Monthly Archives: February 2013

Psychadelic VolvoIt was evening. We were three. It couldn’t have been that late because we were young enough that our parents wouldn’t have allowed us to stay out too long. However, one of the three of us was my sister and the other was her closest friend. Since Sis was nearly two years older and one year ahead in school and we were together, our parents might have allowed us out for an hour or so later than usual. In any case, it was dark.

We were walking along one of the main roads in town. There wasn’t one big shopping street in town. Instead, there were three or four small areas and a couple of main roads that ran through the town connecting it to the neighboring towns. The area we were near was an intersection with shops going a block in each direction and no further. There was the usual. A post office. A gas station. Drug store, bank, liquor store, super market, candy store, ice cream parlor, coffee shop and a Chinese restaurant. This was long before cheap Chinese restaurants on every corner and the restaurant was a fancy place that served very, very Americanized food. We were in a very tame and very familiar place, perhaps five minutes’ walk from our house. My sister’s friend lived on the next block.

I can still remember exactly where we were but I can’t remember why we were there. The strip of stores on that particular block was set back from the street with a small parking lot in between. There was a strip of sidewalk between the parking lot and the road. We must have been going from point A to point B because there was no other reason to be on that strip of sidewalk. My sister had a friend who lived around the corner. Perhaps we had been there. Perhaps we had run an errand for our parents. We were probably heading home.

My sister’s friend was carrying a suede purse, a clutch bag with a bamboo closure that had become a source of irritation for my sister who had bought the very same purse the week before. So had I, but in a different color and at my sister’s suggestion. It was my first purse, but I wasn’t carrying it that night. We were walking on the right hand side of the road, in the direction of traffic. A car came by. Pale blue, I think, although perhaps it was white. It was large American car probably from the early seventies, the kind teenagers get as hand-me-downs from older relatives. The car slowed so that it was going at the same speed as we were. A boy, a teenager himself but much older than we were, leaned out the window.

“Hey girls, where you going?”

My sister’s friend said under her breath. “Ignore them and they’ll go away.”

“Do you want to come for a ride?”

She clutched her clutch more tightly and whispered, “Ignore them.”

Another car came from behind and the boys were forced to resume a normal speed and drive away. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

A minute later, the car came from behind us again. They must have gone around the block. It wasn’t a large block. It would only have taken a minute.

They said something and we ignored them. They said something again and we ignored them some more. It was starting to get a little scary. Finally, one of them said, “Hey, do you want to suck my dick?”

My sister, my bossy, popular older sister, wheeled around. She put her hand on her hip, tossed back her hair and stuck out her chin. “Yeah, well, lick my clit!”

Just like that, the car took off as fast as it could.

Lesson learned: When boys try to scare you with crude words, show them that you’re not scared. Nine times out of ten, it works. The tenth time, you’re in trouble, but you would probably have been in trouble anyway.

As I announced about a week or so ago, I’ve been doing some reading and research in hopes of writing something not entirely incoherent about the subject of free speech as it relates to the internet. So I decided to start by reading some background on the freedom of speech and I started with the books I already have lying around. (It’s nice being a blogger rather than an academic.)

A squirrel sitting on a stump in a Rhoddodendron bush.

Without God, how does this Sciurus carolinensis know that it’s a squirrel?

It’s often crossed my mind that the effect of the Reformation and the wars of religion on the Enlightenment is often underestimated. That a philosophical project to ground society’s institutions on something unrelated to religion should follow on the heels of a century of devastating wars caused by doctrinal differences hints to me at a close connection between the two.

So, when I came across a book a couple of months ago entitled The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, I bought it on impulse. The writer, Brad S. Gregory, it turns out, is motivated by more than simple intellectual curiosity. He is prodded to write by a disgust for the modern world. The object of his disgust appears to be the word “whatever.” This word, according to him, is brought forth from people’s lips by a condition known as “advanced secularization.” The book is enjoyable to read as long as he remains in the past, but when he tries to deal with the present one gets the painful image of a man trapped in a nightmarish hall of mirrors screaming to get out. Is our modern world really that bad? And even more bizarrely, is it really that bad because of our insistence on respecting human rights?

What horrific things are happening in the modern world? Is it a woman, miscarrying, screaming in pain for hours, perhaps days, because a Catholic hospital won’t administer certain treatments? (I’m actually thinking about a friend of mine, not Savita Halappanavar.) Is it a transperson being beaten up because someone thinks he or she is unnatural? (I’ve encountered this in my own life as well.) No, it’s opposing those things without being able to explain why you oppose them in a manner satisfactory to Brad S. Gregory.

The creation of modern, liberal states as the institutional guarantors of individual rights might have avoided the subjectivization of morality if modern moral philosophy had succeeded in its principal objective: to discover or create a convincing secular foundation for ethics and thus for a a shared moral community independent of inherited Christian or other religious beliefs. But that did not happen, whether with respect to the good, human priorities, or right and wrong.

And if one of the warring Christian sects had succeeded in establishing, to the satisfaction of everyone in sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, the truth of their religious tenets, there would have been no need for modern moral philosophy in the first place. Modern moral philosophy exists because Christianity failed. Furthermore, even if modern moral philosophy has failed, it doesn’t follow that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and flew up to the sky.

Regarding Jonathan Israel’s claim that the naturalism of some Enlightenment thinkers “secured a foundation for modern, liberal human rights, Gregory says,

The antireligious, metaphysical naturalism of radical Enlightenment thinkers neither did nor could do anything of he sort that Israel alleges given what empirical investigation by the natural sciences has disclosed since the eighteenth century. Assertions such as Israel’s ignore the lack of any connection whatsoever between normative moral claims, whatever they are, and the empirical investigation of natural regularities based on the assumptions of the natural sciences. As Christian Smith rightly puts it, “Matter and energy are not a moral source. They just exist and do what they do.” that includes the matter and energy that happen to be doing what they are doing, regardless of what they are doing in bodies of members of the species Homo sapiens that happen to exist today. If we restrict ourselves to the findings of the natural sciences, then feeding the poor, buying one’s fifth Lamborghini, and selling girls into sexual slavery are morally equivalent. By design and necessarily, the natural sciences per se are definitionally amoral and disclose no values, whether secular or religious – they are nihilistic in the etymological sense. Their practitioners discover no “dignity” or “goodness,” just as they discover no rights to “equality” or “liberty” or “autonomy” or anything else. Nor does anyone else who understands the demands of knowledge as dictated in the academy by the metaphysical naturalism and epistemological empiricism of the natural sciences. In their modern, secular forms in the Western world, all such rights are derived and adapted from Christianity and Judaism, religions in which it makes sense to say that rights are real because it is believed that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.

Another nice thing about being a blogger is that I don’t have to write in an academic style. 🙂

The basic thrust of Gregory’s argument is that, despite denials to the contrary, modern morality is derived from Christianity because there is no place else it could have come from. If contemporary non-believers don’t sell girls into sexual slavery, it’s because we have Christians in our collective past. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was living with a boyfriend whose parents were atheists of Chinese descent. I would have never been able to sleep at night. I guess I should presume no one offered him the right price. Lucky me.

A page later, after a delerious paragraph in which Gregory bizarrely asserts that without any god we have “no basis for regarding individual members of the species Homo sapiens as persons,” Gregory continues:

Nietzsche rightly saw that the belief in natural rights that sustained modern rationalist ethics was dependent on Christianity (and on the Judaism he likewise hated); hence atheism entailed nihilism, which cleared the way for Dionysian instinct. To which in recent decades especially, many Westerners have in effect added the expansive coda – “or whatever” – that has become increasingly apparent in the prevailing ethos.

I’m used to this sort of histrionic hand-wringing, in which the writer appears to believe that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, from people who appear to have little sense of history. To hear this from an actual historian is a surprise. Gregory, who is so bothered by the ethos of whatever, is perfectly aware of the corrupt behavior of Christians in the years preceding the Reformation. Does he really believe that none of these king and princes, after public displays of piety, didn’t quietly roll their eyes and think to themselves, “Whatever.”

There are days when I think that we atheists perform an invaluable function for believers. If ever they succeeded in fully suppressing us, they’d turn on each other.

Gregory could have written a much better book had he stuck to the field in which he was trained. Instead, he wrote an incoherent mess in which he tries to take on everyone from Kwame Anthony Appiah to Ray Kurzweil, with swipes at Sam Harris, Pat Benatar, and some guy on a dating site called evileddie in between. When you find yourself arguing with evileddie, it’s time to take a break – which I’ll do now.

When tackling a thorny issue in which well-meaning people with whom I tend to agree broadly are in disagreement with one another and I find myself being pulled in opposing directions by compelling arguments, I often begin by trying to establish some sort of very basic background or component ideas. Before tackling some of the thornier specific ideas related to freedom of speech as it relates to the internet, I wish to review some notion related to freedom of speech more generally.

A stained glass window featuring the image of a young woman.Freedom of speech is broadly assumed to be a good thing these days, as is demonstrated in its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This document was adopted in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War.

However, freedom of expression, as a positive good, is of relatively recent vintage. Its existence as a “universal” right was spread by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and its appearance in that document can be credited to the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Our current notions of human rights can be traced through the Enlightenment back to the Protestant Reformation.

The first entry in The Guardian’s “Timeline: A History of Freedom of Speech” in which freedom of speech seems to be broadly advocated for the public is a quotation from Erasmus, the sixteenth century “Prince of the Humanists”. In Education of a Christian Prince he wrote, “In a free state, tongues too should be free.”

Erasmus’ close contemporary Machiavelli famously also wrote a book of advice for a young ruler. Importantly, unlike Erasmus, Machiavelli decoupled the proper exercise of political power from traditional morality and virtue.

In 1517, a year after Erasmus wrote Education of a Christian Prince, Martin Luther famously posted his ninety-five thesis, leading to a break with the Roman Catholic Church. At first, the rights of the new Lutheran Church were asserted against those of the Roman Catholic Chuch, but eventually it became clear that even those individuals that had rejected the authority of Rome disagreed among themselves. The differing interpretations of scripture would lead to competing groups that Brad S. Gregory calls “moral communities.”

Radical Protestants, such as John Milton, insisted that religious belief should be left to the conscience of the individual. In the Areopagitica, he traces out the arguments which will recur in discussions of freedom of speech and expression.

According to Gregory,

Because individuals disagreed about the meaning of God’s word, individuals and not politically favored churches were and had to be the bearers of rights, beginning with the right to religious liberty

Gregory goes so far as to say that the medieval ethics based on virtue was “replaced” by ethics based on rights. The destruction caused by the wars that accompanied religious conflict, and the consequent political instability, needed a solution. Repression of religious minorities was not sustainable. Toleration was the solution and “the discourse of religious toleration was simultaneously a discourse of individual rights.”

A conical clock.Because time only goes forward, I thought to take the opportunity of this week’s theme to show a photo of a clock I took recently. (The photo, not the clock. The clock’s still there.)

This clock is located at a place known as Lambert’s Castle in Paterson, New Jersey. The large home was built in the late nineteenth century by an English immigrant who had worked in cotton mills in England and came to the U.S. where he worked his way up to owning a silk mill. After making his fortune, he built a large house in New Jersey which he filled with many works of art. He lost his fortune and the house was sold to the city of Paterson, but by then much of the art was gone. The clock in the photo remained. Lambert’s Castle is now the home of the Passaic County Historical Society.

The Cornu Clock at Lambert's Castle in Paterson, New Jersey.The clock is called the “Cornu Clock” and is located on the first floor of the mansion in an impressive double height space surmounted by skylights. The last time I saw this space, the second floor had been closed up. In the intervening decades, the building has undergone renovations and is in much better shape than when I was a child. According to an old postcard  the clock is “Made of Onyx, bronze and embellished with ormolu in the greatest of French tradition, the timepiece stands 13 feet 6 inches. It was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1867.” It is a conical clock, meaning that the pendulum moves in circular motion, rather than back and forth, and describes a cone in space. A bronze statue of a woman in a classical costume holds the pendulum. It sits on an impressive marble base in which are embedded a variety of clock faces showing the months, the days of the week, as well as a barometer.

I love mechanical things and truly adore elaborate clocks, especially ones that reveal the movements. With the unusual conical pendulum, lovely sculpture, elaborate mechanics and grand scale, this one is quite obviously very special and unique. Well. . . maybe not that unique.

An ornate nineteenth century barometer embeded on the base of the Cornu Clock.Cornu Clock: Months

Cornu Clock 5 Cornu Clock 6

I didn’t know if E. Cornu was a clock maker, a designer, a sculptor or what, so I did a little search on the internet. Interestingly, there is what appears to be a similar clock with an identical statue and a conical pendulum at Drexel University. However, the Drexel University website says that their clock was made by Eugene Farcot. In the second to last picture, the name Eugene Cornu is clearly visible. I couldn’t find much information on Cornu on the web, but there was a bust of George Washington attributed to him as well as some sculptural decorative objects, including a clock, on the website of the Christie’s auction house. Other than that, the only other reference to a Eugène Cornu that I could find was of an early twentieth century architect and yacht builder. The sculpture on the Drexel clock is attributed to Albert Ernest Carriere-Belleuse.

According to the Drexel website,

The Farcot Conical Clock housed in the Great Court is believed to be one of only three in the United States: one is located at the Clock and Watch Museum in Columbia, Pa., and another at the Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria hotel.

According to the Passaic Historical Society, their clock was produced as the sixteenth in a series of thirty-six, if I’m remembering correctly, and the docent said that it is believed to be the most elaborate of the series. The plate on the Cornu Clock reads:

Eugne Cornu / Boulv des Italiens, 24 / Paris

and then beneath that some script which is hard to make out, but I believe says

E Farcot horloge.

Plate on clock.

So now I’m puzzled about who Cornu was and how he is associated with the clock. It is possible that he commissioned the clock? If anyone knows, please tell me in the comments.

A rusty, old railroad trestle crossing a backroad. It is winter. There are no leaves on the trees. Snow is on the ground, but the road itself it wet. It is probably just above freezing. As sign that reads "Ogdensberg NJ" is affixed to the trestle. An American flag hangs down from it.

The New Republic as revamped its publication and its website. There was a great article about how the GOP, which had once been the stronger party on civil rights, became the “party of white people.”

Matt Taibbi has a new article about banking scandals.

I was looking up information on the microbiome when I came across a criticism of a project by a company called uBiome. I will have to do more reading on this. I may be writing a post on the microbiome in the near future. So many posts, so little time.

If I only had forty or fifty hours in a day, I’d put up one humorous post, one photograph and a thoughtful post every day. Ah, well.

If you came across anything interesting recently, please share it with us in the comments.

A small female cat sitting on a table looking out the window, her body tense and ready to strike.I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that my mother has two red female cats. This is the other one. She’s called Scarlette and once belonged to one of my mother’s former students. He lost his apartment and couldn’t keep his two cats, so his mother called my mother. Scarlette is very sweet, but not too bright.

The same female cat as in the previous photo.

While I’m doing reading on some subjects related to the freedom of speech, I decided to put up a post about a subject that can be addressed without much research.

The interior of a brewpub.Frequently, when a person is removed from participating in a web forum or from making comments on a particular site, a cry goes up that his or her freedom of speech is being abridged. Some, on occasion, employ the word “censorship”. Although the exact definition of the term is debated, I prefer to reserve it for the suppression of speech by the state. The actions of the state, due to its power, are of a very different nature than those of private individuals or even large corporations. The criticisms against stopping individuals from participating in forums however are frequently expressed in the same sorts of terms as more general arguments for freedom of speech.

Although, I’ve seen other examples, a not uncommon circumstance is one in which participants are enjoined from making racist or sexist comments. The participant who exceeds the standards of a particular site may be warned and, if the behavior continues, asked to leave. The argument against the prevention of such comments is usually phrased in terms of rights: The right to freedom of expression of the person who makes, or might make, comments which are deemed racist has been curtailed, or trampled if you prefer more emotional language.

A person does not have the right to have his or her words published by The New York Times, certainly not as an article, but there is no right to have your letters to the editor published. Similarly, I do not see how anyone has a right to have his or her words published on a site owned and operated by another person or company. To my mind, this is not a question of rights but of fairness.

I like to see a site that has an active online community as being like a pub or a bar which is open to the public, but not a publicly owned space like a park or a street. These places are not selling food and drink as much as they are selling an environment for socializing. An owner will decide what type of establishment he or she wants to have and what sort of customers they want to attract. One thing they will do, is set boundaries on behavior, and the boundaries will not be the same in every place. I’ve seen a man thrown out of bar in Brooklyn Heights for making anti-semitic comments. I’ve been given a free beers at another place for laughing off the sexist comments of another man. The first was a bar popular with young professionals after work and another was a dingy local dive where a friend of mine and I were the only women and interlopers. The owners make a calculation about what sort of people the want to attract and what sort of people will be turned off.

The favor does not always go to those who are the most circumspect. When I was younger, I spent more than my fair share of evenings, nights and early mornings in bars and nightclubs that hosted very loud rock and roll bands. If someone had come in and complained that the places were not welcoming to people whose tastes differed, I would think the request to host a different sort of music was absurd on its face. Similarly, if I happen upon a site where there is more sexist banter going back and forth than I care to hear, usually I simply move onto another site. The main determination of whether or not I convey this to the site’s owner or moderators is whether or not I believe I am the sort of person they are trying to attract to the site. It is up to the owners of the site what sort of environment they want their site to be.

When I first put up this blog, I toyed with the idea of posting a comment policy. As it happens, I haven’t yet had to take down a single comment. However, I think my own judgement would be against comments that would discourage others from reading the comments. Thus, I have no problem leaving up a comment that criticizes feminism, but if it had been rendered incoherent by invectives I would have taken it down.

The world needs all sorts of different establishments, both physical and virtual. One type is not inherently better than another.

A school bus stopping on a road in a rural area.Throughout elementary school I had the same two closest friends, A and L. However, they were not overly fond of one another and we rarely did things as a group. Similarly, L had another close friend and, although we were far from enemies, we did not find one another’s company especially enjoyable. Similarly, there were a few other girls, and they were mostly girls when I was very young, with whom I would play from time to time, but I was never part of a larger group. My friendships were, and still remain to this day, one on one affairs.

This was forced to change with the arrival of junior high school. Not only did the populations of several elementary schools meld together, but we had a new addition to our routine, lunchroom. For six years, I walked home for lunch where my sister and I ate with our grandfather. Now we were required to eat in the school cafeteria, and even that would take on outsized social significance.

T and L hit it off well and we typically ate with two other girls, D and JS. However I was beginning to notice that some kids were maturing and other kids still possessed childish qualities. L and D still thought boys were icky, while T and JS expressed an interest that was very mild. All of these girls became interested in boys in time. This was a matter of immaturity, not sexual orientation. They listened to nothing but Beatles, a band that had broken up years before. They were easily intimidated by the “bad” kids.

I had been a bookish kid, a good student and was generally independent minded. I had a vague awareness that we were the nerds in the school, but the word had no sting for me and I didn’t mind. I don’t know if was pride, or a sense of self, but there was no way that I would turn my back on perfectly good friends in order to be more popular. What was the point of gaining the company of people you neither liked nor respected? It was probably more defiance of peer pressure than anything else that kept me demonstrating my friendship with these girls by sitting with them in the cafeteria everyday, because, frankly, they were starting to bore me.

One day, D asked me if I wanted to go to New York City with her to attend a Beatles’ fan convention. Her parents schlepped us all the way into the city. In a sequence of hotel rooms there were tables of vendors selling memorabilia and t-shirts, others selling records. There were young men dressed up to look like various members of the Beatles, circa 1964. D was beaming. “Isn’t this great!” she said to me multiple times. Each time I forced a smile. It wasn’t painful, just boring. D seemed to be in heaven and I didn’t want to spoil it for her. After all, she talked her parents into taking us all the way into New York City for this. I looked around me and thought to myself, “I guess this is what people mean when they call something ‘lame.’ ”

It would happen at an imperceptibly slow pace, but over the course of a year I would slowly drift away from them. There was never a falling out and JS would invite me to her batmitzvah, but the change was clear.

A had gone in the opposite direction. One day, seemingly out of the blue, she said, “Do you know what copulation means.” When I said no, she rolled her eyes Then she mentioned that she was taught the word by an adult man with whom she had become friendly. I never saw this man and at the time, I suspected he didn’t exist. Today, I’m no longer so sure. In any case, these conversations were making me uncomfortable, although I couldn’t have told anyone why. The growing distance between me and A would be an especially large loss in my life. We had met at about four years of age and had been best buddies since then.

Meanwhile, I started having conversations with a girl who sat next to me in art class due to our mutual interest in painting. S liked art, math and rock and roll.

A decade or more ago, I developed some idle curiosity about a bit of early American colonial history and I took myself down to the local library to do some casual reading that only barely would qualify for the word “research.” I looked up in the electronic catalogue some titles on the subject and, as I had done since high school, jotted down the call numbers and went to the appropriate stacks. I’ve never like closed stack libraries because accident has been as important as intent in the self-administered portion of my education. I don’t look for a specific book so much as I look for a region. The books I once looked up in card catalogues, and now look up in electronic records, are used more as lodestones to guide me in a general direction than of ends in themselves. Armed with a call number, I guided myself to the region where a certain category of information can be found and I examine many books in that locale, not simply the ones whose addresses I know.

Thus it was that I picked up a general book of American history off the shelf of a small public library in a small town, the sort of place no less remarkable for its commonness. The blue cloth binding, faded in places, the size, the shape, the gilt lettering, all gave the immediate impression of an older book. However, the sharpness of the corners and the whiteness of the pages indicated that it had rarely been read. I sat down in a carrel with it. I turned to the title page to look for a date. The copyright was accompanied by a date in the early years of this century. It was published, like most American books of that era, like most American books I have ever read, in New York.

I read the introduction. In the sonorous, authoritative tones that history no longer uses, the introduction gave a general outline of the past. It spoke of Progress with an antiquated admiration and archaic confidence. It did not so much as explained to the reader as inform him of how civilization had risen up from “oriental despotism” to the enlightened world we have today.

Incongruously, I was put in mind of the first page of Harvey Kurtzman’s The Jungle Book, which mocks exactly this ideal of progress. “Up from the apes – and right back down again.” In the copy I own, which is a reprint published by Kitchen Sink Press in the eighties or nineties, there is an introduction by Art Spiegleman. In it, he quotes a conservative observer of society whom he saw interviewed and whose name I forget. The conservative spoke of how everything had gone wrong with society starting in the sixties because kids had been taught to make fun of society. The interviewer asked if he mean things like Mad magazine, co-founded by Kurtzman. The conservative responded, “That’s exactly what I mean.”

However it was clear in the introduction that the author of the history book, a man with faith in progress, was no conservative. Neither, one would guess, was Kurtzman. Yet they held nearly diametrically opposed views. There are days that I wonder what opinions we hold with confidence today will seem naive and outmoded tomorrow.