Mixed bag

by Yule Heibel on October 2, 2004

No chocolate cake recipe yet. I’ve been reading around in several unrelated articles, all found on Arts & Letters Daily.

First, there was a fascinating interview with Christopher Hitchins by Johann Hari, In enemy territory?:

He is appalled that some people on the left are prepared to do almost nothing to defeat Islamofascism. “When I see some people who claim to be on the left abusing that tradition, making excuses for the most reactionary force in the world, I do feel pain that a great tradition is being defamed. So in that sense I still consider myself to be on the left.” A few months ago, when Bush went to Ireland for the G8 meeting, Hitchens was on a TV debate with the leader of a small socialist party in the Irish dail. “He said these Islamic fascists are doing this because they have deep-seated grievances. And I said, ‘Ah yes, they
have many grievances. They are aggrieved when they see unveiled woman. And they are aggrieved that we tolerate homosexuals and Jews and free speech and the reading of literature.'”

“And this man – who had presumably never met a jihadist in his life – said, ‘No, it’s about their economic grievances.’ Well, of course, because the Taliban provided great healthcare and redistribution of wealth, didn’t they? After the debate was over, I said, ‘If James Connolly [the Irish socialist leader of the Easter Risings] could hear you defending these theocratic fascist barbarians, you would know you had been in a fight. Do you know what you are saying? Do you know who you are pissing on?'” [More…]

At the bottom of the page, Hari’s article includes several urls linking to bloggers and others discussing Hitchins’s stance.

Somehow, and perhaps it’s just the Arts & Letters Daily way of picking articles, this New Scientist interview by Liz Else and Alun Anderson with Jamie Whyte, online here, seemed a fitting companion:

In your book you are quite harsh on religion. Aren’t people entitled to their faith?

This is one of my favourite errors. An interesting change has happened, at least in the west. It used to be that people would argue for a particular religious dogma or a clear religious doctrine. That is no longer what happens. The world is increasingly dividing into those who have “faith” and those who don’t. It doesn’t really matter what the faith is. That is why you now get “faith groups” coming together from all kinds of different religions. The weirdest manifestation of this new tendency is when people say: “I’m not a Christian but I believe in something.” Then I say: “Of course, I believe in many things, like there is a chair there and a table. What are you talking about?” And they reply: “Well, you know, something more.” But what “more”? What they mean is something more than we have any good reason to believe in.

That really seems to get to you!

What amazes me is that they like to set themselves up as having a slightly finer sensibility than you or me but in fact they are completely intellectually irresponsible. They used to come up with very bad arguments for their faiths but at least they felt that there was something they should provide. Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth. You are no longer interested in reality because to do that you have to be pretty rigorous, you have to have evidence or do some experimentation. Rather, beliefs are part of your wardrobe. You’ve got a style and how dare anybody tell you that your style isn’t right. Ideology is seen as simply a matter of taste and as it’s not right to tell people that they’ve got bad taste, so it’s not right to tell them that their opinions are false. I’m afraid that the cast of mind of most people is the opposite of scientific. [More here…]

And now look at Mark Edmunson‘s essay on university culture today. I’ve been in the “evaluation day” situation he describes, felt the flush of anger at being reduced to a number-point system and several lines of evaluation drivel, felt the flush of excitement, too, when my numbers were high and the comments stellar (“They like me! They like me!”), before drifting again into subversive thoughts that there was something really really wrong with the system. Edmunson describes the universe of consumer cool wherein no one should become too exercised: it might reveal an absence of experience:

The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at whatever cost.
It’s apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, the standard of cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are different. You’re inhibited, except on ordained occasions, from showing feeling, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. Apparent expression of exuberance now seem to occur with dimming quotation marks around them.

Further into the article, Edmunson takes on computers and how that technology has shaped current attitudes toward knowledge, which was what reminded me of Whyte’s take on truth, in the article quoted before Edmunson’s. First, remember that in the culture of cool it is unacceptable to say, “I don’t know.” It’s imperative to act, always, as though you already know everything; it is imperative that you cannot be innocent of experience. Edmunson then notes:

By putting a world of facts at the end of a key-stroke, computers have made facts, their command, their manipulation, their ordering, central to what now can qualify as humanistic education. The result is to suspend reflection about the differences among wisdom, knowledge, and information. Everything that can be accessed online can seem equal to everything else, no datum more important or more profound than any other. Thus the possibility presents itself that there really is no more wisdom; there is no more knowledge; there is only information. No thought is a challenge or an affront to what one currently believes.

Am I wrong to think that the kind of education on offer in the humanities now is in some measure an education for empire? The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. [More…]

Edmunson’s “…there is no more knowledge; there is only information” comes very close to Whyte‘s chronicle of truth’s status in the world, too. As for Hitchins, I could never be convinced to vote for Bush, regardless of how much I might endorse Hitchins’s other arguments. Even if Wolfowitz had the redeeming features Hitchens ascribes to him, the rest of the corporate gang in the neocon team would continue to drag the world away from the enlightenment values I endorse. Hitchens makes the mistake, I think, of putting too much faith in one or two possibly intellectually-minded neocons, thinking that their brainpower will steer the underlying economic logic toward a better outcome. That doesn’t seem credible. Corporatism, like fundamentalism, doesn’t place intellectual values that champion individual liberties and enlightenment ideas at the top of its steering committee.

I mean, that would be so, like, uncool.

Anyway, interesting meditations on culture and technology, and truth and ends and politics.


brian moffatt October 5, 2004 at 10:53 pm

Some interesting after thoughts by hari on the hitch interview here:


don’t know if you caught them, Yule. It’s a fair summation, I think, of what I find disturbing about much of Hitchens lately: the singlemindedness. As if Islamofascism is the only thing in the world worth obsessing over.

I’ve never been sure if Hitchens’ serial monomania has been a conceit or a mania. I’m wondering if he isn’t in the end just a highly articulate nutjob. He’s like a doctor with the right diagnosis but the wrong prescriptive.

“Sir, you have brain cancer. Your right leg will have to come off.”

Anyway, I’m off to make my way through your other links. Ta-ra

Anonymous August 25, 2005 at 2:08 pm

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