donderdag 27 maart 2008


(UPDATE: It seems Wilders' film has appeared. I'll have a look at it later).

(UPDATE OF UPDATE: LiveLeak removed the film because of threats. Still available though at Dutch version, at least. Otherwise check google videos.)

(UPDATE 2: I just saw Wilders' overhyped videoclip. First impressions: not unskilfully done, but the classical music is too soft. Would have needed something more ominous and martial, like Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War". As it is, it makes me want to go to sleep. The film itself consists of gory footage of Islamists atrocities and footage of extremist preachers and politicians in the first half, coupled with manipulatively translated sections of the Quran - I seriously doubt the Quran has a word for "terrorize" with exactly the same implications we see in the word. In the second half, it switches to scare-mongering about Islamic mass immigrations, photographs of mosques sprouting up in the Netherlands, niqaab-clad women pushing prams, etc. The start is pretty menacing, but the film loses steam very quickly. There's no comment or anything, so as a whole the film becomes overly disjointed and transparantly propagandistic (letting the imagery "speak for itself"). As the film didn't make me hate muslims, I guess it's a failure. Wilders deserves special points for confusing Theo van Gogh-killer Mohammed Bouyeri with Moroccan-Dutch rap talent Salah Edin. Also, he isn't really tearing a page from the Quran, but a page from a phone book while the screen fades to black! Boo hoo! What a coward!)

Michael Moynihan at Reason magazine has a good piece (good, that is, aside from mentioning the words "thoughtful" and "Christopher Hitchens" in the same sentence) on the Geert Wilders controversy in the Netherlands at the moment.

But the article itself is unfortunately another sign of Holland's troubles making it's way into the international press. We used to be famous abroad for our dikes and our tulips and linguistic abilities. Now we are getting famous for islamic extremists murdering filmmakers and empty-headed "Mohammed was a pedo" anti-islamic discourse from what I guess used to be our intelligentsia. Wilders, at heart, is a windbag and a blowhard of little consequence. One who relentlessly focuses on one single issue without any underlying greater vision on Dutch society - which distinguishes him from other fierce critics of Islam such as the late Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh who stood (however incoherently at times) for the libertarian streak in Dutch political history. Wilders, by contrast, is a relentless authoritarian, whose self-serving rumblings on "freedom of speech" when his own speech is concerned contrast sharply with his quickness for calling for bans on speech he doesn't like.

In a normal society, he would be regarded as the village idiot he is, and would have an assured the two seats in parliament normally alotted to cranks. However, thanks to the hysterical response from the Dutch political class to Wilders' planned (and eagerly awaited) fifteen minute anti-Islam videoclip Fitna, he has had just about all the attention the country could muster for the past month or so.

It's not only that the government is trembling in the face of the possible response among our own. It's also that we are involved - without much conviction - in the doomed nation-building project in Afghanistan. Now, the Dutch parliament will ask questions whenever a guy with a beard squints angrily at a Dutch soldier, and our Afghan enemies have not been slow to exploit this.

The result is that Wilders has been granted the political limelight, an electorally comfortable potential-victim role, and reasons to cry censorship, with little effort of his own. Thing with Wilders is, he's a coward at heart. He rejects offers by muslims to debate him. He has rejected an offer by the Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Company to screen his film (provided the film even exists). So he can continue to play the persecuted hero speaking truth to power. This again contrasts him with Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh.

And in the end, Muslims will be right to be angry about Wilders' film if it indeed turns out to be the substance-free hate-fest I expect it to be. Just as they were right at being angry at the Danish cartoons portraying them as scimitar-waving terrorists. Let's make no bones about it: like the cartoons, the film will be designed to offend, to hurt feelings, and nothing more. Any blathering about provoking political discussion about the nature of Islam should be seen for the crap it really is. That's not what Wilders and his supporters are interested in. The whole point of the exercise is to taunt and to jeer and to offend - to vent the frustrations of twenty years of official multiculturalist ideology and it's wilful looking-away from the very real problems immigration brought with it, without actually facing and thinking about those problems.

Sometimes I think Christians should be a little more offended at the crap routinely - and without much protest - thrown at them. The difference is that Christianity in the Netherlands is historically so splintered that most Christian denominations (at least, those that are still vibrant) are used to being inwardly directed, living their own lives within Dutch society. Or being liberalized to death. This is why I am getting a grudging respect for Pope Benedict XVI. Conservative as he may be, he acts with conviction, in line with being at the head of the institution he leads. So I loved it when he snubbed the parvenu American emperor's emissaries, or when he did not sit up and roll over for the secularists at La Sapienza university. This despite with disagreeing with him on many religious matters. I would love to see a little more conviction among Christians participating in the political discussion in Western Europe. It's time to stop making excuses to the secularists for your very existence.

And the same goes for the muslims. The problem is that we are locked between weak-kneed, frightened calls for censorship on the one hand, and the extremely lowbrow nature of the discussion on immigration, secularism, the position of muslims in Western society, and so forth on the other hand. Much as I despise Wilders' views, I hope his film will not be censored and I hope it will be shown on Dutch television. And I would defend his freedom of speech, while holding my nose. Just as I would defend the freedom of a bad cartoonist drawing a dog wearing a turban, or God doing a blowjob, with similar distaste. Though I would rather live in a society where these would be seen for the puerile exercises they really are. Perhaps, the ultimate problem is really fear. A fear which sees no alternatives to dealing with religious minorities by the equivalent of scatological graffiti on the one hand, and denying any sort of problem on the other.

donderdag 20 maart 2008

Simon Blackburn on respect and religion

British philosopher Simon Blackburn has a draft article up on issues of religion and respect from a puzzled atheist perspective. Some thoughtful comments by Chris of Mixing Memory here.

Blackburn starts off with recounting a dinner party where he was asked to join into some kind of religious observance, and refused. I sympathize to some extent with Blackburn here - he was right to refuse to take part in some kind of ceremony signifying something he doesn't believe in.

The rest of the article suffers, I think, from a much too stark dichotomy between what Blackburn calls "onto-theology" - religious beliefs thought as referring to something real, some kind of more or less detailed transcendent reality, and "expressive theology", which draws attention to the symbolic, the metaphorical, without necessarily referring to any transcendent reality. The problem of course is that assenting to some or more of the claims of "onto-theology" does not entail any rejection of the attention to religious practice as involving symbolism, myth, etc. in "expressive theology". And I think a lot of theologists are somewhere in between the two extremes that Blackburn sketches.

But the key quote, as mentioned by Chris at Mixing Memory, is this:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it--not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds. Or, if it is to our advantage that they have false beliefs, as in a game of poker, and we am poised to profit from them, we may be wickedly pleased that they are taken in. But that is not a symptom of special substantial respect, but quite the reverse. It is one up to us, and one down to them.

I think this is mistaken on a number of levels. First of all, the issue of "true" and "false" beliefs is problematic when dealing with religion - without this in any way entailing epistemic relativism. Elsewhere Blackburn writes that "In the
days of onto-theology, we knew what went on when someone claimed that ‘God exists’,
and we knew how to argue that there is not the slightest reason to believe it.
". But I kind of doubt that. Because at least with Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, the existence of God becomes quite a different kind of existence than the existence of me or my table or my CD collection (Dawkins has expended great effort on avoiding to understand this). The notion of a necessarily existing being depends on a lot of philosophical framing which may be true of false but cannot surely known to be so (merely shown to be coherent, self-consistent or incoherent; useful and productive or the counterpart, etc.). The same goes for the, overt or hidden, metaphysical presuppositions on which the atheist seeks to challenge theism.

Then there is the notion that we cannot respect beliefs we hold to be false, but rather would seek to convince the holder of such beliefs to abandon them. That's highly doubtful. Much as I believe in certain religious propositions, I am aware and will always remain aware (in this life at least) that I may be mistaken. I believe theism is rationally defensible. So is atheism. And that's as far as it will go. The fallibilistic notion that whatever I believe to be true may eventually turn out to be mistaken for me entails the desire that if I turn out to be mistaken, someone will set me right, which of course necessitates that person holding different beliefs. No intellectual progress can be made without difference of opinion, and thus, with people holding false beliefs. Blackburn's notion that We would prefer them to change their minds illustrates that one should be careful what one should wish for.

That of course raises the question what it should take for a false belief to be respectable. Some kind of fallibilism, probably. Chris at Mixing Memory mentions the pragmatic consequences of the beliefs in question as well as intellectual integrity (as in actually studying the position one polemizes against - a good and venerable practice unfortunately frowned upon in Militant Atheist circles).

It is true that calls for blanket respect for this and that position can quickly turn into some kind of patronizing support of communalism, in which the validity of a position no longer matters. But there is a counterpart - a kind of descent into mindless jeering, without actually dealing in any way with the opposite position - which is just as bad and in a way just the other side of the coin. Some of the more extreme sides of the Militant Atheist spectrum occasionally descend into that (see Rational Response Squad and suchlike outfits). But I was thinking more about the non-approach to islamic minorities in Western Europe. In both cases - blanket respect and ill-informed attacks - actually facing the other position is studiously avoided.

donderdag 6 maart 2008

Reading Leonard Cohen's Scorpion

One book of poetry which I read frequently when I was about seventeen was Leonard Cohen's The Energy of Slaves. Rereading it now, it strikes me how unremittingly bleak most poems are. Back then, they must have fitted my mood just fine.

Leonard Cohen's The Energy of Slaves appeared in 1972, a year after his album, Songs of Love and Hate. Compared to his earlier albums, Songs of Love and Hate is much darker - where some of the work on Songs and Songs from a room are wistful and melancholical in an almost light-hearted manner, the tone on Songs of Love and Hate is much more serious, sometimes sardonic and mocking.

One poem from The Energy of Slaves which hit me immediately upon reading it the first time was Scorpion. Rereading it, it hit me again. The poem is a lyrical, defiant declaration of love of a woman to the scorpion - a brooding, solitary, but in some way heroic figure. The love which is sung in the poem is not an easy love: it is one which consumes and may ultimately destroy the singer. There is a tragic kind of mutual dependency here: the scorpion keeps his woman captive, in a way, in his own isolated sphere, at the same time, his woman is his window on a world he hates. There are many ways to read the poem: as the testimony of a love which lives despite everything: despite the dangers of the outside world, despite the hints of a very abusive relationship strewn throughout the poem, etc. It may also be a very rueful and puzzled comment by a male figure - the scorpion himself - on the love and loyalty shown to him despite his own tricks and his own malice.

The 1971 album, Songs of love and hate, starts off with one very much about both: Avalanche, a brooding, menacing anti-love song which may, perhaps, very well be read as the scorpion's answer to his beloved:

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
are the crumbs I've left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It is the shadow of my wound

But, back to Scorpion:

O rare and perfect creature
who has made your nest in me
I'm on my way home to you
singing with the lips
you bloodied out of jealousy
I am your world
I am your wall

I'm on my way home to you - from where? Where has she been? The mention of bloodied lips and jealousy may hint at an act of violence between the two lovers - yet she decides to, despite all that, return to him. The last two lines here are wonderfully paradoxical: I am your world I am your wall - at the same time, the lover is the scorpion's window to the outside world, on the other hand, she presents herself as his protector, his shield, his wall.

You are the last scorpion
who never longed to be a man

What does it mean to long to be a man? Perhaps in a way we become human only when we enter a relationship of mutual, interpersonal love - becoming human only in the eyes of one's beloved, at the same time world and limit to the world. The scorpion heroically and defiantly rejects this. Compare the following lines from Avalanche:

You strike my side by accident
as you go down for your gold
The cripple that you clothe and feed
is neither starved nor cold
he do not ask for your company
not in the centre of the world

And, later on, puzzled:

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you've gone away from me
but I can feel you when you breathe

Continuing Scorpion:

It is only in my heart
that you can dream
of your relentless invasion
of the sunlit plain
when you moved among the numberless
and a woman far more beautiful
than I am
was your invisible queen.

The lover feels unequal to the scorpion, knowing she falls short of his standards; at the same time, she is very much aware of how much he does in fact depend on her. But what does the invasion, the moving among the numberless, refer to? A dream or fantasy of collectivity, of transcendent purpose, by an ultimately isolated and hopelessly alienated individual?

Scorpion scorpion
master of the hollow stone
I will not let them crush you
I do not like their reasons
My heart is numb and swollen
from keeping you
in the safety of your anger
I never could foretell
the loyalty that would claim me
They will not wear you on a brooch
they will not watch you
in a paperweight
I am your dominion
I am your exercise

Again the lover presents herself as the scorpion's protector against a hostile outside world, though perhaps the "I do not like their reasons" means that the offences she suffered for her labours are not forgotten. Her tone is defiant but tired at the same time. On the one hand, her lips are bloodied, her heart is numb and swollen, on the other hand, there are stark declarations of self-sacrifice. Especially in the harsh last lines:

You hate the world I visit
and I am punished
by your solitary truth
Everything you say about the world
is true

Why did the poem hit me? I think that I immediately related the two actors in the poem - the lover and the scorpion - as two conflicting sides of myself. The solitary, withdrawn scorpion, content with himself and his powerful (if ultimately impotent) dreams about his "relentless invasion of the sunlit plain", and hating the world outside him. And the lover, mediating with difficulty between the scorpion and the world that surrounds him, protecting him from those that wish him harm, yet receiving little in way of thanks. And the lover's feelings of insufficiency in the face of her implacable scorpion. In some way, the scorpion, self-assured in his uniqueness and his beauty and his lack of needs above all, represented an ideal I knew I was not equal towards.

I recall being about three or four years old and stroking the cat, and wondering whether the cat had an "internal world" just like I had. And then wondering whether my parents had. Somehow the eyes were important here, as I reflected that the cat had eyes, and so did my parents, but was there anything "behind" them, or were the eyes empty and opaque? Somehow the idea that they had an inner world like I did seemed very odd to me, though at some point I guess that I simply accepted that they had, even if I saw little argument to support the assertion. I've read that a "theory of mind" is supposed to be common to all human beings, but I doubt it. I do have some kind of "theory of mind" but it's a very weak, tentative theory. But to make a long story short: the social sphere, interacting with other people, and all that, did not come very naturally to me. I was always most happy with the company of a book or a sheet of drawing-paper and my "internal world".

My parents took nevertheless a lot of care to teach me the basic rules, to be attentive, to not ignore my playmates, and all that. And in pre-school and high school environments where a some eccentricity was rather well tolerated, I thrived just fine. So I assimilated quite well. Where in some areas I still have trouble, I have my strengths as well.

But sometimes I wonder whether I did not lose something on the way. And that's when the figure of the defiant, solitary scorpion who does not even need the outside world is strangely attractive.