Must science reign supreme?

In the beginning of ‘The Enemies of Reason‘, Richard Dawkins’ latest TV crusade against the irrationality of religion and spiritualism, he asks: why is it during an age in which science is proving more ‘truths’ about life and the universe do people still turn to UFOs and miraculous burnt marks on toast that look like Jesus Christ for meaning?

OK, maybe he didn’t mention UFOs and icons on toasts, but the crux of his contention is this: with the progress of science and the evidence of our origins on this earth becoming more established and indisputable, we should be more rational and not the other way round. It’s like what schooling does to children. With more years of learning, reading, and writing, children become better at them and should by implication become more “clever”, right? Wrong.

To begin with, humanity is not like children. The historical path to reason is not mapped out on the linear progression from baby talk to sophisticated soliloquies, or from ignorance to reason. Reason, like humanity, is complex. We as witnesses of history know that it is the dubious science of ‘race’ evolution or social darwinism that became the ‘rationale’ for European colonialism. Late 19th century genetics inspired the science of eugenics, the same branch of science that rationalised the extermination of Hitler’s “undesirable” people. The atomic bomb was “superb physics” and “technically sweet” according to Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer respectively. Today DNA databases are being used to mine physical (and very personal) information that can potentially be used to discriminate on the basis of health and heredity.

Of course digging out the horrid past and selecting only the unsavoury aspects of genetics are probably unfair, unbalanced, and lacking in taste. But these things nonetheless prove one thing: great science does not make us reasonable, more fair, or more human. Since the publication of The God Delusion, Dawkins has fashioned himself as something of a scientist-thinker-provocateur extraordinaire. But a philosopher he is not. The discursive paradox that Dawkins is probably unaware of because of the height of the horse he’s mounted is the postmodern turn the field of philosophy as a whole has taken.

Foucault will not be Dawkins’ friend here, because any humanities undergraduate will tell him that there’s no such thing as an unbroken line of history towards reason. The historical path to knowledge is full of ruptures determined by what is trendy, what is profitable, and what benefit certain groups of people – these reasons may not be immediately rational but they certainly can be rational-ised, which does not make them the same thing.

This has been an argument to say that science is not the end-all to end-alls. In the charmingly titled ‘Faith School Menace?‘, Richard Dawkins was aghast when faith-oriented school children in Britain were not buying the theory of evolution wholesale. It was as if their lives on earth were a mockery because they did not take science as seriously as he does. It is as if without science, our lives have no meaning because we refuse to understand it scientifically. To commit the biggest sin of all is to refute evolution and Dawkins’ eyes would burn with fundamentalist intensity.

Dawkins’ greatest fear is that religion and other means of spiritualism deny us the unadulterated awareness of where we come from based on the knowledge of our common ancestors and the intricate workings of the gene, because for some reason these beliefs make the foundation of reason. This is a huge leap in argument for someone who makes the maddeningly simplistic case for reason disguised as some kind of philosophy. Perhaps one thing he should turn his attentions is to the cult status of The God Delusion amongst anti-religionists and Islamophobes and their irrational fears and hatred.

Now that Sophie Dahl is out of our kitchen, who will be the next female TV chef?

First published at The F-Word Blog

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For the few people who care, Sophie Dahl will not be returning to our television sets to teach us how to make an eggs Benedict that’s saucy in more ways than one. Dahl had a shaky start, with mixed reviews from episode one and had more media buzz about the kitchen she performed in than her food. Soon, there were snide remarks about the way she holds a cutting knife and her many whimsical but sometimes gut-churning food-related sexual innuendos.

Premature comparisons with Nigella Lawson’s looks and finger-licking abilities long before her programme started were inevitable, and sadly that might’ve assisted its early demise. I sometimes wonder whether the golden age of mixing food and sensuality had long ended with Nigella, and that we’re now heralding the squeezing out of women from the ranks of famous cooks?

Cooking shows are dominated by men. Nearly all head chefs, not to mention those blinged with Michelin stars who make media appearances, are men. The overwhelming number of those who compete in gruelling cooking competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Menu and win, are men. Hairy bikers, men. It’s not that women do not cook of course, they are just seldom credited for it. Women’s cooking is often considered a domestic art, like cleaning and childcare.

At home, women do most of the cooking because they usually have to. Men usually cook when it’s a special occasion, an occasion to show off. But when men have to prepare food, or put under pressure or on the boil in the kitchen – to use cooking expressions, it’s likely to be a paid job and are rewarded handsomely for it. So it’s not surprising that professional kitchens are often considered to be the bastion of macho and male chauvinistic behaviour.

Pointing out the macho-ness of ‘serious’ cooking matters, because it has taken domesticity out of cooking, out of the domain of the traditionally feminine. The late Keith Floyd prepared dishes on the open decks of sailing boats while Gordon Ramsay risked life and limb to harvest shellfish off coastal cliffs amid crashing waves. Food now have hints of danger, competitiveness, and mind-blowing intricacy; ‘serious’ food is a masculine art.

Female celebrity cooks before Dahl such as the likes of Delia Smith, Nigella, Rachel Allen, on the other hand, played up the domestic goddess image; with honest to goodness home cooking that kids will love and cinched for success at dinner parties – all demonstrated without subtlety in a stagey 1950’s bliss by the tail end of the programme. The Delicious Miss Dahl walked with ease in the footsteps of her culinary foremothers and sisters because it perpetuated the myth of domestic paradise, and perhaps that was the show’s downfall, aside from the fact that her food was far from adventurous.

As someone who watches nearly every cooking programme rather religiously on British TV, including Taste in the small hours, I find the gender divide in presentation, recipes, and sometimes ingredients startling. Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl made it a point to discuss their tricky relationship with rich food, as if knowing all too well of the viewers who are quick to judge women who love their food a little too much. In one episode coded Romance, Dahl served up a sumptuous meaty shepherd’s pie only to not eat it in the end. Instead, she tucked cautiously into her lentil option. What a pity I thought. Perhaps it was an act of sacrifice, like the way vegetarians selflessly prepare non-veg food for others, except this was supposed to be something romantic in this day and age.

There are many things wrong with a cooking programme that depends plenty on the presenter’s sex appeal but little else. And as demonstrated by Ms Dahl’s early exit, sensuality and mediocre cooking knowhow make a losing combination. But with female TV chefs so few and confined to domesticity, what will be the winning recipe for the next female food star?

Take your pick, science or religion: My review of Nerdstock – 9 lessons and carols for godless people

The word is out: if you’re religious you cannot possibly appreciate genetics in all its glory, a glory that is inseparable from the Darwinian theory of evolution. I was watching Nerdstock, a Christmas programme for non-religious people on BBC4 last night with at first some curiosity, later with quiet amazement at the burgeoning audacity of the atheist movement, and at last with a scratchy head. The latter reaction may be due to dandruff, but I feel it was more from the unresolved knotted thoughts on the irreconcilability of religion and science. Nerdstock was a love-in for self-proclaimed nerds of the scientific endeavour, who were falling over themselves praising some hazified concepts of evolutionary genetics.

It occurred to me that the atheist movement in Britain wants us to know that in lieu of religion, there is science; Darwinian science and physics to be exact. Science – for the enlightened – is now the antithesis of religion, or some may argue a neo-religion for intellectuals and those who fancy adopting the image. The device for last night’s programme was comedy, taking off the sting and heat of the controversy raised by the atheist bus campaign and the “Please don’t label me” campaign against faith cattle-branding on children. The device, I have to admit, was effective (I was at times amused) but purposefully deployed in smug contrast against humour-less religious folk. Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi gave the best stand-up, though her material was funniest when it was about the groundlessness of the term “mixed-race”. Yes, the beauty of genetics is that it can prove racists and political constructionists wrong.

But genetics is not something simply to be gushed at, something host Robin Ince felt he needed to demonstrate in his quasi-hallelujah moment about him and his son (“Whenever I look at my son, I see genetics. Genetics made him so special!, etc. etc.”). Being in ecstatic awe of the world in pseudo-scientific terms veers spookily into the realm of religious fanaticism, except with science in place of God as the figure to worship, I think. So okay, genetics is amazing, but so are social-conditioning and environmental impingement on the development of people. Biological determinism is not amazing and not 100% valid, and therefore genetics is not all that.

Where does this leave the religiously-disaffected with no interest in Darwinian theory let alone science, and those like me, who does not feel challenged by the idea of being connected to other lifeforms (genetics has made that an undeniable fact) and praises the Almighty for making the genius of nature possible? Well, not in this small exclusive club for both the scientific and scientistically-inclined it seems, which leaves much of the rest of the world to us. Yes, the rest of us live in an irrational mess with a disinterest in how we came to be; the corporeal beings at the mercy of the switchboard of genes. Nerdstock is an amusing interrogation of the non-existence of God, in which the godless install nature as the surrogate transcendental being greater than humankind, an entity we struggle to fathom completely. Sounds familiar?

When did talking about race become taboo?

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"

Whenever I’m back home in Malaysia, I’m frequently faced with the annoying question of what race I am. It’s annoying because it jumps right at me from nowhere, from people I hardly know, from strangers. Yes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some Malaysians are just rude but one thing is for sure, talking about one’s racial/ethnic background is actually no big matter, I’m just annoyed at having to explain why I look different all the time. Sometimes racial background is something to be proud of, something to remind oneself that our identities go far beyond “I”. But a strange thing happens when we talk about race in abstract terms, perhaps about other people – race, as a subject, suddenly becomes taboo.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 ran a series of documentaries under the title Race: Science’s Last Taboo. For starters, there is no substantial scientific basis for determining race – there is very little genetic variance between people of different colour. Socio-politically, the defining line of race becomes wobbly when mixed parentage individuals are involved. But we cannot dispose of the term race so easily as what we have at stake is the collective oppression of people who are not White.

In the film Race and Intelligence, journalist Rageh Omar picks apart the history of the “science” of race, and the racist assumptions that have been left unchallenged about Black people and low IQ. Words like “shocking”, “controversial”, “politically incorrect”, and last but not least “taboo” are built around the programme to sensationalise the fact that a few seemingly intelligent people in the scientific world were/are racists. The world was aghast when molecular biologist and discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson made claims that Black people are less clever than other people, simply because he is a world famous scientist, and scientists who have made monumental discoveries are expected to be morally accountable for their pronouncements. Or are they really?

Long before Watson’s faux pas, scientists have been known to have an uneasy relationship with race. The repugnant history of the abuse of scientific authority led to colonial domination, slavery, human zoos, and the Jewish holocaust. Beginning with the development of social/cultural evolution as a scientific theory for human diversity in the 19th century, scientists and anthropologists clamoured for recognition by building upon a discourse that placed people on a kind of evolutionary ladder – Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. A hundred years later, eugenics became a valid science that pursued the ethnic “purity” of White people. In the United States where eugenics was rigorously studied, scientists operated largely from the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York – of which interestingly, James D. Watson was director and president for 35 years. The world of scientistic racism is small indeed.

And so apparently, race became taboo in the scientific community after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, I’m not sure says who but it’s been mentioned a few times throughout the series. By extension, the subject of race is also taboo outside scientific discussion. Before we go on discussing further, a definition of taboo:

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

For White people, talking about race is indeed very difficult. The social custom of silence around race stems from the fear of sounding racist and reluctance to accuse others of racism, while at the same affirms a delusion that racism is not a big problem anymore. It’s disheartening to watch White people become defensive when they are asked about racism, especially when they perceive it as a test to see how racist they are.

The blogosphere is abuzz with people talking about race from many angles, some are people of colour, some White. Perhaps hidden behind names and avatars, the fear of sounding racist is mitigated, and perhaps those of us with access to the wealth of the internet are more attuned to the diversity of opinions on race (when we look for it). On the street or at a fancy dinner party where ‘polite’ conversation is expected, is race an appropriate subject? When we step away from the computer, are people out there going to respond favourably to a chit chat on race? As a person of colour, I am torn by how an integral component of my identity has become an issue on which people consciously tread carefully or avoid talking about altogether or dismissed as something not worthy of discussion in this so-called post-racial world. How can honesty, engagement, and resistance come from taboo?

Jamie Oliver, food, and Eurocentrism

Because this is how Americans tend to look
Jamie Oliver: Because this is how Americans tend to look

If you follow Jamie Oliver’s cooking programmes, alternatively known as The Naked Chef, you’ll notice that his cool and effortless boyish attitude to cooking strikes a chord with the young, mostly male, upwardly-mobile, and aspiring members of the British middle class; it’s about an obsession with fresh, locally-sourced or grow-your-own ingredients, and recipes firmly grounded in French/Italian cooking traditions. He’s deeply committed to getting Britain cooking at home again, and so none of those ready meals and takeaways plaguing busy families. But he has done so by entering the homes of lower income families in some of the roughest neighbourhoods in the country, who, by Jamie’s middle class standards, have Britain’s most deplorable eating habits. He is persuasive to some, patronising to others.

Ever so commercial-savvy, Jamie is also the face of the local supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and his mantra is clear: cooking can be easy, quick and should be inexpensive. You can also adopt the Jamie Oliver lifestyle by buying his stylish dining and kitchen products whilst reading his eponymous magazine. But it doesn’t end there, he’s all about kids eating nutritious meals in school and teaching them to start cooking from a young age too, because it’s never too early to be have bourgeois aspirations. So far so caring and generous, but very commercial.

His newest television project, called Jamie’s American Road Trip, aims to spread his love of funky fusion cooking in the United States, which comes with a US-inspired cookbook too (launched on the day of his first episode no less). Eschewing the usual tropes of American food and travel itinerary, Jamie rubs shoulders with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, immigrant communities and the homeless in New York City, and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups. Told through the medium of local food and recipes, Jamie brings to the table some pretty interesting stories of life in America today despite his naive geniality and earnestness which I found awkward at times, but it is his ignorance and Eurocentric views about food that I found just difficult to swallow.

In an episode filmed in New York City, Jamie meets Egyptian-born chef Ali, who runs a restaurant popular with the large Egyptian community in Astoria. The chef was kind enough to prepare on camera his specialty, a tomato-based meaty broth which Jamie made references to minestrone. What sounded like someone making sense of familiar flavours ended up becoming a comment that suggested that “ethnic” cuisines simply orbited around Western European cooking. To make sense of non-European flavours and textures, “unusual” food must be viewed through European lenses. And so dim sum is like Chinese tapas, chapatis look like Indian pancakes, kuih-muih can only be translated as Malaysian cakes. “You are degrading my cooking and culinary culture”, says Chef Ali to the Naked Chef. Clearly flabbergasted and apologetic, Jamie goes on to make another racist mistake in New Orleans.

On last night’s programme, Jamie recounts the devastation caused by hurricane Gustav, marvels at the resilience of the human spirit and the taste of gumbo. There he meets Leah Chase and she shows him how to make a quick and proper gumbo. While adding into the cooking pot some okra, Chase talks about the history behind the gumbo and how people brought into the South for slave labour hid okra seeds in their ears. She also asks Jamie whether Britons eat okra to which he replied yes, because the South Asian communities eat a lot of them and they’re easily available in “ethnic” areas in many cities around the country.

Again, Jamie annoys a guest on the programme by lumping together diverse ethnic communities and culinary traditions into a pot labeled non-White European and Other, and therefore more-or-less the same. He apologises for his general buffoonery and says that he didn’t mean to sound racist; he’s just unaware that his comments were hurtful.

And there’s another example that encapsulates Jamie’s Eurocentric worldview: inspired by the vibrant immigrant community in New York City, he sets out to select guests who represent it for his very own underground restaurant/dinner party, but they all turn out to be mostly White. They are also young, middle-class, and bourgeois just like him. To summarise my thoughts on his show, I find it successful at presenting the diverse and complex relationships Americans have with food, from anti-restaurant movements to free food programmes for the poor. But unfortunately, his show is limited to just that: it only presents but fails to be sensitive and insightful about what it is showing. It appears that Jamie Oliver’s world isn’t really as colourful and diverse in the truest sense as his approach to cooking, which is a pity for someone whom many believe has his heart in the right place.

Why I am against mainstream pornography

There was a time as a sex-positive feminist I believed that women should be able to enjoy porn if it floats their boat, and that all other avenues for female sexual desire should be open as long as elements so fundamental to the world of feminism and sex – choice and consent – are present. But all that changed after watching Tim Samuels’ BBC documentary Hardcore Profits. As a person who doesn’t watch a lot of porn I don’t think about it a lot, but it doesn’t take much to scratch the surface of the porn industry to find that it does more damage than fulfillment.

Samuels’ documentary reveals mainstream pornography as a hugely lucrative business operating behind the respectable and wholesome image of mobile network companies and international hotel chains. But it is the globalisation of pornography, via black market DVDs and the internet, that has the shocking and deeply devastating effect on the developing world. In several parts of Africa, easily accessible hardcore porn turns men into rapists. In his film, Samuels visits a remote Ghanian village where boys view American-made hardcore flicks in mud hut cinemas:

The village has no electricity, but that doesn’t stop a generator from being wheeled in, turning a mud hut into an impromptu porn cinema – and turning some young men into rapists, with villagers relating chilling stories of assaults taking place straight after the film’s end. In the nearest city, other young men are buying bootlegs copies of the almost always condom-free LA-made porn – copying directly what they see and contracting HIV. The head of the country’s Aids commission says porn risks destroying all the achievements they’ve made. It’s a timebomb, he says.

Now, I’m not one for simplistic cause-and-effect in arguing that porn creates rapists in men the same way violent films and video games inspire murderous intent, but I will argue that without education and a culture that respects women and girls in a place where male dominance is the law of the land, pornography can indeed have a disastrous effect on the social fabric. South Africa, where pornography is legal and explicit material is available at news stands and on the street, has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women in the world – a fact made worse by AIDS. But it is a society that views male sexual aggression and female passivity as erotic that accentuates the truth behind the statistics.

Sexual violence is commonly connected with sexual exploitation. And no matter what porn stars tell you; that they enjoy their work, have the freedom of choice and consent, the pressure to perform a wide variety of sexual acts (which gets more and more extreme by the day) and go condom-free is great.

I am now anti-mainstream pornography, and do not support the appropriation of feminist language that seeks to validate an “anything goes as long as it’s good for me” rhetoric in the politics of female sexual pleasure. I am, however, still a sex-positive feminist, and believe that sexual pleasure that is respectful and non-exploitative is important to the feminist experience.

Latter day Victoriana: Drawing similarities between Compulsion and Bride and Prejudice

Crossposted on Feminist Review.

The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)

Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)
Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)

Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.

The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.

This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.

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My daughter's keeper: Nahid Persson's Prostitution behind the veil

Crossposted at Muslimah Media Watch

For a relatively high-brow TV channel, BBC4 is known for providing top quality programs and dramas. So when the BBC commemorated the 30th anniversary of Islamic Revolution in Iran, I became glued to the channel’s string of intriguing documentaries on all things Iranian, post-1979. There were plenty on Iran-US nuclear politics and the fall of the Shah, all testosterone-fueled stuff. Sticking out from the rest for bearing themes that were uniquely female was the unfortunately-titled Prostitution Behind The Veil (2004). Yes, nothing captures the definitive spirit of being a woman in modern-day Iran better than a program about sex work with groan-inducing references to the veil.

Directed by Nahid Persson, who brought us Four wives – one man (2007), the documentary follows the grim day-to-day lives of two women, Mina and Fariba, in an equally grim corner of the capital city. Making ends meet as sex workers in a country notorious for its curtailment of women’s rights, the two friends juggle their roles as single parents and negotiate their way around the prohibitive laws against prostitution. With their husbands in prison for an assortment of crimes, no relatives willing to help, and a drug habit, the clandestine flesh trade is their last and only resort.

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The masculine art of cooking

When celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s chain of eateries were snubbed from the world’s best restaurants list, I revelled in the joy of knowing that the British vanguard of hyper-macho  professional cooking will need a little humbling-up to do. Though the reign of men in the great kitchens of the world is far from over: somewhere in the top 10 proudly sits Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, known for his ‘Don’t try this at home’ cooking programmes.

Sometimes I think about why the big celebrity chefs in the UK tend to be male and how less oriented their cooking shows are towards domesticity. Y’know, very little in the way of feeding the kids and entertaining guests at dinner parties a la Nigella, and how they’re light years more glamorous than ‘How to boil an egg’ Delia. Serious cooking being the preserve of men means that for women, cooking is unremarkable and boring. Think The Great British Menu – all men. Think trendy and cool, and you have Jamie Oliver.

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Migration: Belonging and displacement

In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.

Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.[1]

Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.

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