A (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read – the first in an occasional series on Panademonium.


The Assassin’s Veto: Blasphemy and Charlie Hebdo
Myra MacDonald, War on the Rocks, 11 April 2016

You don’t need to like Charlie Hebdo. But you should asking why anyone should compromise with the most regressive forces in Islam represented by the men who killed cartoonists for blasphemy. It does a terrible disservice to Muslims to suggest they are all the same, with ‘all Muslims’ on one side and Charlie Hebdo on the other. Only a few decades ago, Muslim countries were far less culturally conservative and far less influenced by the politicization of religion. There is nothing permanent about today’s situation and nor is it intrinsic to Islam. Historically, Islam spread worldwide in part because of its openness to other cultures. Islamic scholarship contributed to the European Enlightenment. It is that openness to debate that should be encouraged; not those who want to shout down Charlie Hebdo.


Migration as a Killjoy,
Leo Lucassen, Comenius Lecture, April 2, 2016

There are striking parallels between past and present, but not everything has remained the same. From the nineteenth century, the established and the outsiders have become a national, sometimes even a European character. Not that these local identities disappeared herewith, as the protests against the refugee centres show, but nationalist feelings that are in the past century do undeniably play a larger role in our image of “others”. That has to do with the fact that states created much sharper boundaries between its citizens and foreigners. The question is then, when and why European countries started to check their borders and how they have done so. Why did authorities see certain groups of immigrants as an insurmountable problem and others not? The anxious and sometimes downright hostile responses to the arrival of refugees in Europe don’t stand alone and are only to be understood by looking at the years with increased uneasiness about migration. If we want to understand the current contradictions in the debate on refugees, we must first reflect on the historical roots of such emotions.


Kicked Out in America!  
Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books, 11 March 2016

Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling. Crystal, who takes in Arleen, had parents on crack and got passed around to two dozen foster homes. She ends up homeless and prostituting herself, but never misses church. Pam has “a midwestern twang and a face cut from a high school yearbook photo.” But she is so desperate for housing that she tolerates a racist boyfriend who makes her biracial daughters chant “White power!” It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.


The Secret Rules of the Internet
Catherine Buni & Soraya Chemaly, The Verge

The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?


The Hitchhikers Guide to Quantum Field Theory
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 13 April 2016

The fundamental problem we face when we try to visualize quantum behavior is how to describe what things are. Consider electrons, photons, and quarks. Are they particles or waves? We think of particles as pointlike things that have a definite location—small billiard balls, say. Waves, by contrast, ripple out through space and exhibit behavior such as diffraction and interference. But asking whether something is a particle or a wave is like asking whether Hobbes from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was an anthropomorphic tiger (as Calvin saw him) or a stuffed tiger toy (as everyone else saw him). Clearly, in the world of the comic strip, Hobbes was simply Hobbes: he had properties like anthropomorphic tigers and properties like stuffed animals, but he was his own thing, and fitting him into either category would miss some of Hobbes’s important properties, his intrinsic Hobbes-ness. Likewise, we should not ask whether an electron is a particle or a wave; it is its own thing. In particular, electrons are excitations of a particular quantum field—the electron field. In some situations an excitation can look like a particle, and in others it can act like a wave, but to force a quantum field into either of these categories would miss some of its intrinsic properties.


Gender – Good for Nothing
Lionel Shriver, Prospect, 21 April 2016

We are told that a trans woman may have been born a man, but “feels like” a woman. I do not mean to be perverse here, but I have no idea what it “feels like” to be a woman—and I am one. My having happened to be born female has always seemed a biological accident, mere luck (or lack thereof) of the genetic draw. Honestly, being female “feels like” it has nothing to do with me. I respect that some people may feel alienated from their bodies (as I age, I’m as alienated as could be; the “real me” does not have arthritic knees), and I realise I am getting myself into trouble here. Nevertheless, the whole trans movement does seem to have awfully to do with clothes. Especially in the male to female direction—and I am baffled why anyone would want to be female with any other option available—“feeling like” a woman seems to imply feeling like wearing mascara, heels, hair extensions, and stockings.

Be my guest. I don’t care what anyone wears. But I hate to break it to the converts to my sex: women who were born women schlep around most of the time in jeans and trainers. The version of femininity offered up by Caitlyn Jenner is foreign to me—exaggeratedly coiffed, buffed and corseted. It’s a parody of the female wholly composed of surfaces.


Notes on a Hoax
Justin Smith, 13 April 2016

It seems to me in other words that what this hoax exposes is not so much Badiou, or his gullible acolytes, but rather the dismal state of publishing today— or perhaps we should not dignify it in this way, and instead call it what it is: posting. The Journal of Badiou Studies is a website masquerading as an academic journal. It has an editorial board (of which Badiou himself is a merely ‘decorative’ member), but it is run rather more like the Huffington Post or, dare I say, The Guardian: it is a place that lets people deposit stuff they have written, and then call it a ‘publication’. In this respect it is not clear whether what Huneman and Barberousse have exposed is something much smaller, or much bigger, than what Sokal exposed twenty years ago. Sokal exposed an elite and illicit hot-air factory; the most recent hoax exposes something that we should all already know about but somehow need to be reminded of: there is no such thing as academia anymore, but only countless fly-by-night ventures ensuring that everyone gets to play along.


Why Physics is Not a Discipline
Philip Ball, Nautilus, 21 April 2016

The habit of physicists to praise peers for their ability to see to the “physics of the problem” might sound odd. What else would a physicist do but think about the “physics of the problem?” But therein lies a misunderstanding. What is being articulated here is an ability to look beyond mathematical descriptions or details of this or that interaction, and to work out the underlying concepts involved—often very general ones that can be expressed concisely in non-mathematical, perhaps even colloquial, language. Physics in this sense is not a fixed set of procedures, nor does it alight on a particular class of subject matter. It is a way of thinking about the world: a scheme that organizes cause and effect.


Still Tilting at Windmills
Stephan Phelan, Boston Review, 20 April 2016

He held up his copy of Don Quixote and asked how many of us had read it. A few of the kids raised their hands, while their parents muttered qualifiers about abridged or illustrated versions. Among the adults, a few more hands went up, with a communal laugh of embarrassment.


  1. Tim

    Hello Kenan: What’s the picture at the top of your post, please?
    You usually give the credits for the pictures you use, so is this
    one of yours?

  2. Noor

    A lot of transgender politics today tend to treat gender identity as a trendy thing one can slip in and out of, and do in fact resort a lot to stereotypes (if you’re a slightly feminine man, you must be trans or a demiboy or something) and it’s again today’s often-bizarre obsession with identity – but there is evidence that people with gender dysphoria have brains that do resemble those of their identified sex, as well as hormones influencing behavior – testosterone decreases risk aversion for example. There is a lot of individual variability, but there are signs of gender within brain structure (as opposed to race). And I see no reason to identify someone’s gender by simply their chromosomes as opposed to their brain.

    Then we have to go back to rural places where one’s biological sex is a big deal, where a world without modernities, with high infant mortality, lack of retirement security, etc. married women are expected to be pregnant as much as possible. And that ensuing helplessness requires her and the children to be entitled to a man’s provision and protection. And the fact that a child’s maternity is easily known, but paternity is not, means a woman’s sexuality had to be much more regulated.

    You could easily still end up with gender roles even if you took any behavior factors out of the equation, when you consider that only half the population has to, biologically, invest a lot into reproducing, while the other gender must be roped in by social convention. If Shriver was born into a rural village, things would be very different, no matter how tomboyish she was and tolerant society tried to be of divergence.

    It wasn’t social movements that allowed women to dedicate themselves to careers – it was birth control and modern technology and medicine making family planning possible. And even then, women don’t work as much as men do, and work part-time much more. Then we have some ‘progressives’ putting the question of whether women can work as much back on the table – by demanding women get paid period leave.

    (It’s also only progressives that constantly talk about more female representation just because we need a “female viewpoint” on damn near everything. Leaders are mostly men today because women, a voting majority, vote them to represent them. Politics involves a lot of risk also, which women are a lot less willing to take.)

    As far as clothes go, I really don’t care about what someone wears, ultimately. But I’ll note that it’s much more accurate to view gender policing with feminine styles as a functional upper-class (high heels, longer well-kept hair, ‘impractical’ clothing like skirts, make up, etc) and masculine styles as those of the lower classes (short hair, practical clothing, beards being manly). Men of upper-classes have always had more feminine styles (think wigs, long velvet clothing).

    So if we consider this, it makes sense that women aren’t going to be policed for wearing men’s clothing. Upper-class people are permitted to wear styles of the lower class, but not so the other way around. Men are much more policed, even today, for wearing women’s clothing than women ever have been for wearing men’s. So no, I wouldn’t be surprised if some men weren’t actually that trans, but felt they had to be trans in order to wear women’s styles.

  3. Hi Kenan, recent but ever more frequent reeader of your blog. I had an uneasy feeling reading the warontherocks piece, a similar feeling came to me when reading the Hebdo editorial. Before I could put any of it to words, a commenter beat me to it. He pretty much states:

    I had a much different reaction, mainly because this: “It really should not be so difficult to recognize the difference between victim and attacker in any of these examples” was never at issue.

    Obviously murderers are the ones to blame for murder. To criticize Charlie Hebdo for a specific claim is in no way the same as justifying murder or implying they deserve what happened to them. One can be vastly supportive in one respect and critical of a claim in another.

    The troubling issue was the way the translation appeared – and as you suggest that appearance may not be intended – to say that tolerance of ordinary practice bleeds into a defense of terrorism. I should think it is very easy to say “don’t harass Muslims” and also to say “Muslims shouldn’t murder for their faith.”

    Not to be snide, but dismissing criticism of Charlie Hebdo as defending terrorism is the same sort of bad faith you rightly suggest we avoid. Not everyone displeased by this editorial were thereby blaming victims and backing murderers.

    The troubling thing, which you address in the final section, was the supposed linkage between tolerating practice, thereby being silenced, and the ‘toleration’ of terrorism.

    The editorial seemed to be saying that if one lets the Muslim butcher go about being a Muslim or the Muslim woman go about being a Muslim, then one will no longer have the courage to condemn terrorism. The implication being, to stand up to terrorism, one must stand up to people just as practitioners. If we let them live in public, we’ll be a caliphate in no time!

    I find it pretty easy to not yell at women for wearing a veil and also condemn terrorism. Just did it. Right there. Not silenced or nothing.

    I consider myself a committed secularist – God has no place in politics and blasphemy is something to live with not a ground for violence.

    Yet, I still think it is vicious to imply that leaving people alone is tantamount to surrendering to terrorists. No not all Muslims are peaceful and kind – some are members of al-Qaeda. But harassing butchers for not being real Frenchman isn’t a blow against al-Qaeda or a blow for secularism. It is attempting to force one set of cultural norms onto another person.

    Lacite is obviously a stronger concept than American separation of church and state. But letting Muslims be Muslim in public is not really the same thing as backing Catholic dictators in Latin America or jihadis in Central Asia. Saying “Don’t harass the lady for wearing a veil” is not comparable to letting religious dictators, murders, or fanatics terrorise society. Letting some dude not sell ham is not the same as shipping guns to bin Laden or giving a pass to the Saudis.

    • Ademolo, thanks for this. I get the impression that you believe that I wrote the article. I didn’t – it was an article by Myra MacDonald, to which I linked.

      Having said that, I have written many times on the Charlie Hebdo debate, and on the views of its critics. I, too, have been highly critical of many of those critics, for their pusillanimity over the question of free speech, a pusillanimity that, in my view, helped create the climate in which the Charlie Hebdo killings possible. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the attack,

      The expressions of solidarity with those slain in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices are impressive. They are also too late. Had journalists and artists and political activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past 20 years then we may never have come to this.

      There have been a number of critics who, as I observed in that original piece, not only criticized the content of Charlie Hebdo, but argued also that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves by being so offensive. I have argued, too, that while can one can make many criticisms of Charlie Hebdo, the claim that it is a racist institution has little validity:

      There are many things of which one can reasonably accuse Charlie Hebdo: that it is puerile, perhaps, or naïve or too obsessed by anti-clericalism, and often not very funny. Many feel that it has lost its way in recent years, that it is no longer as radical as it once was. But whatever such criticism one might make, what Charlie Hebdo isn’t is racist. Suffused with the spirit of May 1968, Charlie Hebdo bursts with vitriol for all forms of elites, whether economic, political or clerical. Many accuse Charlie Hebdo of being obsessed with Islam. In fact, a study last February by Le Monde of Charlie Hebdo covers in a ten-year period from January 2005 to January 2015 showed that of 523 covers, only seven (or 1.3 per cent) were linked specifically to Islam. By contrast, three times as many covers – 21 – targeted Catholicism.

      And I have written of Charlie Hebdo’s support for laïcité:

      A magazine as anarchic as Charlie Hebdo, and one with no set editorial line, is inevitably a mixture of good and bad politics. There are many aspects of the magazine’s approach with which I disagree. Like many on the left in France, Charlie Hebdo has often expressed strong support for the policy of laïcité. ‘Laïcité’ is usually translated as ‘secularism’. It is as a secularist, however, that I oppose it. Secularism demands a separation of state and faith. Laïcité, on the other hand, refers to a form of state-enforced hostility to religion. It requires the state to intervene in matters of faith.


      Support for laïcité is not, however, an expression of racism, anymore than opposition to laïcité is a mark of anti-racism. People can in good faith argue about the merits of laïcité. What one cannot argue in good faith is that Charlie Hebdo is a ‘racist institution’.

  4. Shrivel is actually a bit out of date.

    Hyper-feminine transwomen is so last year; the modern transwoman is comfortable with a beard, a beer-gut and male-pattern baldness.

    Just google Danielle Muscato.

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