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 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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White Males Behaving Badly

Nigel Sad-HaircutA reminder that when it comes to stupid bigotry, it’s difficult for anyone to beat conservative white men. Meet Professor Nigel Piercy of Swansea University.

Professor Piercy, whose time at Swansea has been marked by a series of conflicts with staff and students, had written that among those “claiming the right to censor and veto” academics’ pronouncements were “unpleasant and grubby little people, who purport to represent others because they have persuaded a tiny number of people to elect them to office in trades unions and the like”.

Such “creepy little people” were “usually distinguished only by their sad haircuts, grubby, chewed fingernails and failed careers”, he wrote. Another characteristic was “straggly beards”, “half-way between designer stubble and a real beard” and “probably indicative of a hormone deficiency”.

When the university’s pro-chancellor has to apologise for the bollocks he’s been spounting, you wonder if he should move to Goldsmiths College in London. I’m sure he and Bahar Mustafa would get on really, really well….

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Culture Wars Battle of the Week

Bahar MustafaThis week’s social media outrage is all about Bahar Mustafa, the Diversity Officer for the Student Union of Goldsmiths College in London. First there was some controversy surrounding a diversity event from which white men were excluded, which quite probably got blown up out of all proportion. Then there were some allegedly offensive posts on Twitter using the #KillAllWhiteMen hashtag.

Now it’s all over the media, and she could end up losing her job.

Her defence of her behaviour isn’t helping.

She then defended her position on camera, saying ethnic minority women cannot be racist as they “do not stand to gain” from inequality.

Now I know that the American-originated Critical Race Theory redefines racism as “prejudice plus power”. But that not what the word means in common everyday usage in the wider world. Not only that, Britain’s laws on racial discrimination use the older and more widely understood definition.

But she added the uses of hashtags such as “kill all white men” on her personal account were “in-jokes and ways that many people in the queer feminist community express ourselves”.

Ah yes, the old “It’s just banter” defence. That worked so well when used by racist footballers. My own use of social media follows the principle “Never say on Twitter what you can’t justify to your employer or your mum”. That would have been good advice for Bahar Mustafa, or indeed anyone in a highly visible public position.

At this point it would be easy to paint Bahar Mustafa as a bad actor in the same vein as Lutfur Rahman or Benjanun Sriduangkaew. But a more charitable explanation might be that she simply lacks the self-awareness to realise how her remarks could be interpreted outside the self-referential bubble of academic leftism.

If there is a genuine need for so-called “safe spaces” for minorities at Goldsmiths College, then surely it ought to possible to articulate the reasons for them without using risible canards that play into the hands of white racism.

On the other hand you do wonder whether the middle-class identity politics that constantly casts white men rather than the wealthy elites as the villains actually achieves much when it comes to tackling serious structural inequality. When taken out of academia into the real world, it certainly won’t be terribly effective at winning over the traditional working-class vote that progressive forces need if they are ever to win elections and form governments.

Still, calls for Bahar Mustafa to be prosecuted are utterly ridiculous. As to whether she gets to keep her job is a matter for her employer, Goldsmiths College Student’s Union, not a mob of random people on the internet with virtual torches and pitchforks.

And nobody deserves death threats, no matter who they offend.

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Can’t help feeling a sense of schadenfeude at the post-election implosion of UKIP. Having a backbench revolt when you have precisely one MP has got to be something of an achievement.

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What now for the Liberal Democrats?

The result of the 2015 General Election are taking a long time to sink in, especially if you have been a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

All my adult life I’d seen the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them slowly but steadily grow in strength. There were setbacks of course; for years the party was good at winning byelections in seats that proved impossible to retain in the following general elections. But they slowly built up from a dozen or so seats in the 1970s to more than 60 MPs in 2005. To see them reduced to single figures is heartbreaking. And the tragedy is that while nobody seemed to see it coming, it was all too obvious in retrospect.

Yes, they made tactical errors in their campaign, failing to emphasise core Liberal values, and let the two bigger parties squeeze their support. It became obvious just how many of their seats had only been held over the years though tactical voting by natural Labour supporters. Once those voters had enough and went back home, swathes of formerly orange parts of England and Wales went blue. And no party survived the SNP steamroller in Scotland. Continue reading

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