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Archive for August 2012



Layers of difference

In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel P. Huntington placed Russia in the “Orthodox” civilization, as opposed to the “Western” class. Over 20 years since the collapse of the Communist bloc I think one must say that Huntington’s typology captured some essential aspect of reality. The Czech Republic has much reverted back to the small liberal democratic nation it was before World War II. In contrast, Russia’s philo-American 1990s under democratic neoliberalism was a transitory affair. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has shifted back toward a stereotypical authoritarianism.

And yet Andrew’s reference to Fremen’s act of sacrilege did make to realize that the Russians are different, but not that different. Imagine if you will that some women engaged in similar acts in India or the Islamic world. Obviously they would not dare unless they had a death wish. And that is a difference which unites Russia and the West: religious offense is not a matter of violent retribution. The women of the Pussy Riot collective were lucky that they did what they did in Russia, and not Iran. In a Muslim country they might have been torn limb from limb by enraged believers on the spot.




Left Smugness and Vocal Fry

[I apologize for the long hiatus in posting.  I have been preoccupied with other issues.]

I’ve been trying to figure out what I found so annoying about this gathering of atheists.

A couple of things I can identify right away.  Cara Santa Maria has the worst case of vocal fry I have ever been assaulted with.  You could serve up her voice with black pudding and field mushrooms.  “Once considered a speech disorder,” says Science magazine.  Once?  She also, without any contextual or stylistic justification, lets loose a taboo word.  That’s not to mention her face iron and tattoos.  Is there a ranch somewhere breeding these types?

And then, the other panelists are all lefties.  They are the very nicest kind of lefties, thoughtful and erudite ─ the kind you’d invite to a dinner party ─ and of course I don’t mind their scoffing at virgin births, golden tablets, and the rest (though why does the Ganesh Milk Miracle never get a mention in these discussions?) but how do they manage to foul the air with so much cool, damp smugness?

Sure, these people are a lot smarter than the average bear.  Do they have to be quite so up-front about it, though?  Rich people used to wear shabby clothes and have beaten-up furniture.  There was much to be said for that.

And of course, the panelists are all Left Creationists.  Their enthusiasm for evolution by natural selection stops dead around 100K years ago so far as Homo sap. is concerned.  Why are they never called on this?

If you are baffled at why atheists are so disliked in the U.S.A., index your bafflement at 100.  Then watch that video clip (it’s 45 minutes).  The bafflement index, you’ll find, has dropped below 20.

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Awkward Questions

Ten years after the publication of The Blank Slate, The Daily Telegraph’s Ed West asks some awkward questions:

…The blank slate doctrine affects almost every area of our lives. Take, for example, recent moves in Ireland to set quotas on women in politics, a move that is moderate compared to quota systems already implemented in Scandinavia. Whether one thinks this is right or not, what is wrong is that the starting premise is a totally pseudoscientific view of human nature – gender feminism.

As Pinker wrote, there are two types of feminism: “Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

“In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down.”
Gender feminism is no more scientific than astrology, yet the idea of total equality of outcomes is still some sort of vague official goal among the European elite, largely because “people’s unwillingness to think in statistical terms has led to pointless false dichotomies”, between “women are unqualified” and “fifty-fifty absolutely”…

…But just as the good name of feminism has been stigmatised by its radical wing, the whole of the social sciences have been damaged by the blank-slate orthodoxy, which has led to widespread anti-intellectualism, since the public at large come to view academia as a font of convenient untruths and agenda-driven nonsense (or to use the popular phrase, political correctness). Worst of all it has actually made it harder to help the most vulnerable, because we fail to take account of the fact that some people are less smart than others or, as Savulescu pointed out, more prone to vice or violence; and it has even made society less sympathetic to people who, because they have been less blessed by nature, lose out in the rat race.

A decade after The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?

Mr. West effectively answers his own question here:

I don’t agree with Pinker about everything…His belief that there is no soul – “the ghost in the machine” – I find too awful to contemplate.

And that’s just why so many people cling to the belief in the blank slate.

Others, more sinister, find it politically useful.

Read the whole thing.




Biter Bit

Anthony Davies and Kristina Antolin, writing in the WSJ:

The bishops dance with the devil when they invite government to use its coercive power on their behalf, and there’s no clearer example than the Affordable Care Act. They happily joined their moral authority to the government’s legal authority by supporting mandatory health insurance. They should not have been surprised when the government used its reinforced power to require Catholic institutions to pay for insurance plans that cover abortions and birth control.

No they should not.

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Junk Science Watch

Todd Akin lends an assist to the Democrats (the New York Times reports):

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In an effort to explain his stance on abortion, Representative Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, provoked ire across the political spectrum on Sunday by saying that in instances of what he called “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies somehow blocked an unwanted pregnancy.

In a senate already filled with clowns, Akin would fit right in. But I doubt that he’ll get the chance.

Obama must be laughing.

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Romney, welfare, and race

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank thinks that criticizing rollbacks in welfare reform shows a suspicious preoccupation with race—to put the most generous interpretation on his words–or, more bluntly, makes one a racist:

Events of the past few days make that happy chatter four years ago about a “post-racial” America seem especially naive. . . . On Tuesday, Mitt Romney began to attack President Obama as soft on welfare, an issue charged with race. On Wednesday, the Romney campaign hosted a conference call in which Newt Gingrich, who once leveled the racially loaded accusation that Obama was the “food-stamp president,” perpetuated the welfare accusations.

Let’s tease out the reasoning here. Romney’s criticism of the Obama Administration’s proposal regarding welfare work requirements was utterly race-neutral. And of course, more whites than blacks are on welfare. But because blacks have a higher welfare and food stamp usage rate than whites, one can’t talk about welfare policy—at least if one is calling for maintaining anything other than wide-open standards of eligibilty. To do so would stir up America’s always simmering racism and reveal one’s own hidden racial biases. Milbank would presumably also accuse Bill Clinton of racial demagoguery for his support of welfare reform. There are numerous other social problems where blacks are disproportionately represented—truancy, dropping out of school, out of wedlock childbearing, and crime, to name just a few. Are those also off the table as legitimate topics of policy debate?


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The Independent:

The debate about assisted suicide has been reignited after the [English] High Court ruled that two men with locked-in-syndrome cannot be legally helped to die. Tony Nicklinson, 58, and a second man known as Martin, 47, mounted legal challenges in attempt to secure immunity from prosecution for any professional who helped them to die. The men are completely physically dependent and can only move their eyes and eye lids yet remain cognitively sharp. Both want to die but neither is capable of taking their own life.

Lawyers acting for Mr Nicklinson, who suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2005, argued for an extension to the common law defence of ‘necessity’ for murder because the alternative – forcing him to stay alive – is worse. They also argued that the government is in breach of his Article 8 right to ‘privacy, dignity and autonomy’, a right he cannot exercise independently because of severe disability. The court rejected the “bold” submission, stating that there was no precedent anywhere in the world and such socially controversial changes were only for Parliament.

The decision was condemned by Mr Nicklinson and his family but welcomed by medical leaders and religious groups.

Both men are likely to appeal and will most likely end up in the Supreme Court.

Martin, who also suffered a stroke, bid to have the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) amend current guidance regarding assisted suicide. The clarification he sought would have meant that if a doctor or lawyer were to help Martin to end his life by taking him to the Swiss clinic Dignitas, they would not face criminal and/or disciplinary action. Martin cannot currently fulfil his wish to end his life as his wife, a nurse and carer, is not willing to actively assist in any steps leading to his death.

The three judges, who said the court had been “deeply moved” by both men’s circumstances, ruled that such matters were for Parliament to decide…

Sadly, the judges were correct. There is no innate “right” to assisted suicide, and it’s not for the courts to discover one. It’s up to Parliament to decide.

And so Parliament should: by changing the law to allow those two men, and others like them, to end their suffering if they so choose.

Get on with it.

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Cross-posted on the Corner:

As a piece of political theater, the protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior has turned out to be an outstanding success, but that’s only thanks to the overreaction by the authorities. It’s safe to say that most Russians did not approve of the form that the demonstration took, and the three women themselves now say that it was an “ethical mistake” to have done what they did in the cathedral. Under the circumstances, all the government had to do was impose a light punishment. That would both have signaled its own restraint and its distance from actions that genuinely offended many Russians. Call it a ‘silent majority’ strategy. As things turned out, that sort of subtlety was beyond a regime still steeped in its Soviet heritage. Its heavy-handedness has backfired against it within Russia as well as without.

That’s not to say that Putin’s opposition won’t still be giving him assists.

Radio Free Europe reports:

Ukrainian activists from the Femen movement have cut down a cross in central Kyiv in a gesture of solidarity with the [Russian trio]…The cross — erected during Ukraine’s 2004-05 Orange Revolution in memory of the victims of communism — was located near the International Center for Culture and Arts in Kyiv. A topless Femen activist used a chainsaw to cut down the cross.

Femen said in a statement, “On the day of the sentencing, the Femen women’s movement expresses its support and respect . … By this act, Femen calls on all healthy forces of society to mercilessly saw out of their heads all the rotten religious prejudice that serves as a foundation for dictatorship and prevents the development of democracy and women’s freedom.”

Femen is a controversial group, but quite often a force for good. Not on this occasion.

Such an act of vandalism will anger many, religious or not. It is also an insult to the memory of the millions of Ukrainians who suffered and who perished under Communism, not least in 1932-33’s Holodomor, the monstrous man-made famine that Stalin added to the tools he was using to break the back of the Ukrainian nation.

The Kremlin has denied that the Holodomor was genocidal (it is argued instead that it was part of a wider Stalinist tragedy).

Putin will, I suspect, not have been too sorry to see that cross fall.

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Two Years

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Two years: That was the jail term imposed on those three Russian ladies who performed under a name infinitely less obscene than their sentence:

The Guardian reports:

The judge said in the verdict that the three band members “committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred” and offended religious believers. The trio were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s main cathedral calling for the Virgin Mary to protect Russia against Vladimir Putin, who was elected to a new term as Russia’s president two weeks later. Russian police have rounded up… protesters, including the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and leftist opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov after one of the most closely watched court cases in recent Russian history.

High Tory blogger Cranmer weighs in, throwing in a characteristically canonical note (I’ll have to take his word for its accuracy) as he does so:

In summing up the prosecution case, Judge Marina Syrova confirmed the tangential theological argument that prayers in a Russian cathedral may only be offered by a priest and not by ‘ordinary members of the public’, so [the] professed protest-as-prayer was contrary to church rules. But this is simply not true: Orthodoxy permits laity to lead public prayer. Perhaps it would not bestow the honour upon rabid feminists, but there is no canonical prohibition. The Judge observed: “It was a small act but maybe not a very elegant act but they consider that it is the country which is sick. For them, individuals are not important, they consider that education in Russia is still in the Soviet mould. And that there is still cruelty in the country and that prison is a miniature of Russia itself.”

If education is no longer in the Soviet mould, justice certainly appears to be. Putin’s Russia has regressed to the Soviet era: he is forging another oppressive kleptocracy which routinely persecutes the unorthodox and crushes dissent. It might even feel like theocracy. Some of the prosecution witnesses were not actually in the Cathedral at the time of the protest, but told the Court they were offended by the YouTube recording. The Judge described them all as ‘good Christians’, based on nothing but their ‘right’ testimony. Thus the actions of [these women] ‘degraded the moral feeling’ of the victims, who are the Orthodox everywhere for all time.

And here’s the Daily Telegraph’s Michael Weiss:

Despite the fact that this trial sought to portray [the defendants] as a trio of Satanic lesbians – the judge reading her verdict said they were peddling “homosexual propaganda” – their real crime was hitting Vladimir Putin in the one place he’s seldom hit: his cynical manipulation of Russian Orthodoxy. According to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, the clerical establishment is barely distinguishable from an apparatus of state security. “Russia’s brand of orthodoxy is based on the concept that Moscow is ‘the Third Rome’ (after Rome and Constantinople) and on a belief in Russian uniqueness. Being ‘unique’, Russia sees itself as surrounded by numerous enemies that the FSB must combat…The FSB helps to protect the Orthodox sphere of influence against Western proselytizing, and in return the Church blesses the security service in its struggles with enemies of the state.”

…In its role as helpmeet of the prosecution, the Church cited John 10:33 …a verse that was even included in [the defendants’] criminal file: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” It should be a fair sign of how demented, stupid and self-destructive Putin’s regime has become that it now readily identifies its victims with Jesus Christ.

And for a somewhat contrarian view, try Brendan O’Neill, also at the Daily Telegraph, who argues that the Western campaign doomed the women by making it impossible for Putin to climb down. I’m not convinced, to put it mildly. If I had to guess—and what else can I do—the intense foreign scrutiny has meant that the sentence was less than it would otherwise have been. It may also keep them alive.

When it comes to this, however, O’Neill has a point:

The fashionable Western support…had all the hallmarks of a cause célèbre. First there was the campaigners’ selection and elevation of just one foreign instance of shocking censorship to the exclusion of all others – such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s branding of anyone who criticises him as a “genocide ideologist” who can be locked up, for example, or nearby Scotland’s recent passing of an anti-football fan bill that can also send people to prison for singing songs (though sectarian rather than punk ones).


Europeans and (as Mark Steyn can, literally, testify) Canadians should ponder the extent to which their own hate speech legislation resembles the law under which Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have been jailed. Americans, as always, should give thanks for the First Amendment.

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Turning the Other Cheek

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Tomorrow is verdict day for the naughtily-named Russian trio that staged a brief demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior (and have been jailed since March).

The Guardian reports:

Guards at the cathedral broke up the peaceful protest, ripping off activists’ masks, twisting their arms behind their backs and kicking at least one photographer in the face as he tried to take a picture.

The original protest was in poor taste, and the trio’s often bizarre politics, a sort of feminist twist on an absurdist-anarcho-leftism with some connection to (doomed) moverments in the early Soviet Union, are not always endearing. Nevertheless it’s worth reading what one of the defendants, Yekaterina Samutsevich, had to say (during the course of her closing statement) about the way that the Putin regime has coopted not only the modern Russian Orthodox Church but also its historical reputation as a victim of the Soviet state. It’s a subtle point, carefully made.

It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and shouldn’t any intersection of the religious and political spheres be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of Orthodox aesthetics in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had the aura of a lost history, of something crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present their new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project which has little to do with a genuine concern for preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

An interesting angle to this whole case is that the women have been charged under Article 213 (2) of the Russian criminal code: “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred or hostility. The language of western political correctness, not to speak of Islamic efforts to suppress free speech, have, it seems, found an echo in Moscow, the Third Rome. That the Russian law can also be read as a part of a wider effort to protect the country’s believers from a return to the vicious anti-religious persecution of the Soviet era only adds to the ironies surrounding this case, as does the often-heard allegation that both Russia’s president and its patriarch both used to work–how shall I put this—for a certain malevolent organization.

In any event, five months in jail is more (much more) than enough.

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