Tag Archives: nine wishes for 2009

Nine wishes for 2009 #8: for me to get a chance to pursue some personal projects

Its 1am on 15 January 2009 and I still haven’t finished my “nine wishes” for the year. How crap am I?

That very crapness is what I want to address, at least in passing, in number eight. By the end of 2008, I was frankly a bit of a misery guts. There are lots of reasons for that – the relentless media refrain of “we’re all dooooomed!!!” doubtless hasn’t helped much – but one of the reasons was that 2008 was just so busy for me.

Workwise, we have been on an upward spiral – but it has been tough. Barely finding a window to take my annual leave, I ended up taking the bulk of it at the end of the year. I barely found the chance to think for myself and it took a toll both on my cheeriness and on this blog.

I want 2009 to be different. Starting with my request for ideas for things I could do to cheer me up, I’ve ended up taking on a number of commitments – arguably too many.

Most of them I can’t talk about right now (but you’ll find out soon enough). Suffice to say that among these are plans to overhaul Liberal Drinks and develop some ideas which might increase take up, and to revive my plans for Reflecting Britain.

Unlike most of my other wishes, this one is entirely in my hands. Watch this space.

Nine wishes for 2009 #7: The Watchmen Movie to not suck (spoilers/guesses)

God, all my wishes are getting pretty forlorn, aren’t they? I’ve written about the upcoming Watchmen film fairly recently. What I will add is that I spent the early hours of Sunday morning watching the various promos and video diaries that the production team have been pumping out on the internet about it. The portents are not great, I’m afraid to report.

Two of them give me particular pause for concern, the first possibly unreasonably. This film is about how kewl the Owlship is going to be. If I were a fourteen year old, and this was a Batman film, I would be excited. As it stands, the Owlship is a very minor part of the Watchmen aesthetic: it gives the second Nite-Owl a gimmick (a gimmick almost wholly ripped off from Blue Beetle, unsurprisingly) and gets the characters from A to B. It’s an egg-shaped thing with windows – what’s to get excited about (okay, I’ll admit it – I got ridiculously excited about the Batmobile in the 1989 film. There. Happy now?)?

But to be fair, this film is probably little more than the production team bigging up their contribution. Good for them. Up the workers I say. No, what really worries me is this film about the Silk Spectre. Leave aside the sexed up costume for a minute – I can live with that (although I’ve never understood this longstanding comic book movie tradition of turning superhero costumes into fetish wear). What really worries me is hearing Zack Snyder and the actress Malin Akerman describe the character as some kind of feminist icon. She “kicks ass” – she’s “awesome.” She even represents, ahem, “woman power“.

In the comic, Laurie is actually quite a passive character. She goes along with what her mother wants, then goes along with what Doctor Manhattan wants. Admittedly, she does convince Manhattan to save the world but she doesn’t do it through the power of her womanly fists but through, er, talking. Almost none of the fighting you see in the film clips actually happen in the comic.

Now, I have nothing wrong with strong female characters (although this interpretation does seem to be more of a strong male character in a woman’s body) and I understand that they have to up the action ante for the film. But the overall tone I keep hearing on these promo clips is that the interpretation that Zack Snyder is going for is rather reminiscent of all those dreadful post-Watchmen comics of the late eighties and early nineties.

You remember? When everything went grim, gritty and “realistic”? When Rob Liefield was the hottest artist on the planet (shivers)? The Dark Knight Returns shares responsibility for that particularly shallow period of comic book creativity, but a selective reading of Watchmen is also to blame. The watershed moment was Rorschach winning the Eagle Award for “Character Most Worthy of Own Title.” Yes, what the comics reading public wanted was a strip about a completely insane, psychopathic character which was parodying Steve Ditko‘s Ayn Rand obsessions. Just as a lot of comic readers think that Judge Dredd is an advertisement for zero tolerance summary justice, a lot of the freaks considered Rorschach, The Comedian et al to be heroes.

The Watchmen is about a bunch of misfits who ultimately fail to make a difference. They don’t save the world – in fact they make it a more dangerous place. At lot of people looked at all the pretty pictures and failed to notice that in the late eighties. My current fear is that Zack Snyder was one of them.

On the plus side, the Japanese trailer for the film does look a lot more interesting (I like the JFK appearance – including the revelation of the true assassin), even if the scenes in the “situation room” do look a bit like a camped up version of Dr Strangelove. There may be hope yet.

Why does any of this matter? Well, to be quite honest it doesn’t really. It’s just that while I think I would have preferred it if they hadn’t tried making this particular classic into a film, I’m going to spend my money watching it anyway so it might as well not be a soul-destroying three hours of my life.

Ultimately all I really wish for is that it ends up being no worse than the film version of V for Vendetta, which I have a sneaking affection for. The fact that they took such liberties with V is, in my view, a selling point. I think they got close to the heart of the story (even if they did cop out at the end) in the way that I fear Watchmen won’t.

Nine wishes for 2009 #6: the EU to get real

You never know, it’s just possible this might happen.

2008 presented a real quandary for me: on the one hand, I was (not uncritically) supportive of the European Constitutional Treaty. Its mutation into the Lisbon Treaty made it weaker still, removing one of the main advantages of the Constitutional Treaty in the first place (specifically, that it was a clean slate and relatively easy to read compared to trying to follow a succession of amending treaties), but on balance it contained just enough good things in it for me to have voted “yes” in any referendum.

On the other hand, such a referendum was not forthcoming. I may be pro-European, but I’m also a democrat. I don’t believe the only way of ratifying a treaty like Lisbon is to hold a referendum, but we needed some kind of procedure to ratify it which recognised it was more than just another act of Parliament. There are many ways this could have been done – a super majority in both House of Parliament or two votes on either side of a general election – but fundamentally, the vote would have been lost whichever way you did it. And just to add an extra layer of cynicism, the Lib Dems came up with this idea of having a referendum on membership as a whole, knowing that neither of the other parties would back it, just so they could have a figleaf to put on their Focus leaflets.

And all that I could live with if the pro-European parties were prepared to stick their necks out and actually argue the case for European Union. Except they don’t, fearing it will make them unpopular.

Either way, by June it looked like this whole sorry exercise was over. Then, Ireland threw a spanner in the works by – uncharacteristically – voting “no” in their own referendum. Since then we have been in limbo, with no-one seeming to have a clue what to do next.

Unlike some, I don’t think Ireland’s decision to now have a second referendum is undemocratic. If the political class in Ireland feel confident that the public will change their mind and vote accordingly second time around, that is fine with me. I’m amazed they’re doing it though; if I were Irish I’d be very tempted to vote “no” just to spite them. The money is on a second “no” vote surely; isn’t it just delaying the inevitable.

The whole debacle is part of a wider failure of the EU’s political class to provide leadership on, well, pretty much anything over the past decade (Timothy Garton Ash showed the extent of the EU’s failure in his Guardian column last week). Enlargement and the Euro have been successes but all the heavy lifting for both of those we done in the nineties. All we’ve had since then is a lot of petty squabbling and a tunnel vision obsession about fiddling with the institutions.

This needs to change, finally, in 2009. Following the second Irish referendum the Lisbon Treaty will be either alive or as dead as dead can be; the zombie-shuffle of the past six months will finally be at an end. The first thing we have to take steps to ensure is that some of the more dim EU leaders don’t start drawing up plans for a Son-of-Lisbon Treaty. Instead, we have got to make do with what we have.

Secondly, we have major challenges to tackle. Immediately, there is the Middle East Crisis of course. By the end of 2009 we have the replacement of the Kyoto Protocol to worry about. And then of course there is how we deal with Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, the global economic downturn… all of these amount to a clear need for the EU to get serious and stop dicking around.

The Lib Dems can do their bit by campaigning in the European Parliamentary elections as an actual pro-European party rather than trying to dazzle people with irrelevancies. The decision to run the elections at the same time as the County Council elections won’t make this easy, and if we have a general election as well, debate about Europe will more or less dry up completely. But after spending 2008 in such a mess, it would be good to see us finally articulating an unambiguously positive vision for Europe. No-one else is going to.

Nine wishes for 2009 #5: Comics I care about

Yoink! These nine wishes for 2009 were meant to be done and dusted by 31 December. Nevertheless, I shall plough on…

I’m a geek, to paraphrase Nick Clegg, by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing (the latter is all too true – my dad made me watch Alien when I was 8 FFS! He would also blare out War of the Worlds at 11pm. My earliest memories were reading science fiction and horror mags on my parents’ bed and the excitement surrounding Star Wars and Close Encounters – really was there any hope for me?).

So it comes as no surprise that, despite being in my mid-thirties, I have an unusually large comic collection (the only geek I know who doesn’t read comics is Will Howells. Bad Will! No biscuit!). But I have this problem: they aren’t exciting me like they used to.

My first comics were the Beano (but not the Dandy – rubbish!) and the eighties Eagle. From there it was but a short step to 2000AD during its bog paper, black and white glory days and with the eighties UK comics brain drain in full swing, moving onto US comics was all but inevitable. Highlights have included: too many Judge Dredd stories to mention, but in particular Block Mania, Chopper’s escape to Oz and the revelation of the identity of The Dead Man; Nemesis the Warlock; Halo Jones (I could mention loads of Alan Moore stuff, but this is the one that inspired me the most, oddly); Grant Morrison’s greatest hits (Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles); The Sandman; Preacher; The Adventures of Luthor Arkwright. More recently, Nikolai Dante has had its moments. Morrison’s run on X-Men was good and Joss Whedon’s follow up was great too. I whizzed through Mike Carey’s Lucifer last year after, wrongly, assuming for years that it was just another worthless Sandman spin-off (Vertigo have only themselves to blame for that assumption, but that’s another story).

But the sort of buzz I felt during the late eighties and nineties isn’t there any more. Don’t misunderstand me, I recognise that to an extent I am merely a little jaded and that is unavoidable. And there is still good stuff out there. Buffy Season Eight, while patchy, is generally strong. 2000AD has been consistent (but not amazing) for a good decade now going through a very bad period before. You can’t switch brilliance on like a tap but I don’t think 2000AD can be accused of doing anything to piss on their chips.

I think my dilemma is threefold. Firstly, the demise of Comics International. To be clear (last year I bemoaned the state of the magazine and got ticked off by Burt for my trouble), it does appear to be a going concern and at least one of the problems for its erratic publishing schedule over the past couple of years has been the editor’s ill health, but it is a far cry from the rigorous monthly schedule that Dez Skinn managed to work to for 15 years. I hope that if they do get it back up and running, they go back to basics. When it was launched, CI was a free newsheet printed on newsprint which offered news, reviews, and pretty much nothing else. I don’t miss anything else; I do miss that basic service. It is a bit of an embarrassing thing to admit as somone who likes to think of himself as generally web-savvy, but I can’t get my head around using the web as a news source for my comics. Something does not compute. Nothing feels as natural as a few pages of news I can pore over on the tube home from the shops (I depend on Empire for similar reasons).

Secondly, I find it really hard to get into the indie-scene these days. Even though I’ve never actually lived in the East Midlands, I occasionally used to go to Page 45 for some of their special events. In particular, they ran a great open day in 1996. Ostensibly a day to promote Dave Sim‘s latest UK tour (I continued to collect Cerebus up until it ended even though I basically gave up reading it during the last few years as he seemed to get increasingly bonkers – needless to say I don’t share his views), they invited lots of other independent comic creators as well. Since the queue to get stuff signed by Sim and Gerhard was so long, you ended up going around and talking to all the creators. I ended up buying stuff from pretty much everyone, discovering a passion for, among others, Kane, Sleaze Castle and Dix (the cartoonist on the brilliant Roll Up! Roll Up! which ran in the Guardian a few years ago before they criminally cancelled it. Thanks to the magic of teh internets you can now own a collected edition – buy it now!). But as you’ll have seen by following those links, those particular wells of creative talent have either mutated (Jack Staff is good, but nothing like as good as Kane) or dried up entirely.

Are Page 45 still organising such open days? If they are, I never read about them even when CI was coming out regularly. Back in London these days, the closest to Page 45 is Gosh! – they often do signings, but don’t seem to use them as an opportunity to do something more ambitious. Maybe in 2009, this might change.

My third problem though seems much more intractable. I’ve always tended to read DC more than Marvel. This is simply because DC used 2000AD as a recruitment brochure in the eighties and took a lot of the fanbase with them. Slowly I got sucked in, loving Keith Giffen’s take on the Justice League and the post-John Byrne Superman (an era which effectively ended with the death and rebirth storyline). Having stayed away for a few years, I ended up picking up 52 and some of the other Infinite Crisis spinoffs and tie-ins.

Now, 52 was a well executed and enjoyable series – a year in the life told in real time. The problem is, it was such a success that they immediately issued a sequel – Countdown – which in turn was a prequel of Final Crisis – which in turn was a sequel to Infinite Crisis (and sort of a sequel to Seven Soldiers of Victory) – which in turn was a sequal to the Crisis on Infinite Earths (and that’s just the simplified version). The idea that the Infinite Crisis had created 52 alternate universes (after the Crisis of Infinite Earths destroyed the “infinite” alternates and merged them into one, the revamped eighties DC universe), is essentially lame, lazy and, as you will have seen by reading this paragraph, incredibly confusing. Add to this the “is he? isn’t he?” death of Batman at the end of last year, and an alternate timeline in the latest weekly series Trinity, and you have a terribly stodgy mess. The problem with all these tie-ins, cross-overs and spin-offs is that it utterly alienates the casual reader. DC seems to have decided that their future lies in giving the hardcore dizzyingly complex onanistic wank. I’ve put up with it for a year longer than I should have done and expect to more or less drop all my DC titles later this year.

Marvel also seem to be going out of their way to alienate readers by producing company-wide meta-narrative after company-wide meta-narrative even if by all acounts they are doing it much better. But again, how do you get on board? Browsing through trade paperbacks in Borders and the specialist shops, I haven’t the foggiest where to start with, say, Civil War.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is rooted in the fact that both of these companies have discovered that they have such large back catalogues now that the casual reader has plenty to churn through before running out and wanting to look at the latest stuff. Want to get into Batman? Most “top ten” lists include Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Long Halloween and Arkham Asylum. Most of the Marvel films are mining stories from the sixties which you can read in their Masterworks series of books. So even if they did make the new stuff more accessible, I suspect they would get very little out of it in terms of improved sales.

As someone who is more than a casual reader but much less than the hardcore, this is a problem. Are there really so few of us out there though? I just think it is a real shame that as comics finally enter the mainstream, they seem to be having such a creative lull. And while there is undoubtedly good stuff out there to be found, finding it seems to be becoming harder and harder. Anyone got any suggestions?

Nine wishes for 2009 #4: An end to “money for nothing”

I’ve spent days resisting blogging this wish because, quite frankly, I don’t think it will happen. But it certainly is a dearest wish, so it makes the cut.

What I mean by “money for nothing” is the tendency of the late 20th and early 21st century to look at everything as if it were capital to be exploited, and yet at the same time to think that capital doesn’t behave like capital any more. When the classical economists wrote about capital, they were, in the main talking about widgets – things you build. They can make you a lot of money but they always break, rust or wear out in the end, and then you have to buy new widgets. Stocks and shares were part ownership of big widgets, and ultimately behaved by the same laws.

(As an aside, my reading of Locke’s definition of “property” is that it informed and is essentially the same as the classical economist notion of “capital” – it is one of the reasons I despair about this modern vogue for rightwing libertarianism in which people invoke Locke only to insist that when he talked about “property” he was referring to everything you might happen to “own” even though it contradicts his whole argument about rights to “property” coming about due to self ownership.)

We’ve been moving away from that model for 200 years, but in the last two decades it accelerated. Everything, from homes to public services to loans, became capitalised. Intellectual property, at the same time, has become less like capital as the limitations of copyright get extended and patents become renewable (I ended 2007 by declaring the 21st century to be dominated by IP Wars – we ended 2008 with the government capitulating and agreeing to extend recording copyright). Speculation, speculation on speculation and even speculation on speculation on speculation has become a central part of our finance system. All talk about “value” – financial value never mind ethical or social value – has become lost.

I’m not convinced that much will happen to change. The Lib Dems’ Green New Deal is very welcome indeed, but we don’t appear to be saying very much to ensure that the economy changes course – we aren’t arguing for much more than a greener, kinder version of the status quo. Brown just seems to be firing off in entirely random directions and even though I’m not convinced that piling up the national debt is the big problem the Tories keep claiming it is, my mind does boggle how he can keep coming up with more and more spending commitments with no idea how he intends to pay for it all. As for the Tories themselves, well, they appear to have looked at Japan in the nineties and said to themselves “we’ll have some of that!” Having got us into this mess, dragging the rest of the political class in the mire with them, their new approach seems to simply be to wallow.

Like I say, I don’t expect this wish to be fulfilled. Yet strangely, almost every day I seem to hear a new person expressing it. Are we looking at a longer term shift in attitudes? Either way, we won’t know for sure by the end of 2009.

Nine wishes for 2009 #3: The State’s assault on Civil Liberties to begin to reverse

2008 was the year in which the gaff was well and truly blown on the government’s relentless drive to have every one of us “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered.” Starting with the data leaks scandals at the end of 2007, we had a steady trickle of revelations about how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is being casually abused by local authorities. The year ended with the revelation (courtesy of David Howarth) that the injuries which the police used as a pretext for raiding the eco-protest camp outside Kingsnorth power station included insect bites and toothache. We had an open verdict at the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest and police raiding Parliament without even bothering to try obtaining a warrant. All of this adds up to a state that is running completely out of control.

Domestic terrorism – the original pretext for all those extra state and police powers – has drifted down the agenda. So have we seen a reversal of the encroachment of civil liberties? Not really. Jacqui Smith’s response to the growing realisation that her plans for a national identity card scheme was completely unrealistic has been to adopt a divide-and-rule approach, targeting immigrants and smelly students and extending the full implementation of the scheme to 2011/2012. The near defeat in the House of Commons of the proposals to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days was followed by a total defeat in the Lords and the abandonment of the project by the government (ditto the plans to hold politically inconvenient inquests in secret). But this happened almost hand-in-hand with the announcement of government plans to begin recording the details of every email, telephone call and website visit made in the UK.

And while the Tories have, in the main, become born-again civil libertarians in recent years, it is clear that their opposition is only skin deep. David Davis’ resignation, it appears, was rooted out of a desire to force Cameron to not abandon opposition to 42 days. In this respect, it appears to have been successful. But almost instantly afterwards, his successor announced plans to increase police powers. And let’s not forget that under the Tories, the police would be more politicised than ever, with police commissioners directly elected (I should point out at this point that the Lib Dems want directly elected members of police authorities but a) this is far less problematic than electing commissioners themselves and b) I don’t agree with them either!).

Like the environment, the problem with the creeping assault on civil liberties is not that politicians are acting against the wishes of the electorate, but in the face of broad indifference. Unlike the environment, I don’t think the problem is quite as intractable. Liberty’s recent ComRes poll suggests why. Support for the rights protected by the HRA are extremely high, yet the general public has not made the connection. Given the lack of public information on the subject (“only 13% remember ever seeing or receiving any information from the Government explaining the legislation” – I’m amazed it is that high; I work in the sector and have seen sod all from the government on the subject), that isn’t entirely surprising.

So what’s to be done? Fortunately, plans are already in place for a Convention for Modern Liberty, supported by the Guardian, Liberty, Amnesty, NO2ID, Unlock Democracy, Open Democracy and Liberal Conspiracy. My hope is that this will lead to a significant shift in attitude. For that to happen however, the Convention will have to be the spark of something big; not another organisation but an upswing in civil liberties-based activism around the country. In this respect, the London-based event by itself is less significant than the satellite local and regional events around the country.

We certainly need a debate, but following that we need people who will be willing to take a stand. It isn’t enough for people to say they support civil liberties, only for them to vote for an MP who is part of the problem at the next general election. For the Convention to have been worth the time and effort being put into it, it needs to lead to thousands upon thousands of letters being sent to MPs, local public meetings, lobbies and hustings.

I would urge all readers of this blog to:
1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

And as for the Lib Dems, I would urge them to be pushy. Both Clegg and Huhne are speaking at the Convention event on 28 February; make sure they get a good reception by promoting the event via your various networks (including the party’s central email list). Include a civil liberties-related story in every Focus leaflet you publish this year. If there are events happening in your area, make sure you attend. If there aren’t, make sure your local party is sets one up. The party could achieve a lot by riding the coat-tails of this one, both in terms of forcing the other parties to take it more seriously and by recruiting sympathisers to the party. It has many of the benefits of the anti-war march in 2003 but without the risk of sharing a platform with people who are predominantly out in the far left fringe.

In short, this is an O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y (like most campaign gifts, it tends to need to be spelt out) – seize it with both hands!

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?