Religion & Politics Blog

The Worlds Shortest Political Quiz describes me as a left-liberal. I consider myself a non-fundamentalist protestant. I have little time for dogmatism or sectarianism in either politics or religion, but this blog will contain opinions. Read at your peril.

The case against Tim Hunt unravels.

Along with an awful lot of other people, I owe Sir Tim Hunt an apology. I’d previously said he was guilty of misjudged tone-deaf comments that, while not a sacking offense, were deserving of ridicule. Now it’s looking as though the accusations against him were false. He’s been completely exonerated by Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society. As reported in The Times.

Connie St Louis, the journalist who gave her version of Sir Tim’s toast, to a lunch for women in science last month, described the horror with which his demeaning of women in science was received. “There was a deathly silence,” she said. “Nobody was laughing . . . these guys are incredibly upset. And so after he’d finished, there was just this deathly, deathly silence.”

That did sound bad. And Ms St Louis drove home her point on BBC television. “It was a room of about a hundred people.” she said. “Nobody was laughing . . . everybody was stony-faced.”

That would rightly cause a storm if any of it were true. Except it wasn’t. As more evidence has come to light it’s become clear that no only were Sir Tim Hunt’s comments taken so out of context that their meaning was completely reversed, but the “deathly, deathly silence” was completely false.

While we’re seeing a lot of justified criticism of Twitter mobs made up of people who didn’t bother to check facts before piling in on an issue that fits their chosen narrative, I think a lot of Tim Hunt’s early accusers deserve some slack. The initial accusation came from someone holding the post of Professor of Science Journalism at City University in London, who ought to have been a reputable source. The fact that this person behaved in the manner that resembles the amoral hacks from celebrity gossip scandal sheets does leave City University with serious questions to answer.

These sorts of public witch-hunts achieve nothing when it comes to reducing the amount of sexism and racism in the world. If anything they have the opposite effect, by empowering the worst bigots on the opposing side. Look how Requires Hate has boosted the standing of Vox Day. I do sometimes hear the argument that it’s necessary to destroy the careers and reputations of innocent people “‘pour encourager les autres”, but I for one utterly reject that as totalitarian garbage.

It’s not about justice, it’s about power.

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Gawker are the Requires Hate of media. As part of the bottom-feeding gutter press of the internet, they’re abusive sociopaths whose progressive politics they wear on their sleeves is a sham.  Just like Requires Hate, they appropriate social justice rhetoric for entirely cynical self-serving ends.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Why I voted for Tim Farron

So Tim Farron has been elected as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, and the long and difficult job of rebuilding the party following the catastrophic near wipeout in the last general election begins.

There’s a massive contrast between the Liberal Democrat leadership election and that of the Labour Party. The refrain we kept hearing from both Tim Farron’s and Norman Lamb’s supporters was “Both of them would make excellent leaders but our candidate will be better”. Compare that with Labour’s “The party is doomed if that other candidate wins”. The Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, do have a clear vision of what sort of party they want to be.

It was a difficult choice between two very good candidates, but in the end I voted for Tim Farron. One deciding issue for me was his faith. There were one or two dark whispers early on in the campaign that his Anglican faith made him unfit for leadership of a party devoted to liberal values. For me the very idea that religion is a relic from a superstitious past that must be purged from public life is a profoundly illiberal concept.

The last Parliament saw the historic equal marriage act, which represented an unprecedented liberal shift in the Overton Window. But since then there have been situations that have bought the gay community into conflict with conservative religious groups. The extent to which different communities should have the right to express their own identity and the extent to which they should be required to respect one another’s spaces isn’t as clear cut as some people would make out. Would not somebody who is both a committed Liberal and a Christian be in a better position to recognise where the boundaries lie?

We live in a time when large parts of the left have fallen into a dangerous authoritarianism for whom a vaguely-defined freedom from offence trumps freedom of speech, and sometimes competing sectarianisms seek to drive each other from the public square. A party committed to liberal values must oppose these sorts of zero-sum identity politics, and prevent the right from positioning themselves as the sole champions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Sometimes it is the liberal thing to defend an unpopular minority against the tyranny of the majority.

So, congratulations for Tim Farron as the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. It’s a long and difficult road ahead for the party, but he is the right person to lead the party along it.

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Requires Hate redux

A couple of days ago a blog post appeared revealing the real identity of the troll known as Winterfox and Requires Hate who also wrote fiction under the name of  “Benjanun Sriduangkaew”.  Although rumours that she might actually be a white individual based in the UK turned out not to be true, she does, as was widely suspected, come from an extremely wealthy background, a scion of a powerful family with extensive political connections.

What’s more chilling is that at a time when she was writing racial revenge fantasies about killing white people she was actually implicated in multiple deaths due to criminal negligence at a hotel belonging to her family, an event for which nobody ever faced criminal charges, and for which incriminating evidence appears to have been covered up.

The post contains names and links to family members, so I won’t link to it here, but I am including this very telling quotation:

Privilege takes many forms. These can include

  • Being born into an extremely wealthy and politically connected family
  • A debt-free college education
  • A high-paying job given to you by your father or any other family member
  • Being responsible (whether as an individual or a corporate entity) for the deaths of multiple people and facing no legal consequences

Someone who benefits from all these things is neither marginalized nor systematically oppressed, and to claim as such is an insult to those who are.

I recognise why releasing personal information (known as “doxxing”) is a bad thing which exposes individuals to harm, and I can understand why people believe it’s still wrong in this case despite Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s long and well-documented history as an abuser.

But every strict ethical rule will eventually encounter a difficult edge-case, and this is one of these. I don’t think it’s a coincidence her identity has been revealed just at the time her author harassment has started up again. I don’t have a problem with those whose moral calculus leads them to conclude that outing her is the lesser of two evils, in that her priviledged situation means she’s at low risk of serious harm, and it in turn reduces the harm she can do.

Of course her sock-puppets, acolytes and useful idiots want to make the conversation about the outing rather than the harm she’d done and is continuing to do.

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The Tim Hunt Affair

Tim Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)I’m not exactly sure how you’re supposed to react when you’re retweeted by Louise Mensch.

The context was a conversation about the ongoing Tim Hunt affair. For anyone who’s not been following the story he’s the Nobel-winning scientist and honorary professor at UCL who’s been forced to resign his honorary professorship because of allegedly sexist remarks made at a conference in South Korea.

It’s an ongoing controversy because there are still conflicting reports of his actual words, their precise context, and the reaction of his audience, since there’s no recording or transcript of his improvised off-the cuff speech. There is also concern over his and his wife’s claims that he was forced to resign without being given the chance to present his side of the story.

From what’s been reported it’s sounding like at worst a tone-deaf attempt at humour than didn’t work, deserving of reprimand and perhaps a certain amount of ridicule, but hardly a firing offence. Many of his supporters are now claiming he’s been deliberately misrepresented and quoted out of context by people with political or personal agendas.

It’s naturally being framed as part of the ongoing sexism-in-science culture wars, and it’s attracted the attention of many of the usual suspects from both sides of the ugly turf war between geek feminism and techno-libertarianism. If, as has been suggested, Tim Hunt has been badly misquoted, the science press isn’t covering itself with glory either; rather than reporting the science they’ve emulating the muck-raking gossip-driven tabloids, treating scientists who often lack media training like the tabloids treat celebrities.

But I’m getting a growing impression that his abrupt dismissal isn’t primarily about sexism at all; it’s really rooted in the ugly backstabbing nature of academic politics, which has a reputation for being notoriously vicious precisely because the actual stakes are so small. The behaviour of one of Tim Hunt’s most vocal accusers, another UCL professor and Royal Society Fellow who is as old, white and male as Tim Hunt himself reinforces this impression. I won’t name this person because he gives me the impression he ego-surfs, but he’s been described on Twitter as “Gallowayesque”, and that sounds like a very good description. He certainly comes over as a thoroughly nasty piece of work on social media, going full ad-hominem on anyone who dares to disagree with him. The sight of a man in a powerful position trashing a woman using very ugly slurs in the name of feminism isn’t a pretty one.

So, is the Tim Hunt affair more about bitter academic rivalry than about sexism?

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f you use a terrible tragedy to try and smear a totally unrelated group in service of your pet political agenda, you’re on the side of Evil.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 1 Comment

Birth Defects of a Nation

Great piece by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on the terrible Charleston massacre.

Race and guns are the birth defects of the American republic, their distorting presence visible in the US constitution itself. The very first article of that founding document spelled out its view that those “bound to service for a term of years” – slaves – would count as “three fifths of all other Persons”. Meanwhile, the second amendment enshrines “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms”.

It’s a sad fact that any attempt to tighten laws on guns is a lost cause in America, such is the cultural and political power of the gun lobby. Not even the terrible massacre of children at Sandy Hook could shift the Overton Window. The gun lobby considers that dead children are an acceptable price to pay for the right to bear arms in the same way that road accidents are an acceptable price for personal mobility.

The differemce is that it’s impossible to imagine any motor industry successfully lobbying against every single proposal to improve road safety in quite the same way as the NRA opposes every measure to make it marginally more difficult for would-be killers to get hold of guns.

And when it comes to race, it’s notable that Republican politicians refuse to name what happened at Charleston as a race-hate crime. It’s as if they think racists are an important voting bloc…

Addendum: Some background on the “3/5ths of a person” in the quoted part of the linked piece. I know Wikipedia isn’t a completely unbiased source, especially for controversial subjects, but it’s a starting point. Not that anything invalidates Freedland’s central point about the structural racism that goes back to America’s early history.

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Fearful Symmetry

Another very good post by Scott Alexander, Fearful Symmetry, which sums up a lot of things I’ve been thinking for a long while about the parallels between online “Social Justice Warriors” and cultural conservatives.

The social justice narrative describes a political-economic elite dominated by white males persecuting anybody who doesn’t fit into their culture, like blacks, women, and gays. The anti-social-justice narrative describes an intellectual-cultural elite dominated by social justice activists persecuting anybody who doesn’t fit into their culture, like men, theists, and conservatives. Both are relatively plausible; Congress and millionaires are 80% – 90% white; journalists and the Ivy League are 80% – 90% leftist.

The narratives share a surprising number of other similarities. Both, for example, identify their enemy with the spirit of a discredited mid-twentieth century genocidal philosophy of government; fascists on the one side, communists on the other. Both believe they’re fighting a war for their very right to exist, despite the lack of any plausible path to reinstituting slavery or transitioning to a Stalinist dictatorship. Both operate through explosions of outrage at salient media examples of their out-group persecuting their in-group.

They have even converged on the same excuse for what their enemies call “politicizing” previously neutral territory – that what their enemies call “politicizing” is actually trying to restore balance to a field the other side has already successfully politicized.

It’s a long post, as a lot of Scott Alexander’s deeper posts tend to be. But it’s worth your time reading the whole thing even if you don’t agree with his comclusions. He touches on that pizza parlour refusing to cater for gay weddings, the case of Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug being disinvited from a tech conference, and the ongoing car crash of the Sad Puppies Hugo Awards affair, which also gets a lot of mentions in the very long (and largely civil) comment thread that follows.

One commenter, Rachel made a very good point comparing the fate of Tim Hunt, the 72-year old Nobel laureate forced to resign after a bad example of casual sexism, and Irene Gallo, the Tor Books editor accused of slandering a significant proportion of the publishing house’s authors and readership.

I was thinking about the symmetry between Irene Gallo and Tim Hunt. Everyone I’ve seen (including my own lizard brain) supports precisely one of them and condemns the other.

But trying to think about it objectively, the situations are pretty similar. They made an inaccurate sweeping generalisation about a group, in a way that’s not directly relevant to their job, but which slandered a lot of people they work with/for. They should probably either both be fired, or both be let alone to express their private opinions.

I find myself in complete agreement with that statement, though I’ve encountered very few others who have expressed that opinion in public. Which suggests that for many the overriding principle is not consistency, but loyalty to the tribe.

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RIP Charles Kennedy, the only party leader who was right about the Iraq war. 55 is far too young to have been taken from us.

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Not So Alternative Comedy

In a Guardian comment thread that was actually far more entertaining than the nasty mean-spirited blog post it was attached to, somebody linked to this joke from Alexei Sayle:

I was at a Motorhead gig when after an 8 hour number entitled ‘I’ve got a dick the size of a Ford Cortina, someone called out “sexist shite” and they thought it was request …

If you laughed at that, it’s very likely that you know little or nothing about Mötorhead or their music.

Alexei Sayle could be a very entertaining comic actor, but I never rated his act as a stand-up comic in the early days of his career. He presented himself as an “alternative comedian”, eschewing the sexism and racism that was a staple of so much second-rate comedy of the 70s.

But his act was actually nowhere near as radical or as funny as he liked to think it was, and tended to be laced with a lot of smug self-rightousness. The example above showed, just like the racist Bernard Manning, he was willing to get cheap laughs by punching at his audiences’ designated out-groups without needing to put in any effort to be genuinely funny.

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