Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

Beating the EU Bogeyman

When a child tells us they can’t sleep because they are afraid of the bogeyman, it is tempting to hear “blah blah blah bogeyman” and launch into a long explanation about how the bogeyman isn’t real. This, of course, accomplishes nothing, because what we really need to hear is “I’m afraid”: afraid of the terror of my nightmares, afraid of the wild animals which might lurk in the darkness at the end of the bed, afraid that when I wake up, you won’t be here. Only when we hear this, and take it seriously, can we make the bogeyman disappear.

The debate on EU membership has focused on three issues: cost, immigration, and sovereignty. For remainers, these are non-issues: the cost is just a membership fee for a club which brings many benefits; immigration is a way to add human capital to an economy which isn’t always successful at producing it locally; and there are sufficient constitutional safeguards in place to mean we still have effective control of our own laws. The assumption, then, is that leavers just don’t understand the facts (a view reinforced by the distortion of facts by leave leaders) and that if things were just explained properly, leavers would change their minds. The bogeyman isn’t real.

This, of course, accomplishes nothing. What we need to hear in “I’m afraid of immigration” is not “blah blah blah immigration” but, of course, “I’m afraid.” Afraid I will lose my job or remain unemployed; that my children will spend their lives chasing one zero-hour contract after another; afraid that the world is becoming a place I don’t understand, and cannot navigate; afraid that the people who make the laws that govern me don’t know what matters to me, don’t have my interests at heart, and hide behind so much bureaucracy that I have no way to hold them to account.

These fears are quite understandable. While levels of employment are high, the terms of employment are, for many people, increasingly unfavourable: Mike Ashley is the tip of the iceberg in a world where people who rely on tips to make ends meet see their employers take a cut out of them. Equality legislation has created a fairer society but an unfamiliar one (even though I’ve been campaigning for LGBT rights since my teens, I still get disorientated when my gay friends talk about their children). Technology has connected people in new ways, but by that very process has created new modes of exclusion. The right’s inability to distinguish racism from nationalism has made us queasy at the thought of taking pride a national identity, and the papers read by the people who run the country spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of living in another one.

This isn’t to say that every leaver is motivated by ill-targeted anxiety; there are those for whom there are clear and well-reasoned arguments for leaving, but they are not typical. The success of UKIP at the last election should have made it clear that there was a significant proportion of the population whose concerns were not being addressed by the mainstream parties. The mainstream parties – giddy with an unanticipated success on one side, torn apart by the reality of defeat on the other – ignored this. Thinking of Farage as a rabble-rouser implicitly characterises his supporters as rabble: people, perhaps, to be brought around by a superior rhetoric (the bogeyman isn’t real) but not people whose needs, and values, and fears had to be taken seriously. Not merely an oversight, but an arrogant one, and one for which the country may pay the price in a few days.

It is hard to know how these fears may be put to rest, but in the time that remains between now and the referendum, there is perhaps the chance to listen to them, not at the institutional level, to be sure, but at the personal one. There is a slim opportunity for remainers to reach out to the leavers they know and try at least to take them seriously, not in blaming the EU for their worries, but in what those worries really are, and what can really be done about them. The bogeyman may or may not be real, but the anxiety is both real and well-founded, and we owe it to our future to take it seriously.


Filed under: Politics

An OutRage! but no Stonewall

When OutRage, the direct action group for LGB rights, first came on the scene in 1990, it was not universally welcome. Many in the LGB community felt that it was too confrontational, too noisy and too controversial, preferring the more conservative, pro-establishment line taken by groups like Stonewall. What soon became apparent, though, was that the two worked hand in hand: OutRage made a noise, rattled cages, and banged on the doors of the corridors of power, while Stonewall, the respectable elder brother, put on a suit and asked politely to be admitted. Stonewall spoke softly; OutRage was the big stick it carried when it did so.

Twenty years later there is no shortage of outrage at an economy battered and broken by a combination of poor government and reckless banks, and we see in the Occupy movement the same very visible, noisy and confrontational stance that characterised OutRage. To be fair, OutRage was probably more provocative, but then they had more to work with; it’s hardly as if Occupy could go to Piccadilly circus and have a mass lend-in.

But where, in this picture, is Stonewall? The Occupy movement has done well to get the idea of “anti-capitalism” on the agenda, but who now will take that forward to real change? The natural candidates – the Labour Party in the UK and Democrats in the US – are certainly not likely ones. In the UK, we have the Greens, but they are too thinly stretched trying to get elected to be effective lobbyists. There seems to be a gap, so to speak, in the market.

My understanding – and I admit it is a partial and possibly flawed understanding – is that this is a consequence of the history of the anti-capitalist movement. Or rather, it is a consequence of the fact that the anti-capitalist movement is not a movement at all, in two senses. First, there is no group of people who can identify themselves unambiguously as those who suffer at the hands of capitalism, as there is in the case of LGB rights. The concept of “the 99%” is a powerful one here, because it starts to provide such an identity, but there is not a sharp enough distinction between the experiences of the 99% and those around them to really forge a sense of group identity and belonging. Second, the movement has no unifying philosophy, having resisted historically any systematic statement of what it stands for.

There are, again, two reasons for this. The early successes of the movement occurred where it was possible to mobilise a specific group around a specific issue. The protesters who made such a noise at the G8 summits of the late nineties were not part of a movement so much as a coalition of people dedicated not to the downfall of capitalism, but more specific local issues like the conditions in a factory or the pollution of a river. And it was on those local issues, and not the machinations of the G8, that they had a real impact. An overarching positive vision was neither practical in the terms of the coalition, nor particularly important to the core aims of those involved.

Second, there was the spectre of Marxism. This was not, as you might expect, a consequence of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, but rather a difficulty with the way Marxism came to express itself in practical politics. Marxists had a tendency to totalise problems and reduce solutions: there was one issue, which was the continued existence of capitalism, and one solution, which was general revolution. You could only solve the problem you wanted to solve if you solved everything else at the same time. If you bought into this, there was a second problem: there was no substantial agreement about what that revolution would look like, how to bring it about, or where it would lead. There was, however, a substantial body of text by the Great Man to be read, absorbed, argued over and most importantly, to be used as a means to create and maintain divisive power structures within the activist group.

This is not, of course, a problem specific to Marxism. Certain religious sects face the same issues: only by bringing about the Kingdom of God can any problem be solved, and while we don’t know what that involves or what it will look like, I can certainly prove I’m a better Christian than you by interpreting this particular bit of the Bible one way rather than another, thank you. The problem is not with Marxism per se but rather with grand, overarching theories of how the world works and should work. Experience suggests that such theories get in the way and become misdirections and ultimately distractions in their own right.

Stonewall had the advantage here that, while its objectives were substantial – implying both a program of legislative change and a sea change in social attitudes – they were modest and local compared to those of Occupy. Bigger than conditions in a single factory, certainly, but not railing against the dominant mode of economic organisation of a whole planet. The challenge for Occupy, or rather for those with anti-capitalists sentiments more generally (I cannot now consistently refer to it as a movement) is to find the middle ground – a positive and specific program of change which is big enough to constitute a convincing vision of an alternative but not so big as to risk paralysis.

Such a vision is, slowly, starting to emerge, although it is still evolving and continues to carry the local flavour of the individual Occupy movements. There is broad support for a tax on financial transactions, but the US movements have a clear agenda of tackling political corruption which is not so hot a topic in the UK.

The question is whether, as consensus forms and the nebulous rage at something not being right coalesces into specific demands for change, we will see the emergence of one or more Stonewalls – people in suits with tidy hair, used to dealing with the establishment, versed in the ways of power and willing to put in the patient, methodical campaign needed to accomplish legislative change. Occupy has proven itself to be an effective big stick; what we need now is someone to speak softly and carry it.

Filed under: Politics

Running For the Hills

Many people feel uneasy when politicians start to talk about morality. There are good reasons for this.

First, there is the general problem of what we might call “moral leadership”. Since the 17th century, we have recognised that there is more than one way to live a good and happy life. This realisation has made it possible for people of different faiths to live side by side if not in harmony then at least without constant warfare. Since a good life for me might not be the same as a good life for you, it is difficult for you to provide me with guidance on how I ought to live my life. It is still possible, if you are sufficiently wise and sufficiently sensitive to the differences between us, but the possibility of error is enormous.

Now, if Oprah (as a moral leader) decides to offer advice, and gets it wrong, it might make some people (those who follow that advice when it isn’t fitted to them) unhappy for a while. But Oprah cannot force people to follow her advice. She can’t fine them, evict them, or throw them into jail if they do not do as she says. And therein lies the key difference between Oprah and our politicians – she can encourage you to do things which will make you unhappy, but David Cameron can punish you if you refuse.

Even if politicians exhibit restraint in this regard – limiting themselves to making pronouncements rather than introducing punitive measures – there is the question of whether these people are in a position to offer any advice at all. We all know a few people who’ve “got it together”, people who are successful not particularly in the sense of money or career but in the sense that they are consistently happy, engaged and enthusiastic about their lives. These are people, we must feel, who know how to live happy lives, people we would do well to emulate, people whose advice about life would be worth having.

Consider the people you know who have this quality. I am sure you will not count any politicians amongst their number. Coming from a very limited social strata, politicians lack a broad experience of life; they are often deceitful, manipulative, and hungry for power. Their actions frequently reveal them to be rather damaged people. Seldom do we look at them and think “oh, yes, that’s someone I want to be like.”

Such people are really in no position to be offering moral advice from their own experience, even if they limit themselves to offering advice as opposed to imposing it. But the third problem is that when politicians make moral pronouncements, they don’t do so by reference to their own experience; they make the pronouncements that will play well with their core constituency.

This means that the moral judgements politicians make don’t come from a place of a real understanding of how to live any sort of happy life, nor even from their personal and arguably damaged perspective, but instead are designed to appeal to the instincts of the crowd. And not just the crowd, but the most judgemental, extrapunitive, interfering, busybody members of the crowd. The sort of people who would like to tell other people how to live their lives because they are so bloody miserable in their own.

It is an enduring characteristic of people who know how to be happy that they don’t feel the need to judge how others live their lives. It is not to them that the politician’s pronouncements appeal; it is not their wisdom that the politician expresses. Rather, it is the narrow and slightly mean-spirited instinct of the unhappy masses. In an era of social media, where people live out their problems in the public sphere, we have become painfully aware how immature, ill-informed and indeed downright delusional many people are; how unhappy, misguided and generally ill-equipped to deal with life. And it is to this nature that politicians must appeal when they make moral judgements. This is nothing to do with providing moral leadership, rather, it is finding political popularity by championing the fears and prejudices of people holding on to life by their fingernails. We are fortunate, in this country, that we are too cynical to take such things too seriously, because once those fears and prejudices really take hold, things can get very dark indeed.

So if things continue as they are, you may not find me here if you happen to need me. I’m likely to be running for the hills.

Filed under: Politics

A Failure of Neighbourliness

Reading of a move to deprive looters of their benefits, I realise there is no point in talking, in an ostensibly Christian nation, of the teaching about loving one’s enemies. Clearly, as a culture, we no longer have anything like the moral courage required for that. We should, however, be able to do better than this.

For as long as people have been writing about right and wrong, there has been a recognition that people act selfishly, but there has also been a recognition that such selfishness is moderated by a desire to care for those close to us. Even the most egotistical will learn that it is prudent to stand up for the interests of his friends and family. For each of us, there is a group to whom we act as good neighbours – people whose wants and needs we take seriously, often as seriously as we take our own.

For some, this group is small and perhaps volatile. They consider their own needs as paramount, and show no loyalty to others who get in the way of satisfying them. Others try to encompass as many as they can in their group, working tirelessly for the benefit of people they have not even met. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between, but our moral aspirations – both individually and culturally – tend towards the latter position. We admire those who have the strength (and it does require strength) to put aside their own wants and needs to work for some more general good. We admire the man who puts his career on hold to help his wife advance hers; we admire the parents who spend less on themselves to invest in their children’s future; we admire the household that looks out for the old lady next door.

A crisis event like the recent riots inevitably becomes a text which we all interpret according to our favourite world view, a reason to espouse what we already believe, rather than a chance to understand something new. While I am reluctant to jump on this band-waggon (or rather, having resolved to jump off it) I don’t think I’m stretching a point to say that looting and arson constitute fairly basic failures of neighbourliness. In my limited experience, these failings are of two kinds – on the one hand, a failing by individuals to consider anyone’s needs but their own, and on the other, a failure of one group to see another group as their neighbours, this latter exemplified by the looters who regard themselves not as damaging their own community, but the “other” community of the rich.

These failings are neither so insidious or appalling, however, as the failure of those who have signed this petition. Not all those rioting and looting fit the bill of the disadvantaged youth from the broken home, but these were largely young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it isn’t hard to imagine why they might lack moral development, and fail to understand the significance and consequences of their actions. Those signing this petition have no such excuse.

Quite apart from being massively counter-productive, this proposal is petty, small-minded and mean-spirited. But most tellingly, it represents exactly the same failure of neighbourliness as the riots themselves. It casts the rioters as some “other” group to be ostracised and punished, not neighbours but enemies; it is driven by the quick satisfaction of lashing out rather than the harder work of making things better.

I’m under no illusion that the vast majority of last week’s events were anything but lawlessness, and I think that pursuing the looters as criminals through the police and the courts is the right course of action. As right minded people, we want to see those guilty brought to justice, but as good neighbours, we must see that justice involves punishment not for our satisfaction, but as part of a process of rehabilitation and integration.

There is no practical value in punishment for punishment’s sake – in the end it reveals itself as cruelty and engenders not reform but resentment, resistance and further violence. Worse, it stems from just the same failings as we are trying to correct: a failure to see how other people’s needs and interests converge with our own. It is perfectly possible to condemn the act and not the person, to understand and forgive but at the same time to demand better, to help people overcome their failings rather than on the one hand punishing those people for them or on the other supporting those people in perpetuating them.

We must, as Ghandi said, be the change we want to see in the world, and the change we seem to want is a more cohesive society where people are more considerate of the needs of others. We want, in short, a society of good neighbours. There are all sorts of reasons we don’t have that society, and there is a great deal of work to do to bring it about. It requires strength and courage and real human engagement. A petty desire to punish people, expressed through a click on a web page, just isn’t good enough.

Filed under: Politics

Why No might be a Good Result

A No for the referendum – which seems, on the basis of opinion polls, to be the most likely outcome – will have the effect of splitting the “Fairer Votes” movement in two. On the one hand there will be those who become disheartened and fall away; on the other, there will be those who recognise that their desire for democratic reform will have to find new avenues.

This is no bad thing. Fairer votes are important, but as I have pointed out elsewhere, electoral reform really only makes a difference to those already near to the heart of politics. There are more important things to consider.

One of those has been on the table for the last thirty years and is core to our understanding of democracy and our experience of it. It is the question of the proper sphere of government – what it is okay, and not okay, for governments to do.

The recent recession (and the inevitable deficit it created) was a consequence of irresponsible lending on the part of the banks. We can argue about the fine print, but there’s no way to escape this general conclusion. The problem is that at the time, the government was powerless to stop what was going on; and now the train is wrecked they are powerless to fix things. This is largely a consequence of the systematic evisceration of the whole business of government which we have witnessed since neoliberalism came to dominance in the 1980’s.

The neoliberal view – that the only justifiable function of government is the protection of property rights – deserves to be taken seriously. It has more than a little to recommend it, both philosophically and pragmatically. It is not convincing in all cases, however, nor is it in reality the trump card it is often played as.

This means we have to re-examine our understanding of what governments are for; where the line is to be drawn between individual liberty and democratic will. That’s a tough question, and one which, historically, has had some very ugly answers. But when we reach a stage where irresponsible financiers can wreck the economy and the government can do nothing but sit idly by, then we no longer have a government: we just have a bunch of elected officials who happen to run the Civil Service.

So, while I am really hoping for a Yes in the referendum, I won’t be disheartened by a No. There is a great deal to be done to claim back genuine democratic control of the country, and a No vote might just galvanize us to do it.

Filed under: Politics

Three Reasons I’m Voting Yes

1. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else

Lots of politicians have recently been talking about our politics being broken, and I’m inclined to agree with them. So what we’re doing isn’t working. AV is a chance to try something else. Perhaps it will be an improvement, perhaps it will make no difference; but to carry on doing what you’ve always done and expect a different result is a sign of madness.

This argument wouldn’t apply, of course, if there was a good chance that AV would be worse than FPTP, but there’s no evidence of that; much more likely is that it will make no real difference.

2. AV is more sensitive to voter preferences

As a geek, I value the fact that AV gathers more information from voters than FPTP, and its outcomes reflect voter support for candidates better. In a field of eight candidates, AV uses five times as much information about what voters want.

3. I just plain don’t like the No campaign

There are real arguments for keeping FPTP, but the No campaign has not advanced them; instead, it has run a campaign based on Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, and in some cases, outright deception. It has attempted to manipulate people’s anxiety and ignorance, has tried to cloud the issues, obfuscate the debate, and pander to personal unpopularity rather than things that count. These people are profoundly anti-democratic and should not be steering our electoral process.

Filed under: Politics

Naming our Demons

Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating character. He is one of a series of characters who do Terrible Things. These characters crop up everywhere – not just in fiction, but in media and conversation about society and politics generally. When we worry about terrorists, or hoodies, or paedophiles, we are worrying about people who do, or might do, Terrible Things to us.

There is something reassuring about thinking in this way. When evil comes bundled up in a nice, and basically recognisable, package, it is easy to convince ourselves that we can conquer it. Lecter can be caught, the terrorists can be rendered, hoodies can be banned from our shopping centres and paedophiles can be documented, registered, and publicised. Evil in Lecter form is both terrifying and manageable, which is why it makes such compelling fiction, both in the cinema and in the news.

Lecter epitomises, in short, a tendency we have to identify evil with various sorts of damaged individual. We may not dismiss it as an illness – in the sense of something over which the evildoer has no control – but we expect that, at the root, we will find some form of dysfunction. Evil is, on this account, the product of clearly and profoundly flawed people: psychopaths, extremists, delinquents, perverts. Confronted with such an individual, our moral choice is clear and our responses easily identified. Bringing Lecter to justice proves difficult, but there is no doubt in our mind what justice amounts to, or the sort of things we have to do to deliver it.

It is not only fiction and news media which are caught up in this tendency: it affects science too. Baron-Cohen’s much-publicised new book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, fits into this trend; Baron-Cohen’s preferred dysfunction is a lack of empathy, and he argues that it is here that we should look when seeking to combat evil.

There are well-trodden objections we can raise against this sort of book: the blurring of mind and brain, the dubious assumptions about functional mapping, and the vacillation between person as moral agent and person as biological organism. But these need not concern us here. Rather, what is interesting is the assumption that evil is to be explained in Hannibal Lecter terms, as the product of individuals with a distinctive, extreme, and pathological psychology.

The problem with this assumption is that it is simply untrue. If we consider the great evils of the twentieth century – the Gulags, the Holocaust, the trenches in WWI, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Srebrenica – we find nary psychopath in sight. Baron-Cohen makes much in his publicity about how he felt when he learned of Jews being turned to soap during the Holocaust. A terrible crime, and very possibly the work of a damaged individual. It is not this, however, which makes the Holocaust truly chilling: it is the systematic slaughter of people on an industrial scale. The individual acts of cruelty stand out only because the enormity of the real evil is too great to comprehend.

The man who drove the bus to Kravica did not have borderline personality disorder, nor was the girl who handed out the soap at Auschwitz a psychopath. Indeed, Germany began using Zyclon-B, rather than bullets, to commit its slaughter in part because those doing the killing were finding it too distressing. These great evils were not the work of a few damaged individuals, but required the combined effort of hundreds if not thousands of people. The problem is not that these people lacked empathy, but that they acted as they did in spite of it.

It is tempting, in the face of this evidence, to look to those in power in our hunt for the psychological flaw, but this too is a mistake. As Arendt famously documents in The Banality of Evil, the architects of the Holocaust were, psychologically speaking, rather ordinary.

On a smaller scale, there is no shortage of evil in the present century. An American plutocracy determined to dismantle democracy and impoverish millions; politicians who sanction torture in the name of security; unaccountable bankers making millions unemployed through deceit, recklessness and greed; and daily (and perhaps irreversible) destruction of our natural habitat. None of these is a Holocaust or a Hiroshima, but they are real and very serious evils nonetheless.

Yet we do not think of these things as evil: we are reluctant, even, to use the name, because when we look at those involved, we do not see Hanibal Lecter. We do not see a psychopath, a delinquent or a pervert. We see instead an educated, rational and informed individual who, like Eichmann, has reached an educated, rational and informed decision to do something terribly, terribly wrong.

Confronted with evil in this form we are granted neither a clear moral choice nor an unambiguous course of action. This is not someone we can recognise as dysfunctional; in fact we may have difficulty recognising them as evil at all. And even when we do, there is no chance of a heroic confrontation, no well-known route to a happy ending. The challenge is how to put a stop to evil of this kind. While Baron-Cohen might do excellent work improving the lives of those who exhibit a lack of empathy and those around them, evil carries on in the world, in the great acts of those who lead and the tiny acts of those who follow, and we are often at a loss as to how we must confront it.

From a scientific point of view, we need to move beyond work like Baron-Cohen’s and understand how interpersonal relationships parlay into power structures which give evil people authority in name and control in practice. We must understand evil as a phenomenon which functions without any specific sort of individual. But from a political point of view, it is time to start being candid about the true nature of some of those in power and what they do: we should not be afraid to name evil when we see it. It is time to start naming our demons.

Filed under: Politics

Six Things You Should Read Before Discussing the Cuts

I’m all for a heated debate and I’ve never let a lack of facts stopped me from expressing an opinion. Still, there’s nothing like actual information to spice up an argument. Here are some resources you should consider looking at the next time you find yourself discussing Osborne’s budget:

The State of the Nation

A quick summary of economic indicators like inflation and employment is available from the ONS.

If you want more detail, the Blue Book is a bit like the company accounts for UK plc, detailing productivity, spending, capital accumulation, and imports and exports. It’s a very technical document, but given a bit of perseverance it will yield its mysteries to you. If you want to know how many people work in agriculture or how much financial services contributes to the economy, look here. Unfortunately, the time needed to gather and analyse the data in the Blue Book means it runs 1-2 years behind the times; look here for later versions.

Government Receipts, Debt and Expenditure

The Public Finances Databank contains historical figures on government income, expenditure and debt as well as a detailed breakdown of income over recent years. If you want to know how much the government owed in 1997, or whether VAT raises more money than corporation tax, this is your source.

Government Expenditure in Detail

Chapter 5 of the Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses gives a breakdown of government spending by function. Do the police cost more than schools? Here is where you find out. For an explanation of the sort of things the different categories actually entail, see this website.

Predictions for the Future

How does the government decide what to spend? The budget itself provides a wealth of information about the way the government views the world and national economic situation and the impact it believes policy will have.

How the Government Borrows

Government debt is tied up in a particular sort of financial instrument called “gilts”. The Debt Management Office has a good explanation of what gilts are and how they work.

If, on your travels, you find other interesting resources, let me know and I’ll list them here.

Filed under: Politics

Those Meddling Kids: Thoughts on Millbank

Few people have overtly condoned the recent violence in London, but many have characterised it as a turning point or a new beginning, often in an optimistic tone. No-one wants actually name the destruction and injury as a Good Thing, but there is an undercurrent of approval in the condemnation, condemnation which one suspects may be motivated more by the requirements of good form than by genuine feeling. Someone gave the Tories a kicking, albeit in a small way, and on the whole we rather liked it. It was the MPs expenses scandal all over again: we didn’t really care about second homes, we were just angry about the banking crisis and wanted someone to get slapped.

I regret that I’m much, much too far from student politics to have any view on what led up to the events at Millbank, but those closer to the action claim that this was not the work of “the usual suspects”; so either we are faced with a genuinely new spirit of activism in the student population or a few kids who got out of hand on a trip to the big city. Listening to those interviewed by the media, it could go either way; the next few months will reveal the truth.

Which is rather the problem.

There are several factors which might have led to the galvanisation of student activism. To understand them, we have to look back to May 2001. The May Day protests in London were amongst the most violent and turbulent in a generation; certainly since the Poll Tax riots. There was talk of the police using tear gas to control the crowds, something never before considered on the UK mainland. These protests were the logical progression of anti-capitalist protests around the world, which over preceding years had grown in force and numbers and willingness to break the law.

Then came September 11, and the rules changed. Authorities throughout the world were given new powers of surveillance, arrest and detention, and the US assumed new extra-judicial powers in the form of extraordinary rendition. The chilling effect of these powers was substantial. Protesting was now a much more dangerous game, and while it would be quite wrong to say that it came to a halt, the escalation which had characterised the late 1990’s was replaced with a more sober and cautious approach.

When Blair and Bush began sabre-rattling against Saddam, there was a significant groundswell of opposition, culminating in 750,000 people (by police estimates) marching on London in February 2003. This protest was the biggest in British history and almost entirely peaceful. It accomplished nothing; and what is worse, history has proven the protesters right. Not only were those in power doing the wrong thing, they were deaf to reasoned opposition even when it had significant force of numbers.

Many progressives abandoned hope in Blair but had hopes for Brown and in 2007, we finally saw the handover of power. Here was the opportunity for Labour to reclaim its credentials as a progressive party. I don’t mean, by this, a return to the left wing policies of the 1980’s (although there were those who I think hoped Brown would take the party in that direction); rather, there was hope that what Heseltine once described as the “march of the one legged army” (“Right! Right! Right!”) would come to an end and there would be a real reinvigoration of social justice, democracy and accountability with the government genuinely standing up for those who voted for it rather than kow-towing to business and the City.

It was not to be. Compared to other world leaders, I think Brown performed admirably in the banking crisis. But the crisis itself revealed the truth, that our governments are no longer able to take effective control of the fate of their nations. If the government cannot prevent a recession which is basically due to an accounting error, what is it there for?

In short, the last ten years, for anyone who has been paying attention, have eroded confidence in the integrity and motives of our elected representatives; have eroded confidence that they listen to or even care what the people think; and have eroded confidence that they are, in the end, able to do anything but make more laws that regulate the common man and woman and don’t offend the wealthy. The only lesson one can draw is that the democratic process, up to and including peaceful protest, accomplishes nothing in the face of an increasingly impotent, plutocratic political class.

Over those ten years, two other currents have led us, I believe, to where we are. The first is the set of “laws that regulate the common man and woman”. Labour might have been short on courage and integrity but never seemed to run out of legislation, introducing over 4,000 new offences during 13 years of office. Some of those – like selling game birds killed on a Sunday – probably don’t impact the lives of many. But others – like the smoking ban – are very intrusive indeed. Over the same time as we have lost our faith in government, that same government has become more intrusive in more areas of our lives. The national identity register – now, thankfully, in abeyance at least for a while – was the natural culmination of a government that behaved like the bossy child at a birthday party, fingers in its ears, telling everyone what to do, and lying when it couldn’t get its own way.

Second, we have the presence of radicals in the body politic, and by radicals, I mean people who want to blow things up for political ends. I am emphatically not suggesting that the events at Millbank were in any way the work of Islamic (or any other) extremists. However, the presence of extremism has changed what is thinkable; the idea of using violence for political ends, while not mainstream, is no longer off the map entirely. In the long, coffee-fuelled twilights of student politics, conversations will turn to the boundaries of acceptable action, and the range of options under consideration (purely hypothetically, of course) will be rather wider than it was ten years ago.

So we have a group of people disillusioned with the political process; more open than their predecessors to the use of extreme measures; and frustrated with an increasingly invasive government. What response could one expect when they became the first people to discover, in concrete terms, just what Osborne’s ideological commitment to small government was going to mean? Of course they were going to protest, but remember, this is also a generation who knows the arrogance of power: protest all you want, governments will do as they will, justice, truth and the law be damned. We should not be surprised that a few became violent, we should be surprised that more did not.

When people say “this is just the beginning,” I take it that this is an acknowledgement that the atmosphere in this country, the zeitgeist, so to speak, is that which I have here ascribed to the student protesters. We don’t trust this government, partly because they look too much like Thatcher, but partly because we don’t really trust any of our politicians. We’ve had enough of being regulated by hypocrites and exploited by corporations, and we’re sick of the collusion between the two. We’re fed up of a conservative party that’s iconoclastic and a labour party that protects the wealthy against the worker. And we’ve learned that no amount of marching, chanting, petitioning, letter writing and flyer posting is going to make one iota of difference.

So the next group who comes to learn in specific terms what austerity means for them may well react in the same way, and perhaps with rather less good natured restraint. It seems to be the unspoken hope of more than a few on the left that this is the case. If it is, then we have some very turbulent times ahead, and the Lib Dem’s mettle will really be put to the test. Thatcher faced civil unrest with a substantial majority and a three line whip; and tories have a natural tolerance for this sort of thing. But Clegg, even now, doesn’t have control of his own party, and the Lib Dems, however great their ambition, are not made of such stern stuff. Quite how long and violent a storm they will prove willing to ride out is a rather interesting question.

But it isn’t the question that needs answering.

At the last election, the party leaders talked a lot about our politics being broken, but failed to see the actual problem (perhaps for the same sort of reason that people in Trafalgar Square can’t see England). The money wasn’t the issue in the expenses scandal: it was the culture of unaccountability, a whole system which waved through all manner of preposterous claims as perfectly acceptable because after all, it’s only the voters’ money we’re spending. Voters were apathetic not because they didn’t understand the value of voting but because they understood it all too well: all three parties had essentially the same policies, were made up of the same set of PPE graduates, and answered to the same paymasters, and whoever came to power, the results would be more of the same. The political class was good at talking and bad at listening; good at making laws, and bad at following them; good at patronising the poor, and mesmerised to the point of dogma by the wealthy who patronised them. Our politicians were out of touch with us; and worse, could not deliver the things we needed.

The roots of these problems run deep, and they will not be addressed by faint-hearted solutions. But nor will they be addressed by taking to the streets or installing an alternative government. Labour allegedly rejected an alliance with the Lib Dems to give itself time to reflect, rethink, and reposition itself. For Labour to win an election (even one forced by civil unrest) requires all these things, but if Labour is to become once again a genuinely progressive party – and by this, I mean a party which brings our laws and institutions into scrutiny, and asks whether or not they serve justice and the general good – it needs something more. It needs Big Ideas.

To see just how big, we need to understand that the particular mode of British politics we’re contending with is the consequence of Thatcher’s free market triumphalism – the belief that free market mechanisms are superior to government control. This is an orthodoxy with both moral and pragmatic support: moral, in that it supposedly maximises individual liberty, and pragmatic, in that it supposedly leads to smaller (less expensive) government. Thatcher’s desire to create unfettered markets changed the relationship of politics with the press, business and the City and in all cases gave government less power. These changes were not just a matter of legislation: they represented a new paradigm for politics, a new set of unspoken assumptions about who had the right to do what.

Yet these changes were themselves just the peroration of a much older trend, going back 250 years. We take it for granted now that labour, and the means of production, are market commodities, but this has not always been the case. Until the mid 18th century, the relationship between land and labour was one which gave most people some access to land by right, so that those whose income was derived from wage labour were in the minority. In modern terms, people were guaranteed jobs for life, and kept whatever they produced in those jobs, less various taxes and tithes. Then a series of changes allowed landlords to deny access to property, sometimes enclosing previously common land and sometimes evicting residents. Landlords could then offer exclusive access to the land to those willing to pay the highest rent, and others had to turn to wage labour. The result was that two things which had previously been the subjects of quite specific practices became market commodities, and our society was transformed into one more fundamentally dependent on the operation of markets than ever before.

The disasterous consequences of this expansion of market logic are documented in Raj Patel’s excellent book “The Value of Nothing,” and it makes harrowing reading. For present purposes, we need only understand how radical that transformation – the formation of what Polanyi calls the “Market Society” – was. Because, if we are to move forward – to truly progress rather than merely covering up the cracks – we need a transformation just as radical. We have to move beyond our love of markets on the one hand and our fetish for regulation on the other, and find new ways to co-operate, share resources and manage our lives.

There is a real hunger for these ideas, fuelled by discontent with the status quo, the perceived bankruptcy of Marxism and the quite literal bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism. And finer minds than mine are considering the problem. Yet it will take time for the left, as a political force, to organise itself around any sort of novel agenda, and events at Millbank suggest that the clock is ticking much faster than anyone supposed.

Filed under: Politics

I Can’t Believe I’m Defending the Pope

As the forces of conservatism claw their way back to power, the neoliberal right in the US fosters its unholy alliance with Christian fundamentalism and US-European meddling in the Middle East inspires the reactionary elements of Islam, the prospects for liberal humanism look bleak. Once it seemed to be the ground on which the future would be laid; now it seems at risk of being a historical footnote.

These are times when those who are serious about liberal humanism must work hard to win hearts and minds hot for certainties in this our life and disenchanted with the dusty answers of Western materialism. We must show ourselves to be people of reason and respect, dedicated to truth and committed to a world built on freedom, tolerance, and understanding.

We must never be guilty of distorting the facts, or criticising from a place of ignorance. We must not stoop to smear and innuendo. We must prove ourselves able to reach out to our opponents and guide them from error to truth.

Which is why Richard Dawkins speech on the visit of Pope Benedict simply will not do.

Dawkins says:

…the Holy See’s claim to statehood is founded on a Faustian deal in which Mussolini handed over 1.2 square miles of central Rome in exchange for Church support of his fascist regime

This is untrue. The deal with Mussolini established the Vatican City, and not the Holy See. The Holy See has been recognised as a state-like body in international relations since medieval times. It had its own army up until 1870 (when it lost a war with Italy) and was considered a sufficiently potent political force a year later to spur a programme of legislation in Germany designed to limit its power and reinforce the position of the secular state. While it fails to meet international criteria for statehood, these criteria themselves are, relative to the Holy See, very recent. The Holy See functions as a state in international matters; it has formal diplomatic relations with 178 states; it participates in international treaties and is a member of a number of international bodies. It is a state in all but name and has been for longer than the USA has been in existence.

Dawkins says:

Don’t ask the British taxpayer to subsidize the propaganda mission of an institution whose wealth is measured in the tens of billions: wealth for which the phrase ‘ill-gotten’ might have been specifically coined. And spare us the nauseating spectacle of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and assorted Lord Lieutenants and other dignitaries cringing and fawning sycophantically all over him as though he were somebody we should respect.

This is a fine sentiment, but must be applied consistently if it is to be applied at all; and if it is to be applied consistently, then it applies equally to many heads of state (one thinks immediately of George W Bush) to whom Dawkins has, to my knowledge, voiced no objection [UPDATE: I’ve done Dawkins an injustice here; see Piers Stephens’ comments below]. I can see no basis for the “tens of billions” figure; the research I have been able to locate puts the Holy See’s worth at ten billion USD at most – one fifth the personal wealth of Bill Gates.

Dawkins says:

although it is far from clear what there is in theology to be scholarly about. Surely nothing to respect.

The arrogance and ignorance of this claim is breathtaking. It is crystal clear to everyone but Dawkins what there is in theology to be scholarly about; the University at which Dawkins holds his post began its life as a school of theology, and theology is still taught there today. Some of the greatest minds in history have addressed theological questions, and some of the finest minds in universities today are dedicated to their pursuit. Theology may not be scientific, but neither are history, politics, philosophy or many other scholarly disciplines.

Dawkins says:

The unfortunate little fact that Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth has been the subject of a widely observed moratorium. I’ve respected it myself, hitherto. But after the Pope’s outrageous speech in Edinburgh, blaming atheism for Hitler, one can’t help feeling that the gloves are off.

In what follows, it’s unclear whether Dawkins is trying to:

(a) mount an attack on Ratzinger’s character because of his personal involvement in Nazism;
(b) mount a defence against a supposed claim, by Ratzinger, that “atheism is responsible for Hitler” (whatever that might mean);
(c) mount a weak ad hominem against Ratzinger on the basis that his personal involvement in Nazism makes invalidates his comments about it;
(d) make a strong ad hominem that Ratzinger cannot consistently hold the views he does on atheism and Nazism having been a member of the Hitler Youth
(e) show that Ratzinger’s views on Nazism and atheism are wrong

None of these is very satisfactory:
(a) is just a personal attack and accomplishes nothing
(b) is promising, but it isn’t clear that Ratzinger is making such a claim
(c) and (d) depend on which claims Dawkins wants to take issue with. Presumably he agrees with Ratzinger that Nazism was a bad thing; the disagreement (if there is one) lies in its relationship to atheism. So at best (c) and (d) are ad hominem variants of (b) or (e), and less satisfactory than (b) or (e) themselves
(e) this is the most promising, or would be, if Ratzinger articulated those views in his speech, but on the whole, he did not; but even if he had, if this is the case then his membership of the Hitler Youth is beside the point, and mentioning it – along with the claims of hypocrisy levelled later in the speech – is just smear and innuendo.

Dawkins says:

…his senior advisor is that Cardinal who takes one look at the immigration officials at Heathrow and concludes that he must have landed in the Third World

Bearing in mind that “third world” originally meant “everywhere but NATO, Australia and the USSR” it’s worth knowing that what Kasper actually said was: “England today is a secular, pluralist country. When one lands at Heathrow, one sometimes thinks one has landed in a third world country.” A poor choice of words, but solely a reference to racial diversity and not the insult the British press made it out to be.

Dawkins continues:

The poor man was no doubt prescribed a bushel of Hail Marys, on top of his swift attack of diplomatic gout – and one can’t help wondering whether the afflicted foot was the one he puts in his mouth.

I accept that humour is important in a speech, but humour at the expense of an elderly man, who may be genuinely ill, humour created by a continual and willful misconstrual of his words, just smacks of meanness.

Dawkins says:

At first I was annoyed by the Pope’s disgraceful attack on atheists and secularists, but then I saw it as reassuring.

The “disgraceful attack” amounts to the following passage:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

Taking this passage in context, it is part of an argument that Christian values underpin many of the virtues we prize in European culture. This is historically and philosophically accurate. It is a stretch to construe this as an attack on anyone; rather it is a way of pointing out the influence that Christianity has had in forming what we now regard as secular values.

We might ask, though, what Ratzinger means by “eradicat[ing] God from society” when Hitler often used appeals to religion in his speeches? The answer is that Hitler permitted the church to continue under the Reich in so far as the church was the instrument of the Reich. The church was denied any independent political voice; thus (in Ratzinger’s view) God was denied any voice in society.

And indeed, where the church did offer opposition to the Reich – opposition motivated by religious belief –  there was no hesitation on the Reich’s part in killing those involved. In Poland alone, nearly 2,000 Catholic clergy were murdered by the Nazis during WW2.

The Nazis were not the only force systematically exterminating religious opposition in the first half of the twentieth century. The Spanish Civil War saw over 7,000 clergy die because of their faith, and even this is a small number compared to the hundreds of thousands of Christians who died imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulags for their faith.

It is possible to argue that the Nazi regime was an atheist regime and that its crimes were atheist crimes but doing so would establish nothing more than that some atheists are wicked. I take it that this (that some atheists are wicked) is uncontroversial and I assume Ratzinger and Dawkins agree. However, taking the broader view we see in the early 20th Century a systematic persecution of theists per se by atheists per se which led to the death of tens of thousands. This seems to me to qualify unequivocally as atheist extremism.

Dawkins says:

It suggests that we have rattled them so much that they have to resort to insulting us, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from the child rape scandal.

To call the passage an attack is a stretch; to call it an insult is a leap. Further, there has been no attempt to divert attention from the child rape scandal; part of the pope’s visit was to meet with victims of abuse and he has spoken openly about the mistakes made by the church in dealing with the problem. He has expressed more contrition, and offered a more honest appraisal, than Blair has with Iraq or BP has with the Gulf disaster.

Dawkins says:

Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today. For Hitler never renounced his baptismal Catholicism, which was doubtless the criterion for counting the 5 million alleged British Catholics today. You cannot have it both ways. Either you have 5 million British Catholics, in which case you have to have Hitler too. Or Hitler was not a Catholic, in which case you have to give us an honest figure for the number of genuine Catholics in Britain today – the number who really believe Jesus turns himself into a wafer, as the former Professor Ratzinger presumably does.

I really don’t know what to make of this argument. It looks like an attempt to construct a Hume’s fork on two premises (ie present the Catholic with two claims they want to be true but which are inconsistent):

(a) Catholicism in Britain is a politically significant movement because there are 5 million catholics;
(b) Hitler was not a Catholic

It fails, though, on two counts. First, there is no reason to resist the claim that Hitler was a Catholic (ie, the Catholic doesn’t care if (b) is true or not). There are good Catholics and there are evil Catholics. If Dawkins objects to this then he’s subject to the tu quoque and has to defend the claim that there are no evil atheists which I assume he doesn’t want to do. Second, the criteria for being catholic needed to make (a) work is caring what the pope says; and while we don’t know how many people are catholic under that definition, clearly Hitler was not. Further, it’s entirely plausible that many of the 5 million figure do indeed care what the pope says irrespective of their church-going practices or other beliefs. (My own parents, for example, were not churchgoers but would expect the government to treat the pope as a head of state). So a Catholic can safely reject (b) or embrace (b) without endangering the substance of (a).

I’m unclear what the criteria for being a “genuine Catholic” might be; but belief in transubstantiation (as opposed to the many more practical teachings of the church) seems a rather poor choice. In any event, the doctrine of transubstantiation is that the wafer takes on the nature of the body of Jesus, not that “Jesus turns himself into a wafer” – a poor characterisation of a philsophically subtle doctrine, presumably an attempt at humour, but this time one that smacks of ignorance and intolerance.

Dawkins continues:

In any case, Hitler certainly was not an atheist.

This is presumably to show that atheism cannot be blamed for Nazism, on the assumption that this is what the Pope’s speech is trying to do. Again, I don’t think it is; but since Dawkins spends the next few hundred words fleshing out his case, let’s grant the premise and continue.


In 1933 he claimed to have “stamped atheism out”, having banned most of Germany’s atheist organizations, including the German Freethinkers League whose building was then turned into an information bureau for church affairs.

Hitler’s relationship with religion appears similar to that of the Neocon hawks in the US – a useful tool for social cohesion. The full context of the quotation is:

“Without pledging ourselves to any particular Confession, we have restored faith to its pre-requisites because we were convinced that the people needs [sic] and requires [sic] this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

There is nothing here to suggest that he was motivated by religious belief, personal or otherwise, rather than Realpolitik. Indeed, subsequent to “stamping out atheism” Hitler actively persecuted religious authorities wherever they spoke out against the Reich, and indeed tried to bring the church in Germany completely under the control of the Riech. In short, Hitler’s commitment to the church was simply as to any other instrument of power.

Dawkins says:

…he [Hitler] certainly knew his overwhelmingly Christian constituency, the millions of good Christian Germans with Gott mit uns on their belt buckles, who actually did his dirty work for him

If the criteria for being a “genuine Catholic” can be taken to extend to a belief in transubstantiation then presumably the criteria for being a Christian would extend to not killing Jews. Certainly, the criteria for being a good Christian (assuming that by this Dawkins means a Christian who is good rather than one who is good at being a Christian) would so extend.

Dawkins quotes at length from a speech by Hitler, and comments:

That is just one of numerous speeches, and passages in Mein Kampf, where Hitler invoked his Christianity.

All Dawkins is doing here is demonstrating the point that Hitler used religion as a tool of political control and manipulation. He has not made a case for Hitler’s theism or otherwise; and he has certainly not shown whether or not Hitler’s beliefs are motivated by or consistent with theist or atheist positions.

Dawkins regroups:

It would be unkind to prolong this point, but Ratzinger’s speech in Edinburgh on Thursday was so disgraceful, so hypocritical, so redolent of the sound of stones hurled from within a glass house, I felt that I had to reply.

It isn’t clear what point Dawkins feels it would be unkind to prolong, but the use of unkind here, coupled with the charges of hypocrisy, suggest that what Dawkins has been trying to do so far is to undermine Ratzinger’s character, rather than his thinking; that he has been mounting a personal attack rather than an intellectual one. This is just a waste of everyone’s time. Even if we grant that besmirching Ratzinger’s character is a productive exercise, Dawkins has done a very poor-to-middling job of it.

Dawkins says:

Even if Hitler had been an atheist – as Stalin more surely was – how dare  Ratzinger suggest that atheism has any connection whatsoever with their horrific deeds? Any more than Hitler and Stalin’s non-belief in leprechauns or unicorns.

This is the point where Dawkins reveals his confusion (or ignorance, I’m not sure) about what religion is. To be religious is to make a series of commitments: ontological, historical, social, political and ethical. When Ratzinger is criticising atheism, his arguments are not levelled at people who fail to make particular ontological or historical commitments; it is levelled at those who fail to make particular social, political and ethical commitments. Now there is almost certainly confusion in Ratzinger’s thinking here – he is, one might assume, conflating the absence of social and political commitment (ie, not being a member of the church) with the absence of ethical commitment. But he certainly isn’t saying that anyone’s non-belief in an existential diety is to blame for the horrors of Nazism.

Dawkins asserts:

There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness.

This is untrue, although I have to emphasise that the logical pathway from theism to wickedness is every bit as compelling.

If one takes atheism as simply a refusal to make a particular ontological commitment, then it looks as if there is no logical pathway to wickedness. But as we have noted already, atheism has the wider connotation of a refusal to make a particular ethical commitment also. The atheist is at liberty to invent their own moral code in a way that the theist (in this richer sense) is not. An individual developing their own moral standards is prone to all sorts of failures which lead to wickedness.

We don’t see this in our society because the vast majority of people are educated into an ethical code grounded in centuries of religious practice and make an ethical commitment to some variant of Judaic morality. From this point of view, Dawkins is not an atheist at all, but an Anglican who doesn’t believe in God. It is easy (but mistaken) in this context to think that the humanist values the atheist adopts are genuinely secular; the truth is that US-European morals are just the ten commandments in jeans and a t-shirt.

Dawkins says:

Unless, that is, you are steeped in the vile obscenity at the heart of Catholic theology. I refer (and I am indebted to Paula Kirby for the point) to the doctrine of Original Sin. These people believe – and they teach this to tiny children, at the same time as they teach them the terrifying falsehood of hell – that every baby is “born in sin”. That would be Adam’s sin, by the way: Adam who, as they themselves now admit, never existed. Original sin means that, from the moment we are born, we are wicked, corrupt, damned. Unless we believe in their God. Or unless we fall for the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell. That, ladies and gentleman, is the disgusting theory that leads them to presume that it was godlessness that made Hitler and Stalin the monsters that they were. We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus.

This passage is so charged with rhetoric that it isn’t clear what is being said. We can, however, identify a number of things going on:

  • A (somewhat inaccurate) statement of the doctrine of Original Sin
  • An imputation of this view to Ratzinger
  • An inference that Ratzinger holds that this position provides for a logical path from atheism to wickedness
  • A claim that the doctrine is taught to “tiny children”
  • An dramatisation of this position (“We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus”).

To clear up the tiny children point: teaching practices vary from community to community but a straw poll of my Catholic friends and relations around the country suggests that Original Sin is not taught to young children, and indeed, not taught very consistently at all. As one put it: “[I] Don’t think we teach it in primary [school] these days, at least not in infants’ [school] … we do [teach about] baptism but more as a way people are welcomed into the Lord’s church family and not about sinning.”

And indeed, where it is taught there is a good chance that the actual doctrine, and not Dawkins’ version of it, will be taught. The doctrine does not state that we are born wicked; it states that we are born with our passions in such a state that they often lead us to want things that are not in our best interest. Original sin is not personal sin, but it explains how we can at once be disposed to sin and error and divine in our underlying nature. The dramatisation is quite unwarranted: personal sin distinguishes the good from the wicked, but original sin distinguishes the human from the divine. There is no implication that we are monsters unless redeemed.

Now since the doctrine as Dawkins elaborates it is not actual teaching, it follows that Ratzinger does not hold that position, and ipso facto cannot invoke it in an argument about wickedness.

It would be disingenuous for me, however, to say that Ratzinger might not make some argument about the relationship between atheism and wickedness which invoked original sin. The argument is, though, more subtle than anything Dawkins entertains. The case would be something like: without the active involvement of Christ’s grace in people’s lives, they are prone to temptation and error in matters of right and wrong, by virtue of original sin. A failure to acknowledge this vulnerability magnifies the problem, and creating social orders bases on the adequacy of people’s ability to distinguish right from wrong magnifies it still further. This is not, we should note, an argument about accepting the teaching of the church but rather an argument about participation in the sacraments of the church and one’s personal relationship with God. On this view, the wickedness of Nazism was not the wickedness of Hitler, it was the wickedness of the millions willing to accept him as the ultimate moral authority – to place a man in a position which should have been held by God. When a theist does this, we may at least charge him with inconsistency or hypocrisy, but there is no such braking force to be applied to the atheist.

I don’t know if this argument works, but it makes it clear that the issue is how, as a society, we distinguish right from wrong. This is a question with good and bad answers from both sides of the theist / atheist divide, but for the atheist there is a case here to answer; indeed, it is perhaps the theist position which the humanist must take most seriously and work hardest to dispel. The caricature of the argument which Dawkins presents here accomplishes nothing, neither recognising the importance of the issue nor making any sort of case for humanism.

Dawkins says:

Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.

This rather comes out of the blue. Even if Ratzinger is guilty of hypocrisy in his Edinburgh speech, this would hardly make him an enemy of humanity. Dawkins goes on to explain his position, though, in the paragraphs that follow, enumerating the groups Ratzinger has injured. I cannot disagree with what Dawkins says about women, the Anglican church, and condom use in Africa; but it is only really the last of these which comes close to making Ratzinger an enemy of humanity – barring women from the priesthood and poaching vicars from the Queen, while objectionable, do not make the man a supervillain.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of children, whose bodies he has allowed to be raped and whose minds he has encouraged to be infected with guilt. It is embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving child bodies from rapists than with saving priestly souls from hell: and most concerned with saving the long-term reputation of the church itself.

The best figures suggest that, in the US, Catholic priests were responsible for abusing about 180 minors each year. These are not trifling figures, but deserve comparison with some others. In the UK alone, for example, there are about 1,800 cases of sexual abuse of minors each year, mostly by family members. This is less than the 2,500 children killed unlawfully by Brazilian police in 2004 (the only year for which figures are available); and those 2,500 children were just a handful of the 100,000 living homeless around Rio de Janero. And even this is only half the number of children bought and sold – usually as part of the sex industry – across international borders every year. The Catholic church may be an enemy of children, but if it’s children we’re concerned about, there are lots of other problems we really need to be considering first.

Ratzinger’s personal record on this issue is ambiguous: on the one hand, he centralised responsibility for investigation of abuse claims, making it much more difficult for diocese to cover them up; on the other, he seems to have been responsible for covering them as a matter of policy to begin with. He personally pursued many investigations, however, including those of senior figures, and gained a reputation for doing so rigourously; and he has subsequently made it clear that criminal law in this area should take precedence over any clerical privilege. There is much to criticise in what he has done, but much to be welcomed also.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of gay people, bestowing on them the sort of bigotry that his church used to reserve for Jews

I presume that the reference to Jews here relates to the “Christ killer libel” mentioned earlier in the speech, but if so then Dawkins is flatly wrong. There is no Catholic doctrine which blames gay people for any crime; no teaching which encourages their vilification or persecution. Indeed, the catholic church encourages those in pastoral roles to be sensitive to the possibility of homophobic prejudice and bullying and to condemn it wherever the see it. Of course, the Catholic attitude to homosexuality is not the liberal one (and it isn’t one I agree with) but it is a long way from being one of outright condemnation.

If Dawkins is simply accusing the Pope of being inflexible on this issue, then that surely counts as the most fatuous charge he could possibly lay – the defender of a global faith cannot simply change his views to match the times. All values, as Bennet says, are old-fashioned; that it what makes them values.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they cannot feed, and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty that sits ill with the obscene riches of the Vatican

Quite apart from its failure to disentagle family size from factors like meddling by Anglo-American governments in the politics of developing nations and the egregious behaviour of institutions like the WTO, this is the sort of claim that drives conservatives wild and paints liberals in the worst possible light. I disagree with the Catholic position on contraception – and happen to know that not all priests promote this teaching in the field – but it remains the fact that parents are responsible for the size of the families they raise. The notion that people just have children by accident if there are no contraceptives available is grounded in an assumption of a profound abrogation of personal responsibility – and a correspondingly low opinion of human dignity –  which even Dawkins ought to find offensive.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of science, obstructing vital stem-cell research, on grounds not of morality but of pre-scientific superstition.

The Church’s objection to stem-cell research extends only to embryonic cells. I am in no position to comment on how vital such research is, compared, for example, to similar research involving adult cells, to which the Church has no objection, but it seems that the word vital here may have more rhetorical force than logical ground.

What is more worrying, however, is Dawkins’ dismissal of the church’s position, which is that embryos count as human persons, with all the rights of a human person. Whether or not we agree with this claim, it is indupitably a moral one. Dawkins’ rejection of it as “pre-scientific superstition” is troubling on three counts. First, it isn’t clear how the claim can be “pre-scientific” in that it relies on a scientific understanding of conception. Second, the characterisation of this view as “superstition” presumably invites the same characterisation of any view not grounded in empirical science – views like a belief in human rights, the valuing of individual liberty, and indeed, confidence in the scientific process itself. But most worrying is Dawkins’ assumption that any view not produced by his apparently rather narrow view of what counts as moral discourse can simply be waved aside as “superstition”.

Dawkins says:

Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, he is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that have made catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally pernicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation and authority – his authority.

The theme of “lifelong psychological damage” is one to which Dawkins refers elsewhere, but for which he offers no evidence. While my own Catholic education was eventful, I don’t believe it caused me any more trauma than I would have experienced at the local comprehensive. On the other hand, I have spent more than a few hours with people in or close to tears as a consequence of the esteem-flatening demands of the Oxford tutorial system.

These considerations aside, it is hard to take seriously Dawkins’ characterisation of the Church’s attitude to education and authority. Dawkins seems to be suggesting here that the Pope would regard his views on, for example, astrophysics, as trumping those of Steven Hawking. I can see no evidence of this, or anything like it. Quite the reverse: Historically, the Church has been a strong, if occasionally troublesome, patron of scientific research and education, with significant research taking place at Catholic universities and promulgated outside Europe by the Jesuit order. Since 1936, the Church has sponsored the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to promote the progress of science – very much the same aim as Dawkins’ foundation – and that institution boasts a number of world-renowned scientists (including Hawking) in its membership.

There are certainly Christian churches of whom the same cannot be said – those who believe in the literal truth of biblical creationism, or that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But it is these groups, and not Ratzinger, who are the enemies of education.

This is a long blog post and has taken more work than I suspect Dawkins put into his speech to begin with. I hope, though, that it gives a good idea of the depth of Dawkins’ errors, both factual and strategic. Factual in that many of the claims he makes are just plain wrong; strategic, in that all his errors and innuendos do is to undermine his own position. I am no great friend of Catholicism and am genuinely alarmed at the rising influence of intolerant and mendacious religious groups and the prospect of a reactionary society. But Dawkins’ brand of humanism is too arrogant, too uncharitable, too slipshod in its thinking to be a worthy alternative.

Filed under: Philosophy, Politics

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The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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