From the monthly archives:

December 2004

The right to blasphemy?

by Daniel on December 21, 2004

With the disgraceful scenes in Birmingham[1], coming hot on the heels of the blow-up over incitement to religious hatred, it is wonderfuly ironic to ponder the following legal hypothetical.

Apostate Sikhs are very definitely a group defined by their religious views. As are apostate Muslims and heretics or blasphemers in general. The Home Office
FAQ doesn’t mention blasphemers specifically, but it does reassure the atheists and says that the proposed Bill “will also protect people targeted because of their lack of religious beliefs or because they do not share the religious beliefs of the perpetrator”.

It is hard for me to see how the people in Birmingham’s gurdwaras who stirred up these crowds could have done so without taking steps which would at least prima facie have given rise to a case that they had incited hatred against the play’s author. I doubt that specific acts of violence could be laid at their door, but this crowd did not assemble spontaneously, nor did its members become enraged entirely as a result of their independent theological scrutiny of the theatre listings.

Therefore, in rank defiance of almost every newspaper editorial this morning, I submit that the Bezhti affair is weak evidence in favour of the draft legislation, as it seems to me that some Sikh elders in Birmingham have behaved in a highly socially destructive and reprehensible way, that they have most likely not committed any offence under current UK law in doing so, but that their behaviour would have been illegal under the proposed legislation. This doesn’t make me a supporter of the Bill itself, but it’s worth thinking about.

[1]Actually, they’re not really that disgraceful. The theatre has a right to put on an offensive play, anyone who is offended with it has the right to stage a demonstration, and the rozzers have the right to protect the public if that demonstration turns rowdy, which they have declared themselves willing and able to do. The only real failure of the system here was that either theatregoers or theatre managements decided to go all namby about a “riot” in which nobody was hurt and only three arrests were made, all for public order offences. Gawd help us if the Premier League decides to adopt this standard of “safety”. However, the playwright has apparently now received death threats, which are genuinely disgraceful whether or not the people making them have the ability or intention to carry them out.

Hark the Herald Tribune Sings

by Kieran Healy on December 21, 2004

It’s Christmas here at Crooked Timber, though this does not mean we are “Republicans”: I can’t hope to match Maria’s “instant-classic Christmas post”: from last year — for one thing, it’s harder to stir up the ole Christmas cheer in the “Sonoran Desert”: than the “Champs Elysees”:,8564,-10304117908,00.html. But it’s not impossible. Last year we had a thread about the “Most Annoying Christmas Songs”:, and my feeling is that being down on Christmas music is so over.[1] Here instead are four Christmas songs I like. Besides being songs for the season, they are all songs for two voices in conversation — or argument.

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Privacy in the age of blogging

by Eszter Hargittai on December 20, 2004

Jeffrey Rosen has a piece in yesterday’s NYTimes Magazine about the practice of blogging intricate details about one’s dating and sex life on one’s blog. (I was going to say “one’s private life”, but how private is it once it’s been blogged and read by hundreds?) As usual with journalistic pieces such as this one, it is hard to tell how widespread the phenomenon is, but it is out there to some extent and may be worth some thought. I certainly know that people in my social circles – friends, family members, colleagues – do wonder what I will and will not blog about from our interactions and sometimes even preface comments by saying “this is not for blogging”. I always reassure these people that I never blog information about other people without permission and in general rarely mention any names or other identifying information (except to give credit, but I check in such cases as well). However, from reading the article one would think my practices are more the exception than the rule.

Since I do not blog anonymously there is more social control over what I decide to make public. After all, everything I say reflects on me in return. Outing information about others that many may find inappropriate will have negative repercussions on me. So even if I had no concerns, whatsoever, about the privacy of people around me – but I do – a solely self-interested approach would still dictate that I keep information about others’ lives private in order not to upset people and in turn lose credibility and trust in the future. However, such social control operates much less effectively among those who can hide behind the veil of a pseudonym.

As I prepare for my upcoming undergraduate class in which students will be required to maintain blogs, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to FERPA, I have to make sure that certain details about student enrollment in my classes are kept private. In the process, I have realized that this is a one-way street. There is nothing preventing my students from blogging whatever information they decide about me. Of course, social sanctions may still exist. Students may decide it is not worth upsetting their instructor through such practices. Nonetheless, there will be plenty of opportunities for blogging things after class is over. Moreover, they may have individual blogs not associated with the class that are written anonymously and can serve as an outlet for commentary about others.

Of course, we all have different selves depending on the social situations in which we find ourselves and there is no reason one should let down certain guards in front of a classroom or when with a group of colleagues. Perhaps the most disturbing part about the phenomenon described in the article is that people are blogging intricate details about their private lives, which in turn includes the private lives of others. Of course, as long as this is a known fact one can accept it and behave accordingly (or not accept it and stop spending time with the person assuming that’s an option). But it sounds like this practice often only becomes clear after the fact, which seems to put unfortunate added pressure on private interactions.

Renata Tebaldi

by Chris Bertram on December 20, 2004

Sad to see that Renata Tebaldi, Callas’s great rival, has died. There are obituaries in the “Telegraph”:;sessionid=IYO1MB2KZYRIFQFIQMFCM54AVCBQYJVC?view=DETAILS&grid=&targetRule=10&xml=/news/2004/12/20/db2001.xml&secureRefresh=true&_requestid=34657 , “Times”:,,60-1409754,00.html , “Guardian”:,3604,1377152,00.html , and “New York Times”: , the NYT also links to a slideshow and some audio content. Listening to her singing (and Callas’s for that matter) has an instantly soothing effect on me, it seems as if all the world has become still. A marvellous singer.

UPDATE: Anna in Cairo, in comments below, mentions “this post by Arthur Silber”: at The Light of Reason.

Conservationists and conservatives

by John Q on December 20, 2004

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice[1]. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as an instance, the possibility of making this kind of argument against gay marriage.

Don goes on to argue

The welfare state is another area conservatives might want to apply the precautionary principle. Just as environmentalists argue that we should withdraw genetically modified crops from sale until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning. After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent.

While there’s always room for dispute over what is meant by “relatively recent” here, I don’t think this argument works. The main institutions of the welfare state developed in the first half of last century, before most of us were born, and its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s. In this debate, the self-described advocates of welfare reform are those who want to do away with social institutions most of us have grown up with and try something radically new. The fact that reform may be sold as a return to an idealised and largely imaginary past, rather than a leap into the future, doesn’t change this. In fact, reformers of all stripes have used this characterisation of reform, sometimes validly and sometimes not, most obviously in the case of the Reformation[2].

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Teaching Evaluations

by Harry on December 19, 2004

I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me, but here goes. It’s teaching evaluation season again. Students fill out forms at the end of class rating their teachers on a range of qualities, and we carefully tot up the numbers (or rather, some computer does). I think this is nice for the students, and, so that I get something useful out of it, I ask them specifically to comment on issues concerning teaching style and topics in the course (I had one topic in my contemporary moral issues course this term that I definitely thought didn’t work, and was interested to see if they agreed). My department prides itself on maintaining reasonable teaching standards, and we take the evaluations pretty seriously when it comes to merit raises. I should preface these negative comments by saying there is no sour grapes here: my evaluations tend to be good, in fact better than I think I deserve and better than any other mechanism of evaluation would produce for me. Here are some observations.

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More on hate speech and incitement

by Chris Bertram on December 19, 2004

We all got worked up about the British governmen’t proposed law on incitement to religious hatred. But it isn’t the only thing going on in the world of free speech and censorship. Last night “hundreds of Sikhs in Birmingham protested outside a theatre”: (and a few tried to storm the building) that was staging a play depicting scened of sexual abuse inside a Sikh temple. And the United States “has added Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station”: to its list of terrorist organizations on the grounds that its broadcasts incite violence. Al-Manar has also been taken off the air in France. “Reports of the French decision”:,11882,1373845,00.html give some detail both of Al-Manar’s offensive content and of the grounds of French action:

bq. A guest on a live discussion programme said there were Zionist attempts to spread Aids and other diseases to Arabs. On December 2, the station accused Israel of “an unprecedented campaign” to stop it revealing to European viewers “the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israel”.

bq. The French broadcasting authority, CSA, said in a letter to al-Manar that Israel had never been held responsible for crimes against humanity by an international judicial body. Al-Manar’s words, it said, could constitute an incitement to hatred or violence on grounds of religion or nationality.

[Note: I’m leaving comments open, but discussion should focus on how these cases bear on principles governing hate speech. I’ll delete any comments which veer off into generalised comment on Israel-Palestine etc.]

Quicksilver questions

by John Q on December 19, 2004

I just finished “Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, and I have to admit bafflement.

It’s great fun, with a great evocation of the period and plenty of sly digs at the modern reader (I liked the Duke of Monmouth as the Dan Quayle of the 1685 campaign). At the same time, I can’t help feeling I’ve completely missed the point here.

The style is that of fantasy, but the novel seems to be entirely historically accurate[1] apart from the fact that the members of the Cabal have been replaced by new characters with the same acronym, some of whom play a minor role in the story, and that one of the key characters comes from the island of Qwghlm[2], apparently a British possession.

I don’t know exactly what gives here: maybe a reader can point me in the right direction. A lot of readers had much the same reaction to “Jonathan Strange which I loved, so I’m open to the idea that there’s more here than I’ve seen so far.

There’s a whole Metaweb (a type of wiki apparently) about all this, which may be worth exploring.

fn1. I don’t claim to be an expert on 17th century history. There may be some other things I’ve missed.

fn2. Given my Manx heritage, the idea that Qwghlm is the Isle of Man seems appealing. Certainly the name has a certain resonance, though its disemvowellment makes it hard to interpret.

The “N” Factor

by Belle Waring on December 18, 2004

With the intention of writing some high-minded “whither chicks in the blogosphere” post, I once conducted a tally like Henry’s (referenced here.) Result: ain’t a whole lot of women academics blogging. (Or women blogging on politics). This subject gets raised and rather fruitlessly discussed periodically, and it generally founders on the rocky shoals of some more basic, also unanswered questions, such as: why do women not speak up in seminars? Why aren’t women interested in reading Talking Points Memo? How come the man is keeping everybody down? And so forth. I really don’t have much to add from a general perspective here, but I wanted to offer a personal reflection.

There are many contexts in which I find myself acting in a way stereotypically associated with guys. I like getting into arguments. I like pointless logico-philosophical hair-splitting. I like one-upsmanship involving rare 7-inch LPs. I like comic books. Along certain axes, this translates into the irreducible fact that I am a nerd. Yes, chicks can be nerds.

Evidence? I am a blogger. Strictly speaking, this is merely a tautological statement to the effect that I am a nerd. Still, if you need convincing, let me just go all out and reveal that as a teenager I wrote Elfquest fanfic involving me and my three best friends. And drew pictures. D&D? Awww, yeah. Rock me with a natural 20, people. I got mad charisma.

My sister is the same way. You can learn about her badness here. She started playing MMPG’s as a gender-neutral pseudonym, but changed to a girl name when it became apparent that male players would just give her various magical weapons and such. Even guys in NOr

Gender and Blogging

by Kieran Healy on December 17, 2004

With one “pretty bad tempered thread”: going strong and evidence of “another one”: tipping over into trolldom, it may not be worth worth adding to the “already extensive body of commentary”: about the gender gap in blogging. But fools skate without paddles on thin ice near the edge of volcanoes, etc. I hope we can keep things civil.

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More on the Status Syndrome

by Harry on December 17, 2004

Bill Gardner has another, more lengthy, post on Michael Marmot’s The Status Syndrome. He quickly reviews the evidence for Marmot’s thesis that there is a social gradient in health. Marmot is pretty persuasive (to Bill and me anyway) that the social gradient in health is not explicable by appeal to the idea that healthier people move socially upward. What is more conjectural is Marmot’s claim that the explanation lies in the fact that people who find themselves lower down the social scale have less ‘autonomy’. Bill explores what autonomy might mean in this context.

I’m again disallowing comments, in an authoritarian manner, to force you to discuss it at Bill’s blog.

Honorary Ladettes R Us

by Belle Waring on December 17, 2004

OMG! It’s recently been brought to my attention that I’ve only written one post for CT this whole month! That’s, like, totally weak! Under our new posting rules, I’m going to be bringing my A game, every single day. “No Scrubs” is going to be playing in my cubicle 24-7. And if I slack off, dsquared is going to subject me to ferocious Welsh discipline, of the sort handed out at the gloomy Welsh “public” school he attended starting at age 3. (I can’t go into it here, but it involves leeks. And that white jack thingy from bowls.) Let’s see…um…there must be something out there on the interweb. Here we go, something funny a straight white guy said!:

I’m glad the press is having a dance party with this, because God knows the Democrats are frozen at the steering wheel. I just saw a segment on MSNBC (which has been all over the Kerik story today, bless Rick Kaplan’s cyborg heart) pitting a Republican strategist against a Democratic one, and the Democratic spokesman–who goes by the name of Michael Brown–seemed to have washed down his weeny pills with warm Ovaltine. Instead of kicking Kerik and Giuliana between the uprights for three points, Brown fretted that vetting process for cabinet candidates was “going to far,” and that we were in danger of discouraging people from public service. Oh no, we wouldn’t want to discourage philandering, pocket-lining, deadbeat no-show bully-boys like Bernard Kerik from having the opportunity to muck around with our civil liberties in the name of “national security” and hold bigshot press conferences. I mean, if that sort of thing were to continue happening, people might start mistaking the Democrats for an opposition party and thinking that the press has an adversarial role to play, and we don’t want that to happen, it might actually lead to signs of life in that mausoleum we call the nation’s capital.

This Michael Brown wouldn’t even criticize Alberto Gonzalez for botching the background check and vetting of Kerik. I don’t understand the self-emasculation of so many Democratic strategists, what they’re afraid of, why they concede so much in advance. Give them an opening, and they close it like a silk kimono, ever so demure. What are they in politics for, the professional grooming tips?

You know, James Wolcott could be totally gay. I’m agnostic on this front. I know, I’ll ask one of my male co-bloggers! They know so much stuff, it’s awesome. Guys? Oh, and, does anyone want a coffee?

“The real threat the the life of the nation”

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2004

From Lord Hoffmann’s remarks in “the judgement by the House of Lords”: (PDF, 102 pages) that the British government “is wrong to detain foreign terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial”: :

bq. This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community….

bq. [S]uch a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.

Heimat revisited

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2004

A few months ago I expressed interest in seeing Edgar Reitz’s series Heimat again. It was finally released on DVD (in the UK) in mid-November and I was lucky enough to get the 6-disc set as a birthday present this year. It is nineteen years since I first watched it, and just watched the final, eleventh, episode of the 925 minute epic last night. It didn’t disappoint me at all. From the first scenes, when Paul Simon, returning from the 1914–18 war, walks back into the village of Schabbach, I was entranced. Many of the characters, often played by people who had never acted before and never would again, have a quite wonderful presence. Nearly everything is understated and done in an apparently matter-of-fact manner. Yet Reitz manages to reveal continuities of character over very vast stretches of time, as well as having the characters whom one is drawn to admire in one period of their lives turn into ogres in others. Of course, the Nazi period dominates the central part of the series and Reitz is very good at showing a range of reactions to it: Katharina, the matriarch, is the most hostile, after she witnesses the arrest of her communist nephew, and she is willing to confront the odious and evil Wilfried, the local SS-man. In between are characters like Eduard, a somewhat naive man who is pushed by his ambitious wife, the ex-prostitute Lucie, into becoming the Nazi mayor. The constant threads are Maria, born in 1900 whose life we trace from early adulthood to her inheritance of the matriarch role, to her death, and Glasich, the narrator and village drunk, always there with comment, but never doing much. And Paul is always there as a presence or as an absence….

I don’t want to spoil the experience by giving more plot details here. I think it one of the most wonderful filmic meditations on love, time, ageing, family, tyranny, kindness, place, restlessness, forgiveness, memory, …. Everyone should watch Heimat, several times.

Available on “a region 2 DVD in the UK”: , in a rather nice set with accompanying book. North Americans will have to get a multi-region player and a TV capable of displaying PAL, or wait. The “complete script”: is available online (in German).

The Wisdom of Crowds who don’t check facts

by Daniel on December 17, 2004

Let’s try and step on this canard before it grows wings … Oliver Kamm is quoting some writer at Fortune saying something that ain’t true about election betting markets.

The reputation of exit polls was perceptibly if unfairly damaged by the US presidential election. But, as a writer in Fortune magazine points out, another predictor was unambiguously accurate. This was the electronic predictions market: the various websites allowing punters to place bets on the electoral outcome.

As anyone who was watching the CT Election Night Special will know, this just isn’t true. The election markets, on the big day, were more or less exactly as bad at providing us with predictive information as were the exit polls. I think that we may have been the only place recording the intraday fluctuations on the prediction markets (which were massive), so maybe it’s important to summarise the facts.

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