Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why I Am A Christian (With Apologies to Bertrand Russell)

The Atheists of Silicon Valley identified the "The Top Ten Signs" of a Christian:

10 - You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of your god.

9 - You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from lesser life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8 - You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity god.

7 - Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" -- including women, children, and trees!

6 - You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5 - You are willing to spend your life looking for little loop-holes in the scientifically established age of the Earth (4.55 billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by pre-historic tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that the Earth is a couple of generations old.

4 - You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs -- though excluding those in all rival sects -- will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet you consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving".

3 - While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to prove Christianity.

2 - You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.

1 - You actually know a lot less than many Atheists and Agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history -- but still call yourself a Christian." (Atheists of Silicon Valley Blog)

The Ideology of the Aesthetic

Arundhati Roy on Liberalism's ideology of the aesthetic and its stigmatization of praxis:

"Why am I called a "writer-activist" and why -- even when it's used approvingly, admiringly -- does that term make me flinch? I'm called a writer-activist because after writing The God of Small Things I wrote three political essays: "The End of the Imagination," about India's nuclear tests, "The Greater Common Good," about Big Dams and the "development" debate, and "Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin," about the privatization and corporatization of essential infrastructure like water and electricity. Apart from the building of the temple in Ayodhya, these currently also happen to be the top priorities of the Indian government.

Now, I've been wondering why it should be that the person who wrote The God of Small Things is called a writer, and the person who wrote the political essays is called an activist? True, The God of Small Things is a work of fiction, but it's no less political than any of my essays. True, the essays are works of nonfiction, but since when did writers forgo the right to write nonfiction?

My thesis -- my humble theory, as we say in India -- is that I've been saddled with this double-barreled appelation, this awful professional label, not because my work is political, but because in my essays, which are about very contentious issues, I take sides. I take a position. I have a point of view. What's worse, I make it clear that I think it's right and moral to take that position, and what's even worse, I use everything in my power to flagrantly solicit support for that position. Now, for a writer of the twenty-first century, that's considered a pretty uncool, unsophisticated thing to do. It skates uncomfortably close to the territory occupied by political party ideologues -- a breed of people that the world has learned (quite rightly) to mistrust. I'm aware of this. I'm all for being circumspect. I'm all for discretion, prudence, tentativeness, subtlety, ambiguity, complexity. I love the unanswered question, the unresolved story, the unclimbed mountain, the tender shard of an incomplete dream. Most of the time.

But is it mandatory for a writer to be ambiguous about everything? Isn't it true that there have been fearful episodes in human history when prudence and discretion would have just been euphemisms for pusillanimity? When caution was actually cowardice? When sophistication was disguised decadence? When circumspection was really a kind of espousal?


In circumstances like these, the term "writer-activist" as a professional description of what I do makes me flinch doubly. First, because it is strategically positioned to diminish both writers and activists. It seeks to reduce the scope, the range, the sweep of what a writer is and can be. It suggests somehow that the writer by definition is too effete a being to come up with the clarity, the explicitness, the reasoning, the passion, the grit, the audacity, and, if necessary, the vulgarity to publicly take a political position. And, conversely, it suggests that the activist occupies the coarser, cruder end of the intellectual spectrum. That the activist is by profession a "position-taker" and therefore lacks complexity and intellectual sophistication, and is instead fueled by a crude, simple-minded, one-sided understanding of things. But the more fundamental problem I have with the term is that professionalizing the whole business of protest, putting a label on it, has the effect of containing the problem and suggesting that it's up to the the professionals -- activists and writer-activists -- to deal with this.


Frankly, however trenchantly, however angrily, however combatively one puts forward one's case, at the end of the day, I'm only a citizen, one of many, who is demanding public information, asking for a public explanation. I have no axe to grind. I have no professional stakes to protect. I'm prepared to be persuaded. I'm prepared to change my mind. But instead of an argument, or an explanation, or a disputing of facts, one get's insults, invective, legal threats, and the Expert's Anthem: "You're too emotional. You don't understand, and it's too complicated to explain." The subtext, of course, is: Don't worry your little head about it. Go and play with your toys. Leave the real world to us.

It's the old Brahminical instinct. Colonize knowledge, build four walls around it, and use it to your advantage. The Manusmriti, the Vedic Hindu code of conduct, says that if a Dalit overhears a shloka or any part of a sacred text, he must have molten lead poured into his ear. It isn't a coincidence that while India is poised to take its place at the forefront of the Information Revolution, three hundred million of its citizens are illiterate. (It would be interesting, as an exercise, to find out how many "experts" -- scholars, professionals, consultants -- in India are actually Brahmins and upper castes.)

If you're one of the lucky people with a berth booked on the small convoy, then Leaving it to the Experts is, or can be, a mutually beneficial proposition for both the expert and yourself. It's a convenient way of shrugging off your own role in the circuitry. And it creates a huge professional market for all kinds of "expertise." There's a whole ugly universe waiting to be explored there. This is not at all to suggest that all consultants are racketeers or that their expertise is unnecessary, but you've heard the saying -- There's a lot of money in poverty. There are plenty of ethical questions to be asked of tose who make a professional living off their expertise in poverty and despair.

For instance, at what point does a scholar stop being a scholar and become a parasite who feeds off despair and dispossession? Does the source of your funding compromise your scholarship? We know, after all, that World Bank studies are among the most quoted studies in the world. Is the World Bank a dispassionate observer of the global situation? Are the studies it funds entirely devoid of self-interest? (Arundhati Roy, Power Politics, pp. 10-12, 23-26).

Monday, December 26, 2005

True Believer

Excerpts from Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian":

"But for the successful efforts of unbelievers in the past, I could not take so elastic a definition of Christianity as that. As I said before, in the olden days it had a much more full-blooded sense. For instance, it included the belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.


You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire's remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles.....

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan, the Fascisti, and Mr. Winston Churchill? Really I am not much impressed with the people who say: "Look at me: I am such a splendid product that there must have been design in the universe." I am not very much impressed by the splendor of those people....


You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother's knee.


You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God who made this world, or could take up the line that some of the agnostics ["Gnostics" -- CW] took up -- a line which I often thought was a very plausible one -- that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the Devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.


I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said: "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-Tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.


There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance, find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.


Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand. ..... Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it." (Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian: An Examination of the God-Idea and Christianity." 1929).

Monday, December 19, 2005

Violence Symbolique (With Apologies to Pierre Bourdieu)

Academic peer review (if you can survive it), as recounted by Naomi C. Reed:

".... I want ... to speak to Olin-Ammentorp's assertion that the senior scholar's paper was a "critique" of the work of her colleagues. The senior scholar gave a paper taking issue with recent scholarship on the representation of Jewishness in The House of Mirth. In the paper she suggested, for example, that I — along with a number of other critics — was akin to a suicide bomber because I asserted that Lily Bart was less than pleased at the prospect of a marriage to the Jewish Simon Rosedale. In fact, she closed her paper by drawing an equation between current work on Jewishness in the novel and Hitler, directing the audience to passages of Mein Kampf.

Any sense that her presentation was a scholarly exchange, a matter of mere "critique," is thus a gross misrepresentation of what went on that day. Instead, the paper was an unfounded, at times vicious, attack on the work of her colleagues, not all of whom are so fortunate as to be "well established." As the Lily Bart of this scenario, I can say quite honestly that the slings and arrows of the Bertha Dorsets of this world are far too real, and that the Edith Wharton Society would be well advised to acknowledge it." (Naomi C. Reed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 16, 2004).

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Blind Review at the Quarterly Journal of Speech

Josh Gunn (Communication, UT-Austin) has posted (on the blog Underscore Collective) an email exchange he had with a Quarterly Journal of Speech reviewer. The story so far: Apparently Gunn submitted a paper to the QJS and it was brutally rejected. So he somehow found out who the blind reviewer was (he says the reviewer showed his hand by complaining that Gunn had not cited a certain authority in his paper; to Gunn, this could only have been a reference to the reviewer himself. I'm not convinced that this is the principal way that Gunn found out the identity of the reviewer, however). After a flurry of back and forths, Gunn says they "made up." (In the comments section to the blog post, he reveals that the reviewer has even invited him to guest lecture at his University, with a $500 honorarium consolation prize to boot).

In a July 7 2005 posting (also involving Gunn), I expressed my disquiet at what I considered to be the sham that was the "blind" reviewing process in the Communication Studies discipline. In that incident Gunn had suffered a brutal review and this is what he said then happened: "
The editor [of the journal Gunn submitted the paper to], bless her, offered a revise and resubmit with significant revisions, but I decided to send it elsewhere because I think the damn thing is good enough already, and I don't want to take advantage our friendship (I suspect she would have rejected someone she did not know with the same set of reviews)." That last line seemed to me damning. In response, however, Gunn argued that the problem was not nepotism but rather "editors who do not know whom to send your work to, and when they do know, the unexpected policing of turf that sometimes ensues." I did not press the point any further and I will let you, dear reader draw your own conclusions.

And now to this revealing exchange. (But before that... I speculated the other time that Gunn was referring to the QJS editor. He denied it. You'd think that would stop me from speculating again. But this is what Jim Henley describes as the howlersphere where normal rules of incivility are way too tame. And so prizes for trying to figure out who the blind reviewer is. Gunn's teaser of a clue seems to indicate that he(?) is somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. And the reviewer also claims to be a Public Address historian. I know of only one person who fits the bill -- S.H.B. If I'm wrong, a little googling next year whenever Gunn makes his winter pilgrimage Northward to "make up" should clear up the mystery).

Here is the email exchange posted below, along with Gunn's comment post:


battered junior scholar syndrome: a performance">battered junior scholar syndrome: a performance

November 27th, 2005 by josh

Music: Low: Things We Lost in the Fire


Quarterly Journal of Abuse

Senior Scholar Big Name, Editor-Elect
Department of Easy Major, and Everyone Knows It
Box 454052
City, State, and so on.

MS ID #: 05-027 Reviewer: A

MS Title: “Academicish Sounding Title With Requisite Colon and Stupid Subtitle, With Alliteration.”

Comments to the Author/s

This may have mistakenly been sent to me on the assumption that it was about [some topic of substance]. It is not, of course, and as a historian of American public address I fail to discern any contribution at all to the literature on those subjects. [snip three paragraphs of ripping new orifices]

Finally, just a word about the “explanatory power” of a “psychoanalytic theory of demagoguery,” as asserted on p. 24 and supposedly demonstrated in the little bit of critical analysis we finally get toward the end of the essay. First, the whole critical exercise rests upon the dubious, anti-historical assumptions . . . . The analysis also rests upon a controversial assumption from so-called “posthumanist” theory—that we are obliged (because Biesecker said so back in 92?) to “displace the solitary individual or agent as the cause or source of rhetorical power.” Those are hardly assumptions widely shared by . . . [snip, more meanness]. At one level, this essay actually seems to explain Huey Long’s appeal in much the same way that some historians have explained it: by disparaging the people of Louisiana and (one might add) millions of others across the country who revered Huey Long. Echoing Jeansonne, it suggests that only by reflecting on the ignorance and “wretched poverty” of Long’s hillbilly following can we understand their susceptibility to such “fascist” appeals.

I apologize if my judgments sound harsh. Perhaps I’m responding in kind to the whole tone of this essay, which I found to be remarkably self-indulgent and at times even arrogant and offensive. I personally rebel against authors who pontificate about “our charge” as rhetorical critics and demand radical “shifts” in our “rhetorical thinking”—as if, in their superior wisdom, they finally have discovered the “right” way to do rhetorical criticism. And I especially resist suggestions that we all must change our “rhetorical thinking” to embrace this sort of wacky, psychoanalytical approach. Do you really mean to suggest that only by adopting this sort of anti-historical and even anti-rhetorical approach can we understand the phenomena of demagoguery and charisma? That’s the tone of this whole essay: that all the work that has come before is worthless. I found one sentence in the final paragraph especially offensive: “Our task as critics is also to show how persuasion is located neither in the speaker, nor the audience, but in the inter- and intrasubjective field of desire.” Now, you are welcome to devote yourself to that task. But please don’t insist that we all must take up this sort of approach!


Dear Dr. _______,

I recently received reviews for an essay I wrote on ________from [insert journal] titled “Academicish Sounding Title With Requisite Colon and Stupid Subtitle, With Alliteration.” I have a number of reasons to believe that you were one of the anonymous reviewers of my essay. If you were the reviewer who apologized for his “harsh judgments,” could you please let me know? I’d like to have a conversation about the tone of your review, which perplexes me.




X-IronPort-MID: 1694084000
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Date: Sun, 27 Nov 2005 07:44:03 -0500
To: Junior Scholar
From: Senior Scholar
Subject: Re: — Review

Dear Junior:

I’m sorry that you are perplexed by the “tone” of my review. As I said in the review, I may have been responding in kind to the “tone” of the essay, which violated my libertarian sensibilities by pontificating about our “charge” as rhetorical critics. I also can assure you that I don’t play the game of trying to identify the authors of the many essays I review, so please don’t take it personally. I had no idea who wrote the essay.

I would be honored to talk with you, although I’m not sure what more I can say about my reaction to the essay. My early work often provoked similar reactions, striking many reviewers as too out of the mainstream and/or too polemical. Instead of hunting down the reviewers and chastising them for the “tone” of their reviews, I learned to take the bad with the good, and perhaps to write with a bit more caution and humility. I haven’t seen the other reviews of your essay, but if I was outvoted, congratulations. If not, I look forward to seeing a revision of the essay in print, for as I said in the review, I think you have some very interesting things to say about these monuments to Long.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Hi Dr. Paranoid:

I do not make it my charge to “hunt down” reviewers. What perplexed me was the apparent pleasure you took in sadism, and how unfairly you projected arrogance onto my argument. I am truly sorry to have offended your sensibilities; I certainly didn’t intended to insult anyone, most especially Louisianans, whom I love. I hope in the future you’ll think twice about the young scholar you choose to beat up on in your “blind’” reviews. It hurts to get a review like yours–much more than it hurt to read and essay with a “wacky” approach. Meanwhile, I am going to revise and re-word to double check for tone–that is, to practice what I seem to be preaching. Kindness can teach better, I have faith.

Yours from Aus-Vegas,



Subject: Re: ___ Review

Dear Obviously Very Junior:

As I suspected, you don’t want to have a “conversation” about the essay or my review, but rather to psychoanalyze and attack me! And I might be amused by your accusation that I take pleasure in “sadism” were it not for, well, the arrogance of the accusation. As I said, I had no idea who wrote the essay, so to suggest that I somehow take pleasure in beating up on young scholars is totally out of line. I think it’s perfectly fair to suggest that it’s arrogant to tell other critics what their “charge” must be. And if tracking down your reviewers and calling them names isn’t arrogant, I don’t know what is. Yes, it hurts to get negative reviews, but at least I apologized for the harshness of the review and tried to explain how I felt that the tone of the essay invited such a response. Perhaps you preach tolerance and humility, but neither the essay itself nor your personal attack on me would suggest that you practice what you preach. [signed with initials, which is what people with “big names” do, but not with any hint of disk jockey humor]


Date: Sun, 27 Nov 2005 11:43:17 -0600
To: Big Name Paranoid Senior Scholar
From: Wee Little Junior
Subject: Apology

Hi Prof. __,

First, let me apologize for my arrogance . . . .

And here's Gunn's addendum in the comments section:

Received today:

From: M—.
Subject: Invitation

Dear Junior:

Perhaps it would be useful to meet, so that you can see if I fit your stereotype of “sadistic” and I can see if you’re really “wacky.” So in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, I’d like to invite you to visit — State, to present a paper to our colloquium and to meet our faculty and grad students. We’ll pay your travel expenses and throw in a $500 honorarium. I know it doesn’t make up for my “unfair” attack on your QJS submission (which, by the way [the editor] tells me he agreed with completely), but hopefully you will take it as a gesture of good will, as intended. Interested? We have — open, and perhaps — although I would strongly recommend avoiding —- in February.

If you can’t do this, perhaps we can find some other way to meet. I suspect we’ve both allowed others to shape our perceptions in ways that oversimplify and distort.

(Josh Gunn, Underscore Collective, posted Nov. 27, 2005. Find the whole exchange in full @ ).