

A small aside: PEN's letter describes Malik as Muslim, which is interesting in the light of his book Man, Beast and Zombie.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

On being wise and being quiet

This is pleasant from Robin McKie:

If you looked for distinguishing features among those regarded as wise... two would stand out. One is experience... The other is caution with words: a ... commitment to thinking before you offer firm views. "I have often repented of speaking," said Xenocrates of Chalcedon, "but never of holding my tongue." Outstandingly gabby people rarely strike one as wise. "How can he get wisdom," asks the Book of Ecclesiasticus [sic] bitingly, "if his talk is of bullocks?".

Not talking too much bollocks, or bullocks for that matter (at least relatively speaking), are Timothy Garton Ash on Davos and John Vidal on Porto Alegre respectively, both on 3 Feb Guardian comment page.

Garton Ash was also good last week on differences between Ukraine and Iraq.