Posts Tagged ‘ancient greece’

Book on Slavery Around the World Up To the Present

June 23, 2020

Jeremy Black, Slavery: A New Global History (London: Constable & Robinson 2011).

One of the aspects of the contemporary debate over slavery is that, with some exceptions, it is very largely centred on western, transatlantic slavery. This is largely because the issue of slavery has been a part of the controversy over the status of Blacks in western society and the campaigns for improving their conditions and combating anti-Black racism since the abolitionist movement arose in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it ignores the crucial fact that slavery is a global phenomenon which was certainly not confined to the transatlantic slavery of the European empires. One of the arguments marshaled by the slaveowners was that slavery had existed since antiquity. Both the Romans and the ancient Greeks had possessed slaves, as had ancient Egypt. It still existed in Black Africa, the Turkish empire, the Arab states and India. Hence slavery, the slaveowners argued, was a necessary part of human civilisation, and was impossible to abolish. It was ‘philanthropic’ and ‘visionary’ to demand it.

This was partly the reason why, after the British had abolished slavery in their own empire, they moved to attack it around the world. This meant not only freeing the slaves in the West Indies and their South American colonies, but also at Cape Colony in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong and further east in the new territories of Malaya, Fiji and the Pacific Islands, and Australia.  Most histories of slavery focus on transatlantic slavery. However, Jeremy Black’s book discusses it as existed around the world.

The book’s blurb concentrates on European slavery in the Americas. It runs

The story of slavery – from the ancient world to the present day

In this panoramic history, leading historian Jeremy Black explores slavery from its origins – the uprising of Spartacus and the founding of the plantations in the Indies – to its contemporary manifestations as human trafficking and bonded labour.

Black reveals how slavery served to consolidate empires and shape New World societies such as America and Brazil, and the way in which slave trading across the Atlantic changed the Western world. He assesses the controversial truth behind the complicity of Africans within the trade, which continued until the long, hard fight for abolition in the nineteenth century. Black gives voice to both the campaigners who fought for an end to slavery, and the slaves who spoke of their misery.

In this comprehensive and thoughtful account of the history of slavery, the role of slavery in the modern world is examined and Black shows that it is still widespread today in many countries.

But Black begins his introduction with the case of Hadijatou Mani, a Niger woman, who was sold into slavery at the age of 12 and subsequently beaten, raped and prosecuted for bigamy because she dared to marry a man other than her master. She successfully brought her case before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, which ruled in her favour and fined her country. She stated that she had brought the case in order to protect her children. Slavery is officially outlawed in Niger, but the local customary courts support the custom by which the children of slaves become the property of their masters.

Black then describes how slavery was truly a global phenomenon, and the treatment of slaves at Cape Coast in Ghana resembles the treatment of Christian slaves taken by the Barbary pirates. And its history extends from the ancient world to the Nazi genocide of the Jews. He writes

The mournful, underground dungeons at Cape Coast Castle and other bases on the low, watery coastline of West Africa where African slaves were held from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries prior to shipment to the New World are potent memory of the vile cruelty of slavery, and notably of the approximately 12.5 million Africans forced into this trade and transported on about 35,000 transatlantic voyages, yet these dungeons are not alone and should not crowd out other landscapes where slavery was carried on and the slave trade conducted. Nicholas de Nicolay’s mid-sixteenth-century account of slave dealers parading their captives naked to show that they had no physical defects, and so that they could be examined as if they were horses, with particular reference to their teeth and feet, could have referred to the world of Atlantic slavery, but actually was written about Tripoli in modern Libya, where large numbers of Christians captured from Malta and Sicily by the Barbary pirates of North Africa were sold.

Indeed, the landscapes of slavery span the world, and range from the Central Asian city of Khiva, where the bustle of the slave market can still be visualized in the narrow streets, to Venice, a major entrepot for the slave trade of medieval Europe albeit not one noted by modern tourists. The range is also from Malacca in modern Malaysia, an important centre for the slave trade around the Indian Ocean, especially under the Muslim sultans but also, from 1511, under, first their Portuguese and, then, their Dutch successors, to the few remains of the murderous system of labout that was part of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of the Jews. The variety of slavery in the past and across history stretched from the galleys of imperial Rome to slave craftsmen in Central Asian cities, such as Bukhara, and from the mines of the New World to those working in spice plantations in east Africa. Public and private, governmental and free enterprise, slavery was a means of labour and form of control. (p.2).

The book has the following chapters

  1. Pre-1500
  2. The Age of Conquest, 1500-1600
  3. The Spread of Capitalist Slavery, 1600-1700
  4. Slavery before Abolitionism, 1700-1780
  5. Revolution, Abolitionism and the Contrasting Fortunes of the Slave Trade and Slavery, 1780-1850
  6. The End of Slavery, 1830-1930?
  7. A Troubled Present, 1930-2011
  8. Legacies and Conclusions.

I feel very strongly that the global dimension of slavery and the slave trade needs to be taught, and people should be aware that it isn’t simply something that White Europeans forced on to Black Africans and other indigenous peoples. British imperialism was wrong, but the British did act to end slavery, at least officially, both within our empire and across the world. And odiously slavery is returning. After Blair’s, Sarkozy’s and Obama’s bombing of Libya, the Islamist regime in part of the country has allowed slave markets selling Black Africans to be reopened. Sargon of Gasbag, the man who broke UKIP, posted a video on YouTube discussing the appearance of yet more slave markets in Uganda. He pointedly asked why none of the ‘SJWs’ protesting against the racism and the historical injustice of slavery weren’t protesting about that. Benjamin is a member of the extreme right, though I would not like to accuse him personally of racism and the question is a good one. As far as I know, there are no marches of anti-racist activists loudly demanding an end to racism in countries like Uganda, Niger, Libya and elsewhere. Back in the ’90s the persistence and growth of slavery was a real, pressing issue and described in books like Disposable People. But that was over twenty years ago and times have moved on.

But without an awareness of global history of slavery and existence today, there is a danger that the current preoccupation with western transatlantic slavery will just create a simplistic ‘White man bad’ view. That White Europeans are uniquely evil, while other cultures are somehow more virtuous and noble in another version of the myth of the ‘noble savage’.

And it may make genuine anti-racists blind to its existence today, an existence strengthened and no doubt increasing through neoliberalism and the miseries inflicted by globalisation.

















































Campaign Against Anti-Semitism orders Video Pulled from Greenstein’s YouTube Channel

January 11, 2020

Long-time anti-racist, anti-Zionist and anti-Fascist – and Rory McGrath lookalike – Tony Greenstein has a very interesting piece up on his blog. One of the inmates of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, Philip Glasman, has apparently issued to copyright notice to YouTube ordering them to remove one of his videos from Greenstein’s channel on the platform. Why? Tony comments that the video has no commercial value, asking who would willingly pay to see this nutcase. It must be because Glasman finds it embarrassing.

Oh dear. How sad. Never mind, as Sergeant Major Shut-Up used to say on It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. The video simply consists of Glasman droning on for a minute, giving very effusive praise to his ‘Maccabees’ for bringing down Jeremy Corbyn. This gives sharp insight into Glasman’s weird mindset and that of the other lunatics in the CAA. They really do seem to believe that protecting Israel from criticism and possible international censure for its slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people, the Palestinians, is some kind of righteous holy war such as Judas Maccabaeus’ heroic resistance movement against the occupation of Israel by the Greek armies under Antiochus II Epiphanes.

It’s embarrassing for Glasman and his fellow nutters because the CAA is supposedly a charity and in that regard has to be apolitical. There have been several complaints about the CAA for its breach of this regulation already. And as this video shows, Glasman is not politically neutral. He doesn’t talk about protecting Jews from real anti-Semitism, although he probably believes that he is. He just raves and boasts about bringing down Corbyn.

And as Tony says, the embarrassment this video is causing Glasman is clearly cause for viewing and reblogging it. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to reblog it, but you can see it on Tony’s blog at

If you are able to reblog the video, please feel free to do so. I’m sure Tony won’t mind, so long as you credit him, and it’ll give more people a laugh.

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Gove Claims Labour ‘Weaponised’ Windrush Scandal to Divert Attention from its Anti-Semitism Problem

April 29, 2018

Mike put up a piece last night responding to another malign comment uttered by Michael Gove. Gove is the former cabinet minister responsible for education, and so can fairly be blamed for a good portion of the problems now affecting our educational system.

He’s a close of ally of Boris Johnson, though this didn’t stop BoJo stabbing him in the back over Brexit. Nevertheless, he showed his loyalty to Boris, as well as his complete ignorance and utter incompetence in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This was the British woman of Iranian origin, who went back to Iran on holiday. She was visiting relatives, but the Iranians threw her in jail on the trumped up charge of spying. Boris made her situation worse by claiming that she was teaching journalism. She wasn’t, and Johnson’s comment was seized on by the Iranians as confirmation of their own allegations that she was trying to overthrow the regime. Gove then appeared on TV to support Boris, and declared in an interview that ‘we don’t know what she was doing’. This was wrong, and showed Gove really didn’t know what he was talking about. And it just made matters worse for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who used his stupid comments as more proof of espionage and put more years on her sentence.

Now Gove has waded in to give his considered thoughts on the current scandal of the deportations of the Windrush generation and their children. OH no! cried Gove, it’s not that bad. It’s just been ‘weaponised’ by the Labour party to divert attention from the massive anti-Semitism in their ranks.

No, Gove, it isn’t. As Mike points out, the evidence shows that anti-Semitism in the Labour party has actually fallen under Jeremy Corbyn. But this won’t matter to the Tories. Like Goebbels, they prefer to repeating a good, useful lie until people believe it. Well, it worked with a lot of people under Thatcher. There’s always the possibility, however, that Gove really does believe what he says, or, just as likely, he’s so ignorant of the facts and the issues involved that he doesn’t know any better. Just like he didn’t know better than to mug up on the real facts before holding forth about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The deportation of the Windrush generation is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a vile, racist policy in itself. But it’s also offensive and dangerous because, as Lammy shows, they were British citizens. The Social Contract theory of government states that political authority arose when the early human community joined together to elect a powerful figure – a king- to protect their lives, families and property. The theory was first formulated in Ancient Greece, where it was taken over by Plato. It was the basis of some medieval theories about the origins and duties of kingship, and formed the basis of the political theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. It has also been used to argue for the people’s right to remove their sovereigns and leaders, and to form democratic, representative governments.

Social Contract theory’s been more or less rejected by scholars. One of the reasons is because their almost certainly was never a primal meeting of the early human community, to elect a leader using legal terms that wouldn’t exist until thousands of years later. Even so, it has still be influential. Rawls attempted to defend it, or advance a similar theory, in his A Theory of Justice. And it remains true that one of the very basis, essential functions of government is to preserve the lives and property of its citizens.

But this the Tories have signally not done. They have decided to remove the basic right of citizenship from the Windrush migrants, simply because of their ethnicity. This has led to their deportation from a country, in which they have every right to live, and the denial of other essential rights. Like cancer treatment under the NHS, and other basis services to which they are entitled.

Not that this bothers the Tories. They’re whole attitude to government is based on marginalising and depriving the poorest, most vulnerable sections of the population in order to give more wealth and power to the rich elite. Hence the attacks on the poor, the unemployed, the disabled as well as the normal attacks on immigrants and ethnic minorities.

This is what has made the deportations extremely dangerous. It has shown that the Tories regard basic citizenship not as a right, but a gift that can be withdrawn on a whim or for reasons of political expediency.

This is not about Labour trying to use it to deflect attention from the anti-Semitism smears and witch hunt in its own ranks. This is about protecting a group, that has been subject to a monstrous injustice, and preserving fundamental civic rights.

Not that you can expect Gove to admit to all this, as someone who has constantly supported the Tories’ persecution of marginal and underprivileged groups.

It’s time to get him, Tweezer and the rest of them out of office.

Vox Political: Grayson Perry Sculpts Bell-End to Represent Bankers

May 21, 2016

Mike also put up another hilarious article on Thursday about a piece of work Grayson Perry produced to represented the financial sector. Perry’s a Turner-prize winning artist, specialising in pottery and ceramics. He found the world of banking and finance to be increasing male the further one went up the hierarchy. To symbolise this, he sculpted a giant phallus, embossed with pound coins, and the heads of bankers, including George Osborne.

See the article at: Warning for those easily shocked: it’s got a picture of the pottery penis in question.

Perry states that it’s not his most subtle work. Possibly not, but it is accurate. There have been a number of scandals about the lack of women in the upper levels of the financial sector, and it is a very, very masculine environment. One report about the imbalance said that not only were there very sexist attitudes towards women – they were divided up into ‘babes’, ‘mums’ and ‘dragons’ – but that the bankers themselves had a very cynical and exploitative attitude to their clients. Indeed, they often boasted about how they had shafted them. This is the world of the Wolf of Wall Street and Gordon Gecko.

And quite often members of the financial sector do describe themselves in phallic terms. One financial whizzkid, whose book was reviewed back in the 1990s by Private Eye, even described himself as ‘a big swinging dick on the stockmarket floor’.

You can also find support for Perry’s ceramic penis from the sociobiological interpretation of mythology. One academic used sociobiology, or as it is now, evolutionary psychology, to explain the phallic shape of ancient Greek herms, or boundary markers. He noticed that troops of baboons similar post guards with erect willies as sentries when out foraging, and males also engage in ‘penis fencing’. He therefore concluded that the shape of the herms was a similar primate display of masculine guardianship over place. You could therefore argue that Perry’s pottery penis is thus an apt sociobiological comment on the extremely culturally phallocentric culture of the financial sector.

Or am I reading too much into this?

As Freud said, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

Open Democracy Webinar on Alternative Democracy

February 25, 2016

Last Thursday, February 18th 2016, I was privileged to attend a webinar held by the Open Democracy forum on ‘alternative democracy’. Webinars, if you’ve never come across before, like me, are discussions held over the internet between a number of participants. They remain in their own homes, and talk to each other via their webcams or digital cameras attached to the computers. In this instance, the main speaker at any given point occupied most of the screen, while the other participants were each shown at the bottom. I was invited to go by Michelle Thomasson, a member and a commenter on this blog. The discussion was an hour long, covering topics that have been central to the issue of democracy since the very first democratic theorists like the ancient Athenians and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These include the fact that democracy leads to popular government, rather than right government; the problem of applying a political system that originally arose in small city states to large, complex modern societies, and the problem of energising and encouraging public engagement in politics and the political process at a time when increasing numbers feel disenfranchised, and that politicians are self-serving and isolated from the rest of society.

The first issue, that of democracy allowing the public to vote for the ‘wrong’ people, or make the ‘wrong’ decisions, is shown by the controversy about capital punishment and the EU. One of the female participants made the point that she wasn’t happy with referenda, because if one was a held on those two issues, the British public would almost certain vote in favour of reinstating the death penalty and leaving the European Union, both of which she considered wrong and unjust. She also made the point that there was a problem in that people don’t understand how parliament itself works. People have been horrified by what they’ve seen of it and the parliamentary process on television, especially since the launch of the parliament channel. She also discussed the problem of young people becoming uninterested in politics. She felt that part of the solution to this problem of increasing political indifference and disenfranchisement was for parliament itself to become more representative. She was in favour of quotas, and particularly for more women in parliament. She also felt that there should be more teaching in schools about the importance of politics, democracy and political participation. There still were areas for the public to be involved in politics in local issues, but these were becoming increasing rare as many local amenities, such as youth clubs, were being closed down. There was therefore a real danger of people retreating into social media.

The participants also discussed the possibility of learning from the Occupy Movement, which mobilised people against the cuts and bankers’ bail-outs across the world. People were disillusioned and felt that politicians were distant. One possible solution was digital democracy, but it was felt that this also was not the right way to go. They also pointed out that as far back as ancient Greece, politicians have never done what the electorate wanted. There was also the additional problem of democratic decisions in large societies like modern Britain. They pointed out that although the march against the Iraq War were the largest modern protests, most people still supported the invasion of Iraq, because they had been deliberately given the wrong information. There were similar problems with the reforms attacking and dismantling the welfare state. This led to a discussion of the wider problem of how communities could be connected to parliament.

Some possible solutions included the transformation of the House of Lord’s into a genuine popular assembly, and the revitalisation of political parties. Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, and Jeremy Corbyn over here at sparked an upturn in people joining and becoming interested in political parties. This led to the problem of how to involve other organisations to balance the power of the big corporations now involved in defining and influencing politics. They felt that the revitalisation of the political parties should be done through the existing political system. However, one of the problems with Jeremy Corbyn was that one of the speakers felt he hadn’t drawn new people into the party, but caused older members, who had let their membership lapse, to rejoin.

That led in turn to the question of what should be done with all the new political activists and participants, once they’d been energised, so that they could transform society. One of the men stated that the Labour party had declined from a genuinely popular movement into a party, in which people in suits made decision on behalf of the people they represented. This led to the question of local democracy in the Aristotelian sense. He considered that we currently have local administration rather than democracy. Most of the funding for local councils in England comes from central government, compared with Sweden where 80 per cent comes from local taxes. One of the other participants pointed out that the Coalition was indeed trying to reverse this situation under the guise of localism. They also discussed the way the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition had dissolved the regional partnerships, that had some success in regenerating the local political and economic situation. On the other hand, the Coalition has also encouraged local authorities to group together so that they could co-operate across borders. This worked well in some areas, like Manchester, but was less effective in others.

They also discussed whether Britain needed a constitution. It was pointed out that those nations with constitutions were not necessarily any more democratic than those which did not. One of the speakers was also quite scathing about the way the leadership in Labour party had blocked a bill on corporate funding in order not to upset the trade unions. The result of this was that the Tories were continuing to enjoy massive corporate donations, while trying to find ways to deprive the Labour party of money.

They also returned to the question of referenda. They stated that this worked in small countries with a tradition of direct democracy, like Switzerland. It was much less effective in large countries like Britain. As an example, when the Americans set up internet polling following the British example, the two petitions with greatest number of signatures were for America to build a Death Star, like the one in Star Wars, and to deport Justin Bieber back to Canada.

They also raised the issue of untrained cabinet ministers. Many ministers didn’t know how to manage the performance of the civil servants under them, as it wasn’t a requirement for cabinet ministers. There was poor human resource management in the Civil Service and poor project managers. However, expertise in specific areas did not necessarily make someone a more efficient minister. Andrew Lansley was an expert on health and healthcare, and yet his reforms were dreadful. The Coalition had also performed a number of U-turns, as no-one had told its members what the results of their reforms were intended to be. Overall, they concluded that the problem was one of improving the existing system, rather than overturning it.

All of these issues are complex and it’s fair to say that they need long and careful examination if we are to overcome the continuing crisis in British democracy. People do feel bitter and disenfranchised by their politicians. The scandal over MPs’ bonuses showed how bitter the public felt about their claims. Hopefully, more seminars and discussions like this will lead to the discovery of better ways to reverse this, and to bring people back to participating in the political process, which is supposed to serve them. Democratic political theory states that political sovereignty lies with the people. It’s a question of putting them back in charge, and taking power away from an increasingly managerial elite.

And if digital democracy is not a solution to this problem, than the internet has also provided part of the solution. Yes, there is the danger that people are retreating into social media. But the same social media has enabled political discussions like the above, by connecting people vastly separated from each other, who can discuss weighty issues like this easily in the comfort of their own homes.

A recording of the webinar, plus comments, can be found at: https:​//plus.​google.​com/events/cqjpogiqt6osi7fliui​4k4tkg4c
Thanks, Michelle.

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Being Put Through Its Paces

February 24, 2016

This is a fascinating piece of footage showing Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot being tested. It’s a bipedal robot, with two arms, and the video shows it walking about, picking up boxes and placing them on shelves, It can also follow the boxes when they’re moved out of its way or reach, and right itself when its pushed over. It’s an impressive display of robot engineering.

From the look of it, Boston Dynamics were the manufacturers of the ‘Big Dog’ robot, which was supposed to help carry loads for the US military. This ended up being cancelled because its electric motors were too noisy for the covert missions for which the machine was intended to be used. I’m sure Atlas has been designed with a military role or disaster relief in mind, very much like Hammerstein, Rojaws, Mek-Quake and their metal pals in Robusters and ABC Warriors. We’re not quite there yet, and I have real qualms about the use of this technology. Not so much in the fears about Terminator-style robots running amok to exterminate humanity, but simply of the process of mechanisation replacing human workers. I’ve noticed that in shops and cinemas, the self-service machines are being used to replace human staff, and this process is likely to continue until about 1/3 of service sector jobs are lost in the next 20 years. Or at least, they will according to current projections. The end result will be Mega-City One, sprawling conurbations with a 95% unemployment rate due to robots replacing humans in just about all areas of employment.

One of the reasons historians and sociologists have put forward to explain why modern science did not arise in ancient Greece, the Islamic world and China, is that despite the immense inventiveness of these cultures, they only made limited use of the technological advances made by their natural philosophers and artisans. Both the Chinese and Islamic engineers produced automata. In China, there was an automaton serving girl constructed in the 9th century AD, which went round filling people’s tea bowls. The ancient Greeks invented a toy mechanical theatre, singing mechanical birds, and an automatic hand cleaner to allow visitors to the temples to wash their hands. In Islam, al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers similarly produced automata. These systems were, with exceptions, not applied to industry, but used as toys to amuse the upper classes. I think at certain times a brake was deliberately applied, because they feared the social disruption such developments might bring. It’s a Luddite attitude, but as the world faces mass unemployment through mechanisation, one that we should possibly appreciate as wiser than it appears.

Vox Political: Report Recommends Commissioner to Protect People with Learning Difficulties

February 23, 2016

This is another fascinating piece from Vox Political. According to the Grauniad, Stephen Bubb, the author of a report on abuse of people with learning difficulties at a care home near Bristol, has recommended that a special commissioner should be appointed to protect them. See:

It’s an interesting idea. The piece points out that there is already a children’s commissioner, following the horrific maltreatment and death of Victoria Climbie. Continuing the Classical theme from my last post about Boris Johnson, there’s a kind of precedent for all this in Ancient Greece. I can remember reading in one of the books at College that one of the Greek city states – probably Athens – had an ‘archon for women’ – effectively a ‘minister’, to investigate causes of complaint raised by them. This followed a women’s strike or strikes similar to the sex strike portrayed in Sophocles’ Lysistrata. There was, I believe, also radical working class Communist movements, which formed the basis for another ancient Greek play, The Ekkleziae. In the case of women, today that’s resulted in calls for greater representation of women in parliament and politics generally, but that simply wasn’t considered in the very patriarchal political environment of the ancient world.

It’s an interesting idea, but I honestly don’t know how effective such a commissioner would be, even if one could be set up. The Tories don’t like bureaucracy, and especially not when it deals with disadvantaged groups. Mike’s undoubtedly correct when he says that there’s little chance of such a commissioner being appointed under Cameron. I feel that if a commissioner were appointed, it would only be a cosmetic measure. The institutions within the civil service which are supposed to be the government in check seem to be all too willing to bow to their every whim. For example, Mike had to fight long and hard to get the DWP to concede that it had to release the figures of the number of people with disabilities, who had died after being found fit for work. The Department did so only exceedingly grudgingly, and the Information Commissioner at many points seemed very willing to accede to the government’s wishes, rather than get them to release the information. Privacy and civil liberties groups have also expressed alarm at the way the government watchdogs, which are supposed to protect us from the massive expansion of the surveillance state and the intrusive acquisition of personal data by the state, have done no such thing, or have made only the flimsiest of protests.

It’s a good idea, but I’m pessimistic about how it would work out. Even if Cameron appointed one in the first place. And I doubt he would. I think the home at the centre of the abuse scandal is privately run. Cameron definitely does not want anyone to take any action that might impugn the mighty efficacy of private enterprise. It’s why, after all, Nikki Morgan, the education minister, refused to answer Charlie Stayt’s question about how many privately run academies have had to be taken back into state management. The last thing Cameron and his crony capitalists want is another report stating that private enterprise doesn’t necessarily mean quality care, and the expansion of the powers of the state. The Tories are, after all, the party of Thatcher, and that’s what she hated the most. The frontiers of the state have to be rolled back, and who cares if the poor and the disabled are abused and victimised.

Boris Criticised by Own Party for Cynical Decision to Join ‘Out’ Campaign

February 23, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also has a very interesting piece about Boris Johnson’s decision to join the ‘Out’ campaign. Mike points out that until a couple of weeks ago, BoJo appeared to be in favour of Britain remaining in Europe. He was certainly in favour of Turkey joining it. Now apparently he’s decided to put all that behind him. Mike writes

Soon after Boris Johnson declared that he would campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, we were all reminded that he had campaigned for Turkey to become a member, so he was already guilty of double-standards (why want them in, and us out?) but more was to follow.

We have since learned that Mr Johnson has been hoping an ‘Out’ vote might lead to further renegotiation with the other EU countries, leading to a settlement for the UK that would make him happier.

(Or – as most of us surmised – he thought joining the ‘Out’ brigade might endear him to Tory backbenchers, or at least enough of them to ease him into Number 10 after Cameron slings his hook.)

This has earned Britain’s own tousle-haired buffoon (I wonder – are he and Donald Trump clones from the same genetic laboratory?) a swift rejoinder from Dave Cameron, who has told him that it’s going to be a straight case of Britain either being in Europe or leaving. There is no plan for renegotiation.


This debacle shows BoJo for what he is: a demagogue. If he genuinely wishes that a vote to leave Europe would result in a second referendum, and further negotiations to revise the conditions of Britain’s membership so that we remain in, then he’s simply supporting the ‘Out’ campaign as a kind of political utilitarianism. He’s really in favour of membership, and always has been, but he hopes he can use it to frighten the EU into granting concessions. It’s a dangerous game to play. The danger is that by that time, the EU could be so sick and tired of us, that they can’t be bothered to indulge us, and will just simply say, ‘Well, be like that. Go away then!’

And I think Mike’s right. This is all about trying to enhance BoJo’s standing within the party, as the ‘man of the people’, and the populist candidate against Cameron. It really does look like he’s angling for backbench Tory support. In a Classical simile that Boris should appreciate, he’s rather like the Greek philosopher Carneades. Carneades went on an embassy to Rome. There he decided to give a talk on ‘virtue’. In the morning he argued for it, and in the afternoon, he argued against it. It was part of the attitude of the Sceptic school that knowledge could never be absolute and information was always provisional. And Carneades was also a bit of a wiseacre, who liked to show off how clever he was by arguing contradictory positions. Boris is basically doing the same thing here. It’s nasty, and shows that one thing Boris is not and will never be, is a statesman of the mould of Solon or Pericles.

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.