Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) spoke these words in 1946. In an interview many years later he confessed with regret that he hadn’t thought to write it down. So it’s not surprising that versions of it have since proliferated. Nevertheless, as good a version as any is this one:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

But speaking out is not a straightforward matter, is it? By the time they started coming for the Jews it was too late to speak out. So it had to be when they came for the socialists, or not at all.

But hold on. Maybe they were right to come for the socialists. Or, in the present context, for the revisionists. Or the Creation Scientists. Or the global warming deniers. After all, these are all people who are clearly wrong. And surely it’ll be granted that some wrongs are dangerous. If this weren’t so they’d have never come for the socialists in the first place. Besides, we’re in no danger that they’ll end up coming for the Jews, because we know where to draw the line. It’s somewhere between … Well, we may not know where it is exactly, but we know it’s out there somewhere.

And besides, we’re not Jesus. We can’t be asked to die on every hill. If we spread ourselves too thin we just make ourselves ridiculous. The knee-jerk social justice warrior is a cross between Sisyphus and Prometheus, forever condemned to rolling the rock up the hill, and then, for his troubles, having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. As with Sisyphus, justice is forever just one campaign out of reach; and as with Prometheus, the cost of campaigning can be one’s friends, one’s family, even one’s livelihood. So we are morally entitled to pick our battles, including no battle at all.

Not so, say I. It’s your baby on the doorstep because it’s your doorstep. I didn’t ask for that idiot as a colleague. But he’s the idiot down and around two corners in my hallway. And that puts him on my watch.

But it’s not that simple, is it? In the current so-called War on Terror the Americans aren’t worried about their own soldiers being tortured. Why not? Because they’re dropping their Daisy Cutters from 50,000 feet. So Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are for them complete freebies. Likewise, then, most of the professors in Management and the so-called hard sciences aren’t worried about being suspended for expressing an opinion, because they have no opinions to express. So it’s largely people in the Humanities and Social Sciences who sign the petitions when one of their own – one of their own notwithstanding he’s an idiot – is under attack. Somewhere in the back of our minds we worry that some day we might ourselves want to say something idiotic. And even if we never do, the fact that we dare not reveals ourselves to ourselves as frauds.

But the would-be little Adolfs who run our university aren’t worried about our having this niggle, because they’ve taken pains to ensure we’re too busy worrying that it might be, as it was for Niemoller, too late to speak out. So I can’t condemn my colleagues as moral cowards. They have friends and families and livelihoods to worry about. And the only reason I don’t worry is that I’m so close to retirement now that walking away a few months or a year earlier than planned is no longer a deterent.

But I’m sad. In fact I’ve been sad pretty much for the two decades I’ve been at this university. I’m sad because it’s a sad university. It’s a sad university – always has been – because from the outset it’s had a culture of administrative fiatism, and among its faculty a culture of keeping one’s head down instead of thrusting it forward.

I’m not unmindful that this is a First World problem. We walk away with our pensions. Elsewhere in the world people don’t walk away with their lives. If I walk away I’ll be sitting on my balcony overlooking the Amalfi Coast. This summer, like each of the last six summers, two hours down the coast there’ll be lungs filling up with salt water. Neither of us, neither you nor I, can do anything about that. But it makes me sad that we can but won’t do anything about the (albeit by comparison trivial) tragedy unfolding on our doorstep.


Without social justice warriors we wouldn’t have any social justice. But every once in a while these moral crusaders get a little carried away. A case in point – well, at least on the surface – is the current crusade against cultural appropriation. Apparently, as a white woman, my wife shouldn’t be putting her hair in dreadlocks or wearing a sari. Presumably then neither should I, as a (mostly) Ashkenazi Jew, be making curry or eating pizza. Neither should I have learned to speak Italian. And certainly we shouldn’t have a second home, as we do, in Italy.

This isn’t just stupid. It’s life-threatening. English cooking is inedible. That’s why, as soon as India and Pakistan became independent, the number of former subjects of the ‘brown’ persuasion the English allowed into England was greater than the number of blacks they once shipped from Africa to the Americas. But inedibility is a mere inconvenience. Jewish cooking is downright lethal. My leaving home at seventeen was a simple matter of survival!

It’s cultural appropriation for a white woman to put her hair in dreadlocks, or to dress in a sari, but it’s not cultural appropriation for an Indian man to wear a Western suit. Apparently this asymmetry has something to do with recognizing the injustice, and therefore the asymmetry, of colonialism. Of course this requires that we forget that most colonized people – the Arabs for example – were themselves once colonizers, and apparently pretty brutal ones at that. But apparently pointing this out is considered in bad taste.

Now personally I’m not convinced that colonialism as such need always to have been an injustice. I’m guessing that many if not most Zimbabweans would much prefer the return of the British over Mugabe. But even supposing colonialism is never a good thing, and even supposing we accept the notions of collective liability and entitlement, I’m still a tad unsure about the reasoning being deployed here.

  1. Brits are white.
  2. Brits were colonialists.
  3. Colonialists shouldn’t appropriate the culture of the colonized.
  4. Finns are white, therefore
  5. Finns shouldn’t appropriate the culture of those colonized by the Brits.

That is, even supposing we accept (1) through (4), I’m not sure how these get us to (5).

But to be fair, perhaps there’s a more defensible line of argument. I think it would go something like this:

The wrongness of cultural appropriation lies not in any real or imagined past malfeasance on the part of the appropriator or her ancestors, but rather in the simple fact that offense is often taken by those whose culture is being appropriated. So however historically innocent she might be, if the Finnish woman wearing a sari nevertheless reminds an Indian man of British colonialism, and if that memory is hurtful to him, that should be reason enough for the Finnish woman to find something else to wear to the party. It’s the same reason why Al Jolson ought not to have put on blackface, or why white children ought not to dress as Indians or Arabs for Halloween. It’s not that these kids are trying to mock Indians or Arabs. In fact in their desire to identify, they might, in their minds, be honouring them. It’s that many Indians or Arabs feel themselves being mocked. And when it comes to feelings, ‘rightly or wrongly’ makes no sense.

Let me be even fairer. I’m one of those Jews who take less-than-entirely kindly to converts to the faith. Why? Because to me being Jewish is being the inheritor of thousands of years of racial history, and one’s racial history is not something that can be acquired by taking some ritual bath. But I accept the asymmetry here. An Indian has a moral right to try to assume the cultural identity of a European for the same reason a Jew had a moral right during the Shoah to try to pass as a gentile. But if in the process the Indian becomes a European, or the Jew becomes a gentile, that’s something to be lamented, not celebrated.

So trust me when I say I get it. I get why some Indians complained when Ben Kingsley was assigned the role of Gandhi. I get why some North American aboriginals now reject the Christianity with which they were indoctrinated in their residential schools precisely because of the circumstances under which they found themselves in those schools.

But what does my getting all this get me? That it’s only because there’s no history of Jews oppressing Italians that I’m morally entitled to learn Italian? But because of Jew-on-Arab atrocities like Sabra and Shatila I shouldn’t learn Arabic? No? Why? Presumably language gets a pass on the charge of cultural appropriation. But not always. What do we think of the privileged white kid from the suburbs trying to speak Ebonics?

Okay, so cultural appropriation is complicated. It has something to do with history, but we’re not sure exactly what. It’s significantly modified by pragmatic considerations, like not wanting to return to the conditions of a stone-age people. So we get native drummers performing in heated university auditoriums, even though in many cases not one of them knows what he’s drumming, or that he’s not just making it up as he goes along. The Blackfoot hunted the buffalo on foot until they became an equestrian culture on the backs of horses brought to the Americas by Spain. So to the degree that the Indian Wars, by which the West was won, was fought on both sides on horseback, what grounds do we have to believe that the vanquished would have been less oppressive had they instead been the victors? So is cultural appropriation a charge that can only be brought against a victor? And at that only with respect to components of the vanquished culture not implicated in its defeat?

Look. No one wants to live in the world we would still be living in if no two tribes had ever met. When tribes meet, regardless of the circumstances of that meeting, occasionally worse ideas from one tribe displace better ideas in the other. (The residential schools were probably a case in point.) But more often than not better ideas replace worse ones. (Curried lamb is a much better idea than rolled oats in sheep gut.) That’s just how memic evolution works. That’s how we got from the cave where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, to the rainbow of hairstyles and dishes that grace our heads and our dinner tables. They’re the spoils of victory and of defeat.

So tell ya what. You don’t ask my wife whether you can read a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and she won’t ask you if she can imitate the way you braid your hair. Deal?


I’m old enough to remember when ‘Ms’ was introduced so that women didn’t have to gratuitously announce their marital status to all and sundry. So I have no objection to our language being altered to serve a laudable political objective. And if members of the trans community were likewise simply asking the rest of us to adopt some third newly coined pronoun so we don’t have to gratuitously pronounce on whether we think someone is male or female, I’d be happy to comply. But what’s being asked by some social justice warriors is that

  1. we use the pronoun of the referent’s choice,
  2. a referent – I have to say ‘referent’ here because I can’t say he or she – is at liberty to alter that choice with the alacrity of the weather, and
  3. there are no limits to the pronouns available to the referent.

And by the way, if they do get their way, I think I’d like to be referred to as His Majesty.

This is clearly ridiculous. Every semester I have as many as 100 students. By the end of term, and with a little effort, I often can and do call each of them by name. But demanding that I memorize what pronoun each of them prefers – and demanding that each of the referent’s 99 peers do the same – is demanding the impossible.

Defenders of this stupidity argue that I’m just awfulizing. Only a few of these students will demand a non-standard pronoun, and there’ll only be a few such neologisms. This is the same assurance I’m given by the student who wants an extension. Surely no one else will ask for one. No, I tell her, everyone else will ask for one. So it’s everyone or no one.

So some people have decided to draw their line in the sand right from the get-go. (Insert link.) And in doing so they’re being vilified as Neanderthal bigots. Well, such are the wages of resisting stupidity.

My advice to them is: Don’t pay it! Subvert. Turn your branding into a badge of honour, as did blacks with ‘nigger’, gays with ‘queer’, and post-menopausal women with ‘crone’. Or just insist on being addressed as ‘Your Majesty’!

But such subversion shouldn’t be necessary. Look! In many Latin-based languages – French, Spanish, Italian, and so on – every noun takes either a masculine or feminine or neutral article. In Italian it’s la casa. In French it’s le monde. I’m sure some of these nouns resent the gender they’ve been assigned. If they don’t get a choice, why should you?


I have a colleague down the hall who believes that “Any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism!” This is stupid, but in her case forgivable. She’s the daughter of two Shoah survivors, both of whom had tattoos on their arms.

I’m the grandson of four Shoah survivors, albeit only in a more attenuated sense. They survived because they emigrated to North America in 1912 from what would be, thirty years later, Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. So though I too play my Jew card when it serves my purposes, for me to claim that any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism would be somewhat less forgivable.

So in the same way that some stupidities are more stupid that others, some, though equally stupid, are more forgivable than others. In some cases, like that of my colleague down the hall, the stupidity is born of an understandable bias. But in others it arises from straightforward diminished cognitive capacity. That is, the motivation is perfectly laudable. It’s just that the advocate hasn’t thought through the means to her laudable ends.

A case in point – and this is what I want to rant about here – is the Start-By-Believing campaign that’s been sweeping American campuses since 2011, and was adopted three years later in Canada as the I-Believe-You campaign. The I-Believe-You campaign is certainly as stupid as “Any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism!” But it’s more forgivable. Why? Because, unlike my colleague’s Islamophobic bigotry, the I-Believe-You campaign is clearly well-intentioned. It’s well-intentioned because millions of alleged sexual assaults go unreported – at least in a timely manner and to the appropriate authorities – precisely because the alleged victim knows that, except in the rare case of a violent attack by a complete stranger, her accusation will likely be met with a shrug and a “Well …”

Why is this so? Because it’s almost invariably his word against hers, in which case justice dictates we suspend judgment. And even where sexual contact is admitted, it’s almost invariably the question of consent. But when it comes to consent or its absence, there’s seldom if ever a clear fact of the matter. In fact it’s often as unclear to the person giving consent as to the person being given it. In short, the only thing physically messier than sex is food poisoning, and the only thing communicatively messier is … Nope, I’m drawing a blank.

So the purpose of the I-Believe-You campaign is twofold. First, the idea is that, if I tell an alleged victim that I believe her, then

  1. she’s marginally more likely to induce that so will the appropriate authorities, so
  2. she’s marginally more likely to report the alleged assault to them, and if she does, then
  3. it’s considerably more likely they’ll investigate, and so
  4. it’s marginally more likely they’ll lay a charge. If they do lay a charge, then
  5. it’s considerably more likely there’ll be a conviction and, if there is, then
  6. it’s marginally more likely there’ll be serious consequences to such criminal behavior, and so
  7. it’s marginally less likely that such would-be criminals will engage in such activity in the future.

And that, I take it, would be a good thing. Or it would be if there were empirical evidence in support of (1), (1), (6), and (7). But alas there’s not.

There is good reason to believe that if the alleged assault is reported it will be investigated. And if a charge is laid, there’s good reason to believe there’ll be a conviction. In fact the rate of conviction for sexual assault – assuming the matter makes it to court – is pretty much on par with most other criminal offenses. (Insert link.) The problem is that sexual assault cases seldom do make it to court. Why? Because the State – or in the UK and Canada the Crown – is duty-bound, and rightly so, not to bring a case forward unless it can be reasonably confident of a conviction. To do otherwise would do an injustice to the taxpayer, to the accused, and to the complainant. Why to the complainant? Because if what she’s looking for is justice, an acquittal will just add insult to injury.

And why is it so difficult to get a conviction? Because, as already noted, it’s almost invariably his word against hers. And even where sexual contact is admitted, the case almost invariably hangs, as already noted, on the question of consent. That is, since sexual assault is a criminal offense, the burden of establishing mens rea falls on the prosecution, and this burden is nigh impossible to meet. Why so difficult? Because the very nature of sex is such that if I thought I had her consent then chances are I had at least some reason to think so.

Of course none of this is writ in stone. We could make sexual contact without ongoing explicit consent a strict liability offense. But not unlike Prohibition, I’m pretty sure that women, no less than men, would be moving to reconsider the motion in very short order!

Let’s call this the inefficaciousness objection, because telling an alleged victim I believe her will arguably not reduce the frequency of sexual assault. What may reduce it is a campaign of public education, not unlike what was done with drinking and driving and second-hand smoke. But the I-Believe-You campaign, at least as such, makes little if any effort to educate offenders.

* * *

But what makes the I-Believe-You campaign stupid is not its inefficaciousness. If wasted effort were in and of itself stupid I would never enter a chess tournament. No, it’s that, to whatever degree the campaign could be efficacious, it’s self-defeating. Or more accurately, it needs to fail in order to succeed. To explain:

Presumably the I-Believe-You campaigner wants as many of us as possible to take the pledge. Certainly the more the better, and the very best would be if we all do. But if we all take the pledge, then no jury could be empanelled to try the case, every judge would have to recuse himself, and so no rapist could ever stand trial. So the I-Believe-You campaigner would have to hope there’d be a critical mass of people who’d refuse to take the pledge. Certainly if the campaign overshot it would have to try to undo itself. It would have to start campaigning for skepticism about reports of sexual assault. But ex the hypothesi above, that would reduce the number of cases that would make it to trial.

The only way around this, it would seem, is to replace “I believe you!” with “I believe you, pending reason to suspect otherwise.” But that won’t do either. The accused will take the stand in his own defense only if the prosecution succeeds in making a good case. For that matter the defense won’t bother to cross-examine the complainant unless she has made a good case. If she hasn’t made a good case, the judge will simply and rightly dismiss the case rather than let it go to the jury. But if her case consists of nothing more than her say-so, and the judge has taken the pledge as revised above, he has to convict on nothing more than her say-so. So once again he’d have to recuse himself since otherwise we’d have a straightforward violation of natural justice.

Or how ‘bout this? “I’ll believe you” – note the future tense – “if and when, having heard his side of the story as well, I find your version more convincing.” That would allow me to serve on the jury, but it’s exactly the response the campaign is trying to ‘correct’.

Let’s call all this the self-defeat objection.

I have a friend who supports the campaign and thinks she can duck this objection by claiming that, in this context, “I believe you!” doesn’t mean that I believe you, any more than “How are you?” means I’m curious about your health. In the same way that the latter is a greeting ritual, the former falls in the category of “My condolences!” when someone dies. It’s what one says, even if she thinks granddad was a complete asshole and his survivors are all well rid of the bastard.

But in that case decency requires I say the same thing to the guy whose denying the accusation you’ve brought against him. So if it were the case that “I believe you!” bears no more cognitive content than “My condolences!”, you, the alleged victim, should have no grounds to object were you to overhear me saying “I believe you!” to your alleged assailant. But you do. So “I believe you!” cannot be bereft of cognitive content like “My condolences!”

* * *

Whatever “I believe you!” means, it means something that cannot be said both to her and to him, and this creates a serious problem, especially for counseling services at colleges. The “We Believe You!” sign posted on the door is intended to encourage alleged victims – victims of whatever alleged injustice, including a false accusation of sexual assault – to walk in and seek assistance, and such services tout themselves as being available to everybody. So if a female walks in and reports that he assaulted her, and he walks in and denies it – or worse yet, if he reports that she assaulted him – the counselor is committed to believing both p and not-p. But no sane person can.

And so the sign is a lie. We’ve come to expect false advertising when it comes to products. But false advertising in counseling services is an egregious violation of trust. Its credibility is immediately down the toilet. And that hurts the very people the I-Believe-You campaign was launched to assist. It’s no consolation to be believed by people who cannot but believe.

But, you might rightly object, it doesn’t hurt the people the campaign was launched to assist. The “We Believe You!” sign posted on the counseling office door is as clearly code for “Women Only!” as was “Whites Only” code at the water fountain for “No Niggers Allowed!”

To be fair, most towns in the South did provide water fountains for blacks. And so colleges could provide a separate counseling office for male students. It could even post a “We Believe You!” sign on the door, since the ‘we’ and the ‘you’ are no longer ambiguous. One wonders, though, how long it would be before counselors from the two offices would insist on separate lunch rooms.

* * *

So far we’ve looked at what we might call the forensic objective of the I-Believe-You campaign, an objective which, laudable though it may be, cannot be achieved by subscribing to that campaign. But the second objective arguably can be.

When I say to someone that I believe her, I give her the visibility and empathy she’d otherwise be denied. Visibility and empathy have no forensic implications. Visibility and empathy are things we owe to each other even if neither is really warranted. That is, even if she left her keys in the ignition and her car was stolen, or she left her house unlocked and it was broken into, I do not say to her, “Well, what else did you expect?!” That’s something I might say weeks or months after she’s collected the insurance or recovered from the sense of violation. Or suppose she was conned by some salesman because she didn’t read the fine print. The right thing, at least at the time, is to offer a shoulder in solidarity.

But surely “I believe you!” is a strange locution by which to communicate one’s empathy and solidarity. Certainly it’s a locution incompatible with the kind of impartiality required of the school counselor.

It’s true that if my friends are in the process of divorce, I can be empathetic and stand in solidarity with both of them. But not if it’s a rancorous divorce. Then they’ll force me to pick sides. And how do I do that other than by saying to one of them, but not the other, “I believe you!”?

Worse yet, how does the parent or closest friend of an accused assailant say “I believe you!” to his alleged victim? Solace to the one is a knife in the back of the other. In short, ‘belief’ is just the wrong concept here. And so if by our words we’re to say what we mean, “I believe you!” is the right thing to say only by a parent or a very close friend. Otherwise it cannot but be a lie.

Alright, then. If “I believe you!” is not the way to respond when someone tells me she – or he – has been sexually assaulted, what is? How ‘bout something like this? “If you want to do something about this, let me take you to the police station so you can file a report.” If that falls short of what a citizen should say, then I guess I’m not much of a citizen.

One final comment, and then I’ll quit for the day. Because alleged victims of sexual assault find it nigh impossible to have their day in court, some are now exploiting social media to rape-shame their alleged assailants. This, I suspect, is going to terribly backfire, because he is now fully entitled, both legally and morally, to sour-grapes or slut-shame his accuser in retaliation. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And the internet is made of nothing but glass.

What all this shows is that there’s a cost to that principle of natural justice that says innocent until proven guilty, and sometimes that cost is not borne fairly. What does that show? That ‘just’ in one sense is not always ‘just’ in another. And what does that show? That living with others is always going to be morally messy. If you don’t like the mess, stay out of the kitchen.


God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Neibuhr, 1892-1971

What it is to know something is the same whether we’re talking about how to thaw a frozen pizza or whether the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son or just from the Father alone. Both are important, or at least could be important. And to the same person. After all, even the Pope, on his cook’s day off, needs to know how to operate a microwave. But they’re important in very different ways. The one has to do with one’s immediate survival, or at least his delectation. The other not so much. In fact probably not at all. Lunch time requires me to do something, and that something might involve my knowing how to thaw a frozen pizza. By contrast, the ontological status of the Holy Spirit just is what it is. It makes no demands on me other than, if but only if I so choose, to have an opinion on the matter.

This distinction – between judgments that eventuate in action and those that don’t – is important, because each calls upon very different epistemic protocols. The epistemic warrant for believing I should 1) select and push the power level button, 2) enter the desired number of seconds, and then 3) push START, is that I was taught it, I tried it, and it worked. The epistemic warrant for believing the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son – otherwise known in Latin as the filioque – is, well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

The Logical Positivists, who dominated analytical philosophy from the 30’s through to the early 60’s, thought that since claims about things like the ontological status of the Holy Spirit can be neither verified nor falsified, they are for all intents and purposes meaningless. Hence, concluded Rudolf Carnap, we can eliminate all metaphysical speculation from our things-to-do list. But the distinction I’m drawing here is orthogonal to his. For me it’s not that metaphysical claims are meaningless. It’s that so few of them make any practical difference in our lives.

But in this respect they’re not alone. The world – or at least the anthropicity of it – has to come to an end sometime. And we (by which I mean scientists) are getting closer and closer to calculating the date, within a couple million years or so, with some confidence. But what would we do with that information? Not a damn thing. We’re just going to carry on, pretty much as we have, and leave the worrying to that generation that has something more immediate to worry about. But the end of the world isn’t a metaphysical matter. It’s a purely physical one; just one outside our control.

Moreover, there are metaphysical claims that do matter. If kindergarten Christianity is true, I’d be well-advised to change my ways. The problem is I have no way of knowing whether kindergarten Christianity is true or not. So I want to divide things we might want to know into two categories: things we both need to know and can know, and things we either can’t know or don’t need to know. How to thaw a frozen pizza falls into the first category. The ontological status of the Holy Spirit falls into the second.

Now put that distinction on the back burner and allow me a short digression. I have a theory. No, that’s too strong. I have a conjecture, a suggestion, if you like. I want to suggest that there’s an instructive parallel between believing and hearing. I don’t mean that what we hear often causes what we believe. That’s just a duh. Rather I mean that they share a common cognitive protocol. To explain:

Somewhere between the inner ear and the central processor in the brain, there’s a transducer which decides whether what we’re hearing is sound or language. If the former we then process it as and only as sound; if the latter as and only as language. That’s why, though she knows what Chinese or Italian or Russian sounds like, no English speaker knows what English sounds like. She doesn’t know what it sounds like because to her it’s not sound, it’s language. And so the question, “What does English sound like?” makes no sense to her, because English just isn’t the kind of thing that sounds. English is only the kind of thing that means.

My suggestion, then – and I emphasize it’s only a suggestion – is that something similar is going on with beliefs that call for action, and those that don’t. There’s a transducer, somewhere in the mind, that tells us which is which. How do I thaw a frozen pizza is sent off into one algorithm; what’s the ontological status of the Holy Spirit goes into the other.

Each of these algorithms, in turn, has its own set of logic gates. Each gate asks a question. On the pizza side, probably the first is, “What do I want?”, and the next is probably “What do I already know about how I might get it?”. And so on. But none of these questions make sense on the Holy Spirit side. There’s nothing I want out of the Holy Spirit. I just want to have a view about its ontological status. And so neither does the question, “How do I know?” make any sense, because there’s really nothing to know. There’s only something to believe. That is, the question, “How do I know?” what I believe about the ontological status of the Holy Spirit makes no more sense than “What does English sound like?” English doesn’t sound like anything because it’s not sound. The ontological status of the Holy Spirit doesn’t call for knowledge because it’s not the kind of thing to be known, it’s only the kind of thing to be believed.

So the question to be asked – at least the question meaningful to the mind – is not “How do I know?” but rather “How ought I go about believing?” And the answer to that question requires an answer to the prior question, namely, “What work do I want my believing to do for me?”

This might look the same as the “What do I want?” question over on the pizza side. And in the most obvious respect it is. But on the Holy Spirit side it requires a very different kind of answer. On the pizza side it’s asking after what will get me my lunch. On the Holy Spirit side it’s asking what will ensure my ongoing membership in the tribe upon which I depend for my survival, delectation, and companionship. If this be doubted, ask yourself what else hangs on your belief about the ontological status of the Holy Spirit.

If I’m right about this – and as I write this I’m becoming more and more convinced that I might be – then ask yourself this: Does whether there was or was not a Holocaust fall on the pizza side or the Holy Spirit side? Well, let’s see. Whether there was or wasn’t, there’s nothing you’re being called upon to do about it. So it must fall on the Holy Spirit side, which means the question to be asked is, “Which position ought I to adopt so I’ll keep getting invited to dinner parties?”

Does whether there is or is not global warming fall on the pizza side or the Holy Spirit side? Well, let’s see. Whether global warming is true or not, there’s nothing you’re being called upon to do about it. You would be called upon to do something about it if those you depend on for dinner invitations insisted that you do. But they won’t insist because then you’d probably insist they do likewise, and nobody wants to be first to do something about global warming because that would make her a fanatic, and nobody wants to have a fanatic over for dinner.

There are, I suspect, no more than a dozen people on the planet whose knowledge about the Holocaust or global warming is more than mere parroting. To the rest of us all that matters is having an opinion on the matter, namely one shared by members of our gourmet club. So, it would seem, belief in the Holocaust, global warming, the idiocy of Donald Trump … the list goes on and on … is patter. It’s social lubrication.

But, of course, I can’t believe that – or at least say it – because if I did I wouldn’t be getting too many more dinner invitations. People don’t like to have it pointed out to them that their strongest convictions are grounded in nothing but the expectations of others. And they certainly resent having their most heartfelt convictions reduced to social patter. I get that. And I accept it. So what’s a bloke to do other than just recite the Serenity Prayer?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll write a blog about Rudyard Kipling’s If.


Because I’m now two-thirds of a century old I’m allowed to be a curmudgeon. I don’t say things like, “Why can’t they mow their lawn?!”, but I do ask, “Why can’t my students write in proper English sentences?!” But what I want to curmudge about today is talking heads who don’t think that words matter.

A case in point is the way the word ‘slavery’ is being tossed about as if slavery and kidnapping were one and the same thing. A young Asian women who voluntarily gets on a boat bound for America, even if she pays her passage and her keep once she gets there by turning tricks for her importer, is not a kidnap victim until and unless she attempts to leave her employ and is physically prevented from doing so. And even then she’s a victim not of kidnapping but of unlawful confinement. She would be a slave, whether for sex or otherwise, if and only if, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she was kidnapped in Africa, transported in chains to America, and, if she attempted to escape, returned in chains by the state, not unlike a dog on the lamb, to her rightful owner.

That is, slavery is a publicly promulgated and enforced institution, one that, so far as I know, perdures nowhere in the world in the Year of Our Lord 2017. So far as I know, anywhere in the world in the Year of Our Lord 2017, if a victim of a kidnapping or unlawful confinement employs whatever force may be necessary to escape that condition, including, if need be, the killing of her captor, she may have her information ignored, but she will be neither charged nor convicted of any criminal offense.

In the case of a slave, however, under identical circumstances, questions of criminality cannot arise. In some jurisdictions there were constraints on what punishment her owner could mete out to her. In others no constraints at all.

The UN’s overpaid Commissioners of This or of That bethink themselves shocking us and triggering our outrage by telling us that there are so and so millions of people in slavery in the world today. But the more a word is used as a metaphor, the less meaning it manages to retain. What would shock and outrage us is that there are so and so millions of people being kidnapped or unlawfully confined. Sometimes the simple truth does more work than the hype.

It is true, of course, that there are cases, perhaps millions of them, that are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from slavery. But then the focus needs to be on that indistinguishability. For example, you can turn an unlawful confinement into a lawful one by simply criminalizing the victim’s mere existence. This is what’s been happening with the privatization of the American penal system. Prison owners need cheap labour, and so they lobby with prosecutors to send them more convicts, who lobby in turn with the police to up the number of charges laid. But notice that this one thing in America that is akin to slavery is the one thing these talking heads take pains not to associate with slavery.

Much of the current rhetoric about slavery hangs on the dual notions of diminished voluntary capacity and unreasonable incentive. A sex trade worker who is addicted to heroin is, in a very real sense, unfree to say no to her pimp. And a struggling biochemist with a family to feed is, in a very real sense, unfree to say no to a lucrative salary from Big Pharm. So they’re both, in a very real sense, unfree. But if all it takes to be a slave is to be in a very sense unfree, then there are few of us who are not slaves, and then slavery loses its meaning. Not unlike the words ‘genocide’ and ‘terrorism’, once the use of these words are expanded beyond all recognition, as in ‘cultural genocide’, or ‘cyber-terrorism’, they cease to mean anything at all. And the like is now happening with the reprise of ‘slavery’.

David Hume opined that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Well, that’s the kind of slavery that, pace John Locke, I’m happy to sell myself into.


I’m not the first to say what I’m about to say here, but I think it has to be said over and over and over again, to at least attempt to counter the nonsense that’s been spouted over and over and over and over again. What nonsense is that? The nonsense about the unemployment problem. Am I saying that there is no unemployment? No. what I’m saying is that it’s not a problem. What I’m saying is that, if anything it’s something to be celebrated.

Look. It’s been several generations, at least here in the West, since we needed as many hands as possible to work the field. Now one man, plus the contents of his Quonset, can feed a small city. What’s in his Quonset has freed the rest of us up to work on other things that enhance the quality of our lives, but also to do nothing at all but consume those things that enhance the quality of our lives. So unemployment isn’t a scourge. It’s a boon. Why, then, would anyone be complaining that the government isn’t creating enough jobs?

If you enjoy pulling a plow, then, say I, knock yourself out. No one’s going to stop you. But why would you expect to be paid for it?

“Because,” you answer, “without a job I don’t get paid. And without money I can’t buy those things that enhance the quality of my life.”

To which I respond: And isn’t this precisely what we mean by featherbedding? We’re not asking you to produce anything. At least not in the sense that but for your producing it it wouldn’t get produced. We’re just making it a condition of being paid that you turn up to where we don’t need you to work. And we’re doing that because if we didn’t then no one would turn up to work, and so nothing would get produced, and so no one’s quality of life would be enhanced.

I get that. And I also get why there’s a limit to what we can do about this silliness, like welfarism and job-sharing and earlier retirement. All that I’m saying is that unemployment is serving, in our language, as a metonym for not having money. And it’s a metonym which, like using crime as a metonym for harm, is doing us considerable disservice. We could cut the crime rate in half by legalizing marijuana, and I personally think we should. But in so doing we wouldn’t have reduced social harm by one iota, except the social harm of incarcerating young people for preferring a joint over a beer.

Similarly, then, we could eliminate unemployment overnight by featherbedding everyone, but that wouldn’t make the aggregate any the richer. It would just redistribute the wealth. But if we think we need to redistribute the aggregate wealth – and as the child of a socialist father and a Bolshevik grandmother I’m all in favour of doing so – surely with a little rejigging of our attitudes we can do so without the moral absurdity of workfare.


The recent spat – actually it’s turning into a spate of spats – between Donald Trump and the mainstream media, has resurrected a query I’ve had for decades. What exactly justifies freedom of the press?

The standard bromide, recall, is that democracy presupposes, and so requires, an informed electorate. But surely that, in turn, presupposes that the press is informing us? Trump’s complaint is that they’re mis-informing us. He calls this ‘fake news’. By this, of course, he means news he’d rather we not hear. But let’s put Trump aside. What about news that really is fake? Should the press be free to just make shit up?

Perhaps. But if so, that freedom can’t be justified by the bromide. Rather it’ll have to come under freedom of expression. What recommends freedom of expression to us isn’t that it aims at truth. Rather it’s that it’s cathartic for the speaker. It’s that I need to beak off about country and western music and haggis. But that doesn’t give me a right to invite myself to your dinner table so I have someone to beak off to. Freedom of the press, by contrast, is taken to entitle a reporter to access whatever might be going on that may be of legitimate public interest. The public, we’re told, has a right to know … fill in the blank.

There’s some disagreement, even among champions of press freedom, about how liberally that blank can be filled in. The public has a right to know who some politician is handing out public contracts to, but – or at least so say I – it doesn’t have a right to know who he’s cheating on his wife with. So let’s confine ourselves to what the electorate does have a right to know because it does have a need to know.

Okay. But to know something is to believe the truth about it. One can believe something that’s false, and one can know that something is false, but one can’t know something that’s false. As Plato pointed out in the Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief. So, in short, the freedom to report a falsehood cannot be justified by the bromide.

The counter-argument – and it’s a good one – is that truth doesn’t wear itself on its sleeve. So we need divergent voices, some to say this, others to say that, in the hope that eventually the one will prove false and the other true. This was John Stuart Mill’s argument. MSNBC will report the claims of global warming asserters, and Fox News will report the counterclaims of global warming deniers. Seems reasonable enough. But what guarantees that the truth will emerge? Or even that a consensus will emerge, be it true or false?

So each voice is tempted – and sometimes it succeeds – to silence the other voice. Just as in some schools a teacher can’t teach creationism in her science class, in some jurisdictions, no, the press can’t conjecture that the Holocaust might be a Zionist myth. In Turkey it’s a criminal offense to assert the Armenian Genocide, while in France it’s a criminal offense to deny it. (This is why Turkish membership in the EU just ain’t gonna happen any time soon.)

Under most jurisdictions, any report, be it true or false, that’s likely to incite violent, can be censored. Truth has nothing to do with it. And whether it rationally should incite violent has less to do with it still. For example, Holocaust denial is just a “So-what?” But not unlike the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Butler (1992) regarding pornography – where the court ruled that the mere suggestion of justified inequality is actionable under the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s section 1 override clause – many courts in the West have ruled likewise with respect to Holocaust denial.

Note that these courts did not rule that Holocaust denial is false. That line of argument was rejected by the Supreme Court when it threw out what was, until it’s ruling in Zundel (1992), s. 181 of the Criminal Code, Canada’s false information law. So what’s actionable is not, as the bromide would have it, misinformation, but rather a threat to social peace. Or in some cases, just a threat to social compleasance.

As a good Hobbesian I’m in no position to oppose, at least in principle, governmental interference with threats to social compleasance. (I just wish it would ban country and western music and haggis.) But in acknowledging that there are grounds for censorship other than the bromide, I’m not saying the bromide can’t be a stand-alone justification for freedom of the press. I’m just insisting that where it stands alone, it has to stand on its own two feet. A reporter or interviewer who almost invariably gets it wrong – either intentionally or because she’s just too stupid to listen carefully – is not entitled to a press pass.

Ideally the press should regulate itself, as do many if not most other professions. But it’s loath to do so for fear of being accused of being in some partisan pocket. But that doesn’t mean those of us being reported on need honour an incompetent reporter’s press pass. If a politician declines an interview with an ‘unfriendly’ interviewer, he’ll be accused of censoring the press. And in some cases rightly accused. But if he can show – and often enough he can show – that a particular interviewer – usually at the editing stage – is incompetent, then he has every right to refuse her access.

I’ve given a number of public talks in the small city in which I live and teach. Small town newspapers will report on anything, including some obscure philosophy professor talking about First Century supersessionism to a group of thirty senior citizens. It’s not that our local reporter doesn’t always get it completely right. It’s that she invariably gets it completely wrong. So now I don’t do interviews. My view is that if someone wants to misrepresent me, she doesn’t need, nor is she entitled to, my cooperation.

Yes, this is a personal pet peeve. But I’ve done a little casting about and I’ve discovered that this kind of incompetence is not confined to the small town newspaper. It’s pervasive all the way up. The CBC can’t tell the difference between a ban and a boycott. During the withdrawal of pro-Serbian forces from Bosnia it captioned its pictures of these soldiers wearing balaclavas as them “hiding their shame”.

I’m not advocating any kind of centralized licensing of reporters. That would put us back behind the Iron Curtain. But I am advocating a non-governmental watchdog agency that will out those who, either intentionally or from stupidity, misreport what they’re charged with reporting, and drive them out of the profession. Right now misreporting is treated with a shrug and an “Oh well …” Do we say that about an engineer or a cruise ship captain? Far more lives hang on accurate reporting than on accurate piloting. Both the sea and the air are far more forgiving.

Politicians are expected to deceive. The press is expected to be a corrective to that deception. They are not to be complicit in that deception. Nor are they to make up shit on their own. Donald Trump makes up shit. But so do the mainstream media.

I fully understand that networks have to sell air time. So I accept that even the once-prestigious BBC has had to succumb to infotainment. So by all means give us the 106-year-old great great granny in Blackpool who can still do the Twist. But when it comes to the news – even if you’re selecting what counts as news – give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if you don’t know the truth – by which I mean if you don’t know that you know the truth – then shut the fuck up!


Down the hall and around two corners, I have a colleague named Tony Hall. I say ‘colleague’, but only in the sense that we’re both tenured professors at the same university. I teach in the Philosophy Department; he’s a one-man show in a program he calls Globilization Studies.

Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but he’s also an idiot. To his credit, he doesn’t mind me calling him that. He understands that most of his colleagues regard him as an idiot. Why? Because he’s a 9/11 Truther? Well, yes. But it doesn’t stop there. Tony’s convinced there’s an international Zionist conspiracy out there that’s behind most of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the West over the past two decades, attacks for which the Israelis and their American neo-con buddies have cleverly framed their Arab enemies.

Now my own view, for what little it’s worth, is that nineteen brave young men – brave beyond description! – managed to pull off what must surely be the single most cost-effective military operation in human history. No fiction could possibly match it! And so if instead it was Mossad that managed to frame these guileless young Arabs for what was in fact a ‘false flag’ operation, well, that just raises my admiration exponentially. But, alas, cool as that would have been, reality just isn’t that cool. That would have involved just too many co-conspirators to be plausible. It’s not that people talk in their sleep. It’s that people brag. To suppose that of the hundreds of people who would have had to have been involved not one of them, in the throes of passion, whispered to his lover … So no, I think the official story is gobsmackingly cool enough. So that’s my story and, much to Tony’s chagrin, I’m stickin’ to it.

But – notwithstanding that I guess I have – that’s not what I want to blog about here. Rather I want to blog about what happened on October 4th of last year. That’s the day that Mike Mahon, the President of the University of Lethbridge, in blatant violation of the collective agreement between the Faculty Association and the University, suspended Tony without pay and declared him persona non grata on campus.

Needless to say there are several court cases pending, an international censure of the U of L is in the works, and many of Tony’s colleagues, myself included, have, and continue to, come to Tony’s defense. But none of that is what I want to blog about here either. If the case for academic freedom has to be made to the kind of people I assume have been reading this blog, I might just as well hang up my shingle right now. Rather what I want to blog about is what Tony is being accused of.

In conjecturing that the State of Israel is behind the lion’s share of all these terrorist attacks, he’s being accused of promoting anti-Semitism. His accuser, by the way, is one Goldie Morgentaler, a prof in the English Department, daughter of the late Henry Morgentaler, the abortion doctor responsible – and thankfully so – for the 1988 Supreme Court ruling striking down Canada’s abortion legislation, and who was, along with Goldie’s mother, a Holocaust survivor. Bigotry doesn’t arise ex nihilo. So it’s not entirely surprising that Goldie would hold the view that – and I quote – “Any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism!”

According to Goldie, then, my fellow self-loathing Jew, Noam Chomsky, and I are both anti-Semites. Well, once played, nothing can trump the Auschwitz card, so I guess I must be. But Tony isn’t. He’s an anti-Zionist, to be sure. But then so is Chomsky. So am I. But anti-Zionism is little more than a hundred years old. Anti-Semitism has been around since the supersessionism of First Century Christianity. Two very different animals. Two very different pedigrees.

Now my own view – again for what little it’s worth – is that if I thought the Israelis were clever enough to have pulled off all those attacks and blame every one of them on their Arab enemies, that wouldn’t make me anti-Semitic. Hell, that would make me proud to be Jewish. I must be a member of the smartest race the world has ever known! So how are any of Tony’s false flag conjectures anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism is the view that Jews are morally inferior to gentiles. So it must be that his accusers think that Tony thinks that intelligence is a sign of demon possession or something.

Look. Two peoples, Jews and Arabs, each want the same piece of land. And neither, it seems, is all that sanguine about sharing it with the other. What choice is there but war? And what, according to Thomas Hobbes, are the two cardinal virtues of war? Force and fraud, right? Fraud. So if the Israelis were responsible for 9/11 and successfully framed their enemies for it, that would be something to admire. If Tony thinks the Israelis did pull off these attacks and yet he doesn’t admire them for their chutzpah, then he must be a complete idiot.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Tony’s accusers think he’s just, well, stupid. That he has conflated cleverness with evil. Or perhaps they think he hates us Jews not because of our cleverness but for the same reason most of you anti-Semites hate us Jews, namely that we killed your Lord, we celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby … You know, that sort of thing. But though yes, we did kill your Lord, and though yes, we do celebrate Easter by stealing a recently baptized infant and then drinking its blood, Tony doesn’t know anything about any of this.

So the best explanation is that he hates Jews for the same reason I hate Germans, namely that my co-religionists are treating the Palestinians under Occupation pretty much the way the Nazis treated us in the Warsaw Ghetto. If Sabra and Shatila aren’t grounds for Tony’s hatred then neither is Auschwitz grounds for mine.

But wait a minute. Hatred of Jews for Sabra and Shatila isn’t anti-Semitism. It’s anti-Zionism. Chomsky and I don’t exactly hate ourselves for Sabra and Shatila, but these atrocities certainly make us ashamed to be Jewish. Since Tony isn’t Jewish he can’t be ashamed. But he can be, is, and rightly so, outraged. That Goldie is neither ashamed nor outraged makes her the bigot, not him.

But now for the elephant in the room. Tony is on record as advocating that the Holocaust can be, and ought to be, as open to re-examination as any historical episode. Well, how could anyone disagree with that? And yet, apparently, some can and do. Apparently people like Goldie take opening the Holocaust to revisitation to be code for Holocaust denial. Tony should know this, so Tony is a Holocaust denier. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The absurdity of this argument aside, the problem with this closing of the canon is that it leaves no way that the Holocaust can be revisited. And that’s just the equivalent of Scriptural literalism. Scriptural literalism is an unsustainable theology. For example, since Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gesthemene, how does anyone know what was said there? The famous “Take this cup of poison away from me!” was invented. It was, at best, conjectured.

The Holocaust – more enlightened Jews prefer the theodically neutral term ‘Shoah’ – is not an event. It’s the name for a collection of events as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. If I move one grain from here to there, have I denied the Holocaust? How many grains do I have to move, from where and to where, to count as a Holocaust denier? However that question is answered – and I’m prepared to accept any answer to it, provided it’s understood to have been a stipulated one – how does my Holocaust denial constitute anti-Semitism? How, for that matter, does it even constitute anti-Zionism?

Look. Let’s suppose that the whole beach is a lie. This is equivalent to saying that the entire New Testament was made up. Many if not most scholars are now of the view that the Exodus was a myth. How is such Exodus revisionism a threat to contemporary Jews? It isn’t. If I said to a Christian that her entire faith is built on an historical falsehood, how would that make me anti-Christian? It wouldn’t.

How, for that matter, would my Holocaust denial constitute even anti-Zionism? Zionism got off the ground in the 1880’s. The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, a quarter of a century before the Holocaust. So the Jews were going to have a homeland in any case. Once the camps were liberated, did the largely Jewish-controlled media exploit Christian guilt to garner support for a Jewish state? Of course they did. Do they continue to do so today? Of course they do. But calling them out on this is hardly an argument for the illegitimacy of the Jewish state. One could as readily argue that the non-historicity of the Cross means the Vatican should be leveled and turned back into a meadow.

To be fair, Tony is as guilty of this guess-the-enthymeme kind of thinking as his accusers. But that just says they’re both idiots. Tony is an idiot for thinking that a possible narrative is a true narrative, and his accusers are idiots for thinking that asking a question is providing an answer to it. But even if Tony were denying the Holocaust – whatever that might mean – this in itself is neither anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism. It’s true that some Diary-denialists – yes, there is such a thing – doubt the authenticity of the Anne Frank diary because they’re anti-Semites. But the because-relation doesn’t hold the other way around.

Tony Hall is an idiot, but he’s probably not a Holocaust denier, and he’s definitely not a bigot. Goldie Morgentaler, on the other hand, is undeniably the latter. I’m a bigot too. When I hear German spoken my back goes up. But I don’t allow my bigotry to close the canon on history. Nor do I allow it to ratify apartheid and genocide.

There, Goldie, I’ve said it! Now go ahead and petition President Mahon to have me join Tony in being forcibly relieved of my post.