May 08, 2007

Spinning Fish: Mullahs defend Herodotus

In Stanley Fish's most recent NYT essay ("The All-Spin Zone", 5/6/2007), he unspins unSpun, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book about how to cope with political rhetoric:

The book’s subtitle tells it all: “Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.” [...] The idea is that while “we humans aren’t wired to think very rationally” and are prone to “letting language do our thinking for us,” we can nevertheless become “more aware of how and when language is steering us toward a conclusion.” In this way, Brooks and Jamieson promise, we can learn “how to avoid the psychological pitfalls that lead us to ignore facts or believe bad information.”

It all sounds so – well – rational: There’s a world of fact out there waiting to be accurately perceived, but the distorting power of words, abetted by the psychological disorders of passion and bias, tends to obscure it and lead us astray. And the remedy? Watch your words and watch your mental processes, paying particular attention to your “existing beliefs” lest they “reject evidence that challenges them.” In short, Jackson and Jamieson recommend, “practice active open-mindedness.”

I haven't read the Jackson and Jamieson book, but their prophylactic section headings sound right to me: “Check Primary Sources,” “Know What Counts,” “Know Who’s Talking,” “Cross-check Everything That Matters,” “Be Skeptical, But Not Cynical.” But Fish, a subtle though unregenerate post-modernist, is having none of it.

For him, reality is rhetoric:

Language (or discourse), rather than either reflecting or distorting reality, produces it, at least in the arena of public debate. [...] Clarity is not a condition of unbiased vision; it is a rhetorical achievement.

Insight is bias:

“Active open-mindedness” – standing to one side of our beliefs and assumptions in the service of unbiased observation – is another name for having no mind at all. Open-mindedness, far from being a virtue, is a condition which, if it could be achieved, would result in a mind that was spectacularly empty. An open mind is an empty mind.

And truth is power:

When Jackson and Jamieson declare that Rove’s “upbeat picture” of the economy is divorced from reality, they think of reality – in this case the reality of economic conditions – as ready to reveal itself so long as we adhere to the appropriate evidentiary procedures (like “cross-check everything”). But the reality of the economic situation will emerge when one of the competing accounts (Rove’s or Jackson’s and Jamieson’s) proves so persuasive that reality is identified with its descriptions.

This is all served artfully on a bed of pomo neo-Whorfianism:

Forms of language – pieces of vocabulary, proverbial aphorisms, slogans, revered examples of wisdom, metaphors, analogies, precedents and a whole lot more – furnish our consciousness; they are what we think with, and we can’t think without them (in two senses of “without”).

Then again, maybe the way that I just spun his review is entirely unfair. Go read it and decide for yourself.

Me, I'm wondering about a different professor, Nurredin Zarrinkelk. According to one cryptic sentence in this morning's New York Times (Nazila Fathi, "Beating by Guards Fails to Stop Voting, Iran Students Say", NYT, 7/8/2007):

A prominent art professor, Nureddin Zarrinkelk, was expelled from Tehran University last week after he commented about the beauty of a woman’s hair at one of his classes. [emphasis added here and throughout]

A search on Google News turned up a different description of his crime ("Cartoon Celebrity Banned from University", 5/7/2007):

Nureddin Zarrinkelk, a celebrated Iranian animated cartoonist, has been expelled from the fine arts department of the university of Tehran where he taught, reports said Monday. He is accused of having made fun of a female student who was wearing the full Islamic chador covering calling her a "primitive" according to pro-government news agency Rajanews. Zarrinkelk, 70, an icon of Iranian animated cinema, will not be allowed to teach anymore as part of new punitive measures in a moralization campaign which kicked off late last month and provides for the arrest of women who do not abide by strict Islamic dress codes.

In fact, it turned up more than one ("Prominent Iranian Professor Sacked for 'Insulting Veil'", Payvand, 5/7/2007):

A prominent Iranian professor of fine art has been sacked from his university for allegedly offending a fully veiled woman during class.

Nureddin Zarrinkelk, known as the father of Iranian animation, is accused of having "insulted" the female student at Tehran University by showing some of her hair to other students.

Iranian Science Minister Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi has said that Zarrinkelk insulted the Islamic veil and has been banned from teaching in any university.

And yet another ("Professor sacked for insult", Gulf Times, 7/8/2007):

A prominent Iranian professor has been sacked for offending a fully veiled woman during class amid mounting protests at a prestigious Iranian university over insults to Islam, the press reported yesterday.

The reports said that Nureddin Zarrinkelk, a professor of fine art known as the father of Iranian animation, “insulted” the female student at Tehran University by questioning why she wore the full Islamic chador.

The incident then sparked more protests at another Tehran university - Amir Kabir - that has already been the scene of demonstrations related to the publication of caricatures deemed offensive to Islam.

“The father of Iranian animation was expelled from university and cannot teach in any university because of his insult towards the hijab of a university student,” the reformist Etemad daily reported.

It quoted Science Minister Mohamed-Mehdi Zahedi as saying that Zarrinkelk was expelled from Tehran University for “insulting the Islamic hijab” and has been banned from teaching in any university.

According to the Etemad reports, the incident was sparked during a classroom discussion over an image of a bald angel drawn by a student when the professor asked the woman if she wore the full veil because she herself was bald.

Following Jackson and Jamieson's method, I conclude that Prof. Zarrinkelk probably said something to a chador-wearing female student that she (or others in the class) took as an insult to her choice of clothing; but at this point, I don't really know what happened, in the narrow sense of who said and did what in that Tehran classroom. I have only a tiny bit more knowledge about what happened in larger political and social terms, mostly derived from previous experience rather than from these various journalistic accounts.

If I were running a newspaper, though, I'd look back at the last time Prof. Zarrinkelk was in the news, just a couple of weeks ago ("Iranian films can respond to '300': ASIFA president", Mehr News Agency, 4/25/2007), and run the story of his firing under the headline Mullahs defend Herodotus.

Iranian president of the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation (ASIFA) said that national films and animations can respond to the Warner Brother's historically inaccurate film '300'.

Speaking in a review session of the film, at Tehran's Iranian Artists Forum last Saturday, Nureddin Zarrinkelk called on Iranian cultural officials to equip filmmakers so that they can show the world an accurate representation of the historical events which have been misrepresented in the film '300'.

The writings of Herodotus, which are the main source for such anti-Iran films, are full of unsubstantial claims, he noted.

Perhaps this account of the forces behind his firing -- or alternatively, his account of the battle of Thermopylae -- would "prove so persuasive that reality is identified with its descriptions". Stranger things have happened.

[There are interesting discussions of Fish's essay by Kenny Easwaran at Thoughts Arguments and Rants ("Fish on Spin"), and by Natalia at My Tongue Broke Out in Unknown Strains ("Artful pomo").]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 8, 2007 07:52 AM