People can be so ineffable

I’d pretty much forgotten about Hugo Schwyzer, but I still (just) recognized the name, so I was motivated to read Comrade Physioprof’s post on him the other day, and startled by what it told me.

Now I find out for the first time (also see the comments) (although this is not newly public information, just new to me) that over a decade ago the motherfucker sexually preyed on his students and attempted to murder his ex-girlfriend, as described graphically on his blogge:

I walked into the little kitchen only steps from where my ex lay. I blew out the pilot lights on our gas oven and on the burners, and turned the dials on everything up to maximum. I pulled the oven away from the wall, leaving the gas line intact, positioning it so that the gas was blowing directly at the passed-out young woman on the floor.

Schwyzer claims to be a “male feminist” and to have focused his life on feminism out of remorse and to make amends for his past grotesque history of woman-hating and violence, including both having sex with his female students and attempting to murder his ex-girlfriend. This opportunistic motherfucker is full of shitte.

PZ’s post on him today prompted me to dig up the posts that relate to my long ago clash with Schwyzer. It was April 2004. I had been invited to join the group blog about history Cliopatria at History News Network a few months earlier, and had been enjoying myself there…and then Hugo Schwyzer joined. I posted about the problem that arose almost as soon as he joined.

It’s fundamental disagreement time.  I disagree radically with a line of argument at Cliopatria, and what’s worse, the kind of argument it is makes it very difficult to dispute as directly and bluntly as I would like to – or as I would like to in one sense but would not like to in another.  That’s exactly the problem.  I may decide to leave Cliopatria as a result – because as it is, I seem to be semi-acquiescing in views that are anathema to me.

My politics are derived from my faith, not the other way around. When I was younger, and a secular liberal, my politics were the only faith I had! Since coming to Christ (and yes, I do call myself “born again” without embarrassment), I have had to rebuild my politics from the ground up. When I consider political questions, I am forced to ask myself what position I believe Christ calls me to. This isn’t easy, for any number of obvious reasons, starting with the fact that the New Testament is not a modern political manual. This is why I can’t merely allow myself to hunt and peck through Scripture, finding passages that support my already-in-place suppositions about justice. (Many liberal and conservative Christians alike do this; it’s an understandable habit, but a bad one). Rather, I have to be open to what the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and my church community are telling me about right, wrong, peace and war and so forth…The Christian left must be faithful to Christ first, not secular dogma. Where our agendas and our understandings coincide, so much the better. But at times, we will stand with our Christian brethren on the right of the political spectrum, not out of sectarian loyalty but out of a sense that, as Carter said, “discerning God’s will and doing it is prior to everything else.” It is no easy thing to claim to have discerned God’s will. No wise Christian tries to do it alone. We do it in the light of (thanks Wesley) Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience; above all we do it prayerfully, humbly, and together.

You can see how it was. I had simply assumed, without (that I recall) even wondering about it, that Cliopatria was a secular blog. What else would it be?! History is a secular subject that relies on secular methods. Historians don’t argue from revelation or “scripture” or divine afflatus. I found Hugo’s post wrong-headed and sinister, and also toe-curlingly embarrassing. I didn’t want to be on a blog that hosted that kind of thing. I also didn’t feel comfortable about saying so on the blog itself – which itself would be an obstacle. All of a sudden there was a big Taboo in the middle of the thing, and that wasn’t what I had signed up for.

And that wasn’t all. As you’ll see if you read the post, there was a lot of pushback from Ralph Luker of Cliopatria, who had invited me to join in the first place – a lot of very goddy pushback. This was 2004, before the monster Gnu Atheism was born, so I was foolishly surprised at the rising ferocity. Eventually Ralph called me Madame Defarge, which probably helped to make me the gnu I am today.

In the next round, I tried to figure out how Luker and others know so much about god when they escape pressing questions by saying god is ineffable.

One of the problems with religion when one is trying to have a rational discussion is that kind of having it both ways.  God is ineffable etc. but that won’t stop us from knowing all about it.  That kind of move doesn’t work in secular discussion, and doesn’t get resorted to as much.  But with religion – well, you know, everyone means something different, and it’s ineffable, and you can’t pin it down or define it, and if you try to you’re just being literal and scientistic…

And that’s where I decided to stop, and transfer over here, instead.  But that is a serious question.  I am constantly being told that when I disagree with religion on substantive issues I misunderstand because that’s not what it’s about, it’s about awe and wonder, or love, or inner experience.  But that’s not what Hugo’s post is about at all.  It’s about taking the Bible as a guide to morals, and without picking and choosing, because that’s a bad habit.  It’s about replacing one’s existing suppositions about justice with God’s will.  It’s about taking direction from the Holy Spirit – not metaphorically but literally.  That is the kind of thing that worries me, not awe or wonder, and not ineffable things (provided people don’t then decide that they’re effable after all when a different argument is going on).

And then I did a final post saying goodbye to Cliopatria, prompted by another goddy post by Hugo Schwyzer, which started with:

Debate here and elsewhere on the intersection of faith and historical method led me to this fine article from 2001 in Christianity Today.  It featured this terrific quotation from Mark Noll, who says what I have been trying to say in all of these debates for some time (but without much success):

Asked about the anti-supernaturalism of history, Noll made a distinction between what he called”ordinary” and”providential” history. Ordinary history, he said, limits itself to”evidence and causes and effects that almost everyone can be convinced might have taken place.” While ordinary history might look quite secular, Noll sees it as fundamentally Christian in its presuppositions and worldview. He compared it to science. Christian scientists do their work with confidence because they believe that the world will make sense, and that God has made it possible for the human mind to understand the world.  So with the historian.”If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I’m presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I’m intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I’m able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth,” Noll said.”All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.”

It was rather obnoxious of Schwyzer, I thought. He could have simply kept the goddy stuff to himself, but he made a point of not doing that; he forced it on the rest of us, as bossy goddy types always do.

It’s fascinating to learn about this other side of him now.


  1. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Eventually Ralph called me Madame Defarge, which probably helped to make me the gnu I am today.

    Wouldn’t being called Madame Defarge have encouraged you to take up knitting? Or hanging around guillotines?

  2. says

    History is almost completely broken as a discipline, Ophelia – Steven Pinker’s research helps to elucidate the extent of the brokenness in empirical terms, but it’s something I’ve been noticing for a while. I’m not sure why it’s so broken, although Dawkins’s arguments about Francophonie no doubt have something to do with it.

    It seems to be populated by people of limited intellect who spent a great deal of time confirming their biases — so, in that sense, a Christian who wants to bend history to the dictates of scripture is unsurprising. Like Foucault and friends, these are people who have conclusions and then find facts to confirm them.

  3. F says

    ”All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.”

    Gonna have to explain that one. That isn’t any sort of explanation in itself.

  4. screechymonkey says

    Not a lot of Gnu sentiment in the comments to those old posts. It’s interesting how times — or at least, the B&W commenters — have changed over the years.

  5. Stewart says

    I was already reading B&W back then, but notice I didn’t comment, probably because I wasn’t reading Cliopatria, so the whole thing seemed at a remove (I do remember your announcement that you were packing it in there, though). As you can possibly guess, glancing back at those old threads made me think mainly one thing: Halasz!

  6. says

    screechy, I know. I wasn’t exactly fully gnu myself then. I think years of Mooneying and Stedmaning have changed many of us.

    Stewart, god, isn’t he a trip? I can’t believe I put up with him for so long.

  7. says

    +1 internetz to Randomfactor.

    Knitting is a perfectly fine feminist hobby. Or craft. Or art. Or urban guerilla protest. However you do it. It’s not me, but personally I wouldn’t choose to class it with genocide. 🙂

  8. Ian MacDougall says


    “History is almost completely broken as a discipline, Ophelia – Steven Pinker’s research helps to elucidate the extent of the brokenness in empirical terms, but it’s something I’ve been noticing for a while.”

    Do you have a link to a Pinker expansion on that? I can’t find anything.

  9. says

    Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ (warning, it comes in at 800 + pages) is a pretty definitive refutation of just about every current in historical scholarship since, oh, roughly 1910. The (very short) Pinker: the Whigs were right.

    Seriously, though, rather than listen to me not do his arguments justice, buy his book and read it for your own enjoyment and (immense) enlightenment. I plan to do a detailed review over at my place in due course, but as my last matter only finished up on the 21st, so I’m currently enjoying some (I hope) legitimate relaxation time!

  10. Tim Harris says

    I was reminded at once when reading some comments on Hugo Schwyzer’s blog and his oh so ingenuous responses to them of those master-manipulators Lovelace and Humbert H. Humbert. And certainly there were at least a few women commentators taken in by his parading of past misdeeds and present contrition.

    I don’t know what Stephen Pinker has shown about the discipline of history, Screechy Monkey, or what Dawkins has said on the subject (does he know much about it?), but there are plenty of good historians around who owe little or nothing to Foucault et al. The late E.P. Thompson, who is still influential, wrote an excellent polemical attack on ‘theory’ of the Gallic kind in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ back in 1978, and in Britain at least there have been few first-rate historians who have had much truck with ‘theory’. There is also Richard Evans’s excellent ‘In Defence of History’ – Evans is the great historian of modern Germany and was an expert witness on Deborah Lipstadt’s behalf in the trial involving David Irving; he subsequently wrote a book in this connexion called, if memory serves me right, ‘Lying for Hitler’. Pinker, certainly, for all his virtues, can be pretty silly when he gets on to subjects about which he knows little or has small sympathy for: the arts, for example.

  11. Tim Harris says

    I am, by the way, reading Pinker’s ‘Better Angels’ and find it so far excellent. But it is, I am sorry, silly nonsense to say that it provides a definitive refutation of everything in historical scholarship since 1910. Even since 1910, there have been plenty of good Whiggish historians.

  12. Tim Harris says

    Sorry! It is not ‘Screechy Monkey’ but ‘scepticlawyer’ to whom my remarks are addressed…. those ‘sc’s…

  13. says

    Even since 1910, there have been plenty of good Whiggish historians.

    A most fair point, although unfortunately Alethea has already won the internetz for today 🙂

  14. says

    Tim, you mean skeptic lawyer, not screechy monkey.

    (I suddenly feel silly saying that.)

    Quite so about Richard Evans’s book. Speaking of the very early days of B&W he was one of the very first people I asked to write an article for B&W (Steven Pinker was another, as a matter of fact), and he very kindly obliged (as did Steve). (Evans adapted a talk he’d just given in Australia.)

    That book was one of the foundation stones of B&W.

  15. says

    On the other hand Eric Hobsbawm rose at a conference to denounce some revolting kack from one of the Marglins. The hipsters there had no clue who he was and there was a lot of grumbling about reactionary geezers. True story.

  16. says

    Ah – found it. It was both Marglins.

    This is where it gets really good. Eric Hobsbawm has been listening ‘in increasingly uneasy silence’; now he rises to deliver a ‘blistering indictment of the traditionalism and relativism’ on offer. He gives historical examples of ways appeals to tradition have been used to support oppression and violence. ‘In the confusion that ensues, most of the relativist social scientists – above all those from far away, who do not know who Hobsbawm is – demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the room.’ Stephen Marglin, disconcerted by the tension between his leftism and his relativism, manages to persuade them to let Hobsbawm stay.

  17. says

    I like John M’s comment on that thread so much I’m going to repeat it, in large part because it represents my view. I am not a fan of much Marxist inflected history either; while better written, it is also dishonest.

    Christ in a pink hat! Things are getting bad when you find yourself on the same side as a repulsive old Stalinist like Hobsbawm, but thank god for him on this occasion.

  18. Sili says

    No not really, any more than being called Hitler would encourage me to take up genocide.

    Just as long as you don’t like dogs and eschew meat.

  19. says

    John Carter Wood helped to keep the criminologists honest until Levitt & Donohue (economist, lawyer) came along. Criminology used to be full of nonsense, piffle about abolishing prisons and reducing police numbers and so on and so forth, and sometimes it seemed only lawyers and historians of violence objected.

  20. says

    Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ (warning, it comes in at 800 + pages) is a pretty definitive refutation of just about every current in historical scholarship since, oh, roughly 1910. The (very short) Pinker: the Whigs were right.

    I plan to read it. I expect it to be every bit as overrated and disingenuously ideological as anything else he says.

    At 800+ pages, too. Oh, joy.

  21. sailor1031 says

    @SC:you will probably not be too disappointed then judging by some of the reviews. Life’s too short formetoread anything that’s 800 pages.

    Getting back to the original heading, i’m effable. And sometimes when i’m effable i’m f***king numinous!!

  22. thomascromwell says

    To scepticlawyer,
    It would appear that you have read little of E.P. Thompson if you think he conveniently leaves out the Gordon Riots from his history. Chapter 3 of The Making of the English Working Class is a discussion of the propensities of the lower classes to violence, both in “Church and King” “mobs” and as justice seeking “food riots”. Pages 77-78, 85 and 92 all discuss the nature of the Gordon Riots as anti-Catholic rioting and the easy manner in which the “mob” could be lead to attack very specific targets, very often those who were targeted for political reasons.

  23. physioprof says

    Pinker hasn’t done “research” in decades, and his thinking about the discipline of history is grossly superficial and based almost wholly on a strawman version of what that discipline is all about. The discipline is doing a better job now than it ever has at addressing networks of causality in the course of human history.

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