Monday, February 20, 2012

This happened: The sins of the Fathers

On 18th February, Richard Dawkins reported a curious conversation with Adam Lusher of the Sunday Telegraph, who called him to ask some questions.

At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take.

Richard had good reason to suspect a diversionary tactic: critics had been at it all week.  The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason released the results of an Ipsos/MORI poll into the attitudes of members of the UK public who call themselves Christians. The poll showed that these attitudes tend to differ greatly from those of the lobbyists who claim to speak for them.  This upset a lot of Christians who – unable to argue with the figures, launched ad-hominem attacks against Richard himself.  For example, one of the questions in the poll asked Christians to name the first book of the New Testament (Matthew) from a selection of four.  39% of Christian polled didn’t know. 

The response to this of former canon chancellor of St, Paul’s in London, Giles Fraser, was to ask Richard on Radio 4 whether he could name the full title of Origin. He said he could, then:

“‘On The Origin Of Species’ … Uh. With, Oh God. ‘On The Origin Of Species.’ There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Which is pretty close.  However, it was leaped on by various idiots as ‘deeply embarrassing that he couldn’t remember the exact title and he invoked the name of a deity!

For example, here, here and here.

So Richard was expecting something along these lines.  But instead Adam Lusher had researched Richard’s family background and discovered that his great, great, great, great, great grandfather had owned slaves and he wanted to know ig Richard felt guilty about it. He replied:

“Your ancestors probably did too. It’s just that we happen to know who my ancestors were and perhaps we don’t know yours.”

He also quoted from Numbers 14:18 about the sins of the father being visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation before ending the call to get back to work. 

Almost immediately, Lusher interrupted him again with another call, during which he suggested that since natural selection has a lot to do with genes, Richard might have inherited a slavery-supporting gene from his ancestor

I’m sure there’s no need to go into the patent stupidity of this idea except to say it amounts to a defamatory suggestion that Richard might support slavery with evolution to blame, naturally).  But Lusher wasn’t finished: his next suggestion was that Richard should pay reparation for the actions of his ancestors.

Richard was left feeling it was highly likely that this nonsense would be killed by any vaguely decent editor.  But the Telegraph did indeed print it.  Then the Daily Mail printed the same story with, naturally, some of the detail cut out.  The article also includes this charming image:

Ancestors of Richard Dawkins are believed to have been linked to slavery

with the caption:

Ancestors of Richard Dawkins are believed to have been linked to slavery

It’s worth noting that these articles have been widely condemned, even in the comments on the Daily Mail article and even by people who don’t like Richard Dawkins.  Just about everyone seems to see the decision to publish this smear was a bizarre and ill-advised one.  Personally, I suspect the editors knew what they were doing.

The idea that Richard should be held accountable for the actions of his ancestors is of course ludicrous.  He didn’t choose his ancestors and since they died in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was hardly anything he could have done about it. As for paying reparation, to whom, exactly? And what purpose would it serve?  And what’s next? Do we investigate everyone’s family tree to see if their ancestors owned slaves?  Why limit it to slavery?  It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous.

But the point, of course, was two-fold.  First, to distract attention from the results of the poll. They don’t like the answers and can’t rationally deny them so they want to cover them up instead. And second, they want to fling some mud at Richard, knowing that some of it will stick.  Even in the minds of many who see the articles as unfair, an association between Richard and slavery will have been made.  The articles have encouraged a false view of Richard as living in luxury on the profits of slavery. This is going to occur to a lot of people when he’s mentioned in the future. They won’ remember that they thought the article was unfair, they’ll remember the association with slavery.

And that’s why the articles are so deplorable. It’s not the stupidest thing that’s been said about Richard. It’s not the most hateful.  It’s not even the biggest lie. What’s so bad is that the ‘journalists’ and editors knew perfectly well that the articles were nonsensical and completely unfair.  They knew they’d be widely condemned. But they ran them as tactical pieces to cover up the results of a poll because they didn’t like the results, and to smear Richard.  It’s so depressing because we know it will work.

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