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.

“My Tribe, Right or Wrong” is a really bad cultural anti-pattern.

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Fox News Facts

The radical preacher who controls Birmingham

#FoxNewsFacts was a trending topic on Twitter a few days ago. The hashtag stated that the radical Islamist preacher pictured above controlled Birmingham, there was another dangerous radical cleric called Jaspur Q’rat, and people were being forced to study The Kerrang.

This was British humour’s response to the claim made by a talking head on Fox TV that the city of Birmingham was 100% Muslim, and non-Muslims were forbidden to enter.

I posted a few myself, stating that it was punishable by death to confuse Birmingham with The Black Country, but nobody outside the area knew the boundary, that the soccerball team “Wolves” were made up from werewolves, and that Prince Philip really is an alien lizard. Many of them got retweeted a lot, and a few people claimed the last of those might actually be true.

Liberal England gives some background on the talking head in question.

Steve Emerson, the soi-disant terrorism expert who told Fox News that Birmingham is a “Muslim-only city” where non-Muslims “don’t go”, has apologised for his “terrible error”.

That is to his credit, but Emerson will be a busy man if he is going to apologise for all his terrible errors.

Steve Emerson not an expert on terrorism as such. His mission is not to inform but to spread propaganda. He’s a professional charlatan, a “court prophet”, who has made a successful living telling whatever his sponsors want the gullible to hear.

His “terrible error” was not being wrong about Birmingham, but not stopping to think that such an obvious and easily-disproven lie would escape from the Fox News media bubble. Birmingham should throw his insincere false apology back in his face.

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So, American right-wingers are robustly defending a group of French Communists, while others who identify as liberals are making excuses for the religious fundamentaists who murdered them? Have I just woken up in Bizarro-World?

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Charlie Hebdo and Victim Blaming

Over the past couple of days there has been an huge outpouring of support for the ten murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo and the two police officers who died defending then. #JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisAhmed have both been very popular hashtags on Twitter.

But sadly there has also been some unpleasant mealy-mouthed victim-blaming. Some comes from the usual suspects on the religious right, both reactionary Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants. But there’s also some coming the culture warriors of the left, and this repellent piece by Arthur Chu is one of the worst. If you’ve never heard of him, Arthur Chu is a one-time game show contestant who has more recently become “internet famous” in the back of his public opposition to GamerGate. His line on Charlie Hebdo is “Murder is terrible, but…” using the conjunctive in the same way as the infamous “I’m not racist, but…”. It’s classic victim-blaming in the same way as “She shouldn’t have worn that skirt if she didn’t want to get raped”.

I’m hearing a lot of accusations of racism directed towards Charlie Hebdo from self-appointed experts who are quick to judge but understand little of French culture or French politics. Most of these people are American, and many of those seem ignorant of much beyond the American suburbs. They give the impression they understand French culture about as well as Post-9/11 warbloggers understood Arab culture. The idea that you can’t judge any cartoon without understanding its context seems to escape them.

The BBC obituaries of the twelve who died paints a very different picture, and doesn’t leave you with the impression that the victims were in any way racist or right-wing.

Satire is supposed to mock the powerful, the pompous and the self-important, so we shouldn’t be surprised when social authoritarians of the right ot the left have a problem with it. But if you really think mocking violent extremism is “punching down”, you moral compass urgently needs recalibrating.

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Freedom of Speech

Either you believe in freedom of speech or you don’t.

In recent years too many small-l liberals have been sitting on the fence on this issue. If you believe that there is any “right not be offended” or the principles of “safe spaces” should be applied to the public square rather than to private spaces, you don’t actually believe in freedom of speech. Yesterday’s events have thrown such beliefs into sharp relief. And the bloody murder of cartoonists ought to put an end to the ridiculous weasel-speak idea that it’s not censorship if it’s anyone other than the government doing it.

Freedom of speech means does freedom for speech you or others will find offensive and objectionable. But democracy and freedom depend on the ability to speak truth to power. Allowing bad speech is always going to be lesser evil than censorship which, even in enforced for the noblest of intentions, will inevitably end up serving the interests of the powerful.

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Sharpening Contradictions

Juan Cole on Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. …

Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.

So far I’ve seen this atrocity bringing out the worse in people, from the predictable Islamophobia (No, that attention-seeking clown Anjem Choudary does not represent British Muslims, and I have to be suspicious of the agenda behind the sections of the media that keep giving this repellent man a soapbox) to the authoritarian security-state control freaks demanding even more restrictions on civil liberties. These things must be resisted not just because they are bad things in themselves, but because they’re playing right into the terrorists’ hands.

He said very similar things in the aftermath of 9/11. He was not listened to, and the US & UK’s ill-conceived military adventures in the Middle East and their disastrous fallout meant 9/11 succeeded beyond Osama Bin Laden’s wildest dreams. If the French terrorists are indeed connected with Islamic State, then what happened in France was a direct consequence of ignoring Juan Cole back in 2001.

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The Sneakiest Way Prosecutors Get a Guilty Verdict – Yet more proof that PowerPoint is responsible for the decline in Western Civilisation.

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Katie Hopkins vs. Police Scotland

Yes, Katie Hopkins is an attention-seeking professional troll and bigot, and there is no way anyone can pretend that her Tweet about the Scottish ebola case wasn’t offensively racist. And no, I won’t link to it because that will only serve to spread her hate.

But hateful as it was, it fell short of direct incitement to violence. So is there any real justification for Police Scotland to get involved?

Liberal England feels the same way

I am not surprised that the police have picked up on the modern fashion for claiming offence. They know a good repressive ideology when they see it.

But I wish there were more on the left who would stand up for free speech – or at least for common sense.


Judging from some comments I’ve seen on social media it seems that too many people aren’t willing to make the distinction between supporting someome’s freedom to say something and supporting what they actually said.

If you do not support the freedom of bad people to say bad things in spaces you don’t own or control, you don’t really believe in freedom of speech. Many on the left do not, although a lot of them aren’t intellectually honest enough to admit it.

If you support a “right not to be offended”, where do you draw the line? Who decides which groups nobody is allowed to offend?

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Combine The Garden Bridge with the Edinburgh Tram Saga, and imagine the worst-case civic scenario: Boris Johnson as Mayor of Edinburgh. A chief executive with a love of grandiose but completely useless vanity projects leading an administration that can’t project manage itself out of a wet paper bag. What could possibly go wrong?

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That Infamous Shirt

The Internet is throwing one of its childish tantrums again.

The rocket scientist Matt Taylor, who had just made the remarkable achievement of landing a spacecraft on a comet, did a TV interview while wearing a Hawaiian shirt decorated by 1950s-style pinups that a female friend had made for him as birthday present.

Yes, the shirt could be seen as sexist in a workplace context, though I’d doubt most people would have batted an eyelid had he worn it to a rockabilly gig. But the outrage that followed blew things up out of all proportion, and showed the internet at its worst. It started with a nasty mean-spirited article on a clickbait website I won’t link to, and it was followed with the usual pattern of a Twitter mob gathering up torches and pitchforks. It resulted in the man making a tearful apology on TV. But the resulting backlash shows no signs of dying down.

Sorry, but I’m not seeing this as a successful calling out of sexism and misogyny in science. I’m seeing a brilliant but socially awkward man set upon by a pack of bullies over a social faux-pas. And from what I can tell, that’s how a lot of people outside the social-justice bubble see things as well. You are left with the impression they’ve gone for him because he makes an easy soft target who won’t fight back, and forcing a humiliating apology gives them a nice glow of moral righteousness. But there are far worse things than an inappropriate shirt, and cheap victories are often hollow ones.

There are real problems with structural sexism in the worlds of science and technology, but they’re not going to be solved by this sort of knee-jerk public shaming. Remarkable scientific achievements are often the work of people who don’t spend precious brain cycles on things like fashion sense. A scientific world that has no room for socially awkward people with a few rough edges who have difficulty navigating complex and constantly-changing rules of etiquette is a scientific world that will be less able to do things like land spacecraft on comets.

By all means call out blatant sexism. But always retain a sense of proportion, and never forget that there are real human beings at the other end of the invective. As I said about the Requires Hate saga, we must always put empathy before ideology.

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