Back in October 2007, there was a debate put on by Intelligence Squared for which the motion was 'We Should Not Be Reluctant to Assert the Superiority of Western Values'. Participants included David Aaronovitch, Ibn Warraq, William Dalrymple and Charles Glass.
And making a point from the floor there was also me. You can hear what I had to say just after an hour and seven minutes in:
And this belongs in the department of I spoke too soon. It seems that Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, wasn't engaging in Holocaust-evasion when he pleaded to not being a historian. In fact he's ready to condemn the Holocaust:
"I've said before that I am not a historian, and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect," Rouhani told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
"But, in general, I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn."
All I can say is that, without the elaboration, his original statement looked mighty like an evasion. This one is clearer, albeit still hedged somewhat by the 'whatever'.
Update: Or maybe not. See the report here. This one may still have some way to run. (Thanks: CT.)
This belongs in the department of when you get yourself into a hole, stop digging. David Gilmour is a writer and a literature professor at the University of Toronto. I have to confess to not having heard of him before yesterday. Here's the hole:
I teach modern short fiction to third and first-year students. So I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can't teach stuff that I don't, and I haven't encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.
I'm not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she's too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren't any women writers in the course. I say I don't love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
... I'm also extremely sorry to hear that there are people who are really offended by it... these were very much tossed-off remarks. They weren't written down... It was a careless choice of words. I'm not a politician, I'm a writer. We throw out tens of thousands of words every day. We usually rewrite them. In this particular [case], I didn't get a chance to re-speak the sentence before it was printed. And so I've apologized. I said I'm sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn't a racist or a sexist bone in my body, and everyone who knows me knows it.
Of course, Gilmour is free to love the writers he loves but if there are no women amongst them, he's shutting out a large chunk of human experience; hard to credit, then, that he doesn't have a sexist thingumebob in his body. As for a writer pleading that he isn't as good with words as a politician would be, that is digging of the highest order. (Via Marina E. on Facebook.)
Tasmanian architect Ross Langdon and his partner, Harvard-educated Elif Yavuz, were passionate young people dedicated to helping the people of East Africa... and they were expecting their first child in two weeks' time.
Now they are gone, their lives and that of their unborn baby blown away in the terrifying attack by Somali Islamist militants in a shopping centre in Kenya's capital Nairobi, in which at least 68 people have been confirmed killed and more than 200 wounded.
It is unclear where Mr Langdon and Ms Yavuz were when they were killed.
Mr Langdon's family in Tasmania was told on Monday that he and Ms Yavuz had both died in the terrorist attack.
Mr Langdon, 32, was a founder of the prize-winning architecture firm Regional Associates, which has offices in Melbourne, London and Uganda, where they first met.
A committed conservationist, he led all the firm's projects in East Africa; was completing an HIV-AIDS clinic in Uganda - which he designed without charge - and was about to start on a $35 million museum telling the story of the earliest fossil record of walking humanoids in Kenya.
Ms Yavuz, a specialist in malaria, worked with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Kenya. Last month she was paid a visit by former US president Bill Clinton.
The couple had returned to Nairobi from their respective projects to ensure Ms Yavuz got reliable medical care for the birth of their child. Melbourne-based Regional Associates partner Ben Milbourne said Mr Langdon and Ms Yavuz both had a deep passion for helping people, particularly in highly disadvantaged areas, through different means.
"They greatly believed in the power of their work to assist people," he said.
Artist Peter Adams, of Nubeena on the Tasman Peninsula where Mr Langdon was born, wrote on his website that he had burst into tears when he heard of Mr Langdon's death. "He was a colleague and friend who went out into the world as an architect doing wondrous things," Mr Adams wrote.
"Yet Ross always returned to his family and cultural roots here on the Tasman Peninsula and we all took immense pride in both his architectural abilities and his very generous, positive, and loving personality. There just was no dark side to Ross that I ever saw in the 20 or so years I knew him."
It's been good to note the progress made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as measured against his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the matter of Holocaust awareness. When it was put to Rouhani that Ahmadinejad had said the Holocaust was a myth, and how did he feel about this, his reply was: 'I'm not a historian. I'm a politician.' From this you might want to infer that non-historians in Iran, and the politicians among them in particular, don't consider themselves able to say whether or not the institution of slavery ever existed in the United States of America, or whether there's a monarchy in Britain, or whether chemical weapons were used against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, or whether indeed there was an Iran-Iraq war and whether Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2013.
This represents not only progress from Holocaust-denial to the much more salubrious Holocaust-evasion but also a giant step towards national state-sponsored ignorance for the non-historian population of Iran, unable to know anything without doing first-hand historical research.
While I am a staunch partisan of the cuddle and its close companions, I am bound to say that I'm against the misappropriation of cuddling to disparage the Kantian ideal of freedom. And this - I kid you not - is what Giles Fraser today uses the cuddle to try to bring off. Successful folk, he maintains, are comfortable with the notion of self-determination, independence, individual authorship, responsibility and so forth, but they tend to downplay their own background origins in some or other community. Now look at this:
[I]t's a thrilling anything-is-possible existence when all is going well. But when the wind changes and the weather gets cold, you look left and right and find that you have no one to cuddle up to for warmth or solidarity [my italics]. In such circumstances, the Facebook existence, with its chosen "friends"[,] doesn't quite cut it as a nurturing community. The Kantian self is all very well for those who have high levels of material prosperity or deep resources of ingenuity. But even these are less sustaining [than] one often thinks. In adversity, one needs something stronger, deeper, longer-lasting than the isolated self that has detached itself from its background in order to be free.
From the mid 20th century onwards, freedom has become the west's dominant morality – freedom from fascism, free trade, free love, free speech. But when we seek freedom from the things that bind us together, then we are not free. We are lost.
First off, the idea that only rich or successful people care to be self-determining is a bit of an insult to everyone else; autonomy is a much-prized asset across the human species. Second, Fraser sets up a false antithesis: one can prize individual autonomy and human solidarity both. Naturally, that means they then need to be set in some kind of balance, but so do many other values without their being ruined by it. To put it another way, the autonomous self doesn't have to be the 'isolated self', and indeed I would say that healthy autonomy generally depends on integration within some supporting network of others. Third, 'freedom from the things that bind us together' is just a rhetorical trick; you can always tack on to a list of valued freedoms one that doesn't look so good. Thus: freedom of belief, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and - freedom from the protections of the rule of law; or freedom from adequate nourishment. Lost we would well and truly be if authentic moral and political freedom could be so easily discredited by the addition of a bad 'freedom'.
Remember: autonomous individuals are also free to cuddle.
I was dismayed by this report in yesterday's Times (£) to the effect that the British aren't getting enough cuddles.
Six out of ten people want more affection in their relationships than they currently get, a study of 2,000 adults aged 25 to 54 found. Busy lifestyles and hectic work schedules were cited as the main reasons for the decline in cuddles and other forms of physical contact.
This is a matter of regret in itself, of course. You have to wonder why, if they want and need more cuddles, people don't ask for them from their ever-lovings. Perhaps they find that hard to do - in which case the cuddle deficit would be indicative of deeper problems in their relationships, would it not?
But an additional cause of my dismay was the failure of the Times report to mention how things stand with snuggles and - not the same thing at all - sniggles. A snuggle is a more extended and continuous form of the cuddle, and is often best accomplished under a blanket, particularly if the room is chilly. A sniggle is thinner than a snuggle and more side-on: as when the two of you are sitting on the sofa reading or watching TV. The multi-tasking aspect of the sniggle has to leave you some capacity for doing the other thing you're doing than sniggling, and so is suited to our contemporary condition, evoked by the above report's reference to busy lifestyles and hectic work schedules. The sniggle isn't an adequate substitute for the full-blown cuddle, much less for the rich and extended snuggle. But it does have its place alongside them in the cupboard of homely affections.
Yet, of people's experience with snuggles and sniggles the Times report says not a word. We need more fine-grained research.
How was 'a house slave with limited access to education and books... heavily influenced by the great literature of her time, like "Bleak House" and "Jane Eyre"? A professor of English in South Carolina hopes to have found the answer by uncovering the identity of the author of a manuscript novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative. She was, he claims, Hannah Bond, who wrote the book as Hannah Crafts.
In support of the latest of Simon Jenkins's endless string of columns aimed against 'the interventionist agenda', one Dr John Doherty writes in the letters column of today's Guardian that he (Jenkins) 'could have quoted John Stuart Mill's words in On Liberty: "I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised."' Doherty's suggestion is vitiated by the fact that this is a rare case where the phrase 'taken out of context' applies. But he raises an interesting question all the same - which is: how far do the moral rights of a community extend vis-à-vis those of the individuals who make it up?
First, though, the point about context; the context, that is to say, of John Stuart Mill's argument in On Liberty. Dr Doherty omits to note that Mill's statement 'I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised' concerns an issue (see the final paragraph of chapter 4 here) where the putatively uncivilized practice in question is said by him to be a voluntary one, and is also subject to the proviso that there is 'perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied'. Moreover, Mill writes, immediately after the statement quoted by Dr Doherty:
So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities [my italics], I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied, should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant, who have no part or concern in it.
This puts rather a different complexion on Mill's line of thought.
However, leaving Mill aside, it has become a principle of the global collectivity of nations, as embodied in many and widely ratified instruments, that the moral authority of any particular national community is not unlimited. Among the things it is limited by are the basic rights of individuals: their rights not to be treated in certain vicious ways. This does not mean that military intervention is always justified; it may be impractical, threaten to make things worse. But it does mean that national sovereignty can sometimes be overridden to prevent or punish the commission by governments of acts that are in breach of civilized norms. To this extent the international community and particular national communities acting in its name do claim a right of compulsion against delinquent regimes.