Saturday, May 26, 2007

Axis of Decency

It's been a while since I posted here, and this is as much of a stopgap post as anything (though I may write a longer one later today). I increasingly think that if you want to understand certain aspects of Decency you should check out (I don't say 'read') Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World (link goes to my own short write-up). For one thing, that book and its theme ('Things are really not what they were once in the land of lost content; the country really has gone to the dogs, what?') and even its essay style (chapters which cover more or unrelated examples of contempory rottenness segued together for the sake of seeming weight) seems the very template of Nick's "You're All Bastards (Even My Mother)."

One of that book's notable bete noirs was astrology. Wheen seemed to think that Paul Feyerabend (dread forrin postmoderenist) defended astrology (a closer reading would reveal that he didn't). Now, Comrade Hitchens has heard the news, it's not in the stars: Astrology Not the Only Cosmic Hoax.

Astrology is widely considered to be discredited because of certain very obvious objections:

1) It gives people the impression that they are the center of the universe and that the constellations are somehow arranged with them in mind.

2) It suggests that there is a supernatural supervision of our daily lives, and that this influence can be detected and expounded by mere humans.

3) It bases itself on the idea that our character and personality are irrevocably formed at the moment of birth or even of conception.

Now, if Wheen or Hitchens were at all aware of Feyerabend or a little more intellectual history, they'd know that the discredit of astrology goes back rather further than the Enlightenment. A bit googling finds this attack with some notable quotes:

Learn not the way of the unbelievers, nor be dismayed at the signs of the stars because the nations are dismayed at them, for the beliefs of these people are false.

Jeremiah Chapter 10 verse 2. But the most celebrated objection I know is summarised here.

[Augustine] is finally convinced that astrology is false, after he hears the story of a rich man and a beggar born at exactly the same moment, so that their horoscopes must be the same.

That's been the core rational objection to astrology - well that along with any explanation of the mechanism of cosmic influence being so airy. I believe that Augustine certainly subscribed to Hitchens' first two objections to astrology and possibly to the third.

Hitchens, Wheen, and Cohen all seem to think that rationality is somehow recent, and that the rot in society set in at some point in their adult lives (Cohen: the left was cool when I were a lad, but look at it now) - though unlike many Daily Mail reactionaries (like Paul Johnson) they don't see these as connected. Further, they seem to view history as not only plastic, but like a dictionary or an atheist's bible: something to have examples selected from, with any context discarded.

I regard astrology as nonsense as well: but Hitchens yet again demonstrates his unfailing talent for finding terrible reasons for coming to his conclusion.


Blogger cian said...

Oddly enough, there is some evidence that when you are born will affect your personality in quite significant ways. Nobody's quite sure why (theories include variations in diet, sunshine and, um, other stuff), so there may be some truth to some of the less extreme claims of Astrology, if for the wrong reasons. And hell, is astrology any worse than mainstream economics? Is nonsense that has very little influence really worth worrying about?

On the subject of science, I've noticed that decents and their allies in the war against superstion are very bad at distinguishing between "theory" and evidence.

So for example. The problem with homeopathy is not that the proposed theory for why it works is rubbish, but that nobody can demonstrate that it does in fact work. Yet defenders of the enlightenment will frequently go on and on (and on) about the former.

5/26/2007 04:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks as if those who don't read Adorno are destined to rewrite him, badly; if you compare Hitch's snippet with "The Stars Brought Down To Earth" it comes off rather badly.

I am still, btw, absurdly fond of my joke that, in making twelve falsifiable predictions every day and giving them away in the newspaper, astrology is the paradigm example of a Popperian science.

5/26/2007 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Francis Wheen is a good egg, whatever anyone says. So much better than Hitchens or Cohen.

5/26/2007 09:04:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don'r think much of this post. A close reading of Feyerabend still reveals that he believed a lot of crap, his particular opinion of astrology notwihstanding. In any case, astrology is crap so why bother critqueing the Decents for saying so. There are far more important reasons for having a go at them.

5/27/2007 03:17:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Francis Wheen is a good egg, whatever anyone says.

Well he was, and I think the good things he has done outweigh the bad ones, but he's got rather too fond of the Decent habit of hunting for evil among his opponents (notably in the notorious Kamm/Aaro/Wheen letter).

5/27/2007 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger flyingrodent said...

Speaking as someone who's had his share of run-ins with decency, I still found Wheen's book very entertaining.

Not as funny as Nick Cohen's though, that was a laugh riot from start to finish.

5/27/2007 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you think Wheen was responsible for the little outburst of decency in my current copy of private eye. In among the stories there is a wierd little bit of editorialising that reads exactly like Nick Cohen, berating the "we are all hizbullah" protests, and claiming they are the reason that John Mcdonald couldn't find enough Labour MP's who would back him rather than bowing to the mighty helmsman Gordon Brown

5/28/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Someone correct me if I am wrong here, but wasn't there only one protestor with the 'We Are All Hizbollah Now' sign? The Decents seem to have got extraordinary milage out of that one slogan. Makes me wish I'd thought of it now.

5/28/2007 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I saw that piece (by one "Ratbiter") and thought of Wheen, too. What a pisspoor article it was.

Actually I think Wheen would probably write better than that and I wondered whether it had been compiled by some third-rater researching by Googling and finding Harry's Place.

5/28/2007 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

also, can you lot get to work on the current "out and about with Nick Cohen" at the Statesman - in which he goes and moans on at the head of oxfam asking why she doesn't spend more time "denouncing" foreigners and asking for wars, instead of all that aid rubbish - it forms the background to his current "only give to charity with a heavy heart, as aid ngo's are failing to call for war in darfur" observer piece

5/28/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In general; we've been having trouble "watching" Nick round here on the practical grounds that he's become both boring and incoherent. But I took a look at the whole wretched thing last week but didn't know where to begin. Perhaps we could do a "shorter" version:

"A fine example of typical student journalism".

...and maybe leave it at that.

5/28/2007 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

But enough about Emma Brockes....

5/28/2007 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

also, can you lot get to work on the current "out and about with Nick Cohen" at the Statesman - in which he goes and moans on at the head of oxfam asking why she doesn't spend more time "denouncing" foreigners and asking for wars, instead of all that aid rubbish

I'm on it, with heavy, heavy heart, because I think it marks a new development in Decency; Nick really does believe that now he has arrived, more or less everyone else can pack up and go home, or at the very least fold their operations into the Euston Manifesto. Also, he makes the specific mistake about what Sen said about famines and democracy detailed here

(parenthetically, it annoys the living hell out of me when people call Mugabe a "dictator". He's not, and Zimbabwe is not a dictatorship. He is a despotic, human rights abusing elected President, and Zimbabwe is a chaotic, dysfunctional democracy. The third word in the name of the "Movement for Democratic Change" is not ornamental and it really seems too, too bad to me that people like Nick and Aaro decide to show their "solidarity" with the MDC by ignoring their actual existence and program.

5/29/2007 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

That's quite a normal move, though, isn't it? Milosevic was also referred to the same way, for instance.

Of course there's some truth in the term, since in either case the individual concerned had effective powers (whether legal or not) that were dictatorial in nature, and the elections in which they participated were unfair to a greater or lesser extent. But that didn't actually make them dictators, which claim, like the promiscuous use of the term "fascist" tends to actually make it harder to understand how they rule, and how they maintain their rule. (This is partly because the terms are used to beat the opponents of military intervention over the head.)

5/30/2007 07:47:00 AM  

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