Friday, October 29, 2004

Guest blogger: The Empire writes back 

As you're undoubtedly aware, not that long ago British left-wing daily "Guardian" launched an action to encourage their readers to write to voters on Clark County, Ohio and lobby them to exercise their vote for the common good. One of Britain's eminent scientists, Richard Dawkins, was one such person who availed himself of the opportunity to ask Clark County not to vote for George W Bush.

Then one of regular readers of this blog, Steven B. Wylie, a businessman from Nashville, Tennessee, wrote back. Here's the exchange, prefaced by a brief explanation from Steve:

"Richard Dawkins is holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of numerous books, including "Climbing Mount Improbable" and "The Blind Watchmaker," the latter work a winner of the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Prize and the Los Angeles Times book award. He is also a noted secular humanist. He joined other authors and intellectuals such as Antonia Fraser and John LeCarre in the UK Guardian’s campaign to write to the voters of Clark County, Ohio, and urge them to vote out Bush. Below is a copy of his letter printed in the Guardian. After reading it, I managed to track down his email address at Oxford and send him a retort. To my slight surprise, he wrote back, prompting a full rebuttal from me. I am awaiting his reply.

Richard Dawkins’ letter published in the Guardian on October 13, 2004:

Dear Americans,

Don't be so ashamed of your president: the majority of you didn't vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent. Please don't let it come to that. Vote against Bin Laden's dream candidate. Vote to send Bush packing.

Before 9/11 gave him his big break - the neo-cons' Pearl Harbor - Bush was written off as an amiable idiot, certain to serve only one term. An idiot he may be, but he is also sly, mendacious and vindictive; and the thuggish ideologues who surround him are dangerous. 9/11 gave America a free gift of goodwill, and it poured in from all around the world. Bush took it as a free gift to the warmongers of his party, a licence to attack an irrelevant country which, however nasty its dictator, had no connection with 9/11. The consequence is that all the worldwide goodwill has vanished. Bush's America is on the way to becoming a pariah state. And Bush's Iraq has become a beacon for terrorists.

In the service of his long-planned war (with its catastrophically unplanned aftermath), Bush not only lied about Iraq being the "enemy" who had attacked the twin towers. With the connivance of the toadying Tony Blair and the spineless Colin Powell, he lied to Congress and the world about weapons of mass destruction. He is now brazenly lying to the American electorate about how "well" things are going under the puppet government. By comparison with this cynical mendacity, the worst that can be said about John Kerry is that he sometimes changes his mind. Well, wouldn't you change your mind if you discovered that the major premise on which you had been persuaded to vote for war was a big fat lie?

Now that all other justifications for the war are known to be lies, the warmongers are thrown back on one, endlessly repeated: the world is a better place without Saddam. No doubt it is. But that's the Tony Martin school of foreign policy [Martin was a householder who shot dead a burglar who had broken into his house in 1999]. It's not how civilised countries, who follow the rule of law, behave. The world would be a better place without George Bush, but that doesn't justify an assassination attempt. The proper way to get rid of that smirking gunslinger is to vote him out.

As the bumper stickers put it, "Re-defeat Bush". But, this time, do it so overwhelmingly that neither his brother's friends in Florida nor his father's friends on the Supreme Court will be able to rig the count. Decent Americans - there are absolutely more intelligent, educated, civilised, cultivated, compassionate people in America than in any other country in the western world - please show your electoral muscle this time around. We in the rest of the world, who sadly cannot vote in the one election that really affects our future, are depending on you. Please don't let us down.

My retort, emailed to Professor Dawkins on Oct. 21, 2004:

Dear Professor Dawkins

My God, Sir! Do you know what you are saying?

The mentality embedded in lines like this is ludicrous:

"We in the rest of the world, who sadly cannot vote in the one election that really affects our future, are depending on you."

Here is what I and many others are really hearing:

"We...are depending on you."

In other words, rather than take any responsibility yourselves for the current state of the world, you blame others. It's as if you are a teenager cussing out your lame-O parents before demanding your allowance and the keys to the car. To continue the analogy, if you don't like the rules of the household, then move out! As parents over here would say, get a job and see what it's like to have to support yourself. Don't like American "hegemony"? Fine, we don't like it either; but until you "kids" grow up and move out, you’re going to be eating what we put on the table and that's that!

This effort of yours at placing the responsibility for your future on us reminds me that Oskar Schindler couldn't even walk down the streets of Germany after the war for his fellow citizens throwing rocks at him. They couldn't stand him because he was a reminder that they could have done something but chose to do nothing. You believe you have no greater moral responsibility than to fling off some piece of condescending and pretentious bullsh*t to us ugly Americans.

Steve Wylie
Nashville, TN USA

His email back to me, October 26, 2004:

Dear Mr. Wylie

I find it very hard to follow your letter. You don't seem to have grasped the point, which was that, far from wanting MORE American involvement in our affairs, it would be very nice to have less American interference, and none at all of the Bush military interventionist variety. Then American elections could be treated as purely internal affairs and nobody else need take any interest in them. We are intensely concerned about the present American election because one of the candidates has an avowed policy of unilateral military adventurism, and a record of unilateral abrogation of international agreements to protect the entire world environment.

Since it was you who raised the analogy of childish dependency, I can't resist pointing out how childish is the evident motivation of many Bush voters. He makes them feel 'safe', poor babies. How bizarre this is, given that it was Bush who failed to listen to warnings about Al Qaeda (too busy obsessing with Saddam Hussein to notice the REAL threat), Bush who (possibly through no fault of his own) let the 9/11 atrocity take place, and Bush who failed to catch Osama bin Laden because he diverted attention to the totally irrelevant Iraq instead. Now Bush is trading on the childish fears of a nation of blanket-hugging thumb-suckers, even though most of what they have to fear is directly caused by Bush himself.

The world waits anxiously, and powerlessly, to see whether the adult half of the American electorate will prevail, and elect a real President: an adult, thoughtful man, capable of independent thought, and above all capable of CHANGING HIS MIND when changing evidence warrants it.

Yours sincerely

Richard Dawkins

My rebuttal, sent October 28, 2004:

Dear Professor Dawkins,

You find it very hard to follow my letter, yet you somehow found the time to write me back. Thank you.

However, I find it equally difficult to follow yours. I’m a little confused after you said in your Guardian letter that “there are absolutely more intelligent, educated, civilised, cultivated, compassionate people in America than in any other country in the western world,” yet in your reply to me you call us a “nation of blanket-hugging thumb-suckers.” Is this a scientific observation, Professor? A particular classification: the cultivated, mid-American thumb-sucker, prone to compassionate smirking? Or should I gather that you were being disingenuous in one or the other statement?

Also confusing is your “point” of less American interference in your affairs, specifically of the “military interventionist variety.” Are you an Iraqi? Or Afghani, perhaps? I don’t understand then the wish for less interference in your country. Maybe we’re arming Scotsmen? Are we threatening to bomb Westminster if you don’t stick it out with us in Iraq? Pressuring J.K. Rowling to work faster on the next Potter book, is that it?

But let’s be serious.

In the Guardian, you ruefully admit that the world is no doubt better without Saddam and then go on to proclaim, “The world would be a better place without George Bush, but that doesn't justify an assassination attempt.” Well, let’s think about that logic for a moment. On the one hand we have Saddam Hussein, a murderous tyrant of the first order. On the other is George Bush, commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world and in your view a sly, vindictive idiot, surrounded by “thuggish ideologues.” The world, you say, would be a better place without either of them.

The proper way to get rid of one, according to you, is to vote him out. How would you have gotten rid of the other? Discounting deus ex machina (or Darwin ex machina, if you prefer), some sort of action must take place, correct? You seem to concede that there was a “REAL threat” in Al Qaeda, so you are presumably for action, when it is warranted. When would action have been warranted in Saddam’s case? Given the abundant evidence for how well Oil-for-Food was working, it was only a matter of time before sanctions collapsed and all the yellowcake and tons of (missing?) explosives at Al-Qaqaa would find a use somewhere. As a secular humanist, what’s the tipping point for doing something? How many mass graves?

But you’re against the invasion, right? Maybe you think we should we have sent in Super-Dooper Squad X to give Saddam a Hollywood ending? Put on the stealth pajamas and be in and out before you could say, “Shaken, not stirred”? If such a plan were plausible, I think we could find a few Kurds who would agree with it. Surely you don’t believe nothing at all should have been done?

Yet given all you find to fault with President Bush regarding “warnings about Al Qaeda,” you seem to suggest that he could have done something to better prevent “let(ting) the 9/11 atrocity take place.” I’m sorry, Professor, that almost sounds like you’re saying we should have done something preemptive. Again, what is the tipping point? Why do you give “warnings about Al Qaeda” greater credence than the intelligence claiming WMDs in Iraq? You agree the world is better without Saddam. You also believe the world would be better without Bush, yet you don’t justify his assassination. Given the way you think, I don’t understand why you should not. You apply a very oily logic when it comes to making the world a better place, Professor Dawkins. Maybe I could understand it better without this thumb in my mouth.

Why write us in the first place? I mean, given the logic above, what was the logic behind trying to affect our election? Well, let’s don’t kid each other, it’s because you believed you could make a statement and because you believed we might listen. Correct?

I’m sorry, Professor, but your beliefs remind me of why a child writes Santa Claus.

As I’m sure you know, kids write Santa because they believe he’s up there in the North Pole and they believe he’s going to listen to them. When they reach a certain age, they stop believing and consequently stop writing. Why do you believe in us enough to write us, may I ask? Yet you don’t believe, I would hazard, in the benefits of writing the good people of, say, Clark County, North Korea. Or Clark County, Iran. Or Clark County, Cuba. Clark County, Sudan, perhaps? Maybe Clark County, Syria? Why not? Where is your belief in these people?

I must admit to a bit of unfairness here, Professor, in that I am able to know a great deal more about you by benefit of your status, than you can know of me (of relatively little status). Maybe you’ll grant this to me since I sprung to buy two of your books, The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene, after you wrote me. I’ve just begun reading them, but given what I know about you so far—though nowhere near comprehensive—I find that who you are in your letters is in a curious contrast to your published thoughts and beliefs. You said in The Selfish Gene, for instance:

My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. (…) Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. (p. 3)

Your book was first published in 1976, but may I presume that this quotation is still a relatively accurate reflection of your beliefs? If so, then I find it striking that you write to us, “the intelligent, educated, civilised, cultivated, compassionate people in America…” Wouldn’t it make more sense to write to those who do not possess these attributes? Shouldn’t you be teaching “generosity and altruism” somewhere other than the one place you admit has “absolutely” more of it than “any other country in the western world”? But if you truly believed we are as you describe, then you would face the contradiction that maybe we know what we’re doing by supporting our “smirking gunslinger.”

However, if you believe in the power of the pen to move Bush out of office, then what do you believe will realistically move the citizens of countries like North Korea or Iran? Why is writing us a better use of your time, Professor, than writing, say, the beheaders of Mr. Bigley? Could it be that you reserve a program of letter-writing only to those you perceive as rational? Yet I would be willing to bet that you don’t find any use in writing these others, do you? Why not? Why not write them and tell them their leaders threaten world stability and peace, so oust them please? Even a thumb-sucker such as myself can see that were you to get Iranians and North Koreans to get rid of their smirkers, our smirker wouldn’t stand a chance. Or do you admit that this is irrational and therefore futile? To paraphrase Orwell, how many Ghandis are there in Iran and North Korea that we never hear about?

Then again, how rational is it to await “anxiously” and “powerlessly” on a “nation of blanket-hugging thumb-suckers” (though cultivated and compassionate), ruled by leaders in your description who are thuggish ideologues and war-mongers. Are you a rational being or not, Professor Dawkins? Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider assassination?

What is the proper effective response, then, to irrationality?

I know you’re an avowed atheist; you’re even listed on celebathiests.com! But yet you expect to be able to “build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good…”

Why? What is the point? To build it for what purpose? If nature, though possessed of an amazing design, is still essentially meaningless, where do you expect this society of yours to take us? Not that you and I will live long enough to know, but what is the use or purpose of us? What’s the ultimate point? Either we are just “clockwork oranges” and what does it matter, or perhaps we contain a meme that pushes us to attain godhood ourselves, to become all-powerful consciousness-possessing deities.

That makes as much sense to me as this “common good” you speak of. Why shouldn’t becoming what you deny, a god, be the goal? I would say there’s a great deal of historical evidence that supports this idea; it explains the justification for the killing, the slaughter, the so-called unilateralism. If the godhood meme is valid, then why shouldn’t the Stalins, the Osamas, the Bushes of the world gather unto themselves all that they can get? A universe populated by conscious beings is not much different than one without, is it not? A universe without Bush is not much different than one with Saddam. Everything in between is really just for comfort then, isn’t it, Professor? And who should care about your comfort except you? Unilateral military adventurism, Islamist terrorists, Beslan, Dachau, Gulags, killing fields… what do these really matter to you as long as you can’t see them from your living room window?

So you write to us, Professor, when you might as well write to Santa Claus for all the difference it makes.

You ascribe to our president an “avowed policy” of “military adventurism.” Why, Professor Dawkins! That’s merely your opinion! Is it adventurism for 50 million people to no longer live under despotism? Hail the adventurers, I say. But then on the other hand, why shouldn’t they live in despotism? If it weren’t for Bush’s “military adventurism” taking down the Taliban and working to create the conditions for democracy, could you honestly say you cared about the people of Afghanistan? Enough to do something about it? Was there someone you could have written? Did you write anyone about them before 9/11? After? Does the end justify the means? I don’t know, I’m asking you.

One thing I do know, there are plenty around these days who do think the end justifies the means, products of a moral relativism that we have science to thank for, Professor, not religion. A whole host of Osamas and Hitlers and Stalins out there. And why not? Why conform to secular humanism? Why not secular non-humanism?

As you yourself say, a “society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live.” Can you offer anything to the contrary that can prevent the spread of that idea if enough people decide that it’s worth it to them to live this way?

“We are not bound by any circumstances, or to anybody, and we will continue to fight as is convenient and advantageous to us and by our rules.”
-Shamil Basayev, mastermind of the Beslan massacre

Therefore there are only really two categories of people, aren’t there? Those who cause discomfort, and those who take it away. Or, if you will: the comfortable versus the uncomfortable. The only point, then, to your intense concern in our elections is simply one of it affecting your comfort. Kill the messenger, isn’t that it?

I can offer myself as evidence to the contrary of your assertion that Bush supporters are motivated to vote for him because he makes us feel safe. You, who apparently make decisions and base actions on how it affects your comfort, may truly believe this. He is a discomfort to you, therefore you deduce that he must be a comfort to his supporters. You assert that he muffed 9/11, missed bin Laden, was wrong about Iraq and that he somehow squandered this “free gift of good will” (a gift mysteriously bestowed and withdrawn to suit your fancy, as if it were a meteor that landed on the twin towers and not airliners). Commensurate with someone who sees the world in terms of how it affects their comfort, you find “childish” our “evident motivation” to support our president. But that is not, sir, what motivates us cultivated thumb-suckers.

It may be difficult for you to grasp this, since it likely offends many of your sensibilities, but most of us know that what Bush is doing may ultimately mean we are less safe. Less comfortable, if you will. It is taking a chance, Professor, that perhaps by performing radical surgery on this malignancy that it might help save the entire patient. Most of us recognize that the patient was eventually going to die without it. He may die anyway, but rather than simply attend to his comfort, to anaesthetize his last few days by administering your recommended panacea of thoughtful mind-changing, some of us choose to base our corrective on history and some other beliefs that you find bothersome to your plans for the “common good.”

Yet you tell us this is “not how civilised countries, who follow the rule of law, behave.” Of all people, Professor, you should know by now how non-scientific and irrational it is to put your faith in something as illogical as men and women behaving according to the “rule of law.” Though I’m sure there were quite a few using that one on their way to the gas chamber.

To paraphrase Romano Guardini, you deny Revelation yet still insist on benefiting from its values. I’m not saying whether or not I deny Revelation, but I recognize that once the species gets the idea that it can bend the benefits as is “convenient and advantageous,” your idea of “civilised” ceases to have validity. Welcome to the brave new world, doctor, it’s the one you believe in.

I grasped your point. Did you grasp mine? You want less interference from us? Then you do something to create conditions and “expect little help from biological nature.” Isn’t that what you believe, Professor? You accuse us of a “childish dependency” yet you wait around writing letters and expecting us to fall in line and “cooperate generously and unselfishly” with your ideas. Thank God (oops!) for Tony Blair and others of your countrymen who think differently.

But who knows? It’s a close race. It may yet happen to the benefit of your comfort: hospice, not surgery.

Sincerely Yours,

Steven B. Wylie
Nashville, TN USA

You can contact Steve at kiloran37 "at" yahoo "dot" com. By the way, I've been trying to convince Steve to start blogging - you can see why.


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