Archive for February, 2006

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February 27, 2006

Monday Swearing Board

This is the place to post all the coarse language and personal insults which are ommitted from the John Quiggin.com Monday Message Board

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February 23, 2006

The Anglo-Saxon Death Cult

Assuming that at least some of us have the ambition of understanding the Islamic world and being better able to predict events there, rather than just randomly hating and fearing them, and assuming that some of us in that group do not really have the time or ability to learn Arabic and become experts on the Islamic worldview, one of the things that might be really useful would be a few analogies between the Islamic worldview and our own. Being able to think in terms of “X is to them as Y is to us” is often a good way to get inside someone’s head. With this in mind, I offer the following contribution.

A lot of the reason why well-meaning and intelligent people inadvertantly helped to fuel and sustain what might otherwise have been a minor moral panic in the Muslim world over those Danish cartoons, is that the level of outrage seems (to us) completely disproportionate to the insult. Since it seems to disproportionate to us that anyone should riot over a disrespectful portrayal of Mohammed, or the defacement of a Koran, I suggest that the problem here is that we are using the wrong symbols when we translate their actions into our own terms. We do not have anything like such a serious taboo on religious blasphemy. It is therefore by that token bad analysis to think about Muslims’ reactions to defacement of their holy symbols, by considering what we might do if someone defaced our holy symbols.

We do, however, have an awful lot of taboos when it comes to death and dead bodies. These are actually much older, more universal and more serious in English-speaking cultures than the sexual taboos – in the original Anglo-Saxon tongue, “fuck” and “cunt” were simple descriptive terms for what they described and all the swear-words were to do with death. Certainly people who would not think twice of displaying their genital piercings in the street would cover themselves up and nod their heads when a funeral cortege passed by.

A dead body is a simple physical object; it looks like a person, but it is not that person – the person stopped being there at the moment of death. It may look like somebody’s loved one, but so does a picture or a caricature. However, in English law, it is in many circumstances actually illegal to put a dead human body on display; the most recent case involved the sculptor Anthony Noel Kelly. The only public display of human bodies which has been allowed in the UK in the last forty years was Gunther von Hagens’ “Bodyworlds” scientific exhibition, and this was extremely controversial at the time (as was Channel 4’s broadcast of an autopsy by Hagens) despite the education and scientific nature of that exhibit. Simply putting dead bodies on display to ogle at would be completely unacceptable to British society in this age, although perhaps not in older and more bloodthirsty times. Certainly, there is no longer anything but revulsion for the concept of public executions.

Not only that, but when we in the English-speaking world see dead human bodies being treated disrespectfully, or otherwise than in accordance with our particular customs and taboos, we react in an extremely emotional fashion. In March and April of 2004, we attacked the city of Fallujah with bombs and white phosphorus, in response to an incident in which four contractors had been murdered. Of course they were not the first contractors to be killed in Iraq, and nor was this even the worst attack in Fallujah by that time. However, the insurgents who dragged them from their cars also mutilated and burned their bodies while putting them on public display. This led to vastly more outrage in the English-speaking world than several other atrocities by the insurgents which had been much worse in terms of actual deaths. I did not read all the opinion published at the time, but I don’t think anyone at all in the English-speaking press or on weblogs suggested that a massive all-out attack on a whole city was in any way a disproportionate reaction to the desecration of four corpses.

So I think that this is the analogy; whenever one hears of a Koran defacement or some such, it makes sense to imagine that a corpse has been desecrated, because it seems to me that this is the analogous taboo. I don’t want to at this point say anything about whether it is more or less rational to respond in this manner to a holy book or to a dead human body; for one thing I am a Westerner and hardly in a position to judge the rationality of my own beliefs, and for another I am currently of the opinion that the leisurely study of whose taboos make more sense is a luxury that we will be better able to afford when we and the Muslim world have stopped rattling our sabres at one another to quite such an extent. But it strikes me that the Muslim taboo on graven images and the Anglo-Saxon death cult, whatever their historical origins, have the same psychological roots.

Postscript: This post is dedicated to Philip Davies, who died on February 9th of complications following the massive stroke he suffered last November. He was a regular reader and occasional contributor to this blog, most notably to this post on the speed of falling spherical parachutists, which has always been a personal favourite of mine (particularly its comments).

Dad was a really great bloke. He lived his life according to a fairly simple personal rule which involved caring a great deal about a small number of important things and not at all about a large number of basically unimportant things. I’ll miss him a hell of a lot, and I keep resolving to be more like him.

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February 5, 2006

Effigy update

I have found the effigy maker I was talking about below, and what a bloody disappointment it is too. That alleged “effigy” is a joke. It’s just a generic rag doll with a sort of Danish cross painted on it and a bit of Arabic writing, no doubt saying “I am the blasphemous Dane and when I am burned that will teach me a lesson”.

In related news, as I recently pontificated at Matthew’s site, is there some major political and moral interest which is served by not saying “sorry” to the Muslims? A lot of internet commentors certainly appear to think it is a sad day for press freedom etc etc when the latest newspaper editor has an eye on his job and makes a slightly late, slightly insincere apology. My advice to future sensationalist newspaper cartoonists is that a stitch in time saves nine, and if you are serious about just wanting to make a point about press freedom and not just having a go at the Muslims, a quick, sincere apology the moment you find out that you have caused offence often goes a long way toward defusing a potentially nasty situation. Fuck the Pope and the IRA. Christ I’m sorry, that was a really stupid way to make my point. See? It works.

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February 3, 2006

Oh yeh? Well I don’t care about your views on the Danish cartoons either!

I have two of ’em.

1. This idea that your proclamations in favour of free speech or reporting on the issue are for shit if you don’t reproduce the cartoons yourself are beyond mindless. David Irving is in jail in Austria for making offensive statements. Does the BBC have to reproduce five minutes of holocaust denial every time they cover this story, in order to show that it won’t bow to overseas pressure?

2. I have to say that if, ten years ago, someone had offered me the deal that the Muslims could decide what cartoons would be published in Jyllens-Posten, and in return we could decide who was allowed to have nuclear weapons, I would probably have said “deal”.

I quite like it when there are riots on the telly. It is interesting and so far nobody has been actually hurt. I was quite impressed that a Pakistani crowd apparently burned an effigy of the Danish Prime Minister on Wednesday; presumably the effigy-maker was working from a photograph, and they would have had to hang some sort of “I AM THE DANISH PRIME MINISTER” notice around its neck, because I for one would not be able to tell an effigy of the Danish Prime Minister from an ordinary shop dummy. Still, it’s pretty slick work to be able to knock up an effigy of the Danish Prime Minister in no more than a couple of days. I wonder if the guy has a website where I could order a few dozen Tom Friedmans?

btw, I guess that the first newspaper to publish these cartoons in the UK will be the Independent. They like their big, splashy picture front pages. I prefer news myself, but there is clearly a minority audience for this stuff.

So my final considered conclusion is that I had previously assumed that the only people who wrote letters to newspapers were loonies, but the reaction of the Islamic world to these cartoons suggests that it is not always a bad idea. A sternly worded letter of complaint with an unfunny sarcastic remark at the end would have been a much better and not obviously less effective form of protest. In general I am quite sympathetic to downtrodden people who overreact massively to any minor slight – having the option of taking any shit from anyone is actually quite an expensive luxury only available to those at the top of the tree – but there is such a thing as taking a good idea too far. I am more neutral on the subject of making death threats to cartoonists because my prejudice is to believe that newspaper cartoonists are a smug bunch of wankers who are in the habit of claiming to be “puncturing pomposity” or “adding an element of anarchy” rather than providing something for the 40% of newspaper buyers who are illiterate to look at. I think the occasional death threat might have a salutory effect. Martin Rowson has got a lot better since I locked him in my car boot for 48 hours.

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February 2, 2006

Mr Tom Friedman: An Apology

It has come to my notice that President George Bush has decided to spend $25bn of American taxpayer’s money on research into alternative energy sources, in order to reduce America’s oil imports from the Middle East. This is, as near as dammit, the “geo-green” policy advocated by Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman of the New York Times.

On a number of occasions in the past, I have opined that the fact that George W Bush is from Texas and they pump oil in Texas, means that it was somewhat forlorn to suppose that he would spend billions of dollars on creating a recession in Texas. Indeed, I have suggested that the fact Friedman has tried to sell a “geo-green” policy to the Bush White House, was good evidence that Friedman was a buffoon. An apology is clearly in order.

My apology is obviously tempered by the fact that a child could see that Bush is lying on this just as he was on the African AIDS millennium initiative, Katrina reconstruction and national security spending for New York City post 9/11 and the money will never show up, but nevertheless, advantage Friedman for the time being.

Meanwhile I went a little bit mental this week and decided to fight the blue corner for the racial incitement laws, one of the stupider policies of a government I despise. Here at Blood ‘n’ Treasure for example, spilling over to the Jarndyce blog here. I even pursued the enemies of censorship onto completely different issues and started babbling about Marxism. It all ended badly as I delivered one of the most bitter outpourings in quite a while at the original scene.

Thank god I wasn’t too overcome to pick my weekly pointless fight with Abiola Lapite. There is a bit more incitement law advocacy at that site too but I can’t be bothered cataloguing it.

Next week, quite possibly, the general theme of “those fucking Danish cartoonists had it coming”. Pip pip.

Levitt bit coming soon …