Remembering Carl Sagan

Happy Birthday Carl SaganToday (November 9th) is the 79th Birthday of Carl Sagan, eminent astronomer, humanist, and popular science writer. I intended to blog about Camus on his 100th Birthday (which was on 7th), as he is probably the philosopher who has influenced me the most on a personal level, but I think I owe Carl Sagan a post as my respect and adoration towards him is hard to describe.

I think there is a point in many people’s life when they do self introspection, and are left with a hell lot of unanswered questions and existential crisis hits them hard. I can’t speak for everyone, but that was true in my case too, and that was when I found Carl. His views have profoundly influenced me, and as most literature intended to inspire has no or little effect on the ever so cynical me, I should thank Sagan for putting me right on track, his words struck a chord with with me right away. I am against idolizing anyone, but Sagan is one such person I admire so much, to the point that you could say that I idolize him. His views on science, skepticism, humanism and other social issues are so profound, that it’s hard not to recommend his work to anyone.

Sagan, arrested during the protest at a nuclear site in Nevada

Sagan, arrested during the protest at a nuclear site in Nevada

He was also involved in various activism. Image on the left shows him being arrested anti-war activism in a nuclear testing site. Something we, who advocate for scientific progress (and rightly so) should always remember, the equal emphasis he placed on humanism and it’s core values. He was not only an activist, but in my view, in many ways, a rebel. Him, along with his wife Ann Druyan (whom I will hopefully write about later) were arrested three times at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. To quote Ann Druyan here:

During the 1980’s we were arrested three times at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site while protesting US underground nuclear testing. This kind of activism cost him many of the glittering prizes and honors that he might have gotten if he had played along with things he thought were wrong. He turned down three invitations to dine at the Reagan White House. He couldn’t be co-opted. His opposition to the Star Wars swindle drew a lot of fire. I wish the world had a Carl Sagan now to publicly argue against the new Star Wars proposals. He could spot the phony technical arguments of the Department of Defense and bust them publicly in a way that we could all grasp.
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Carl took on the military-industrial complex. He campaigned around the world for an end to the production of weapons of mass destruction. To him it was a perversion of science. So yes, it’s true that Carl was frequently denounced by televangelists, astrologers and The Wall Street Journal. Even so, it wasn’t much of a price to pay. He was the happiest person I ever knew.

 He expressed his feminist perspectives quite clearly at various points of his life, and through his sole novel Contact, where the protagonist was a female scientist, which he co authored with Ann. Here is a great excerpt from his letter to Explorers Club, which used to be exclusively male till then:

When our organization was formed in 1905, men were preventing women from voting and from pursuing many occupations for which they are clearly suited. In the popular mind, exploration was not what women did. Even so, women had played a significant but unheralded role in the history of exploration — in Africa in the Nineteenth Century, for example. Similarly, Lewis and Clark were covered with glory, but Sacajewea, who guided them every inch of the way, was strangely forgotten. All institutions reflect the prejudices and conventions of their times, and when it was founded The Explorers Club necessarily reflected the attitudes of 1905.

He also argued for reproductive rights in Billions and Billions (which again, he co-authored with Ann Druyan). Some excerpts:
By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions.
[..]

In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. [..] Women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquility or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

Here is his response the question about lack of diversity in Science education and it’s implications:

We also might ask how it is that of the first ten or twelve questioners only one was a woman in an audience in which women are much more strongly represented. These are wide-ranging, difficult questions. I don’t claim to have the answers except to say that I know of no evidence that women and what in the United States are called racial minorities are not as competent as anybody else in doing science. It has to do, I think, entirely, or almost entirely, with the built-in biases and prejudices of the educational system and the way the society trains people. Nothing more than that. Women, for example, who are told that they’re too stupid for science, that science isn’t for them, that science is a male thing, are turned off. And women who despite that try to go into science and then find hostility from the high school math teacher—“What are you doing in my class?”—find hostility from the 95 percent male science classes, with the kind of raucous male culture in which they find themselves excluded, those are powerful social pressures to leave science. I wrote a novel once, Contact, in which I tried to describe what women dedicated to science have to face, that men don’t, in order to make a career in science.

So yes, again it’s hard to put in words to what extent Sagan has influenced my life and my character development in the latter part of my life. And I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that.  So thanks for everything, Carl. You have taught be to be humble and skeptical, you’ve helped me lose a lot of prejudices and dogmas I had held, combat my existential struggles, and shape up the way I perceive the world.

Happy Birthday!

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An Open letter to Guardian

Cultural relativism

My last blog was a rant on shit post modernists say, and I thought that would have just ended there, I had no intention of taking that any further. And then Guardian just published  this horrendous article, by Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, defending Saudi’s refusal to grant women the right to drive on cultural relativist grounds. I’m just lost for words here – the last time I had read a nearly dire article was a Tribune piece defending slavery. But this is Guardian, one of the most reputed papers in the UK, which published this – and that worries me so much more.

I just loathe cultural relativism. No amount of ‘genuine concerns‘ would take away the stink of cultural relativism. And when it comes to fundamental human rights, it’s just unacceptable for any reasonable person to support cultural relativist nonsense. This article precisely demonstrates why, and hits a whole new low by engaging in explicit cultural relativist apologia, and horrendously faulty reasoning.

Lets see what his arguments are:

Westerners should be wary of trying to impose their version of feminism on Saudi women. It’s not always welcome

Yes, how dare the western feminists shove basic human rights down our throats? It’s certainly problematic. Because whether women deserve basic human rights is now a “western feminist” concept. We are having none of that, surely.

The Saudi economic newspaper El-Iqtisadiah ran a front-page news story suggesting that women’s driving is just a luxury rather than a necessity and that protesters against the ban seek to undermine the kingdom’s stability and create sedition.

Seriously? Women having the right to drive is a luxury? And oh yeah, sure – those brave women who stood up and protest against were obviously conspiring against Saudi Kingdom’s so called “stability” which are well aware about.

That wasn’t just propaganda. I conducted a survey of my former Saudi female students at Al-Lith College for Girls (at Um al-Qura University, Mecca). They helped me distribute a large-scale questionnaire to their colleagues from different departments of the college and to their female relatives and friends. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but their responses are worth considering. I offered them anonymity in their answers, but even so, some wanted to be recognized.

As interesting the survey results might be, why does it matter? Having the right to drive doesn’t mean every woman is compelled to drive. Do we have to spell that out for you, if that wasn’t obvious? And of course, there is still peer pressure etc. to overcome for women who choose to drive, and all you care about this poll?

Also two words for you: Internalized Misogyny. They live in an oppressive regime which refuses to grant women their basic human rights, so why are you surprised that women have internalized this themselves?

Now this is where it really gets horrible and where I couldn’t make sure if this was a satire or an actual opinion piece:

To my surprise, 134 (out of 170) respondents said female driving is not a necessity and that it opens the door for sexual harassment and encourages women to not wear the niqab under the pretext that they cannot see the road when driving. Some also fear that it gives husbands a chance to betray and agree with the assertion that it creates sedition in society.

Mashaal El-Maliki, a housewife:

Female driving will destroy family life because it will give husbands a chance to know other women who (as drivers) will be free and without guardians.

Bedoor Elmaliki, a student:

In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen. There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women’s driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in.

Maqbula El-Malawi, a student:

Honestly, I don’t like women to drive. This will create sedition … I agree that there are already different kinds of sedition we see every day, but the right place for a woman is her house; this will really save her from what is happening in the outside world.

A Saudi mother:

If they allow women to drive, there will be many negative effects on the whole society (eg, sexual harassment). Furthermore, there will be many things that don’t comply with our Islamic principles. This will open the door for women to imitate men in everything, and who knows … there would be calls for banning niqab. This way a woman will lose her femininity; and if a woman goes out without a guardian, she may lose her honor.

Banaader Elmaliki, a 4th year mathematics student:

[The driving movement is] just a crazy imitation of America, and doesn’t mean more liberation for women. It rather means liquidation of the society and inferiority of its moral values. The biggest evidence on this is the liquidation of American society; we don’t want this in our kingdom.

That’s right, he just quoted a bunch of horrible, bronze age misogynistic perspectives (albeit from women themselves), some of which  engages directly in victim blaming. Letting women drive “opens the door for sexual harassment” – oh yeah – lets shift the burden of not getting harassed on women now, totally. Because men have absolutely no role to play in it – so lets just deprave women of their fundamental rights they’re entitled to. That sounds just about perfect, because after all, we know that women are not people and are at best sub-human slaves, so makes sense.

Now one would have thought someone would have used these quotes to merely demonstrate the horrible state that Saudi is in, to highlight how much misogyny women themselves have internalized. But oh no, he apparently thinks this supports his “argument” in some way, while it merely demonstrates the dire need of addressing the misogyny.

Whether or not women have the right to choice that men already have is not open to debate. Period. I find it quite baffling that a person with half a brain would have any difficulty in grasping this exceedingly simply premise, you don’t have to be a feminist to know that. You have to a total misogynist douchebag to not only remain oblivious to it, but also defend the oppressive laws that refuses to grant women the choice that they already should have.

What is most baffling is how Guardian thought it was somehow a good idea to publish this drivel. This is cultural relativism at it’s worst, and giving a person platform to spew his half-brained apologist nonsense is a massive fail of some basic journalist ethics on your part, let alone a massive fall in your credibility. Sort your shit out, pretty please. Being the “liberal” variant of Fox News or Daily Mail is not a good way to stand up against prejudice against Muslims or racism. To quote Nietzsche here: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.

Women”s rights are human rights, and not a matter of debate. If you stand against it, or promote views that stands against it, then you’ve lost perspective (to put it mildly), regardless of your “intentions“.  Get that into your thick skulls please. Thank you very much.