Monthly Archives: September 2010

Religious defamation and free speech: writers speak out

Following up on my previous post, here are Wole Soyinka, Ariel Dorfman, Azar Nafisi, and Kwame Anthony Appiah providing video statements as part of PEN’s efforts to counter UN initiatives to censor anti-religious criticism.

What they said.

(via PEN)

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The problem with religion is [COMMENT DELETED]

The jaw-dropping stupidity of the Texas Board of Education (which I’ve written about before) appears to know no bounds. Via Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy:

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Texas State Board of Education was considering a resolution condemning textbooks they perceived as having a pro-Islam, anti-Christian slant. As I also pointed out, this is the very same BoE that has been removing science from the state standards and replacing it with provably wrong ideas: creationism, anti-evolution, downplaying the Big Bang model of the Universe, and so on.

Friday, they voted to pass the resolution. So this fervently fundamentalist majority on the BoE has said they don’t like it when a religion tries to wedge itself into a textbook. As long as it isn’t their religion, of course.

So congratulations, Texas Board of Education, you have once again managed to make yourselves, and, sadly, the rest of America, look foolish in the eyes of the entire world.

The details of the resolution, according to the Houston Chronicle:

The resolution, approved by a 7-6 vote, says that multiple world history textbooks are tainted with views that demonize Christianity and favor Islam. […] The resolution specifically criticizes three high school history textbooks that are no longer approved for use in Texas classrooms. It said the books, published in 1999, devoted many more lines to Islam than Christianity, and it criticized other texts for including “sanitized definitions of ‘jihad’ ” and “patterns of pejoratives towards Christians.”

Oh, please. History textbooks directed at a predominantly Christian market should devote more space to unfamiliar religions and cultures, particularly ones that are having such an impact on current events. It’s called learning about what you don’t already know. And pointing out Christianity’s own flaws and the injustices committed by its adherents isn’t a malicious “pattern of pejoratives” — it’s simple, straight-up historical description. Suck it up. Why is the national textbook market so dependent on the Texas Board of Ed, again?

In related news, the international writers’ organization PEN is speaking out against a disturbing movement within the United Nations — the latest of many such initiatives — to silence criticism of religion:

International PEN and its national centers are extremely concerned about ongoing processes in the United Nations aimed at combating defamation of religions. We are also concerned about an initiative by the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards, established in 2007 by the Islamic Conference (OIC) and a group of African countries, to draft a treaty that would ban religious defamation. Human Rights protect individual human beings, not institutions or religions. Criticism of religions and religious practices must be allowed, in particular when religions are viewed from a political point of view. As organizations representing writers, artists, and journalists of all faiths and none, we warn against any regulations prohibiting criticism of any religion or any set of ideas.

Video of a UN panel discussion on this issue is here, including statements from Wole Soyinka, Ariel Dorfman, Azar Nafisi, and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

To give governments — and school boards — the power to suppress either free religious expression or the free criticism of religion is to set a very dangerous precedent indeed.

(Image via Die Presse)

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Towards a 21st century enlightenment

Matthew Taylor of the RSA (the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce) provides food for thought. Lots.

I like how he brings in the concept of humanism towards the end, as a way to close the gap between “mere” scientific rationality and more humane ways of being — although Sam Harris, for one, might argue that scientific principles themselves can lead to humanistic ethical values. (Tim Ferris might, too. Does a similarity in names cause a similarity in thinking?) Others, like PZ Myers, disagree. Not completely sure yet where I stand on that — I eagerly await Harris’s new book, out this October — but as I said, plenty to think about.

More videos here.

(via FlickFilosopher)

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Polvo de estrellas

From Jorge Drexler’s album Eco. I’d forgotten how much I loved this song, and Drexler’s quiet, intellectual, humanistic lyrics. But we tend to summon the things we obsess about, and lately I’ve been meditating on Sagan’s idea that we’re star stuff contemplating the stars. Last weekend I needed some music to wash dishes to, decided I was in a Latin American mood, popped in some old CD’s I hadn’t listened to in years — and this song comes on, uncannily mirroring my thoughts. Eco indeed. And wonder of wonders, I can still understand most of it. (Thank you, Intensive Spanish!)

Here are the lyrics from the liner notes. (Love the Ernesto Cardenal quote; I’ll have to seek out his work sometime.) Continue reading

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The star to every wandering bark

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason for us to do it.

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

…And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet”

Happy anniversary to my best and dearest love.

(Image via NYPL Digital Gallery)

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The tiger, vanishing

This is just incredibly sad, and enraging.

97 percent of the world’s wild tiger population has been wiped out. Decimated by poaching, and by the destruction of their territory and prey. There are only a thousand — a thousand — breeding females left.


I do not want my generation, or my daughter’s generation, to be the one that sees the tiger disappear. Do you?

Here’s what we can do.

(Image by Joni Johnson-Godsy)

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Back to school

I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours I feel sure

— Paul Simon

Ten years ago, twenty years ago, the speakers at such an event wouldn’t have looked like this. And yet, here we are, in 21st century America, watching a female Asian American student body president introducing the African American president of the United States, before an audience of all cultures and colors. But diversity isn’t just noteworthy for diversity’s sake. Listen closely: Obama doesn’t just give a worthy speech about the well-known value of a good education, he’s also trying to rekindle a sense of community, an awareness that our individual destinies are bound up with everyone else’s: “the strength and character of this country has always come from our ability to recognize — no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we look like, no matter what abilities we have — to recognize ourselves in each other.” As with his response to the controversy over the planned Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero, he’s doing his damnedest to make us see how connected we all are — and to encourage us towards decency and kindness.

Everything he says here should be almost painfully obvious and noncontroversial — I’m surprised his critics aren’t hollering as loudly about communist brainwashing as they were last year — and it’s stuff that parents should already be saying to their kids. It’s a sad state of affairs when it takes the President to remind us of these things; and yet it makes me hopeful, at the same time, to see that he does make the effort to reknit our fraying social fabric, to see him inspire the next generation and set them to dreaming about what they themselves can achieve. And despite whatever other shortcomings his critics on the Left and Right are happy to point out, this is yet another reason why I support him.

This country is hurting in so many ways, including in many of its educational policies. But I see the eloquence of that student body president, and I see the diverse and shining-eyed kids in the audience, and I see our own daughter’s voracious mind and the amazing things that she and her friends are achieving in school, and it gives me great hope. There’s an incredible new generation of Americans — of world citizens — waiting in the wings; their destinies are yet unwritten, but I feel sure they’ll be great ones. I still believe in the future.

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