Tag Archives: culture wars

Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?

Heretical Thinking

Sue Blackmore reports on a pledge which I hadn’t heard of but certainly will comply with, undertaking to write to the BBC and request that they allow atheists, humanists and “brights” (sorry, cannot bring myself to use that term unironically) to speak on Thought for the Day.

The difference between Blackmore’s sensible approach, and the rather more incendiary wording of the pledge itself, is what I’m getting at when I express my wariness about “new” atheism. I’m all for forthright views, but not angry ones. The Atheist Bus Campaign is great because, fundamentally, it is a lighthearted response to something quite genuinely offensive. Blackmore’s emphasis is not on banning Thought for the Day but expanding it – and in the process appraising what it is there to do.

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.

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.

God Trumps: Bonus Cards

The New Humanists’ God Trumps appears to be becoming a bit of a mini-phenomenon. Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson has claimed it is Islamophobic because it pointedly refuses to make any Muslim jokes (the satirical point being made is rather lost of Mr Thompson).

Personally I found the feature quite amusing, but a couple of things irked me about it (both of which are common to a lot of what comes out of humanist stables). First of all, the anti-Catholic sentiment was a little over the top. The simple fact is, most Catholics don’t follow every word the Pope utters to the letter. Indeed, one issue that is ripe for mockery is the way Catholicism seems to accomodate that, allowing Tony Blair into the faith despite helping to start a war which the Pope opposed, and letting people off the hook as long as they confess every now and then. Follower Dedication: 9/10? You must be joking!

The second weakness is the failure to see the funny side about the Godless. Agnostics come in for a hard time, which is well and good. But in lumping secularists, atheists and humanists together into a single category, you end up with a lowest common denominator mush. Do the Godless really only have a wealth rating of 1/10? Some of the richest countries in the world have secular constitutions and secularists have control over a lot of the world’s media? Sounds pretty wealthy to me. And there is a broad spectrum of the Godless. If you are going to mock the agnostics, then why not take a few potshots at the Brights and Outs. It seems to me we need some new cards:

BRIGHTS/OUTIES
Age: founded in 2003 – 1/10
Wealth: small, but growing – 1/10
Follower Dedication: try suggesting not all religious people are eeevil to them and see how they react – 7/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, the name ‘brights’? The urge to slavishly copy evangelicals by having their own bumper stickers? Alvin the Chipmunk has a good look? – 8/10
Weapon of Choice: whining – 8/10
Easily Offended? oh yes – 10/10


QUAKERS
Age: 17th century – 4/10
Wealth: Friends’ Meeting Houses and several foundations and trusts set up by Friends’ after spending a lifetime of rotting children’s teeth – 5/10
Follower Dedication: for goodness’ sake, you can even be a Buddhist Quaker – 3/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, that people should experience the Holy Spirit for themselves and not believe in doctrine? – 3/10
Weapon of Choice: chocolate, porridge – 10/10
Easily Offended? haven’t managed to yet – 1/10


CTHULHU WORSHIP
Age: 11/10
Wealth: when you’re going to be eaten, what need for material possessions? 1/10
Follower Dedication: absolute – 10/10
Daffiest Doctrine: there’s nothing daffy about believing God lies sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and will rise up and eat us all. But in this context – 11/10
Weapon of Choice: Great Cthulhu, of course – 11/10
Easily Offended? He has a thick skin – 1/10

Futurbama

Related to my previous post, I was a little disappointed by this article, which promised so much yet failed to deliver.

The last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place — but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction?

The main thing it lacks is a contrast between sci-fi under Bush with sci-fi under Clinton.

First of all, let’s be clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a product of the Reagan/Bush Snr years: there were only one-and-a-half seasons under Clinton; its optimism was entirely driven by the ending of the Cold War. DS9 and Voyager are authentically Clintonian and they took the franchise down a much darker path than their predeccessor. TNG’s two greatest contribution to Star Trek were the rich development of Klingon culture and, of course, the Borg. The former was a rather more optimistic look at Middle Eastern culture than would ever have emerged post-9/11 while the Borg is of course influenced by communism (although these days, anxieties about assimilation of the individual would no doubt be presumed to be anxieties about Islam).

DS9 and Voyager by contrast gave us ideas about living in a divided society. Both Bajoran and Human societies have their culture wars. The Bajorans are also “good” arabs (Bajor = Kuwait/Saudi Arabia) while the Cardassians are the mean old Syrian/Iranians. Meanwhile, with the humans, Trek was able to explore what was increasingly becoming a divided USA, the Maquis being all but cheerleaders for Ruby Ridge and Waco. You could easily imagine B’Elanna Torres blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building.

How does all this contrast with Star Trek in the Bush Jnr era? I’m not the first to observe that Enterprise was the Bush Doctrine in Space. Captain Archer even resembles Dubya. In the first series they seemed to stumble from one major diplomatic incident to the next. The Xindi were as transparent an analogue of Al Qaeda as you are ever likely to get. As for the fourth season… well, I couldn’t tell you because I had given up by that point.

The main difference between Clintonian sci-fi and Bushian sci-fi is that the latter is far more miserablist. Dare I say that doesn’t necessarily make it bad? In Buffy we had a superhero learning that life was hard, while in Angel we had a vampire discovering that superheroics is equally complicated. Both have in spades something which all too often Star Trek lacked: drama. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica may be darker than the original, but it is far superior.

And while in the post-9/11 world we may have lacked the spectacle of Independence Day, we still have hope. Children of Men is about as dark a film as you can get outside of Schindler’s List, but its ending is far more emotionally uplifting than any 90s cheesefest managed to deliver. As I wrote in my Watchmen post below, entropy is a key theme in 90s sci-fi, but there is always some measure of hope, and that leads to a pretty mighty payoff when it is made to work well. Think the ending of Sunshine or the flashes of hopefulness during the darker points in Spider-Man (1 & 2 – the less said about 3 the better, sadly).

How will this change under Obama? Well, the io9 article cited above already points to the new Star Trek film and its return to a 60s ethic. But the transition film, thinking about it, may yet end up being The Dark Knight. Characteristically Bushian in its darkness, the film is riddled appeals to hope and optimism. In a year characterised by elections, one of its key motifs (borrowed from The Long Halloween) is the election slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent” – Obama might have used that one. There surely can be no doubt that this theme about how the hopes and dreams of the people can be embodied in a single good man (even if it is a blond, white man rather than a dark-haired, mixed race man) was tapping into the same undercurrent that Obama’s campaign was also taking advantage of. It ends with not only The Joker defeated, but The Batman recognising the best thing he can do is disappear. The time of madness is at an end.

So, we can probably expect a period of greater optimism in our science fiction. Let’s hope they don’t get too carried away however and shut down their critical faculties. Bush may not have done much for world stability, but he’s been a gift for sci-fi.

From Smallville to Metropolis: how Obama represents the American Dream

I sincerely hope this post isn’t seen as being disrespectful to someone who was clearly a remarkable woman, but Madelyn Dunham’s death today has a weird kind of appositeness. I’m hardly the first person to point out the almost fictional-feeling narrative of Barack Obama’s election campaign. He has a background that is almost too perfect, pretty much ticking every box going. He is almost a living cliche. The death of his grandmother just hours before polling (formally) begins sort of caps that off.

The similarities to the West Wing Seasons 6-7 narrative have been well rehearsed (and of course, that plot features an emotionally charged death in the finishing stages as well – which again was a case of reality and art getting mixed up). What is less clearly recognised in the UK are the surreal similarities to the Superman narrative, although this is clearly something not lost on Obama himself. A strange visitor from another continent (work with me here, I’m paraphrasing), who never knew his father yet lives in his shadow, raised by an elderly couple in Kansas, who goes to the big city to make himself… just watch Superman: The Motion Picture (still the best telling of the origin story) to see what I mean. In fiction, everything has a price. It is necessary for Jonathan Kent to die so Clark can become Superman. If you believe in a creator, it is a pretty cruel one who makes Obama pay a similar price on (hopefully) the eve of his victory.

But of course the Superman narrative is about as American as it gets – the outsider who not only integrates into the culture but becomes its paragon. It’s the story that makes non-American cynics like myself capable of forgiving the young country every time. That same optimism that makes Donner’s film so evocative (and which Bryan Singer got so horribly wrong in his poorly-conceived sequel) is what fuels the Obama campaign. By contrast I can see nothing of the American Dream in the McCain-Palin campaign, just something much darker. Even Bush didn’t so self-consciously set out to divide his own country in the way that certainly the Palin camp has done. It is truly scandalous.

I have to admit that at the start of the summer I would enjoy going around winding lefties up by saying I really didn’t particularly mind who won; McCain or Obama. I wasn’t entirely joking – McCain really did represent something different: finance reform, respect for human rights, economic liberalism. At a stroke however he reversed all that by appointing Palin at the end of August and I was able to not so much come off the fence, but leap off it.

So good luck from me Barack. I still have my doubts about your substance, but what you represent is something pretty damn important. You really must win today.

Global Peace and Unity: only connect

On Saturday night, I was on a Northern Line train heading back to north London. At Charing Cross, a group of Asian youths got on the carriage, five girls and three boys. The girls were all wearing headscarves and trousers, but had full makeup on. The boys were manhandling the girls in a way reminiscent of, well, most horny teenage boys – and were hardly being put off.

I mention this because one of the girls – and manhandlees – was wearing a tshirt that identified her as a warden of the Global Peace and Unity Conference which I happened to be aware was taking place because of this piece on Lib Dem Voice. That debate – essentially over whether the Policy Exchange should be “privately briefing” against the conference and whether Clegg (along with several other senior politicians) was right to attend the conference – has continued raging over the last few days. David T from Harry’s Place has been wading in to criticise Clegg for attending the event, likening it to a White Supremecist rally.

It all sounds rather reminiscent of the debate over the 2003 anti-war demo. Back then I was on opposite sides with Harry. Now I am… erm…

Having looked at the Policy Exchange document (word file here, still not available via main PE website as far as I can see, cheers Alex Hilton Andy Hinton), I agree it is somewhat dodgy. Some of the biographies are tenuous at best and criticising people for selling shahadah headbands on the basis they are associated with Hamas is desperate to say the least. But for all the fluff, there are some genuinely concerning people mentioned on that list.

But you have to weigh that up against the fact that it is a genuine opportunity to engage with tens of thousands of British Muslims. This includes the teenagers I encountered on the tube on Saturday night. If they were hardline Hamas supporters, they had a funny way of showing it. Should we really write off an opportunity to connect with them, show them solidarity, because there are other people on the platform we don’t approve of? Should Clegg really have used his ten minute slot, as David T suggests, to hector the audience about the ne’er-do-wells they may or may not have listened to that day as well? What would that achieve apart from earn Clegg a few brownie points in the blogosphere?

There are no hard and fast principles Clegg should be sticking to here, only rough and messy pragmatism. If politicians are serious about engaging with the Muslim community, they have to go to them; the mountain must come to Mohammed. The potential reward? The opportunity to pull people away from the extremists.

Is it comparable to Clegg (or anyone else) attending the BNP’s annual Red, White and Blue Festival? No, because mainstream white Britons don’t attend it in any significant numbers. The Lib Dems should engage with BNP voters, but the way we do that is on the doorstep.

Back in 2003, we were told off by Harry’s Place and others for participating in the anti-war demo on the basis that it was also attended by Muslim extremists and the far left. As anyone who was there can tell you however, all those groups were drowned out into insignificance by the large numbers of ordinary members of the public. I very much hope that after this latest event and the controversy surrounding it, Clegg, Jack Straw, Dominic Grieve et al are getting together to discuss how they might collectively encourage the GPU event further into the mainstream. But start boycotting it? They’d be insane to.