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
Many of Donald Trump’s tweets have not aged well. And some tweets have certainly aged worse than others.
It seems apparent that neither Trump nor his supporters are affected by the shame or embarrassment of what have proven to be ridiculous statements. Meanwhile, the rest of the world experiences astonishment at the rich irony to be found from such broken proclamations. Indeed, even the pariah of the international community, North Korea, has been critical of Trump’s Twitter outbursts, noting that Trump posts “ego-driven thoughts” and “rubbish” (Independent, 23 August 2017).
Here is my countdown, from 10 down to one, of the most, in hindsight, embarrassing tweets that the current United States President has bestowed upon the world. This is not a list of the most egregious attacks on individuals nor the most troubling anti-democratic statements, but a look back at utterances which, for a morally conscious human, would be the most cringe-worthy to reflect on in terms of their later inaccuracy or hypocrisy.
Before we begin the countdown, there is a bonus tweet which I could not quite justify including in the top ten, though it may perhaps find its way there in the future. This potential promotion depends on the outcome of the ongoing investigation regarding alleged collusion between Trump and the Russian government.
The bonus tweet:
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?
“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
15 August 2017
We all knew Trump would be a bad President.
We expected mistakes on, say, complicated policy issues.
I expected unrivalled incompetence, but even this has proven to be far too optimistic. I never imagined that he would be so unfit for office as to be unable to express without reservation that he despises far-right groups. This is not simply about his limited ability with words.
He spoke out, eventually, via a teleprompter speech that was obviously not his own. But even this belated move could not hide his lack of sincerity. And then there was yesterday’s press conference/war, which left me feeling dirty after I watched it.
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.
“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.