25 January, 2015

Je Suis Charlie Hebdo

The vision I have of the world I want to live in includes a huge amount of ideas, a perpetual battle of words, the vast majority of which I am going to find at least wrong and often morally unpalatable, but which ultimately are going to lose, because I live in a liberal democracy and the best ideas will win. So often politicians and journalists scramble to blame the victims for the acts of violence committed against them, which helps to pour ice into a chilling effect far beyond the handful of people targeted and hurt and killed directly. Even now, despite the march (which helpfully included amongst its number numerous despots who have whittled or crushed the right to object), the banners, the demonstrations, there's a willingness to mutter about irresponsible use of free speech, of somehow abusing it from all sorts of quarters. We are told to respect the religious beliefs of others and we are told that we are provoking violence when we do not.

I find it a struggle to heap anything but scorn and mockery on, for instance, a man who has never known romance yet professes the belief that gay marriage threatens traditional families; who has as much respect for gay families as I do for bigots. Such posturing about how we should love ideas no matter how harebrained or dangerous or horrific they may be gets us nowhere; certainly the sort of people who speak about the inherent dignity of belief lack any such restraint and tolerance themselves. When we are diametrically opposed to a value or a belief or an epistemology then feigning respect under threat of violence is to palm off one's own rights and values through fear. I love people. Occasionally the things they say and do and believe are very evil indeed. Sometimes, as a salve for one's soul, or a hope for positive change in people's attitudes and beliefs, it is right and proper to ridicule such wickedness because it is so paltry and obtuse.

It is perhaps easy enough to shrug one's shoulders, perhaps, dismissing the satire of Charlie Hebdo as moving so far beyond the realms of good taste - or of tackling easy targets, for instance - that the crimes of the murderers are contextualised away or spoken of in a sympathetic, understanding tone. It is some fringe, brutish rag - who cares. It is easy enough, perhaps, to dismiss acts of murder as being provoked when some bigoted pastor who burns a holy book or a wally who makes a goofy and incoherent Youtube video are threatened and people assault and kill innocents in imagined retaliation, save some lip-service about how sad it was that those guiltless in the creation of the works were targeted. But it seems not to matter how noble your message, how savage or how mild your criticism, how tongue in cheek the insult, how accurate the point, or how dumb and silly and irrelevant your script for the accusation of provocation to be leveled - so how much do we cede on this front? Do we shrug our shoulders when it's Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a poignant, beautiful book about the strains of conflicting pressures on immigrants, in response to which the Ayatollah Khomeini - who we know had not even read the book - issued a fatwa, in due course of which at least one man - whose supposed crime was to translate the book into Japanese - was murdered? Do we shrug our shoulders when Theo van Gogh is murdered for creating a film about the violence enacted against and oppression of women in certain Muslim communities? Do we capitulate when it is a group of cartoonists living in fear of their life, when one is attacked in their home, when Dutch embassies are assaulted and burned, for engaging in parody and satire? The heads of nations call upon diplomats to apologise for violence enacted by their citizens, for the violation of the sanctity of embassies over the freedom of speech and of thought and of religion which in all other realms we rightly cherish so highly. The murderers who struck Charlie Hebdo were not incited to such violence by cartoons any more than Charles Manson was incited by the Beatles, nor more than journalists faithfully reporting on the Kent State shootings or the gunning down of unarmed black people by police officers should be held responsible for protesters erupting into violence. Murderous thugs are not rabid dogs unleashed by cartoons - no matter how zealously they may hold to their faith - but human beings with their own moral sense, however corrupt, violent, short-sighted and ignorant it may be.

Irreverence and mockery and meanness towards ideas and people and ideologies are part of the tapestry of the world I want to live in, even when it's misplaced, and wrong ideas should be fought solely with right ones because all knowledge is, in principle, tentative; no matter how passionately we believe, how strongly we feel, we could be wrong. Such an understanding hardly precludes us from conclusions - testing them is how we become more confident in them - but does mean that those who disagree with us should not be barred from having a voice, even if it is self-published, even if it has to be fought to be heard, even if it is socially and academically marginalised. The distinction between deliberately angering people and inciting violence is paramount - sometimes we should be made angry, sometimes it is powerful to make a point crudely, and we should be and we should feel free to spark such emotions because of the huge potential for positive change when we are made to view ourselves through other filters. It is not and should not be a crime worthy of death for a person to make a gesture of rudeness and meanness towards people and beliefs and books that they disagree with. This is everything this civilisation has become and every right and individual power this civilisation needs to flourish, the wellspring from which everything valuable about our culture flows, and rationalising away that knowledge because it is easy to dismiss the target of such opprobrium turned violent seems exceptionally myopic. I think it is right to stand shoulder to shoulder with Charlie Hebdo not necessarily because of the content of what they have said but because, and excuse a cliche here, their right to say it without fear is everything that makes us great.

I appreciate attempts, such as this, in the wake of the shootings, and the inevitable outpouring of violence against Muslims from bigots, to raise focus on different cruelties and horrors. And we must not forget them, or allow our hearts to harden against them out of simplistic nationalism or racism and visceral reaction to an attack on what feels like our home turf - yet so often it is an excuse for a tu quoque. The central problem of victim-blaming remains.

I am not terribly comfortable with what feels distinctly like an abstracting of terrorism away from what it is and does. There is a treatment that it is a grand coincidence that cartoonists were targeted - were marched out, name by name, and then shot - and that we should instead consider the act in terms of imperialism and colonialism and war. The attack was not about free speech, we are told, at the same time that it is pointed out that Charlie Hebdo's caricatures tend to be problematic at best (and falsely told that they are part of the forces which subjugate immigrants). The tendency to agree with the justifications offered by mass murderers is, to put it mildly, somewhat sinister. It is to accept the pro-offered and absurd suggestion that we are part of a war of cultures, where western civilisation faces down Islam. The magazine attacked had no arms, threatened no lives, took no hostages, invaded no nations, is not even a standard bearer for such things - Charlie Hebdo is anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-war - and so such posturing falls rather flat. The mosques which are attacked in supposed retaliation for the murders have no arms, threaten no lives, took no hostages, invaded no nations, frequently, publicly, stand against such things - although it hardly matters if they do not - and both mosques and juvenile comics are part of the tapestry of our nations.

When a skinhead burns down a mosque, when a government enacts some backwoods law banning non-existent minarets, or some petty law barring some aspect of freedom of expression and religion, when a Sikh man is assaulted and abused because a turban is sufficiently foreign looking to the sort of person who does such things should we give in to the same inclination to say, well, come on now, look at the context - look at the horrors enacted in those nations, those theocracies where Islam has temporal power, where violence is enacted by Muslims against other Muslims, against former Muslims, against religious minorities. I'm not justifying the violence of the bigot, oh no, just providing some context, some understanding of why violent awful people do violent awful things, by telling you how they justify it. Here is the context, the understanding of such arguments: it is the same banal, absurd tribalism, the same belief in collective guilt and collective punishment required to conduct such atrocities in the first place. 

Imperialism and colonialism are dread evils which have fractured societies, ruptured and pooled power into the hands of cruel and stupid dictators and stolen the wealth of entire peoples. Also, some men with guns shot some cartoonists in Paris the other day because they were really rude about Islam.

None should have to apologise for acts supposedly conducted in the name of their belief or ideology; we are not our brother's keeper. Pretending otherwise gets us to absurdities fast: are we to suppose all of Islam is somehow represented by the Kouachi brothers on that day or by Mssrs. Bathily and Merabet? It seems so banal, so obvious, and yet proves necessary to point out: how Islam is practised and understood differs dramatically from Turkey to Pakistan to Iran to Kosovo to Indonesia to New York to the West Midlands to Paris, and within these communities there is dramatic variation, even where it is not legally permitted. Islam is not a monolith (although the worst elements in Islamic traditions desperately try to portray it that way, or enforce it under threat of violence and imprisonment) and the tendency to paint it in that fashion is not racism - should not be conflated with racism - but frequently tends into outright bigotry. A massive level of sophistication is warranted when speaking of a billion and a half people with such a ridiculously broad array of beliefs. Charlie Hebdo frequently fights on the side of angels - has frequently existed to mock the worst racial prejudices and facile anti-immigrant arguments of the far right; they have stood against oppression irrespective of whether it has been against immigration in their own country or against Palestinians in Gaza (their cartoons have been widely misrepresented in some Anglo outlets, see here and here for discussions of this) - yet, the criticism that the caricatures of Muslims remain racially charged holds water; they're shocking, they tap into racial prejudices and ideas as a shorthand in the way comics frequently do, and such a thing is problematic and troubling. But this notion that criticisms of Islam and Muslims are unnecessary or cowardly and are 'punching down' because French Muslims are a marginalised minority is hokum. Again, the idea rapidly gets us to absurdity: when protests against Israeli policy turn to the burning down of Jewish businesses and attacks on synagogues in Sarcelles, is it punching down to condemn the acts of people from one marginalised religious minority upon another marginalised religious minority? Is it punching down to talk about young girls from the families of expatriates who are spirited abroad so that their genitals may be mutilated? Or is it just to be consistent in one's values irrespective of who breaches them?

The completely accurate belief that religious minorities suffer oppression even in western liberal democracies, that they are frequently and unfairly blamed for social ills, that reactionary forces scapegoat them even as they expand the divide between us and those who wish to join us, does not mean we get to ignore the role religion and culture has to play in injustice. When women face subjugation in given Muslim communities and families, which occasionally seek to deny them education and other fundamental rights or force them out of the public sphere; when refugees flee the horror unleashed by Boko Haram only to face ridicule and dehumanisation and threats of violence from your own country's far right; when religions seek to suppress the rights of its citizenry and its residents through the machinery of the state; when you live under perpetual fear because criticising or satirising any of these things is all it takes for your life to be threatened, it seems evident that a lot of people confuse giving away everything you are for the reciprocal and mutual nature tolerance and respect must take if they are to have any meaning. The Islam which drives people to such extraordinary evil is not the same as that practised by the friends you live with, the family you have or the folks you go to work with, nor that of millions of others. They are no more responsible for such violence and suffering than I am of Stalin's purges or the Magna Carta. But we cannot hide our faces from the reality that the behaviour of zealots and bigots is so frequently religiously and culturally and politically driven. The drive to empathise with other people should not be a drive to conceptualise very real problems until they disappear.

The killing of 12 people by Islamist terrorists is, however, a small threat to French democracy and her freedom of speech; a week later the very magazine which was attacked responded with a cartoon of Muhammed. Terrorism is a minuscule threat: our values are so much more powerful than anything a terrorist can accomplish because the ideas underpinning liberal democracy are good, are moral, are useful, are right. They uplift us, they liberate us in ways our forebears could not have imagined, they give us luxury and eliminate want in ways unknown in history. Attacks, murder, threats, merely strengthen our resolve. Deaths due to all armed conflicts have declined dramatically in recent years; people globally (not that it is of much help to those who live in specific, violent localities) and we in particular have less to fear from violence than ever before. Perhaps this makes it easier to understand the horror we feel from the dripping death toll caused by the constant, but ultimately low-intensity conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps, ultimately, it is why 9/11, and the July 7th bombings, and the Charlie Hebdo murders stand so stark. But it's important to keep in mind that more women will be murdered by their boyfriends and husbands in the US alone this year alone than people have been killed by all known terrorist incidents in human history throughout the world. As awful as it is to be a victim of terrorism, you are far more likely to be apolitically murdered, and far more likely than that to be killed in a car accident, and far more likely than that to be killed by your own slovenliness or drug of choice or genetic quirk or disease. While the fact that there are worse and more prevalent things in the world does not mean we should not fight terrorism - of course we should - a sense of perspective should teach us, and teach us rapidly, that we do not need to cede our morality, or our rights; we do not need to become bigoted, or to quail, to torture or to fear or to hate in order to defeat the threat of terrorism. The mundane and pervasive is so much more dangerous than the rare and sensational by virtue of its ubiquity and yet we can suffer through our day to day lives without doing something dreadful to our fellow man.

Unlike Islamist terrorism the braying prayers of halfwits sent to racist demagogues who seek to place French democracy and her freedom of speech under a militaristic boot heel demonstrably have threatened French democracy before; have come very close indeed to killing it, and once more menace Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. I feel roughly as much kinship with Islamist fundamentalists as I do European fascists. Neither have a very pretty track record when it comes to mass murder and terrorism, yet one is dramatically more popular than the other.

Also this.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

25 March, 2014

Sharia Not to be Adopted into UK Legal System for First Time, says more accurate headline


But really, let's face it, it could be any article by a rag about sharia in any Anglo nation because it feeds into, amongst other things, the popular Londonistan myth.

'Sharia law to be adopted into UK legal system for first time' bleats the headline, and as with most such sensationalist headlines is somewhat contradicted by the article. Nonetheless rather more clarification is in order.

The Law Society is not a governmental or judiciary body; more a lobbying, self-regulating union of lawyers. They issue best-practice guidelines as an aid to solicitors as part of their basic function. In this instance they issued guidelines on how to draw up sharia-compliant wills.

It is given very basic shrift in the article but to be clear: under English common law (and codified by statute in the specific case of England and Wales) individuals are able to agree to third-party arbitration rather than go through civil courts. There can be some very good reasons for doing this indeed and religious minorities have for many decades, if not centuries, used them as a way of establishing some forms of voluntary contracts amongst their own community. There are legal limits to arbitration; rulings cannot violate English law and cannot be entirely unreasonable. As a rather extreme example one cannot agree to a marriage license under which a woman will be stoned for adultery for instance, it would not be a legally binding provision of the marriage because the act of murder is unlawful. Similarly if a marriage license is obtained through the civil courts, the regular rules and functions of civil law apply.

But for instance a couple of people can come to an agreement to decide that, say, an oath will be made under Halakha, that is religious Jewish law. Experts (eg., Rabbis) will draw up (or oversee, or give witness to) the agreement, and if matters come to a head a Beth Din or other Jewish court will decide if it has been broken. If any parties involved take issue with the result they may avail themselves of a regular secular court, which will then have to consider the agreement, which likely means that the court will have to consider Jewish law because the agreement was made in those terms. Unless the agreement is illegal or wholly unreasonable the arbiter will (because the parties agreed to it) be deferred to.

This is the same principle applied to sharia. Given that Muslims are a growing minority and that uses of sharia arbitration are on the increase it makes sense that the Law Society has drawn up guidelines for its members given that they may well encounter clients who wish to have wills compliant with sharia in their practices. This does not mean sharia is being adopted into English law, the Law Society lacks the power to legislate; merely its members are being offered direction in a kind of arbitration that is already lawful.

The points raised about the misogyny and bigotry inherent in how sharia is practised are of course well founded; I'd strongly suggest religious laws tend to be myopic and primitive attempts at morality and almost invariably therefore are actually quite wicked and cruel in many instances. Their almost inevitably discriminatory nature rubs against the grain in liberal democracies which, again almost invariably, have trended towards not merely being tolerant of minorities and the vulnerable but actively moving to prevent acts of bigotry against them. 

All that being said, and recognising they are not equivalent forms of discrimination by any stretch of the imagination, England has an established church with an assured place in government and taxpayer-funded schooling, and denies women an equal share of inheritance when it comes to titles and aristocratic estates irrespective of wills or the wishes of anyone involved. Still. Seriously.

-The Rev. Schmitt, FCD.

06 March, 2014

Journalist Hypocrite Shock Bonk Horror

RT Host Abby Martin Condemns Russian Incursion Into Crimea – By Glenn Greenwald 4 Mar 2014, 7:26 AM EST

The vast bulk of the commentary issuing from American commentators about the Russian military action in Ukraine involves condemning exactly that which they routinely advocate and which the U.S. itself routinely does. So suffocating is the resulting stench that those who played leading roles in selling the public the attack on Iraq and who are still unrepentant about it, such as

Greenwald's gloriously passive acquiescence to supporting George Bush and the invasion of Iraq has never been repented or apologised for or even honestly acknowledged, and why would it be? Such humanitarianism manifested itself also in his supporting the surely democratic invasion of Mali by numerous miltias; decrying France for bombing Muslims, which presumably, since Greenwald is an honest man, is all that was done. Such criticism is grounded in one simple fact: without any kind of analysis - which fortunately Greenwald is unburdened by - any given western government can simultaneously be held to blame for doing nothing to prevent the terrible things done by dictatorships, and also for the terrible effects of opposing them. We are left stood around saying 'oh dear'. Except when it comes to invading Iraq, evidently.

Also tu quoque of course. In a few months, after stability has been re-established, after Russia's military occupancy has ended, it would be rather awkward indeed for western nations to find fault with Crimea re-negotiating its relationship with Ukraine, even leaving for Russia (if she's stupid enough to take it); not that this would necessarily stop them. Governments are as morally mercurial as popular civil libertarian bloggers. For the publics of our nations, self-determination is paramount. Russia picking a puppet ruler amidst a military invasion is not self-determination; her awareness of this generates her hilariously transparent lies about what all her unmarked soldiers are doing at gunpoint.

-The Rev. Schmitt, FCD.

21 September, 2013

Shock and Horror as Pope Less Awful than Last Pope


Seriously though think of all the suffering gay people go through because of bigotry, tending into outright persecution and murder socially and legally in many countries, such as, for instance, majority Catholic Uganda, in which homosexuality is illegal upon pain of death. It is all well and good to speak to the west of how tolerant the Church is now, to plead for less focus on issues that lose the Church so many congregants amongst the first world. But to raise this facade on the one hand, while Cardinals and priests still tout the murderous lie that condoms are worse than (and propagate) AIDS throughout so much of Sub-Saharan Africa, to preach that gay people are tempters, maintaining the perpetual and vile fabrication that they are acting immorally and unnaturally when they move amongst nations where this can and does get innocent people killed.

The Pope can make a massive positive difference in the lives of so many by saying what all good and reasonable people know: the gender of the people you love and the people you are attracted to says nothing at all about your morality; monogamy and its legal codification through marriage is good and bountiful and beautiful for all of us, and condoms totally save lives and help alleviate poverty. It is cruel to feed into that morass of hatred, however minutely, however timidly Francis wishes to do so, however weakly he foists the bulwark of faith against what we all know in our hearts to be true about our gay brothers and sisters. He has the power within his grasp to do so much and he chooses not to, maybe because his own beliefs are wicked, maybe through fear of the political powers within and without his own church; it is not the first time a Pope has sat silent, or added his voice to the perpetration of evil that it is within his power to change. The fact remains that no matter how he flaps his hands, and really anything a Pope has to say about condoms or heretics or gay people should begin and end with an apology, he could do something very good, at no risk to his own life or safety, and instead chooses to either remain silent or to feed meekly into that evil. He's a Pope, a station now bereft of temporal power, and like anyone else whose power lies in his words this is the wickedness he is capable of. And he does it.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.

20 July, 2013

The N word

Crossposted yo 

There seems to be this confusion about when white people and black people can say the naughty n word. Oh nooo it's racist to only let black people say it.


Well actually white people say it a lot. Academics, writers, comedians, white people who genuinely speak AAVE and yokels amongst other yokels for instance. Also white people being funny and ironic.


The distinction is and always has been about intent and it is a bit bizarre to have to point this out. In Rachel Jentel's speech community 'nigger' really does just mean 'man', we did not need someone to tell us this but evidently pretended we did, and she genuinely can envisage any person in that speech community speaking that way, irrespective of their race. It does not follow that it is therefore not awful to insult blacks. It does not mean that we are forced to pretend that Limbaugh is also speaking AAVE.

What is the likelihood that any given white person is going to be saying it as a term of brotherhood and endearment? Thus the horrible burden of the whites: we are almost certainly going to be using it because we are racist and stupid, with few exceptions, and so when we use it because we are racist and stupid, we get called racist for it. Just saying that we are totally not saying it to insult black people while insulting black people is just not persuasive. It is the child saying 'niggardly' over and over again and thinking no one can tell them off for being mindlessly insulting. We see you, guys. We get what you're doing. It's still that thing. 

Our own intuitions about language should not need to be pointed out. If they are correct they should not be shied away from. 

In Limbaugh's exceptional, profound, bigoted ignorance he saw an opportunity to say a naughty word about black people and belittle a black person because she is black at the same time. All of us intuitively understand this is what he is doing. It is the source of his banal comedy and is the (incorrect) point he is trying to make. It is a very strange phenomenon that a group of people will sit around claiming differently. By all appearances some people are stupid and petty enough to claim he is not for no reason other than weird sense of what partisanship is, and some whites really, desperately want to use slurs without any social consequences. 

Lastly the way lots of white Americans, or at least lots of the most vocal, talk about black people as some kind of hostile and exotic creature glimpsed through trees is creepy as Hell guys, just FYI 

 -The Rev. Schmitt, FCD.

01 December, 2012

Popes N Kids

The Catholic Church comports itself as a moral authority, speaking and lobbying regularly on temporal matters. As a matter of routine its opinions are treated as worthwhile fodder for reproduction by all mainstream news agencies across Europe, the UK, the US and beyond. Meanwhile, many very important people within the Catholic Church, both within individual diocese and within the Holy See itself, covered up and continue to hide the activities of child rapists and child abusers, working to prevent such people from being prosecuted or treated, from their crimes being exposed publicly; they worked diligently to prevent the victims of such crime receiving due compensation and frequently, even, to prevent the paedophile from being removed from a position of trust, thereby actively facilitating their crimes.

People are responsible for their individual failures and it would not be right or appropriate to blame all people within the Church for the crimes, the culture of silence, etc. That being said it is perfectly appropriate to recognise the failures of the Church as an organisation in regards to issues of transparency, justice, and duty of care, for it surely did fail on a truly massive scale in self appointed responsibilities on a very serious issue, and designedly so.

The problem as applied to the organisation of the Catholic Church as it pertains to the shielding of paedophiles, as opposed to the laity, is that a) the Church is highly hierarchical, and it is therefore right and proper to condemn the power structure which deliberately shelters clergy from prosecution for their crimes and even allowed individuals known to have abused children to remain in a position of responsibility to vulnerable charges, b) the sexual abuse and its subsequent concealment was international, occurring in churches, orphanages and places of education in Ireland, the US, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands etc., c) the Church, even now, has failed to come clean about the full extent of such abuse and continues to fail to even seriously attempt to expiate its sins with its continued zeal in preventing justice from running its course, d) some people very high up indeed have been implicated, or were directly involved in the protection of clergy from investigation by secular authorities.

Additionally it is not merely the fact that sexual abuse happened. Nor is it merely a case of individual serial monsters, nor, to re-emphasise, am I suggesting collective guilt; the fact remains that Catholic Church is an organisation with a hierarchy which facilitated such abuses. For instance the power structure of the clergy was involved in the decision to castrate boys for being abused or for being gay: the structure of the Catholic Church designedly did shield paedophiles, designedly did maim boys for their sexuality or for being abused. Those individual Catholics involved in such decisions are personally responsible for their crimes and their protection of crimes, but one has to also question how they were given such absolute jurisdiction over people in the first place, prerogative they clearly should not have had.

The response to the charges, and to moral blame being laid at the feet of the Church, has almost without exception been ad hominem tu quoque. We are to suppose that the crimes of the church are reduced because they also occur in state schools. We are supposed to be dissuaded that such acts are not heinous because we cannot know how many Catholic clergy participated in crimes compared to the general population in a given nation. We are to prevent ourselves from recognising the role of the Church in protecting paedophiles because paedophiles are ubiquitous, or may be more or equally prevalent in other bodies. We are supposed to fail to recognise the many abuses which occurred in the past couple of decades, because most of the known scandals happened in the 70s or earlier. It is a paltry attempt at relativism by those who, for centuries, when not engaging in insipid political apologetics, feebly claim divinely inspired knowledge of an external moral absolutism. It is not good enough to say that others have been or were at the time as morally retrograde as you were if you purport to be a moral authority of any value, particularly one ordained and guided by God. Frequently, instead, such supposed jurisdiction is merely a dark mirror of our worst inclinations as a society allowed to run unfettered; instead, frequently, it is about control and greed on a massive scale. That there were more such acts that we know of happening several decades ago does not alter the fact of ongoing abuses, and pretending otherwise is a shameful apologetics of such crimes.

The sins of one are not mitigated by the sins of another. Indeed such arguments are an obvious and transparent false equivalence intended to defend some of the worst organised crimes in civilised society, as is pretending such crimes are about gay people in the Church, a claim that demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the seriousness of the crimes or a proper sense of responsibility.

The current Pope himself has been implicated in hiding paedophiles, and certainly knew of both the crimes and the efforts of the Church to hide them, but his efforts to defend the culture of insularity from justice are instead cast as triumphs. No one is absolved by the document, particularly considering how selectively released such information is. Of especial note it becomes clear that at no point does it seem to have entered anyone's head that perhaps child molesters should face actual punishment, removal from society, justice or rehabilitation. It is not a terribly startling display of ethics that inside the Church there was discussion of how hard it should be to demote some of the predators. Although one supposes that since he recognised there would be less fallout for the Church in the event of the wall of silence being breached, Benedict is a hero.

The further claim is that the church is finally getting the problem in hand, that it is working to finally expose and prevent such abuses, we must forgive and forget. The abuse and cover ups, meanwhile, continue; this resistance to justice ran all the way up to the Holy See, as it always has. They are ongoing to a shocking extent in countries across the world. The catholic church at its highest levels cannot be trusted to allow the paedophiles within its clergy to be brought to justice, frequently cannot even be relied upon to remove them from positions where such crimes can be committed easily. Even now!

Ire and frustration at a body conducting this sort of thing is entirely appropriate. Any individual who protects a single paedophile from being exposed to justice is a monstrous evil; any institution which shelters such criminals on a regular basis purely to protect its own reputation, as a matter of course, even now - even now! - is wedded to the evil of the initial crime. To defend that sort of behaviour, to defend the squirming apologetics of the Church's behaviour in this regard, to repeat their falsehoods, is to be wedded to that evil.

Unsurprisingly an international lobby group masquerading as a moral authority cannot be trusted to be open or to serve the public good when short term political gains are to be had protecting its image by protecting the paedophiles in its own ranks. For decades child abuse and rape has been institutionalised across the globe in orphanages, churches and schools; in some places it still is, and only in drips and drabs does the truth out, fought so vigorously against by the Church, often far too late for punishment or rehabilitation to be meted out against individual offenders, let alone to rescue children from such horrors or provide timely assistance or after care. Again and again a power structure obsessed with the personal lives of its laity has the transparency of a brick of lead, and it wields this opacity as a bludgeon against any kind of justice.

And yet, the very same officials partaking in such acts, in such apologetics, in such cover ups, have their opinion on moral and political matters – abortion, contraception, women, and so forth – treated as if it were any less trivial than that of a random punter on the street. Their pretensions to superior knowledge of an external morality are treated as legitimate positions – their faith, in other words, treated as potentially fact. But such notions are a nonsense. The Holy See is a political body with political goals. The fiction of them being anything else is perhaps most amply demonstrated by the child abuse scandals and the way in which they have been handled.

Shorter version:

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD

26 November, 2012

sceince, facts, theories, laws, proofs, dogs


All the observations in the world are insufficient for proof: we must rely on our senses and instruments, which are necessarily faulty, and repeated experiment, which relies somewhat on the assumption that after seeing a hammer fall hundreds of times, the five hundred and first time it won't turn into a bird. Proof as such only really exists in internally consistent abstractions such as maths and logic. In looking at such a world the theories we construct are based on facts, but a fact in science is only as enduring as mankind is able to determine such a thing.

Rather than seeking truth per se science builds models based on observation and experiment, and such models must by their nature be tentatively held, for there is always the potential for an observation of things acting in a manner that is unexpected. To account for this new data the model must be altered to explain this new evidence. Our theories, even those for which mountains of evidence exist, all follow this pattern, constantly.

To take the example of electromagnetism: mankind was utterly ignorant of the relationship between electricity and magnetism until a battery was accidentally turned on near a compass by a very smart chap who decided to write about it to other smart chaps, and after a lot of thinking and prodding and waving magnets with coils around we now treat the two as a single force. Hell for a long time we had no idea that lightning for instance had any relationship to electricity whatsoever, until, among others, Benjamin Franklin was able to convincingly show it. The concept of an electrical charge, its nature, that all electricity is essentially caused by the same phenomenon, was based on the gathering of decades of observations, experimental data and constantly altering models. Each scientist who contributed to this knowledge was himself in the dark about many aspects of electromagnetism.

Now after so much observation, and empiricism having spent the past few centuries demonstrating its worth, the chances of the phenomena of electricity being completely swept aside by a revolutionary discovery is roughly the same as the falling hammer turning into a pigeon (I worked out the statistics of both using a science calculator). Even if we find our models are mere shadows of a much wider phenomenon, or that we have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely and our explanations are the ridiculous mewling of man-children, the evidence we have gathered already - the data of the thing - is not thereby suddenly wrong, rather it is incorporated into a much wider body of knowledge, and the resulting explanation may be only dimly recognisable to us as electricity as we know it. 

After centuries of changing models, our understanding of what electricity actually is has become vastly different to that of its first discoverers. In later centuries the future discoveries of mankind (if we hang in there) will similarly make our understanding of it seem paltry. True revolutions in science are rare, some philosophers of science would suggest they do not happen at all, but rather there is a continual and gradual series of reformations, where even the apparently sudden disappearance for the need of the luminiferous aether was really paved by decades of discoveries which made it increasingly unnecessary and an alternative explanation for the data increasingly well-shaped. Even something as socially tumultuous as the discovery of the common descent of all life on earth was presaged by the discoveries and hypotheses of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, again amongst many others, who all gradually added bits and pieces of knowledge, who added claims which could be researched and tested and found wanting or were supported.

Gravity is a theory, and in many ways not a terribly well understood one.  Newton's universal law of gravity (and it is literally this) is certainly not a theory, but that is because there is no explanatory model or framework there. It tells us very little about gravity; indeed, even at the time Newton knew it was incapable of accurately describing the movements of the planets in the solar system with the required accuracy for the system to be maintained, and Newton himself, one of the cleverest, if not the cleverest bloke who's ever existed, had to fill in the gaps at the edge of his knowledge with such things as God. He was incorrect to do so, and he was more than smart enough to solve the problem himself, had he not shied away from doing so.

The Universal Law of Gravitation is a single datum, an equation which describes a single relationship. A theory of gravitation would seek to explain a collection of huge amounts of such data. I should also point out that Newton's law of gravitation is actually a bit wrong: general relativity (theory!) has already demonstrated that the 'law' is an (albeit a very excellent and eminently useful for most of our purposes in history) approximation, and becomes increasingly inaccurate as the speed of light is approached or the gravitational potential energy increases. Its inaccuracy is demonstrable by observations we can make here on earth (and indeed such observations helped develop general relativity in the first place). To cleave to a 'law' as being a fact where a theory is not, and by that to mean a 'law' is more truthful and proven than a 'theory' by mere dint of the terminology used, is to completely misunderstand what these terms are referring to.

The fact that all knowledge about the natural world is essentially tentative does not mean it is not useful or not to be relied upon. Humanity got a man on the moon relying on Newton, but without Einstein we wouldn't have GPS. There are fundamental problems with the way science is presented in the news media and to some extent I understand that, and a deep disconnect from the increasing specialisation of academia, are perhaps the predominant causative factors of the deeply ingrained wish to remain ignorant amongst many of the kind of people on the internet folk like me enjoy picking on. But to leap from that mistrust in science, which itself is constantly a self-correcting enterprise, to placing your trust in politicians or theologians or laymen pastors to interpret scientific results, to reject a consensus you do not understand the reasons for as so many do in regards to creationism, anthropogenic global warming denialism and so on, will perhaps forever remain deeply perplexing to me.

-The Rev. Schmitt.