The Bill Muehlenberg Trophy: Joseph Massad

21 10 2007

Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, has published a book in which he argues that

there are no homosexuals in the entire Arab world, except for a few who have been brainwashed into believing they have a homosexual identity by an aggressive Western homosexual missionizing movement he calls “Gay International.” [. . .] According to the author, “It is the very discourse of the Gay International which produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist” (emphasis added).

The claim is advanced in the third chapter of Desiring Arabs, based upon an earlier paper of his (“Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World”).

TEH GAY AGENDA is a familiar Christian Right meme, and
the idea that gays and lesbians do not exist in the Middle East has most recently been put by one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Massad simply presents the homophobic ravings of Christian and Muslim fundies and expresses them in the idiom of postcolonial studies. As former Guardian Middle East correspondent Brian Whitaker observes in a review of Desiring Arabs,

Massad talks of a “missionary” campaign orchestrated by what he calls the “Gay International”. Its inspiration, he says, came partly from “the white western women’s movement, which had sought to universalise its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women’s movements in the non-western world”, but he also links its origins to the Carter administration’s use of human rights to “campaign against the Soviet Union and Third World enemies”.

Like the major US- and European-based human rights organisations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) and following the line taken up by white western women’s organisations and publications, the Gay International was to reserve a special place for the Muslim countries in its discourse as well as its advocacy. The orientalist impulse … continues to guide all branches of the human rights community. (p 161)

Oddly, since this is central to his argument, Massad offers no evidence to substantiate his claim. There are plenty of reasons other than an “orientalist impulse” why gay rights activists might justifiably pay attention to Muslim countries (punishments for same-sex acts, for instance, tend to be heavier there, on paper if not always in practice, and the only countries in the world where the death penalty for sodomy still applies justify it on the basis of Islamic law) but that is not the same as reserving “a special place” for them in the discourse.

Then again, I suppose the demand that extraordinary claims of the kind Massad advances be supported by empirical evidence may be written off as another manifestation of Western imperialism. It gets worse:

State repression against gay people happens on a frequent basis across the Middle East. Massad, however, who claims to be a supporter of sexual freedom per se, is oddly impassive when confronted with the vast catalogue of anti-gay state violence in the Muslim world. Massad, unlike Ahmadinejad, does acknowledge that “gay-identified” people exist in the Middle East, but he views them with derision. Take, for instance, his description of the Queen Boat victims as “westernized, Egyptian, gay-identified men” who consort with European and American tourists. A simple “gay” would have sufficed. He smears efforts to free the men by writing of the “openly gay and anti-Palestinian Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank” and the “anti-Arab and anti-Egyptian [Congressman] Tom Lantos” who circulated a petition amongst their colleagues to cut off U.S. funding to Egypt unless the men were released. He then goes onto belittle not just gay activists (one of whom, a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society, referred to the Queen Boat affair as “our own Stonewall,” in reference to the 1969 Stonewall riot when a group of patrons at a New York City gay bar resisted arrest, a moment credited with sparking the American gay rights movement) but the persecuted men themselves. The Queen Boat cannot be Stonewall, Massad insists, because the “drag Queens at the Stonewall bar” embraced their homosexual identity, whereas the Egyptian men “not only” did “not seek publicity for their alleged homosexuality, they resisted the very publicity of the events by the media by covering their faces in order to hide from the cameras and from hysterical public scrutiny.” Massad does not pause to consider that perhaps the reason why these men covered their faces was because of the brutal consequences they would endure if their identities became public, repercussions far worse than anything the rioters at Stonewall experienced. “These are hardly manifestations of gay pride or gay liberation,” Massad sneers.

Joseph Massad: you are a disgrace to academia. Your brand of unscholarly and unsubstantiated rubbish feeds the hysterical paranoiac fantasies of the Horowitz crowd and their puppets in the Republican party–people who seek to restrict academic freedom and stifle the views of those with whom they disagree, and are just salivating for a cause celebre like yourself. Furthermore, it gives a free pass to the persecution of gays and lesbians in the Arab world, by coding any criticism of such persecution as “Western imperialism.” Lift your game.

On Pakistan’s ability to get its priorities in order

20 06 2007

This is Waziristan, a northern province of Pakistan. It was from here that the Taliban swept into Afghanistan, establishing in the late 90s one of the most savage and despotic faith-based regimes ever known. To this day it remains a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold.

This is Salman Rushdie, an Anglo-Indian novelist who in 1989 was sentenced to death in absentia by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses which contained references to Mohammed which many Muslims deemed to be blasphemous. As a result, Rushdie went into hiding for nine years–while several others associated with the novel’s publication were either murdered, assaulted or threatened–and to this day Iran’s religious authorities refuse to lift the fatwa that was placed on him.

Now, if you were a Muslim and a member of the Pakistani government, which of the two would you consider a bigger enemy of Islam and more worthy of your condemnation: (a) a bunch of bloodthirsty religious fanatics who like to slaughter innocent people in the name of their faith, or (b) a British novelist who once wrote a book containing an irreverent depiction of Mohammed? Which of the two does more damage to the image of Islam?

Yeah. Me too.

But the Pakistani government doesn’t see it that way, given its outrage over Britain’s decision to award Rushdie a knighthood. Condemning the British government for its “insensitivity,” Pakistan is demanding that the knighthood be revoked. According to the Foreign Ministry, “this decision can unnecessarily incite religious feelings [. . .] Rushdie has been a controversial figure who is known less for his contribution to literature and more for hurting the feelings of Muslims.” (Cue the world’s smallest violin.) The Minister for Religious Affairs warns that “such an award can provoke suicide attacks.” Got that? If more innocent people are murdered because certain faith-heads have so completely lost the will to behave rationally, blame Rushdie.

Seriously, guys: if you don’t like Rushdie, don’t read his books. And don’t take his knighthood personally–the notion that it’s intended to be an insult to Muslims is preposterous. In the meantime, you have a very big backyard to clean up, and perhaps you should focus your energies on that.

More at Ninglun’s.

Fundie PC: the War On Harry Potter

30 05 2007
Image via Cox and Forkum

Harry Potter has again been accused of corrupting the youth of America.

A suburban Atlanta mother who believes the best-selling Harry Potter books promote witchcraft said Tuesday she may take her quest to ban the writings from her county schools to federal court after a state judge rejected her latest effort.

[. . .]

Mallory has tried to ban the books from county school library shelves since August 2005, arguing that the popular fiction series is an attempt to indoctrinate children in witchcraft.

Ban Harry Potter? Doesn’t she realise that Voldemort and his Death Eaters are still out there?

And how about this for a textbook case of fundamentalist Christian cognitive dissonance (or is it just blatant hypocrisy?):

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mallory argued in part that witchcraft is a religion practiced by some people and, therefore, the books should be banned because reading them in school violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

I have a dream that God will be welcomed back in our schools again,” Mallory said. “I think we need him.”

Emphases added. I think Mallory needs a better lawyer–one quick enough to advise her that her case might have a better chance of success if she keeps her mouth closed. Meanwhile, I’m off to watch the quidditch.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released on July 21.

What to do with the "marching morons"

8 05 2007

As a teacher, and as someone who from time to time has said unkind things about “bogans,” I feel chastened by PZ Myers’ latest post–a response to an editorial by SF writer Ben Bova extolling the virtues of a 50s SF tale called “The Marching Morons,” predicting a world overrun by “dummies.”

Myers takes issue with the obvious elitism of the story, as well as its attempt to ground the intellectual class distinction in biology. He retorts: “People, they are us.”

That’s where the Kornbluth story fails. It assumes the morons are unchangeably moronic, and treats the elite as unchangeably special. The only solution to their problem is to get rid of the morons, launching them into space to die. Bova’s editorial, while not as cynically eliminationist, still pretends that the only answer is perpetuation of a distinction that doesn’t exist biologically.

Here’s the real solution to the “marching moron” problem: teach them. Give them fair opportunities. Open the door to education for all. They have just as much potential as you do. Bova complains that people aren’t willing to work for change, but this is exactly where we can work to improve minds — but we won’t if we assume the mob is hopeless.

Read the rest–it’s one of the best Pharyngula posts I’ve seen in a long time.

The Wonderful World of Magical Thinking XIII

29 04 2007

The week in fundie:

The Sci-Fi Meme

12 03 2007

A list of the Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years” has been doing the rounds, and now appears to have evolved into a meme. The idea is that you reproduce the following list with the books you have read in bold-type.

Here’s the list. And though I consider myself a SF fan, it appears I’m not as big a fan as I thought:

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
  3. Dune, Frank Herbert
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
  22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
  27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  31. Little, Big, John Crowley
  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

The consensus seems to be that of sheer mystification regarding the inclusion of The Sword of Shannara on this list, and understandably so. The book is derivative rubbish: not only is it a cheap rip-off (in every sense) of Lord of the Rings, it also reads like the kind of fantasy novel that graces the bargain bins of second-hand bookstores or the rotating bookstands you find at train station newsagencies. But I suppose it could be argued that this is a list of the most significant SF/Fantasy, and The Sword of Shannara merits its selection on the strength of the Shannara series as a whole. (And the series improves greatly post-Sword.)

Still, if you’re going to include The Sword of Shannara for the reasons just mentioned, I don’t see why Raymond E. Feist’s far superior Magician doesn’t get a guernsey. Magician wears its Tolkien influences on its sleeve–particularly in the way it represents elves and dwarves–but it still manages to be original and enthralling.

(And where’s L. Ron Hubbard? I haven’t read any of his stuff–nor do I plan to–but his SF spawned a whole new religion! How many SF/Fantasy authors can say as much?)

Thumbs up to the inclusion of Stephen Donaldson and William Gibson. I would have liked to have seen Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed up there, too.

(Via Pharyngula. And although this is a meme, I won’t tag anybody this time. I’m interested to hear your thoughts, however.)

This is your brain on authoritarianism

8 03 2007

Bob Altemeyer, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, might be the world’s foremost authority on Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). His latest work on the subject has recently been released as a free e-book, The Authoritarians, available here. In the Introduction, Altemeyer defines authoritarianism thus:

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I’m going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.

And from Chapter 7:

Question: Is it the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out this rot that is poisoning our country from within? No, I hope it’s obvious that that’s no solution at all. It may be just as obvious that social dominators will want to hang onto control until it is pried from their cold, dead fingers in the last ditch. And authoritarian followers will prove extremely resistant to change. The more one learns about the
problem, I think, the more one realizes how difficult it will be to change people who
are so ferociously aggressive, and fiercely defensive.

You’re not likely to get anywhere arguing with authoritarians. If you won every round of a 15 round heavyweight debate with a Double High leader over history,
logic, scientific evidence, the Constitution, you name it, in an auditorium filled with
high RWAs, the audience probably would not change its beliefs one tiny bit. Authoritarian followers might even cling to their beliefs more tightly, the wronger
they turned out to be. Trying to change highly dogmatic, evidence-immune, groupgripping people in such a setting is like pissing into the wind.

Hat tip: Larry Gambone.

UPDATE: On the subject of authoritarian followers.

A few remarks on The God Delusion

29 01 2007

So much discussion has been provoked by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion that there seems little more to add–other than to point out that its greatest value may lie ultimately in its ability to stir up debate about the role and place of religious belief–and, let’s face it, non-rationalism in all its manifestations–in the secular, liberal and democratic West.

It seems to me that Dawkins has three aims: (i) to provide a defence of atheism (and, by extension, atheists), (ii) to mount an assault upon theism and the undue privileges it is extended in ostensively non-theocratic socities, and (iii) to suggest a Darwinian explanation for belief as sociological phenomenon. I’m not going to provide a more detailed summary here–Wikipedia does a half-decent job of that–but it’s probably best to think of The God Delusion as the sum total of all those (doubtless at times caustic and heated) exchanges Dawkins must have had with theists of many stripes over the years, concerning his own strident atheism as well as the viability of their religious beliefs. Indeed, if you cast your eye over to the “Reading Room” section of my sidebar, you’ll find a link to an old lecture by Dawkins (“On Debating Religion“) which is effectively The God Delusion in a nutshell. (For instance, in the lecture he divides religious people into three categories–“know-nothings,” “know-alls” and “no-contests”–the last of which anticipates his critique of the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” in the book). And if you hang around that very same “Reading Room” long enough, you’ll discover that a lot of the ground covered in Dawkins’ book had been traversed much earlier by Bertrand Russell–consider, for example, the “Celestial Teapot.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. As Ninglun suggests, it’s a message that needs to be listened to by Americans, as well as–I might add–certain segments of the Australian community also. In an election year in which a PM, whose reign owes some degree of its longevity and success to its ability to woo the religious Right, will square off against an Opposition Leader who has become the de facto leader of the religious Left, it couldn’t be more relevant. And the great virtue of Dawkins’ book is not just that it makes Russell’s arguments (and arguments he has himself advanced on previous occasions) regarding religious belief palatable and accessible, it is that in doing so it remains (for most of the book anyway) downright hilarious and entertaining. His merciless “fisking” of the Bible and of the canonical arguments for God’s existence are worth the price of admission alone. (And no, Bill Muehlenberg–simply dismissing Dawkins’ deconstruction of these arguments as “sophomoric” and asserting that “his criticisms would not pass a Theology 101 exam” does not a convincing counterargument make. Then again, given Dawkins’ opinion of theology as an avenue of human endeavour, would he really care how his treatment of the traditional arguments for God’s existence might be regarded by theologians?)

Dawkins’ most telling point, I think, is against the advocates of NOMA–the notion that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” and that it is therefore pointless to attempt to account scientifically for God’s role in the creation of the universe. For Dawkins, given that science involves by definition the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena, something like the creation of the natural universe is a phenomenon that demands such an explanation. Hence, if it is claimed that the natural universe has a “Creator” (“The God Hypothesis”), such an entity is itself a natural phenomenon and thus fair game for science.

If I have a gripe with The God Delusion, it is with Dawkins’ attempt in Chapter 5 to provide a Darwinian/biological explanation for religious belief. It isn’t that I don’t think such an explanation is credible or interesting–and it is worth noting that Dawkins advances an evolutionary explanation for belief as a hypothesis only. It’s just that I’m not sure it really has a place in this book–it’s as if Dawkins feels the need to respond to a common ad populum argument against atheism, “How do you explain the fact that the majority of people believe in God?”–and the scientism evinced in this chapter jars with the tone of the rest of the book.

Furthermore, I wonder if Dawkins in his critique of religious belief could have paid more attention to the dangers of other manifestations of faith trumping reason. In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote: “Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused.” What, after all, is the flag-waving nationalism of Howard’s Australia but an instance of religious mania? And can it not–as this post by Bruce suggests–have effects as sinister and deleterious as any religious-inspired conflict?

Just dropping in . . .

3 01 2007

Hopefully this blog will be back and up-and-running soon enough. As well as the move, and copious amounts of hard labour, I have been hampered by a temperamental phone connection. (Oh, and my girlfriend is currently on holidays and does not consider blogging to fall legitimately within the ambit of “quality time.” Takes all kinds, I suppose.) On the upside, I have been getting an enormous amount of reading done, and I anticipate the next post to contain a review of Richard Dawkins’ fantastic God Delusion, and perhaps also Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler’s highly entertaining War on Democracy. Watch this space.

Anyway, Merry Xmas, Happy New Year, & c. & c.

Something nerdy this way comes . . .

18 09 2006
“Is this a dagger, which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?”
(Act II, Scene 1, lines 41-42)

Much has been made of the influence of Catholicism on The Lord of the Rings, but I can’t believe–having read the book more than a dozen times in my younger years–that I didn’t recognise sooner all the references to Macbeth:

1) The Mirror of Galadriel (The Fellowship of the Ring)= The witches’ cauldron in Act IV, Scene 1.

2) The prophecy regarding the fall of the Witch King (The Return of the King) = The prophecy of the Second Apparition (the bloody Child): “Be bloody, bold, and resolute./Laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”

3) The Huorn-attack on Isengard and Helm’s Deep (The Two Towers) = The prophecy of the Third Apparition (the Child crowned, with a tree in his hand): “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him.”

4) Frodo’s vision at Tom Bombadil’s house of the line of the Dunedain, the last (Aragorn) wearing a star on his brow (Fellowship) = The final vision in the witches’ cauldron: “A show of eight Kings, and Banquo last, with a glass in his hand.”

5) The return of the king = Malcolm’s return to Scotland.

6) The Black Breath (Return of the King) = Malcolm (referring to a disease known by the scientific name of scrofula): “‘Tis called the Evil.” (Act IV, Scene 3, line 162)

7) “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer” (Return of the King) = Malcolm again: “A most miraculous work in this good King;/Which often, since my here-remain in England,/I’ve seen him do. How he solicits heaven,/Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,/All swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,/The mere despair of surgery, he cures;/Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,/Put on with holy prayers: and ’tis spoken,/To the succeeding royalty he leaves/The healing benediction. With this strange virtue/He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy;/And sundry blessings hang about his throne/That speak him full of grace.” (Act IV, Scene 3, lines 163-175).

8) The loophole by which means Eowyn slays the Witch King: “No living man am I! You look upon a woman.” = The loophole by whic means Macduff, who “was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped,” slays Macbeth (Act V, Scene 8, lines 19-20)

I can’t claim credit for any of this, of course. But I did find the references on my own before I discovered that someone else–maybe many others–beat me to it.