Thursday, 24 May 2007

Gurus of Endless War

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From the latest New Humanist, everything youn ever wanted to know about the neo-cons from famed NC-watcher Shadia Drury, plus a stern warning if you think Wolfowitz's ousting at the World Bank is symbolic of the end of neoconservatism...

Rumsfeld resigned, Wolfowitz ousted, Fukuyama defected, ‘Scooter’ Libby convicted. You could be forgiven for thinking that neoconservatives have had their day. But that would be a grave error, warns political philosopher Shadia Drury

The spectacular triumph of a rabid conservatism at the heart of American liberal society seems like an enigma. Suddenly, that bastion of freedom and licentiousness seems to have metamorphosed into a crusading Christian empire. Liberal regard for freedom of speech, freedom of information, individual rights, limited government, division of powers and the rule of law is being trampled in favour of arbitrary detention, torture, secret trials, secret prisons, rabid nationalism, religious intolerance and an imperial presidency with almost unlimited powers. A small group of intellectuals – the neoconservatives – are taking most of the credit or blame for this supposedly astonishing transformation.

Who are the neoconservatives or new conservatives? And how did they manage to turn Americans against their liberal traditions? Surprisingly, the first neocons were anti-Soviet socialists and devotees of Trotsky; they were mostly children of Jewish immigrant families who grew up in New York. They were lucky enough to get a free education at municipal colleges, which allowed them to become academics, journalists, essayists, founders of think tanks, institutes and the like. The careers of the prominent first-generation neocons – Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Gertrude Himmelfarb and many others – are examples of America success. Out of the ghetto and into the bourgeoisie.

So why did the neocons abandon their communist convictions and turn to a strident brand of conservatism? In the first place, the intended and unintended evils of the Soviet Union led them to doubt that a planned economy was desirable. Gradually these former reds drifted toward the liberal left. Then, as the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, explains, they were “mugged by reality”. Reality came in the form of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in the 1950s set out to purge all communists from positions of power and influence with accusations based on the flimsiest evidence from anonymous sources. Although this era is widely regarded as a dark and shameful period in American history, the neocons were, and continue to be, sympathetic to McCarthy. They became convinced that the world was a very dangerous place and that leftists and liberals were simpletons who could not grasp the harsh realities of political existence.

They found their philosophical support in the writings of Leo Strauss (1889-1973), a German Jewish émigré at the University of Chicago who became the intellectual guru of the movement, and whose philosophy regarded liberal faith in freedom of thought and speech to be problematic, even suicidal. Freedom of thought, Strauss suggested, encouraged a sceptical attitude, which undermines the unquestioning belief, unswerving commitment and resolute devotion that a state needs.

At the height of the Cold War the neoconservatives (the term was first used by these early adherents, but only later became common currency) insisted on an aggressive foreign policy that would militarily defeat the Soviet Union. They were not fazed by a situation of mutual assured destruction (MAD). They rejected containment, détente, and co-existence; nothing short of the defeat of the enemy was acceptable. They denounced Truman and Eisenhower for trying to achieve peace by waiting for the Soviets to implode. As it turned out, this policy was quite prescient, but the neocons would have none of it. They were champions of the war in Vietnam, blaming the American defeat (in a pre-figuring of the current neocon stance on Iraq) on liberal weakness and lack of resolve, which made America reluctant to use the full force of her military power.

When Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, he became the darling of the neocons. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, they imagined that Reagan had defeated the Evil Empire single-handedly. Francis Fukuyama, a leading neoconservative intellectual, declared the decisive triumph of the American way in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

But, despite their triumphalism, the neocons were anxious. The defeat of the Soviet Union triggered an identity crisis. They had defined themselves as anti-communists and in the absence of the looming shadow of the enemy they were at a loss. But not all of the neocons thought that America had no serious external enemies to contend with. In his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Samuel Huntington delivered some uplifting bad news – America still had plenty of enemies, so there was no reason to despair that there was nothing manly left to do, as Fukuyama had implied.

Huntington warned that the Islamic world was a particular menace. Other neoconservatives agreed; we cannot allow the nation to get complacent and let its guard down, they argued. The neocons were determined to wake America from her liberal slumber. Unfortunately for them Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was in the White House. So a group of prominent neoconservatives (some of whom had played a role in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr) got together and wrote a comprehensive foreign policy in the form of a long letter to Clinton.
This famous document, The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) (readily available on the internet), was signed by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dan Quayle, Jeb Bush, Francis Fukuyama, William Bennett, Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz. William Kristol (as the son of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, virtual neo-con royalty), was the chairman of the project.

The watchwords of the document were boldness, daring, decisiveness, speed, combat readiness and regime change. In the absence of the Soviet Union, a multiplicity of wars could be launched simultaneously around the globe – starting with Iraq. America must defeat all her enemies and create a world favourable to American interests, values, and principles. The neocons advised President Clinton to take advantage of this unique “unipolar” moment to achieve word dominance. The only thing that was missing was the will to take on the task. In an ominous prediction, the authors anticipated that some dreadful catastrophe, comparable to Pearl Harbor, would be necessary to awaken America from her liberal slumber. The attacks of 11 September 2001 created the perfect set of circumstances to implement their policy. This was an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams. It is no wonder that so many Americans suspect that the attacks were orchestrated by their own government.

Despite the political clout of the neo-cons, implementing the policies of neoconservativism has turned out to be very difficult. For all its military might, the United States has not managed a successful invasion of Iraq – a country without an airforce, a navy or any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was supposed to be the beginning of a grand plan of world domination. Syria, Iran, North Korea and many more were to be the objects of “regime change”. But the American army has been mired in Iraq by an insurgency it cannot suppress.

Meanwhile, the American public, realising that it was duped, has turned decidedly against the war. The Democrats have gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. John Bolton, the strident neoconservative representative of the United States in the United Nations, was forced to resign. So was Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. David Frum and Richard Perle, authors of End of Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2004), have conceded in recent interviews that the war on terror has been lost. In the pages of the neocon bible, The Weekly Standard, William Kristol has attacked the incompetence of the administration, even though it has been doing his bidding. In his recent book America at the Crossroads (2006), Francis Fukuyama has declared that he is a neocon no more. All this has led conventional wisdom to declare the death of neoconservatism as a political force and to relegate its adherents to the trash bin of history. But this is much too optimistic.

In the first place, the neocons have not admitted defeat. They believe that the incompetence of the Bush administration is the only reason for the failure of their brilliant plans. They refuse to abandon their devotion to military solutions, continuing to advocate a military attack on Iran. They refuse to admit that the invasion of Iraq was supported by lies, propaganda and the manipulation of public opinion. They concede only that the Bush administration has made errors that were a result of incompetence and limited information. They continue to link the invasion of Iraq with the so called “War on Terror”, which is merely a convenient term that makes their project of world dominance more palatable. But the neocons refuse to countenance any suggestion that the project of world domination is seriously flawed. They refuse to link the mistakes of the Bush administration to the gargantuan and reckless nature of neoconservative policies.

Francis Fukuyama has repudiated the term “neoconservatism” only because the incompetence of the Bush administration has made the term an object of disdain. He advocates a new term (“Wilsonian realism”), a new team and new strategies – not new ideas. He instructs the next neoconservative administration to proceed with greater circumspection, prudence and verbal modesty. He refuses to take any responsibility for fuelling the hubris of the Bush foreign policy. The neocons have not repented. They are as doggedly attached to their ideas as ever.
In truth, the ineptitude of the Bush administration has highlighted the inherent defects of neoconservatism. The neoconservatives were never content with the political realism of a Hobbes or even a Henry Kissinger. They adopted the more strident realism of Leo Strauss, laced as it is with religious self-righteousness – God is on our side and our enemies are allied with the forces of evil. Strauss himself was an atheist, but he thought that religion was the “pious fraud”, indispensable for cultivating deference to authority, undermining hedonism, instilling discipline and making people ready to die for their country. Religion was vital to prepare people for death, tragedy and the horrors of war.

Irving Kristol, in his Autobiography of an Idea, echoed Leo Strauss when he argued that there was no reason to choose between the rational atheism of Freud and the religion of Moses, since the two can be reconciled by adopting, “a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded esoteric doctrine – for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.”

Not all the neoconservatives are covert atheists. But the Straussian neocons are deluded into thinking that they are a special breed; they live by a different rule; they are the superior few who can face the abyss of nihilism; they know that God is dead and they have replaced him. For these mortal gods, lying, deceit and the manipulation of public opinion are honourable because the masses are not fit for truth – they need a diet of noble delusions intended to link the political interests of the state with the cosmic forces of justice, goodness and truth.

This double standard is integral to Strauss’s trust in the salutary effects of the covert tyranny of the wise. In his work he returned to classical sources to frame this justification of deception. In City and Man (1964) Strauss revisits the case of Alcibiades, the treasonous Athenian general who was suspected of plotting to destroy Athenian democracy. Strauss defends him by arguing that this would have been the best thing for Athens, adding, “It is impossible for a wise man to benefit his city except by deceiving it.” This glorification of lying and tyranny has had disastrous consequences.

Abram Shulsky, the Director of the Office of Special Plans, which was created by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to find intelligence that would justify the invasion of Iraq, has stated bluntly that he learned from Strauss that “deception is the norm in political life.” We know now that the intelligence used to justify the war was misleading, exaggerated or false. The facts were made to fit the policy and not the other way around.

It is no surprise that one of the Straussians in high office, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has been convicted of lying to the FBI, obstruction of justice and other criminal offences. Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney’s Straussian-educated chief of staff. He was a student of Paul Wolfowitz, who was a student of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Wolfowitz was Deputy Minister of Defense and a key architect of the war on Iraq. Now he is presiding over the World Bank, where he is mired in scandal for fraud, deception and nepotism.

These Straussians will no doubt compare their predicament to the persecution of Socrates by the Athenian mob: wise men vilified by the ignorant masses. But the comparison is disingenuous. Socrates preferred the death penalty to breaking the law. In contrast, Strauss has cultivated arrogant and unprincipled crooks, liars, cynics and snobs.

But despite the fall from grace of so many of their clan, and the demise of neoconservatism as a brand, this does not mean that the neoconservative culture of war will disappear. The militancy of the neocons is not an aberration in American politics. It is intimately linked to the narcissism at the heart of America’s psyche.

There has always been a tendency for Americans to believe that they are an exceptional nation with a divine calling. It is quite normal for Americans of every political stripe to believe that their manifest destiny is to be servants of truth and justice, an inspiration to all humanity and a beacon of freedom and progress – a nation under God, and a Zion that will light up the world: “The last, best hope for the world”.

This is why something akin to neoconservatism is a perennial American temptation. Long after the defeat of the Bush administration, an aggressive foreign policy similar to that of the neoconservatives will continue to beckon American leaders.

Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. She is author of The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (updated edition 2005) and Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997), both published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Great stuff from New Humanist

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From the latest issue Michael Binyon's lovely review of a new book on Napoleon...(special request for Frank )

Magnificent delusion

In 1789 Napoleon set off to conquer the East. We’re still living with the fallout

Michael Binyon reviews

Paul Strathern
Jonathan Cape

After the last Crusaders withdrew, no European army ventured into Egypt for almost 500 years. But in the summer of 1798 the young Napoleon, still only 28, launched what may have been the biggest seaborne invasion since Xerxes’ Persian fleet, and set out for Egypt with 335 ships, 1,200 horses, 171 field guns and 35,000 troops. Evading Nelson’s warships, he landed a few weeks later and began one of the most bizarre, brief, ill-fated and momentous colonial adventures of all time. Egypt, and arguably the whole Muslim world, still bears the marks.

No one quite knows why the ambitious young Corsican took it into his head to set off for the Orient. Maybe he dreamed of following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. Maybe his vaulting ambition was constrained by the revolutionary turmoil in France and the incompetence of the ruling Directory. Maybe he was influenced by the tales of recent explorers and believed he could bring the civilisation of France to the benighted Muslim world. In any case, having declared that “Europe is a molehill. Everything here is worn out. My glory is slipping from my grasp. Tiny Europe has not enough to offer,” he built a huge fleet, handpicked his officers, gathered an army of eager soldiers already dazzled by his earlier Italian campaign, persuaded an eclectic assortment of scholars, artists, botanists, chemists, mineralogists, pharmacists, printers, surgeons and zoologists to join him, picked up a copy of the Koran to read on the voyage and on 19 May set sail from Toulon.

All went well at first. Napoleon made first for Malta, where in a classic Blitzkrieg he overwhelmed the doddery Knights, freed the slaves, abolished feudalism, changed the constitution, scooped up seven million francs in treasure and set off again, with Nelson vainly searching the Mediterranean, frantically trying to work out where his enemy was going and why. He arrived off the coast of Egypt as deluded in his diplomacy as he was in his expectations, insisting that he was still a friend of the Sultan in Istanbul, the nominal chief, and had come to rid Egypt of its corrupt Mameluke rulers. But things quickly began to go awry. The landing proved chaotic and the strategy confused. Napoleon expected to be greeted as a friend, issuing grandiose declarations promising to respect Islam and ordering exemplary behaviour by his men, but the bemused Egyptians and the cunning Bedouin were unmoved and soon began to take pot shots.

The French reverted to old-fashioned warfare. The Mameluke rulers, Murad and Ibrahim Bey, fled and Alexandria was quickly taken. But the march to Cairo was sheer hell: terrible heat, mosquitoes, no water, little food or fodder, harassment by Bedouin and widespread dysentery. Finally, his Army of the Orient reached the outskirts of Cairo, where at last the Mamelukes rallied and fought. The Battle of the Pyramids, as Napoleon insisted it be called, was a French triumph: the Egyptians, utterly unused to modern warfare, were cut down and fled. The gateway to Cairo was open, and Napoleon marched in.

Paul Strathern tells the story at a cracking pace. He goes back to the original sources, quotes from documents, letters, archives and Napoleon himself, and brings to life the fakirs and the filth of Cairo, the heat, the cafés, the vermin and the stoic, often other-worldly scholarship of the French savants, whose determined attempts to document the unknown are probably the most enduring legacy of the entire expedition. It is a tale often told before but little known outside France. Strathern brings out the expedition’s laughable naiveté by contrasting the lofty ideals and deluded ambitions of the French with the squalor, conservatism, ignorance and suspicion of the Egyptians, who had no idea who these foreign adventurers were and what they wanted. But though the French set about a wholesale reorganisation of Egyptian society, taxes, education, laws and urban planning, they were constantly baffled by what they found. Islam was utterly unaccommodating to the invaders. Napoleon insisted on taking part in Muslim celebrations of the birth of the Prophet, and declared his army was ready to convert wholesale to Islam; but when he found that the muftis would agree only if all the soldiers were circumcised and swore to abstain from alcohol, he saw this was somewhat impractical. Equally misguided was the ludicrous proposal to throw a grand ball to bring together French and Egyptian high society, to which not a single Egyptian woman turned up. Napoleon dreamed of importing Paris society and culture wholesale; nothing could be less appropriate.

Strathern has poignant anecdotes of the sex-starved soldiers, fascinated by belly-dancers but repulsed by raddled old Egyptian whores. Napoleon’s own fragile marriage with the faithless Josephine was the subject of much gossip. Strathern delves into Napoleon’s complicated sex life (he used to masturbate before a battle to calm himself) and traces the brief affair with the wife of a French officer. But tragedy was fast approaching. Nelson finally found the French fleet at Aboukir Bay and, in a brilliant tactical battle, destroyed it, cutting Napoleon off from news, supplies and reinforcements. From then on, the story is of how the increasingly megalomaniac future emperor staved off defeat, sent his best generals south on futile expeditions to capture the fugitive Mamelukes and in 1799 had to march to Suez and beyond to confront the threat of an Ottoman counter-invasion from Syria.

Napoleon almost succeeded, but plague, shortages and the British blockade gradually wore down the Army of the Orient. Even as his scholars were still documenting, sketching and collecting, Napoleon realised the game was up. Belated news from France warned him that he should hurry home. Appointing his second-in-command, the grizzled old General Klebér, in his place, he abandoned his army, evaded the blockade and fled. “That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit. When we get back to Europe we’ll rub his face in it,” a furious Kléber said. Almost in mockery, Napoleon’s last order was to arrange to send a troupe of comedians out to Egypt – something he thought important for army morale and “to begin to change the habits of the Egyptians.” He was deluded to the last.

Militarily, the expedition was a colossal and expensive blunder. Politically, it was a watershed – for Europe and for a shaken Muslim world. It began a long history of European involvement and rule which did not really end in Egypt until Suez in 1956. It opened the eyes of Europe to an ancient civilisation and exposed Egypt and the Muslim world to the challenge of new ideas, new technology and new colonial powers. For political Islam, 1798 was as shattering as the First Crusade. The repercussions are still being felt.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Mary Douglas Dies

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The brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas died on May 16 in London, aged (I think) 85. Douglas was a structuralist anthropologist and follower of Durkheim. She wrote a famous analysis of Leviticus and helped invent the Cultural Theory of Risk. I remember her best for the brilliant 'Purity and Danger’, where she argued that things like Kosher laws weren't simply functional (about separately different kinds of food without refrigeration) but were about the maintenance of boundaries which helped to structure different societies. She emphasised how systems of value like this helped to hold at bay the terror of ambiguity in human society.

I must admit that I haven’t read nearly as much of her work as I should have, but one sentence of hers, which may not even be an accurate quote, has informed what I think ever since I heard it. This is the notion that 'dirt' is "matter out of place". Once you understand what this means, there is no such thing objectively as rubbish, what matters is the value any given society gives to any thing, it makes all the difference, and makes you realise that studying the way in which humans categorise stuff is such a god way to understand what is common about humanity.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Douglas recently because she gave a lecture in London recently- the Young Foundation promoted it - which I wanted to go to but couldn't. However the YF kindly sent me the CD of it and I’ve been listening to it and trying to figure out how to feature it in New Humanist. In this lecture she develops her arguments about different kinds of groups I societies, those we call cults, but she prefers the word 'enclave', because it is less normative. She talks fascinatingly about how small groups create internal cohesion by creating conflict with the outside world - putting a 'wall of virtue around themselves' (helps to explain why folks like the Westboro Church don't seem to mind demonstrating in public and being widely reviled- it helps strengthen the bond between the members and keeps the young 'un from straying), about the trouble which comes when the charismatic leaders (which are very normal) dies, and about the black and white thinking which is encouraged by these groups. Throughout the lecture she is cautious about not being to judgmental (she credits Richard Sennett with alerting her to the notion of "the joy of sects") and cautions that if we think sects are all bad we are using exactly the kind of narrow binary thinking that we don’t like about the sects.

We will publish a portion of the lecture in the next New Humanist as a tribute to someone who, though she was a Catholic I think, was clearly and fundamentally a humanist in that she was fascinated by human behaviour.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Chris and Al show

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I'm sorry to have missed it, but the New York Times has a very comprehensive record of the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton which sounds like great fun. Behind the sometimes overbearing pompous and bumptious style of both lie two great rhetorical traditions - well versed freethinking Eng-Lit-Crit cut with leftie rabble rousing (Hitch) and the power and glory and streetwise down home humour of the African American vernacular (Big Al). It ended up in something of a love-in it appears. Ahhh

Monday, 14 May 2007

Me on Blair

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This was posted on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog last Friday. There are about 140 replies, some of them even make sense. Sharp eyed readers of New Humanist will notice that this is a bowlderised version of the current editorial, shorn of the comparison between Blair and Bin Laden (you were right Sarah, it was gratuitous and offense) and the line which says Blair will be leaving at the end of July (thanks for nothing deep throat!).

What do you think am I too harsh?

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Rational Response Squad

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Below is a piece from last issue I did on the Rational Response Squad- the people behind the Blasphemy challenge. They have been getting a lot of press in the US of late including appearing on Nightline- ABCs flagship news programme. Now Nightline have organised a live debate between them and the folks behind 'The Way of the Master', which, disappointingly, is not about Bruce Lee but a group dedicated to reminding non-believers that they are going to hell...

The debate is tomorrow- and should be widely available on the internet soon thereafter. Apparently the Master guys are going to offer scientific evidence of God's existence, which is nice...

The Anti-God Squad

Caspar Melville

The Rational Response Squad, which celebrates its first birthday this month, is the creation of three friends in their late 20s. Brian (right), Mike and Rook from Philadelphia were brought up in strongly Christian homes. Rook, the Catholic, was studying to be a priest by the time he was sixteen.

As they matured each started to explore the assumptions which they had been brought up not to question, using the considerable research and debate potential of the internet. Brian Sapient (not his real name) explains: “We wanted to learn about this thing our parents had taught us, and gradually we each came to realise that our parents believed something that at best wasn’t provable and at worst suggests that our parents were very gullible indeed.” Like many teenagers Brian spent hours in internet chat rooms and discussion boards. The difference was that rather than discussing music and dating he was more concerned with exploring the logic – what he soon came to believe was the deep illogic – of religious belief.

“I was like, ‘wow’, this thing which is so powerful in our lives does not have the evidence or proof for it that other things we believe as a society have. It’s been given a free pass.” For Brian there was no explicit moment of revelation, or counter-revelation, just a slow accumulation of evidence, gathered during long nights in debate with religious believers online. “At first I was the guy on the message boards who wanted to dialogue. I always said, ‘Can’t we all just respect each other’s views?’ But gradually I realised that I wasn’t getting any respect back. We felt that religious people had been insisting that we respect their beliefs when they were not respecting ours. That people have their religious beliefs, that doesn’t bother me, they are free to believe what they want. What bothers me is when their beliefs infringe on my right to believe or cause harm to the community – if they could manage to keep their beliefs to themselves, fine. So I took a stand. I realised it was okay to be very open and even aggressive about saying I am an atheist.”

While so-called hard-line atheists come under frequent attack in Britain for being dismissive, rude or naïve about religion, Brian Sapient and his colleagues have a deep knowledge of religion and no scruples about stating the case against. They also have the evidence to justify their position: “Think of the damage that religion does – there’s the thwarting of science like stem cell research, there are George Bush’s religiously motivated wars, there’s the denial of sexuality which seems to produce priests who can’t keep their pee pees in their pants – as good an example of the church ignoring the facts of life as you could wish. Religion is just a never-ending barrage of illogic... Why do they believe this silly nonsense?”

In 2005 Brian and his friends took the next step, and created the kind of forum for atheism they could see was needed. “There are tons of atheist websites out there, but there was nothing bringing them together. There are the humanist organisations too, but there’s been a lot of infighting between the different groups. We wanted to cater to the crowd who wanted to speak up loud and bluntly, but we didn’t want to have to deal with the other groups, saying, ‘No you’re doing it wrong.’ We wanted to get right down to the basics, to debate with those who believe, on the basis of rationality.”

Central to their aims was to create a community, so the first thing they did was set up a website which holds discussion forums and registers members. Then came an internet radio show dedicated to non-belief. Brian had done work previously with the grand old man of internet atheism, Reginald Finley aka The Infidel Guy, who set up a network of irreligious radio broadcasts,, running continuously, with parallel internet discussions boards. So Brian and his friends, broadcasting from the basement of his house in Philly, took their increasingly uncompromising brand of debunking (defined on their website as “Give us your nutters, your cranks, your theists yearning to be free, and we’ll do our best to oblige them in the spirit of freethought”) to the digital airwaves.

The ball started rolling. “Our success is all built on the networking we did through the website. People were coming from all over to sign up, and of course religious people would come to debate us which was fun. I think it’s true to say that we have the fastest growing atheist website on the internet – we’re getting somewhere between 25 and 30 new members a day. We’re even beating Dawkins.”

Next, in December 2006, came The Blasphemy Challenge, an inspired idea which makes use of another internet boom, this time in homemade video, through the Google- owned YouTube site. The challenge was to “declare your independence from the stone age” by recording a short film of yourself renouncing God, Jesus and the holy spirit, and posting it as a response on the YouTube website.

Within days it was clear that a phenomenon was building, with floods of thanks and testimonies from grateful young people. A typical anonymous contributor from Dry Ridge, Kentucky, felt rescued. The social life of his community and familiy, he explained, revolves around the local church – there are 12 in his town of just over two thousand people. His friends sing in the choir and have signed up to the evangelical abstinence pledge The Silver Ring Thing. Living in this solid middle-American, God-fearing community, he was afraid to tell anyone that he didn’t believe in God. He felt isolated and alone. But now, thanks to The Rational Response Squad, he feels like shouting his unbelief from the rooftops.

When responses reached the 500 mark the media started to take notice. An article in Newsweek led to four local media interviews and finally to a segment on the national flagship news programme Nightline. While that show did its best to challenge their certainty – “What’s wrong with God?” asks the earnest anchor. “Nothing, what’s wrong with the tooth fairy?” retorts the sanguine Sapient – and put up a brace of priests to suggest that what they were doing was a “rejection of hope”, the net result was a huge boost in membership for the squad.
Currently The Blasphemy Challenge is the second most responded to video on YouTube, with well over 1300 replies – a number that includes the 150 Christian rebuttals that Brian, in the spirit of debate, has let through.

The squad is still relatively small, but growing. Brian is the only full-time employee – the group is funded by donations through the website – and it’s still run from his basement, though he’s thinking of getting a building to house the various atheist operations. So far they have 10 affiliate squads – the Southern California chapter already has several hundred members – and it’s growing by the day.

The radio show is weekly with the slightly rambling folksy format of US talk radio, featuring a diverse range of content, from the regular “Christian Interventions”, when believers are invited on to state their case and then frequently confounded by a barrage of incompatible or illogical biblical quotes from a team well versed in theology, to interviews with prominent atheists like Brian Flemming (director of The God That Wasn’t There) or Luigi Cascioli, the Italian who sued the government for claiming Jesus was divine. Even Dawkins himself has appeared.

They are diversifying. Having met many atheist musicians online – including the remarkable Greydon Square (above, right), a native of Compton, veteran of two tours to Iraq, currently studying physics at Arizona State, and possessed of genuine lyrical skills – Brian’s planning to put out a compilation of atheist hip hop later in the year.

And, if his nerve holds, 2007 will also see the launch of their “Recycle the Bible” campaign. “We’re going to go door to door and say that since the Bible is now available online shouldn’t people recycle their copies. We’re not trying to make it disappear – after all it’s an important tool; when we manage to end Christianity it will be useful to remind us how gullible people can be if they are brainwashed from an early age – but we would like to pulp a whole load of them and donate the profits from selling the recycled material to scientific research. They are also considering a “draw Muhammad” competition.

When I suggest that in a country which has very high proportions of hand-gun-owning believers this might be considered a mite foolhardy Brian responds that he feels compelled to do these things precisely because they are dangerous. The is a lot of emphasis in their work on the desire not to feel afraid: “Our freedom of thought is at stake.”

The Rational Response Squad may not be quite the thing for the high-minded European sceptic. But then it’s not for them. But for the guy who posted on their site to say “thanks”, but didn’t want to give his name because “I am forced to keep my beliefs on a low profile due to the fact that I work in choral music and have lost jobs because of sharing my beliefs,” or the isolated freethinking teenager in Dry Ridge, Kentucky, they might be just what is required.

Now see what Fox news made of the Blasphemy Challange. (Clue they didn't like it).

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Sneaky Peeky

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Not been keeping up with the posting ... but I've got a good excuse. I've been finishing the next issue of New Humanist - out on Tuesday 8th May.

For those brave souls who've manged to slice through the thicket of blogland to find the great lost city of gold that is this blog, here's a sneak preview in ths form of the little thing I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut, a great novelist and humanist, and smoker and aphorist and general crumpled favourite irascible uncle type. I really liked him and his books. I'm happy he was alive.

When you're dead, you're dead

"Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to be a remedy.”

The line is from the 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, who died on April 11, aged 84. Though he puts it into the mouth of his character Lionel Boyd Johnson aka Bokonon, the founder of a new religion, it’s fair to assume that this reflects Vonnegut’s own view. His published work certainly suggests as much: more than twenty books, novels, short stories and non-fiction, all suffused with a weary melancholia leavened with great jokes and folksy philosophy.

Vonnegut was Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, and certainly a humanist, though of a rather special kind. For a start he disliked the word “humanist”. Indeed, he seemed scornful of any kind of “ist”, though not of the human search for meaning. Bokonism, the religion he invents, combines a savage parody – the first line of The Book of Bokonon is “All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” – with an acute understanding of why people have found it necessary to comfort themselves with untruths, or striven to find a “clean corner” in a “messy world”.

For Vonnegut religion, like all things man-made, was ridiculous when it wasn’t actively evil, and his writing indicates that this was his view of most ideologies, organisations and people. He coins the word granfalloon for ridiculous institutions from the General Electric Company (for whom he worked) to the Communist Party to “any nation, anytime, anywhere”, which attracts his playful scorn. This scepticism of big institutions and big ideas went hand in hand with his view of humanity and human endeavour: people are insignificant creatures busily constructing fantastical ways of holding at bay the inevitable pointlessness of existence. Life, in the words of Kilgore Trout, his sci-fi writer alter-ego, is “a crock of shit”. To those who argue that there is an ultimate purpose or plan he might offer the dedication from his 20th novel, Timequake: “All persons living and dead are completely coincidental.”

Yet Vonnegut injected a warm, almost sentimental, love for human beings into his bitter horror at man’s capacity for inhumanity and his abhorrence of the manifold methods of torture, murder and madness produced by modernity. And that is perhaps why his savage asides are also so mordantly funny. Discussing nuclear weapons in Timequake, for example, he mentions the physicist Andrei Sakharov, who developed the Soviet bomb: “His wife was a paediatrician. What sort of person could perfect a hydrogen bomb while married to a child-care specialist? … ‘Anything interesting happen at work today, Honeybunch?’ ‘Yes. My bomb is going to work just great. And how are you going with that kid with chicken pox?’”

Vonnegut would return time and again to one almost unspeakable atrocity: the fire-bombing of Dresden, which he experienced first-hand as a prisoner of war in that city and which was the subject of his first hit novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). And yet in the preface to Mother Night (1962) he manages to dismiss even this horror with his characteristic offhand cynicism: “It was the largest massacre in European History, by the way. And so what?”

Though playful and very funny, Vonnegut was always powered by an underlying seriousness. He wrote frequently about his melancholic upbringing in German Indianapolis, which left him with a “deep-boned sadness”, fuelled no doubt by his mother’s suicide. He attempted it himself once and wryly referred to his own weakness for filterless Pall Malls as “a classy way to commit suicide”. He realised that life was, if anything, contingent. He may have fought the Nazis but, he once suggested, if his parents had stayed in Germany who can say that he wouldn’t have become one himself, “bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides”.

Moral superiority repulsed him yet his entire oeuvre is a fiercely moral edifice, designed to goad humanity into overcoming its dreams of mastery and accepting the limitations, the delicious ironies and the simple suprisingness of this life. He aspired, as he had the American Ambassador aspire in Cat’s Cradle, to reducing “the stupidity and viciousness of mankind”. Of course, he always denied being a moralist, dead-panning to the end. Here’s how he describes Mother Night: “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvellous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Then he goes on to find another: “When you’re dead you’re dead.”