Like a Candle In Berlin

Dalrymple sees, in those who light candles after a terrorist attack, the very modern claim to be “spiritual but not religious”, as well as simple weakness:

The reason (I surmise) that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves. Being religious, on the other hand, implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life….

It would be difficult to prove it, but I imagine that all those candles are an encouragement to the very kind of people who commit the massacres that are the occasion for the exhibition. We cut their throats, or drive trucks into them; they light candles…They are mistaken, the terrorists; but they are not clever or deep thinkers…

So if you want more terrorist attacks, light a candle.

Misappropriating mistruths

A news service recently accused Katie Hopkins of a series of “mistruths”:

The mistruths referred to in the headline were false allegations rather than, say, factual errors concerning the number of legs centipedes may have or the climatic conditions in Porto Alegre. Why not say so, then? Why use [this] ugly, imprecise and evasive neologism?
We should not allow ourselves to misstep our way to mistruth, for that way lies misprobity, miswisdom and mishappiness.

Articles of Faith

A recent study in The British Journal of Psychiatry attempted to correlate depression, religion and terrorism, but Dalrymple found therein only boredom, redundancy and a certain terseness toward seemingly obvious conclusions, driven by – you guessed it – political correctness:

…do we really need an immense amount of research and statistical apparatus to tells us that “religion…may determine targets of violence following radicalization”? Would we have believed them if they had found to the contrary that “religion…cannot determine targets of violence following radicalization”? By the way, which religion are we talking about?

The whole subject is dealt with in so opaque a fashion that it is difficult not to believe that the authors feared retribution—from the politically correct if not from terrorists themselves. They are like those puppies that, being curious, approach a danger, but then retreat, approach again, and retreat again.

The Rules Will Be Enforced

An NHS suggestion of delaying treatment for smokers and the overweight causes Dalrymple to comment on the impossibility – and the undesirability – of perfect justice:

That ethical decisions sometimes cannot be made that are indisputably correct, that entail no injustice or no inhumanity, is difficult for rationalists and utilitarians to accept. They want every division to be without remainder, as it were. They want a formula that will decide every question beyond reasonable doubt. They want a universal measure of suffering, so that the precise worth (in units of suffering averted) of every medical procedure can be known and compared…

There is a kind of cognitive hubris at play, according to which information alone will resolve all our dilemmas; and if our dilemmas have not been answered, it is only because we do not have enough information yet. The hope or expectation of a dilemma-free world is naïve, where it is not power-hungry.

The Vandals Took the Handles

In honoring Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize for Literature, a member of the committee, Horace Engdahl, said that Dylan “gave back to poetry its elevated style, lost since the romantics.” Dalrymple finds that a little hard to believe:

So here is the recent history of “the elevated style” in English poetry according to the Swedish Academy: Wordsworth and Coleridge, and then a fallow period of nearly a century and a half until Dylan arrived, like a Daniel come to judgment. No Tennyson, no Longfellow, no Browning (husband or wife), no Matthew Arnold, no Swinburne, no Gerard Manley Hopkins, to name but a small handful. Comment is redundant.

Read the piece here

On Dr Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Dr Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof (1859 – 1917) studied at the medical faculty of Moscow University at the same time as Anton Chekhov, but completed his studies in Warsaw because of the political situation in Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. He then went to Vienna to study ophthalmology, which he subsequently practised.

But his real passion was language. He was born in Bialystok, and the entry about him in the Jewish Encyclopaedia of 1906 says:

Four different languages are spoken there, and to this fact he attributed the constant dissensions and misunderstandings which disturbed the city.

A brilliant linguist himself, he set about devising a universal language that would, in effect, reverse the consequences of the destruction of the Tower of Babel (he wrote a tragedy in five acts, titled The Tower of Babel, when he was 10 years old). In 1885, he published his first pamphlet on the universal language that was to become known as Esperanto under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, which hardly needs translation.

The Esperanto idea caught on – to a degree. I have before me my only Esperanto book, the Esperanto Pocket Dictionary, seventeenth edition, 1939, formerly owned by Ernest Whittler of 548 Whitworth Road, Rochdale (the north of England was apparently always keener on Esperanto than the south). According to the preface, this little book had sold 48,000 copies between the first edition in 1915 and seventeenth in 1939 – far more than any book of mine.

I know it is very wrong of me to do so, but I cannot help smiling when I learn that antraks is the Esperanto for anthrax, ezofag for oesophagus and strut for ostrich. Altogether I have derived much plezur and amuzado from this little book, which cost me £1 in a charity shop.

Many books have been translated into Esperanto and the British Esperanto Association in Stoke-on-Trent has about 15,000 of them. You can buy Esperanto books online from the Association, including Winnie-la-Pu, which again needs no translation.

There is a terrible tragedy in the history of Esperanto. Dr Zamenhof hoped by his supposedly universal language to unite humanity. He devised a doctrine that he called homaranismo, according to which peoples would become friendly by the use of the same language. At the First International Esperanto Congress held at Boulogne-sur-mer in 1905, he concluded his speech by “a Prayer under a Green Flag,” which went:

A green flag held high
Means goodness and beauty.
The secret power of the light will bless us,
And we will achieve our aim.
We will break down the walls among the nations,
And the walls will creak and groan,
And will fall down forever and love and truth will reign on earth.

I think the goodness and sincerity, if not necessarily the realism, of Dr Zamenhof are obvious. Alas, he died of heart failure in 1917 in Warsaw, which was then under German occupation in the midst of the First World War. He was said to have been very anxious about the future of humanity, and with very good reason. All three of his children were killed in the Holocaust when Warsaw was once again occupied.

Esperantists celebrate December 15, Dr Zamenhof’s birthday, as Zamenhof Day.

Have you packed your own suitcase?

At an airport, Dalrymple notices tobacco being sold only in a “hidden passageway”:

Is it not curious that the purchase and consumption of tobacco should be pushed into semi-clandestinity at the very time when pressure is mounting to make cannabis as freely available as (say) coffee? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, no doubt, but it is odd that we accept new and blatant inconsistencies without noticing, let alone protesting them.

Dalrymple at Salisbury Review

Advise and Dissent

On the essays of Abraham Cowley (1617-1667):

The theme of his essays—on solitude, on obscurity (lack of fame), on avarice, on the dangers confronting an honest man, on the shortness of life and uncertainty of riches—is that happiness resides in the control of one’s desires, a middling state being preferable to one of poverty or extreme wealth.

As Dalrymple notes, Cowley’s message is not a new one — which perhaps implies that it has always been, and will continue to be, ignored.

Read the piece here

The Bully of Londonistan

A British Muslim man named Michael Coe was recently arrested and tried for attacking a young Muslim couple because they were hugging each other while being unmarried. He absurdly claimed self-defense but changed his tack after being convicted:

…Coe’s counsel entered a plea in mitigation before sentence. He said, among other things, that “Coe has now accepted he had a ‘limited’ knowledge of Islam, and has now resolved to seek a broader understanding of the religion.” When, one might ask, did Coe come to this realization? After claiming that the assault was justified, and the jury began deliberating?

Don’t worry about Mr. Coe, though. He was given a very light sentence, of course.

The Matchmaker in Brussels

The politicians of Europe are working to save the EU in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and rising nationalist sentiment. Step one: punish Britain.

…say Britain were able to effect the departure from the European Union that the majority of its citizens want. In that case, the EU’s hopes for survival would rest squarely on economic catastrophe for Britain. For if it were able to prosper outside the Union, or even merely to maintain its current economic level, the value of the Union itself would be called into question by the peoples of Europe even more than is true today.

Read it here