Without a net

I’ve written long comments recently on two blogs, Secular Right and Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium.  Both of these blogs are written by and for secular-minded people who value freedom of speech.  As its name would indicate, Secular Right usually favors a conservative political agenda; Mr Malik is a man of the center-left in politics.

A week ago, Mr Malik posted this “Jesus and Mo” strip at Pandaemonium.  Mr Malik said that the strip said in fewer than 50 words what he took more than 4000 words to say in this talk earlier last year:

I for one preferred Mr Malik’s talk, and explained why in this long comment:

I think you and Plato, in the talk to which you link, do a better job of handling this particular question than Jesus and Mo do. The greatest advantage religious codes of conduct have over the philosophical study of ethics is that they are slower to collapse into debates about contrived hypothetical scenarios.

I should explain that in his talk, delivered to theology students at the University of Bristol, Mr Malik had discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro* if it is the will of the gods that makes an act good, or if it is the goodness of an act that makes the gods will it.  Euthyphro tries to answer, and like most of the amateur philosophers Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues quickly gets lost in a tangle of abstractions and finds himself making absurd, self-contradictory remarks.  Mr Malik suggests that a rephrasing of the central dilemma in which Euthyphro finds himself would be “Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God.”  In the first case, belief in God or in any other kind of supernatural order would not be sufficient to provide a rational basis for morality; in the latter case, such belief would not be necessary to provide that basis.  So the point I was making in this opening paragraph was that Euthyphro has a bigger problem even than that, and that it is one which a believer might be able to escape.

Unlike the cartoon Jesus and Mo, actually existing Christians and Muslims can refer to bodies of law and traditions of practice that have steadily been growing in tandem with conditions of daily life among vast populations for centuries. So they can answer questions like these with “It depends,” and avail themselves of a tremendous amount of material on which the answer might depend.

Someone setting out to create a philosophical system, by contrast, occupies the position in which Socrates found Euthyphro. With only abstractions as building material, such a person cannot distinguish between extreme situations in which moral reasoning is unlikely to produce useful conclusions and normative situations in which we can be expected to achieve moral clarity, Still less can such a person establish a hierarchy of cases and rules that will define some cases as analogous to others, therefore usable as precedents to decide right action in those other cases. That is so even in the case of someone like Euthyphro, whose kit of abstractions includes theological abstractions.

In other words, Euthyphro’s problem is not that he is approaching morality in terms of the wrong abstractions, but that he is approaching it in abstract terms at all.  The occasion of the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father on a charge of murder.  Socrates wants to know how anyone could have so little filial piety.  In his questioning of Euthyphro, he finds that the man’s devotion to his abstract, and as it happens ill-thought-out, notions of justice has deadened him to family feeling and made him into a sort of monster.  At the close of his talk, Mr Malik seems to have such monsters in mind when he writes “The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”  This follows a discussion of Albert Camus, whose thought Mr Malik seems to recommend we use to help keep our balance as we walk this tightrope.

I value Albert Camus’ works highly, but I think the path to sanity runs not through books, but through human relationships.  As we try to hold onto each other, as we imitate each other, as we take up work that earlier generations began before we were born and that later generations will continue after we die, as we draw on past experience to find analogies that will help us resolve present difficulties, we connect with each other and with the world around us.  It is in those activities and the striving for the immediate that underpins them that we avoid the fate of Euthyphro.  What we need is not the “ethical concrete” Mr Malik disparages, but a concrete ethics of actual experience and loving relationships with people who are close enough to us that it would hurt if they didn’t love us back.

If theological abstractions drift about unmoored to codes of conduct and myth and ceremonial, they are little different from other abstractions. So if instead of Jesus and Muhammad, the cartoon showed Sam Harris declaring that moral questions should somehow be reduced to neurological questions, it would be just as easy to show the cartoon version of Mr Harris presented with some lifeboat scenario, and to conclude with him scratching his head as he tried to resolve that scenario by looking at an fMRI scan as it is to show Jesus and Muhammad stymied in an attempt to find a similar solution in their holy books. That would be no more cutting against Mr Harris than the present cartoon is against Jesus and Muhammad, since his appeal, like theirs, is not to any particular document, but to a deep and rich tradition of shared practice and mutual understanding. In his case, that appeal is to science, in theirs, to religion. At the end of the day, none of these appeals is more convincing to me than it is to you, but they are far more powerful than the sorts of arguments Euthyphro and his heirs make.

In his talk, Mr Malik had mentioned his disagreement with Sam Harris about the role of science in ethical debates.  He claims that there is a dividing line between himself on one side, and Mr Harris and Euthyphro on the other: “Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.”  Mr Malik links to a detailed critique of Mr Harris’ views that he offered last year.

I made very similar points in an even longer comment I posted on Secular Right in September.  In a post called “What is it like to be a theist?,” John Derbyshire mentioned this review of a book in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga defends belief in God as defined by the Reformed tradition in Christianity.  I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with Professor Plantinga’s other works, and so I made some remarks about them.  That brought a friendly response from “Steve Cardon,” which was all I needed to prompt me to post this:

@Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

“I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

*When I was in college, one of my Greek professors pointed out that the name “Euthyphro” is formed from Greek words meaning “broad-browed” or “wide-headed.”  So, when students translated the dialogue in class, he insisted that they call Euthyphro “Meathead.”   That was long enough ago that all of remembered this guy, and we laughed at the image of him as Socrates’ respondent.

The respectable voice

The Nation magazine has a pretty clear line about US policy towards Israel; it is whatever the Israeli Left, especially the Meretz Party, is calling for at any given moment.  Any number of influential groups in the USA are willing to speak up for whatever position the Israeli Right, especially the Likud, might take, so it’s useful to have a nationally circulated weekly with an impressive list of writers and editors that will provide that view to an American audience.  The magazine has a far less clear view about US policy towards the Arab states.  In fact, sometimes they are just muddled, as for example in this recent editorial about the violence that has been perpetrated ostensibly as an objection to some video a guy in California posted on YouTube.  There are some good remarks in it, like these:

While it is true that freedom of expression has not been as firmly established, either culturally or constitutionally, in the Muslim world as it has in the West, this is far from a clash of civilizations, and there’s much more behind the demonstrations than rage at one bigoted YouTube clip. For one thing, the video was first widely disseminated by Salafi media outlets, which called for the first protests at the US embassy in Cairo. And the Salafis, who preach a fundamentalist strain of Islam, are motivated as much by domestic politics as by US policy or obscure videos (for more, see Sharif Abdel Kouddous’s report “What’s Behind the US Embassy Protests in Egypt”). Among the many seismic reverberations set off by the more democratized politics of the Arab Awakening are fierce contests between Salafis and more moderate Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to define political Islam. For the Salafis, the video was useful both to rally followers and as a wedge issue against Egypt’s vulnerable Brotherhood, which is torn between the desire to placate Washington and the IMF—which hold the purse strings to billions in desperately needed aid—and a domestic constituency fed up with decades of imperial manipulation and support for autocrats.

So far, so good.  The video may be obnoxious and stupid, but so are millions of other videos, including thousands that insult Muhammad and Islam.  No one can explain what quality this particular specimen of idiocy exhibits that elevates it above the general run of ignorant garbage that fills the internet.  It is patently the case that individuals engaged in power struggles within predominantly Muslim countries chose it at random as a tool with which to provoke a confrontation in which they would be able to present themselves as the defenders of Islam.  I think Kenan Malik put it more forcefully on his blog than The Nation puts it here:

It is true that Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude, bigoted diatribe against Islam. But the idea that this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till this month is the source of worldwide violence is equally risible. As in the Rushdie affair, what we are seeing is a political power struggle cloaked in religious garb. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to gain the political initiative. In recent elections hardline Islamists lost out to more mainstream factions. Just as the Ayatollah Khomeini tried to use the fatwa to turn the tables on his opponents, so the hardliners are today trying to do the same by orchestrating the violence over Innocence of Muslims, tapping into the deep well of anti-Western sentiment that exists in many of these countries. The film is almost incidental to this.

Of course, that “deep well of anti-Western sentiment” is fed from the groundwater of imperial ventures like the recent war on Libya that brought down the Gadhafi regime and created a power vacuum that many groups are now jockeying to fill.  In Egypt also, the US has long been a violently intrusive presence in the country’s internal affairs.  As the Egyptian army’s 60-year grip on power weakens, a political space therefore opens in which anti-Western voices are likely to be heard.  And, as it is unclear who will emerge as Libya’s new leaders, so it is unclear who will rise to the head of affairs in Egypt.  One hears much about the Muslim Brotherhood, but of course the Brotherhood is not organized along lines of command and control like an army or the Communist Parties of the century gone by.  So even we knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would provide Egypt’s leadership, we would be very far from knowing who the members of that leadership would be or how they would relate to each other, to the population at large, or to Egypt’s neighbors abroad.  There is therefore much to play for in the politics of these countries, and it is hardly surprising that many political actors there are eager to establish themselves as the defenders of Islam.

The Nation‘s editors seem to agree with that assessment in the paragraph above, about the “Salafi media outlets” that were the first to pick the video up and publicize it.  Things get a little bit shaky in the next paragraph, however:

Indeed, the deepest wellsprings of resentment lie in US policy on the region. From backing dictatorships, to the strangulation by sanctions and eventual evisceration of Iraq, to drone strikes across the Muslim world, to steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, now in its fifth decade—the list of grievances is long (see Adam Baron, “Yemen Inflamed,” for insight into the roots of the latest protests in one country). And Muslims are well aware of the Islamophobia permeating American society and government (for more, see our special issue “Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic,” July 2/9). The video is just one particularly nasty example of a bigotry that has become pervasive throughout the Western world. Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama for “sympathizing” with those who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi was, of course, a grossly opportunistic slander. But [Mr. Romney’s] ridicule of those who would “apologize” for America reflected an all-too-common cultural insensitivity toward Muslims—a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.

The first sentences here are pretty good, if oddly selective- the most violent episodes have occurred in Egypt and Libya, so why not mention US interference in Egypt’s internal affairs and the recent war on Libya?  Why only mention specific US actions in Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen, waving a hand at every other country, including the two countries most affected, with general remarks about “backing dictatorships” and “drone strikes across the Muslim world”?  Surely the more information one provides about the harm that US policy has done to these countries under administrations past and present, the clearer it becomes that “the Islamophobia permeating American society and government” is a clear and present danger to the well-being of their inhabitants.   In that way, anti-Islamic sentiment in the USA is at present in a different category than “bigotry” that might from time to time be “leveled against Christians or Jews”; the USA is not, at least at the moment, waging war in multiple countries where the majority is associated with these religions.  The comparison at the end of the paragraph is therefore another example of odd selection of material.

Meanwhile, the president who has ordered the vast majority of the drone strikes the US has committed in majority-Muslim countries, who was the author of the war on Libya, and who has made clear time and again that he will continue all of the other policies that the paragraph opens by condemning figures in it only as the victim of a “grossly opportunistic slander” emitted by his chief opponent in the upcoming election.  I would say that this presentation of Mr O as a poor maligned statesman explains the other oddities of the paragraph.  The Nation is edited, written, underwritten, and read by people most of whom would very much like to support Mr O for a second term as president.  At the same time, the magazine’s whole purpose is to denounce unjust policies pursued by the US government and powerful interests associated with it.  This creates a bit of tension.  How can one be simultaneously an uncompromising opponent of US policy and a vigorous supporter of the US’ chief policymaker?  One way is to be loudest about expressing one’s opposition to policies that had run their course before he took office.  So, note the emphasis on the 1990-2003 sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that were imposed when Mr O was still in law school and that dissolved in an invasion staged when he was a not-very-senior member of the Illinois state legislature.  Another is to dilate on those aspects of policy that had been in place for decades when he took office and to leave out the fact that he has done nothing to change them.  So, “backing dictatorships,” “steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” etc, appear by themselves, not as verbs with subjects or agents, but as abstract noun constructions untethered to the action of any person.

There is also a weasel word in the last sentence of the paragraph.  That word is “many.”  Mr Romney is judged guilty of “a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.”  Who are these “many,” and what form would their intolerance take?  That vagueness becomes the more troubling as we turn to the next paragraph:

Washington’s support for the Arab Spring was too inconsistent and came too late to outweigh America’s troubled history in the region. The collapse of longstanding dictatorships has allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly; it has also left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals, many of them funded by the Persian Gulf monarchies. Indeed, Washington must finally confront the fact that our oldest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, happens to be controlled by Wahhabi fundamentalists who have spent billions spreading their ideology throughout the Muslim world. We should hardly be surprised when it blows back in our face.

This is the sort of thing one sees on the editorial page of The New York Times, or would see there if one were sufficiently masochistic to read the editorial page of The New York Times.  As in those columns, logical consistency is thrown to the winds and the empty slogans familiar in the corridors of power take the place of facts.  “Washington’s support for the Arab Spring” was too little and too late, apparently; yet “the collapse of longstanding dictatorships” which was the point of the Arab Spring “allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly” and “left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals.”  What possible Washington government could regret its tardiness to promote these outcomes?  Also, note the change of direction- earlier, the piece had explained that groups which it designates by the labels “Salafis” and “the Brotherhood” (a ridiculously simplistic taxonomy to be sure, but come on, they’re trying) are jockeying with each other for power and that their positions on the controversy regarding this preposterous YouTube clip are to some extent the product of this jockeying.  In the quote I gave from Mr Malik, I saw this same point taken much further.  Now, however, it seems that the “Islamist radicals” were already there, already in their present condition and posture, with nothing added except weapons and money.  Finally, notice the complaint about Saudi Arabia’s promotion of the ideology of “Wahhabi fundamentalists” abroad.  Given the fact that the paragraph starts with a lament that “Washington” (presumably not meaning President George Washington, whose administration ended in 1797, but his current successor, whatever his name might be) was not fast or aggressive about supporting the Arab Spring,* I can only assume that their preferred response to Saudi promotion of Wahhabist ideology is not learning from the example of that policy’s bad effects and refraining from official promotion of ideologies, but a contest in which the USA, led by the president who must not be named, will try to outdo the Saudis in the promotion abroad of an official US ideology.  What this ideology might be is too depressing to contemplate, given the dismal state of intellectual life and the political system in the United States.  I can’t stifle a suspicion that such a thing, were it ever announced, might make even Wahhabism look appealing by contrast.

The conclusion of the editorial is as follows:

The United States needs a radically new Middle East policy, based on respect for the democratic aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, with economic assistance focusing on jobs and justice, and an end to military solutions that seek control rather than cooperation. If we want a change in attitudes, we need a change in policy.

How about a radically new Middle East policy based on the fact that the USA is on the other side of the world from the Middle East, has a culture that is deeply discontinuous with the predominant cultures of most Middle Eastern societies, and has no business telling Middle Easterners what sort of “aspirations” they are allowed to have, or what economic policies “justice” permits them to adopt?  How about we start minding our own business and letting the rest of the people in the world mind theirs, in other words?  Don’t look for that proposal in this piece.  It sounds good to call for “an end to military solutions,” but to qualify that call with “that seek control rather than cooperation”- who’s kidding whom?  “Military solutions” is a euphemism for war.  As the saying goes, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.”  Replace “military solutions” with “killing,” and the editorial is calling for “an end to killing that seeks control rather than [killing that seeks] cooperation,” and you see what nonsense that expression is.  Killers can use the fear of death to control a population, but they can hardly expect cooperation.  In that nonsense, as in the rest of the New York Times editorial page-style sloganeering that crops up so often when Americans try to sound respectable, one finds a wish to be simultaneously known as a peacemaker and to be received respectfully among warmakers.  Before we can change the policies that sow such fear and anger in the Muslim world, the idea that these two wishes are compatible is the first attitude we must stamp out.

Elsewhere in the issue,  Eric Alterman notices that nobody with many interesting things to say is appearing on television in support of Mr Romney’s presidential campaign.  Apparently Mr Alterman takes this to mean that there are, really, no conservative intellectuals.  Indeed, the title of his column is “The Problem of Conservative ‘Intellectuals,'” and every time he mentions supporters of Mr Romney he calls them “conservative ‘intellectuals,'” with quotation marks suggesting that these two terms don’t go together.  Readers of this site know that I am continually reading and talking about conservative intellectuals; magazines like Chronicles and The American Conservative are written and edited by thinkers who are highly intellectual and, with some exceptions, very, very conservative.  Mr Alterman’s focus on Campaign 2012 may have misled him, as none of these intellectuals is at all enthusiastic about Mr Romney.  More contributors to The American Conservative will probably vote for third party candidates than for Mr Romney, and several contributors to Chronicles might demand that their states to secede from the Union if either he or the president wins in November.

Akiva Gottlieb reports from the Whitney Biennial’s 2012 exhibition of American cinema, and puts forth a sobering hypothesis: “from now until the final reel of celluloid is shot and projected, every film’s primary subject will be film itself.”  Arid as this prospect is, it gets worse.  Apparently film’s primary subject will be low-quality film stock, as Kodachrome and other excellent brands of film are no longer in production and projection equipment suited to them will soon be hard to find.  For some reason, the only film that can be produced during this period when digital is rising is film that is in no way way superior to digital.

*May I put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring”?  I would very much like to put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring.”  It is precisely the sort of phrase for which scare quotes were invented.

Good editing separates a sage from a provocateur

I’ve seen some good stuff on the internet lately.  There are people who read this blog who won’t like some of it.

1. Kenan Malik writes:

One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.

I don’t presume to know whether God is the source of the Qur’an, but Mr Malik is surely right to argue that these acts of violence spring from efforts by their perpetrators to present themselves as the champions of Islam.  As such, they are symptoms of the internal politics of the countries where they take place, politics which may well be shaped by military and other interventions from outside powers, but which must always be analyzed in terms of the interests and understandings of their actual participants.

2. An article about cartoonist R. Crumb in Vingt Paris Magazine lists many of Mr Crumb’s more unwholesome obsessions, then goes on:

I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb’s reputation as a comic satirist is that he’s no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist’s point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race.

As a result of Mr Crumb’s lack of subtlety, his irony often collapses and his depictions of racist imagery are left without satiric point, as racism plain and simple.  Likewise, his sadomasochism-inspired sexual imagery rarely has much point beyond the confessional, and is merely disgusting.

Mr Crumb does not attempt to defend his work; last year, faced with the prospect of demonstrations against him, he canceled plans to appear at the Sydney Opera House, saying “‘I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures’, he told the press. ‘I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.'”  The author of the article mentions that Mr Crumb had given him the identical response when he’d asked him to justify his work some years previously, then remarks “It’s a stock response that’s so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.”

I would not defend the racial imagery in Mr Crumb’s work.  I still chuckle when I think of the moment in the 1994 documentary Crumb when one of his critics looks at a comic strip depicting the crudest possible African American stereotype and says “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh then and now is the word “actually.”  As if it were apparently something else, but a close analysis by the most sophisticated methods available would show that it was actually an attack on black people.  It was so obviously an attack on black people that the existence of a debate about the question of whether it is such an attack is hilarious.

The article summarizes Mr Crumb’s attitude towards his subject matter thus:

Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that ‘there’s a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff’. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It’s a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was ‘Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE’.

The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: ‘He’s subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us’. Or ‘he’s just trying to shock you, Liberal’. Or ‘he’s genuinely a racist. He’s not even being ironic’. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.

For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it’s wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?

This strikes me as a fair statement, and a sad one.  At his best, as in his illustrated version of Genesis, Mr Crumb shows that the feverish, undigested contents of his psyche are unsettlingly similar to the feverish, undigested ideas at the heart of the most powerful ideologies in the modern world.  It is a shame that Mr Crumb has not been consistently subject to a stringent and demanding editor who fully understands his project and capabilities.  It is unreasonable to expect the same person to serve as author and editor of the same work; in that sense, Mr Crumb is quite right to ask “who is he to keep it in?”

3. Blogger Steve Sailer lists the following as the categories of Americans whose opinions about foreign policy are taken seriously in official Washington:

Today, the acceptable limits of foreign policy discourse in America are set by:
– The good old military-industrial complex
– Saudi bribery
– Liberal Democratic Zionists
– Right 2 Protect liberal crypto-imperialist/busybodies
– Angry Likudniks
– Quasi-CIA “democracy” endowments that organize color-coded revolutions
– Foreign policy thinktanks (who are more important the more activist the foreign policy)
– White guys who need to serve in the military so they can get affirmative action points to become firemen
– Yahoos who should be apprised that when football isn’t on TV, professional wrestling can always be found year-round, so there’s no need to watch the news
– Oil companies (who are left to quietly play the “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King role)
They are all overseen by a national media that sometimes seems most concerned about the looming threat that an isolationist Father Coughlin could arise again.
So, the only feasible foreign policy alternative to stake out is: “The President’s foreign policy isn’t quite crazed enough!”

When Mr Sailer expresses his right-wing opinions about race or sex or economics, I can usually find good reasons to disagree with him.  I wish I could disagree with him here as well.

4. Via Arts & Letters Daily, here’s a sensational little essay about Ezra Pound by Luciano Mangiafico at Open Letters Monthly.  Mr Mangiafico presents the following as an “excerpt from Canto 81”:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place…
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…

These lines do appear in Pound’s Canto 81, but Mr Mangiafico has edited them heavily.  Here is how of the ending of the poem looks in the edition of the Cantos I read (New Directions, 1996):

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

First came the seen, then thus the palpable

Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry,

Pull down thy vanity,

Paquin pull down!

The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”-

Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered…

Last night I read Pound’s original aloud to Mrs Acilius; it is undeniably thrilling, but just as undeniably Mr Mangiafico’s redaction, spare and direct, takes on a splendor that fades in Pound’s profusion of images and references.  And the first half of the poem is Pound’s usual, barely tolerable, complete with quotations from Theocritus and John Adams.  I only wonder why he neglected to tattoo it with Chinese characters.

Pound, like Mr Crumb, reminds me of the old story about the town with only two barbers.  One barber is faultlessly shaven, with a perfectly presented head of hair; the other wears stubble on half his face, and a shapeless mop of hair.  The discerning customer goes to the slovenly barber, since he is the one who cut the well-coiffed one’s hair.  Likewise, as an editor of poetry Pound made inestimable contributions to the works of T. S. Eliot and other eminences of the High Modern; it is our great loss that Pound found no one to do for his work what he did for theirs.

In an extract from a forthcoming book, Kenan Malik summarizes some of Alasdair MacIntyre’s views.


In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument.  This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)

A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power…

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Kenan Malik on Blasphemy and Free Speech.

One excellent point after another from the mighty Kenan Malik.


I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.

To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred.  To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.

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