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Yesterday, I fed my spiders waxworms, and they went mad for them. Their cages were festooned with dead or paralyzed grubs, and the spiders were sucking out their guts. It was all very charming. Today, though, I come in to find cages littered with blackened corpses, the effects of all that necrotic venom and digestive enzymes. Yuck. All of the spiders were bloated and engorged and had retreated to shadowy corners to digest. Except one, that was eager to use all her energy for a new purpose: Trillian made an egg sac! I just had to record her proud moment.
They’re such sweet little monsters.
Tomorrow, I get to clean out the decaying corpses. I’m feeling a bit like an Igor now.
I just got an email from the campus police — they want me to come in for questioning. I’m in trouble now!
I am investigating a complaint levied by a student group in which several posters were taken down in the tunnel between the Science Building and Student Center. During this investigation your name has come up as someone with involvement in the incident. I was hoping that you would be willing to come to the police department office to speak with me regarding this matter. This is voluntary and you are under no obligation to answer my questions but I am giving you the opportunity to respond to some of the things that I have found. Thank you for your time.
This is all about the hate signs posted by the College Republicans all over campus. They have been a bone of contention: they’ve been torn down, put back up again, new signs put up, people have been scribbling messages like “Fuck you” on them, it’s been a roller coaster of low key stupidity.
Apparently, the College Republicans/North Star contingent have been telling the police they suspect it’s all my fault — which is silly, there’s a broad consensus among most of the students and faculty that these trolls are posting garbage — and trying to get the police to pester me. I’ve been here before, gone into the campus police station, been questioned, and then released because they had absolutely no grounds for the accusation. That then led to Comma making incessant demands that they release the
criminal investigative data for [my] vandalism of a UMM newspaper, so it really wasn’t worth it. My response this time was short and sweet.
Oh, not this nonsense again. These students have no evidence that I’ve done anything, so no, I am not at all interested in giving their claims a moment of my time.
On second thought, maybe I should talk to the police about this ongoing baseless harassment.
But it’s a start. There is so much wrong with that guy.
Unfortunately, 38 minutes that highlight Maher’s smug obnoxiousness is also painful.
The latest totally unsurprising scandal: emails from Stephen Miller to Breitbart reveal that he is a flaming racist. He loves confederate flags, Calvin Coolidge, eugenics, and racist novels. He was trying to shape the coverage at Breitbart, which was just fine with the editors there, who are just as racist as Miller.
McHugh told Hatewatch that Breitbart editors introduced her to Miller in 2015 with an understanding he would influence the direction of her reporting. For that reason, and because Miller would have regarded her as a fellow traveler of the anti-immigrant movement, McHugh sometimes starts conversations with Miller in the emails, seeking his opinion on news stories. Other times, Miller directly suggests story ideas to McHugh, or tells her how to shape Breitbart’s coverage. Periodically, Miller asks McHugh if he can speak to her by phone, taking conversations offline.
“What Stephen Miller sent to me in those emails has become policy at the Trump administration,” McHugh told Hatewatch.
Miller still has his job and the support of our president.
Oh, and did you know that Facebook still regards Breitbart as a high quality news source?
Facebook’s launch of a new section on its flagship app dedicated to “deeply-reported and well-sourced” journalism sparked immediate controversy on Friday over the inclusion of Breitbart News, a publication whose former executive chairman explicitly embraced the “alt-right”.
Basically, the KKK is now running the country and major media outlets. Are you OK with this?
When Britain's phone hacking scandal broke in 2011, Rupert Murdoch - the CEO of News International - gave the defence that he knew nothing about the criminal activities in his media empire. This demonstrated a recurring pattern in history in which figureheads for major companies, political leaders and industry bigwigs plead ignorance to avoid culpability. In her book "The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World" (Zed Books), writer and sociologist Linsey McGoey argues that power lies not in knowledge, but in the ability to convince others where the boundary between ignorance and knowledge lies.
What is strategic ignorance?
I define strategic ignorance as "the ability to exploit the unknowns in any environment in order to gain or to maintain power". But there’s a longer answer. The long answer is that it is defined in two main, different ways in the social sciences. Behavioural economists and psychologists, on the one hand, tend to define strategic ignorance in a psychological way. They see it as the personal avoidance of inconvenient or uncomfortable facts.
Sociologists and historians, on the other hand, usually view it more in line with my definition above. They view strategic ignorance as both an individual and a collective phenomenon. This helps to underscore the role of institutional power and institutional actors in preventing inconvenient facts from becoming more widely known or accepted.
My own definition was developed in 2007, in an academic article where I first introduced the phrase "strategic ignorance" to the field of sociology. Since then, I’ve been one of a group of scholars developing a new academic field known as "ignorance studies". Seriously, the field does exist, even though people sometimes chuckle at the phrase.
Does it work as a political or corporate tactic? What are some recent examples?
It works all the time. Ignorance really is blissful, especially for the powerful. You can see examples of strategic ignorance in Monsanto and ExxonMobil’s corporate tactics to hide evidence of environmental harm, for example.
But I’m also glad that you highlight the "political" in your question, because politics gets left out a lot of the time. People have tended to focus more on how corporate actors such as big tobacco, big pharma and big food have all engaged in the strategic production of ignorance. This can sideline the problem of strategic ignorance by governments or the judiciary. It’s one of the reasons why I argue that it is important not to treat strategic ignorance as simply a psychological problem at the individual level. I think it’s better to suggest that different groups in society have enhanced political power to make the deliberate avoidance of inconvenient truths appear more legitimate or defensible than it really is.
To give one example, when he was prime minister, Tony Blair put pressure on the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith to halt an investigation into bribery at BAE Systems. Blair didn’t want the embarrassment of having corruption at a major British firm exposed, and his effort to shut down the legal investigation is a type of strategic ignorance.
You write about strategic ignorance as it relates to the idea of the free market. Could you explain?
I suggest that the very term "free market" is a type of micro-ignorance because it conceals more than it reveals by purporting to reflect a phenomenon that has never existed and can never exist in actual economic reality.
Of course we have never had a "free market", and more importantly, the largest imperialist super-powers of the modern age, and especially the US and UK, did not get rich through a "free market", but through different types of government interventionism and protectionism that have long benefited society’s richest groups, often at the expense of exploited workers across the world.
This fact is both widely known and oddly ignored even today in economic theory and economic policy-making. In the book, I explore the history of economic thought over a 200-year period, from late enlightenment figures including Burke and Wollstonecraft in the 18th century, through classical liberals such as Tocqueville and Bastiat in the 19th century, through to 20th century figures such as Friedrich Hayek, to understand the ways that dominant economic theories of economic growth have obscured wider recognition of the role of governments in creating economic markets over modern history.
What is the "ostrich instruction"?
It’s an informal way to refer to an important legal principle, which is that deliberate avoidance of knowledge about one’s own illegal actions should not be a valid defence in law. It’s one of the reasons why, just over 15 years ago, American executives at the energy company Enron were found guilty even though their direct role in malfeasance at Enron wasn’t clear. They should and could have known about fraud, and they were found guilty.
Enron has been pointed to as proof that wilful ignorance does not pay. But in my book I stress that that Enron is a fairly isolated case. As a number of other people have pointed out, from journalists Matt Taibbi and Jesse Eisenger to legal scholar Rena Steinzor, US authorities have had an abysmal record of successful prosecution of white-collar crime in recent decades.
An American legal scholar based in the UK, Alexander Sarch, is doing important work on this topic. But he is an exception, and I’m a little critical of mainstream legal scholarship in my book. I suggest that legal scholars themselves have been acting ostrich-like about recent shifts in the law. For example, the old adage "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is increasingly waived in US courts when it comes to complex financial and tax crimes. This shift is one of the reasons why I argue that for many powerful and rich people, ignorance really is legal bliss.
If strategic ignorance often involves powerful people pretending not to know something (eg about illegality at their company), why can't something be done about it? Why is it so effective?
Strategic ignorance is effective because it is hard to detect; hard to point out without seeming conspiratorial; and hard to prosecute because perpetrators successfully efface the evidence that could indict them, or, importantly, they thwart inconvenient evidence from emerging in the first place, like Blair’s halting of the BAE Systems inquiry.
Most troublingly, we don’t empirically know how often strategic ignorance works and just how effective it is, because the most "successful" examples of strategic ignorance are, quite literally, the tactics that work so well that they can never be detected.
Why has strategic ignorance - and its power - been largely ignored?
In some ways, it hasn’t always been ignored. The value of ignorance to powerful groups is a major trope in literature, for example. Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Enemy of the People, is about a medical officer who is treated as "enemy" of a small spa town in Norway because he truthfully explains that their spa water is contaminated. Ibsen prophesied today’s climate change denialists, in other words.
The problem is not exactly that "strategic ignorance" has been ignored, but that for centuries the people who have been most vocal about the value of ignorance to powerful groups have come from marginalised groups themselves, and so it is convenient for the powerful to ignore them. For example, scholars such as Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 18th century and W.E.B. Du Bois in the late 19th century have long pointed out that powerful people "veil" themselves from unsettling realities.
Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Men essay – written before Thomas Paine’s essay with the same name – came up with one of the earliest modern definitions of "confirmation bias", centuries before psychologists started to study the problem systematically, though lab experiments, as they are doing today. Lately, people like Cass Sunstein and other leading "nudge" scholars are starting to examine different strategies of ignorance at the individual level, but, a little ironically, they’re mostly ignoring earlier sociological and philosophical work on the topic, claiming a primacy to their arguments that is inaccurate.
We hear a lot about how we live in a "post-truth" era. Has our relationship to ignorance and knowledge changed?
I don’t think so. I think it’s a frustrating myth to assume we are living in a uniquely post-truth era. Going back at least to David Hume, philosophers have pointed out that even seemingly "objective" facts require a degree of subjective interpretation in order to determine the underlying causality of an action. For this reason, Hume is one of the first scholars to see that what we understand as knowledge and ignorance are structured by social conventions and individual bias. The boundaries between knowledge and ignorance are constantly shifting, and the power to monopolise what counts as "truth" has long underpinned the economic and political authority of different groups throughout history.
This relates to another point in my book, which is that strategic ignorance is not always a morally bad thing. Sometimes the intentional exposure of a dominant group’s ignorance can lead to positive, emancipatory outcomes. Every successful social movement throughout history has been based on exposing a dominant group’s ignorant assumptions about human realities, like the assumption that apartheid is a just form of rule, or that slavery is morally defensible.
So, my specific definition of "strategic ignorance" is new, but the reality it speaks to is old: the fact that the power of any dominant group typically functions through strategic ignorance, through the ability to select which voices and forms of evidence to acknowledge and which evidence to dismiss.
You distinguish between macro and micro ignorance. Could you explain?
I define micro-ignorance as individual acts of ignoring, and macro-ignorance as the sedimentation of micro-ignoring into structural blind-spots that obscure uncomfortable truths from being more widely known. So, Blair shutting down the BAE Systems investigation is an example of micro-ignorance. But it’s not an isolated act – it has epistemological ripple effects. The halting of the investigation compounds the pretence that no corruption took place, and this contributes to a persistent and quite insidious form of macro-ignorance, which is the debatable belief that western governments are less corrupt than developing countries. Of course they’re just as corrupt, they’re just better at hiding it.
Is the old adage true - is knowledge power?
Yes and no. Without doubt, knowledge can be useful in consolidating power, but so is ignorance. I suggest that true power lies in the ability to convince other people about where the boundary between ignorance and power lies. Take, for example, my book’s subtitle: "strategic ignorance rules the world". What do I mean by this? Certainly, I don’t mean that there is some secret cabal of "unknowers" pulling all the strings everywhere. No, I mean that strategic ignorance rules the world in the sense of creating boundaries and categories for which sorts of human activities are deemed harmful and which activities are not. Different tactics of strategic ignorance shape our understanding of legitimacy and criminality, but those categories are often arbitrary, in that, to borrow from Hayek, they offer the "pretence of knowledge" because they represent only a small sliver of the world’s overall store of knowledge.
A key point I make is that that the boundary between knowledge and ignorance is not impermeable. It is open to political appropriation by less powerful groups. In other words, calling attention to the problem of strategic ignorance by elite actors – and demanding more accountability from those actors – can lead to a new "war of position", in a Gramscian sense. In my book, I term this argument the Lorde principle, after Audre Lorde, in homage to earlier academic and activist work that my argument builds upon. I suggest that the Lorde principle encompasses the way that unknowing can be a revolutionary force for good.
This article appears in the Witness section of the Winter 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most worrying trends of the modern age. If antibiotics are taken inappropriately, harmful bacteria living inside the body can become resistant to the antibiotics, which means the medicines may not work when really needed, rendering formerly treatable infections life-threatening. For several years, policy-makers have urged people to take antibiotics only when necessary, as over-prescription is a major driver of resistant bacteria.
New figures released by Public Health England show that these calls have begun to be heeded: antibiotic consumption in England had reduced since 2014, when it hit a 20-year peak. But despite these improvements, the figures also show that antibiotic-resistant bloodstream infections – the most potentially serious kind – rose by a third between 2014 and 2018.
Perhaps this is a sign that we need a more comprehensive overhaul of the system in order to effectively address increasing antibiotic resistance. In the spring 2019 New Humanist, Peter Forbes argued that one solution might be found in phage therapy: “Phages offer a way beyond the impasse of antibiotic resistance, because of the precision of the interactions between them and bacteria. Scientists can engineer these interactions to target bacteria in a way that antibiotics can’t: to disable vital portions of their DNA.”
Other steps to address the impending crisis might include reform of the health sector. Most drug discovery is done by private companies, and it is difficult to make money from antibiotics, since responsible use of them means limiting prescriptions and therefore limiting sales. For this reason, Big Pharma has all but pulled out of the market. While smaller biotech firms are making exciting progress towards new classes of antibiotics, the financial and regulatory hurdles to getting these to market are almost impossible to clear. Solving this problem means strong commitments from governments, as well as significant international cooperation: bacteria do not observe borders.
This article appears in the Witness section of the Winter 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
As the clock ticked towards midnight on Monday 21 October, equality campaigners in Northern Ireland celebrated. At that moment, laws extending abortion and marriage rights came into force. This brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, where same-sex marriage has been allowed since 2014 and where abortion is decriminalised. Until now, abortion was only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life was at risk or there was a danger of permanent or serious damage to her physical or mental health. The ban had been preserved due to the power of religious and social conservatives in Northern Ireland.
The new legislation obliges the UK to ensure regulations for free, legal and local abortion services are in place by 31 March 2020. It also imposes a moratorium on criminal prosecutions, halting police investigations into abortion cases. This includes a case against a mother who faced jail for buying abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter. The bill puts the House of Commons on track to legislate for marriage equality by January 2020, paving the way for same-sex couples to wed from February onwards.
For years, the hard work of campaigners has been stymied not just by intransigence from the religious conservatives who dominate politics, but by a political vacuum at Stormont, which has not sat since January 2017 after a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Conservative government at Westminster, reliant on DUP votes, declined to intervene, saying it was a matter for devolved government. In July, two Labour MPs, Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn, tabled amendments on abortion and same-sex marriage to an otherwise technical legal bill about Stormont. MPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of both. Monday 21 October was the last day on which opponents of the changes could restore Stormont and avert the legislation. Despite efforts by the DUP, this did not work.
“For the first time, women in Northern Ireland will be able to make their own choices about their bodies without fear of being prosecuted for doing so,” said Northern Ireland Humanists coordinator Boyd Sleator. “LGBT people will be allowed to legally marry the person they love after years of being treated terribly by politicians and religious organisations who have conspired together to deny them their human rights. This is a huge day for them, and we celebrate in unity with all LGBT people.”
But he also sounded a note of caution. “Work has not finished: over the coming months we need to closely watch the legislation to ensure that these rights promised to women and LGBT people are delivered in full.”
Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s best known political commentators and a prominent critic of the Turkish government. Her latest book "How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship" (Fourth Estate) is written as a warning that populism and nationalism don’t march fully-formed into government; they creep, following a remarkably similar pattern around the world. Here, she discusses her arguments..
Why did you decide to write this book?
It was impossible not to write this book given what’s happening in European countries and the USA, and the striking similarities with what had happened in Turkey. I believe that fight with populism cannot be on a national level – we need international solidarity to reverse this global political current. To do this I wanted to reveal the main mechanisms operating behind national political insanities. Though every nation has its own unique conditions and specific background, these patterns operate exactly the same way in each country.
What can western countries learn from the Turkish experience?
It took over a decade for Erdogan to do things that Trump is doing at the moment. I’m truly appalled by the speed of these leaders and the lack of reaction from the public. Looking back, in Turkey we resisted very well. We beat ourselves up thinking we couldn’t resist but looking back I think, “wow, we held the guy back for over a decade”. I really don’t wish any nation to go through the experience of your country becoming foreign to you. You feel you are redundant because they redesign the population, contaminate the general reality and dismantle politics. I see Britain and the US approaching that state very fast. It feels like it wouldn’t happen to you, but we said the same thing for years and then it happened. In Britain and the US, I see people making the same mistakes that the Turkish opposition has made for the last two decades.
What kind of mistakes?
Trying to deal with this new phenomenon – neo-fascism or whatever you want to call it – with conventional political tools is a mistake. State institutions, although they can be really mature and strong, as in Britain and the US, are not immune to right-wing populism. In each country, [authoritarian leaders] manufacture a narrative playing into the soft spots of that specific country, creating victimhood to immobilise the masses. We should not fall for their narrative.
We have to open a discussion about our reality and how we have been damaged by neo-liberal politics and its values. Many people in the US, for instance, think that once we get rid of Trump all will be well. But this is a much bigger issue. What we are going through is a moral and political disaster, so it has to be dealt with seriously.
We all complain and criticise the current state of political institutions in liberal democracies because they don’t represent under-privileged people. But once an institution is attacked by right-wing populism and neo-fascism there is no way of getting it back. This has been the most painful experience in Turkey. I hope that there is still time for other countries to restore these institutions.
People shouldn’t depend on political humour so much. It starts as an empowering attitude towards the horrible realities and it calms down one’s anxieties. But then it becomes too comfortable, and you start thinking “well if I can laugh at this, then nothing bad can happen to me”. In Britain, we see that after laughing at Boris Johnson’s hair for a few months there is literally a political coup happening in Westminster – so it’s not funny anymore, is it? Laughing becomes an addiction, it numbs you. But laughing is not a political action – one has to remember that.
Why do you think nationalism and right-wing populism are on the rise in so many different countries?
There are two ways of answering this question: one is apolitical and one is political. A lot of people think that this happening all of a sudden – that is very apolitical and does not criticise the main problems beneath the current situation. The political answer should be: “It was coming all along”. Starting from the 1970s we have been tortured by the idea that a free-market economy would regulate in itself and liberal democracies would be fine even though there is no social justice. When you kill, imprison or marginalise people saying that there is an alternative system to run the world, people forget that they are political subjects that can make choices. This is what neo-liberalism asked for from humanity all along. [Today’s right wing populists] are saying, we don’t want you to be interested in politics and we are making politics a sort of entertainment for you so that we can do our business as usual. This completely consistent with the general values of neo-liberalism. People crave [a leader] that entertains them, treats them like political objects and who says that we don’t need to have compassion towards each other.
The idea of “real people” is often invoked by politicians in the UK. What is this rhetorical device and how it is utilised?
It’s an amazing tool for right-wing populism and neo-fascism. Once that concept is thrown into the social debate, the only thing you find yourself doing is trying to prove that you are “real” as well. It actually paralyses the way we think and debate, as well as the political discussion. Whoever claims this badge first is the owner of it, and so, the opposition has to prove that they’re real as well. The phrase “real people” is not referring to the under-privileged – it only applies to a certain political conviction. So the “realness” that starts as something class-related ends up being about devotion to the leader. This is the journey of “realness” in right-wing populism. Throughout this narrative, all the people that do not support this leader become “unreal” and therefore easy to remove.
Where does left-wing populism fit in?
I don’t think left-wing populism is a danger. We don’t see a left-wing populist leader threatening the entire human race, so it is unnecessary to talk about it. When such an issue arises, then we can talk about it.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m a big believer in hope and determination. In human history, there have been times that hope has been removed, but you cannot remove determination from humankind. Somewhere in our genes its encrypted that we have to continue. Humankind is determined to get out of this period of moral and political insanity. I am not necessarily hopeful or optimistic. But I do feel absolute joy when I see people from different countries talking to each other and comparing their experiences of neo-fascism and authoritarianism. I believe that when the global conversation really begins it will produce the combined political energy needed to show these right-wing populists that humans can do better.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
My older sister was explaining why her husband Arthur had refused to attend any more sessions of the local dementia group. “He seemed to enjoy it at first but then announced that he was not going again because there were always new people there.”
Now, although I sympathise with my sister’s predicament and hugely admire the manner in which she devotes so much her own life to caring for someone who is so evidently incapable of caring for himself, I can’t ever bring myself to tell her that there are some aspects of her spouse’s condition that I almost relish. For a start, he’s such a fine storyteller. Whenever our family gets together at a hotel for an awkward celebration of a birthday or a Christmas, I know that Arthur will cut through the usual chit-chat with a lengthy story from his Liverpool childhood.
He needs no prompter: “You know something, Laurence. In the old days I used to race cars in Bootle. We had a racetrack near the docks. A whole crowd of us. Mostly scrap cars. The rules allowed you to crash into each other. And, Laurence, I was a top driver. You should have seen us. Going hell for leather. Really big time drivers started there. Stirling Moss used to come some weekends.”
It doesn’t matter much to me that there were never thousands of people watching Arthur racing his scrap car or that Strling Moss never went near the Gladstone Dock. I know very well from my sister that whenever Arthur can’t remember, he simply confabulates. Makes things up. That may well be a symptom of dementia but it’s also the mark of any good storyteller, and a welcome antidote to the usual familial chat about the weather and the price of butter.
There’s another unexpected bonus. When I get home from these outings, I’m moved to examine how I cope with the oddities of my own memory. Why is it that I can remember holding hands with Jill Buxton in Sutton Park when I was six or seven years old – I can recall the blue skirt she was wearing and how she liked to make daisy chains – but have almost no distinct memories of the seven adult years I spent living with Louise? Freudian explanations hardly help. Although I can’t remember details of my life with Louise, I’m certain that it was never characterised by anything sufficiently disturbing to merit repression. But forgetting Louise, the sound of her voice or how we spent our evenings together is only one example of how my memory plays tricks.
Consider chronology. My memories no longer seem to have a beginning or an end. Instead, they arrive like clips from an otherwise forgotten film. I’m climbing a tree to find a kestrel’s nest. I’m stirring raspberry jam into a bowl of semolina. I’m running across a field to catch a train from Loughborough station. There’s no before or after to any of these scenes. They’re unprompted. Unbidden. Irrelevant.
“Have you ever been to Venice?” asks my partner one evening as we’re watching Dirk Bogarde dying in his Lido deckchair. “Oh yes, I was there for a month. Reading Ruskin. Looking at the Tintorettos.”
So far, so good. I’m remembering. But then the crunch questions. “What was it like? Was it wonderful?” And that’s when memory acts up again. Scenes come to mind: the Rialto Bridge. Ruskin’s house. Coffee at Florian’s in St Mark’s Square. But they lack any emotional colouring. Was I blissfully happy when I gazed at the Carpaccios in the Accademia or plunged into Aschenbachian gloom by the sight of tour parties queuing to climb the Campanile?
There’s little everyday psychology to explain these oddities of memory. A good memory is prized. A poor memory is to be regretted, even taken as an ominous precursor of dementia. There are no prizes for forgetting.
But Arthur, magnificently, contradicts such a melancholy diagnosis. He is, and always has been, a Liverpool FC supporter. He watches their every match on television and exults in every victory. “We’re winning. We’re winning,” he shouts as the Reds score an opening goal. That’s not, however, the limit. When Liverpool score again, he’s quite forgotten their earlier goal and can greet the second with all the rapturous enthusiasm of the first. Perhaps it’s the occasional benefits of wholesale forgetting that give so many otherwise cruel dementia jokes a strangely triumphant tinge. Doctor: “I’ve got some bad news. You have cancer and you have Alzheimer’s.” Old man: “Well, at least I don’t have cancer.”
I recently joined Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific to chat about my work. I have known Jim for many years and so it was lovely to talk about my thoughts on magic, lying and luck. The talk was recorded at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and managed to get quite a bit of attention online. I hope that you enjoy it!
You can listen to the interview here.
The paperback version of my book, Shoot For The Moon, is just out and we have made a video to celebrate the magic of the Moon landings. I worked with magician Will Houstoun to tell the Apollo story through the medium of sleight of hand – hope you enjoy it!
My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.
In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.
I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.
After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.
Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
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Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……
In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.
In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens! We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.
A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.
In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!
We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.
In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).
Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.
Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!
I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!
Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”
I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?
That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.
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Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
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If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
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You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
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Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
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Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.