Today is the distinguished Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England on 18 September 1709, Johnson is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He is undoubtedly a key figure in the Enlightenment and the development of the modern English language. When I was pondering the remarkable work of Johnson, I recalled a story within an oration by Christopher Hitchens. Addressing the issue of free speech, Hitchens describes a curious exchange shortly after the publication of Johnson’s first dictionary. The following short passage is from a transcript of Hitchens’ speech, made at Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club in November 2006.
When it was complete, Dr. Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, of the nobility, of the quality, of the Commons, of the Lords — and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London, who tended on him at his Fleet Street lodgings, and congratulated him. “Dr. Johnson,” they said, “we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.” “Ladies,” said Dr. Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”
To be clear, we undoubtedly live in a world in which there is great injustice, hatred and bigotry. But we spend far too much time arguing about trivialities, rather than focusing on what really matters. If you actively seek offence, then you shall surely find it. Aidan
A scene from the religious satire, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979, directed by Terry Jones.
My latest podcast, Notes on Belief, in which I argue that beliefs matter and are open to reasonable scrutiny.
The phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was famously offered by Carl Sagan as a response to beliefs formed despite a lack of tangible certification. Christopher Hitchens, likewise, stated that, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
These quotes typify my approach to unsubstantiated claims and superstitious beliefs. I released a podcast on June 15, Notes on Belief, which was well-received by the majority of those who heard it (and listened to the argument carefully). As I was so grateful to receive such positive feedback, I have decided – in case you missed them – to point out a selection of other Aidan Project podcasts in which irrational religious beliefs are rightly challenged. I am quite sure that more such episodes will follow, as there are no shortage of theocratic outrages deserving criticism, in the past, in the present and, inevitably, in the future.
It is imperative that society tackles the issues surrounding belief honestly. No free pass for religion, ever. My mission is to speak candidly and to challenge abhorrent ideas.
Liberalism does not mean rolling over for fear of causing offence. Liberalism means standing up for decency and veracity in pursuit of a just world, not apologising for the obscenities of others. I want to do something during my fleeting existence that, even in the most minute way, pushes society towards a brighter future. It is a rather modest, microscopic, contribution amongst such a vast array of discourse, but it is my own.
The River Orwell is a small river which runs through East Anglia. The Atlantic Ocean is a foreboding sea which separates Albion from America. Across the latter, a surprise election result led to the inauguration on 20 January 2017 of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Eric Blair was born far from either of these waters in Motihari, India in 1903, but his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, released in 1949, has once again dashed to the top of the literary bestsellers. The novel has been widely cited for uncanny comparisons with the new order across the Atlantic. Blair, who took the pen name ‘George Orwell’, was not right about everything, but he was right about all too much.
The question as to why Blair chose his famous nom de plume has never been settled to complete satisfaction. It has been speculated that the choice of forename was inspired by the patron Saint of England, St. George, but perhaps too much is made of this. Orwell, although often regarded as a quintessential Englishman, was a man of many contradictions, including those of national identity. Too many contradictions, indeed, to be certain of this link. Moreover, Orwell, though he distrusted intellectuals, was one himself, and would have known that St. George was no Englishman.
Much less spurious is the surname. To understand this, we need not venture out of Suffolk. Orwell’s connections to East Anglia were an important part of his private life, and it is all but certain that his famous surname flowed from the River Orwell. To explore the alias further, considering how combative Orwell was in his attacks on totalitarianism, one could regard ‘George Orwell’ less as a pseudonym, more of a nom de guerre.
When Orwell’s father retired from colonial service in India in 1921, Richard and Ida Mabel Blair settled in Southwold, Suffolk. Their son followed in Richard’s footsteps to serve the Empire abroad, having passed a training course in the town. But Orwell returned to Suffolk five years later; disillusioned, despairing Imperialism, and seeking a new direction.
Through his many challenges, not least the poor health that ultimately led to his death in 1950, he would often return to Southwold. With fish and chips, sea air and no fear of Big Brother, Orwell could take a gentle stroll along the pier, or a quick dip into the sea, and consider his next move. A Clergyman’s Daughter, published in 1935, was kindled by his time in Southwold, which is substituted for the invented Suffolk proxy of Knype Hill.
Orwell cared little for the novel and rather disowned Knype Hill, but never did he disown Southwold. Likewise, Southwold embraced Orwell. A tribute to a man so passionate about defending what he believed in (he even took a fascist bullet to the throat in Spain) takes pride of place on Southwold’s pier wall. And quite right, too. For Orwell, perhaps all English coastal towns were equal, but some English coastal towns were more equal than others.
“Americans on both sides should find a way to address the lethal ideology of Islamism. This standoff is a distraction.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
9 February 2017
I have provided this companion piece to put to writing one of the most surreal examples of the Regressive Left‘s insatiable desire for self-strangulation and to address what I will simply call ‘bad ideas’. Enter the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an organisation which incomprehensibly included Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a list of dangerous extremists in October 2016.
The SPLC describes itself as ‘combating hate, intolerance, and discrimination through education and litigation’. There is no question that the SPLC has been responsible for a number of admirable successes in tackling intolerance, but it has now gone completely off course. Indeed, by adding Nawaz and Ali to a list of persons it alleges exploit terrorist attacks to demonize the Islamic faith, the left has struck a new low of inexplicable moral confusion.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a heroic icon of would-be Islamic Enlightenment. Fleeing an arranged marriage and the confines of a strict Islamic upbringing, Ali found asylum in the Netherlands, where she embraced liberal, democratic values. Ali, who admits in her book that in her indoctrinated youth she supported the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, is now a brave campaigner for Islamic reform. A dangerous job, which she tackles with immense courage and intelligence.
Maajid Nawaz now operates a counter-radicalization group called Quilliam. Nawaz, a former Islamist himself, speaks with insight about Islam, and makes clear the distinctions between Muslims, Islamists and Jihadists. A distinction all too often confused by the real Islamaphobes, who address all groups as one. Unfortunately, to his enemies on the left, Nawaz is – in true regressive fashion – labelled as Islamophobic, while his opponents on the right infer that he is a secret Islamist on a mission of infiltration. What a sorry state of affairs.
The SPLC would certainly go on my list of regressive liberal organisations which have completely lost the plot. The poverty of progress could not be more pronounced than with this embarrassing own goal by the SPLC. What chance, I ask, does the left have in winning the moral and progressive argument when its own best assets of informed reason are themselves attacked as extremists? It is not only the right which have moved to post-truth, the left is at it as well.
The wider debate continues, and whilst the left argues with itself about Islam, immigration, healthcare, the economy – and anything else worth debating – there is only one winner, and it is not the left. To be sure, the left has always been at war with itself, but I simply do not believe it needs to be this way. We just need some honesty. Real honesty. Perhaps even uncomfortable honesty. We urgently need to have difficult conversations that do not confuse the true essence of liberal democracy. Bad ideas must be challenged by good ones. And there are some really bad ideas out there.
Perhaps, even with the left totally confused and impotent, Trump would still have won, and Brexit would still have happened. However, at least with a sensible, honest left, there would be a united opposition to Trump’s bigotry. As it happens, large sections of the left are willing to defend bigotry and misogyny, as long, of course, if it is done in the name of good-old-fashioned religion. But there is no such tolerance for the President. Would Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” utterance be okay if it was merely the sincere expression of a deeply held belief based on his closely observed religious faith? Is this not ever so slightly patronising and hypocritical to condemn Trump but let the zealots off from their nonsense because of their supernatural beliefs? Let us be clear: neither Trump nor the devout should get a pass for bad ideas. It is quite proper to expect more from all members of society. There is nothing more regressive than letting bad ideas slide for fear of causing offence. You should never have to apologise for bad ideas.
We must be able to say honestly, in the 21st century, that desiring to throw homosexuals off buildings for the “crime” of their sexuality is wrong, regardless of religious belief. I am not an Islamaphobe for saying that. If you are willing to defend the right of any religion to hold such pernicious views then you are part of the problem. If you want honest debate and want to help challenge the nonsense of the Regressive Left, please do share my message. Please also support Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz.
“Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
29 December 2016
The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians remains as contentious as ever, but other issues in the Middle East in 2016, principally the conflict in Syria, momentarily sidelined the Palestinian question from the front pages. However, the recent vote of the United Nations Security Council to declare Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal has again raised the conflict’s media profile. The UNSC decision was only made possible due to then US President, Barack Obama, making the controversial call that the US would not use its veto to counteract the motion. The Israel-Palestine question gained further traction when then President-elect, Donald Trump, said he would reverse Obama’s policy. If we are approaching anything resembling peace, if not order, in Syria, following the truce brokered by Russia and Turkey, it could be that the Middle East’s big story in 2017 will again be this long-running dispute between Israeli and Palestine.
The nation of Israel itself was created in 1948, when the United Kingdom ended its mandate of Palestine, which it had held since 1917 following the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration had installed Palestine as a home for Jews. The key rationale for Britain handing Palestine back to the United Nations was essentially to focus on domestic matters, the Empire having been ravaged by war. Britain could no longer hold on to Palestine; attacks on British soldiers by Zionist terrorists certainly helped foster a feeling that this was a territory no longer worth holding. Of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I would have no hesitation in calling a Palestinian who blows himself to pieces on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv a terrorist, but I would also freely refer to the 1946 attack on the King David hotel by Irgun (The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel) as an act of terrorism. On July 22 1946, 91 people of various nationalities were killed, and 46 injured, following the bombing by this right-wing Zionist group.
This example is not given to be provocative, but to illustrate that perspective is everything. In both cases, I feel acts of terrorism were committed. Others may feel one of these examples to be completely justifiable (according to their religious, nationalist or political persuasions), whilst labelling the other example as unjust. To each their own.
Since the political existence of Israel as a nation state, it has been attacked on numerous occasions by its Arab neighbours, and has been the victim of countless terrorist attacks. Ironically, the results of these wars have generally been victories and additional territory acqusitions for Israel. You will often hear the term “1967 borders”, which refers to the Six Day War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, soundly defeating a coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. You mess with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at your peril. Not only do you get a beating, but you leave with less than you started with.
The territory of Israel comprises some of the most holy lands in existence for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Depending on your interpretation of history and how far you wish to go back in time, there are numerous claims to the land, and most crucially, that of Jerusalem itself. Despite a long-term peace process and the general reconciliation of Israel with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis and Palestinians have failed to reach a final peace agreement. Indeed, it has been complicated from the very beginning of Israel’s statehood. There were factions within the Jewish faith that were opposed to Jews returning to what is now Israel at the time of the Balfour Declaration due to religious objections. Literalists believe that Jews should only return to the Holy Land once God has given a clear signal that it was time to do so.
Once again, religion, as with so many conflicts, plays the most significant part of this age-old struggle, as it does with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, as it did with Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few of many depressing examples. The primary issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians, from a non-secular perspective at least, is that of the Holy Land. There is no question that history will not judge such a petty dispute favourably, but it is a problem endemic within religious faith. It is quite clear that if faith were not an issue, there would not even be a territorial dispute to speak of, because the Zionist movement for a home in the holy lands would never have occurred. It all appears so obscene to this non-theist, but had I been born in Ramallah or Jerusalem, I accept that I may very well feel differently. However, this says far more about the mindless indoctrination of innoncent children than about my particular gullibility.
After 1993, with the ambitious Oslo peace process, Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people, though, rather importantly, Israel does not recognize the State of Palestine. In return for the concession of recognising the PLO, it was agreed that Palestinians would promote peaceful co-existence, renounce violence and promote recognition of Israel among their own people. However, despite Yasser Arafat’s official renunciation of terrorism and the recognition of Israel, some Palestinian groups continue to practice and advocate violence against civilians and do not recognize Israel as a legitimate political entity. Two years after his efforts in Oslo, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a domestic assailant as a curt thank you for his attempts to seek peace with the Palestinians.
Since 2006, the Palestinian side has been fractured by conflict between the two major factions: Fatah, the traditionally dominant party, and its later electoral challenger, Hamas. Indeed, in the important eyes of the West, much harm has been done to the Palestinian cause by the rise of Hamas. The latest round of peace negotiations began in July 2013 but were quickly suspended without a hint of progress. Many attempts have been made to broker a two-state solution, which would officially sanction the birth of an independent Palestinian state. In polls conducted around a decade ago, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians preferred the two-state solution over any other as a means of resolving the conflict. Moreover, a majority of Jews saw the Palestinian demand for an independent state as just. Regardless, a lack of trust and no shortage of disagreements have prevented meaningful progress.
Counter-radicalisation expert, Maajid Nawaz, wrote a much shared article for the Daily Beast in December 2016. Nawaz, a former extremist, but now deeply involved in steering others from this deadly path, wrote a thought-provoking piece, which noted, correctly in my view, a degree of hypocrisy in the way in which Israel is handled by the wider world, and how the Palestinians are not given enough intellectual credit.
Nawaz wrote: “Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
Referring to the Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state being deemed an obstacle to the two state solution, Nawaz asked a pointed question: are Palestinians not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis? Nawaz reflected, “Is this how low the standard is to which Western leftists hold Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims?” Nawaz continued, “We who have been pro-Palestine have become our own worst enemies. When new thinking on any issue is instantly labeled treacherous, only inward looking violently inbred and dogmatic ideologies such as jihadism can thrive.”
Away from the political talks, humanitarian considerations or social challenges, only God knows how to solve this mess. After all, he created the problem. Or rather, mankind created God, and then man created the problem in his image. It is near impossible to reason with anyone, Jewish, Muslim… Scientologist; with anyone whose worldview is based on blind dogmatic faith. Mankind needs to wake-up to what is real and what is simply make-believe. We need to stop forcing this nonsense on children. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Religion poisons everything.”
If you enjoyed this podcast companion, please let me know and I will look at producing more of these. ***