Monthly Archives: December 2008

Nine wishes for 2009 #2: A NEW new atheism

Most of this article was written on Monday but I’ve only just got around to finishing it.

I enjoyed the Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People enormously and 2009 will, by all accounts, be a bit of a party for atheists. Starting in January we have the Atheist Bus Campaign and then throughout the year people will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And yet, and yet…

If there was one thing that bugged me about the Carol Service, it was the level of reverence that Richard Dawkins was given by some of the performers, most notably Robin Ince. I suppose it would have been impolite to actually criticise the guy while he was waiting in the wings and the truth is he has provided a much needed corrective to the religious narrative over the past decade (and more). But he remains a deeply divisive figure, alienating almost as much as he engages. His call to arms and for agnostics to get off the fence leaves many ducking for cover.

The real problem atheists have is one of taxonomy. Atheism is just what is says on the tin – a lack of belief in God. To try and make it out to be anything more is frankly ludicrous and falls foul of the very naturalistic fallacy that people like Dawkins warn against. Secularism doesn’t help much either, although it still puzzles me why this has become such a swear word with the adherents of organised religion. That leaves rationalism – which is rather cold and too often veers towards positivism – and humanism – which is warm and fuzzy and often suspiciously so. Joining the British Humanist Association is on my to do list. My reason for not having done so already is rooted in me receiving an unsolicited copy of their newsletter a few years ago which had a bizarre article about a “humanist picnic” at which humanist families spent an afternoon bemoaning about how terrible religion is (I can think of more fun ways of passing the day, such as jabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon) and urging me to buy humanist Christmas cards with all the crosses replaced with aitches.

I have been assured that they have come on a lot since then (although asking people to donate money so their Chief Executive can brand herself doesn’t exactly convince – can’t I donate money to prevent her from doing so?), but living caricatures of the humourless “militant atheist” are never that far from the surface. I adore New Humanist magazine for example, but the letters page is full of freaks. Then again, the letters pages of all publications are full of freaks – consisting as they do of blog trolls who lack the wherewithall to find the “on” switch of their PCs – but at least they aren’t always “our” freaks.

In this respect, finding a new voice for atheist comedy – which Robin Ince seems to have taken on as a personal mission – is a positive development. Laughing at ourselves is an absolute must for 2009 – something which, as I noted previously, is often sadly lacking.

One group we could do with hearing a little from is ex-Catholics. It has to be said that it doesn’t say much for a religion that creates so many of its most fervant critics. I mean, when the Pope says something stupid, I’m happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, but much of the anti-Catholic stuff out there borders on The Da Vinci Code in terms of paranoia (not that I’m obsessed with God Trumps, but the Catholicism one is a case in point). I’m always impressed at the way Catholics tend to choose the bits of their religion that they like and ignore the rest, as if it is some metaphysical branch of Woolies (RIP) – my favourites are the Catholics who are fine about having sex before marriage but think it is a sin to use a condom – but profound mass-hypocrisy does rather undermine the claims that it is simultaneously a vast conspiracy against mankind.

Fundamentally, we need a rational, reasonable voice out there to counter the rational, reasonable theist nonsense out there, of which Madeleine Bunting provides us with an excellent example today. Her claim that Darwin has been “hijacked” by atheists on the basis that he was probably agnostic is a crime of intellectual pygmyism, but one which many Guardian readers will have nodded sagely to today. But it is a ludicrous argument, similar to the sneering by Christian groups who thought it was hilarious that the Atheist Bus Campaign uses the less-than-forthright slogan “there’s probably no God” while ignoring the fact that the Alpha Course adverts which inspired it use the even less assertive slogan “if there was a God, what would you ask him?”

Yes, Darwin almost certainly sat on the fence when it came to the question of whether God existed or not, but to the extent that he believed in any God at all he was a deist. In other words, while he might have conceded the possibility of God, he was clear that there was no activist God playing a role in worldly affairs. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism. Attempts have been made to square the circle – I spent many wasted hours researching panentheism for my undergraduate dissertation – but all of them reduce God to, at best, a “not dead yet” cameo role in the creation.

The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system. Ethical systems needn’t come from religion – indeed at some point I may find time to write about how the much-vaunted “golden rule” predates religion and is in many ways hindered by it. But ethics and morality are a) important and b) not informed by atheism per se. The answers are not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for them.

Nine wishes for 2009 #1: Lembit Opik to prove me wrong

Partly, admittedly, because I set up a Google Alert of his name earlier this year during the Presidential election, Lembit Opik never stops getting in my face. His latest interview was in Wales On Sunday yesterday (odd since just a week ago Lembit was dismissing the same paper as “poor use of [his] time“). Regarding the presidential election, to the surprise of no-one, he is utterly unrepentent:

“I’ve been thinking about why the party establishment did not support me for the presidency. I put forward a new agenda, painting politics in primary colours, and perhaps they’re just not ready for it.

“I do politics in quite a distinctive way, and maybe they’re not comfortable with that kind of approach.

“I want us to be a party where we can express a strong corporate personality and strong individual personalities.

“Perhaps I frighten the horses, but the point is that, if you don’t, you’ll never create a political stampede.

“I do my best to reach out to the kind of people who don’t watch Question Time and Newsnight, and I think it would help politics if more politicians did so.”

But it wasn’t just the party establishment that didn’t support Lembit – it was 70+% of the party. Chris Huhne wasn’t supported by the establishment in either leadership contest he stood in, yet managed to leapfrog Simon Hughes in the first and came within 500 votes of winning the second. Are we all supposed to be mindless automatons?

What genuinely perplexes me about all this is that if Lembit could point to a single tangible fact which proved his hypothesis that appearing on Have I Got News For You was actually beneficial to the party, much of the criticism would be muted. The counter hypothesis is that a) most of the programmes he appears on either ignore politics altogether or advance an anti-politics agenda which Lembit himself does nothing to address and that b) while no-one can dispute the rise of Boris “LOL!!1!! LOOK AT HIS FUNNEE HAIR!!?!!” Johnson, Johnson never went within a million miles of half the paper-bag-opening-level programmes that are Lembit’s meat and drink and, frankly, when it comes to personality, Lembit is no Bozza. Have you ever seen a more polite, well-spoken individual on HIGNFY, Big Brother’s Little Brother or Celebrity Apprentice? The fundamental problem with Lembit’s celebrity appearances is that he doesn’t even make the most of them. In that respect, those who compare him to the Cyril Smiths and Clement Freuds of the past are missing the point.

But go on Lembit, prove me wrong in 2009. It is put up or shut up time. Because I can see how his grand master plan might work, I just don’t see it actually working.

If he is to do that however, he will have to embrace technology – something he has thus far managed to avoid in the way that 8 year old boys avoid baths. Oh, he bragged about his supporters on Facebook, many of whom appeared to be of the “LOL!!!1! LOOK AT HIS WONKEE CHIN!!!?!?!” variety, but that is a dead giveaway of someone who just doesn’t get technology. He doesn’t even have a website, or rather, he has *snigger* an ePolitix one, which is almost even worse. Even his Daily Sport column isn’t published online. So where do all these people who see Lembit on the television have to go? If they Google him, they’ll find a Wikipedia Page, a bland profile on the official party website, his defunct Presidential campaign website and a couple of videos. After that, it’s girls of a weathered and Cheeky variety all the way down. Lembit’s online “narrative” is written almost entirely by other people.

Iain Dale boasted 65,000 absolute unique visitors in November and 578,000 unique visitors in 2008. Given that only a fraction of Daily Sport readers will read Lembit’s column whereas almost all of Dale’s visitors are there because they want to be, those are figures that should give him pause for thought. If Lembit’s media appearances really do help him to reach out to people who would otherwise be unengaged, then he ought to be able to match and even beat Iain Dale’s readership in very little time at all.

It isn’t as if his target audience are somehow not online. Indeed, the people who Lembit claims to be reaching out to are over-represented on the web.

So what I’d really like to see in 2009 is a Lembit Opik blog to put us all in our places. If Lembit is right, then such a blog would climb to prominence quite quickly. What’s more, it would bridge the gap between the programmes he appears on and his politics. He’d win, his critics would be proven wrong but wouldn’t mind and the party would gain a major new asset. So how about it?

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

Torchwood and the Gay Agenda

Never mind Iain Dale’s Gaygate, I spotted an article about the latest series of Torchwood in which the author, John Scott Lewinski (any relation?), has this spot of wisdom:

And, in case fans weren’t aware, Torchwood boss Captain Jack Harkness (pictured) evidently has occasional homosexual tendencies — as does actor John Barrowman. This reporter wasn’t sure if folks had picked up on that subtle plot point communicated in the show’s whispered subtext during the two previous seasons. That fact seems to eclipse what has become a very good sci-fi show.

Assuming this is sarcasm, WTF? The “gayness” has always been an integral part of Torchwood. If sex has, on occasion, got in the way of good plotting, it hasn’t actually been Captain Jack’s “gayness” – indeed he is the only character whose sexuality hasn’t been annoying in the show.

How on Earth can someone tut about the occasional angst-free gay snog, while ignoring the fact that the series was almost destroyed by Gwen and Owen’s disastrous (and conveniently forgotten about) fling in the first season? Indeed, the ugly sex that has marred the series on occasion has almost entirely been heterosexual. You could make the claim that it is heterophobic (I think it was more a case of trying too hard), you could even make the claim that Barrowman’s scenery chewing has got in the way. But Captain Jack’s omnisexuality is one of the few things the series has got right.

Incidentally, you can still support John Barrowman’s penis on Facebook. Stick it to the Daily Mail!

Eight for 2008 – how did I do?

A little under a year ago, I took part in an Iain Dale-initiated meme to make eight predictions for 2008. Here they are again, together with an assessment of how accurate they proved to be:

1. Clegg to learn to trust his instincts, distrust his yes men and subsequently the Lib Dems to get back up to the low twenties in the opinion polls and to make steady progress over the year.

That’s a yes, a no and a no. A year on I’m a little more ambivalent about his instincts as well.

2. After another period of stagnation, and Brown’s Black October a distant memory, the Tories to resume the civil war which was giving them so much fun up until September.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always hope. I completely failed to predict Labour’s continued path to self-destruction for the first six months of 2008. However, the tide has now turned and things don’t look quite so rosy for Cameron and co. I expect some fireworks.

3. A House of Lords Reform Bill to receive its third reading in the Commons (could easily happen and with the next general election now likely to be 2010, there is time to stand down the Lords obstructionists).

In retrospect, this seems remarkably naive. Sure, Labour could have ploughed on with this, but the dim light of hope that Brown might emerge as a true constitutional reformer (which is how he launched his premiership after all) proved utterly naive.

4. Following much faffing about with this upcoming citizen’s summit, the government to formally begin a constitutional convention in which electoral reform is very much on the agenda.

Hah! See point about 3, above. I’m amazed at some of the shit I write sometimes.

5. ID cards to be scrapped.

Sort of half-right. ID cards weren’t scrapped, but the government’s plans did turn out to be utterly unworkable. Instead of scrapping the scheme however, it has adopted a divide-and-rule approach, insisting on farming ID cards out to immigrants and students first.

6. Clegg to hold a third tax commission, rowing back from the disappointing second one which (despite Vince Cable’s assertions) saw us embrace the conservative consensus to cut IHT and a withdrawal in Lib Dem support for wealth taxes.

If only. And with Clegg’s over-exuberant comments over the summer, the hole in our tax policies have just got worse.

7. The government to finally wake up and introduce a German-style feed-in tariff to promote micro-generation.

Success!

8. The public to embrace the Sustainable Communities Act.

Where they have heard about it, they certainly have embraced it, with dozens of councils now signed up to it. The problem is, so few people have heard about it and the Department of Communities and Local Government have been shy about telling them.

Overall: two out of eight. Far too much wishful thinking on my part – I will be far more cynical about 2009.

Justice is in Our DNA

A new Judge Dredd film has been given the go-ahead. The potentially good news is that it is to be produced by DNA Films, the UK outfit behind 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine. io9.com have seen fit to justfy an entirely unsubstantiated rumour that Danny Boyle will direct. Harry Knowles wants Judge Death in it. Personally, I’m still waiting to see if these rumours prove more substantive than the ones about 6 years ago about two Dredd films being filmed back-to-back.

Do I actually want another Judge Dredd film? The first one was a pretty good example of the 90s mindset of taking a comic, ramming it into a Hollywood-approved mould and throwing it back into our faces. It is one of a handful of comic book films that weren’t merely lame, not merely critical and audience flops but seemed calculated to annoy fans of the original works (the other two standout examples being From Hell and LXG).

Since then of course, a whole new generation of comic adaptations have arisen which have, to greater or lesser degrees of success, have been directed by quality film makers who loved – but were not slaves to – the source material. Sam Raimi on the first two Spider-Man films, Brian Singer on the first two X-Men films, Chris Nolan on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The outlook looks a lot better than it did in 1995, at the very least.

But Dredd isn’t your average comic strip. It isn’t a superhero comic and the main character doesn’t have much in the way of introspective, cinegenic angst. He isn’t just “dark” – he spends much of the time being the bad guy (a fact which the 1995 film completely ignored). And it is a satire which takes no prisoners. Turning all that into a film will be a big task.

I’m not sure they can pull it off, but for what it’s worth, here are my tips for making a good Dredd film:

1. Cast Ron Perlman in the lead. He’s the right age, has the right demeanour and – crucially – has the right chin. To say that he risks typecasting after Hellboy is redundant: Perlman was typecast 20 years ago. You won’t find a better Dredd, period. Don’t bother making it unless he’s doing it.

2. Don’t have Judge Death in it. Sorry Harry, but you are wrong. Judge Dredd is, at its heart, a comic strip about future crime. Death would make it into a horror film. Now, a Judge Death film might be good (just think: Hellraiser-meets-Terminator – with jokes!), but it wouldn’t be a Judge Dredd film.

3. Have a strong sympathetic character in conflict with Dredd. Or, to stop beating around the bush, do a Chopper film. Chopper was one of the most popular characters in the first decade of Dredd for a good reason: the audience could identify with him. Making the film about, say, a Supersurf-style illegal race would not only make for some great action scenes, but it would perfectly capture what the Dredd strip is about.

4. Don’t make it about The Judges – this was what I hated the most about the 1995 film: the way they turned the Judges into a quasi-religious order with only the best of intentions. The fallible humans presented in Origins were a vast improvement, but even that sort of strip would be extranneous. We want a film about a future cop, not another political space opera.

5. Other things to avoid: space, other Mega Cities, the Cursed Earth… in short, anything that takes the film away from the essence of the Dredd strip. It is too much detail that will turn it into a soggy mess (like the last film in fact).

6. Two fingers to Rob Schneider! In order to exorcise the demons of the last film, there needs to be some of reference to Rob Schneider and his lamentable film career. How about having a block in his name flattened at some point. Or maybe at some point Dredd could arrest a male prostitute called R. Schneider. The possibilities are endless… the more offensive the better.

Postgate Poll: Ivor surges ahead!

While I am delighted that personal fave Ivor the Engine is doing so well, I have to admit to being surprised. When you hear obituaries about Oliver Postgate, they typically focus on Bagpuss and The Clangers. I love all three enormously, but Ivor has a sublime, nostalgic and – dare I say it? – adult quality that the others lack.

Thanks to Jonathan Calder for the recommendation.

Commenting Freely on Nick Clegg

My article on Clegg’s Demos speech is now up on Comment is Free:

At a time when the Department for Work and Pensions is to be put under renewed pressure, limiting talk of social justice to tax cuts is unconvincing. What’s worse, it is clearly failing to win people over. Today’s ICM poll may show us slightly up, but over the past year the trend has been slightly down. Too much faith has been placed on Vince Cable’s punditry being capable of lifting the rest of the party up with it. Vince has bought the party enormous repositories of credibility but (whisper it) he is an economist not a campaigner. We have no story; we don’t even have any strong, positive messages.

This article was written before Clegg announced his Green Road Out of Recession. So, please note my addendum in the comments!