Tuesday, March 28, 2006

two great philosophers disagree...

It's always interesting to find find two philosophers disagreeing -- here Andre Glucksmann and Ronald Dworkin. The issue? Yes, you guessed it: the Danish cartoon controversy.

Here's Dworkin in his thoughtful essay on The Right to Ridicule
Muslims who are outraged by the Danish cartoons note that in several European countries it is a crime publicly to deny, as the president of Iran has denied, that the Holocaust ever took place. They say that Western concern for free speech is therefore only self-serving hypocrisy, and they have a point. But of course the remedy is not to make the compromise of democratic legitimacy even greater than it already is but to work toward a new understanding of the European Convention on Human Rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech that that convention demands.

Here's Glucksmann on the same:
Offence for offence? Infringement for infringement? Can the negation of Auschwitz be put on a par with the desecration of Muhammad? This is where two philosophies clash. The one says yes, these are equivalent "beliefs" which have been equally scorned. There is no difference between factual truth and professed faith; the conviction that the genocide took place and the certitude that Muhammad was illuminated by Archangel Gabriel are on a par. The others say no, the reality of the death camps is a matter of historical fact, whereas the sacredness of the prophets is a matter of personal belief.

This distinction between fact and belief is at the heart of Western thought. Aristotle distinguished between indicative discourse on the one hand, which could be used to reach an affirmation or a negation, and prayer on the other. Prayers are not a matter for discussion, because they do not state: they implore, promise, vow and declare. They do not relate information, they perform an act. When the Islamist fanatic affirms that Europeans practise the "religion of the Shoah" while he practises that of Muhammad, he abolishes the distinction between fact and belief. For him there are only beliefs, and so it follows that Europe will favour its own.

Whom do I agree with? In this case, I have to go with Dworkin, his essay almost convinced me that self-restraint is the right thing to do.

essay updates

I remember when I read this article back in the NYT magazine some weeks ago, feeling that there was something I didn't quite like about it. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley expresses it more eloquently than I could have:
In certain precincts occupied by certain members of the American intelligentsia, it has for some time been quite the fashion to ferret out racists in one's familial woodpile and then to write books about them. The ostensible purpose of these books is to provide intimate, confessional evidence of the degree to which racial prejudice has infiltrated every conceivable corner of American life. Their obvious if unstated purpose is to show how the (white) author has triumphed over his or her sordid ancestral inheritance to become a person of impeccable credentials on matters racial. Though all due modesty and claims of imperfection are expressed, the reader is expected to stand and cheer as, at book's end, the author's heroic achievement is revealed in full.

I had posted earlier about Daniel Mendelsohn's fine review of Brokeback Mountain. Producer James Schamus responds to Mendelsohn, in what I must say, is an extraordinarily dishonest letter.

I am not radical enough to insist that it was the film-makers' duty to market Brokeback Mountain as a "gay" film; after all, their first priority is that the film does well, that it recover it's costs. If that involves toning down the gay elements in the publicity stills, so be it. But surely there's nothing wrong in admitting that; the only ones offended will be radicals and the film is good enough to appeal to everyone. But Schamus insists on having his cake and eating it too -- he name-drops terms from queer theory, just to appeal to people who believe in it, and he talks about the "universality of love". But the best line has to be this:

And it is true that we have marketed the film primarily as an epic, sweeping romance between two men, and do not append the words "gay" or "homosexual" to our marketing blurbs for the movie (although you never saw a poster or ad telling you that either Titanic or The Bridges of Madison County was the "greatest straight love story of all time").

This is a breathtaking statement. Of course, the fact that the word "straight" isn't used to describe Titanic does not mean that the movie doesn't advertise its straightness. (There is the fact that the only people who use the word "straight" or "heterosexual" are gay men; straight people don't really think of themselves as straight). I will only quote Mendelsohn's response here and then get off the topic once and for all:
With breathtaking disingenuousness, given his ostensible commitment to queer theory, Mr. Schamus suggests that Brokeback shouldn't advertise the sexuality of its characters any more than straight mainstream films do. But of course, those films do advertise, relentlessly, the heterosexuality of their characters—as even a quick glance at the posters used to advertise, say, Titanic and The Bridges of Madison County will confirm. There, one can see what is, after all, the standard visual representation of erotic love between two people, which is a clear image of two yearning lovers embracing. One wonders why, if Focus Features is so open, proud, and celebratory of its film's homosexual love story, such an image is utterly absent from its print and TV ads for the movie—just as the open, unashamed, and insistent use of the word "gay" is absent from the producers' promotional rhetoric, starting with the pages—any and all of them—of the press kit.

Finally two fascinating articles from the Post and the Times here and here.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Quote of the day

Majikthise talking about the responses to Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell
What if it became widely accepted that religions are the biological equivalent of masturbation--"hacks" that we have learned to perform on our own bodies to achieve transcendence on demand?

I plan to put up a detailed post on Dennet and Breaking the Spell soon (not that I've read the book but there are just fascinating issues lurking there).

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

on environmentalism

In a fine review of Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, which traces the vexed environmental history of Florida, Greg Easterbrook ends with some thought-provoking words:
Closing this fine book, I had a small complaint and a big complaint. The small one is that The Swamp takes numerous potshots at the developers and amusement-park builders who crowded into Florida, but dodges an important aspect of economic growth that affluence makes possible: environmental protection. Townhomes can be tacky, and freeway congestion is infuriating; but the global population is expanding, and people must live somewhere. If environmentally destructive development (which is the story of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) makes possible environmentally clean development (which has been happening roughly since the mid-1980s), the outcome is high living standards plus a respect for nature. And that is a good outcome.

My big complaint is that Grunwald's analysis of human interaction with the Everglades reflects what I once called the Fallacy of Environmental Correctness. The Swamp presents the pre-European-contact condition of Florida as correct in some first-causes sense, while implying that all human tampering with the Everglades was an offense against the proper order of things. Since the human lifespan is less than a century, we tend to think of environmental conditions as fixed. Yet when they were first seen by the conquistadors in the sixteenth century, the Everglades were just the latest variation on an endlessly changing natural landscape, created rather recently in geological terms and certain to be altered many more times in the future, whether humanity acted or not.

Not that long ago, much of North America was buried under an ice sheet, and what is now the Everglades region was drastically different. Step back further, into the Oligocene Epoch, and North America was arid, with no marshlands to protect. Step further back and Earth's temperatures were much higher than today; the birds of the current Everglades could not have lived at Florida latitudes in hotter prior eras. Or think about the future: even were there no Homo sapiens, a few thousand years into the future, the Everglades are sure to transform in unpredictable ways. There is no "correct" condition for a land area or biosphere. There is only the condition that happens to obtain at the moment. Given that humanity arises from the natural scheme, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our monkeying around with nature. Some of this monkeying fulfills our purposes as moral and historical agents--if it is done wisely, as Michael Grunwald has persuasively shown.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Quote of the day:

Dana Stevens in Slate:
Finally, one open question to both of you: Why is Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain considered a leading role, while Jake Gyllenhaal's is relegated to the status of 'supporting'? They share roughly equivalent portions of screen time, and Gyllenhaal certainly has more lines, if only because his character is far chattier than the taciturn Ennis Del Mar. It's hard to imagine one of the two leads being similarly dissed in a love story between a man and a woman. Is this just because the academy wanted to avoid pitting the two men against one another in the best actor category? Or is Gyllenhaal smiting his forehead right now for agreeing to be cast as the bottom to Ledger's top?

Hee hee.