The Talk

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Indulging myself on an eccentric atheist’s blog

Ftb blogger Comradde Physioproffe demands, “Everybody poste a picture of your bookshelves on your blogge and leave a link in the comments!” so I’m obliging.


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Barbarians at the Gates Again

I’m no fan of Tom Flanagan. I think the recent attention he’s received is ….

What are you expecting?

“Richly deserved?” “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy?”


“Chilling?” “A fundamental attack on academic freedom?”

Well, as some of my facebook friends already know, I’m a little bit of both minds. But mostly, I’m just kind of wowed by the contents of most of the public condemnations (and defenses) which include, as is always the case in this new day and age, the stream of face-in-the-crowd commentary attached at the end of online news outlets’ stories about the matter. In any case, from my perch in the Ivory Tower* the only response I think needs to reach all those non-university writers is, ‘get the fuck off my lawn.”

I’ve no intention of either reviewing the career of TF, or reiterating the whole of the controversial events. Let this much serve instead and as introduction to the rest of my commentary.

Tom Flanagan:

  • University of Calgary Political Science Professor; theoretically conservative and thus confrere of Professor Barry Cooper et al. (and so perhaps also others I’m familiar with like Janet Ajzenstat and Francis Widdowson); critic of Aboriginal policy in Canada;
  • And, Reform, Conservative and Wildrose ideological engineer and campaign foreman;
  • AND, public intellectual, sometimes columnist and regular on CBC’s Power & Politics with Evan Solomon on which he once wore a gianormous Bison hide coat (reminded me of Fred MacMurray in that Flubber movie) and suggested that the US government assassinate Julian Assange.

And, as the British say, the present conTROVersy:

  • In the Q&A after a talk about the Indian Act at University of Lethbridge he said something or other to the effect that viewing kiddie porn was victimless and therefore shouldn’t be criminal, a recap of similar remarks he’d made years earlier elsewhere;
  • Parenthetically, he was on NAMBLA’s mailing list for a couple of years, a long story;
  • The remarks are news, not merely because they were heard, but they were recorded by a member of the UofL audience;
  • He’s Tom Flanagan.

It’s an easy road for those who’d argue that TF couldn’t be more wrong. It’s hardly worth outlining: Vic Toews (cabinet minister of the Federal Conservatives – you know, that party that TF used to play rainmaker for) once said, ‘you’re on our side or the side of child pornographers’. So I won’t even bother. But since the condemnation of the statements has been pretty much nonpartisan, I off this bit of documentary evidence:

What’s hard, and where I certainly fear to tread, and where few of his defenders chose to boldly go:

  • What’s child pornography?
  • What’s an image of child pornography?
  • What’s an image?
  • What does an encounter with an image, an image of child pornography, or child pornography mean or entail?
  • In the internet age, am I responsible (morally, or especially criminally) for everything I call up on my computer, like from a Google search?

Requisite disclaimer, I’m not advancing answers. I’m just – Glenn Beckesquely – asking questions, umkay?

And shit, I don’t even have to offer such an interrogative defense of TF, do I? He and I are wrapped in the intellectual chain mail of Academic Freedom, um-eye-rite? I know the answer. My momma didn’t raise no fools (ok, she actually did, but I’m not stupid). Tilting against every taboo is neither worthwhile, nor necessary. But the principle remains in my world that those with the courage to do so are entitled to a vigorous defense by our caste.

There, in a nutshell, is the highest ideal. And again, I must document those who’ve publically weighed in on that score:

Now, they defended TF’s rights, not so much his substance. Who could ask for anything more? (See above, I kinda did. But, I’d certainly not go to the press with the elements of such a positive defense. ‘Cause I know I couldn’t be guaranteed fair reportage, and I’m just not that brave. So I can’t fault TF’s defenders for not going down such a road.)

Nonetheless, I reckon that TF went down a wrong road, one in which such argumentation, especially off the cuff, entailed abandoning his privileges with respect to academic freedom: he became a political operative, but more importantly, he became a public intellectual. Good on him, ‘cause I’m sure I don’t have the ready wit to do it (though I’d love the money). But then, your every word is offered up for general scrutiny. So, you piss off the larger audience – regardless of the free speech conventions (nevermind academic freedom) that people accept at least in principle – and you’ll be pilloried via the very free speech principle that lets every jamoke with internet access share his wisdom on a newspaper website.

(And let’s face it, TF, if you do cutting edge standup, on a current affairs show or in a public talk, and they don’t get your gag, odds are good it’s going to bite you in the ass. But that’s the price for honing your performance.)

Still, there is one condemnation I consider deadly serious, and it’s been recognized as such only by Flanagan’s colleagues and a handful of commenters. UofC President Elizabeth Cannon issued this public statement:

Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary. In the university’s view, child pornography is not a victimless crime. All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children. Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenseless children.

She then goes on to report that Flanagan will be retiring, as if it was related to this kerfuffle.

I don’t recall the last time I read so complete a repudiation of the nature of the university and its values. And this from a university’s chief administrator. Views, the university may have (though I don’t think they do or should) but these are beside the point; the university exists to defend the freedom of its faculty to speak and to write, and that sometimes includes words defending the indefensible. It’s not the admin’s job to engage in such a conversation; it’s precisely that kind of engagement on the part of university administrations that led to the 1915 Declaration of Principles by the AAUP.

And what contrast to the response of Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to public objections to a panel discussion at the college consisting of supporters of the BDS movement: “Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.” That’s the only position an admin can have.

Knopff and Eaton are indeed correct: UofC owes Tom Flanagan a big fucking apology.

Anyway, to conclude. Let’s get real. Condemnations, defenses, and the rest, their authors all want to report that TF’s career has gone in the toilet. And Canadians love a comeuppance. Please. Maybe a point has come where TF sits at home and bemoans some careless words and the fact that his life as a public commentator and mover and/or shaker within political organizations is baked, but the fact remains his life will go on without much harm done to it.

None of this has stopped the manufacture of a bunch of misinformation. See Brian Singh: Tom Flanagan was crushed beneath the conservative edifice he built.

  • He wasn’t driven out of the UofC; he’d already done the paperwork to indicate that he’d be retiring at the end of this academic year (when his sabbatical ends – suck on that, wage earners and salaried grunts!). Brian, rewrite your first paragraph.
  • You’re suggesting his career is destroyed? Seriously? Well, I guess if he’s so vain as to define it and himself according to his power within conservative party politics in Alberta and federally, and as a television personality, then sure, WTH not? Who you work for, Brian, The Globe and Mail or Gawker?

OMG, it’s gunna be so sad when I find TF after the dust settles and he’s living in a one-room suite, drunk, in nothing but his underwear, nattering ceaselessly about how it all went wrong.

Not fucking likely. A whole career teaching at UofC, walking away from there with a big fat pension. Bitter and obsessed with the past he may become, but he’ll be it in comfort. At the same time, he’s been a hardworking scholar. Does anyone honestly think that he won’t continue to produce and won’t get published? And won’t find himself back on the teevee soon enough? And maybe even welcome again in conservative circles?

Only in fucking Canada. I used to think it funny how prone we were as a nationality to enjoy the downfalls of the famous. Now I simply distain my fellow citizens who work to invent such downfalls. But I start to panic when the rubes are aided and abetted by the very institution meant to inoculate us from the wielders of torches and pitchforks.

*I’ve always hated that expression. I understand it’s a figure of speech, but the material facts of my place in the university are that I spend my school hours in building built in the era of post-sec expansion in Canada, a crumbling edifice hiding tonnes of asbestos, teaching in worn dirty classrooms, before mostly incurious faux-adults w/o the capacity for or interest in tackling any difficult ideas. Privileged? Sure, but if all those students and all those parents out there imagine I ought to be grateful, and more importantly, imagine that there are real limits to what I might say in order to shake their moral comfort at taxpayers expense, then they have a far greater sense of entitlement than I do.

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Efforts to Resist Fisking Every Blog Post that Gets My Attention

It’s been awhile since I wrote anything here, so it’s been awhile since I wrote much about them atheists. I’ve been trying to stick to more important things. I shouldn’t even bother now since I’ve got several other more pressing things to do – although one of those is a presentation on atheism for next month. Speaking of which, lemme try this on: “Harkening to the Death Knells of ‘Religion’: The Re-Inscription of (Anti-)Secular Curiosities; or, Why the New Atheism Hates the Laurentian Federation.” Why yes, I did have a coupla pops before I came up with that. In any case, that’s in the back of my mind as I proceed at present. And I proceed to a quick(ish) roundup of a few atheism things I encountered this week (I’ve been reading very little of that shit lately – so much chewing the chewed).

Let’s give pride of place to the irrepressible PZ Myers.

1) On Valentine’s Day he posted, How about if we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?

Catchy. The post begins by promoting an Avaaz petition against religious education in Greek schools. But this is only to serve a Myers diatribe following the title:

I’ve usually taken a pragmatic perspective on this issue before. We don’t have much choice to but to give way on minor compromises in school curricula, and this is often an easy one: if religion is taught comparatively and objectively, it’s a good tool for breaking dogma. I can’t get too irate at a school offering a “world religions” class, because I know that would be the first step towards atheism for the students (for the same reason, though, I’m suspicious. Our opponents aren’t morons, and they’d know this too — I suspect them of plotting to smuggle orthodoxy into the classroom under cover of objectivity, and for instance, knowing that a local priest of the dominant cult will often offer to teach the course.)

But here’s my major problem. It’s a useless subject. And no, I’m not one of those elitist yahoos who thinks art and philosophy are useless subjects, rejecting anything that isn’t a hard science; I mean, it is literally useless, distracting, and narrow. If right now students were getting an hour a week in a “religious studies” class, I think they’d be far better served by getting an hour a week for anthropology, or philosophy, or poetry…or sure, more math.

I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So? Every human culture has parasites and diseases, so why don’t we have a mandatory weekly course in parasitology? It would be far more entertaining, interesting, and useful. What wouldn’t be quite so useful, though, is a course taught from the perspective of the malaria parasite, praising its role in shaping human civilizations for thousands of years, which is pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a “religious studies” class right now.

I don’t think religion will ever disappear, but I’ll be satisfied when seminaries and theology departments all shut down everywhere for lack of interest.


At the outset, I might call up the old disciplinary truism about confessional vs. non-confessional approaches to the study of religion (whatever that is). But I won’t – M heads that off by evoking conspiracies by the religious to highjack comparison and objectivity. More than that, these days, I’m 50 shades of dubious about the distinction anyway. I get a smile out of the atheist argument that World Religions ed. serves their ends creating a bunch of atheists by comparative exposure to multiple religions (… and all their comparable silliness). It’s not that I deny it, I’ve seen it in action. No, the smile I get out of it comes from the complete lack of self-awareness and self-reflexivity that accompanies this small corner of the atheists’ millenarian hope for a future godless world. Religion, comparison, objectivity, atheism are all treated as if they’re clearly defined, neutral, ahistorical terms in a god’s eye conception of the world. (To this list we might add implied or allied terms – secularism, pluralism, any named religious tradition, etc.) It’s only by regarding them as such that one can attribute nefarious intention to the committed who might teach religion, “to smuggle orthodoxy into the classroom under cover of objectivity.” And it’s only by such … uh … dogma that atheist fans of comparative religion can blind themselves to the question of the forms of … uh … secular pluralist indoctrination that such treatment of religion promotes. It ain’t just self-identified atheists who unsee this way, it is built into the very fabric of secularism in North America (buddy’s and my proposed paper for the Congress addresses this – “Codifying Pluralism: The Supreme Court of Canada and World Religions Discourse”).

In the hands of rabid secularists (=atheists?) though, so many extra layers of occlusion are part and parcel of this unvision. The rest of Myers’s post would surely give a chuckle to scholars like Fitzgerald, McCutcheon/Arnal, et al. 

I won’t challenge Myers’s contention that religion is a useless academic subject (it kinda is, at least in certain senses). But one surely wonders at his distinction between art, philosophy, anthropology, and poetry, and “religious studies.” (Certainly those in the field who are prone to handwringing about what exactly RLST is and how it’s distinct from fields such as Myers names must wonder.) Some kind of cognitive dissonance (or simple ignorance) appears operative here which I might suggest is the result of the incoherence of the concepts mentioned above and the resultant confused state of the academic study of religion. What do the likes of Myers think RLST teaches that excludes anthro etc.? I’ll suppose provisionally that he means systems of (irrational) beliefs/truth claims.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not what we identify as the religions of the world are truly subject to systematic belief/doctrine/dogma, the idea that education in such systems, in and of themselves, is useless seems a tad philistinistic, if not authoritarian. K, forget about that over-the-top conclusion.

Though, in the next to last paragraph, Myers may be one, the other or both, but more importantly he simply returns to muddled belief that religion is some distinct thing within a culture (and a very very bad one) to be likened to a biological parasite, as pernicious as such things are, yet as influential on history as particular ones like malaria.* Fine. But does not the same apply to political, social and economic systems? And of course then one must ask what’s the relationship between any two or more of these? And then, throughout modern Western K-12 ed. (and post-secondary?) is it not then the parasite’s perspective that’s “pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a [insert subject here] class right now?”

We’ve reached a point here where objective vs. confessional is beside the point. Religion – constructed, deconstructed, confessed or interrogated – as an object of study is delegitimated. Moreover, that peculiar instrumental purpose for its presence in some North American K-12 curricula, acknowledgement of cultural pluralism, is proscribed.

Politically, what’s the form of secularism Myers is promoting? Pluralist it ain’t.

Moving on.

*Reminds me of that line I used to repeat about how the Buddhist Four Noble Truths take the form of a medical diagnosis, combined as it was with my material circumstances for the Axial Age in India: urbanization and intensification of agriculture in jungly parts of India, malaria and dengue and cholera, oh my! And here I’m going to leave aside that fundamental dogma of the modern conception of religion, according to a weird orgy of bedfellows, universality.

2)  A few days earlier Myers posted, Atheists are responsible for creationism!

I must admit that the tussle that Americans have with those very aggressive forces who want to believe that the universe came about just like Genesis says (whatever that means) is just not a thing I can get that interested in. But, I guess I’m empathetic to the resistance Myers, Larry Moran et al. put up to it and the degree to which they are concerned with it.

But here, we surely seem Myers being himself, taking the least provocation to be ideological, thus asking little of historical data as he meets them, and in the end being the complete fucking asshole that he is. Nothing wrong with any of these fundamentally – but from the outset, let me say that to go from zero to asshole with a money-making blog in a heartbeat, well, gotta be something unseemly about that.

Long-short, as far as I can tell, a commenter on another post proffers the thesis that creationism was the result of the rise of public atheism. A little vague, needing refinement and specificity to be sure, but workable. And a thesis, no matter, that with a lay understanding of mine with respect to the history of religion in America I’m willing to affirm provisionally. But Myers shits all over it (maybe he knows the commenter better than I, but that’s not exactly the point): “ahistorical ignorance,” “short-sightedness,” “blame,” “idiots …. Give them a look of contempt and walk away.”

This is so much Myers at home that I can’t bother to engage it in even a sort of fisking sort of way. All I can say is, Paul, seriously, you can’t take such commentary as challenge to move thought forward, as opposed to your sort of reaction?

But by all means, offend your commentariate, and your students. But you go further, offending the scholarly field of American Religion, which you clearly understand just slightly better than the average bar patron. Admit what you don’t know well. And Scopes arises only as the result of secularism and a construction of 19th century atheism, the progress of atheism in 20th century America runs parallel to the progress of American Xty in 20th century America. You draw a cartoon for the purposes of insulting a commenter on your blog. Très unseemly.

As an educator, seriously, that’s you response? It neither prompts you to think forward nor refine what you already think? As a student, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself and then bitch to your Chair, your Dean, and the Arts Dean. You clearly refuse to accept the conventions of the academia.

Try that shit with the Religion in American History crowd.

Telling I think (though of what exactly I’m quite sure yet) that Myers wants to bracket off historically the New Atheism from the atheism of before. Do the NAs fear the realization that the movement is historically contingent, no more a reflection of an objective reality than any other historical social and political movement?

3) Leading us to the next entry, from the equally irrepressible, and Myers enemy, and former pastor, John Loftus. Does the Internet Spell Doom For Organized Religion? linking to this post by Valerie Tarico.

To the title question, Loftus answers, “Hell yes! Or, do you live in a cave?”

Lots to wonder about with respect to the confidence shown by Tarico/Loftus.

For a thorough examination of Tarico see Elizabeth Drescher, The Internet is Not Killing Organized Religion.

I won’t rehearse Drescher’s arguments. But two points significant for present purposes are worth mentioning. First, the religious are just as likely to maintain an internet presence as the non-religious. Second, what Tarico, and so Loftus, means by organized religion is mostly conservative forms of (American) Xty.

In future I’d like the discipline and enthusiasm to take a good long look at, legend in his own mind, John W. Loftus. Day after day on his blog he makes it apparent that he might have left his fundy church, but his very tiny frame of reference remains fully intact.

The thing that gets me about the predictions of religion’s demise by the likes of Loftus is the complete certitude that this will be the greatest thing ever. Never does one encounter any sense of foreboding about a world w/o religious institutions, no sense that institutions, social formations, or political/economic orders that might follow just might be far worse. This is especially disturbing in predictions that take the explicit form of a techno-sci-fi eschatology, such as I’ve written about before.

4) And what would such a roundup be without a “This Week in Thin Description” entry? As is his wont, Hemant Mehta reports on the murder of a 20 year old woman in Papua New Guinea who had been accused of practicing sorcery and thus killing a 6 year old boy.

Icky facts (if that’s what they are) to be sure. But Mehta, in his inimitable style, in the style of every one of his ilk (pour exemple our old dear friend idoubtit) reflecting on the events as he’s received them offers nothing but petty moralizing and the usual cheerleading for reason and whatnot:

This isn’t a religion-based crime, per se, but it is the sort of violence that occurs when you put faith in superstition and throw aside any notion of evidence.

This is a crime against common sense, a crime against women, and a crime against reason. It was caused by the same sort of gullible thinking that leads all sorts of religious extremists to kill in the name of their God.

For what it’s worth, 96% of natives are some form of Christian, but that didn’t seem to stop the murderers from committing their horrific act.

I don’t know what I find more wearying, the dogmas of the cult of reason and appeals to the myth of religious violence  or the simple incuriosity about what’s surely the complex context left out in the mere gazetting of events in Mehta’s sources.

I’ve been trying out a new line as I think through the criticism and reaction to it by atheists of the thesis, “atheism is just another religion.” No, it’s not just another religion, it’s a pretence to an academic discipline or political party, argue I. When I read such reactions to news that interest (I use that verb loosely) the likes of Mehta or idoubtit, as well as the treatment of religion by Myers, Loftus, and other atheists, I must conclude that it’s soooo not the former, more like the later, and that kind of political party would be of a decidedly illiberal (or accidental neo-liberal) sort.

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Introducing Sita Sings the Blues

[My mostly unedited and uncorrected remarks for movie night 13/02/13.]

The movie you are about to see was almost entirely written, directed, produced and animated by American artist Nina Paley and released in 2008. I’ve been a great fan of it since I first became aware of it and watched it, shortly after its release.

The ostensible purpose for this showing is as part of my course this semester, Sacred Texts in the Religions of the East. Among the themes we are considering there is virtue in Asian religion. I wanted to include something narrative from Classical Hindu tradition and it dawned on me that the movie would serve as well as anything else, and in some ways better.

The film is especially interesting for a couple of reasons, both of which entail controversy: the first is its copyright status and the other copyright issues that arose from the release of the film; and second, its use of materials from the Valmiki Ramayana tradition.

The rest of my presentation outlines these two matters (note: I’m not going to bore you with such things as a synopsis of the Indian Epic which the movie is based upon – the film itself tells you most of what you need to know – and for that matter, neither am I going to comment much upon the film’s contents).

As a fierce copyright warrior, Paley originally released the film under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. This meant that anyone or any entity was free to view, exhibit, broadcast, or copy it – and even for charge – without any permissions from or compensation to Paley. Although, compensation is certainly encouraged and appreciated.

To that end, Paley in concert with the organization Question Copyright, developed a scheme whereby entities which share any revenue with her from showings, duplication or sale of merchandise may attach the Creator Endorsed logo to any materials associated with such enterprises.

You’ll notice that logo on the posters for tonight’s showing, and you’ll notice the can before me. Whatever you might wish to contribute I will be sure to get to Nina via her Paypal account.

Now, Paley’s stand as expressed through the creation and distribution of her film might appear to most as a mere eccentricity if not for her subsequent copyright problems.

The film uses a number of Annette Hanshaw recordings from the 1920s. While these were no longer subject to federal US copyright, through assorted State laws governing recordings, compositions, and the syncing of recordings with images which predated Federal law came into play as several entities came forward to demand royalties from Paley. Initially these entities demanded a combined US$220,000 from Paley but eventually settled for a mere US$50,000. Paley borrowed the money in order to pay up. She’s paid off the loan and made a little extra through speaking engagements and merchandizing.

Now, another condition of the settlement was that additional royalties would have to be paid in the event that 5,000 or more copies of the film were to be made and distributed. This applies to anyone who would produce +4,999 copies; the regime of the royalty payments is a byzantine arrangement involving 8 copyright holders each with their own royalty formula.

The copy were are to watch tonight is a limited edition numbered and autographed version I purchased when Paley opened her store of Sita merchandise. (I also have a graphic tee of a rishi playing the violin, but it doesn’t fit so well anymore.)

This we’d consider the major copyright issue, given the money involved and whatnot, but subsequent issues that have arisen that are perhaps more telling.

About a month ago, Paley changed the license for the film to simple public domain. This was the result of the fact that broadcasters and others simply refused to acknowledge the legally defined terms of the Creative Commons license and continued to pester Paley to sign agreements freeing them to show or use the film for whatever purposes; she`s consistently refused to enter into these agreements informing the parties in question that they had every right to do with Sita whatever they wished. The result was that they’d simply not use the film at all without such agreements.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was that our own NFB demanded that a friend of Paley`s remove all references to the film from a documentary he’s making since Paley refuses to do the paperwork to give the NFB and the documentarian permission to employ anything from Sita as they wish (all of which is given according to the Creative Commons license).

Now these issues are close to my heart as an objector to the copyright regime in North America and Europe, but they are probably not so important here. Still, with Paley, I’ll assert: copyright is broken.

Moving on, it’s probably more important here to acknowledge and discuss issues around the substance of Paley’s film.

Sita Sings the Blues has generated some controversy for its contents and its treatment of the Valmiki Ramayana.

Hindu nationalists have declared the film to be insulting to Hindu culture and derogatory to the story’s principals, especially Sita, a goddess.

Paley has also been criticised for the cultural appropriation her film represents. In an interview for the magazine Wired she said:

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, “White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism.” Without actually looking at the work, they’ve decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.

As you watch the movie you might find yourself sympathetic one or both of these criticisms, but – without going off on a pedantic rant – I caution you against that. For these particular materials Paley employs are fraught with respect to such issues as sacrality and scripture, and identity and colonization.

For the Sacred Texts class, the reading assigned to accompany the movie is the Introduction to an anthology of essays from 1991 entitled, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia.

The broad lessons this volume seeks to impart are, first, it’s simply no longer tenable to consider the Valmiki Ramayana as some kind of Ur-text from which the others are merely derived or to which they are responses. Derivation and reaction has certainly occurred, but the contexts in which this has taken place are far more complex.

And so secondly, and subsequently, Many Ramayanas shows us that substance(s) and spatial and temporal location(s) of Rama-narrative materials are, on the one hand, stand each alone, and on the other hand, stand as threads in an immensely complex tapestry covering all historical time and a wide space extending well beyond South Asia.

Thus, the accusations against Paley – from the right and from the left – backfire or rather are, as the kids say, an EPIC FAIL. Sacralizing Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, as well as defending it as the culture of the Other, is to reify some particularity which is problematic on numerous levels.

Indulge these remarks on the Valmiki Ramayana which are intended to bring this to a conclusion.

First, to assert that anyone is guilty of blaspheming against the Valmiki Ramayana by questioning anything about Sita and Rama is to do violence against the Sanskrit text:

Sita, upon her marriage to Rama, no one in the West could view relatively without simply abandoning any claim to moral seriousness – she is a paragon beauty because she’s just lost all her milk teeth; alternatively, she is just a petulant tween who loses her protection in the forest because having seen the deer (a demon in disguise) she demands that Rama acquire it for her because she adores it.

Furthermore, Valmiki (and whoever else might have put their impressions on the Sanskrit text) stuffed it with moral paradoxes that the tradition wrung its hands about for centuries and could not resolve. And these are set up by the very fact that Rama, the legitimate king in succession to his father, is put aside by the keeping of a promise his father made to Rama’s stepmother. From there the (Sanskrit) story proceeds with a set of moral paradoxes which Indian tradition has never really resolved (Rama’s killing of Vali, king of the monkeys, for example).

All’s to say, Valmiki’s text seems to invite contestation, and other Ramayana traditions seem to heed to the call. To suggest that anyone is capable of, culpable in, offending against this particular narrative is to try by  violence to suppress efforts which this particular text implicitly, if not explicitly, invites.

At the same time, there’s no small irony to the accusations of neocolonialism leveled against Paley. For the Valmiki text is itself a story of Othering and colonization: the historian Romila Thapar has demonstrated quite persuasively, particularly in her 1978 book, Exile and the Kingdom: Some Thoughts on the Ramayana, that the cultures of the rakshasas (demons) and the monkeys closely resemble the cultures of certain South Indian tribals (so-called scheduled castes and adivasis, fìrst dwellers) which remain today. (The representations of Ravana and his followers as demons, and Hanuman and his followers as monkeys, were troublesome for the Jains who explicitly framed their versions by mocking the idea of demons and talking monkeys and rendering those groups as merely human.)

And it’s worth noting that in the Independent period South Indian (read Tamil) nationalism has viewed Rama vs. Ravana in inverted terms – Ravana is, at the least a tragic hero, at the most, THE hero of the story as a figure resisting Sanskritic colonization of the Dravidian South.

And again, anyone who desires to, in effect, sideline the fact that Ramayana is problematic with respect to gender issues is a fool or a fascist. Paley joins a long venerable tradition of women’s perspectives – the folk songs of Telugu women for example – on the story.

Those are all the points basically I’ve wanted to make. But let me conclude with a brief point on a new discovery for me about the film. Rereading the Many Ramayanas introduction, apparently for the first time since I first saw this film, this paraphrase of the essay on South Indian shadow puppet Ramayana performances stuck out:

Unlike the Ram Lila of Banaras, performed before huge crowds, the spectators at the Kerala puppet plays are few—and those few often doze off soon after the performance begins. As a result, the puppeteers perform principally for one another. Aficionados of the genre, they strive to outdo each other in voluminous commentary and witty remarks, incorporating into the telling of the Ramayana verbal treatises on grammar, local references, and satire of pious ideals. This internal audience has thus shaped the many layers and frames of the drama, giving rise to yet another kind of diversity within the Ramayana tradition.

I ask you to bear this in mind when the shadow puppets appear in the film. And consider the following from Paley’s Wired interview about the shadow puppet scenes in the movie:

Those are friends of mine from India. That’s all unscripted, all improvised, and that’s their natural speaking voices. They’re not scholars — they were laughing, saying, “Oh, I should have read up on the Ramayana before I came,” and I was like, “No, no! I want you to go with what you remember.”

Though I can’t say for sure, I think it’s apparent that Paley was aware of the Kerala tradition and decided to take the playfulness of it and kick it up a notch as you’ll see.

With that, let’s get to the business at hand. I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I have (the 9 or 10 times I’ve seen it).


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Imagining, Re-Imagining, and Re-Re-Imagining

[Indulge me as I post these brief presentations I’ve made over the last couple of years. I do so before I suffer some massive supernatural tech failure, and because I’m deep in the midst of (re-)thinking, (re-)reading and (re-)writing about some stuff in them.]

Here we have the presentations I made last fall and the fall before for ongoing the Laurentian colloquium called, “Re-Imagining the Humanities.”

In 2011, I offered this under the theme, “Imagine: the Work of the Humanities and the University Experience.”

Above the underpass of the Parker building there ought to be a big sign that reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I say this not as an expression of any jaded view about the university or education.

But, it seems to me that post-secondary education is becoming less able to propagate skills, knowledge, and values, and human development than it should be.

Still, I believe that it’s increasingly important for the university, especially with the humanities in mind, to make explicit that what it has on offer is a holistic programme of cultivation.

This is not meant to lead into the usual apologia for the humanities with pat reminders that, if nothing else, we teach “critical thinking, analytical reasoning & written communications” (to use the list of skills the CLA is intended to measure).

Besides, in the teeth of such modest claims we often throw a refutation of such utilitarian justifications.  But if we were to argue from utility, I think that a far more comprehensive argument is to be made.  That:

  • We promote critical thinking, etc. to be sure
  • But we also provide unique content (to which critical thinking is to be applied)
  • And that content transmits humane values
  • And that content, and its values, are the very stuff of the cultivation of character (or virtue in the classical sense)

Of course, acquaintance with Can. lit., Ancient philosophy, or the Confucian Classics does not guarantee personal development.  But certainly as long as we continue to provide the content we do, and which students are only able to grasp as “through a glass, darkly” (for whatever set of reasons), we can be certain that growth through university education will be inhibited.  Content needs to appear within a bigger picture.

The best statement I’ve encountered lately suggesting that higher ed. serves this holistic purpose comes from Margaret Mead who said:

In college, in some way that I devoutly believed in but could not explain, I expected to become a person.

I’d find this a little rich if it weren’t for the fact that it seems to speak to issues concerning our students today.  First, there’s no doubt that many students don’t know or can’t articulate why they are here.  Second, recent material I’ve read suggests that many students are looking for a reason to believe – they have spiritual concerns, questions about ‘the meaning of life’ (for lack of another way to put it), and they desire to cultivate values or virtue. (But, for whatever reasons, university work isn’t often the place that’s done.)

They experience life like the rest of us, aware of “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and in the face of them they might say that “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” or throw up their hands saying life’s “nasty, brutish and short.”

These phrases are often just slogans or clichés to students (as well as poorly understood).

But what we do in the humanities is present Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Hobbes and others in full, and let them address those perennial questions that many of our students seek to answer.

The genuine literacy that higher ed. offers, surely delivers some of the very stuff that all of us need to approach big questions.

Of course, one doesn’t need a university education to engage fully in the encounters into which life inevitably drags us.  But to enter university is to volunteer to train for such contests, and to accept a dedication to some vow like, in the words of Edward Gibbon:

We improve ourselves by victories over ourselves. There must be contest, and we must win.

As for the role of those of us in the university – more treacle, I know – increasingly I have to believe, as Sharon Daloz Parks says, that:

every institution of higher education serves in at least some measure as a community of imagination in which every professor is potentially a spiritual guide and every syllabus a confession of faith.

And it’s the matter of imagination that ultimately I find the hardest to convey to effect in the classroom.  Between me and the students, something imaginative is not always being born.

So, to conclude, I want to say that above the stage exit wherever Laurentian convocations are held ought to be posted a sign, again quoting Dante, “that without hope we live on in desire.”

As the economy contracts, as jobs for university grads become scarce, and as our discourses about every major issue become more Manichean, our students need as much as ever to leave university with something more than a credential or the ability to say only that they completed a post-secondary education.

What that may be is hope.  Hope in a larger sense, which we might take from the Dante references, understood as the ground of fulfillment.  Without it there is only desire, understood as the affliction of the residents of Dante’s Limbo, the longing for something missing in which fulfillment might be found.

PS – in the “Proust Questionnaire” section of the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, mystery writer PD James was asked, ‘What is your greatest regret?’ to which she replied, ‘That I didn’t go to university’.

This past fall, I presented this under the theme, “Worldviews in the Humanities: Whose world view?”

Every year, I face an intellectual and pedagogical dilemma, one which I’ve shared recently with Kornel, and one which I’ve failed to resolve in any satisfactory way. The source of this dilemma is the course RS 2205 – The World’s Living Religions. This introduction to Religious Studies (at least it is in most places, though not for US at Laurentian – and that’s a point worth noting which I hope to return to later) which is in reality an introduction to RELIGIONS, is problematic in several ways, yet seems to have a certain utility for a liberal education (and importance for Laurentian and our Department at UofS). But it’s fraught.

The problem with this course is that it has a built-in set of assumptions – reinforced by the limits of what can be communicated in a (virtually) fresh folk setting – but which, in any case, skew the 1st & 2nd order terms in which multiple sub-disciplines of the field operate. Of course, much of the damage done by a world religions intro course might be undone in more senior courses, but here few students return for advanced, more discriminating, study in Buddhology, Indology, Sinology etc. (the emphasis on “Eastern” fields here is on purpose).

So, the problem is, what students walk away with from World Religions is a set of thumbnail sketches of several “religions,” constructed within a framework in which it’s imagined that a number of abstract concepts are shared across them in some way: divinity, text, rite/ritual, belief, etc., etc., etc. The problem is that this is to advocate (intentionally or not) for what we might call:

a worldview of worldviews

Insofar as a world religions course is expected to propagate pluralism, it may be said that it succeeds, yet the question is, ‘how does any of that reflect reality’? And, well, it does and does not. It does insofar as it manages some materials from foci that we might be able to draw together in order to label it as a ‘tradition’. It doesn’t insofar as it tends to create an orthodoxy by which, it may be imagined, that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, even Jews, Christians and others, are expected to conform, or at least by which world religions’ scholar might judge them.

Thus, what/who is a good Hindu, Buddhist, etc. is defined in such a course. But has any service been done when students are sent into the world with such a reconstructed bourgeois conception of the Other in their minds? It should seem obvious that the “Islamist terrorist” or “Christian fundamentalist” becomes a problematic entity here, not in himself but insofar as he is imagined to be within or without that company which “world religions” constructs.

Tomoko Masuzawa ably (perhaps excessively) documents this process in her The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. I’m not particularly concerned about the Christian dominance that Masuzawa argues was originally built into the construction of the idea of world religions: as others have argued (as the discipline of RLST insists) the playing field has been levelled since the mid-20th century, and world religions or comparative religions has, in large measure ceased to dominate the scholarly activities of the discipline, and now occupies a shrinking corner next to assorted specialties and a plethora of other pursuits.

For the same reasons, I’m not particularly concerned by further step taken by Timothy Fitzgerald in his Ideology of Religious Studies to the effect that RLST has been dominated by, and constructed out of, a liberal Protestant ecumenical theology. Again, specializations etc. have larger left most if not all of this behind.

But, insofar as the work of scholars like Masuzawa, Fitzgerald, and many others in between, and further afield, compel us to re-evaluate how we understand religion, and religions, historically, and how we teach them, this work calls attention to problems like that which I outlined initially and, by extension, the prevalence of “world religions” discourse in the greater contemporary cultural world.

In a sense, RLST has seen the chickens come home to roost.

As a result we in the field find it difficult to get a hearing in order to contest a popular vision of religion and religions, one that retains all the worst vestiges of thought from the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the reductionism of 19th century social science, and bourgeois ecumenism. And one based on so totalizing and essentializing a conception of religion which RLST in large part invented and which persists in middle-brow thought.

We can see this in places of lesser and greater concern:

(But let me begin with a middling – though immediate – concern: essentialized religion is reproduced in virtually every world religions textbook produced for undergrads in North America. And despite his claim to have written a different kind of textbook, one that presents religion with its warts and all, Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World simply reproduces a series of religious essences but with the added vice of essentializing particular religions’ perceived flaws.)

Lesser transgressions:

CBC Radio’s Tapestry. Episodes invariably treat religion in bargain basement Schleiermachian Romantic terms, degenerating into the merely therapeutic – religion (better to call it faith here) is just a personal feeling by which one makes one’s own meaning in the face of contemporary alienation, often with breathtaking cultural appropriation of Eastern materials.

The Ottawa Citizen’s feature “Ask the Religion Experts.” These experts are mostly clergy and community activists; where they have advanced academic training it is of a narrow and partisan sort. The questions they address are usually theological or faith constructions of matters of more substantial social or political importance. Prison chaplains, terrorism, abortion, etc.

But of particular interest to me – so I may be exaggerating its significance – is that religion, defined and reduced to various systems of ideas, and so subject to moral and metaphysical scrutiny (and found wanting if for no other reason that the rest on a basis of belief in supernatural beings) is the crux of the reaction against religion represented by contemporary atheists who populate the internet and non-academic publishing.

What we find here is the construction of world religions turned in on itself. And here, Masuzawa’s argument about Christian dominance in the invention of world religions is important. For the New Atheist critique of religion is an old school imagining consisting of the West and the Rest. It treats Eastern religions with kid gloves while implying that they are no less irrational than those of the West, and making this explicit when any anecdote reflecting badly on Asians presents itself, or via some tenuous connection between religious sources and social injustice.

So, in conclusion, to return to my original dilemma. Teaching Asian religions in particular, within world religions and even independently, I find myself caught between a dangerous shoal and a lee shore: at risk of becoming an apologist for Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. or supplying fodder to religion’s new cultured despisers. At least in upper level courses there is opportunity to provide some clarity to fundamental concepts (belief, text/scripture, etc.) and their content. But in The World’s Living Religions, there is little space to accomplish this, and each tradition ends up reduced to a laundry list of texts, beliefs, practices (reducible further to a simple scorecard of beliefs about supernatural and metaphysical things) all meant to create an impression of a worldview. This doesn’t tell you much about eg. “Hinduism” and it doesn’t tell you much about Hindus and how they make their way in the various worlds they occupy.

This shortcoming, in tandem with criticism of religion as a 1st order term by scholars like Fitzgerald, would seem to undermine the enterprise of RLST.  In response, I can only say that if culture, particularly of the East, wasn’t housed within RLST then where would its place in the university be? I have to assume that you’d agree that scholarship and teaching directed at the amorphous target of religion (as it’s commonly understood) is necessary within any university, to the best of that institution’s ability, thus minimally as some program of the study of the religious cultures originating throughout the geography of the world, if only as a single course. As a provider of such a limited vision, among other things, all I can do is open some spaces to indicate that there are some things limited, if not artificial, about the picture that we’re trying to paint (which is not really different from the other editorial limitations put on any other course of study of 13 or 26 weeks). But the difference from the past is that we do and must invite an interrogation of the tendency to construct worldviews of Hindus, Buddhists, et al. and how much more a worldview of worldviews?

This last one was well received (as was the one which followed mine, by Kornel Zathureczky) enough so that KZ and I are embarking on some serious work in methods and pedagogy and whatnot in RLST.

ATM I’m up to my eyeballs in all sorts of stuff about teaching religion in K-12 and post-sec contexts. The legitimacy, but especially the necessity, of this kind of religious ed. that my sources are selling – with little in the way of interrogation of terms and methods, or reference to the state of the art – I find increasingly gob-effin-smackin. Slingers of new pedagogy are not only earning their bread by repackaging old suspect visions of something called religion, but they are institutionalizing stoopidity for snowflakes. Bitin’ the hand that feeds.

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Notes from the First Walk Longer than 3 Blocks I’ve Taken in Quite Awhile

So, just got back from the Home Hardware godown (literally a godown – hardware’s all in the basement). On the walk to and fro I observed the following.

  1. Many very busy Robins. White-Throated Sparrows flocking on my street and also very busy.
  2. It may have been chilly earlier, but warmed up enough that I sweated up my sweatshirt real good.
  3. Everyone and his dog (literally) was out.
  4. And speaking of said sweatshirt (or hoodie, properly speaking), it is bright red with the logo of Les Canadiens de Montréal on the front. Honest to god, I really do sometimes forget that most ppl in this country actually care about hockey or at least carry a continuous awareness of it.
    • Ran into my neighbour Marcella. She asked if I was actually a Cdns fan.
    • Ran into a group of ladies walking their dogs (see #3). One asked if I was hoping to see them (ie. Les Canadiens) play this year. “As much as anybody, I guess,” said I, to be polite – I could give a rat’s patootie truth be told.
    • Kid in the convenience store next to the Home Hardware (where I stopped cause I had to buy water cause I was parched – see sweaty sweatshirt above) said, “great shirt.” He seemed a little disappointed when I told him I’d bought it cause it was cheap and cause it’s red (and hence blaze-like).
    • Ran into a guy in a Bruins shirt in the HH, 3 times as I walked around the isles. Three times he said in a loud voice, “booo Montréal!”
    • Walking out of HH I ran into him again. I said in a loud voice, “booo Boston!”
    • Few Minutes later, Buddy drives by me, rolls down his window, and I hear a loud dopplering “BOOOoooo!”

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