Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress


Some people would say that the writer who can write a 15 minute script which ends with the hero getting captured in such a way that millions of children literally can't wait to find out if he escapes or not is just as clever -- maybe cleverer -- than the one who can write 4,000 pages about the minutiae of his childhood in such a way that the broadsheet newspapers salivate over it. But I don't think they really believe it. People also say "You have to be just as good an actor to play Widow Twanky as you do to play Hamlet" but I don't think they really believe it either."

I think that what everyone really believes is that there is a sort of league table of genres with Superman at the bottom, Middlemarch is at the top, and Agatha Christie in the billiard room with the lead piping.

Which means we have been making very heavy weather of a very easy question. "I like this even though it is bad" means "I like this despite its low position in the the hierarchy of genres"

Emotionally, I am pretty sure that this is what I believe. Middlemarch is "better" than Superman. One is about a whole community and a whole nation and asks us to redefine our whole definition of psychology and narrative, where the other sold breakfast cereal to American kids. I definitely feel that Middlemarch is better than "some text that some copy writer wrote on the back of a box of Kellogs Pep" although I also accept that advertising copy writing is a hard job and neither me nor Mary Evans could have done it. 

But I am not sure that I could rationally defend these feelings. What does "better" even mean?  I could just as well argue: 

Superman — Poked fun at the Klu Klux Klan when it was dangerous to do so; encouraged literally millions of kids to practice tolerance and clean living

Middlemarch — Approved of by F.R Leavis

Superman — Millions of kids ran home to school to listen to it 

Middlemarch — Literally no-one would read it if someone hadn't decided that an English Literature GCSE was needed to get certain kinds of job. 

Superman - Figure who literally everyone on earth has heard of; genuine 20th century myth. 

Dorothea Brooke - Who she?


Mr C.S. Lewis proved that what defined a "good" book was that the reader had a "good" literary experience. One of the markers that a "good" literary experience was taking place was that once the reader had finished the book, he might go back and read it for a second or third time. The person consuming a romantic story in Woman's Realm (intending to throw it away once he's finished it) is doing a different kind of thing to the person sitting down to read Barnaby Rudge for the fourth time. 

I have never read Barnaby Rudge. I have no idea why that was the example which occurred to me.

I don't know if would be prepared to argue (except in order to annoy my Mother) that Doctor Who is "better" than Coronation Street in some objective way. I don't think that it necessarily has better actors, better writers, better directors or cleverer plots. I suppose I could say that it's cleverer to create an alien planet that people believe in than to create a Manchester kitchen that people believe in but on the other hand we've spent 50 years apologizing for the sheer unbelievableness of many of Doctor Who's planets. And some of his kitchens.

But there is no question that we Doctor Who fans do go back and watch our favourite episodes over and over again; but the the idea of anyone going back and listening to old episodes of the Archers is obviously silly. I think I am correct in saying that soap fans, if they miss a few installments, don't try to "catch up" by watching the parts that they missed: they simply start watching again from this weeks episode and take it for granted that the characters themselves will bring them up to speed on what has been happening while they've been away. A bit like real life. There are DVD collections of Inspector Morse, Grange Hill, and the Banana Splits but none of EastEnders or Coronation Street.

On Lewis's view, a "good" reading is one which "receives" the book — that looks at what is there, and only what is there, which appreciates what the writer is doing and tries to have the emotional reaction that the writer wanted you to have. A "bad" reading is one that "uses" the book: which takes some descriptions of sails billowing in the wind and jolly rogers being run up flagpoles as a jumping off point for a day dream that has nothing very much to do with what the author wrote. It's the difference between the person who listens to the classical concert in silence (because he wants to hear every single note down to the last triangle) and the person who is glad that the brass band has started playing because it gives him the excuse to sing along terribly loudly. On Lewis's terms, virtually all pop music is bad. The whole point of pop music is that you "use" it: you dance to it; you use it create ambiance for your party. If you go to a live concert you scream down the band. 

Well, yes. But a dance band is there to provide music for people to dance to; and it might do that well or badly. It might take just as much skill to get everyone in the disco bopping as to win a standing ovation from the cognoscenti in the Albert Hall. Lewis is right that sitting and listening carefully is different to singing along; but I am not sure where he gets "listening carefully to music is better than dancing to it" or "music that you listen carefully to is better than music that you dance to" from. Morally? Psychologically? Theologically?


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress


When someone claims to like bad books or bad movies, they are not using "bad" as a description of quality. They are using it as a label for the kind of book that they like. 

At some point in the past "soap opera" was simply a cuss word meaning "bad drama". "Space opera" was what clever science fiction fans called the stuff that they didn't read. We'd now happily say that Iain M Banks was writing "space opera" without even the slightest implication that he really ought to have been trying harder. "Pulp" used to be a literary slur directed at stuff written quickly and printed on cheap paper: it's now a perfectly neutral way of describing stories about detectives and barbarians and pirates. 

("What a shame we are no longer allowed to go out into the garden and admire all the homosexual flowers and listen to a homosexual tune on the wireless!")

People who like "bad" books might perfectly well draw a distinction between good "bad" books and bad "bad" books. And we could point to any number of bad "good" books. The possibility of bad good "bad" books and good bad "bad" books is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some people think that a long literary novel with a forty page digression about the smell of the protagonist's granny's nightie is basically a pulp novel done badly. "Silly man" they say "He understood so little about pacing that he honestly thought we wanted endless pages about a Russian psychopath wondering the streets thinking about predestination and existentialism when he obviously should have cut straight to the actual murder." (This condition, known as "subtext blindness", is more common than you'd think.) And some people think that a pulp adventure novel is what you are left with when someone tries and fails to write a serious literary psychological doorstep. "Why didn't the writer focus on the effect of shell-shock and PTSD rather than wasting our time with endless descriptions of medieval cavalry charging down orcs with lances?" they ask.

The blessed Germain Greer thought that the Spider-Man movie took a wrong turn when Peter Parker decided to use his powers to fight crime. Surely it should have been about the Kafkesque alienation of an insect person? (She also felt that Master and Commander was too focused on boats.) Paul Merton claimed that Lord of the Rings was the worst book he'd ever read because it didn't contain any laughs; which is a bit like John Cleese telling Malcolm Muggeridge that Chartres cathedral wasn't a very funny building.

Germain Greer didn't really say that the Aubrey-Maturin series was too much about boats. What she said was that setting a story in the Nelsonic navy is a choice: in this case, a choice to tell a story which is mainly about manly men being macho and hardly at all about womanly women being feminine. Only caricature feminists have ever said that Moby Dick, Hornblower and Master and Commander ought never to have been written or that they ought to have had alternate chapters about what the mostly female civilians were doing while the mostly male sailors were out annihilating aquatic mammals and flogging each other, or that they would have been improved by the addition of one of those folk song ladies who dressed up as a boy and went to sea. What feminists actually say is "There are great number of books of the first kind, and very few of the second kind. And only the first kind seem to get turned into movies. Why do you think that is?"

Fanny Price only gets to spend three chapters agonizing about what necklace to wear to a ball because there aren't any French people firing cannon balls at her head. 


My go-to example of loving and forgiving something which I believe to be bad is, of course, my MP3 collection of the 1940-51 Superman wireless serials. There are about a thousand 15 minute episodes and I adore every one. (Well, maybe not the alien cook who speaks in rhyme.) I understand that it went out 5 evenings a week, to be listened to by American kids when they got home from school. Episodes are simultaneously breathlessly fast paced and excruciatingly padded. The kids have got to be engaged; but the story has got to be drawn out for as long as possible. Copy boys run to Perry White's office with urgent messages; but it can take a whole episode for anyone to actually get around to reading them. "Message you say, can't you see that I'm too busy to read a fool message?" "Gee, chief, but there might be something important in it, we haven't heard from Lois for three days" "I can't nursemaid every girl reporter on my newspaper! And don't call me chief!" "What about the message?" GET ON WITH IT!

In this kind of format, it's essential that you can tell which character is which the minute they open their mouths. So practically everyone is a stereotype. Henchmen speak in that "de spring is sprung de grass is riz" Brooklyn accent. Policemen begin sentences with "to be sure, to be sure". Cab drivers sound like de black fella. Butler's are English cockneys. Jimmy Olsen says "swell" a lot. On one occassion the villain leaves a white rose at the scene of the crime and Clark Kent questions the florist. Sure enough, he sounds English and effeminate.

This tendency to very broadly drawn characters is part of the show's texture; part of the aesthetic; part of why I adore it. It wouldn't be improved by telling me about the florist's background; or by casting against type and making him a big tough guy with tattoos. But the line between broadly drawn characters; stereotypes; and out-and-out racism can be quite a wiggly one. There's a 1942 episode in which Clark switches two prisoners and remarks. "All Japs look much the same, after all." My attitude to the series might be rather different if most of the wartime episodes were not lost to posterity.  

But then again. In a pulp war story, all the enemy have to pretty uncomplicatedly baddies. That's part of what makes it a pulp war story. If you stop the action to wonder who the Jerry you just shot was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart; or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home, and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace, well, you might possibly have a better story, but you'd have a much worse pulp war story. 

So perhaps the person who says "I like this even though it is rubbish" is not talking about aesthetics or genre. Perhaps he is admitting that his pulp books are bad because they are, or sometimes are racist -- or sexist, or morally simplistic. He's not talking about literary quality, but morals. He is much more like someone saying  "I must admit that I enjoy looking at pornography, even though I know I ought not to" than someone saying "I must admit that I like this painting, even though the lady's head is out of proportion and her leg twists round in a direction it couldn't actually go."

continues in this vein for pages

Monday, October 06, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

A work in progress

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Do you remember Thunderbirds? 

That is a rhetorical question. Of course you remember Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds?

That is also a rhetorical question. Of course you liked Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds even though you could see the strings? 

Did you like Thunderbirds because you could  see the strings? 

Are you pretty sure that most of the time you couldn't actually see the strings?

Or did you just wish everyone would shut up about the bloody strings?

I mean, it would be perfectly reasonable to regard the strings as an insuperable barrier to enjoying Gerry Anderson. This is an action adventure series where the characters are obviously dolls and where no-one has gone to much trouble to conceal the fact that they are dolls, so remind me, why is anyone watching this thing to start with? 

It would be also be perfectly reasonable to watch it "ironically": to watch it because you can see the strings, because it is funny that you can see the strings, to endlessly replay sequences where the strings are see-able, and to pat yourself on the back for being so much cleverer than those silly people in the 1970s who couldn't have spotted a string if it had leapt out and bit them on the nose. 

And it would be understandable if a Gerry Anderson fan got all defensive and said that actually you can't see the strings most of the time and televisions were much smaller in those days and lots of people were watching in black and white and they were meant for children who just accept this sort of thing for what it is and just shut up about the strings, okay? 

It's a while since I last watched Thunderbirds. If I recall correctly, for the first ten minutes the strings are intrusive, but you rapidly slip into a state of mind where you are perfectly aware that what you are watching are puppets but somehow you bracket off the puppetyness and accept it as an exciting science fictiony James Bondy disaster movie. At which point the one with the aliens in the pyramids is quite claustrophobic and the one on the bridge is quite tense and Lady Penelope is always a hoot. 

Yes: of course they are puppets. Any fool can see that. Why did you think it was even worth mentioning? 

See also: Clone Wars.


People sometimes say that they like a particular book or movie or television programme "even though it is terrible". 

Sometimes they sat it in a self deprecating way. "Ha-ha silly me I love trashy horror novels!" 

Sometimes they put it in a defensive way "I love the Twilight series and yes I know it's rubbish." 

And sometimes they are positively aggressive: "What I like BEST is to find some RUBBISH to read and the BIGGER LOAD OF RUBBISH it is the BETTER I'll like it." 

Can you like something and consider it bad? I would have thought that "Works of art I like" and "Works of art I think are good" are pretty much synonymous. Wasn't it Plato who said that no-one considers themselves to be evil, apart from Galactus?

Everyone agrees that Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written — certainly the greatest long American novel about whale hunting. Everyone also agrees that it is is long, uneven, repetitive, digressive, pretentious and repetitive. But no-one can quite agree what the editor should have done to improve it. The minute you say "Well, he could have ditched the 40 page sermon about Jonah for a start" someone else well say "But that's my favorite chapter."

Moby Dick is seriously flawed. But then, everything is seriously flawed. (I think Theodore Sturgeon said that.) If you are only going to read flawless books, your reading list is going to be quite short.

See also: Cerebus.

Some people do seem to read with their eyes ever vigilante for the chink in the armour that will reveal that this is not the Perfect Book and therefore does not need to be read. "Well, I started reading this book, but on on page 3 the elephant hunter used a rifle that didn't go into production until 1898 even though the book is set in 1897 so naturally I didn't read any further." "On page 54, the writer used a word I didn't know so naturally I tossed the book to one side." I forget who it was who stopped reading Lord of the Rings after Elrond said "This is the doom we must deem".  

F.R. Leavis used this method to reduce his reading list to four English novelists. You have limited time on this earth; and most great novels require several readings, so why waste your time on any book except the great ones? 

C.S.Lewis, on the other hand, felt that the correct approach to a study of sixteenth century English literature (excluding drama) was to read every surviving scrap of literature from the sixteenth century plowing through pages and pages of "drab" writing in order to track down the occasional good bit. I don't suppose Lewis would have said that he liked 16th century literature "even though it's terrible". (He would probably have said that he was a scholar, and "liking" and "not liking" were neither here nor there.)

Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Of the four dead white males two were female although one of them had a boy's name. When asked if there was anything special he wanted for his fiftieth birthday, Lewis replied "I suppose the head of F.R Leavis on a platter would be rather too expensive?" 

Continues indefinitely....

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Confused about your national identity? Reeling a bit after Last Night of the Proms? Wondering how George VII should style himself in a federal United Kingdom?

Now would be an excellent time to listen to my podcast about patriotic music.

Part 1 - Take Down the Union Jack

Part 2 - Roots



Monday, September 08, 2014

What Has Gone Before

Many people think that "political correctness" means "politeness" or "inclusive language" or "avoiding words that hurt people's feelings". It follows that "political correctness gone mad" means "taking that to a crazy extreme, objecting to language that no one has ever objected to"; but that people who complain about "political correctness gone mad" are often rude people who think they should be able to say bad words if they fucking well want to. If Mrs Whitehouse came back to earth and tried to stop the television saying bum and bloody and ding-a-a-ling, the news people would almost certainly accuse her of being politically correct. And also mad, which she very probably was.

However, "political correctness" is also in use to describe a conspiracy theory in which the world is secretly run by a Marxist cabal based in Frankfurt. "Political Correctness" -- and 20th century literary theory, and human rights legislation, and health and safety at work rules, and, very especially and, the idea of man made climate change -- were created by this Marxist clique in order to destroy civilization. What they have in common is that they rationalize unreasonable behavior, and make people do obviously bad things in the name of the greater good. It is obvious that Christian civilization is based upon citizens having cars, refrigerators, and central heating, and air conditioning, so the Marxists have invented the fiction of "global warming" -- which no reasonable person could believe in, and for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence -- in order to make people feel bad about owning these things. PC is an overarching term for the whole plot: believers very often say that it is Political Correctness that says that children have to wear crash helmets to play conkers, or that there is a modern Politically Correct notion that we should reduce carbon emissions. (*)

Obviously, not everyone who has ever used the word "Political Correctness" believes in the conspiracy theory. (I myself have occasionally said things like "some of the older children's books are not very PC"). But believers in the conspiracy theory talk a lot about Political Correctness. And lots of people do believe in the conspiracy. The Daily Mail went so far as to run a headline "How the BBC fell victim to a Marxist plot to destroy civilization". I took this as rather strong evidence that the Daily Mail believed that there was a Marxist plot to destroy western civilization and that the BBC had fallen victim to it, although some people thought that I was reading a bit too much into it.

So. It is possible that when people say that something called "Political Correctness" ("the evil doctrine of Political Correctness" according to Norman Tebbit) was to blame for the Rotheram child abuse scandal, they are talking about "Political Correctness" in the sense of "not saying stuff that hurts other people's feelings, being careful about what words you use". I suppose that what they have in mind is that "you have to be so careful about what language you use about race that it's really hard to talk about race at all; so when there actually is a racial component in some specific crime; it's easier not to talk about it at all and if you can't talk about it, well, obviously, you don't see it."

It is also very possible that Flying Rodent (**) is correct and that after a shocking cock up where serious child abuse was taking place under the police's noses, someone, by way of a damage limitation exercise, said "I know! If we pretend that we can't do anything about dark skinned people molesting little kids because Political Correctness Gone Mad, the papers will swallow it because they love that kind of thing." I can just about believe that PC Copper honestly thought that dark skinned people were free to molest kids if they really wanted to because it was part of their culture and Political Correctness meant that the law couldn't touch them. I don't believe that the entire police hierarchy believed that. (It's also hard to believe that any officer would independently come up with the idea  think that "you have to let them rape kids" followed naturally from "you aren't allowed to call them Pakis" unless he had already been told that "Political Correctness" and "Human Rights" were basically the same thing.)

But I think that it is also very likely that when people say that the child abuse scandal was the result of "Political Correctness" they mean that a shadowy group of Marxists was secretly controlling the police, and forcing them to act against "Common Sense" as part of an active plot to bring down Civilization and replace it with a communist superstate. Tebbit definitely thinks that there was a plot to establish an enclave in England that functioned under Pakistani law, as if that followed on naturally from "please use inclusive language".

It seems to me that a lot of these claims -- that Isis or Rotheram or the Girl Guide Oath are "caused" by Political Correctness -- read like nonsense if "Political Correctness" means "the belief that it is nicer to say 'black person' rather than 'n----r'". But they make a kind of sense if you believe that Political Correctness and Common Sense are two dueling ideologies, the one committed to destroying "civilization" and the the other committed to preserving it.

But maybe they are simply nonsense.

(*) I grant that Political Correctness could in those contexts mean simply "Prevailing Orthodoxy."

(**) Note that the New York Times essay that Mr Rodent links to is rather more nuanced than he give it credit for

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Fluffy Bunnies

The Rabbits of Watership Down are rabbits. They are as rabbitty as Richard Adams can make them. Everything they do is based on real rabbit behavior. However, Mr Adams asks us to imagine -- well, not imagine, but take for granted as a scholarly fact -- that these rabbits have human intelligence, culture, language, even religion. Well no, not these rabbits -- rabbits in general, and foxes, and sea gulls. How this works we can’t question for a moment. (Could a leoporine mouth even form the syllables El-ahrairah? Is a rabbit brain big enough to develop that kind of consciousness?) It’s funny, actually, how easily our mind accepts this kind of thing. It gets you into philosophical hot water if you aren’t incredibly careful. If a rabbit or a hamster had human consciousness, then obviously vivesection would be wrong. But they don't, so it's not a good argument. I think Richard Adams develops this fallacy at some length in his later books.

Peter Rabbit is also a rabbit, possibly with a fly upon his nose. And the anthropomorphicisation has gone a lot further than it has in Watership Down. He wears clothes. His daddy smokes a pipe, forsooth. But he also lives in a hole, and steals cabbages from a farmer's garden, and if I remember correctly there is an implication that the farmer has sometimes made his relatives into pies. If Watership Down asks us to imagine a world in which rabbits have human minds, the Peter Rabbit books asks us to imagine a world in which, instead of Rabbits, there are tiny, Rabbit shaped people.

Again, we don’t have any trouble getting our heads around this weird-ass parallel universe. We don’t say for goodness sake they have culture and language and you are going to put them in a pie what kind of weirdo are you? We just take it for granted that that's a normal way of writing about rabbits.

The Hare in Aesops Fable is even less animal like than either Hazel and Fiver or Peter Rabbit.  It's not really even an animal at all. I mean, we take it for granted that tortoises and hares can communicate, and place bets, and that owls can adjudicate races, and all the birds and beasts can come and cheer them on their way. But I suppose he's not really a hare because the Hare and the Tortoise isn't really a story. It's just a thought experiment or a proverb, with the Hare meaning “fast thing” and the tortoise meaning “slow thing.”. You could do it just as well with a motorbike and a Virgin train.  

Now, the only rabbity thing about Bugs Bunny is his carrot, and that carrot is pretty much only there to be a place holder for a cigar so Bugs can be a sort of cartoon version of  Groucho Marx. He isn’t even really rabbit shaped, any more than one of those child's drawings of a cat looks anything like a cat. But we still sort of accept that he's a bunny because that's what rabbits look like in cartoons. In the days when Walt Disney still made cartoons, kids used to ask “What Kind of An Animal Is Goofy?” The answer is, well, he isn’t really any kind of animal, and it wouldn’t make any difference if he was. (I suppose he's a country bumpkin?) I think there used to be a rabbit in the Disney Mythos, but it was retconned out during the Crisis. There is a famous example of false memory syndrome in which subjects are persuaded to believe that they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny isn’t owned by Disney, or wasn’t then. But cartoons are probably a different kind of thing to prose narratives and fables and anyway, I have run out of rabbits.

Bears. Paddington Bear. Except that again, he really isn't. He wears clothes, talks English and although he causes chaos wherever he goes, its the sort of chaos that a very naughty child would cause, not the sort of chaos that would occur if a large South American carnivore got loose on and English Railway station. The only bear like thing about him is that he likes marmalade, which comes in jars, and is spread on toast, like honey, which is proverbially likes by bears, at least since Pooh.

Does anyone but me remember Mary Plain? She was a sort of proto-Paddington, a two legged bear who could talk English living in a suburban home. She did mostly did human things -- entered fancy dress competitions, joined the boy scouts, and, after the series had jumped the entirely non anthropomorphic shark, solved a mystery and get shipwrecked on a desert island populated by natives that would, if it were reprinted today, cause the PC Brigade to cancel all leave.

Now Yogi Bear, he's more like Peter Rabbit. I can see in what way he's a bear. He wears clothes and talks and can interact with the human world but he lives on a nature reserve, and steals goodies from visitors picnics. He's a human being -- Yogi Naughty Petty Thief Man -- who stands in the same relationship to the Park Ranger on the one paw and the tourists on the other (in one specific respect) as an actual bear would. (On my one visit to an American national park I was warned to hang any food out of reach of the bears or put it in a metal crate, so evidently it's a thing.) The same goes for Tom and Jerry. They are really only a cat and a mouse in so far as one does the chasing and the other does the running away. 

The least bear like of all is Rupert the Bear (everyone sing his name). He is, basically, not a bear. He isn’t even a teddy bear. He is twelve year old boy with a bear’s head; whose friends are twelve year old children with elephants heads and badgers heads. I don’t recall that he even particularly likes honey. Cartoonist Alfred Bestall said that you couldn't ever send Rupert to the seaside, because putting him in a bathing costume would force you to decide to he was furry all over. 

I never quite understood why clever men like C.S Lewis and A.A Milne and Pink Floyd were quite so keen on WInd in the Willows. I’m not sure I ever got to the end of it. I think Lewis was right about why Mr Toad had to be a toad rather than and English country gentleman, even though he’s obviously an English country gentleman and not a toad. If he was a human, he would have to have servants and employees and we’d have to at least have a hint about where his money came from. As long as he’s an animal, we can sort of skate over that. (Lewis thinks he’s both a child and an adult: a child in that food sort of just turns up and no-one asks where it came from; and adult in that he gets to choose what he wants to do and there’s no-one to tell him off.) And the shape of a toad’s face is a sort of fixed caricature of a certain kind of human. 

I don’t think that there is any reason to suppose that Owls are wise, particularly; I don’t even know if they are cleverer than other birds of prey. But they are always wise in stories because the big eyes look like we imagine a wise human ought to look. So stories about animal-shaped humans lend themselves to a kind of fable where everyone has a more or less fixed personality and it can’t really develop. (A.A Milne said that you only had to look at the toy pig and the toy donkey and the toy tiger to see their personalities -- timid and gloomy and bouncy.)

It is perfectly true that if a child behaved like Paddington Bear, he would get punished or injured or given pills. (If an adult behaved that way, he’d be arrested or put in a home.) This is not to say that you can’t do stories about naughty or accident prone children in a realistic setting, but they either have to get some sort of comeuppance, like Dennis the Menace, or they have to be devious enough to avoid it, like Just William, which introduces an element of cynicism which isn’t funny in quite the same way. But I don’t suppose that Michael Bond said to himself that he wanted to write a story about the kind of child who floods the bathroom the first time he needs a wash, but then thought it wouldn’t be that funny if an actual child did that kind of thing and then thought I know I’ll make him a bear instead. I think he started to tell a story about a bear, and the rest followed naturally. And that's what's so odd. Once we start to tell stories about bears or rabbits it somehow becomes natural that they wear duffle coats and tam o shanters and like honey and marmalade. We can’t look at an animal without anthropomorphising it.

Doesn't the trailer for the Paddington movie look appalling? Like Winnie-the-Pooh reimagined by Peter Jackson.

Anyway, I hope this clears up all the confusion. I was as surprised as anybody to find out that Hello Kitty had a personality. I assumed it was just something you stamped on notepads and teeshirts. But I don't have a problem with the recent bombshell that she's not a cat. Of course it isn’t. Anymore than Bugs Bunny is a Rabbit or Pooh is a bear.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Bored now.

1: If you have analogy, take an antihistamine

This is the complete text of the first part of an essay I wrote a very long time ago, about last Tuesday. People on the internet are unlikely to read an article of more than about 500 words in one go, so I have taken to splitting up my longer pieces into sections. However, I tend to come at an argument from three directions at once, so that things I say in part 1 may not make sense until part 3. So I thought that it would be a Good Thing to ask my readers to hold off on making comments until all the sections were published. However, this had the result that all the discussion has so far focused on the final installment -- in fact, on one sentence of the final instalment. (This was, in a good way, exacerbated by the fact that a link to part 4 "went viral" on Twitter, meaning that ten times as many people read my admittedly tentative conclusions than read the ploddingly closely argued build-up to those conclusions.) I am therefore re-printing the essay over the next few days, and positively soliciting feedback.

I do a podcast about music. Some people think it's OK.

English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of "social context" that's your problem.
               Prof Richard Dawkins

Analogy is to a man arguing on the internet as a banana skin on the pavement is to a fat lady in a silent comedy.

In 2012, One Of Those Clergymen was reported as having said that gay marriage was just as wicked as slavery. He won an award for being the most homophobic man in the UK.

Naturally, this wasn't quite what he had said. What he had said was that his church though gay sex was taboo, on religious grounds, and that he didn't agree with gay people getting married as that gave religious approval to the taboo thing. (He may not have phrased it in quite such temperate language.) People told him that this was okay; he was entitled to his beliefs; no church was going to have to solemnize same-sex marriages if it didn't want to. He retorted that this was neither here nor there: you can't defend legalizing a bad thing on the ground that you aren't making the bad thing compulsory. 

And he was quite right. You can't. "X is not compulsory" is no kind of a response to "X should not be permitted." If you are against bringing back slavery, then you are against bringing back slavery even if you personally won't have to own any slaves if you don't want to. 

Rilstone's third law states that when someone says something very stupid, the internet will immediately claim that they said a different very stupid thing. Rilstone's second law states that the person who points this out will immediately be suspected of agreeing with the very stupid thing that the original person didn't say. When I suggested that, well, no, Father O'Bigot hadn't really said that gays were as wicked as slave owners, the Spartist wing of my fan-base claimed that I was using the concept of analogy to "give him a pass".

I am not entirely sure what "give him a pass" means. We don't use the expression in this country. I think it has to do with American school children getting permission to leave the classroom to go to the toilet.

It is very clear that Father O'Bigot had, in fact, said something very stupid. The analogy between slave-ownership and allowing gay couples to get married in church is a tenuous one. If it is wrong to own slaves, then it is wrong for anyone to own slaves, because slave ownership does obvious harm, mostly to slaves. If you personally believe that gay sex is taboo then it is hard to see how other people doing the taboo thing harms anyone else. (When the equal marriage debate was at its silliest, some religious groups attempted to claim that allow gay couples to get married would somehow make straight couples less married: I don't understand what they meant, and still don't.) 

And he deliberately chose an incendiary example. If what you want to have is a  discussion as opposed to a shouting match, then incendiary examples are not terribly helpful. And if your example is sufficiently toxic, well, naturally, everyone is going to focus on the example, rather than the substantive point, however valid the substantive point might be. If an MP says "I think that Prime Minister should roll up his sleeves and the give the striking dock workers a jolly good black eye, just as he would to his own wife if he got home and she didn't have his dinner ready" then I don't think we would be very surprised if the story in the papers the next day was that an MP appeared to take wife-beating for granted. Even if he had a good point about prosecuting the strikers with utmost severity.  

So. The question before us today is whether or not Prof Richard Dawkins should be allowed to visit the bathroom over his recent twitter pronouncements about sexual assault and pedophilia. 

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong -- The Book

Friday, August 29, 2014


I make a joke comparing Dawkins to the Borg, the Cybermen and the Daleks. ("He's like a rather ridiculous hyper logical robot in TV science fiction serial.")

Someone takes me to be insinuating that Dawkins wants to kill everyone who doesn't agree with him, as due to my use of the Dalek catch-phrase "exterminate". He goes so far as to invoke the blood libel, forsooth.

I read back over the essay, realize that gosh-dammit you could read it that way because I hadn't done enough set-up for the "Dalek" gag. If I had written "exterminate! exterminate" or "ex-ter-min-ate" instead of "exterminate" the ambiguity wouldn't have arisen. I clarify my point, and make an alteration to the text to fix it.

The original critic continues to repeat the original point (which I have conceded) as if nothing had happened.

Some time ago I wrote an essay called "The Impossibility of Argument in the Mind of Someone On the Internet". I do rather wish I'd stopped at that point.

Yes, indeed it is "only a joke"; and yes indeed you can say hurtful things under the cover of "joking". But respond to the joke I actually made, not the one that I have made it clear that I didn't make.  "Ha-ha Dawkins is a bit like a robotic sci fi baddie" not "Ha-ha Dawkins wants to kill everybody in the whole wide world."

Even if you think that the exact letter of the text could be read in the second way, it's not fair to continue reading it that way after I have explained how I intended it to be read. It means you are focusing, at best, on a stylistic problem (Andrew sometimes allows ambiguity to creep into his jokes) rather than on substantive point (Andrew thinks some of the new atheists are ridiculous because of their obsession with logic and nothing but.)

It is a little like arguing with a Dalek about religious texts.


"Er, no, actually, I have never met one who does believe that."


"But they don't interpret that passage as meaning that, and never have done; in fact, they specifically think that those pages have lapsed."


See also: flying horses.

Not that the interpretation of my internet essays is as complex and controversial as Biblical hermenuitics, of course.

It just sometimes feels that way.

If we are quoting C.S Lewis, something which we hardly ever do in this forum, surely the relevant passage is from The Four Loves:

"Another time, when I had been addressing an undergraduate society and some discussion (very properly) followed my paper, a young man with an expression as tense as that of a rodent so dealt with me that I had to say, "Look, sir. Twice in the last five minutes you have as good as called me a liar. If you cannot discuss a question of criticism without that kind of thing I must leave." I expected he would do one of two things; lose his temper and redouble his insults, or else blush and apologise. The startling thing is that he did neither. No new perturbation was added to the habitual malaise of his expression. He did not repeat the Lie Direct; but apart from that he went on just as before. One had come up against an iron curtain. He was forearmed against the risk of any strictly personal relation, either friendly or hostile, with such as me. 

Behind this, almost certainly, there lies a circle of the Titanic sort—self-dubbed Knights Ternplars perpetually in arms to defend a critical Baphomet. We—who are they to them—do not exist as persons at all. We are specimens; specimens of various Age Groups, Types, Climates of Opinion, or Interests, to be exterminated. Deprived of one weapon, they coolly take up another. They are not, in the ordinary human sense, meeting us at all; they are merely doing a job of work—spraying (I have heard one use that image) insecticide."

Is Richard Dawkins Planning To Kidnap Little Sir Hugh Of Lincoln and Throw Him Down A Well?


Thursday, August 28, 2014

So, happy birthday then, Jack Kirby
You were born
97 years ago today.

You were the primary creative force behind
Marvel Comics

Although I think Stan Lee had some input as well
Particularly with respect to the
So I obviously hate you
And everything you stand for

(I wrote a book. George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and me))

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I wrote an article. About funnybooks. Here it is: Are the "words" printed in a "comic book" actually particularly "important." I am still quite pleased with it, actually.

Two years later a man on the internet wrote a reply. 

Here's the very note. This is what he wrote. 

God almighty, this has to be the most misguided, wrong-headed, HATE-FILLED pile of nonsense I've seen online in months. Not only is it an insult to Jack Kirby, it'a slso an insult to Don Mcgregor. That's knocking TWO of the BEST writers to have worked for Marvel!!

One thing a lot of people seem completely unaware of. Jack Kirby ALWAYS wrote his own stories, from the beginning. Since the 1930s. It's only in the 1960s that he was prevented by a no-talent hack "editor" (and I used that word loosely) from writing his own dialogue.

Lee's dialogue on Kirby's stories is often like taking a beautiful, just-constructed building, and DEFACING it with spray-painted graphitti.

And you know what? When it comes to "humor", guys like Al Hartley & Ernie Hart were FUNNIER. And SO was Jack Kirby.

I was going to make a point about this, but I think I will sit in a dark room and listen to folk music instead.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Doctor: All elephants are pink. Nellie is an elephant, therefore Nellie is pink. Logical?

Davros: Perfectly.

Doctor: You know what a human would say to that?

Davros: What?

Doctor: "Don't be silly. Elephants aren't pink."

Davros: Bah. Humans do not understand logic.

Destiny of the Daleks

Two weeks ago, Prof Richard Dawkins decided that he would use the power of Twitter to give the plebs a jolly good lesson in logic. If thing A has quality X, he explained, and thing B has quality X to a greater degree, then it doesn't follow that thing A doesn't have quality X at all. If cheese is nice but chocolate is nicer; it doesn't follow that cheese is nasty. If the Beatles are bigger than Jesus, it doesn't follow that Jesus is small.

This is obviously true. However it doesn't fully reflect how we Hobbits actually use language. If Andrew is 6 ft 2 and Steve is 6 ft 1, it would be a little odd to say "Steve is shorter than Andrew" or "Compared with Andrew, Steve is short." You would be more likely to say that Steve is tall but Andrew is even taller. It would be positively confusing to say "toothache is more enjoyable than a bone fracture" or "Joseph was even kinder and more humane than Adolph.". Your meaning is effected by your word choice as well as the actual logic of your sentence. 

Prof Dawkins chose the most toxic and incendiary words possibly to illustrate his purely logical point.

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.

Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.

He spent the rest of the week insisting that the logic of the two assertions was valid (which, obviously, it was) and that anyone who had taken exception to his examples obviously didn't understand logic.

To answer by the method: if you can't see what the problem is; you obviously don't understand language. Go away and learn how to write.

Utterances — even utterances on twitter — are not reducible to their logical content. Our problem is not that we are ignorant peasants who can't see that Thing B can be worse than Thing A without Thing A being good. Our problem is that your chosen examples are riddled — riddled — with unexamined assumptions.

1: "X is bad; Y is worse".

What do you mean by "worse"? How can we tell? Who gets to decide? Do you mean more reprehensible in absolute terms; more severely punished by the law; causing greater harm to the victim; less aesthetically pleasing; incurring more bad karma...? These things obviously do not need to be the same. We are being asked to take for granted a value-neutral line from "black" to "white" with "grey" in the middle. Some kinds of empirical science might work like that. Criminal assault does not. Is Macbeth worse than anchovies?

2:  "Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse." 

This takes for granted that "Violent" is a synonym for "Severe" and that "Non-Violent" is a synonym for "Mild". "Severe pedophilia is worse than mild pedophilia" would have been meaningless, amounting to no more than "Bad things are worse than good things". But "Violent pedophilia is worse than non-violent pedophilia" is contentious, to say the least. People with human feelings would  probably think that the two are, well, differently bad. The offences for which Rolf Harris went to prison were non-violent. Yet the victims testified in court about the devastating effect the assaults had had on their lives. Some people might think that a long term quasi-consensual "love affair" between an adult and a young child was if anything rather "worse" than a violent attack. But it's simply nonsense. Are orange things worse than bank holidays?

3: "Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse." 

This has the same problems: we are being asked to take for granted that there is a thing called "rape" of which "stranger rape" and "date rape" are more and less severe examples — in the way that "punching Richard Dawkins on the nose, terribly hard" is a more severe example of "punching Richard Dawkins on the nose, fairly lightly." This ain't necessarily so. A court can send a rapist to jail for a period of time between seven years and forever. It takes into account a large number of mitigating factors (ones which make it less bad); and aggravating factors (ones that make it worse). I don't think "I bought her dinner beforehand" is necessarily a mitigating factor.

4: Go away and learn to think

Dawkins spends 30 of his 140 characters peremptorily insulting anyone who doesn't agree with him. It is just not true that people who can't do logic don't know how to to think. The world is full of people who raise families, survive in combat zones, manage farms, hunt antelopes, and carve sculpture who would go all to pieces if you asked them how many Bs were As if all Xs were Bs but only some Cs were Zs. (There are also people who are really good at keeping track of numbers in their head, but can't cope with the simplest written maths test.) The assumption here is that there is only one kind of thought — narrowly logical thought. Anyone who doesn't think in that way is a moron. Any subject that can't be talked about in terms of logic and simple continuum's from "good" to "bad" isn't worth talking about.

So, the question remains. Can we, as the young people say, give Dawkins "a pass" and say that, yes, he has been incredibly insensitive, but that's incidental to his status as National Treasure. We really should focus on the incredibly important logical point he is making, and not pay too much attention to the horrible way he has chosen to express it. Someone online said, well, yes, of course, Dawkins can sometimes come across as a bit sexist, but what do you expect of someone who is a scientific genius but also a 75 year old privately educated Oxford Don?

I am not at all sure I buy this. I think that his insensitivity is part and parcel of his ideology.

Obviously, we are talking about Twitter posts. Judge every man according to what he posted on Twitter, and which of us would 'scape whipping. But the current outburst fits into a pattern. Back in June he effected not to understand why anyone would consider throwing bacon at a mosque to be a hate crime. "Who" he asked "apart from the pig, is harmed by bacon?" That word "harm" again. It starts to look very much as if he thinks that if there hasn't been direct and measurable physical injury, nothing very serious can have happened. This is on approximately the same level as the person who doesn't understand why black people get so het up about the n-word. It's just a word. Who is harmed by a word. Why is the law so worried about this made-up idea of "offence"?

I assume that I don't actually need to spell this out: that particular words and particular kinds of meat have particular meanings in particular contexts for particular reasons. No-one was claiming that Johnny Muslim was kicking up a fuss about the remains of Bacon McMuffin which had been carelessly left near his place of worship by someone who didn't mean anything by it. The bacon had been placed there intentionally by racist bastards who knew the symbolism perfectly well. You might just as well say "what's the big deal about putting excrement though someone's letterbox?" You've probably got some marigolds and some disinfectant in the kitchen. Anyone with small kids or a dog has to clear muck up all the time.

If you press this kind of hyper objective thinking too its, er, logical conclusion, you might end up saying something like this: "Why is it such a big deal to touch someone's penis without their permission? More than, say, to tweak their nose or tap them on the shoulder? Your dick is just a part of your body, the same as any other. It's only social convention that has made it taboo."

Dawkins' Tweets are a sort of a test, like the pea which the prince put under the princess's mattress in one of those fairy stories which Dawkins doesn't think we should sometimes wonders whether we should read to our kids. Make a trivial logical statement, wrapped up in horrible example that makes light of what is, for quite a lot of people, the worst thing that happened to them in their whole lives. And watch people's reactions. Some people -- the one who don't believe in cultural meanings, feelings, or that language is complex -- will only see the logical bit, and not be able to understand how anyone could be "offended" since the logic is sound. Other people will react to the horrible beliefs that are "signaled" by the text as a whole, and say that the logic of it is neither here nor there.

Once you have divided people into sheep and goats you can then begin assimilate the logical ones into your cyber-army and start to exterminate the inferior creatures who do not know how to think.

Once you have divided people into sheep and goats you can assimilate the logical ones into the collective, form an invincible cyber army based on pure logic, rampage across the universe, seek out inferior life forms who have not learned how to think and ex-term-in-ate them!

Most of the people you talked to today were probably "atheists", in the sense that they don't believe in a personal deity who can be talked to and invoked; or in the sense that they don't give it very much thought one way or the other. But 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. And if "atheism" means denying all that stuff as well, you have probably never met an atheist.

And of course, it might be that Dawkins is right. It might be that once you have eliminated Jehovah and Krishna and Wotan -- all the old men and all the sky fairies -- then all the rest caves in as well and what you are left with is a race of Daleks, who know how to think but not how to feel. And it might be that if you admit cultural meanings and feelings and fuzzy language and morals then all the gods-with-faces start creeping back in through the back door. And that might be one reason why religion can't, ultimately, be dispensed with. Not by human beings, at any rate. There is no point in asking the Daleks. They wouldn't, by definition, understand the question.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Friday, August 22, 2014


“Corporal punishment never did me any harm.”
“Really? Then what did?”
      A.A Milne. attrib.

The God Delusion is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passage which simply seemed to the author like a good idea at the time.

If you or I were briefed to prove that God doesn't exist, we might, I suppose refer in passing to the clerical child abuse scandal — Roman Catholic priests sexually molesting kids, and the church authorities covering it up. I think that we would probably make two points. 

1: Roman Catholic priests claim to have special, supernatural access to God. But in practice, they don't seem to behave any better than anyone else, so this claim to inside-knowledge looks pretty dubious.

2: The idea of "God" enables organizations like the Catholic church to build up great power and influence. Powerful, influential organisations are, by their nature, good at covering up wrongdoing in their own ranks. If you don't want Mafiosi and Freemasons adding "thus saith the Lord" to their club rules, best get rid of  "the Lord" altogether. 

Some people might make a third point: 

3: Catholic taboos about sex resulted in their clergy committing these kinds of offences. If you force a young man to take a solemn oath never to have sex, then it's not too that surprising if after ten years he's tempted to do something dreadful.

But that would be a bit of a stretch: there's no necessary connection between believing in God and vows of sexual abstinence. The fact that the Catholics believed in both is strictly speaking a coincidence. And anyway, English Public Schools achieved quite high levels of cruelty and pederasty with very little input from God. Hell, my bog standard utterly secular comp had the cane and a gym teacher who seemed rather over-keen on showering with teenagers.

A serious writer would have dealt with all this in half a page and moved on to something more substantial. But if a less serious writer — and anti-religious zealot, say — wanted to go on and on for pages and pages of ghoulish detail about all the ghastly things these Romish clergy get up to, well, no-one could really blame him. Blackening the name of your opponent is a perfectly good rhetorical technique.

The strange thing is, Dawkins doesn't really do either of these things. He doesn't use the abuse scandal to make valid points against the church; but neither does he use it to whip the reader up into an anti-clerical frenzy.

Instead, he goes on and on about how everyone else has got a terrible bee in their bonnet about sex and abuse, how there's much less of it than you'd think and that it does much less harm than you'd imagine and how he, Richard Dawkins, is going to restore a sense of proportion. Like so much of his writing, it feels like a riff; endlessly spiraling around a point that never quite gets made.

"Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch hunts of 1692..."

The whole matter is going to be put out of the way in the next three pages. Excellent. Up there with C.S Lewis telling us he's going to take three page to sort out the doctrine of Hell. I particularly like the "nowadays" part: ah, for those sepia tinted olden days when priestly abuse meant something else entirely. And the "1692" part, in case we thought he was referring to all those other Salem Witch hunts.

In what way was moral panic about pedophilia like the witch craze in Salem? The point of Salem was that people accused their neighbors of being witches, and that some of those neighbors confessed to being witches even though there were, er, no actual witches because witches don't exist. 

And so on, talking about the News of the World "barely stopping short of inciting vigilantes to take direct action against pedophiles"; and the mob who attacked a doctor because they were "unacquainted with the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile". Pure urban myth: a group of young teenagers may have scrawled the word "pedo" on a doctor's door, but the baying mobs hunting down pediatricians in general have their origins (again) in a Private Eye cartoon. In some versions the doctor's house is burned down, in others she is beaten up. I look forward to the version in which she flees to Birmingham just in time to celebrate Winterval. 

And so on. And on...

"We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and lawyers... Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for flogging than for sexual fondlings, and there is no shortage of lawyers actively soliciting custom from victims who might not otherwise have raked over the distant past. There's gold them tha long-gone fumbles in the vestry — some of them indeed, so long gone that the alleged offender is likely to be dead and unable to present his side of the story..."

This is nasty stuff. He has entwined a number of different substantive arguments:

1: People's fear of child molesters is out of all proportion to the number of child molesters in society.

2: It's hard to give a fair trial to a person who may have committed an offence 50 years ago.

3: Many of the so called victims have been manipulated by psychologists, lawyers into imagining abuse where there was none; or exaggerating events for financial gain.

4: Awareness that child abuse is a thing may encourage us to infer sinister motivations to perfectly innocent acts.

But underlying it all seems to be

5: Most child abuse really isn't that big a deal to begin with. 

This is consistent with a notorious 2013 interview, in which he said the following:

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."

The more I think about this passage, the more confusing I find it. Apparently, when he was at boarding school a male teacher put his hand down Dawkins underpants. Dawkins regards this as a pretty minor incident, which I guess it was. But he seems to be asserting three different things at the same time:

1: The incident was relatively trivial in itself — there are much worse things than someone briefly touching your penis without your consent. 

2: The incident was trivial because it didn't do any long term harm. (If it had done harm, it would not have been trivial.)

3: The incident was trivial by the standards of the day. (It would not have been trivial by today's standards.) 

This makes no sense at all. If "long term harm" is the criteria, and if someone touching your willy without your permission doesn't do any long term harm, then a teacher who harmlessly touches a boys willy in 2014 doesn't deserve to be condemned any more than a person who did so in 1954. But can we meaningfully make "long term harm" the criteria? Do we say that one inappropriate grope was okay because the patient suffered no ill effects, but that another inappropriate grope was not okay because the patient did? Is the idea that unwelcome touching didn't cause harm in the 50s but does cause harm now; or that "harm" was the measuring rod back then but now we've dreamed up a better metric? I give up.

The placing of "caning" and "mild pedophilia" in the same bracket it rather telling. Until about 15 years ago, corporal punishment was perfectly legal and socially acceptable. Everyone apart from a handful of utopian crackpots regarded it as a painful fact of life. This is something which society as a whole changed its mind about, rather suddenly. You get the impression that he thinks we've all had a sudden change of mind about sexually interfering with kids. But we haven't. The pervy teacher was breaking the law back then, just as much as he would be today.

I know well enough how Dawkins' minions would defend all this. Because the great man's own experience was trivial, that doesn't mean that there aren't serious experiences as well. If some victims are only in it for the money then it doesn't follow that there are no real victims. Tabloids can create a climate of fear out of proportion to the actual danger. Memory can turn a very trivia event into a more serious one. Perhaps we do tend to infer sinister sexual intentions in perfectly innocent behaviour. Maybe it is perfectly normal for men of different ages to get naked together, and its my dirty mind that has retrospectively read something weird into my P.E teachers behavior. But that's the problem with this kind of riff. The individual elements may be defensible, just. But the  piece as whole  — insinuating connections between victims who report traumatic experiences with urban myths about ignorant peasants who believe in witches and get their Greek coinages muddled up — is very troubling indeed.

Where does "we've got a bee in our bonnet about child abuse" fit into the argument of The God Delusion?

The answer seems to come down to a remark which Dawkins says he once made in a public debate:

"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was"

("no doubt"...the sneery voice of the municipal jobs-worth: no doubt you are a friend of the band, sir, but you still need a backstage pass)

"the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damaged inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

This is a fairly obviously stupid remark. There are billions of Catholics in the world, and the great majority of them are perfectly happy about being Catholics and have no psychological scars at all. We know this because they have told us so. (If we have to believe the professor when he tells us that beatings and touchings up never did him any harm, we have to believe them when they tell us they are fine with being Catholics. Fair's fair.)

I think that police officers, doctors, social workers, child psychologists, judges and teachers are better placed than biologists to tell us about the long term effects of being sexually abused. I think that if you told them that of course its bad, but its not nearly as bad as mum and dad taking you to Mass on Sunday mornings, they would regard it as a silly, hurtful rhetorical flourish. I think that the writer is aware of this, and has spent three pages saying it-never-did-me-any-harm to soften us up for the big pay off.

The best that can be said is that Dawkins is using the word "abuse" to gratuitously yoke unrelated points together. It is certainly a bad thing to interfere with children sexually. It is almost certainly a bad thing to whack them with sticks. It may be a bad thing to teach them to believe in something which is Not True. It may very well be a Bad Thing to teach them about Hell. It may even be (yawn) that it's Bad Thing to say "Jewish child" if what you mean is "Child with Jewish parents". And "abuse" doesn't mean much more than "doing a bad thing". (Bad tempered tennis players sometimes get docked a point for "racket abuse", don't they?) So I suppose you can say that "telling a child that he might be going to hell" is a form of "child abuse", if you want to: but you haven't said anything, except that you don't approve of it, which we already knew. To say "Oh, you might call what the gym teacher did to you child abuse, but surely the real child abuse is labeling someone a Zoroastrian when they are too young to know the difference between Mazda and Odin" is an empty rhetorical gesture. Politicians do it all the time. "The honorable member speaks of police brutality, but surely real brutality experienced on a day to to day basis by my constituents is the rerouting of the number six bus to Asda on a Wednesday mornings."

Atheists presumably tell their children that granny has died and they are never going to see her again and we are going to put her in a box and burn her and sprinkle the ashes on a rosebush AND ONE DAY THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU AS WELL AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT SO THERE....(FX: Evil laughter). Which seems only marginally better than saying that there is a good chance that Granny has gone to be with Jesus but also a chance that she hasn't and only God knows for sure. I think the best thing is to tell children what you actually believe is true. The one thing I think is pretty definitely wrong is telling children that Granny has gone to be a star in heaven, that one, third on the left — not because you believe it, but because you don't have the courage to tell them what you really do believe. But I wouldn't call it child abuse. I wouldn't say "Being told granny is just dead is worse than feeling that the gym teacher is staring at me in a slightly creepy way." It's a meaningless, like asking which is better, Thomas Hardy or Maltesers.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Thursday, August 21, 2014


“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it....

"What do you mean?" said Gandalf. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo.

      The Hobbit

A very clever monkey can sometimes work out that if he makes the sign for "want" and the sign for "banana" there is a very good chance that his keeper will give him a banana. 

But human language is more complicated than that. A group of words means something different from what those words mean individually. And that meaning can't be found on a look-up table. It has to do with who is speaking, and who is listening, and where the conversation is happening, and in what tone of voice, and what was said earlier in the conversation, and what was meant by that particular group of words the last 99 times someone said them.

What do the words "I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse" mean?

1: I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse
2: I am going to kill your favourite horse and put the severed head on your pillow
3: I am big fan of 1970s gangster movies

I assume that the answer is "All of them together".

Hobbits understand this kind of thing. Wizards, monkeys and biologists seem not to. Wizards pretend that they can only hear the literal meaning of what you say to them. Words mean what words mean and nothing else. Teach these boys and girls facts; facts alone are what is wanted in life. Try telling a Wizard that, at the end of the day, what makes a good school is happy children and devoted teachers, and the Wizard will ask if those things are not equally important in the morning? (I have mentioned Mr Simon Heffer's guide to the English language before in these column. It is very funny indeed.)

A sensible person might perfectly well criticize "at the end of the day" on stylistic grounds: it's a cliché, it calls to mind a particular kind of sports journalists, and my comment would read better if I'd found a fresher way of expressing it. But at the end of the day, the reality is that the vast majority of people up and down the country would understand perfectly what you meant. ("We could have a very long discussion about what makes a good school, and that discussion would go on all day, but I feel sure that we would eventually reach the following conclusion....") Only a wizard could be confused by it. 

If I were to say "Hello, hello, hello: what's all this then?" I think that most Hobbits would be able to work out what the words mean. They mean something like "I have noticed you, and I want to make it clear that I am keeping and eye on you, although you haven't done anything wrong so far." But if someone does say that, it's most unlikely that that is what they mean. The words, taken together, send out a sort of signal, and they signify something along the lines of: "I am a very old fashioned police officer." But it is most unlikely that they mean that, either. Most likely, they are signalling something like "I am a character in a play which is so old fashioned that the policemen still use this kind of cliché," or, more succinctly, "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not take this play too seriously."  You can't find this out by looking up the word "Hello" in the dictionary, or studying its etymology. You can only find it out by knowing about plays and policemen. The words don't mean what they mean. There isn't anything but social context.

People sometimes use the expression "dog whistles" to describe the practice of planting phrases, innocuous in themselves, into political speeches, which the specific intention of signalling "I am on your side" to a particular segment of their audience. The late Michael Gove communicated almost entirely in signals of this kind. His actual theories about faith schools, classroom management and the examination system were more or less irrelevant: but speeches which contained words like "detention...lines...prefects...latin...eleven entrance exam" signaled to some of his listeners "I am an old fashioned, nostalgic chap who thinks that everything was better in the olden days. Please make me leader of the Conservative Party." 

It may sometimes happen that someone accidentally sends out a signal of this kind without really meaning to. If you do this, the best thing to do is to say "Whoops, sorry, that wasn't what I meant at all". (If the speaker does this, the best thing for everybody else to do is to assume he's telling the truth.) Perhaps I am convinced that a group of Jewish people in Bristol are planning to vote together at a PTA meeting to make local schools celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Perhaps I am right. Stranger things have happened. But it would be silly of me to describe the situation as a "Jewish conspiracy". Because the words "Jewish" and "Conspiracy" together signal "I believe in a secret Zionist plot to rule the universe" or more succinctly "I am a racist idiot." 

"Oh, Andrew, so now I am a racist for pointing out that Mr Abrahams and Mr Cohen and Mr Joseph always vote together at school board meetings? But it's true. I can prove that it's true."

I daresay you can. But, by accident or design, you chose to use antisemitic language to express yourself. If it was by accident, then apologize and rephrase your concern using a less loaded phrase. Otherwise, I will continue to believe that you are a racist idiot. Or, at any rate, a wizard.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of "social context" that's your problem.
               Prof Richard Dawkins

Analogy is to a man arguing on the internet as a banana skin on the pavement is to a fat lady in a silent comedy.

In 2012, One Of Those Clergymen was reported as having said that gay marriage was just as wicked as slavery. He won an award for being the most homophobic man in the UK.

Naturally, this wasn't quite what he had said. What he had said was that his church though gay sex was taboo, on religious grounds, and that he didn't agree with gay people getting married as that gave religious approval to the taboo thing. (He may not have phrased it in quite such temperate language.) People told him that this was okay; he was entitled to his beliefs; no church was going to have to solemnize same-sex marriages if it didn't want to. He retorted that this was neither here nor there: you can't defend legalizing a bad thing on the ground that you aren't making the bad thing compulsory. 

And he was quite right. You can't. "X is not compulsory" is no kind of a response to "X should not be permitted." If you are against bringing back slavery, then you are against bringing back slavery even if you personally won't have to own any slaves if you don't want to. 

Rilstone's third law states that when someone says something very stupid, the internet will immediately claim that they said a different very stupid thing. Rilstone's second law states that the person who points this out will immediately be suspected of agreeing with the very stupid thing that the original person didn't say. When I suggested that, well, no, Father O'Bigot hadn't really said that gays were as wicked as slave owners, the Spartist wing of my fan-base claimed that I was using the concept of analogy to "give him a pass".

I am not entirely sure what "give him a pass" means. We don't use the expression in this country. I think it has to do with American school children getting permission to leave the classroom to go to the toilet.

It is very clear that Father O'Bigot had, in fact, said something very stupid. The analogy between slave-ownership and allowing gay couples to get married in church is a tenuous one. If it is wrong to own slaves, then it is wrong for anyone to own slaves, because slave ownership does obvious harm, mostly to slaves. If you personally believe that gay sex is taboo then it is hard to see how other people doing the taboo thing harms anyone else. (When the equal marriage debate was at its silliest, some religious groups attempted to claim that allow gay couples to get married would somehow make straight couples less married: I don't understand what they meant, and still don't.) 

And he deliberately chose an incendiary example. If what you want to have is a  discussion as opposed to a shouting match, then incendiary examples are not terribly helpful. And if your example is sufficiently toxic, well, naturally, everyone is going to focus on the example, rather than the substantive point, however valid the substantive point might be. If an MP says "I think that Prime Minister should roll up his sleeves and the give the striking dock workers a jolly good black eye, just as he would to his own wife if he got home and she didn't have his dinner ready" then I don't think we would be very surprised if the story in the papers the next day was that an MP appeared to take wife-beating for granted. Even if he had a good point about prosecuting the strikers with utmost severity.  

So. The question before us today is whether or not Prof Richard Dawkins should be allowed to visit the bathroom over his recent twitter pronouncements about sexual assault and pedophilia. 

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong -- The Book

Wednesday, July 23, 2014