Would burning a Qur’an in public violate the First Amendment?

May 16, 2022 • 9:00 am

Here’s one of those hard free-speech cases, and it’s hard for even a diehard free-speecher like me.  It comes from the Wall Street Journal (a news piece, not an op-ed); click to read:

This bears on freedom of speech, although Sweden has no U.S.-style First Amendment and I don’t know how they’d regard a case like this. Instead, I’d like readers to weigh in as if this case were in the U.S.

The skinny: Swedish/Danish right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan, head of Denmark’s anti-immigrant Hard Line Party, set fire to a Qur’an live on Facebook last month. He then announced that he was going to tour Sweden over Easter Weekend burning Qurans: a tour with burnings in different Swedish cities.

Now this is clearly a provocation and, if anything qualifies as “Islamophobia,” this does. It’s not that he has theological disagreements with Muslims, but is simply trying to provoke them by burning their sacred book. He is anti-immigrant, and most immigrants in Sweden are Muslim.

And provoke them he did: the April 18 WSJ reports just the threat of such a tour incited violence:

Police in Sweden said Monday they have arrested dozens of people following clashes over plans by a far-right Scandinavian politician to burn a Quran over Easter weekend.

Over the weekend, people rioted in several cities, throwing Molotov cocktails at emergency vehicles and burning trash cans and a municipal bus.

Four people were injured Sunday when police fired what they said were warning shots above the crowd. One of the people was a police officer who was lightly injured during the clash, said Asa Willsund, spokeswoman for the police department in the East Sweden region.

. . . .Since Thursday [April 14], there have been recurring protests and counterprotests on the stops of his tour, several of which have turned violent.

The riots turned the country’s political attention back onto longstanding tensions between Sweden’s immigrant population, which is largely Muslim, and nationalist parties opposed to Muslim immigration into the country. Sweden’s leadership has been largely focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the country considers renouncing centuries of neutrality to join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

On Friday evening, Mr. Paludan’s supporters clashed with protesters in the central city of Orebro. The clashes spread into a broader riot, with 12 police officers injured and four emergency vehicles set on fire. On Saturday, hundreds of mostly young male protesters rioted in the cities of Malmo and Landskrona in southern Sweden, burning trash cans and throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles.

The riots prompted Mr. Paludan to cancel his stop in Landskrona, his party said on Facebook, saying the Swedish state could no longer guarantee his safety.

“We have seen violent riots before. But this is something else,” said National Police Chief Anders Thornberg. “It is serious violence against life and property, especially against police officers. It is very worrying and we will take strong countermeasures. This should not continue.”

I note that in a report from May 13 in The Daily Sabah, Paludan is continuing the Burning Tour—under police protection:

The leader of the far-right Danish party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) burned another copy of the Holy Quran on Thursday under police protection in Sweden.

Rasmus Paludan, who has dual Danish and Swedish citizenship, recently burned copies of the Quran in the Frolunda, Boras and Trollhattan regions of the southwestern province of Vastergotland, which has a large population of Muslim residents.

Around 100 police officers, as well as 10 plainclothes officers from the Swedish intelligence agency SAPO, accompanied Paludan to protect him against counter-demonstrators.

. . .Paludan has burnt the holy book in various cities in Denmark since 2017.

He continued his provocations under police protection during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan this year near neighborhoods home to Muslims and mosques.

Riots broke out in the cities Malmo, Norrkoping and Jonkoping as well as in the capital Stockholm, leaving 125 police vehicles damaged and 34 officers injured, while 13 people were detained.

Now it’s clear from these reports that burning the Qur’an is not a criminal offense in either Sweden or Denmark, for the police protect the burners from the rioters. And I know that burning the Bible is not a violation of the First Amendment in the U.S., either. Here it’s usually done not to provoke, but to make a statement about Christianity. But intent doesn’t matter: what matters to the First Amendment is the likely outcome if violence could be imminent.

Because Muslims are far more easily inflamed by the burning of their sacred scriptures than are Christians, one could argue that burning a Qur’an in front of a group of Muslims in the U.S. violates the First Amendment because it will provoke predictable and imminent violence. As the Brittanica notes, this is “incitement,” and could be construed as one of the exceptions to the First Amendment (the short article on “permissible restrictions on expression” is a good primer on what speech is not protected):

As the Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the government may forbid “incitement”—speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” (such as a speech to a mob urging it to attack a nearby building). But speech urging action at some unspecified future time may not be forbidden.

But this raises a First-Amendment problem.  Perhaps it’s legal to burn the Qur’an on the Internet or in front of a group of like-minded bigots (see this article for that opinion), but is it permissible to burn it in front of a group of Muslims leaving the mosque on Friday? The latter is almost guaranteed to produce imminent lawless action, as it did in Sweden and Denmark. Would that make such public burnings illegal in America, but only those burnings that will inflame a certain group of religious people?

This may already have been adjudicated in the courts, but I don’t know. and can’t be arsed to find out.  I tend to side with Sweden and Denmark here, as I think that no holy books are off limits from criticism, and that includes burning. But on the other hand, burning the Qur’an may be inciting imminent and predictable lawless action while burning the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita will not.

Of course burning the Qur’an the way Paludan did is an expression of bigotry, but even bigotry is permitted under the First Amendment. Here we have a situation in which, in principle, the same action may be either permitted speech or impermissible speech, depending on the religious group at hand. I suspect that what Paludin did would be legal in the U.S., but I don’t know.

Do weigh in with your opinion: Does an act like Paludan’s constitute impermissible speech when performed in front of one group of believers, but not another (Christians)?

h/t: Williams

Readers’ wildlife photos and stories: Toxic nectar!

May 16, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have another entomological tale from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. The prose is his and the photos are credited (click to enlarge photos):

Toxic Nectar

In 401 BC, an army of Greek mercenaries led by Commander Xenophon crossed Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to seize the throne of Persia. Xenophon kept a diary of the expedition, entitled Anabasis, or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand’, which today is a classic of ancient Greek literature. Among many battles and other adventures, the commander described one curious episode. His troops came across a supply of honey, and some of the men went for it with gusto. In no time they regretted it: the soldiers could not stand up, and were assailed by bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. ‘So they lay, hundreds of them, as if there had been a great defeat, a prey to the cruellest despondency. But the next day, none had died; and almost at the same hour of the day at which they had eaten they recovered their senses, and on the third or fourth day got on their legs again like convalescents after a severe course of medical treatment.’ (Anabasis, Book IV).

Fig. 1. ‘The march of the Ten Thousand’ by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901.

The Romans had their own taste of Anatolian honey, this time with grimmer consequences. In 97 BC, General Pompey the Great led an army across Turkey in pursuit of king Mithridates of Pontus, an old enemy of Rome. The local people, known as the Heptacomitae, withdrew. But they left a gift for Pompey’s men, possibly on Mithridates’ orders. The geographer and historian Strabo tells us what happened: ‘The Heptacomitae cut down three maniples [around 1,500 soldiers] of Pompey’s army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.’

Fig. 2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great. The Roman general didn’t expect honey used against his troops © Michël Manseur, Wikimedia Commons.

Strabo’s ‘crazing honey’ that incapacitated those Greek and Roman troops is known today as ‘mad honey’. It comes from nectar produced by the common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), which is endemic and abundant in northern Turkey, the Black Sea region. This plant is full of grayanotoxins, a group of toxic substances that protect it against herbivores, but also accumulate in the nectar.

Fig. 3. The common rhododendron, a source of mad honey © Rasbak, Wikipedia.

The bees that produce mad honey, the Caucasian (Apis mellifera caucasia) and Anatolian (Apis mellifera anatoliaca) honey bee subspecies, seem to be resistant to grayanotoxins. But other subspecies are not: they die, or become paralysed, sluggish or erratic after consuming R. ponticum nectar – although they learn to avoid rhododendron flowers. For reasons not yet known, common rhododendron growing outside its native range has lower levels of grayanotoxins, so mad honey is not a problem.

Fig. 4. Northern Turkey, home of mad honey © Modern Farmer.

Rhododendron honey is eaten in tiny amounts by local people for its perceived medicinal, hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac properties. But an adventurous gourmet taking even a spoonful of the stuff risks being struck by a long list of unpleasant and dangerous clinical symptoms. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people in Turkey – some of them tourists – to end up in the hospital after experimenting with mad honey.

So if you find yourself in Anatolia for your holidays, don’t be too bold in exploring exotic local products. You may share the fate of Pompey’s soldiers.

Fig. 5. Turkish mad honey, known locally as deli bal or tutan bal © turkishmadhoney.com.

A plant that secretes toxic nectar may seem to be engaged in self-harm, as this sugar-rich substance is the main incentive for pollinators to pay a visit to its flowers. But hundreds of plant species produce nectar laced with secondary compounds such as alkaloids, terpenes and phenolics, which are often noxious or unpalatable. So there must a reason for this apparent paradox. Toxicity may be a way of excluding inefficient pollinators, reserving the metabolically expensive nectar for a few specialists that are immune to secondary compounds. Many of these chemicals defend plants against pathogens and herbivores, so a few dead pollinators may be acceptable collateral damage.

Toxic honey may be a side effect of nectar with protective properties, but the broad-leaved helleborine orchid () intoxicates flower visitors for its own benefit.

Fig. 6. A broad-leaved helleborine flower © Björn S., Wikipedia.

This orchid is found throughout much of Europe and Asia in all sorts of habitats. It was introduced to America, where it is viewed as an invasive species in some states. Despite packing a reasonable supply of nectar, the broad-leaved helleborine is often ignored by insects, a fact noted by Charles Darwin. The orchid’s small, inconspicuous, greenish/purplish flowers are not exactly good marketing for attracting bees and other pollinators. But one group of insects are keen visitors: social wasps such as the European (Vespula germanica) and the common wasp (V. vulgaris).

Adult wasps feed mostly on carbohydrates, which they get from nectar – or from your sugary drink, if you give them a chance. But the nectar of broad-leaved helleborines is special: it’s laced with chemicals with narcotic properties. It also contains ethanol and other alcohols, possibly as the result of fermentation by yeasts and bacteria. This chemical cocktail is toxic or repellent to many visitors, but not to wasps: they lap it up. Unavoidably, a concoction of opioid and morphine derivatives plus alcohol, even in minute amounts, has consequences for its consumers. Wasps become intoxicated and sluggish after a few sips, which suits the orchid very well. They spend more time on the flower, staggering about and thus increasing their chances of ending up with a pollinium (a sticky mass of pollen grains) glued to their heads. Watch tipsy wasps at work. Nobody knows if the wasps are hungover afterwards.

Fig. 7. A wasp with pollinia attached to its face © Saarland, Wikipedia.

Orchids are highly diverse: with approximately 25,000 described species, they make up about 10% of all flowering plants. About one third of orchids do not offer food rewards – nectar or pollen – to visitors. Instead, they have evolved all sorts of tricks to attract insects. Some flowers have the shape, colours or scents of food-rewarding plants; they may bait male insects by resembling their female counterparts, or by releasing pheromone mimics.

It’s no wonder orchids were the subject of Darwin’s second book, published in 1862 (On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and On the Good Effects of Intercrossing). Darwin worked with orchids to test some evolutionary ideas such as coevolution. He could never have imagined that his studies would inspire H.G. Wells (1866-1946) to write the tale of a Mr Winter-Wedderburn, who buys a strange orchid and tells his housekeeper: ‘There are such queer things about orchids. Darwin studied their fertilisation, and showed that the whole structure of an ordinary orchid flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant’. But science turns to horror when the orchid flowers: it produces a scent that makes Winter-Wedderburn pass out. The orchid wraps its roots around his neck to suck his blood, but luckily the housekeeper is on hand to rescue the unfortunate gardener from the vampire plant. Wells’ story was translated into several languages and inspired numerous imitators into a new genre of science/horror fiction that is still around today: the man-killing plants. if you are old enough, you may remember the hungry orchid from Little Shop of Horrors.

Fig. 8. Herbert George Wells: ‘The flowering of the strange orchid’, The Pall Mall Budget, 1894.

The reception of Wells’ story reflects our fascination with Nature and its mysterious ways. Certainly much more remains to be discovered about plants and their pollinators, so many a fantastic tale can yet be written.

Monday: Hili dialogue

May 16, 2022 • 6:30 am

Good morning on the start of a new week, and of summer vacation for many college students (but not ours, who don’t graduate until June): it’s Monday, May 16, 2022: National Barbecue Day! Following only one day after National Buttermilk Biscuit Day, this is a splendid pair of days.  And here to whet your appetite are two photos of a meal from Coyne’s Pandemic Texas BBQ tour about a year ago: it’s the famous Black’s giant beef rib, complete with trimmings (including potato salad, pinto beans, raw onion, pickles and a jalapeño corn muffin) from Black’s BBQ in Lockhart, Texas: the BBQ capital of America. (But the best brisket in Texas is not in this town, though Black’s is up there for best BBQ beef rib in America).

*Another day, another mass shooting in America. This time a gunman shot six people yesterday at a church in Laguna Woods, California, killing one and wounding five.  Four of those five are in critical condition. A suspect and the putative weapon are in custody.

*The Buffalo terrorist, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, who shot ten, is now suspected of strong racist motivation, making his attack a hate crime (remember, he’s still presumed innocent). Gendron not only started live-streaming the attack on the supermarket, but left behind a 180-page racist rant:

. . . the 180-page screed, which authorities are scrutinizing in connection with the massacre, leaves little doubt that the alleged perpetrator, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, belongs to a global fraternity fused by the Internet and fixated on the idea that White people are being intentionally replaced.

*The ruling parties of both Sweden and Finland have approved their countries’ decision to apply for NATO membership.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said their accession would be a “turning point for security” in Europe. “Their membership in NATO would increase our shared security, demonstrate that NATO’s door is open, and that aggression does not pay.”

“We’re now facing a fundamentally changed security environment in Europe,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said. “And when we navigate in this new environment, the fundamental question for us is: How do we best protect Sweden? And the Kremlin has shown that they are prepared to use violence to achieve their political objectives and that they don’t hesitate to take enormous risks.”

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is not only illegal and indefensible, it also undermines the European security order,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said. While the country’s “200-year-long standing policy of military nonalignment has served Sweden well,” the nation now faced a “fundamental change,” she said. “As a member of NATO, Sweden not only achieves more security, but also contributes to more security,” Linde said.

How do you like them apples, Vladimir? The fly in the ointment here is Turkish President Erdogan, who opposes the entry of both countries into NATO, and, since Turkey is itself in NATO, they could block membership. But Erdogan’s reason is risible:

“We are following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t hold positive views,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, adding it had been a mistake for NATO to accept Greece as a member in the past.

“As Turkey, we don’t want to repeat similar mistakes. Furthermore, Scandinavian countries are guesthouses for terrorist organisations,” Erdogan said, without giving details.

“They are even members of the parliament in some countries. It is not possible for us to be in favour,” he added.

*Another heterodox (for the NYT) op-ed: “Let actors act,” by Pamela Paul, who makes the case that we need to stop vetting actors for ethnicity, sex, gender preference, and so on, and stop insisting that every role be played by someone of just the right characteristics:

Good actors are able to find a way to portray people who are not like themselves, whether on the surface or well below, which is what differentiates them from those of us who could barely remember our lines in a fourth-grade production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Acting is a feat of compassion and an act of generosity. Those capable of that kind of emotional ventriloquy enable audiences to find ourselves in the lives portrayed onscreen, no matter how little they may resemble our own.

Bravo to those actors who do that well. Bravo to the talented Adrian Lester, who makes you forget the color of his skin, his nationality and his religion — and gives himself over entirely to his performance. There is no reason for any actor to apologize for exercising and reveling in his craft.

Lester is a Brit who’s the son of two Jamaican parents; he was just nominated for a Tony Award for playing Emanuel Lehman, a German-born Jewish founder of the well known investment firm.

*Oddball news of the day from the Associated Press:

The owner of a rural English pub says he was asked to change the bar’s name by a fashion magazine because of the village where it’s located: Vogue.

Mark Graham, who runs the Star Inn at Vogue, said he received a letter from British Vogue publisher Conde Nast, saying the name could “cause problems” because members of the public might confuse the two businesses.

He said the letter from Sabine Vandenbroucke, chief operating officer of Conde Nast Britain, asked if he would change the name, adding: “Please reply within seven days or we will take remedial action.”

Graham stood his ground.

“There’s always too much a case of the big boys trying to stomp on the little boys, and as soon as I realized what they were trying to do, I went ‘you’re not having me, my handsome,’” he told broadcaster ITV.

Confuse the two businesses? Seriously? Somebody is going to go to the pub looking for fashion tips? If ever there was a case of “punching down,” this is it. Vogue finally admitted that it screwed up.

Mark, owner of the Star Inn at Vogue, Cornwall, with his wife Rachel ( Image: James Dadzitis / SWNS)

*A doctor from the Yale School of Medicine outlines the promises of a “nasal spray vaccine” for covid, which involves spraying the spike protein right into the nose. It’s not a cure-all, as we need to develop vaccines against a broader array of viruses (there’s still not one against the omicron variant), but it could be a substantial improvement in the prevention of infectin.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is eating her way through the phylogenetic tree:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: About a missing link.
A: Which one?
Hili: The one I ate.
In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym myślisz?
Hili: Nad brakującym ogniwem.
Ja: Którym?
Hili: Tym, które zjadłam.

And here’s a picture of Kulkawith a caption. It’s for the departed Karolina. Malgorzata explains:

“And a picture of Kulka, because Karolina is going to look for her”.
Explanation: Karolina was sad that she has to leave her beloved cats (especially Kulka) and Andrzej promised her to post pictures of them so she can see them on his Facebook page.

(In Polish: “Jeszcze Kulka, bo Karolina będzie jej szukać.”)

Yes, the visitors are gone. Paulina and her husband took Karolina and her mother to the Wroclawek station on the first step to Kyev (they’re home now). Here’s a photo of Karolina and Paulina at the train station, with this caption written by Adrzej and translated by Malgorzata. (Paulina and Mariusz got caught on the train to help Karolina and Natasza with their baggage, but the train it started as they were moving the luggage, and Paulina and Mariusz had to ride one stop. It took them four hours to get back!

Caption: Our girls are now safe at home. Natasza wrote from Kiev (and from there they drove home with her sister). It was not without adventures, because Paulina and Mariusz took them to the station and, wanting to help, they got into the train. (they didn’t have time to get out and had to go with them all the way to Kutno :)) Below is a photo of Paulina with Karolina at the station in Włoclawek.

They’re home!

Anna, a physical chemist, sent me this cover from the latest issue of Portal, the magazine of Potsdam University in Germany. She says it’s not satirical but serious:

Otters getting a treat (sound on):

From The Catspotting Society:

From Beth:

And another cat contribution, this time from Jean. It’s a New Yorker cartoon by Elizabeth McNair:

From Titania:

This kid fails the gum equivalent of “the Stanford marshmallow test” about delayed gratification:

From Gravelinspector. What twisted mind conceived this display?

Simon wonders whether this is tool use by a d*g. It really isn’t, but it is a very clever rearrangement of the environment.

From Barry, who wonders what the duck is doing in there. This guy makes funny and gonzo videos, so who knows?

From the Auschwitz Memorial:

Tweets from Matthew. Interspecies sport!

One of Matthew’s beloved optical illusions:

Oy gewalt!

Today’s Sunday Sermon from Pastor Warren: “Why can’t we all get along?”

May 15, 2022 • 1:20 pm

There’s nothing wrong with Tish Harrison Warren’s latest Sunday sermon, but nothing new either. It’s the same old “We keep hating each other. Why can’t we all get along?” palaver. Click to read:

The problem is political polarization, which boils down to Democrats vs. Republicans and all that those affiliations entail. How many times have you heard this already?:

A 2019 study by Pew said, “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”

We find one another repugnant — not just wrong, but bad. Our rhetoric casts the arguments of others as profound moral failings.

Those who are sympathetic to the Florida legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill don’t just want to leave lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity — with all the inevitable values-laden presuppositions they entail — to parents until kids are around 9 years old; they are “homophobic” and “transphobic.” Those who oppose the bill don’t simply think it wise to acknowledge the reality of multiple sexual orientations and gender identities in a pluralistic society or worry the bill may force gay teachers into the closet; they are “groomers.”

. . . .Our tendency to adopt polarizing and moralistic patterns of speech is turbo-boosted by a social media architecture that encourages animosity toward outgroups.

But this hatred toward our opponents and the accompanying habit of moralism is destroying us as people. To be clear, I am not saying that I find all the brief arguments I’ve listed above equally valid or true. And I’m certainly not saying that they don’t really matter or have enormous cultural ramifications. I’m saying that we cannot flourish as individuals or as a society if we cast all those who differ from us as moral monsters.

Well, okay. But we can surely differ in matters of morality without calling our opponents “monsters” (Trump gets a pass on this one!). But the solution? The Bible, of course!

So before we disagree with others, we have to make a decision about who our ideological opponents are. Are they like us or wholly other? How should we think of people, especially people with whom we have deep differences?

For me, the answer to this question is rooted in two ideas. One is that every single one of us is, as described in the book of Genesis, made in the image of God. With this core identity comes indelible dignity and worth. In practice, this means that I must assume that people I interact with, even those with whom I disagree, often have things they love that are worth defending and perspectives that I can learn from.

The other idea that informs how I see people is that they are fallen. The idea of human depravity or sinfulness means that every person — including me — is myopic and limited, their thinking faulty and subject to deception and confusion. This should humble us all.

One way to repair our social discourse is to begin with the assumption that we are not wildly better or worse than anyone else. Each person who disagrees with me (and each who doesn’t) is, like me, a complex blend of insight, neurosis and sin, pure and impure motives, right on some things, wrong on others.

Of course we’ve heard this all before, and how some have overcome it (viz., the friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia).  And I work with plenty of people whose politics I’m not down with. There are few people whom I see as “moral monsters,” but there are some. I have a hard time, for instance, seeing Vladimir Putin as just an imperfect human made in the image of God.

But most important, we don’t need the Bible for any of this. We are NOT made in the image of God; our “dignity and worth,” for what they are, come from the fact that we are primates living in a global community that works best when we treat each other as moral equals.  The only reason why Warren says we’re made in the image of God is because the Bible tells her so, but of course if she’s being truthful, and we’re really all imperfect and sinners, then God Himself must be an imperfect sinner.

Likewise, the idea of “sin” (beginning of course with Adam and Eve, who were “fallen”) adds nothing—indeed, detracts from—the simple idea that nobody is perfect. In her view, our sinfulness is inborn because it comes from Adam and Eve. But of course some people are more “sinful” than others. I wouldn’t put the Taliban, for instance, on a par with Peter Singer.

And the semon endeth thus:

Thinking the best of the other will inevitably mean we sometimes think more highly of others than we should. We will assume their motives are purer than they actually are. But if we must err, this is the right way to err. It’s easy to think that when we consider the strongest argument and most charitable motivations of others we are doing them a favor. But we are actually doing ourselves a favor as well. Not only does dealing with steel men, as opposed to straw men, help our own arguments grow sharper, it also helps us continue to have a posture of learning, of growth, of curiosity, of compassion and of joy.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but Pastor Warren doesn’t. She gets her handsome check by purveying these kinds of platitudes—views that come straight out of secular humanism—as if they derive from Christianity. I can’t criticize her for saying the equivalent of “brush your teeth every day and don’t hurt people”, but this is all anodyne. When is the NYT going to replace her slot with somebody who a). doesn’t tout Jesus and b). says something substantive?

So go hug a white supremacist or Mitch McConnell. Amen.

The Nation calls for a reformation of the New York Times

May 15, 2022 • 11:45 am

When reader Linda sent me this link from the respected magazine The Nation (free read; click on screenshot below), I was delighted, thinking that writer Dan Froomkin was going to call out the NYT for its one-sided ultraprogressive Leftism that has begun seeping into its news coverage as well as having led to the newsroom’s dominance by social-media loudmouths.

I was out of luck. If anything, Froomkin is chastising the magazine and its previous editor, Dean Baquet, for being too easy on the Right! Click screenshot to read:

Froomkin thinks that the papers’ “both-side-ism” and its failure to call out Republican lies as the lies they are is going to hurt the Democrats during the midterm. His summary:

Under Baquet, the Times has treated the upcoming midterms like any other. Reporters have glibly asserted that Republicans are in great shape to sweep, and win back a majority in one or both houses of Congress. They have unquestioningly adopted the conventional political wisdom that midterms are a referendum on the president, and since Biden is underwater, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans stand for.

But that’s not what these midterms will actually be about. They won’t be about Joe Biden, or putting a “check” on his agenda. They won’t be a “protest vote”.

It’s not just that the GOP has become an insurrectionist party that traffics in hate-filled conspiracy theories and lies. Now the Supreme Court has evidently decided to repeal Roe v. Wade, and Republicans are planning to force pregnant women to term against their will.

For decades, the history of America has been of expanding human and constitutional rights. At this moment, however, we appear to be headed the other way—unless a supermajority says no at the ballot box. Starting in November.

That’s the real story of the midterms.

The goal of a responsible news organization is not to get people to vote a specific way. But it is to make sure that everyone understands what’s at stake.

[JAC: what Froomkin means is “that everyone agrees with me’]

This potential tipping point is what New York Times journalists should be reporting the hell out of. Even more importantly, they need to be putting every daily political story squarely in that context.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but it seems to me that the NYT journalists have been doing that. They would regularly enumerate and point out Trump’s lies, and except for their few token conservative columnists, most oop-eds were precisely about the dangers of the Republican Party and platform.

Apparently not. Froomkin wants every political story to be slanted towards the perfidy of the Right. But is that objective journalism?  Here’s a list of how Froomkin says the Times has failed in its reporting (his quotes) and what the new editor, Joe Kahn, must fix lest our Republic dissolve in acrimony:

  • False equivalence or both-sidesing (“lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts”)
  • Focusing on what works instead of whether it’s true or false (“Republicans are using fears of critical race theory to drive school board recalls and energize conservatives”)
  • Attributing the most obviously true characterizations to “critics” or Democrats (“Rufo…has become, to some on the left, an agitator of intolerance”)
  • Spectacular understatement (“in a move that has raised eyebrows among diplomats, investors and ethics watchdogs, Mr. Kushner is trying to raise money from the Persian Gulf states”)
  • Pox on both your houses (“Democrats, without much to brag about, accuse Republicans of being afraid of competitive elections”)
  • Giving both parties credit for solving problems entirely created by Republicans (“Senate Democrats and Republicans neared agreement…to temporarily pull the nation from the brink of a debt default”)
  • Denial and gaslighting (Republicans “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year”)

And more of his solution:

It doesn’t mean more “fact-checks” (which are insufficient, euphemistic, and skewed). It means rigorous lie-outing in the main news stories, and more stories about the motives behind the lies.

. . . The Times also needs to report aggressively and plainly on the racism, misogyny, and Christian nationalism that fuels the right, rather than covering it up with euphemisms.

Real independence manifests itself in exposing racial injustice and the civilian toll of US air strikes. It manifests itself in holding accountable institutions like the Supreme Court, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers of Disease Control, major corporations, and, yes, both political parties—without fear or favor.

What he means by “both political parties” is apparently “one political party”—Republicans. God knows they ar the major danger to our democracy, but the solution to a Democratic victory cannot lie in slanting a paper whose news reporting is biased to the progressive Left towards the even farther left. Or in calling those who vote for Republicns racists, misogynists, or Christian nationalists. For THAT is disinformation!

For one thing, most Americans who vote for Republicans don’t read the New York Times. It would seem a far better for the Democrats to beef up their message to the people on immigration, the economy, and other issues that people care about than for one guy to hector the new editor of the NYT. Face it—we’re near the usual midterm downswing anyway, and it doesn’t help that the Democrats are fractured and Biden often appears senescent, with an all-time low approval rating.

But Froomkin’s solution to the wokeness of the New York Times appears to be for it to become more woke.

Did New Atheism go too far?

May 15, 2022 • 10:00 am

Here we have a 30-minute talk given on April 24 by British philosopher Julian Baggini at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn. You can find it on their site, but you’d have to pay to see the whole thing.

Fortunately, Baggini has posted it on his own site, and you can see the whole talk by clicking on the screenshot below. It was billed to me as a discussion of the question “has New Atheism gone too far?”. Though there’s precious little discussion of that (if you want to see repeated “yeses,” go to Pharyngula), but Baggini does give a qualified “yes” toward the end of the talk.

While I disagree with Baggini’s view that there can be a general coalition of the “reasonable” that includes both believers and atheists working together to find truth, Baggini is generally sensible and measured in his views, as he was in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a good introduction to the ins and outs of atheism, and to the widespread but mistaken consequences to most people of embracing it (i.e., atheism leaves us no grounds for morality).  Below are the introductory notes from both sites.

Atheism revisited

The first decade of the 21st century saw an extraordinary rise in confident atheism. Now the whirlwind has settled, what does the future of belief look like? In this talk philosopher and author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini explores the new landscape of atheism.

The Speaker

Julian Baggini is a British philosopher, journalist and author of over 20 philosophical books. Since graduating with a PhD from University College London in 1997, he has co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and been a regular contributor to both national and international newspapers.

Click below to go to the vieo.

Baggini begins with a very short history of Western atheism, mentioning three prominent exponents:  Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a Catholic priest whom Baggini considers the first “modern” western atheist (his Catholicism was not really his own belief, but his framework for helping others), David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.

The common strand of all three men is that they were atheists in the sense of being “rational skeptics.” That is, they maintained that there was no reason to believe that God existed, and therefore the probability was strongly against it.  Some people call those “agnostics”, but I prefer Baggini’s definition: “a -theists”: those who dont embrace theism.

Like all who are empiricists, I adhere to a form of Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability,” which scores in a Bayesian way one’s degree of certainty that there’s a God. Dawkins constructed a seven-point scale of increasing atheism, with “1” denoting the view “Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung: ‘I do not believe, I know,'” and with  7 denoting the view “Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one’.”

Richard ultimately put himself at 6.9 on that scale, but I’d probably be even closer to 7 given the total absence of evidence for God. After all, where would you rest on a “spectrum of leprechaun probability”?

And indeed, that’s the true scientific attitude towards something. One can never say with absolute certainty that something does not exist, but you can come damn close to certainty. In my book Faith Versus Fact, I draw out one scenario that would make me believe in the Christian God, but even that scenario would confer on me only provisional belief.

At any rate, I’m happy with Baggini’s definition of atheism as “one who does not accept the existence of God” and will leave it to others to argue about the slippery term “agnostic”.

Baggini adds that there is an add-on to this definition of atheism (not, thank Ceiling Cat, the necessity for promoting “progressive” social justice), but the view that this form of atheism, being empirical, also entails “naturalism”:  the notion that “the natural world is the only world there is, a world described in physical terms at its most fundamental level” by the natural sciences. To Baggini—and again I agree—everything else, like emotions and consciousness, are emergent phenomena of natural processes. There is no evidence for the “supernatural”. Although people are put off by the “dogmatism” of atheists, when you embrace it as a provisional position that can be quantified on a scale, it doesn’t look so dogmatic.

The good part starts when Baggini tackles New Atheism (NA), whose onset he attributes to Dawkins’s 2006 The God Delusion, though Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I take as the real beginning, was published two years earlier. (It all, says Baggini, was formented by the 9/11 attacks.) Clearly Dawkins’s book did the most to popularize NA, but Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris (and, says Baggini, to a lesser extent Dennett) were the main promulgators of NA.

Baggini then ticks off what he sees as the distinctive claims of NA, which he says in the main created a “problematic view of atheism”. (I disagree.) The claims (not direct quotes) are indented; my comments are flush left.

a. Religion was about offering a quasiscientific view of origin of the world. It was explanatory, the way that science was, and this created a false clash between science and religion. In reality, as Baggini says later , there were theologians like Karen Armstrong who argued that religion was more about practice than fact: “ways of understanding the world that would give us a moral framework.”

Yes, there are apophatic and Sophisticated Theologians®, but Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins explicitly addressed religion as it is practiced and taught by regular folks, not tendentious pseudointellectuals like Armstrong. And as I argue in my book, without some empirical assertions about the world (i.e., Christ was the son of God, was crucified, resurrected, and can bring us eternal salvation), no Abrahamic religion, nor most religions, have credibility and would have no believers. Even cargo cults depend on assertions about the existence of John Frum, for crying out loud!

b.  Religion was harmful in various ways, valorizing faith and dogma, discouraging people not to think for themselves, and making people enemies of reason (a quality said to be monopolized by the atheists).

To me this claim is largely true and I have nothing much to say about it. Of course most believers behave rationally at most times, but they abandon that the moment they walk through the door of the church, synagogue, or mosque. Nobody thinks that all religionists are automatons or zombies who never think for themselves.

c.  Religion was a source of evil by promoting absolutist world views, tribalism, extremes, and division.

There’s no way to determine whether, over history, religion has been a net good or bad in the world. I’d argue for the “bad” side, but at least one can make a good case that it’s outmoded today based on the a-reglious countries of northern Europe which seem, if anything, morally better than religious countries like the U. S. And then we have the annoying issue of “is it good to make people believe something for which there is no evidence?”

d.  Religion’s respect by society was undeserved; this taboo had to be broken.

Again, this is palpably true. How many charlatans have gotten respected (and rich) by becoming pastors? As Christopher Hitchens said of Jerry Falwell soon after the Reverend’s death, “”The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called ‘reverend’.”

e.  Religion is a monolith; New Atheists ignored nondogmatic and intelligent religious people.

I see this as untrue, and know that several times the NA’s have discussed this problem. What they did not do was assert that because some believers are smart and nondogmatic, that this somehow gives extra credibility to their religious beliefs.

Given that these assertions of NA supposedly caused unnecessary division in the West—and especially the U.S.—what does Baggini recommend? What he calls for is a  “coalition of the reasonable”, an alliance in which people, “no matter what their fundamental convictions about God or not God are, are committed to a way of thinking reasonably and rationally about the world.”

Well, we already have that, and it’s called humanism. Insofar as religious people start thinking rationally about the world in arms with their atheist comrades, they are abandoning their religious belief, which is perforce irrational.

Now I’m not exactly sure how this coalition is supposed to work (Baggini slips it in at the end), or how one can get to get many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or Southern Baptists to sign on to an adherence to reason. (Baggini mentions one Muslim of the past who believed that empirical truth trumped the dictates of the Qur’an, but that was ages ago.)

This all sounds good, but I don’t see it happening. A world of rationality has no room for religion, nor for any sort of harmful superstition.

Have a listen and see what you think.

Fom Barry:

h/t Ginger K

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 15, 2022 • 8:00 am

It’s Sunday, and that is The Day of Bird Photos by John Avise. Today’s batch has a sub-Antarctic theme. John’s IDs and narrative are indented; click on the photos to enlarge:

UshuaiaProfessor Coyne’s Antarctica trip started and ended in Chile, but another routine point of departure in the Americas is the small city of Ushuaia in extreme southern Argentina.  It is from Ushuaia that my own 2019 trip to Antarctica (plus the Falklands and South Georgia) began and concluded.  Today’s batch of pictures shows bird photos that I took in and around the town of Ushuaia just before starting and after returningfrom our ship’s two-week voyage to Antarctic regions.

Austral Negrito, Lessonia negrito:

Austral Thrush, Turdus falcklandii:

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax (yes, it’s the samespecies we have here in North America):

Blackish Oystercatcher, Haematopus ater:

Dark-bellied Cinclodes, Cinclodes patagonicus:

Dolphin Gull, Leucophaeus scoresbii:

Fiery-eyed Diucon. Xolmis pyrope:

Kelp Goose, Chloephaga hybrida (female):

Kelp Goose (male):

Kelp Goose (pair):

Kelp Gull, Larus dominicanus:

Red Shoveler, Spatula platalea:

Rufous-collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia capensis:

Southern Lapwing, Vanellus chilensis:

Tufted Tit-tyrant, Anairetes parulus:

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura (yes, it’s the same species we have here in North America):

17) White-crested Elaenia, Elaenia albiceps:

Sunday: Hili dialogue

May 15, 2022 • 6:30 am

Good morning on a dreary Sunday: May 15, 2022. National Chocolate Chip Day. If you use them, be sure they’re real chocolate and not called “chocolatey chips” (the word “chocolatey indicates, well, let’s use an example from Starbucks:

The FDA’s standard for sweet chocolate (that is, not milk chocolate or bittersweet chocolate, which both have different standards) is that it must contain “not less than 15 percent by weight of chocolate liquor.” Chocolate liquor is chocolatier-speak for liquid cocoa mass (for the booze version, it’s liqueur). Here, now, is the ingredient list for Starbucks’s chocolatey chips:

Confectionery Coating (Sugar, 100% RSPO Palm Kernel And Palm Oils, Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Soy Lecithin, Vanilla, Milk), Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Cookie Crumbs (Unbleached Unenriched Wheat Flour, Sugar, Palm And Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Chocolate Mass, Salt, Baking Soda, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor), Chocolate Mass (2%), And Salt.

I am still deeply depressed from yesterday’s duck rescue. Though I still think it was the best course of action, the mother is grieving, and yesterday walked all around the patio for hours, quacking plaintively. That’s just what Dorothy did when Honey ducknapped her entire brood (but then Dorothy renested and ultimately had her own brood).

*Just another day in gun-loving America. Ten people were killed and three injured in a mass shooting in a Buffalo (New York) grocery store. The 18-year old suspect, white, is in custody, and there are suggestions that the wanton killing was an anti-black hate crime. That this kind of thing is regular news shows how sick our country is.  UPDATE: It’s pretty clear the guy had racist motives, as he drove from his white suburb to the black area of Buffalo where the supermarket was. The NYT now says this:

Shortly after Mr. Gendron was captured, a manifesto believed to have been posted online by the gunman emerged, riddled with racist, anti-immigrant views that claimed white Americans were at risk of being replaced by people of color. In the video that appeared to have been captured by the camera affixed to his helmet, an anti-Black racial slur can be seen on the barrel of his weapon.

According to the NBC News last night, the racial slur was the n-word.

*But let’s not forget the other mass shootings in the last few weeks: the AP tallies the carnage from mass shootings (not the usual individual homicides) in the last month excluding the Buffalo attack:  13 dead and dozens injured.  None of these, of course involved guns used in self-defense or to maintain a “well regulated Militia.”

*A good science piece in the NYT: recent in advances in implanting electrodes and microchips in the brains of largely paralyzed people, allowing them to control external devices with their minds. The accomplishment to date, even though this is new science, is remarkable.

*Surprise! Clarence Thomas, who never speaks from the bench, has declared that the leak of a tentative opinion in Roe v. Wade has undermined trust in the Supreme Court:

The leak of a draft opinion regarding abortion has turned the Supreme Court into a place “where you look over your shoulder,” Justice Clarence Thomas said Friday night, and it may have irreparably sundered trust at the institution.

“What happened at the court was tremendously bad,” Thomas said in a conversation with a former law clerk at a conference of conservative and libertarian thinkers in Dallas. “I wonder how long we’re going to have these institutions at the rate we’re undermining them. And then I wonder when they’re gone or destabilized, what we’re going to have as a country.”

It was second time in a week that Thomas has decried declining respect for “institutions”; he made similar remarks at a conference of judges and lawyers last week.

Perhaps the Justice might consider that declining respect for the Court has also rested largely on its explicit politicization, on the lies told by prospective conservative Justices during their hearings, and on the wonky decisions of a conservative court.

*Mo Dowd rarely says anything original in her NYT column these days (her schtick is being snarky), but at least she’s going after the religiousity of the Supreme Court (Dowd was raised Catholic):

During her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Amy Coney Barrett tried to reassure Democrats who were leery of her role as a “handmaid” in a Christian group called “People of Praise.”

The group has a male-dominated hierarchy and a rigid view of sexuality reflecting conservative gender norms and rejecting openly gay men and women. Men, the group’s decision makers, “headed” their wives.

Justice Barrett said then that she would not impose her personal beliefs on the country. “Judges can’t just wake up one day and say ‘I have an agenda — I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion’ — and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” she said amicably. “It’s not the law of Amy. It’s the law of the American people.”

Of course Barrett lied, as did Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, and it’s a shame that we can’t do squat about it. Dowd goes on:

Still, this Catholic feels an intense disquiet that Catholic doctrine may be shaping (or misshaping) the freedom and the future of millions of women, and men. There is a corona of religious fervor around the court, a churchly ethos that threatens to turn our whole country upside down.

I come from a family that hews to the Catholic dictates on abortion, and I respect the views of my relatives. But it’s hard for me to watch the church trying to control women’s sexuality after a shocking number of its own priests sexually assaulted children and teenagers for decades, and got recycled into other parishes, as the church covered up the whole scandal. It is also hard to see the church couch its anti-abortion position in the context of caring for women when it continues to keep women in subservient roles in the church.

. . . The explosive nature of Alito’s draft opinion on Roe has brought to the fore how radical the majority on the court is, willing to make women fit with their zealous worldview — a view most Americans reject. It has also shown how radical Republicans are; although after pushing for this result for decades, because it made a good political weapon, they are now pretending it’s no big deal. We will all have to live with the catastrophic results of their zealotry.

*The NYT has a big article on whether being rich makes you happier (yes, but with diminishing returns), and on which endeavors do make people happy. The article says those results are obvious, but not so much to me:

 So what do three million happiness data points tell us?

The activities that make people happiest include sex, exercise and gardening. People get a big happiness boost from being with a romantic partner or friends but not from other people, like colleagues, children or acquaintances. Weather plays only a small role in happiness, except that people get a hearty mood boost on extraordinary days, such as those above 75 degrees and sunny. People are consistently happier when they are out in nature, particularly near a body of water, particularly when the scenery is beautiful.

Well, yes, but fulfilling work does, too (apparently most people don’t have that):

Dr. MacKerron and the economist Alex Bryson found that work is the second-most-miserable activity; of 40 activities, only being sick in bed makes people less happy than working. The economist Steven Levitt found that when people are uncertain whether to quit a job, they can be nudged to quit. And when they quit, they report increased happiness months later.

Social media is not reported as a big source of happiness, but neither is other media. I can speak only for myself, but reading good books is an immense source of happiness to me. So it goes.

*A world record has been set for the sale of a single photograph (below): Man Ray’s 1924 photograph of the nude back of his girlfriend with violin markings on her back, a photo called Le Violon d’Ingres.” (Photo from Christie’s):

How much did it go for? $12.4 million at Christie’s, well over the $5-$7 million pre-auction estimate and the record for any photograph at auction. I’m not a big fan of this photo. Even though it’s clever; I’d rather have a good Cartier-Bresson hanging on my wall any day. Getting the cleverness takes two seconds, but there are depths and depths in some of Cartier-Bresson’s photos.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is using the hedge as a metaphor for change in the world.

Hili: I can see a change.
A: Where?
Hili: In the hedge.
In Polish:
Hili: Dostrzegam jakąś zmianę.
Ja: Gdzie?
Hili: W żywopłocie.
And at Malgorzata and Andrze’s, the wisteria is blooming spectacularly:

Kulka (photo by Paulina):

From Jesus of the Day:

Ditto:

A dog race derailed by a real rabbit running across the track (h/t Stash Krod).

From Simon, who says, correctly, “No cat ever did this”:

No cat ever did this, either? WHO’S a good boy?

Via Merilee. Look at that face!

A tweet from Paul; the musician is Ukrainian musician and activist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the song is called “Everything will be all right”, and the English translation of the lyrics is here.

From Ginger K:

From the Auschwitz Memorial:

Tweets from Matthew: Life is stranger than fiction:

I turned the sound up only to hear the crustacean equivalent of a Rickroll:

I wonder what she fed them:

I don’t get this. Were the Russians stealing it?

The Independent on why mandated burqa-wearing “doesn’t represent Islam”

May 14, 2022 • 11:45 am

Here we have an article in The Independent whose contents I agree with completely (the message by Faiza Saquib, an “assistant audience editor” at the Independent, is that the way Muslim women dress should be completely their choice), but whose title I take issue with. Click to read:

This happens to coincide, as I mentioned yesterday, with the Taliban’s new dictate that all Afghan women outside must wear burqas, and remember that burqas are the full Monty of veiling:

The Taliban have reneged on their promise (when they took over as the U.S. was fleeing) to allow women and girls to go to school, a shameful lie:

And now they’ve ordered the segregation of men and women (even if they’re married) in restaurants and public parks in Herat, a formerly liberal town in western Afghanistan. I predicted the Taliban would lie to the world about their intentions, pretending a new liberalism, but hey, they’re the Taliban! Their religion dictates (or rather approves of) these practices, and they’re not giving them up to court the worldly West.

Author Saquib is a liberal Muslim, and abhors forced covering:

The women in Afghanistan are now facing stricter laws that take away their basic human rights. Children over the age of 12 can no longer attend school and Saheen’s response to this was: “We never said they are banned, they are under consideration. We want to work out a mechanism.” This is a laughable and degrading response as girls’ and women’s right to education has been taken away from them.

Since the Taliban gained power, they stopped issuing driving licenses to women and now, the burqa – or veil, as they like to call it – is being forced on women in a clear symbol of oppression and misogyny.

As I watched in complete dismay, I couldn’t help but shake my head in disgust. In response to Morgan’s question on why the new law had been laid down, Saheen responded: “Women have been observing hijab for centuries, they’ve been doing it voluntarily.” There is a lot that is wrong about his statement.

Yes, some women may choose to wear the hijab voluntarily on the basis of their faith, however, the decree that has been introduced in Afghanistan clearly shows that there is no choice for women. It’s a forceful law that takes away the “voluntary” element.

With their twisted ideologies stemming from a cultural desire for male dominance, the Taliban’s ignorant attempts to oppress women is all too familiar a narrative for women and girls in Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover saw women’s rights slowly disintegrate – girls were told to go home and not attend schools, they were told to act and be a certain way, and forcefully silenced when protesting against such oppression.

The hijab, niqab and burqa should be a journey in which the woman chooses. It should never be forced on anyone. The same applies to women wanting to cover their hair or body in other faiths.

I agree, of course, though I’ve pointed out several times that the notion of “choice”, meaning “something not forced on anyone by their friends, relatives, or social pressure” is problematic when it comes to hijabs or other forms of covering. When putting hijabs on girls begins at the age of 5 or 6, as it often does, even in the U.S., and the veiling persists through life, in what way is it a choice? (I’m speaking as a determinist here, and have defined “choice” above, meaning “something somebody does not because they’re forced to by others”. )

And social pressure can be strong in Muslim communities. When I spoke at the secular Middle East Technical University in Ankara some years ago, a school where hijabs were banned, I got the rare chance to ask Muslim women undergraduates if they favored that ban. They uniformly replied that yes they did, for if hijabs were allowed, the hijab-wearers would begin to shame the Muslim non-wearers for being “bad Muslims.” I suspect that those who say they wear a hijab simply because they want to and are under no pressure constitute only a fraction of all veiled Muslim women.

But it’s the tile of the piece, which is echoed in the text, that bothers me: “The Taliban and their burqa decree don’t represent Islam.” Immediately you’ll ask yourself, “What does she mean by ‘representing Islam'”? The Taliban is one sect of fundamentalist Islam, and is certainly “Islam” in that sense. Yes, it’s more extremist than many other sects, but not at all way out on the tail of the distribution of repressing women. It can be compared to fundamentalist Christians, like Southern Baptists, who would certainly take umbrage if they were told “they don’t represent Christianity”.

And does “represent” Islam mean “represent what is in the sacred texts” (in this case the Qur’an and the hadith), or represent the behavior that people evince to follow religious custom or dictate? They differ. I don’t believe there’s anything in the Qur’an mandating female genital mutilation, but it’s a common practice in Africa, justified and approved by several sects of Muslims. An article in Slate in 2012 notes the intertwining of Islam and everyday behavior in many Arab states.  Its author, an anonymous user on Quora, stated this:

Answer by an Anonymous User on Quora:

As an Arab American woman raised in a conservative Muslim family, I would say that yes, Islam is a misogynistic religion.

The messages about gender that I received from my parents, extended family, family friends, religious teachers, and so on ranged from subtle to extreme. I was told, among other things, that:

  • Women can’t speak during prayer to correct an Imam (men can) because their voices are too “distracting.” (This is based on the hadith, see “From Hadith – Regarding Concealment Of Voice During Prayer“)
  • Women should lower their eyes in the presence of men. (To be fair the stuff about lowering one’s gaze is also directed toward men, not the other stuff though. This surah is significant in that it is often cited as evidence that hijab is a requirement of Islam, which is a subject of debate within the religion.)
  • Women shouldn’t wear tampons, to preserve their “purity.” (No quotes from the Quran on this as tampons weren’t around in those days, this is another topic of debate and from my understanding, people outside of Islam also debate the issue. So I have only anecdotal comments here in that every Muslim woman I’ve known has been told something to this effect, and on a personal level, when my mom discovered I was using tampons, she completely freaked out, started screaming, and threatened to take me to the doctor and have them check to see if my hymen was still intact, which seems to be not infrequent behavior—a Muslim friend of mine who was caught skipping class had her parents ask the doctor to check her hymen. But again, this is anecdotal, and I’m just mentioning this as a qualitative “data point,” as it were.)
  • There are passages in the Quran that advocate beating disobedient wives (see this paragraph“In fact, the word in the Quran in 4:34 used for “beat” is “idreb.” It is a conjugate of the word “daraba” which primarily means “to beat, strike, to hit” – Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, page 538”).
  • Polygamy is legal and practiced in many Muslim countries and permitted by the Quran

. . . I’d like to reassert my argument that Muslim countries heralded as being more liberal are not following Islam as strictly. Any Muslim country that affords, for example, a woman’s testimony in court the same worth as a man’s testimony, is not actually following the Quran (one male witness equals two female witnesses). The same holds true for countries where polygamy is illegal, and in most cases for any Muslim who affords a female heir the same inheritance as a male heir.

All monotheisms are misogynistic to some extent, but of these Islam and perhaps Orthodox Judaism have codified the misogyny most strongly. Frankly, I don’t care whether it’s from the Bible or Qur’an, an interpretation of that scripture, or customs that have become connected with religion. Covering the body, like genital mutilation, is part of Islam, just as are the customs of inheritance and testimony in court mentioned just above.

Does the author agree with the title about the burqa “not representing Islam”? Apparently so, at least judging from her opening paragraphs:

Islam, a religion of peace, has been tainted by individuals that choose to label their cruelty as “Jihad” and justify the violence they cause in the world. It’s wrong and revolting and absolutely misleading.

Women have the highest status and respect in Islam, something that many men, due to their chosen ignorance, ignore.

The Quran says: “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will, and you should not treat them with harshness.” In fact, in many verses of the Quran, women and men are addressed as  “believing men and women” to highlight the equality of both in regard to their duties, rights and virtues.

This is whitewashing, pure and simple. Yes, as the anonymous Quora author notes, there are liberal Muslim countries where women can go unveiled and have more equality, but I suspect these are the exception.  Women do not have “the highest status and respect in Islam”, save as their value as breeders or as fragile and tempting vessels that must be covered to quench the ardor of men.  And I don’t want to hear “Islam is a religion of peace” any longer. It isn’t, though there were times that it was.

UPDATE:  Sarah Haider informs me that her organization, the Ex-Muslims of North America, have taken over the WikiIslam site and have been revamping its articles.  Here are two sites of interest for this post:

Article on women, with citations: https://wikiislam.net/wiki/Islam_and_Women

There are tons of articles and references on how Islam treats women. Religion may not be the cause of misogyny, but it can certainly codify and perpetuate misogyny. Here Haider discusses the relationship between hijab and Islam, and takes up the issue of “choice”:

Caturday felid trifecta: Best cat cities in America; Ritz the cat turns up after 16 years; black cat named mayor of Hell, Michigan

May 14, 2022 • 9:30 am

From “The World’s Best Cat Litter” site, an advertising site, we hav a list of the best cat cities in America. The data used in the compilation seems wonky, but here’s the intro (click to read):

The list:

1.) New York City

2.) Los Angeles

3.) Chicago. This is what they say about my town:

We love Chicago for deep-dish pizza and Navy Pier. Cats love Chicago because of the views! While birds fly back and forth, an apartment cat is in her element watching all the wildlife pass by. For cat lovers, there are a number of cat cafes and events throughout the city that celebrate all things cat-related. The only thing Chicago is missing is a great sports team with a cat mascot.

4.) Dallas

5.) Atlanta

6.) Houston

7). Philadelphia

8.) Seattle

9.) San Francisco. 

In truth, the list reads like the group of cities that the writers like the most, having little to do with cats. Only Dallas has any bona fides, described as “Apart from the perfect climate for window perching, Dallas is also one of the first cities in the country to be certified as a Better City for Pets™, as part of the Mars Petcare Better Cities for Pets™”

I’d say the best city for cats is the city where you live, especially if you have a cat.

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Here, from USA Today, we have another story of a cat gone missing and found after a long period—in this case 16 years. Not only that, but he was on the verge of being euthanized when, glory be, the vet found a microchip. (Make sure all your cats are chipped.)

Ritz is a gray tabby who escaped from his owner’s Delaware apartment in 2006, apparently gone forever. Click on the story to read.

The owner Jason McKenry, made strenuous efforts to find Ritz, putting up this poster:

Jason kept calling animal shelters, as he had been told that before an animal is “put down,” vets routinely check dogs for microchips but not cats:

“Almost universally, the answer I got from all the shelters and vets was that they checked for dogs,” he said, “but they really didn’t check routinely for cats.”

I’d call that blatant discrimination. At any rate, Jason got married, had two kids, and Ritz was still gone.  Then, after 14 years, the rescue:

About two years ago, Emily Russell noticed a gray tabby kept coming near her home in a mobile home park near Delaware’s Lums Pond.

Russell, then 18, began feeding the cat and some other feral cats that came around her place. But this tabby was a little different from the others.

“He was just so sweet and innocent,” said Russell, now 20. “I named this cat Tom because he looks like a Tomcat. He’s an old man.”

Russell said she’s been feeding eight outside cats, but Tom, who would sleep under mobile homes, was the only cat that ever let her pet him.

“We would have love sessions outside,” she said. She’d also allow the cat into her home where he interacted with her two indoor cats.

Recently, Tom showed up at her doorstep with an injured paw and back leg.

“It looked like he got hit by a car,” she said. “His front leg was very hurt. He was holding it up, and he wasn’t able to walk.”

Russell and her dad took him to Lums Pond Animal Hospital to see if anything could be done for him – or if he needed to be put down.

That’s when they found out Tom had a chip.

“I started bawling my eyes out,” she said. “If I had known he had a chip I would have taken him sooner, but he just looked like a feral cat.”

Here’s “old man” Ritz with Russell. Where had he been for fourteen years?

Liz McKenry sobbed for about an hour.

The couple picked up their children and drove to the animal hospital where they were reunited with Ritz.

After being treated at the animal hospital, they took Ritz to the home of Caroline Clark, Liz McKenry’s mother who they jokingly refer to as a “certified cat lady.”

There Ritz rested most of Tuesday.

The McKenrys aren’t sure if Ritz recognizes them, but he is being friendly.

“He hasn’t balked at all about being handled,” Jason McKenry said. “It’s astonishing.”

Here’s Ritz after the rescue:

This is the part that bothers me; they are letting someone else take care of their ageing cat:

The McKenrys returned to Annapolis Tuesday night, leaving Ritz at Clark’s home to recover. After that, they will figure out what comes next.

“He’s obviously had a long eventful life,” Jason McKenry said. “But he’ll be comfortable for whatever time he has left.”

Yes, he’ll be comfortable, and perhaps he’s forgotten his original owner (Jason), but I sure as hell would keep Ritz for the rest of his life. Well, to each their own.

Here’s the errant moggy with Jason and his post-Ritz wife Liz:

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This is a short and sweet article from Bored Panda about a black cat named honorary mayor of Hell (a town in Michigan that you can read about here or here). Click to read the article below:

Here’s pretty much all the information about Jinx, including social media sites:

Pets go viral on the internet for either the most wholesome or the most bizarre reasons, and there are rare situations where it’s both at the same time. However, today we’d like for you to meet an adorable cat named Jinx who happened to go viral for the most bizarre and wholesome reasons.

Jinx has disproportionately large eyes and feet and has been this way ever since she was little when she stumbled into her owner’s backyard and found her forever home from that very day. However, that’s not the entire point of Jinx’s charm: the reason the unique cat went viral was because she applied to be a politician for a day (yes, seriously) or in other words, she ran for Mayor of the city Hell in Michigan.

More info: Instagram | tiktok.com | twitter.com | twitch.tv | youtube.com

Here’s Hell:

Jinx (a great name) as a kitten. Look at the size of her eyes! (All photo credits: bigfootjinx)

Jinx grown up. Apparently her feet are so large that she can’t walk properly.  I can’t see oversized feet, they do look a bit deformed. The eyes, however, are HUGE.

xAnd a temporary mayorship:

And a video:

 

h/t: jj,