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Sam Harris searches his anti-Muslim heart

I have noted before on this blog the interesting coincidence whereby the snazzy nu-atheism promulgated by Sam Harris devolves so often to an attack on Muslims in particular, eg as vectors for a horrible disease. Now at, there is an interesting discussion by Jonathan Haidt of “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion“, to which a bunch of nu-atheists give varyingly hysterical answers. One of them is our old friend Sam Harris, and a particular part of his “response” jumped out at me:

When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism.

Um, wouldn’t it depend first on whether the incident of nuclear terrorism had in fact been committed by “Islam”? The unexamined assumption that an incident of “nuclear terrorism”, when it happens (again), will be committed by Muslims, let alone the fault somehow of one whole religion in particular, nicely betrays Harris’s lowbrow bigotry.



Bogies at two o’clock

Barack Obama made one thing very clear in his “debate” against John McCain on Friday. There are frightening things rising up again in the world. Which things? Why, Russia for one:

Russia is in part resurgent and Putin is feeling powerful because of petro-dollars…

…a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region.

This differs from poor Sarah Palin’s vision of Russia only in that Palin thinks Vlad Putin can actually fly, and that he makes regular stealthy trips to Alaska, flapping his great wings all the while:

As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska.

Um, yes. Anyway, back to Obama. According to him, something else is also “resurgent”, and it’s more terrifying even than a Vlad Putin who can actually fly. It is, of course, “al-Qaeda”:

bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent.

al Qaeda is resurgent, stronger now than at any time since 2001.

Trying to scare voters into supporting you by invoking a supposedly increased threat from Osama bin Laden is, of course, just the sort of breath of fresh air one would expect from a revolutionary new kind of politician like Obama, who transcends politics and is a beacon unto the world, etc. At least “resurgent” is a classy new option, carrying energetic connotations of “surge”, “insurgent” and so on, while remaining usefully vague about the extent or nature of the rising-again that “al-Qaeda” is allegedly doing. Perhaps they are training themselves in yogic flying so as to bounce merrily along the ground under Vlad Putin’s flightpath, on the way to destroy the USA.

My favourite part of the “debate” was this exchange:

MCCAIN: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says precondition means preparation.

OBAMA: I am not parsing words.

MCCAIN: He’s parsing words, my friends.

OBAMA: I’m using the same words that your advisers use.

It is good to see that both candidates share a healthy indignation at the decadent and vicious practice of parsing words. What more fundamentally anti-American activity could be imagined?


Credit crunch

It melts in the mouth

Is it just me, or does “credit crunch” sound like a type of biscuit? ((I used to be very fond of Cottage Crunch biscuits, so maybe it’s just me.)) Perhaps “credit crunch” is preferred to alternative constructions — say, “credit crash” or “debt disaster” – for the same that depressions were renamed recessions in the 20th century, as dsquared (who, disappointingly though for excellent reasons, is refusing to talk about crunchy news at the moment) informed us a while back. No need to make a scary situation even scarier by saying out loud how scary it is.

As it happens, the term was already in use as long ago as 1967, when the Chicago Tribune printed the headline, spooky in hindsight: “Fannie Mae Boss Fears Credit Crunch“. Google News’s timeline of the phrase shows another spike of usages in the early 1990s, until the modern flurry begins around August 2007.

No doubt there is all sorts of interesting Unspeak being engineered for the current crisis ((In Chinese, as everyone knows, the word for “crisis” is formed from the characters for “Holy shit!” and “Pour me another drink”.)). John Quiggin over at CT has been kind enough to prod me, pointing out the current appeals to some weird notion of a “clean bailout”, which puts me in mind of something to do with filtering bilgewater, though I am not a seaman so can’t quite see that one through. I did notice that, in the context of the US Treasury buying out the banks’ toxic “assets”, a “reasonable price” has been redefined as “a price higher than anyone in their right mind actually wants to pay”, which I suppose goes to show that “reasonable” is (as always) a moveable feast. What other financial Unspeak have you noticed recently, readers?


Can freedom possible?

Graphical Bush syntax phenomenon

I’m still not blogging (though see this forum thread), but I do have a pretty picture for you. It’s a cloud of the 150 most common words in Unspeak the book, generated by the fabulous Wordle. Click for a larger image:

unspeak wordle

What do you think will be the biggest word in the cloud of my next book, readers?



Self-referential taxonomy shock

Apologies for my extended absence (or at least teleabsence). The blogging hiatus (or bliatus) will last a while longer, but I did want to punctuate it with what is to my mind the most fascinating linguistic-astronomical news of the month. You will remember the kerfuffle in 2006 over Pluto being stripped of its status as a planet. For a time there it was relegated to the description “dwarf planet”. ((Once you have decided to stop using “dwarf” to describe certain people, can you really use it much longer for anything else, except maybe for Snow White’s bearded harem? Well, apparently some female whales worms that munch on dead whales enjoy dwarf male harems too. But I notice that Apple does not offer an iPod Dwarf.)) But now it has been officially decided what Pluto really is.

It’s a plutoid.

A little circular, wouldn’t you say? It’s fine to call other lumps of rock Plutoids, if by that you mean “they’re a bit like Pluto”. (Asteroid actually means “like an aster” — ie, a star; “android” means “like a man”, and so forth.) But to say that Pluto itself is classified as being “something like Pluto” makes my head hurt.

Science explains, under the deadpan headline “‘Plutoid’ Chosen As Name For Solar System Objects Like Pluto”:

Plutoids are celestial bodies in orbit around the Sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune that have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (near-spherical) shape, and that have not cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit. The two known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris. It is expected that more plutoids will be named as science progresses and new discoveries are made.

The dwarf planet Ceres is not a plutoid as it is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Current scientific knowledge lends credence to the belief that Ceres is the only object of its kind. Therefore, a separate category of Ceres-like dwarf planets will not be proposed at this time.

But if it ever is, they will be called ceresoids, right?



Cos you gotta have faith

Tony Blair has launched TonyBlairFaithFoundation. (dot org.)



Cluster bombs

Of butterflies and dragon seeds

Welcome to listeners of PRI’s The World, where Lisa Mullins today interviewed me about Unspeak, on the occasion of the announcement of a treaty to ban “cluster bombs” (which hasn’t been signed by the major users and manufacturers of “cluster bombs”). The term “cluster bomb” itself, as previously noted here, is Unspeak — since a cluster is a collection of things that are “close together” (in two OED definitions), and yet a “cluster bomb” is designed to spray its separate explosives over a large area. (One of its applications is “area denial”, as in southern Lebanon in 2006.)

The phrase is so familiar nowadays that it is one of those Unspeak terms (like “concentration camp”) that has been leached of all its obfuscatory power. We know that the thing it denotes is nasty. However, it’s interesting to note that the first usage recorded by the OED, from a 1967 Guardian report, shows the writer knew what was up: it’s handled gingerly, in scare quotes:

‘Cluster bombs’ which, on impact, spray bullets around.

Actually, we can antedate that right away, thanks to Google News Archive, which records this inspirational Washington Post headline from 1965:

Speedy Jets Using New Cluster Bomb Against Viet Reds ((Presumably these were the same “cluster bomb units” that had been tested in an exercise reported in the Great Bend Tribune (full text paywalled) of November 9, 1964: google news archive’s earliest result.))

Quite. Meanwhile, another result from a 1967 New York Times article shows that the official terminology back then was not “cluster” bombs but “fragmentation bombs”. Update: see correction here. Perhaps that fell out of favour after the negative publicity that attached to the phenomenon of “fragging” among US forces in Vietnam, in which dangerously incompetent officers were killed (originally with fragmentation grenades) by their subordinates. ((I can’t quite decide whether the fact that “fragging” now just means shooting someone’s avatar in a videogame should count as a trivialization of the word’s origin or as a llinguistic tribute to the soldiers who took such action.))

Sources agree that “cluster bombs”, before their enthusiastic adoption by the US, were first invented by the Nazis, but they were Unspoken differently back then. The German armed forces in 1939 called their weapon the “Butterfly” (Schmetterling or Sprengbombe Dickwandig ), which actually named the individual “bomblets” whose casings hinged open like wings. (Later, the Soviet version was popularly called “Molotov’s breadbasket”.) More ominous than the term “butterfly” was the name for an advanced new “cluster bomb” announced by West Germany in 1971: the “Dragon Seed”.

One American “cluster bomb dispenser unit”, the SUU-30, can be modified into an LBU-30, which drops leaflets instead of “bomblets”. LBU stands for, and I kid you not, “Leaflet Bomb Unit”. You know, because words are weapons too!



You got an ology?

The bizarrely cosy relationship between the “Church” of “Scientology” and the London police is something I blogged about at CiF last year, and it is only getting more peculiar. Now comes the news that a teenager has been served a summons by City of London police for participating in a peaceful demonstration outside the shiny new £24-million London HQ of “Scientology” with a placard that called the organization a “cult”:

[T]the teenager facing court said: “I brought a sign to the May 10th protest that said: ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult’.”

“‘Within five minutes of arriving I was told by a member of the police that I was not allowed to use that word, and that the final decision would be made by the inspector.”

A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and “strongly advised” him to remove the sign. Section five of the Public Order Act prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

The teenager refused to back down quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a “cult” which was “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”.

Quite. If you live in France, you can call “Scientology” a cult or secte with impunity, because that is how it is defined in law. And as a point of fact, the “Church” of “Scientology” is not a religion under UK law either.

If it’s inaccurate, then, to call “Scientology” a religion, is it nonetheless correct, as the police claim, that to call it a “cult” is “threatening, abusive or insulting”? The OED actually offers a perfectly neutral usage not yet marked as obsolete:

2. a. A particular form or system of religious worship; esp. in reference to its external rites and ceremonies.

However, it must be admitted that these days, the word “cult” does usually signal disapprobation, as the draft additions of May 2004 to the OED entry record:

A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

Perhaps this definition helps us out even so. For it can hardly be denied, even by a “Scientologist”, that some “others” regard the organization as strange or sinister. In which case, to call it a cult is merely to acknowledge that some people hold a low opinion of it. And indeed, the existence of such benighted folk would seem to be required by the organization’s own “philosophy”. It is only natural, after all, that people outside “Scientology” should think bad things about it, because they are still infected by the ghosts of dead aliens.

What would you call “Scientology”, readers?


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