A Bilingual Condemnation of the Niqab

On November 9th 2015, Alban Ketelbuters’ article, “Zunera Ishaq, le Canada et le niqab” was published in the Huffingon Post Québec. It is possible that John McCallum, Minister of Immigration and Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice didn’t read Ketelbuters’ article or they chose to ignore it.

On November 16, this statement from the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and the Minister of Justice was posted on the Government of Canada website:

Niqab Appeal

Ketelbuters’ article, translated into English and posted on the Atheist Freethinker website as  “Zunera Ishaq, Canada and the Niqab,” is a convincing argument against the Canadian government’s decision to cancel its application to appeal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration v. Ishaq.

Ketelbuters begins by pointing out,

If the niqab were promoted by fundamentalist Catholics, the vast majority of progressives and feminists would have condemned it. Many of those who are intransigent when it comes to macho violence orchestrated by white males from a Christian background—violence which normally meets with immediate and unanimous condemnation—suddenly become much more discrete, nuanced and comprehensive when citizens from a Muslim background are involved.

While Ketelbuters’ article “Zunera Ishaq, Canada and the Niqab” presents a convincing argument against the niqab, one paragraph is especially vivid and persuasive:

Why do feminists celebrate each year the memory of the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, and yet remain silent about the ordinary despotism which continues to operate through the Islamic veil? Must Islamists walk their women like dogs on leashes before male politicians finally do something about it?

Those of us who consider the niqab “archaic and demeaning” are waiting for an answer.

Rex Murphy On Institutes Of Higher Whining

I seem to have more time for Rex Murphy than do most CA writers and commenters. I don’t always agree with the man, but I appreciate his acerbic writing and his crusty, canny sensibilities. Even when his columns strike me as misguided and badly argued, they’re entertaining and contain points I can at least vaguely sympathize with.

Murphy has just knocked it out of the park, however, with a piece on the ridiculous shenanigans currently taking place on American university campuses, particularly Yale and the University of Missouri. His opening paragraph is too good not to quote in full:

The most recent reports say there is a crisis in child services in the United States. The cost of daycare spaces has reached absolutely astronomic levels. Placement at the University of Missouri, for example, easily breaks the $40,000 threshold. And if your toddler is lucky enough to squeeze into Yale, which has some of the most craven caregivers, the most swaddled cocoons and safe spaces on the continent, it will set you back a minimum $60,000. But hey, if you want the very best day care for the intellectually infantile at any of the top Institutes of Higher Whining, that’s why God gave you noses — so you could pay through them.

As an atheist, I prefer to think that the nose is an evolutionary adaptation for detecting the unmistakable stench of an ivory tower gone bad, but perhaps Murphy and I can agree to disagree on that point. We do seem to share a conviction that the politically correct attitudes and extreme sensitivity of some American undergraduates (a small but vocal minority, one likes to think – the American students I’ve personally interacted with have been almost uniformly terrific) are undermining the whole idea of universities as venues for the free and fruitful exchange of ideas. It’s not, of course, entirely or even mostly the students’ fault: they’ll have been trained in a version of that mindset, if not actually browbeaten into it, by teachers, the media, and perhaps even their own bien pensant parents. Perhaps the problem could be solved by making admission to an undergraduate program contingent on completing a period of insensitivity training: a couple of weeks of being yelled at, lightly smacked around and generally treated like pond scum by instructors borrowed from, say, the marine corps. Having experienced that kind of treatment and discovered that it doesn’t really damage a person, even the most previously delicate prospective students might be prepared to confront the typically far milder slings and arrows of university and post-university life with a greater sense of perspective. Of course I’m joking, or at least half-joking, but from the sound of things American educators really do need to find some new approach that will curb the worst and most disruptive excesses of student activism while allowing plenty of room for the robust and even antagonistic expression of all viewpoints – including, to be sure, politically correct ones.

In Canada some parallel tendencies undoubtedly exist, but the cancer appears less advanced and therefore more readily curable. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a Calgary non-profit, recently released its 2015 Campus Freedom Index, “a report measuring the state of free speech at 55 Canadian public universities”. I’ll have more to say – not all of it strictly complimentary – about both the JCCF and the Campus Freedom Index itself once I’ve had a chance to go through the thing properly, but it does seem that the flare-ups of politically correct illiberalism that have been taking place on Canadian campuses are rather minor. Our universities remain primarily focussed on the important business of teaching, learning and intellectual exploration, and we ought to be both proud and grateful that that’s the case.

“The Evolution of the Word ‘Evolution’”

Posting the article, “The Evolution of the Word ‘Evolution,’” recommended by @OxfordWords may stimulate discussion about  the accuracy of the claims made in the article and about the evolution of the word evolution, but words are my thing, so object or correct the article if you wish:

It is curious that, although the modern theory of evolution has its source in Charles Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species (1859), the word evolution does not appear in the original text at all. In fact, Darwin seems deliberately to have avoided using the word evolution, preferring to refer to the process of biological change as ‘transmutation’. Some of the reasons for this, and for continuing confusion about the word evolution in the succeeding century and a half, can be unpacked from the word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Evolution before Darwin

The word evolution first arrived in English (and in several other European languages) from an influential treatise on military tactics and drill, written in Greek by the second-century writer Aelian (Aelianus Tacticus). In translations of his work, the Latin word evolutio and its offspring, the French word évolution, were used to refer to a military manoeuvre or change of formation, and hence the earliest known English example of evolution traced by the OED comes from a translation of Aelian, published in 1616. As well as being applied in this military context to the present day, it is also still used with reference to movements of various kinds, especially in dance or gymnastics, often with a sense of twisting or turning.

In classical Latin, though, evolutio had first denoted the unrolling of a scroll, and by the early 17th century, the English word evolution was often applied to ‘the process of unrolling, opening out, or revealing’. It is this aspect of its application which may have been behind Darwin’s reluctance to use the term. Despite its association with ‘development’, which might have seemed apt enough, he would not have wanted to associate his theory with the notion that the history of life was the simple chronological unrolling of a predetermined creative plan. Nor would he have wanted to promote the similar concept of embryonic development, which saw the growth of an organism as a kind of unfolding or opening out of structures already present in miniature in the earliest embryo (the ‘preformation’ theory of the 18th century). The use of the word evolution in such a way, radically opposed to Darwin’s theory, appears in the writings of his grandfather:

The world…might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings…rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.

Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia (1801)

Use of ‘evolution’ elsewhere

Charles Darwin’s caution, however, was futile: the word was ahead of him. By the end of the 18th century, evolution had become established as a general term for a process of development, especially when this involved a gradual change (‘evolutionary’ rather than ‘revolutionary’) from a simpler to a more complex state. The notion of the transformation of species had become respectable in academic circles during the early 19th century, and the word evolution was readily to hand when the geologist Charles Lyell was writing in the 1830s:

The testacea of the ocean existed first, until some of them by gradual evolution, were improved into those inhabiting the land.

Charles Lyell Principles of Geology (second edition, 1832)

By the 1850s, astronomers were also using the word to denote the process of change in the physical universe, and it would inevitably become central to the reception of Darwin’s work.

‘Evolution’ in Darwin’s theory

Once Darwin’s theory had been published, to widespread debate and acclaim, discussion was often made more difficult by the persistent assumption that evolution must necessarily involve some kind of progress, or development from the simple to the complex. This notion was present in the account of évolution in human society by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, and it was central to the metaphysical theories of the English speculative philosopher Herbert Spencer. Already in 1858, a year before On the Origin of Species appeared in print, Spencer was enthusiastically endorsing ‘the Theory of Evolution’— by which he meant the transformational theory of Lamarck, which Darwin’s work was set to supersede — and his keen advocacy of Darwin’s theory led to some confusion between Darwin’s ideas and his own. Even now, biologists have frequently to explain that the theory of evolution concerns a process of change, regardless of whether the change can be regarded in the long run as ‘progress’ or not.

Nevertheless, despite his reluctance to call evolution by that name, Darwin did famously dare to use the corresponding verb for the very last word in his book:

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Mourning for Paris

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 13 - The CN Tower lit up with the colours of the French Flag in support of France in the face of tragedy, on November 13, 2015 Cole Burston/Toronto Star

TORONTO, ON – NOVEMBER 13 – The CN Tower lit up with the colours of the French Flag in support of France in the face of tragedy, on November 13, 2015 Cole Burston/Toronto Star

The Globe and Mail reports,

Gunmen and bombers attacked restaurants, a concert hall and a sports stadium at locations across Paris on Friday, killing 127 people in a deadly rampage that President Francois Hollande said was the work of Islamic State and “an act of war.”

Justin Trudeau issued the following statement:

“I am shocked and saddened that so many people have been killed and injured today in a number of terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and that many others are being held hostage.

“As the situation continues to unfold, Sophie and I join all Canadians in extending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed. It is our sincere hope that the hostages are freed unharmed as soon as possible. We also wish a speedy recovery to all those who have been injured.

“Canada stands with France at this dark time and offers all possible assistance. We will continue to work closely with the international community to help prevent these terrible, senseless acts.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of France and we mourn their loss.”

Trudeau makes the erroneous assumption that all Canadians’ “prayers are with the people of France.” Trudeau does not speak for me! As one particularly sane tweet points out

“Prayers” ain’t gonna cut it.

War On Christmas: The Battle Of Starbucks

Here at Canadian Atheist we’ve been diligently preparing for the War on Christmas, but in the United States an opening skirmish has already taken place. Starbucks, that fount of decent enough coffee and unfailing pretentiousness, decided to [trigger warning!] unveil “hoilday cups” that were red in colour but had no pictures on them, other than the Starbucks logo depicting a cropped and bowdlerized version of a 15th century Norse woodcut of a mermaid (file that one away under “unfailing pretentiousness”, in this case all the worse for being combined with a tiresome puritanism). I don’t think anyone was expecting a beaming Baby Jesus, or even a pair of duelling dinosaurs (hell, it’s good enough to link to twice), but the lack of a Santa Claus, a snowperson, a Christmas tree or even a lousy snowflake prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters.

The hue and cry apparently started with an ex-pastor called Feuerstein who accused Starbucks of hating Jesus, and expanded into a small but stentorian chorus of indignation. Improbable and frequently incoherent US presidential candidate Donald Trump mused about boycotting Starbucks, while also saying that he didn’t care (about the red cups, presumably, although that wasn’t entirely clear). Across the pond, Evangelical Christian activist Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, suggested that the decision to use plain red cups “denies the hope of Jesus Christ and His story told so powerfully at this time of year” (early November?!). One Raheem Kassam diligently and rather wittily traced the degeneration of Starbucks holiday cups from conspicuous stars and a background “that resembles the branches of a Christmas tree” (2009) through “a dog sledging down a hill on the back of a snowman” (2011) to a horrifically monochromatic field of red (our benighted present), while also sneaking in a petulant complaint that Starbucks staff often wrote down his name as “Ragih”.

Many Christians, even in America, fortunately remain versed in the moribund art of keeping things in perspective. Starbucks headquarters in Seattle did not find itself besieged by crusader armies, and the ranks of the genuinely outraged appeared satisfyingly thin. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely pathetic about those plain scarlet cups, and especially about Starbucks’ own attempts to explain or defend them.

“This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories,” said Starbucks’ Vice President of Design & Content Jeffrey Fields.

So, we’re apparently to believe that a field of unbroken red exemplifies “purity of design” as opposed to simple blandness, which strikes me as ridiculous spin. I guess three hundred blank pages would welcome anyone’s story, but y’know, there’s a reason people prefer to buy actual novels.

“Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays,” Fields added. “We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday.”

Those “holidays” sure need a lot of ushering. And Starbucks has “become a place of sanctuary”? Oh, for fuck’s sake. Sanctuary from whom or what? See “unfailing pretentiousness”, above.

Another pronouncement from Starbucks was at least a little more plain-spoken.

In response to Feuerstein’s video, Starbucks said in a statement Sunday that it tries “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.”

The problem is, however, that inclusion is characteristically boring. It’s tepid, it’s vanilla, it tends towards the lowest common denominator and entails a soul-crushing effort to be all things to all people. Inclusion is having “some white fish or chicken (not always distinguishable from each other)” at a diplomatic dinner because pork, beef, shellfish, “most cheese” and “anything too spicy” might offend some delicate palate or delicate religious sensibility. Inclusion is drab, mushy and soporific.

Despite the downsides, inclusion is an unavoidable necessity or at least a highly advantageous approach on some occasions, such as when a government is inviting foreign ministers from around the world to dinner. Selling coffee, though, is a different matter. Those plain red Starbucks cups guarantee that a Christmasophobe in search of a cappuccino won’t be confronted with imagery that might ruffle his or her feathers, but also guarantee that a Christmasophile won’t feel explicitly welcomed or affirmed. A cup featuring a little Christmas tree or a reindeer might do the opposite. Starbucks no doubt had its reasons, including but likely not limited to economically rational concern for the bottom line, for opting for inclusive dullness. At least one other major American chain has gone more or less in the opposite direction.

Unlike Richard Dawkins, I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself even a cultural Christian. If anything, I think the Christian influence on Western culture has been generally a negative and enervating one, and I’d rather repudiate than embrace it. However, I don’t mind keeping a few little mementoes of our prolonged Christian phase around, even in our anthem and whatnot, and like the American writer Jay Parini I’m well aware that Christmas is just a superficially Christian gloss on a seasonal celebration with far deeper historical roots. While I’d welcome a return to Yule or Sol Invictus, I certainly prefer Christmas to the bleak generic blandness of “the holidays”. Other things being equal, I’d quite like a reindeer or something on my coffee cup, and I’d even prefer a trite nativity cartoon to just plain red. Coffee merchants, kindly take note. And while I’m issuing directives, please for the love of Santa wait until December to start all this!

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