Monday, December 21, 2015

On Monday, I placed two apples in the fruit bowl on my desk. 

On Tuesday, I placed two more apples in the same fruit bowl on my desk.

When I went back on Wednesday, I found that there were three apples there. 

“What ho!” I cried “Someone has been eating my apples!”

“Poor Andrew” said my Rational friend. “He thinks that two plus two equals three. And yet he still manages to hold down a job.” 


If I announce that no-one wearing a turban is allowed to join my club; and if the only people who wear turbans are Sikhs and the overwhelming majority of Sikhs are Punjabi and Punjabis have brown skin, then my “no turbans” rule amounts to a “no brown people” rule even though turbans are not a race. 

If the “no turbans” policy met with the widespread and enthusiastic support of people who don't think that foreigners ought to be allowed in the country to start with, and who aren't quite sure whether brown people should be allowed anywhere, my theory that the no-turbans policy is racist would be confirmed.


There is a catastrophically unfunny movie called "Life With Bells On” about an Englishman who travels to America to teach the locals to Morris Dance. The Californian dancers (rather offensively represented as gay) have replaced the wooden sticks used in English country dancing with special carbon fiber rods.

There is very good English folk-song called “My Son John” about a soldier who goes off to fight in the Napoleonic wars and comes back on crutches. (It’s known elsewhere as Mrs McGrath.) Martin Carthy updated the lyrics so that they refer to the Gulf War. The line about the crutches is changed to “up comes John, he’s got no legs, got carbon fiber blades instead.” 

The joke would have been different if the gay American Morris Dancers had been using plastic sticks; the song would have been different if the crippled soldier had had an aluminum prosthesis. A wooden leg would have made him sound like a pirate. Everyone knows that Abu Hamza had a hook, but no-one cares what kind of metal it was made of. So what's the deal about carbon fiber sticks and carbon fiber legs? That’s at least a bit interesting, isn’t it?


We’ve covered this before, but: 

Men, on the whole, care a good deal more about swords, guns, motorbikes and cars than women do; and often (in movies, say, or advertising posters) swords, guns, motorbikes and cars have symbolic value. A big shiny sports car shows that you are a Real Man. It shows other things as well: that you have got good taste, and that you are rich enough and important enough to be able to afford a big red car. But other things show that you are rich and important. A big house is a symbol of wealth, power and status (as well as being somewhere nice to live). So why aren't TV property shows fronted by loud, posturing, macho blokes?

If I remark, in this context, that a big red sports car is a “phallic symbol” or even a “phallus” some wiseguy will invariably say “ha-ha I hope yours isn’t shaped like that ha-ha”. Ten thousand spam e-mails testify that many men do in fact care about the size of their penis; and this seems mostly to be part of a competition with other men. Women don’t care all that much. So to say "the car is phallic" isn't to say "the car is shaped like a penis" so much as "cars and penises are both symbols of particular kind of aggressive, competitive masculinity. 

One of the most common euphemisms for “penis” is of course “manhood”. 

A lightsaber is not simply an old fashioned weapon; it’s a symbol, bound up with fathers and sons and the process of going from boy to man. If I say “when Darth Vader cuts Luke’s lightsaber hand off, it’s symbolic castration” I don’t mean that Lucas really wanted to to write a graphic scene of torture in which Vader physically cut off Luke’s genitalia. I mean that Star Wars is a growing up story and that Empire Strikes Back ends with Vader depriving Luke of the very thing that made him a man.

(There are at least two scenes where James Bond, the ultimate macho man, surrounded by guns, cars, planes and pretty women, is directly and literally threatened with having his penis and testicles destroyed.)

If I were to say that in Space Balls, Mel Brooks makes lightsabers “literally phallic” I think that you would understand what I meant: Dark Helmet and Lonestar position their swords at crotch level and then activate them; getting a childish, crude laugh from the audience when they "grow". I suppose I could have said “explicitly” or “directly” or “unambiguously.” But anyone who is that worried about small points of grammar English usage is literally a dickhead.


In 1963 the music critic of the Times famously described the Beatles song “This Boy” as being “harmonically intriguing, with its chains of pandiatonic clusters”. Paul McCartney, a self taught musician, claimed not to know what this meant. This has often been taken as a terribly funny joke at the critics' expense. The poor booby honestly imagined John and Paul sitting down and saying “Let’s put some pandiatonic clusters into this one, wack.” But it turned out they couldn’t have done so, so they aren’t there, so the critic was wrong, so the whole idea of music criticism and music theory is silly, ha-ha.

It is understandable that some writers and musicians should be cynical about critics: why should someone who can’t play an instrument himself get a say about whether my record is any good or not. (Actually, the question can be answered perfectly well on it’s own level: if I want to find the best fish restaurant in town, better ask Cecil, who can’t cook but eats out every night, than Brad, who spends every evening making perfect pastries in the back room of the Tart and Toad.) But the widespread suspicion of the humanities in general -- the doubts about whether literary criticism is a proper subject, the endless press sneering about Media Studies and Sociology are a little harder to account for. Nearly all of us listen to music and read books; and most of us can say which ones we think are good and which ones we think are bad. So it can look as if critics are using big words to tell us stuff we already know; or, worse, are spoiling our enjoyment of much loved classics. I don't know much about art, as the fellow said, but I know what I like. Sometimes, this may be perfectly true -- I have certainly come away from essays and said "you seem to have spent a very long time telling us that Tolkien's view of good and evil is basically the Catholic Church's view of good and evil, which was perfectly to obvious to anyone who has read the book." But very often, the man who says "I don't need an expert to tell me about books, I just want to read them" means "I don't want my preconceptions altered; I'd rather read Faust through 21st century eyes than hear someone telling me the kinds of things that could have been going through Marlowe's mind when he wrote it." 

Oliver Postgate says that when he was animator in residence at an Australian film school, he attended a lecture on the semiotics of film-making. The lecturer argued that film makers deliberately compose their shots in order to create particular atmospheres “impending danger, sexuality and other less definable moods, and infiltrate them subliminally into the unconscious of the viewer.” Postgate says that if any director really thought like that, they could never make anything worthwhile, because “it attempts to use the intellect to do something which is the business of the heart.” 

“I know how I choose the shot I take. I know how all the directors I have worked with choose their shots. They chose them because they looked right.”

He was, of course, absolutely right. He was an autodidact who worked out how to make cartoons from first principles and then discovered that what he was doing had been standard in the industry for decades. Of course he put shots into his cartoon because they looked right. And Paul McCartney, the most brilliant and intuitive song-writer of the last hundred years put notes into his music because they sounded right. The film studies lecturer and the music critic don’t claim to be able to make films or compose songs themselves: they don’t have that gift or that intuition. But they do claim, having looked at thousands of movies and heard tens of thousands of songs, to be able to explain why certain things “look right” and “sound right” and others don't. 

People who are skeptical about criticism never seem to say “Aha — that argument doesn’t work. You claim that in Episode 4 of Ivor the Engine, Oliver Postgate does this and it has that effect. Actually, he does that and the effect it has is more like this.” They always say “what business is it of yours to try to say what he was doing in the first place. What business is it of anyone’s to think seriously about cartoons, or pop songs, or the representation of sports personalities in the media”  

We have seen that Common Sense is the opposite of Political Correctness. Common Sense is whatever I think; the bundle of assumptions that I carry about in my head. Political Correctness is anything which challenges those assumptions. If Political Correctness can be defined as nonsensical then I need never question whatever happens to be going on in my head at the present moment. A sneering dismissal of all writing about the arts and culture has an equally useful effect.

(In fairness, Oliver Postgate was making quite a sophisticated point, much more interesting than Harold Wilson's reflex sneer about pandiatonic clusters. He felt that critical theory is a poor guide to the practice of film making; that film schools show students detailed critical analysis of great shots from classic movies and expect them to retrofit their own films to those ideas, and this doesn’t work. On the other hand, his claim that a director puts a shot into a film because it looks right and this can’t be further analyzed sounds a little bit like someone putting up a wall around his art: you’ve either got it, like me, or you haven’t got it, and if you haven’t got it, it can’t be taught.) 


Lots of women enjoy sport, participate in sport, watch sport. But it would be fair to say that many of the most popular sports — football, rugby, cricket and motor-racing  have a strong macho element to them. They are not merely about people competing to see who is the best at, say, tennis; they are about men competing with other men to see who is the biggest, strongest, gutsiest   who is, in fact, the most male. The most successful sportsmen are represented as being more male than other males, whether we are talking about huge posters on the sides of buildings of David Beckham in his knickers, or George Best surrounded by beer and beautiful women wondering where it all went wrong. One of the "justifications" for the still prevalent hostility to homosexual footballers and homosexual basketball players is that it is an intrinsic part of the game for sportsmen to all get naked together after the match, and a gay man in the showers would alter the macho dynamic. In that kind of a culture, being unsuccessful or weak or merely studious makes you less male or, put another way, more female. It follows that a sportsman who, through injury or some other reason, stops being able to play his sport might be seen as feminized (in the sense we talked about above) castrated. The way in which people talked about Oscar Pistorius was therefore very interesting, because he was a sportsman who had been physically maimed, but who as a result of his prosthetic limbs, was able to compete at the very highest level. His disability made him less male, which is kind of like being castrated; his prosthetic limbs made him a man again, which is kind of like saying they are an artificial penis. In fact, because he became a world-beating athlete, it could be said that his false legs made him even more of a man than he would have been without them. It is therefore interesting that descriptions of his prosthesis always concentrated on what it was made of: they weren’t just false legs or prosthetic legs or metal legs, but always “carbon fiber legs”. One reason for this may be that “carbon fiber” is used to make racing cars, guns, bicycles — the classic “phallic” symbols of male power. 

It is interesting that one of the boys toys classically made of carbon fiber are racing cycles. You sit inside a plane or a car and hold a gun in your hand; but a cycle goes between your legs, making the phallic imagery explicit and unavoidable. Girl's bicycles used to be different from boy's bicycles for just that reason. It would probably be careless of me to say "bikes are literally phallic"; but you would know what I meant. 


I do not know if the culture of “safe spaces” in universities has gone too far. Maybe it has. I haven't been a student for years. Certainly, part of being a college student is, or ought to be, robust debate. Having your paper torn apart by your tutor or other students ought to be part of the process of learning, just as being thrown on the mat is part of the process of learning Judo. On the other hand, there is no excuse for personal or ad hominem attacks, in any debate, ever; and the border line between a strident and forceful argument and browbeating can be a fuzzy one. This is a particular problem when it's a man browbeating a woman. The distinction between "winning the argument by having a louder voice" and "bullying" may also be a bit woolly at times. 

If you are the kind of person who thinks that it is perfectly normal to accuse a fellow academic, completely outside your field, in a public forum, of being an intellectual fraud, and to follow it up with language like "pretentious bilge" and "pretentious bullshit" you are probably not the best person in the world to be advising colleges on their policies about acceptable behavior. 


Christians who believe in the literal truth of Christ's miracles —  not all do —  do not believe that this is how the universe works as a general rule. A person who believes that Jesus literally turned water into wine at Cana does not believe that this is, in general, how wine is made. Even if they did, it is hard to see why this would be a serious handicap in the overwhelming majority of vocations. I think that you could function very well as a plumber, a filing clerk, a computer programmer, a road sweeper, a window cleaner or Chancellor of the Exchequer while still believing that Threshers employs a Jewish man to lay his hands on bottles of water. It would, I grant you, be a drawback if you wanted to work as a vintner. 

I wouldn’t be particularly perturbed by having a doctor who believed that God healed sick people indirectly through the actions of the medical profession. Lots of doctors do believe precisely that. Nor would I be perturbed by one who believed that occasionally, patients who had no chance of getting better scientifically speaking nevertheless recovered miraculously; and that those "miraculous" events were literally acts of God. I certainly wouldn’t be worried about one who believed that two thousand years ago the Son of God cured people of diseases which were, so far as anyone could see, incurable. The only doctor I would be bothered by is the one who thinks that people are only healed through the miraculous actions of God, that prayer for a patient should come before any natural intervention, that medicine and surgery are blasphemous. Vanishingly few people — not even Christian Scientists, I understand — believe that. 

The idea that Christians told the story of the Virgin Birth because they didn’t understand where babies come from is obviously silly. They told the story because they did know exactly where babies came from. That’s what the word “miracle” means. 


The question is not whether or not you agree with me. I have written this very quickly and I may have made some remarks that I will not be able to defend tomorrow morning. 

The question is not even whether you are going to have a look at Hickey-Moody's essay and decide that I am being too generous about that; that it in fact post-modernism really is a load of tosh and I ought not to be coming up with defenses of obscurantism. The question is whether you think it is the kind of thing which is capable of being talked about. 

There is, in the end, very little difference between labeling anyone who disagrees with your as a Social Justice Warrior who Always Lies; and labeling anything outside your field as "theology", "philosophy" and "the humanities" and declaring that that is "not a subject", "not really knowledge", "pretentious bilge" "bullshit" and above all "nonsense". In both cases, you are building a wall around your own beliefs and making discussin of them impossible. You know in advance that anything the other side says is nonsense before they start speaking; you may actually find yourself saying thing like "I don't have to know anything about post-modernism to know that it is nonsense". We can't even discuss whether you are right that cultural studies is nonsense and Social Justice Warriors are liars, because anyone who defends them is lying and talking nonsense by definition... and so on through as many iterations as you please.

Turbans are not a race. Theology is not a subject. There is not possible value in studying culture or the media. My way of looking at things is the right way of looking at things. Your way of looking at things is pretentious bullshit. 

It is increasingly clear that what the New Atheists disbelieve in is not the God of church and religion. It's also feelings and cultural meanings and subjectivity and the humanities and just about anything which isn't cold A = B logic.

If you find this kind of thing interesting then please consider promising to pay me 69p each time I write something. If you'd rather I just shut the hell up, don't bother. I was planning to write up the Star Wars Holiday Special but got distracted.


Gaudatrix said...

> " my theory that the no-turbans policy is racist would be confirmed"

Is there a distinction between "we have no particular views for or against X, but have seized upon opposing it because it's (perceived to be) a custom among some ethnic, racial or religious group we despise" and "we strongly believe X is morally wrong, we have worked hard to extirpate it from our own society, and if other cultures (who are likely on balance to have skin of a different colour to ours) are fine with X, then so much the worse for them"?

I agree, turbans are a very arbitrary choice for "ecrasez l'infame". But what about full-face or full-body coverings? Especially when these correlate in the other culture as closely with gender as turbans correlate with skin colour?

What about, say, arranged marriages of young teenagers? Is that also just some tribal marker that xenophobes seize upon to distance themselves from The Other, or might it conceivably be something that people genuinely consider abhorrent? If they were fortunate enough to have grown up in a society where that wasn't A Thing, and they look at some other culture where inertia, conservatism and power imbalances make it very much An ongoing Thing, is it just prejudice, or might there be something else at work there?

Dislike of different-looking foreigners and people of foreign ancestry is an easy way for human beings to feel better about themselves. Often they dress it up in pseudo-moral terms. Is dislike of foreigners the only way that people satisfy their desire to feel better about themselves? Is it possible that an alternative path to that goal is for someone to despise the "phonies" around them, to mark themselves out as "I'm not one of those, oh heavens no!"? Is there an issue of revealed preference if I despise my family and the people I grew up with for failing to appreciate, as I do, the rich traditions and practices of Culture X when my own revealed preferences show that I have no interest whatsoever in living my own life according to those same traditions and practices except perhaps for a few hours a year at one or another festival, or when visiting a place of worship?

Is there any good, solid guardrail to hold on to when distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate criticism of another culture's practices?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that this is a false dichotomy. I think that there is a clear difference between "I think you should soften your teaching on birth control" or "I still don't think your church has done enough to address the cover up over priestly child-abuse" and "I will not serve Catholics in my pub" and "I will never give a Catholic a job". I don't think anyone has ever said that you cannot "criticise" other people' cultural practices.

Gaudriatrix said...

Thanks Andrew, good distinction. But what about "You _sure_ you want to appoint Francis Xavier O'Roarty as police chief? He's an extremely devout Catholic and I can't see him investigating clerical sex abuse with the rigour it warrants."
Right now the Americans are slapping each other with wet fish over whether "Amy Coney Barrett is a very traditionalist Catholic and has very strong anti-abortion views; she's probably going to disregard precedent and overturn Roe v Wade'. Which seems to tick both your boxes, of "I think the RCC should soften its teaching on birth control" and "I will never give a traditionalist Catholic a job."
Saying "But I'd be totally fine with hiring Justin Trudeau, because he's pro-choice" doesn't really avoid the problem, any more than "I'm happy to hire Muslims, just not the sort who believe women need to cover their heads" or "Sure, I'll hire Jews - here's Dennis Prager, he thinks America's Christian heritage is great".

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think there is such a thing as "conflict of interest": you probably wouldn't want someone with very strong vegan beliefs in charge of the investigation into farming methods. The appointment of a US supreme judge isn't supposed to be neutral: you would expect a pro-choice president to elect a pro-choice judge and an anti-abortion president to appoint an anti-abortion judge. But this is very different from saying "I'm not having Jews washing dishes in my cafe because I don't agree with the majority Jewish position on Palestine".

If someone's beliefs affect their ability to do their job, then of course that is a consideration when hiring them. If my religion stops me from killing animals then no-one is telling me you have to hire me to work in your slaughterhouse. If my religion stops me from being around people who have taken most of their clothes off, then I can't expect to be hired to work in a swimming pool. But the presumption should be "everyone should be treated the same, unless there is a very good reason not to."

The original context of the article, by the way, was Mr Richard Dawkins protesting that it could not possibly be racist to insinuate that Muslims should not be allowed to vote because "Islam is not a race".