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Why blasphemy laws don’t work

Well-reasoned editorial in the New York Times from the policy director of Freedom House. Here’s a good bit:

Support for blasphemy laws is high among the general public in the Islamic world. Even the staunchest advocates of human rights in the Middle East, individuals who are openly critical of their corrupt and authoritarian leaders, balk at the idea that the publication of the Danish cartoons or the burning of a Koran should be protected forms of freedom of expression. In a part of the world where one’s religion is as key to one’s identity as nationality and race, most people simply view such forms of expression as a bigoted attack on their very existence.

Such views are bolstered by the need to better address the real issues of discrimination and violence against individuals because of their religious beliefs, even in established democracies. It is a fact that political parties espousing xenophobic and anti-Islamic views in Europe have gained in both popularity and representation, and that legal policies have been enacted that most human rights organizations rightly see as restricting the fundamental rights of Muslims to practice their religious beliefs. It is also a fact that many of the same people who defended the Danish cartoons as an important form of free expression somehow feel perfectly justified in criticizing the plans to build an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center because it offends them.

Yet hypocrisy in Europe and the United States does not justify attempts to bring governmental oversight into what constitutes offensive expression. Even with the best intentions, which are often lacking, governments should never be in the business of policing speech. The tools of defeating intolerance, including religious intolerance, start with a legislative environment that protects people’s fundamental political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws don’t work in any context and U.N. member states should reject them unconditionally.

Good point. Particularly about the likely hypocrisy of some of those offended by that proposed Islamic center.

Rather than laws against blasphemy we should focus on educating people about different cultures and explaining the best ways to avoid offense.

By | November 12th, 2010|Uncategorized|0 Comments

A college devoted to reading and talking about books?

As part of his conversation about the problems of higher education, Stanley Fish discovered plans to just scrap everything and start over:

Stephen Blackwood, a young man fresh from receiving his doctoral degree , … told me — can you believe it? — that he is starting from scratch a new liberal arts college, Ralston College, to be located in Savannah, GA. Either blissfully unaware of the obstacles rehearsed in the woe-is-us books or wrapped in the armor of faith and innocence like a modern St. George, Blackwood, without very much experience or money, has so far managed to secure a promise of buildings to house his new enterprise, gained the moral and honorific support of Harold Bloom, Hilary Putnam and Salman Rushdie, and applied for a tax status that will allow him to recruit and admit students, all of whom will receive full tuition scholarships paid for by the funds he plans to raise in the near future.

When they get to Savannah, the students of Ralston College will find that the school year is the entire year, 12 months, that they are expected to dine together and wear academic gowns, that they will all be reading the same texts organized around a yearly theme (in successive years, the Self, God, Nature, Community and the Beautiful), that the texts will be “supremely difficult” and begin with Greek and Roman authors, many of whom will be revisited the next year under the aegis of a new theme, and that they will also be receiving instruction in the visual arts, mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages (at least two).

“We believe,” declares the college’s Web brochure, “that the goal of general education is to produce a person who can draw on different fields of knowledge and at the same time grasp the whole of which each field is a part.” This means that “Ralston is fundamentally about reading books, thinking about them, and talking about them.” No on-line instruction, no departmental structure, no professorial ranks, no athletic programs, no teacher evaluations (student-centered education but not on the customer model) and no tenure. Back to the future! Plato and students under the plane tree in Savannah.

Sounds great. Jibes with my opinions about the type of education students are getting in college. Where do I send my CV?

I read further to see if Fish found fault with the proposed structure of Ralston College. He didn’t. In fact, according to the college’s Twitter feed, Fish just joined the Board of Visitors.

By | November 9th, 2010|Uncategorized|6 Comments

Ted Talk: Redefining apathy


Here’s Dave Meslin discussing some of the systemic factors that keep the public from being engaged in the political process. His first example is rather compelling — imagine if Nike advertised its shoes the way that governments advertise public hearings. His other points are similarly though-provoking, particularly about society’s embrace (via books and films) of heroes who are chosen in some way for their task.

My employer, Zayed University, will be hosting its own TEDx Talk in December — details to follow.

By | November 8th, 2010|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Happy Halloween

At my school’s fall festival on Thursday, I found myself explaining Halloween to a guy from Malaysia. I described how children in the U.S. would dress up in costumes and go door to door on October 31. After ringing the doorbell and saying “Trick or Treat,” the inhabitant hands them gobs of candy. They could do this again and again until they tire — usually my kids could fill up a grocery bag full of candy. “Really?” he asked incredulously. “Yes,” I replied. “It’s a pretty crazy holiday, eh? No wonder the kids love it so much.”

My son still talks about the mammoth score he got on Woodlawn Avenue a couple of years ago. He was a little disappointed with the candy collection at the fall festival — so tomorrow night we’ll be heading to an apartment building that specializes in Halloween. They have a list of apartments where the residents are ready to hand out the candy. Oh, yes — we’ll be there.

In the meantime, to get into the Halloween mood — I suggest viewing the following video:

It features Pennywise the Clown from the television adaptation of Stephen King’s horror classic “It.” Tim Curry plays the role — and he doesn’t need much help. Everyone knows clowns are naturally scary.

By | October 30th, 2010|Uncategorized|0 Comments