Debate and public discussions, even when hosted formally, often weigh in favour of the worst representations of fact. ‘Gish Gallops’ of dubious truth demand time and careful attention to verify or refute.

Worse, for every truth, there seems to be several intuitively satisfying falsehoods – each a contender for belief without recourse to evidence. This is all grist for the mill for the Skeptics (capital ‘S’, and a ‘k’), and there’s a lot authored on the topic for the most part I’ll simply defer to.

My interest is in how ‘woo’ manages to hitch a ride on the often legitimate moral anxieties of its victims.

Continue reading “Bluffing…”

Is Barnaby Joyce the avante garde of the Christian literary tradition?

Ho ho ho, with a hat-tip to Russell Blackford. Barnaby Joyce is putting lead into the pencil of Christian literature, or at least, there’s probably lead in the crayons he ate from the Fairfax stationary.

Perhaps I’m being unkind…

‘My war is always against that religion called atheist extremism, that sneaky sect.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011).

Oh come on… It’s not so bad.

‘Yes, this sect’s followers make their way on to your veranda then hold a righteous court of sneering indignation about the crib in the park. You can hear yourself muttering under your breath, ”I wish you would go drown yourself, you pseudo-intellectual Gucci flea.” They write letters to complain about the incorrectness of carols at the school and picket the Christmas tree. To not insult their religion, you must no longer follow yours. They yearn for the fallacy of a vacuum and they demand that you join them in that philosophical void.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

Now I know what you’re thinking – incitement to violence, and in a Fairfax paper of all places!

But if you’ve learned anything about lit-crit, and religious texts, it’s that you can take these things to literally. He’s not suggesting that atheist should actually kill themselves, no, no, no.

You start out as a Gucci flea (whatever that is, I’m not sure of the Biblical reference – I’m not a Biblical scholar), then you submerge yourself in a baptism until you flatline. You are then born again, brain-dead, able to operate on, and in sympathy with, Joyce’s intellectual plane. Which apparently isn’t a void. Sort of a Cartesian dualism deal, or something – the brain is dead, but the soul goes on, un-vacuumed.

It’s hard to interpret such cutting edge stuff fairly. I may not be a Biblical scholar, but I know when new intertextualities arise, in more novel configurations, those familiar with the traditional – conservatives and laymen – are left scratching their heads.

Where he got the idea that atheism was a religion, much less a sect, I don’t know. There are too many new sources. Once upon a time, people knew that atheists were precisely not religious, which is why sometimes, they were killed. Not drowned so much as dismembered, hung, set on fire, or whatever.

No, Barnaby is obviously going with something post-modern, in response to the liberal secularism of early 20th century anglophone nations. The confabulation about Christian exclusion from schools, or the anxiety about freedom from religion being the freedom to take religion away. Not my tradition of choice, actually – bullshit actually – but that seems to be where Joyce, our latest national treasure, is coming from; late 20th, early 21st century, Christian self-pity.

But ignore the ressentiment, for a moment, because it’s only one facet of the human condition that Barnaby Joyce fleshes out. Joyce is nothing, if not a pluralist…

‘Anyway, Christmas is here and I hope we borrow a little from the person who kicked it off. The timing at the end of December has more to do with the celebration of the pagan festival of Saturnalia rather than when Christ was actually born. Those politically incorrect early Christians had the good sense to roll with the customs rather than to rage against them.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

I take it that this includes the concept of ‘December liberty’, where people could say what they wanted of their leaders, and others, without fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why Barnaby is so liberal with his own choice of words.

Allow me to reciprocate in the same spirit.

You Barnaby, are a complete and utter moron. I hope you asphyxiate on a dingleberry. (Not literally, of course.)

Oh, and it’s a few seconds from midnight… Happy Unholy Anti-Christmas! Here’s a jingle.

~ Bruce

Phraseology for the nervous wonk

Ever had to interview someone politically charged, controversial and intimidating? Do your pals expect you to adhere to a particular political standard? Do you wish to sit amidst controversy all while being kept safe from criticism?

Do these thoughts make you quiver with a nervous smile?

Allow me to furnish you with a few turns of phrase one can use to help defuse such anxieties.



‘You’re obviously very intelligent…’: Translates approximately to ‘please don’t make me look like a fool, I’ll flatter you if you flatter me’. Try to under-emphasise the implicit ‘…but’, so as not to lose the desired effect. May leave a substance of a nutty flavour on your tongue, or the tip of your nose.

‘People say…’: Not to be used as a weasel-word. Do not use with anything inflammatory, or people will want to know who ‘people’ are. This is only a throw-away line used to draw attention away from the fact one was out drinking with the wonks, instead of obsessively researching their article/essay/interview/etc (see ‘fetish’ below).

‘That’s a [any logical fallacy, preferably in latin]…’: To be delivered with the utmost sarcasm when addressing those who loathe analytic philosophers, scientists, engineers, rationalists, et al. Also helpful in the company of friends when the group doesn’t want to admit they feel they’ve been ‘pwned’ in an Internet debate. A morale booster.

‘They’re tone deaf…’: Means exactly, ‘you don’t think they realise that was an in-joke? Oh shit…’

‘Everyone knows…’: Means exactly, ‘I slept in, don’t ask me…’

‘X isn’t a team player’: Translates to ‘X fact-checked my stuff after I published it’. It’s a wise tactic to deploy such a rumor when sympathising with other victims of such ‘fetishized’ behaviour. A bonding strategy.

Culture wars…

‘I have sympathy with the concerns behind the Sokal hoax, but Sokal and Bricmont should have submitted their epistemic criticisms to a peer-reviewed journal.’: All you’ll ever need to know about the Sokal Hoax. Nobody you want to meet will know any more than this.

‘They have a fetish for error checking. They don’t see the bigger picture.’: Which is polite code for, ‘Fuck! They know stuff! Don’t let them work near us! We’ll look bad.’

‘The history wars in Australia, like the science wars…’: They are the same, apparently. Otherwise, if this weren’t true, Australian academics would look a lot less cosmopolitan.

‘Culture war Group X is just like Group Y’: Translates to ‘our group is better than Culture War Group X, or Culture War Group Y, so we didn’t need to read any of their shit.’ Further justification for spending time drinking with fellow wonks.

Oz Politics…

‘Well, I’m not ideologically opposed to a mining tax…’: In using this phrase, one wants to emphasise the non-existent ‘…but’ before the point of accidentally committing to anything. No, you do support a mining tax; you’re not any kind of opposed to it. It’s just that the rabid dude with the misogynistic Juliar placard gives you an incentive to sound uneasy about what are your true convictions. It’s either that, or finding a bucket of water to help shoo the spittle-flecked rage zombie away from your car.

‘Kids are smart. They can see through stuff. I’m an atheist/secular christian/modern Muslim/etc, but why not teach creationism in public school science classes if they’re curious?’: This isn’t advocacy for creationism – don’t worry about that. It’s not like you want alchemy taking up time in chemistry classes, climate denialism eating away the hours in Earth Science, or astrology cluttering up SOSE either. The approach is a delaying tactic. It’s a conditional statement. You can always at some later point, claim that the kids aren’t curious, and that way everyone else looks more confrontational and unreasonable than you; both the people who opposed it up-front, and those making creationist demands once The Science of The Flintstones isn’t delivered.

‘I was for the ALP conscience vote over marriage equality.’: Be a person of conscience while also not comitting yourself! No anxiety there. Nobody will notice. Honest.


‘We need to be bi-partisan about this.’: It may be a white-hot issue where one side is clearly, as a matter of fact, in the wrong, but never underestimate how much time bi-partisanship can save for you to catch up on lost sleep. Let the consensus builders on the ground labour over the details. You’ve got a bender to sleep off.

‘Well, I’m glad you have such an ability to read people’s minds’. Now, you’re supposed to be sarcastic about this. Your expressed concern is that you don’t like people making baseless accusations about motive. Your actual concern is that the person you’re dealing with may know something you don’t. If you passive-aggressively have at them in small cuts, and if you can get others in on the act, perhaps you can wear your opponent down before they get the chance to show how they’re more cluey than you. All of this, while you appear to be acting responsibly. Nice, huh? (Trust me, nobody will realise you’re an asshole for this).



‘Secularism’: How religious people are suppressed. To be shunned.

‘Secular Christian’: Someone causing cognitive dissonance best projected back at them.

‘Fundamentalist Christian’: A target, if you’re going to criticise religion, best suited to your ability. A replacement for Stephen Fielding needs to be established for precisely this purpose, but preferably not in a position to start fights this time around. One doesn’t want to have to deal with interested parties with inflamed emotions.

‘Muslims’: All alike. In a good way of course. Flatter them without considering what you’re actually implying by flattering them. Awkward to ask the opinions of – use the smallest possible sample of their opinions. Avoid the accurate polling of. Avoid any polling of. Just say things you guess will sound nice. Pretend to listen when they speak (they’re used to it).

‘Islamophobia’: Something nobody is ever entirely sure what anyone else means by it, yet still something not to be accused of. Play it safe by not disagreeing with anyone using the term. Nod your head when you hear it. Pretend to understand.

‘Jains’: Objects used to show how religion isn’t violent, despite such use implying that non-Jain religion is more violent. Emphasise the former, ignore the implications. Like Muslims, don’t actually ask for their opinions – just talk about them in their absence.

‘Agnostics’: Approachable, non-confrontational, respectful, open-minded atheists.

‘Atheists’: Close-minded scum. Best dismissed. Do not admit you are one (see ‘agnostic’).

‘New Atheists’: What Guy Rundle said. Never disagree with this definition.

‘Deists’: Something from history books you don’t want to read.

‘Equal time’: A media strategy to be avoided in matters of uncontroversial fact, except when you don’t want scary people calling you close-minded, and sending you dead cats in the mail.

‘Science’: To be rallied for, until someone calls you an imperialist. Then rail against.

‘Statistics’: A great way to debunk misconceptions about asylum seekers, amongst other things, up until the point where you’re accused of being ‘reductionist’. See ‘science’.

‘Reductionist’: Shit involving numbers and squiggly lines, but not feelings. See ‘science’.

‘Fetish’: When someone does something you don’t like, once, it’s annoying. Any more than once, and its a fetish – to be written off as such.

‘Left-wing’: A grouping best not defined until you want someone excommunicated.

‘Right-wing’: The grouping of people you disagree with, including disagreeable people who call themselves ‘left-wing’.

‘Libertarian’: A sin-bin for people kicked out of, or not wanting to be, in either the left or right-wing.

‘Civil libertarian’: Someone who fights for equal rights. Alternatively, a scapegoat for the Global Financial Crisis when one is intimidated by more radical wonks.

‘Free-market fundamentalist / liberal absolutist’: Normally of the far right-wing, but when convenient, a term applicable to ‘civil libertarians’, irrespective of their actual views.

‘Non-political person’: A political person, only when they can’t hear you talking about them. Someone to be humoured in-person.

‘The status quo’: Something not to be criticised in the proximity of ‘non-political persons’.

‘Foreign correspondent’: Someone having earned the right of entry to more wine bars than you.

‘Ethics’: Either the name of a nit-picking department, or a field of study it is polite to suggest people, of all persuasions, are equally good at.

‘Homophobia’: Hating, or desiring to repress gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Unless done by the right kinds of religion, or done in the name of thinking of the children.

‘Misogyny’: Something other groups do more than your own. You were only kidding.

‘Racism’: A conventional word there’s little confusion about, leaving little room for colourful interpretation, or equivocation. Avoid using when you anticipate having to defend an accusation. Instead choose something more exotic and vague so you can never be wrong, or called upon to present evidence.

‘Social Justice’: When your lecturer’s, or favourite radical columnist’s enemies, get their comeuppance. Alternatively, only when not contradicting this, when the disadvantaged get a leg-up in life.

‘Multiculturalism’: The only model ever devised to help people from different backgrounds get along. Only one version of this model exists. Somehow, somewhere, someone smarter than you must know what this one model is, and what it means, and you defer to them in all things multicultural, except when making accusations. Any attempts at the nuanced discussion of, are to be viewed with suspicion, and interpreted as categorical attacks upon. Invoke liberally in defence of your views, and the views of others agreeing with you.

‘Orientalism’: When people represent the interests, aspirations and cultures of the East, and the Middle East, without consultation with the media and/or persons of these cultures. Except when saying something patronising about them. Don’t be an ‘orientalist’; be patronising.

‘Media literacy’: Something you always have the good fortune to be at the pinnacle of. A continuum by which to judge everyone else.

‘Dog-whistling’: Something a political journalism goddess like Annabel Crabb would infer only after observing a politician long enough to couch their rhetoric in the relevant contextual details. Something you allege to conveniently dismiss people smarter than you, out of hand. Anything can be dog-whistling. ‘Some Christians like ice-cream.’ – Why that’s code for people to marginalise Christians! Egad!

‘Annabel Crabb’: The lady whose effigy sits atop your Christmas tree. *Sigh*

‘Hipster’: People other than you, who ironically believe they were listening to Daft Punk before you. Have a substantial cross-over with political wonkdom on Venn diagrams of inner-city types. Used Venn diagrams before they were popular with mathematicians, including John Venn.

‘Irony’: Anomie.

‘Sarcasm’: Any form of snark not unintentionally ‘ironic’.

‘Camp’: Kitsch.

‘Kitsch’: Camp.



Now you may have noticed this advice puts you in a position to contribute approximately zero new analysis to the political scene. Screw that. The point is that you don’t come across as a trouble maker (even if you are one). This is good for your career, and it’s your career that matters, isn’t it?

Of course, after you’ve established a niche, you may need to break from it once you’ve tapped all it has to offer, in order to go on to greener pastures. If this happens, consider that you would have by then, put yourself in a wonderful position to capitalise on a conversion narrative, decrying all of the above.

Some think-tank would want you, somewhere. It’s all good.

Relax, and don’t take things too seriously. Merry Christmas.

~ Bruce

Vale Hitch…

Christopher Hitchens, critic, polemecist and oppositionalist, has passed away at age 62.

It’s a matter for remorse that perhaps as recently as five years ago, I’d have been happy to meet this revelation with a ‘well yes, it’s sad, but…’, before getting stuck into his memory over the usual bugbears; not mere political differences, but also the oft-repeated, well-accepted smears through misrepresentation. Hitchens may have been the kind of person to receive this kind of thing as mere occupational hazard, but he wasn’t someone to have people disappointing themselves.

My prior approach to Hitchens’ writing, I’ve increasingly found disappointing.

It’s hard to say when exactly the turning point was, where Hitchens began to ascend in my view. 2006 had me writing a post following an interview on Lateline between Jones and Hitchens, in which the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was discussed, and where Hitchens, while condemning the torture, described the inmates in an infelicitous manner, as ‘sub-human filth’.

My objection to this particular kind of rhetoric still remains – de-humanising enemy combatants is dangerous, and can precipitate the kind of atrocities Hitchens was condemning. (Yes, it is possible to exaggerate this, and take Hitchens too literally, but still…)

There has been however, despite this, a change of perspective. In the same post, I’d claimed that I didn’t ‘care for his tone’ (I paraphrase). Indeed, I realised I’d forgotten, upon re-reading the post earlier this year, that I’d ever opined such a thing. Memory can play tricks on you.

Not that I was condemning him on the basis of tone in the first place, today, with few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth.

(As an alternative to this timeline, Hitchens managed to germinate the first seeds of dislike for the school of ambush journalism, misquotation and non sequitur of which Michael Moore is practiced, in my mind as of 2004, when Farenheit 911 was discussed between Jones and Hitchens, also on Lateline).


In 2007, I readily deferred to the firsthand, eye-witness account of PZ Myers on the matter of Hitchens’ speech at a Freedom From Religion Foundation convention at the time. Specifically, I credulously accepted the claim that Hitchens had advocated a kill-them-all approach to dealing with Islamist insurgents – an understandable account, but one I’ve since become unable to believe, and for some time.

Again, a significant difference of politics still remains; generally on the matter of the Iraq War, and specifically concerning the ability of Islamic insurgents to replenish their numbers through recruiting (which occupations rather tend to help). But this is not the point.

The point which I wish to amend came to light with a little prompting from a reader, and reflection upon the content of raw video footage. Hitchens had been advocating a fight until the enemy’s loss of morale, and surrender, not for a campaign to exterminate all Muslims. While I still hold much the same practical objections to this line of reasoning, the two policies are hardly identical, one being considerably more rebarbative than the other.

I have to say I’m remorseful for delaying an open admission of error in this particular detail.


In 2008, my attention was brought to a particularly bad piece of writing authored by Dr Ned Curthoys in Overland (if you can bear the sizable word count, I pull it apart in detail at Butterflies and Wheels). Hitchens was particularly savaged in the article, as were others in a way that was particularly liberal with the factual details (even a few lines of creationist-style rhetoric get a showing).

I was told that whatever the truth of the details, it was still a good article because Hitchens was getting a ‘pwning’. Well, he wasn’t, but that’s beside the point.

At the time, I attempted friendly punch-in-the-arm rhetoric (the word ‘stupid’ was deployed, laughingly), not believing that my disagreement was that serious. Possibly, I needn’t have been so restricted with my scorn – I’ve since had similar, more serious arguments with a few others the same circles, with subsequent falling-outs (or silent treatments). It seems that despite the japes, and the lax fact-checking, some of my interlocutors may have expected to be taken quite seriously all along. Too bad.


Somewhere in all of this has been a turning point, not just in my appraisal of Hitchens, but relatedly in my realisation of myself as a participant in the polity.

It seems I’m ethically left-wing, just not tribally. I don’t care if it’s an unspoken rule amongst some political in-group, I’m not at all happy to casually overlook inconvenient facts in the prosecution of niche-fashionable grudges, and it’s Hitchens I have to thank for helping me realise this. (Yes, it sounds quite obvious in hindsight).

I’m under no illusion that at some point, probably several, cognitive dissonance will make a hypocrite out of me on the matter (reading Hitchens is helpful in realising this as well), but I’d rather be more self-aware and able to act, than less. And I’m under no illusion that I haven’t always lived up to these values – that’s inferred already.


Then, in this timeline, came a re-reading of Letters to a Young Contrarian. To me, god is not Great was an atheist text I had technical quibbles with, by an author I often disagreed with. Letters, as re-visited in recent years, has been more influential, being second only to Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness in nudging Rousing Departures in any particular direction.

Writing to X, in warning against corruption, Hitchens raises familiar tropes.

‘Other invitations to passivity or acquiescence are more sly, some of them making an appeal to modesty. Who are you to be the judge? Who asked you? Anyway, is this the propitious time to be making a stand? Perhaps one should await a more favorable moment? And – aha! – is there some danger of giving ammunition to the enemy?’

(Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)

In Letters, the assumptions underlying questions like these are skewered by Hitchens, through his own polemic, and through the summoning of Orwell and others. It’s in the face of such passivity and acquiescence that I’m most in sympathy with Hitchens’ words.

This is largely where I’m at now – realising in a more practical sense the implications of my revulsion to clubishness, and finding both comfort and truth (a rare combination) in what Hitchens instructs on the matter. I feel like I’m Hitchens’ rhetorical student X, like I’ve been a fool, and with still more questions to ask.

Of course, I’ve never had correspondence with Hitchens, and now, he’s gone. Not that I’m about to decay into a state of anomie, I’d have liked to have had the chance to meet him at the convention next year – to have had the chance to show my respect, and maybe get a little advice, even if drowned out by similar gushings from others.

While I’ve expressed remorse at my mistakes about the man, I won’t say I regret them. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have arrived at a worse place had I not made these mistakes so obviously, perhaps instead enjoying wrong kinds of success; in-group rewards for surrendering the intellect; pats on the back for the shit-eating grins.

At any rate, I suspect he’d possibly be bothered by self-indulgence of the like I’m displaying – too much umming and ahhing when the answer is right in front of one’s nose. There’s work to be got on with.

Hitchens pissed me off like he pissed off countless others, but ultimately, from the insights and the engagements, the experience has been incredibly educative, and will no doubt continue to be so, long after his passing. More so than some people will be willing to admit.

I’m truly grateful for the legacy Hitch has left us to work with.

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Hugh Greentree).