Book by murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo just out, defiant in right to criticize Islam

Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”), the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was murdered by Muslim thugs, has a new book out, sadly still only in French, that was completed just two days before his death, and published April 9.  The New York Times has a brief description of the book, which gives the lie to two myths about the magazine:

1. It made fun of Islam but not of other faiths, and
2. It was “Islamophobic,” that is, it made fun of Muslims in general and thereby was a “hate magazine.”  In reality, the magazine was pro-immigrant and against those segments of French society that denigrated immigrants, including Muslims.

But there’s also another important part of the book:

3. It warns of the dangers of Western liberals capitulating to fears of Muslim rage

Here’s what the Times says about Chabonnier’s book, which I hope will soon be translated into other languages (Arabic would be nice!):

The book, “Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists’ Hands,” argues that all religions, including Islam, are fair game for ridicule in secular Republican France. The weekly newsmagazine L’Obs published excerpts from the book this week.

And indeed, Charlie Hebdo often mocked other faiths, particularly Catholicism. Although my French is probably good enough to read the excerpts linked above, I haven’t the time. Francophone readers may want to do so, and weigh in below.

. . . “By virtue of what twisted theory is humor less compatible with Islam than it is with any other religion?” he wrote. “Saying Islam is not compatible with humor is as absurd as claiming Islam is not compatible with democracy or secularism.”

. . . In keeping with the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, the book does not shy away from harsh jabs at religion. “The problem is neither the Quran nor the Bible, sleep-inducing, incoherent and badly written novels,” Mr. Charbonnier wrote. The problem, he said, is the faithful who read the holy books “like instructions for assembling Ikea shelves.”

Re point 2:

“If tomorrow all the Muslims of France convert to Catholicism or abandon all religion, that would change nothing to racist discourse: These foreigners or French citizens of foreign descent will still be singled out as responsible for all problems,” Mr. Charbonnier wrote. He added that “being afraid of Islam is most likely stupid, absurd and many other things, but it isn’t a crime.”

Re point 3:

Warming to his theme that the fight against Islamophobia had backfired, he argued that a misplaced fight against Islamophobia led by white elites had stifled free speech and paradoxically encouraged the mistreatment of Muslims by singling out their religious identity.

. . . In the 120-page book, which does not contain any new caricatures, Mr. Charbonnier criticized the media, politicians and some civil society groups for what he called “disgusting white, left-wing bourgeois paternalism.”

. . .He placed special blame on the media for creating a climate that allowed Charlie Hebdo to be targeted.

“It is because the media decided that republishing the Muhammad caricatures could only trigger the fury of Muslims that it triggered the anger of a few Muslim associations,” he wrote in reference to 2006, when the newspaper reprinted cartoons of Muhammad that had first been published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

I was upset, but not surprised, when a number of bloggers immediately accused Charlie Hebdo of “hate speech” after the terrorist attack, more or less blaming the magazine for its own fate.  But I was surprised when one of these clueless critics was Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury. Apparently some people took a cursory look at a cartoon or two and jumped to the conclusion that Charlie Hebdo hated Muslims.

Well, like me, the magazine doesn’t care much for Islam, but doesn’t bear personal animus against Muslims themselves. And it wouldn’t have been hard to find that out. One could, I suppose, blame the time pressure involved in writing on websites, but it’s clear that much of the pushback against Charlie Hebdo came from the very kind of liberal, Islam-coddling guilt that Charbonnier criticized.

Here he is with some of his covers:


(Photo and caption from NYT): téphane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, in 2012. A book he finished two days before his death has been published. Credit Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

My New Republic piece on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The New Republic has published a rewritten version of my piece from yesterday on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his lack of free will. The TNR piece is called “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Crimes Were Terrible, But Morality Has Nothing to Do With It“.

For sure I’ll get it in the neck for this one, for they used “morality” in the title rather than “free will” or some variant of “agency.” (I don’t get to pick the title.) But if the readers don’t like it, they can take a number, get in line, and . . .

Those of you who read it yesterday, especially those who disagreed with me, might go over there and see what the commenters are saying.

Why being gay can never be a “choice”

You surely know that there’s a big kerfuffle about whether being gay is a “choice” or—the implied alternative—a biological imperative: something that results from an individual’s development: hormones, neurons, or whatever. I happen to fall into the latter camp, along with the American Psychological Association.

The former camp, those saying that homosexuality is a “choice,” largely comprises religious individuals. This is, I think, for two reasons. First, many religious folk are already conditioned to believe in fully libertarian “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will, for that’s a tenet of many faiths. Lots of Christians, for instance, require libertarian free will to support their foundational claim: that you can freely choose whether or not to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. After all, that choice is supposed to determine whether you’ll either fly or fry in the afterlife.

Too, many theologians try to explain the existence of human-caused evils on the planet as an inevitable byproduct of God having given us “free will”.  That divine bequest goes along, they claim, with the possibility that humans could make the wrong choices, leading to stuff like Auschwitz. (Yes, that example has been used, and was dismantled by someone who excoriated the idea that the Holocaust occurred so that Nazis could have free will.)

It struck me yesterday, as I was reading one of WordPress’s most popular posts of the day (“Yes, homosexuality absolutely is a choice,” by minister John Pavlovitz [it doesn’t say what the title implies, for the guy is sympathetic to gays]), that the Christian insistence that being gay is a choice is also wrong. In fact, it cannot be right!

The idea that people “freely choose” to be homosexual is of course a way to damn them for making the wrong “choice,” a choice that supposedly is deemed sinful by the Bible, as it indeed is. And so, in Catholicism, if you commit homosexual acts, and don’t confess them, that is a “grave sin” that can send you to hell. That view makes sense only if, at any moment, you could freely choose between performing or abstaining from homosexual acts.

The most famous recent example of religious stupidity about homosexuality was former neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s remark to CNN (yes, he’s a Christian, and apparently a Republican Presidential candidate) that being gay must be a choice because of reasons:

“Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”

Now that’s just ridiculous on the face of it. (Carson later apologized for the remark.) Going into jail straight (if you were straight) and coming out gay doesn’t mean that you’ve made a “choice”. All it means is that your sexual orientation and/or behavior has changed because your surroundings have. To a determinist, that’s simply the effect of your environment (prison) on your neurons.

Which brings us to the point. If you’re a determinist, then being gay can never be something that a person chooses freely. Your genes and your environment—be it your peers, your “internal” environment (whether or not it comes from genetic endowment), and your social surroundings—must ultimately be the “cause” of homosexuality.  It can’t be a free choice because we simply do not have free choices about anything.

And it doesn’t matter whether the factors determining gayness are hormones and genes, or your experiences and environment (both, of course, can act together). There is no distinction between “biological” and “nonbiological” causes of homosexuality, for the trait ultimately results from how your brain works, and that’s completely biological. Being gay cannot be a choice any more than being short (like me) or being Asian.

Maybe I’m off the mark, here, but I don’t think so. If nothing can be a libertarian choice, then neither can being gay. Period.

Now compatibilists (those who believe in both determinism and some form of free will) may be able to find a way that being gay somehow reflects “free will”. Perhaps they’ll say that there’s a meaningful difference between, say, a developmental feature that produced homosexuality (the equivalent to them of “coercion” or “acting with a gun to your head”), and being gay because you had a homosexual experience and it seemed natural and enjoyable. But I don’t think that difference (if it is a difference) is a meaningful one. In neither case is being gay a choice in the sense religious people mean—a free choice where you could have decided not to be gay.

And that’s yet another advantage of emphasizing determinism over the diverse and conflicting definitions of “free will” promulgated by compatibilists.

Readers’ wildlife photos (and video!)

We have two great bird items today.  The first comes from reader, biologist, and naturalist Lou Jost, who lives and works in Ecuador. I’ll let him tell you the story, but it involves a decade of planning to get one photograph, as well as a cool seed-dispersal strategy of a parasitic plant:

This picture of a Golden-rumped Euphonia (Euphonia cyanocephala) took ten years of planning. These birds are quite thinly distributed and eat mostly mistletoe berries. My only hope of photographing them was to have mistletoes growing next to my kitchen window. So ten years ago when I started building my house, near my kitchen window I planted a tree that I knew was a good host for mistletoe. Five years ago the tree seemed big enough to host mistletoes, so I planted some on the branches, especially on the lower branches that would be in good view from my window. Finally this year the mistletoes made fruits, and the euphonias came, and I got my picture! This is a male; the female is mostly green.


Their poop is amazing–long sticky dangling thread-like chains of mistletoe seeds. The birds have to wipe their butts on the branches to free the chains, thus planting the seeds on the hosts’ branches. The chains blow in the wind so more seeds get stuck on other branches. I put additional poop pictures here.

JAC: This seems likely to be an adaptation for the mistletoe to spread its seeds. Those mistletoe individuals who had the chemical composition in their fruits to make bird poop sticky were those who left more of their genes. Evolution is cleverer than you are! (For even more cleverness, read below the photo.)

More by Lou on the poop from the Fundacion EcoMinga website, with other fascinating information:

After it left the mistletoe, it perched on a branch and wiggled its butt like an American football player doing a victory dance in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but it was actually wiping its butt on the branch to remove the stringy poop it had just made. The poop is a remarkably long (12-15 cm) transparent sticky thread, with big green mistletoe seeds embedded in it at regular intervals. The dangling sticky seeds get stuck on branches, and the bird’s wiggling butt-wipes also plant some of the seeds directly on the branches of the host. The remarkable structure of the poop is especially surprising considering that each mistletoe berry contains only one seed. The glue in the berries (viscin) joins the seeds together into these long chains inside the bird’s intestines!


The top seed in this chain of poop has stuck to a host branch and may produce a new mistletoe plant. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Three strands of euphonia poop on the tree with the mistletoe. Note the chains of mistletoe seeds embedded in the strands. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


And, since we’re keeping track of Stephen Barnard’s bald eagles in Idaho (parents Luci and Desi, with an unknown number of chicks), here’s a video and some photos of eagle childcare:

First, Desi brings a half-eaten fish home (look hard; it happens at 14 seconds). Luci appears to get all excited when she sees Desi on the way:

I couldn’t see the fish so well, but Stephen sent me a screenshot and a note: “You can clearly see the half-eaten fish in the talons.” He added this:

That was a pretty big fish, by the way. I’d guess over 20″. I can understand why he’d want to eat part of it rather than carry it to the nest. They fish within a radius of several miles.

Desi and Fish

And another photo of this magnificent bird:

Reliable evening pose. I had to shoot portrait mode to fit him into the frame.


The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

You thought I’d forgotten Gordon Lightfoot, didn’t you? Well, there are a few good songs left from his superb Lightfoot! album, and this is one. If you’re a bit younger than I, you may remember the 1972 version of this song that became a huge hit for Roberta Flack. But I like Lightfoot’s version better.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is one of three songs on Lightfoot! not written by Gordon. The songwriter was in fact Ewan MacColl (1915-1989, real name James Henry Miller), who, according to Wikipedia, wrote it for Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-sister, also a folk singer. There have been many covers, including ones by Celine Dion and the Smothers Brothers. Wikipedia notes others:

The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by The Kingston Trio on its 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot and others.

Ewan MacColl himself made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors.’ He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace.”

Well, maybe this one, from Lightfoot!, is an exception. If it’s too lachrymose, weigh in below:

Here’s the version sung by Peggy Seeger, with Ewan MacColl on guitar. And indeed, it’s much folkier than all the covers I’ve heard—presumably the way MacColl intended it to be sung. Which do you prefer?


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday! What seat can you take? And I’m excited that we have a very special Readers’ wildlife photograph feature later this morning.

Otherwise  I must put in an 11-hour day, but I get to relax a bit this weekend. Sadly, Saturday (Relaxing Day) is predicted to be rainy in Chicago. But I can’t grouse, for it was determined by the laws of physics. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili speaks ex CAThedra, for her dialogue has a religious-themed title (check the link):

Hili: I have a message to the world.
A: What’s that?
Hili: Meow.
In Polish:
Hili: Mam przesłanie dla świata.
Ja: Jakie?
Hili: Miau.

A finicky cat

We started this day with a finicky cat, and we’ll finish it with another. Reader Lori Way sent a photo of her fussy cat Peanut and an explanation:

This photo goes with my comment on the fussy cat.  I mentioned how Peanut here sometimes will only eat his wet noms off a spoon, so we oblige. Here, my hubby Cameron tends to his needs. (I’m sorry it isn’t more in focus but the room was dark.)


Even Hili isn’t that spoiled!

Canadian reader files lawsuit against prayers at city council meeting

Here’s an activist reader: Veronica Abbass of Ontario filed suit against the Peterborough City Council for opening its meetings with prayers. This was back in 2012, but, as I reported recently, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled last week that, in Quebec, the Saguenay City Council couldn’t say prayers at its meetings, for that violated the Quebec Charter of Human Rights.

That ruling, however, is likely to hold throughout Canada. And so, on Monday, the Peterborough Council didn’t say its customary prayer:

Monday evening (April 20) marked the first time in years (and possibly decades) that Peterborough city councillors didn’t open a municipal meeting with the Lord’s Prayer.

The prayer was listed on the agenda for the Committee of the Whole, but councillors aren’t reciting it until the City’s legal staff can determine whether it’s against the law, according to Councillor Andrew Beamer, who chairs the Committee of the Whole.

The Supreme Court ruled on a specific case out of Saguenay, Quebec on April 15 — a decision that’s likely to set a precedent for all Canadian municipalities. Coun. Beamer can’t say yet whether the City will stop using the prayer altogether.

Veronica Abbass has taken issue with the City over the practice for years, and even filed a lawsuit against the City in 2012. That legal battle was put on hold to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

Ms Abbass says city council will be breaking the law if they refuse to obey the Supreme Court ruling. She says she’ll continue with the lawsuit she’s filed unless the City hands over a written decision that states it’ll stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer for good.

Who’s a good reader? Here’s Ms. Abbass:


Photo: Sarah Frank/This Week

It’s Openly Secular Day

I forgot about today being Openly Secular Day, a day to “come out” as a nonbeliever and opponent of religious incursions into government. There’s a website on which you’re asked to tell one person that you’re openly secular (I presume this applies in the U.S., not Pakistan!).

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t already know this about me, but I’ll try to find one. In the meantime, if any readers want to offer testimony in the comments that they’ve “come out” about their nonbelief, please feel free to do so. Or if you’ve discovered people who you didn’t know were nonbelievers (John Davidson is a big one on the internet now), put their names below, too.

Here’s the video from that site:

After it’s finished, the video will continue on to other people’s recorded testimonies.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death penalty

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, some more convincing than others.  It involves the state in an act of killing (an argument that, by itself, I don’t find all that convincing); it does not act as a deterrent to others (more convincing); it actually costs more, because of the appeal process, than a sentence of life in prison without parole; it’s disproportionately given to blacks in the U.S. and so is racist; it sometimes it doesn’t work well and prisoners die under horrible circumstances; sometimes innocent people are executed, and there’s no way to right that wrong; and if your aim is simply to use execution to improve society, there might be better ways.

But one argument is rarely used, and it’s the one I want to discuss briefly today. It is this: determinists like me agree that no criminal had any choice about what he/she did, and therefore excusing people from death because they were “cognitively impaired,” “didn’t know right from wrong,” or had other extenuating circumstances, is no more valid than excusing people “because they have a brain that obeys the laws of physics.” In other words, if you exculpate one person from execution on any grounds of cognitive impairment, then you must exculpate all of them, for nobody has a choice to kill. In some sense all criminals are cognitively impaired, for, like the rest of us, their actions were determined completely by their genes and environment, and at no point, were the tape of life rewound, could they have behaved otherwise.  (This, of course, does not mean that such people should be let off scot-free—far from it!)

But there is no good reason to execute people for retribution, or on the grounds that they made a free choice to kill in sound mind. Those motives imply that we have real libertarian choices. But if you have no such choices, while you might be responsible for a crime, you are not morally responsible. Under any reasonable scheme, moral responsibility implies the ability to have done otherwise.

While compatibilists—who argue that actions are determined but we nevertheless still have free will on other grounds—sometimes still retain the notion of moral responsibility, I don’t see how those people can favor the death penalty, either. They may be compatibilists, but their determinism is incompatible with execution. And I don’t know if any of them do favor execution.

Yet “moral responsibility,” and the implication that killers could have chosen to do otherwise, is one of the most important reasons given for putting people to death in the U.S. Here’s an example.

At this moment, a jury in Boston is weighing imposing a federal death penalty on 21-year-old Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after he was convicted on all 30 criminal counts. The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, and since then three people have been executed (including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh), while 44 have been given the penalty and are languishing on death row. But, as the Boston Globe notes, Tsarnaev’s circumstances are special since the bombing is seen as a terrorist act, a public one, and a gory one. He may well be sentenced to death, and actually executed. Attorney General Eric Holder made the decision to request the death penalty, and he’s supported by several of the maimed victims or relatives of those who died. If the jury rules unanimously for death, it’s curtains for Tsarnaev; otherwise he goes to jail for life, without the possibility of parole.

Defense attorneys are arguing that Tsarnaev did not act independently, but was under the sway of his older brother Tamerlan. This is what they must argue to avoid execution, and I’m firmly on their side. But their argument could go further: Tsarnaev was acting under the influence of his genes and his environment, of which Tamerlan was a part, and he had no choice other than to plant the bombs. Most readers here are determinists and agree, but such an argument is highly unlikely to fly with a jury. (That’s one reason why philosophers should spend more time talking about the implications of determinism and less time playing a semantic game by confecting definitions of free will.) All criminals have the same extenuating circumstance: they had no choice. In what sense, then, are murderers “morally” responsible for what they did?

To see how the notion of pure libertarian free will is used by prosecutors asking for execution, here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s New York Times article on the Tsarnaev case. I’ve highlighted the parts that suggest Tsarnaev did have a choice about what he did:

Millions of people come from dysfunctional families, Ms. Pellegrini said, but they do not blow past normal boundary lines to become murderers, as Mr. Tsarnaev did. “The lines he was willing to cross make him fundamentally different,” she told the jury.

And he should not be able to shirk responsibility for heinous crimes that he committed by blaming someone else, she said. She quoted Shakespeare (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”) to convey that people choose the lives they lead.

“His destiny was determined by his actions, and he was destined and determined to be America’s worst nightmare,” she said. He “twisted the marathon into something cruel and ugly for his own purposes.”

All of this implies that Tsarnaev could have chosen otherwise, and deserves death because he didn’t. And that is why we need to make the case for determinism loudly and frequently, especially if we’re opposed to executions.

As I said, there are of course good reasons to punish people like Tsarnaev, even if one is a determinist. Punishment keeps someone who is liable to do further damage away from society (sequestration); it serves as a deterrent to others (even though execution isn’t a deterrent, being caught and imprisoned is, as we can see from what happened during the famous Montreal Police strike of 1969); and in some cases (but probably not Tsarnaev’s), it’s possible to rehabilitate offenders when they’re confined, so that they pose no danger to society when they’re released. The effects of each of these rationales can in principle be judged by science, though the “experiments” will be hard and expensive. But a good society must surely try.

What I don’t see as a valid reason for execution is vengeance or retribution, for both of those involve the notion of moral culpability—the idea that the guilty party had a choice and made the wrong one. Pandering to a mob or posse mentality demanding “an eye for an eye” tacitly accepts an emotion no longer tenable in an enlightened society. Yes, some may feel the need for vengeance, but it’s wrong to act on it. In the end, retribution always comes down to the notion that the criminal could have done otherwise.

The fault, dear Brutus, is indeed in our stars—or rather in our genes and our circumstances. Tsarnaev was simply unlucky in what his parents and his life vouchsafed him, and he wound up an odious and murderous person. For that he should be put away for life, as the possibility of rehabilitation seems slim. But let’s not pretend that he could have done anything other than place those bombs.


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