Readers’ wildlife photos

Out near Silver Creek, Idaho, the bald eagles are keeping busy feeding their brood (we have no idea how many chicks there are yet).  Reader Stephen Barnard sent two pictures captioned “Papa Bald Eagle bringing a trout home to his family”:




Researchers report female cave insect with grasping penis, leads to accusations of sexist science

The interesting stuff in this post is the biology, and the subsequent controversy about whether these female cave insects really have “penises,” is an ancillary and unpredictable result of politically correct policing of internet science. But first let me tell you about the science.

In a new paper in Current Biology by Kazunori Yoshizawa et al. (abstract and reference below), four authors from Japan and Brazil report observations of several species of cave insects in the genus Neotragla. These are mites in the order Psocodea. And the researchers found something pretty amazing, at least to a biologist. In species studied in this genus, the females have a penis-like structure called the gynosome, which is normally retracted inside the body. (The researchers call this a “penis” from time to time in their paper.) When the insects copulate, though, the female gynosome is inserted into the body of the male, and sucks up spermatophores (packets of sperm that contain other substances) from the male’s sperm ducts.

The males do have a penis, but it’s small and inconspicuous. The female’s is large, conspicuous (1/7 the length of their bodies), and covered with spines. When inside the male, the gynosome (I’ll use “penis” and “gynosome” alternatively, setting me up for accusations of sexism!), inflates—and that, along with the spines, keeps the insects firmly coupled together. So firmly, in fact, that they can’t be separated manually during copulation without ripping off the abdomen of the male.

The species studied intensively in this paper was N. curvata in Brazil, from which the pictures come.  The photo below shows them having at it, with male and female labeled:


The amazing thing about this copulation, besides the females intromittent penis, is that the average copulation lasts 52.5 hours, with a standard deviation of 11.2 hours. As far as I know, that’s a record.

Why does it last so long? Probably because this whole system, including the gynosome with its adaptations for anchoring the female to the male, is driven by a special consideration in this system: males transfer, along with their sperm, lots of nutritious substances in the spermatophore. The authors posit that the adaptations on the female penis to hold it fast, as well as the long copulation, enable her to remove as much sperm and nutrition from the male as possible.  Females have, in fact, been observed to consume some of the contents of the male spermatophore before allowing her egg to be fertilized. (In other insect species males give females nutritious spermatophores as “nuptial gifts” that they often consume.)

The cave environment is poor in nutrition, and males are carrying around a valuable source of food. In such a case, females are competing for males—the reverse of the usual situation in animals, in which males compete for females because sperm is cheap and eggs, for the female, are expensive. In this case, the sperm is expensive because it contains a food source.

Below is an amazing photograph of the male and female in copulo (they were killed with hot water during the act: an awful fate!). You can see the female’s gynosome (the big curvy blue thing at the bootom) stuck into the male and inflated. You can also see its spines, anchoring it securely inside the male. The males also have genital pouches into which the spines fit, so there’s been some kind of coevolution of male and female (different species in the genus have different shaped spines and pouches, and the fit is species-specific, like a lock and key).

Male to the left, female to the right:

In copulo

You see, above, the female penis sucking the sperm out of the male’s “seminal duct”, drawing the spermatophores along her “spermathecal duct” to the spermathecae, or sperm storage organs.

This is a schematic showing the parts as well, though it doesn’t add a lot for me.


Why the spines? We’re not sure, but it may be the result of antagonistic sexual selection: the female’s reproductive interests may diverge from those of the male. She wants every bit of sperm he has for nutrition, and he, presumably, wants to fertilize as many females as possible to have the maximum number of offspring. The female seems to have “won” here: she has spines that prevent the male from getting away, which may account for the long copulations. The spines may also stimulate the male to release sperm. Lots of animals, including cats, have spiny penises, and stimulation may be a common function. In this case, though, anchoring is clearly of primary importance.

The male penis, or “phallosome,” is shown below. It’s inconspicuous and hidden within his abdomen. (You can also see it in the diagram above).


You’d think that this case of females winning an antagonistic race involving sexual selection would at least not put off female readers. (Males often win, as in the case of bedbugs in which males inseminate the females hypodermically, bypassing her genitals to inject sperm directly into the body cavity. This practice, also called “traumatic insemination,” causes harm to the female, but males who do it inseminate the females faster. In such a case of sexual antagonism, the males have won in an evolutionary sense, for their reproductive interests take precedence.) In insects, sex isn’t always the earth-moving experience it is in humans.

Sadly,  Annalee Newitz has taken severe exception to how this work was described in her piece at io9 called: “Your penis is getting in the way of my science“. Her beef: that journalists (and of course the researchers in the article) call the gynosome a “penis”. And, to her, that smacks of sexism and anthropomorphism:

When we deprive Neotrogla of her gynosome by calling it a penis, of course Neotrogladoesn’t care. But we fail to advance the scientific project, which is above all things dedicated to expanding people’s understanding of the world. Instead of learning that there are female bugs with sex organs that behave unlike anything in the human world, articles about a “female penis” reassure readers that nothing could ever exist that challenges the penis/vagina sexual system — nor the system of sexual selection that led to it.

And that makes our minds a little smaller.

. . . By anthropomorphizing Neotrogla‘s sex life, we teach people the wrong lesson about nature. Even if it’s meant in fun, calling every organ that gets erect a “penis” makes it appear that all animals are just like us. Not only is that almost sinister in its dishonesty, but it erases one of the most beautiful things about life, which is its awe-inspiring diversity.

So as funny as some people might find a dick joke, I’m afraid those fit better in articles about porn or on FOX television than they do in ones about biological sex. Science can be funny, but it’s not a joke. And the more we make it into a joke, the more we undermine the power science has to unveil real truths about the universe.

In truth, I doubt that using the shorthand “penis” will have the dire consequences Newitz predicts. Does she really think that using the name “penis” is going to “undermine the power that science has to reveal truths about the universe”? That’s pure hyperbole. And, in truth, the gynosome is like a penis in many ways: it gets erect, it has spines (like cat penises), it has adaptations to give its bearer a reproductive advantage that are similar to those of penises in males, and so on. The only thing it doesn’t do is ejaculate (but it does suck up sperm!).

Now if journalists had used this nomenclature to somehow demean females, Newitz would have a justified beef, but I haven’t seen that happening. All that’s occurred is that the organ has been called a “penis,” which somehow angers those like Newitz who tout a diversity of sex roles in animals.  But then wouldn’t calling it a “penis” actually emphasize this diversity?

Poor Ed Jong, who reported this paper and made the deadly misstep of calling the female’s organ both a gynosome and a penis, has had to defend himself over at Not Exactly Rocket ScienceI find his defense calm and compelling:

But first, to clarify, I absolutely agree with Newitz that cheap dick jokes are doing the topic a disservice, which is why you won’t find any here.[JAC: I haven't seen any "cheap dick jokes," and Newitz doesn't cite any.] The tone is as deadpan as I can muster—the only sniggering is reserved for the part of the study where one mating pair gets pulled apart and the male is accidentally bisected.

As to the other parts of Newitz’s critique, she repeatedly says that “female penis” is an inaccurate term that is “anthropomorphizing” Neotrogla’s anatomy—one should call the organ a “gynosome” (which I also do). I don’t agree that gynosome is accurate, while penis is not. As Diane Kelly, who studies penises points out: “As a technical term, a penis is a reproductive structure that transfers gametes from one member of a mating pair to another.” Which is exactly what is happening here.

Newitz points to differences. “When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant?” Actually spines are pretty common; long sexual bouts are pretty common; and the gynosome doesn’t absorb nutrients—it collects sperm packets that contain nutrients, which the animal then eats in the normal way. The key difference is that rather than delivering sperm, it collects it—as I stated right up top. And the only reason we think of penises as sending sex cells in that direction is that we never knew any other set-up could occur. Now we do, which either forces us to introduce a new term and demand that it be used, or to expand the bounds of our old term. I prefer the latter. I’m generally a lumper, rather than a splitter.

The gynosome is very much like a penis in both form and function. The authors highlight the differences by giving it its own specific name. But they also acknowledge its similarities to what we typically think of as penises by describing the organ as such, both in the title of their paper—“Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect”—and throughout its text. They don’t get any special privilege because of their authorship, of course—but I’m pointing out that you can either look at this discovery through the lens of difference or similarity. And similarities are actually critical here because evolution crafts organs that are convergently similar—though different in the details—thanks to similar selection pressures.

In fact, there is a long tradition in anatomy of describing organs with almost metaphorical names. A snail’s foot is not remotely the same as a human’s foot, but they’re both muscular locomotive organs that are kinda on the bottom of the body. We call them both feet. An octopus radula is not a human tongue, but they’re both mobile things inside the mouth that perform feeding functions, so we call them both tongues. “Eye” gets used to refer to all manner of light-detecting organs regardless of huge differences in their anatomy, evolutionary history, physiology, because they all share the common theme of detecting light. And in a similar vein, a Neotrogla penis/gynosome is not the same as a human penis but they’re both used during penetrative sex for the transfer of gametes. Other penetrating sexual organs, like the aedagus (insect) and gonopodium (fish) are also colloquially known as penises.

So, do we make a special case for sex-related terms? Newitz would say yes, because of the cultural and social baggage that “female penis” carries, in a way that “snail foot” does not. This is the strongest part of the argument, and the part that gives me pause.

But Newitz also argues that the term “erases one of the most beautiful things about life, which is its awe-inspiring diversity”, and there I disagree. The post above specifically references that diversity—not just in Neotroglabut other animals like hyenas and seahorses, and goes into detail about sexual selection. It ends deliberately with a quote about how the split between males and females comes down to sex cells, and everything else is labile. If that’s not celebrating the diversity of life, I don’t know what is. I don’t think that referring to Neotrogla’s female sex organ as a penis whitewashes that diversity. If anything, it forces us to realise that one of the traits we often link to a penis–that it lives on a male–isn’t a necessary truth. The usage expands what we know, rather than erases.

Indeed. Incensed by her offended feelings, Newitz has missed the most important implication of this paper: sex roles are labile depending on evolutionary and ecological contingencies.  For years I’ve been telling students that seahorse males get “pregnant” . In seahorses, females produce eggs to deposit in the male’s pouch, the males do the brooding, and there is a shortage of empty male pouches compared to eggs produced by females. That makes the males the desired sex for which females must compete (much like the mites above). And, sure enough, in seahorses it’s the females who are brightly colored and ornamented, since, because of this role reversal, they must attract males.  Am I now to be pilloried by Newitz for calling the males “pregnant”?

Have a look at this male seahorse described as “giving birth: (don’t tell Newitz!), and see what you think:


Yoshizawa, K., R. L. Ferreira, Y. Kamimura, and C. Lienhard. 2014. Female penis, male vagina, and their correlated evolution in a cave insect. Current Biology

Caturday felids: Reader’s report of a cat hotel in Malta

My friend Sarah Lawson, whom I met while visiting Malgorzata and Andrzej (she is a very old friend of theirs) is both an inveterate traveler and a lover of felids. That’s a felicitious combination, and makes for this week’s Caturday Felid, as Sarah encountered a “cat hotel” on a recent visit to Malta. When I heard indirectly that she stumbled upon this refuge for stray moggies, I of course demanded a report. It’s below, along with Sarah’s captions.

When I was I Malta recently I thought of you when I saw this hostel for homeless cats! I gathered from Malgorzata that I was more or less commissioned to report on it, so I am aware that I owe you some pictures. This is part of the “cat hostel”, which consisted of a lot of stuffed toys and boxes for sleeping in. The cat in the foreground prefers a parked car. Not far away at the side of the little harbor is this rather charming sculptural group–a fisherman repairing his net while a cat looks on.

Spinola Street in St Julians, Malta

Sculpture beside St. Julians Bay

A few of the patrons of the cat hotel:

A few of the patrons of the
One wing of the cat hotel:

One wing of the cat hotel

Hanging out at the cat hotel:

Hanging out at the cat hote

St Julians is the place where, on my last visit to Malta in 1999, I learned that I could make myself understood in Cat! I was eating some very nice grilled fish on the terrace of the San Giuliano restaurant just beside the harbor when 5 or 6 cats grouped themselves around my table in the hopes of rescuing some scraps from my plate. They got closer and closer and one cat put its paw up on the table near my plate. I thought: Now this has gone far enough! So I leant over toward that cat and very distinctly enunciated “Haaaaaa!” If I could have laid back my ears, I would have done that too, but human ears probably already look laid back all the time to cats. Well, this cat understood my hiss instantly and retreated at once AND evidently passed on the message to the other cats because they all kept a respectful distance after that. How about that for inter-species communication? I was absurdly pleased with myself.

Ho! Little green skittery thing, where do you think you’re going?
Ho, little green skittery-t
Everyone gets in on the act!

Hili dialogue: Saturday

A: Hili, we cannot afford all your whims.
Hili: According to my calculations we have a huge surplus.


In Polish:
Ja: Hili, nie stać nas na wszystkie twoje zachcianki.
Hili: Według moich obliczeń mamy dużą nadwyżkę.

End-of-the-week squirrel squee

How can you not look at—or post—a piece from ABC 15 News in Arizona called “Baby squirrel falls from tree, wears little red cast, gets help from City Wildlife Rehab Center“? (It’s based on a Tw**t from City Wildlife.)

First the photo, then the explanation:


WASHINGTON DC – A tiny squirrel is recovering with the help of veterinarians and a little red cast after falling 75 feet.

According to ABC News, the baby squirrel, who is only six and a half weeks old, fell onto the sidewalk from her nest in a Washington D.C. tree.


She was taken to City Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation center in the area to be treated for a bloody nose and broken tooth and ankle.

A cast was put on the squirrel’s leg and is checked every few days to make sure it heals correctly.

She is expected to make a full recovery and is reportedly doing well.

The rehabilitation center, according to their website, is a nonprofit group dedicated to helping injured and orphaned animals. They can treat 1,200 animals annually.


David Bentley Hart: Humans’ search for truth proves God

Although David Bentley Hart claims, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, that he isn’t adducing evidence for God, that’s in fact what he spends most of his time doing. That evidence includes Why is There Something Instead of Nothing, the scientifically inexplicable fact of consciousness as well as of our power to reason, the effectiveness of mathematics, and our ability to experience beauty.

Those are old arguments, but I’ll give an example of one that’s not often used. Here is Hart explaining why humans’ search for truth about the universe constitutes evidence for God. It’s from pp. 233-234 of his book, and the logic and style, as well as the show-offy foreign phrases and arcane references to other faiths, are absolutely typical of the book.

Remember, this is the book that both Damon Linker and Ross Douthat see as The Best Argument for God. You’re not a credible atheist unless you can not only fathom this palaver, but answer it. Note that in the argument below, Hart isn’t just talking about the search for truth about God, but for truth in general:

The essential truth to which Lonergan’s argument points is that the very search for truth is implicitly a search for God (properly defined, that is). As the mind moves toward an ever more comprehensive capacious, and “supereminent” grasp of reality, it necessarily moves toward an ideal level of reality at which intelligibility and intelligence are no longer distinguishable concepts.  It seems to me we all really know this in some sense: that we assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind. No other comportment toward truth as a desirable end is existentially possible. The ascent toward ever greater knowledge is, if only tacitly and secretly and contre coeur, an ascent toward an ultimate encounter with limitless consciousness, limitless reason, a transcendent reality where being and knowledge are always one and the same, and so inalienable from each other.  To believe that being is inexhaustibly intelligible is to believe also—whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not—that reality emanates from an inexhaustible intelligence: in the words of the Shevanashvatara Upanishad, “pure consciousness, omnipresent, omniscient, the creator of time.”

See? Now that’s Sophisticated Theology™, for it shows that even atheists scientists are providing evidence for God. After all, that’s what it means when we find out stuff!

Hart quotes the Upanishads, but I’ll quote Professor Ceiling Cat: “Hart’s argument is good only for growing flowers.”

I’m not turning in my atheist card yet, and I bet reader Sastra has a field day with this one!


If corporations told the truth

A video made by a fictitious “Australians for Coal 2014″ initiative. It’s hilarious but also painfully true, surely reflecting the damn-the-science mindset of corporate denialists.

h/t: Gunnar

No drinking in Ireland today

. . . unless you’ve already stocked up on booze. Due to archaic and religiously-based laws, it’s illegal to sell booze in the Republic of Ireland on Good Friday. That also goes for pubs, which are closed there today, although a few restaurants have dispensation to sell alcohol so long as it’s served with a meal. An article in the shows how silly this all is.

Curiously, it’s okay to sell booze on Easter Sunday, but you simply can’t buy a bottle on the day Jesus died. If you must drink, I suppose you’re supposed to drink vinegar.

As documentation, here’s a picture from Breaking News with the caption:

Dunnes Stores in the Blanchardstown centre have come up with a rather unique way of preventing people getting at alcohol on Good Friday.

They have placed the drink behind a wall of toilet paper, it maybe a message to people to ‘soak’ up today’s drinking ban.


I object, even if the toilet paper is named after cats.

Really, it’s time to get rid of all these religiously based laws, called “Blue Laws” in the U.S. Wikipedia has a nice article on the U.S. laws and those of other countries.

h/t: Grania

Was Ayaan Hirsi Ali censored?

I’m always amused by those readers who, because I’ve blocked them on one ground or another, send me angry emails accusing me of censoring them.  But that’s not really censorship; it’s my website and I have the right to determine what appears on it. Those people have every right to start their own website, and, to be sure, it doesn’t cost much! Nor is it censorship for a magazine to reject an article, no matter what it says.

Similarly, the Discovery Institute, when it gave me the huge honor of being “Censor of the Year,” did so mainly because I complained to Ball State University (and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) that Professor Eric Hedin was teaching intelligent design and promoting Christianity in a science class at Ball State University: a double whammy of pushing discredited science and violating the First Amendment. Those people, too, have no idea what “censorship” means. I didn’t prevent Hedin from doing anything: that was the decision of Ball State, after a committee convened by president Jo Ann Gora decided that Hedin had overstepped the boundaries of good scholarship. You don’t have the right to say anything you want in a public university science class, but Hedin still had every right to publish his views in any venue that would accept them, or to give public speeches about how cosmology proves Jesus.

Both my affronted readers and the Discovery Institute should absorb today’s xkcd strip:


The issue of what really constitutes “free speech” came up again yesterday in a New York Times editorial by Nesrine Malik, “Freedom to offend everyone.” (Malik is described as “a Sudanese journalist and a contributing columnist at The Guardian”.)

Malik is writing about Brandeis’s reprehensible decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi, a vocal and courageous critic of Islam. And Malik’s point seems to be this (I say “seems,” because she doesn’t write clearly enough to make her views transparent): if you let Ali speak (there would have been remarks after she got her degree), then you must let everyone speak, and a lot of that speech is not just offensive to Muslims, but to everyone. Those who oppose some “free speech” but not others are simply hypocrites.  Here’s some of what she says:

The defense of free speech often hides a multitude of sins. Since Brandeis University withdrew an honor it had intended to bestow on the author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, many have flocked to her defense in the name of free expression — no matter how offensive. But implicitly they are suggesting that Islam and Muslims are worthy targets of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s scorn. And their preciousness about the right to offend won’t be credible until they advocate extending it beyond Islamophobes — to racists, anti-Semites and homophobes, too.

. . . But the accusations leveled at Brandeis show the perils of not sticking entirely to free speech absolutism.

. . .Swapping races and religions to gauge if the response to a particular incident would have been different is an imperfect counterfactual game, but in this instance it is instructive. Had Ms. Hirsi Ali been a widely acknowledged homophobe, or white supremacist, would free speech supporters have rushed so readily to their lecterns to defend her? Probably not, which is why the right to offend should be extended to all. Otherwise, our personal preferences will always dictate that there be exceptions.

But in regards to the Brandeis issue, Ali is not equivalent to a white supremacist or a homophobe. She is not advocating violence towards others or repression of speech, but freedom of speech and the right of Muslim women to be treated as equals to men, as well as not to have their genitals mutilated or have to wear bags as clothing. She has shown considerable courage in this campaign, despite a few rhetorical missteps, and that is why, I presume, Brandeis was going to honor her. There is no reason to honor a homophobe or a white supremicist.

But make no mistake about it: neither Ali nor homophobes nor racists have a right to get an honorary degree from Brandeis. Not giving them such degrees does not constitute censorship.  Ali has spoken and written widely, and her views are well known.  What does come perilously close to censorship in Ali’s case is first giving her a platform to speak, and then withdrawing it on the basis of the protests of Muslims and purveyors of the “Islamophobia” canard. But even if her invitation had not been rescinded, giving her a platform does not mandate that Brandeis give everyone a platform, no matter how odious their views. A graduation ceremony is not a free-for-all like Hyde Park’s “Speakers Corner.”  All Malik’s palaver about the honorary degree is irrelevant to the issue of free speech. Malik’s going out of her way to recount Ali’s “sins” makes me think that she (Malik) is an opponent of free speech in general.

But I do agree with Malik when she notes this:

Earlier this year, a prospective British parliamentary candidate, who happened to be a Muslim, tweeted a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed, part of “Jesus and Mo,” an irreverent series depicting the two religious figures in everyday situations. Some Muslims saw this as deliberately provocative and there was a backlash, including death threats. When mainstream British media outlets such as the BBC did not show the cartoon, the British press branded them cowards, traitors and free-speech equivocators.

Unfortunately for these critics, a few days later, the infamous French comedian Dieudonné Mbala-Mbala was banned from entering Britain because of his anti-Semitic rants. From those who had penned thousands of words warning of the danger of muzzling our voices when it comes to criticism of Islam, I counted one tweet. In the British broadsheets, there was only one article criticizing Mr. Dieudonné’s banning.

It is clearly far more palatable, even popular, to muscularly stand up for the right to offend Muslims than it is to back those who offend any other minority in Europe today. Indeed, when the notorious American Islamophobe Pamela Geller was banned from Britain on account of her vitriol toward Muslims, her exclusion was met with a chorus of objections. This selective attitude toward freedom of speech allows such disparities to become entrenched.

Umm. . . . is Malik aware of how often people self-censor because of fear of Muslim anger? It’s not clear to me that it’s more palatable to criticize Muslims than it is to criticize, say, the Church of England. Remember the Danish cartoon scandal? Because Islam deplores free speech far more than do other faiths, it has effectively muzzled many critics of that religion, just as they’ve muzzled Ali at Brandeis. Nevertheless, no faith or political stand should be legally immune from criticism.  Malik is right about the double standard of banning some speakers and not others.

The reaction to the Brandeis affair is a troubling harbinger. It suggests that America, like Europe, might also begin to pick and choose who deserves to be protected from offensive speech. Once that door is open, the Trojan horse of libertarianism will smuggle in intolerance.

Those who fancy themselves defenders of free speech must be consistent in their absolutism, and stand up for offensive speech no matter who is the target.

This is indeed a double standard, and it’s reprehensible. If you allow someone to attack Islam in public, and you should, then you must allow others to attack Jews, blacks, and anyone else. In my view, free speech—which means that you not be prevented by the government or civil authorities from saying what you want, so long as it’s not deliberately designed to incite immediate violence—is an absolute right. On campuses, too, if authorities allow people to give talks criticizing Israel, they must also allow others to criticize Palestine. I’m a cultural Jew, but I would deeply defend anyone who wanted to give a public lecture on the perfidies and covetousness of Jews, or how Jews supposedly conspire to run Hollywood and the American newspapers. If people want to give talks or write pieces—if anyone will publish them—attacking blacks or civil rights, by all means let them.

The remedy for such odious speech is not censorship, but opposing speech. Many college campuses have yet to learn that lesson, which is a great shame given that campuses are where we’re supposed to learn to defend our views against others. And that lesson has yet to be learned by Europe and Canada as well, where “hate speech” like promoting Nazism or denying the Holocaust is a crime. Those unfortunate laws derive from the historical background of Europe (but not of Canada), and, while understandable, are not forgivable.

So yes, the anti-Semitic Mbala-Mbala should have been allowed into England, and those people who defend that exclusion but also criticize the banning of Pamela Geller are hypocrites.

But in the end, it’s not clear to me whether Malik, while properly demanding consistency in our attitudes towards free speech, is actually advocating consistency in the other direction, implying that censorship be uniformly applied: anyone whose remarks are deeply offensive to cultural groups or religions should be muzzled. That is one way of reading her column, and she doesn’t rule it out. (Her use of the phrase “the Trojan Horse of libertarianism” is disturbing.)  I will choose to construe her words as an indictment of hyprocrisy and as a blanket endorsement of free speech.

But that has little to do with Ali, whose choice as speaker she criticizes at the beginning of her column. (Malik decries Ali’s characterization of Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and her supposed defense of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.) Ali didn’t have a “right” to voice her views on Brandeis’s graduation platform, but Brandeis surely acted to silence her by rescinding her invitation. As I said, that comes close to a violation of free speech. But even if it wasn’t, Ali still deserved that degree—for her courage, for her outspokenness, for having endured intolerable hardships yet continued to speak out against the world’s most harmful religion and how it selectively mistreats half its adherents.

It is far better to hear something substantive and thoughtful at graduation than the usual bromides from comedians and talk-show hosts about making a better world through empathy after you graduate. Ali, was, in fact, going to talk about how to really make a better world—by eliminating religious suppression of women’s rights.

When I got my Ph.D from Harvard in 1978, the only reason I went to the ceremony was to hear the speaker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And, in fact, while decrying the Communist government that persecuted him so heavily, he also pointed out what he saw as many of the West’s deficiencies (you can read the transcript of his talk here). As an American, it was fascinating—and  challenging—to hear his views. What a pity that the students of Brandeis won’t be similarly challenged by the views of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 


Friday: Hili Dialogue

It’s Friday! Which seat can you take?

Today’s Hili is a bit cryptic, but I think I understand it.  (Jacek helps with the technical site of Listy)

Hili: We have readers in Beijing, India, Sicilly, but do we have readers in Egypt?
A: I don’t know. We will have to ask Jacek, but why do you care?
Hili: If you were a cat you would understand.
In Polish:
Hili: Mamy czytelników w Pekinie, w Indiach, na Sycylii, ale czy są nasi czytelnicy w Egipcie?
Ja: Nie wiem, musimy zapytać Jacka, ale dlaczego ci na tym zależy?
Hili: Gdybyś był kotem pewnie byś rozumiał.

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