Hurrah for Dominic Grieve. We almost went a month with no word of “aggressive secularists”

Yesterday being a slow news day, the Daily Telegraph wrote to a right wing politician so they’d have something to print.

Britain is at risk of being ‘sanitised’ of faith because an ‘aggressive form of secularism’ in workplaces and public bodies is forcing Christians to hide their beliefs, a former attorney general has warned.

Dominic Grieve said he found it ‘quite extraordinary’ that people were being sacked or disciplined for expressing their beliefs at work.

He described Christianity as a ‘powerful force for good’ in modern Britain and warned that Christians should not be ‘intimidated’ and ‘excluded’ for their beliefs.

He said that politicians and public figures should not be afraid of ‘doing God’ and that they have a duty to explain how their beliefs inform their decisions.

The ‘appalling’ scenes in Iraq, which have seen Islamic extremists behead and crucify religious minorities including Christians, showed that it was ‘more important than ever’ for people to express their religious beliefs, he said.

He told The Telegraph: ‘I worry that there are attempts to push faith out of the public space. Clearly it happens at a level of local power.

‘You can watch institutions or organisations do it or watch it happen at a local government level. In my view it’s very undesirable.

‘Some of the cases which have come to light of employers being disciplined or sacked for simply trying to talk about their faith in the workplace I find quite extraordinary.

‘The sanitisation will lead to people of faith excluding themselves from the public space and being excluded.

‘It is in nobody’s interest that groups should find themselves excluded from society.’ Two years ago the Government changed the law to ensure that councils could not face legal challenges for holding prayers before town hall meetings after the High Court backed a controversial campaign to abolish such acts of worship.

There have also been a series of high-profile cases in which people have been banned from wearing crosses at work or sacked for resisting tasks which went against their religious beliefs.

Mr Grieve, a practising Anglican, said that Britain is ‘underpinned’ by Christian ethics and principles.

He criticised the Tony Blair era when Alastair Campbell, the then communications director in Downing Street, famously said ‘we don’t do God’ amid concerns that religion would put off voters.

David Cameron once described his own faith as being like ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’, meaning it can come and go.

However, earlier this year the Prime Minister said he has found greater strength in religion and suggested that Britain should be unashamedly ‘evangelical’ about its Christian faith.

Mr Grieve said: ‘I think politicians should express their faith. I have never adhered to the Blair view that we don’t do God, indeed I’m not sure that Blair does. I think that people with faith have an entitlement to explain where that places them in approaching problems.

‘I think that those of us who are politicians and Christians should be in the business of doing it.

‘It doesn’t mean that we have the monopoly of wisdom, but I do think Christianity has played an enormous role in shaping this country.

‘It’s a very powerful force in this country [but] I think it’s underrated, and partly because in the past it has failed to express itself as clearly as it might.

‘Recognising people’s right to manifest their faith and express it is very important.’

(The article, which could be used to explain the Telegraph to aliens, also complains about the EU and laws against fox hunting.)

Thank fuck for another headline about aggressive secularism – we very nearly went a month without one. Ann Widdecombe, Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Sayeeda Warsi; Keith O’Brien, George Careythe Pope. It’s exhausting to rebut the same thing again and again, but clearly we still have to: if it wasn’t an effective line, the Christian right would have stopped using it.

Because I’m fed up with this nonsense, I’m going to give my thoughts in list format.

I.

‘We don’t do God’ must be the most misrepresented line in journalistic memory. Campbell said it to stop Blair waxing religious in an interview because Blair did do God: he built record numbers of state-run religious schools, cosied up to the Vatican, passed censorious ‘religious hatred’ laws, justified invading Iraq using religious language and started a global ‘faith foundation’ after he left Downing Street.

II.

How many more times can right wing Christians running the country say Britain must be ‘more evangelical’ (Prime Minister David Cameron), promise religion a greater role in public life (Cameron) and gush about Christianity’s excellence (Cameron et al)… while simultaneously claiming to be marginalised?

III.

More specifically, Dominic Grieve: how excluded from public life are you – how mercilessly have you been forced to hide your beliefs – when a soundbite from you about them is what the Telegraph uses to sell newspapers on quiet days?

IV.

Someone on social media told me last month that ‘Christians are persecuted in this country’. When I asked how, this is what they said:

I do not wish to go into detail. I have knowledge that gives me every right to use the word

It’s argumentum ad Laganja: ‘You’re picking on me, but I’m not going to tell you when, where or how.’

A new rule, I think: if you’re going to say Christians are a marginalised group in modern Britain, I want specific examples – not bald assertions or, as in Grieve’s case, vague innuendo about workplaces and councils.

V.

Grieve doesn’t specify because he can’t: the moment it’s confronted with factual detail, the Christian persecution case evaporates.

While it’s true that in 2012 the National Secular Society won a court case against prayers being said at Bideford town council’s meetings (the government swiftly overturned this), the ruling prohibited them only as an agenda item. There was nothing to prevent Christian councillors praying together informally prior to meetings: it was simply deemed exclusionary for Christian rituals to be an official part of council business.

Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, was asked in accordance with the NHS dress code to wear an ostentatious cross pinned inside her uniform instead of dangling hazardously on a chain. She refused to compromise, insisting it be visible to everyone, and was disciplined, losing a string of tribunals and court cases when she complained.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker who continually harassed non-Christian colleagues with evangelistic tracts and homophobic comments, claimed BA was persecuting her when asked to wear her cross beneath instead of on top of her uniform. (After numerous court losses, the EHCR eventually found for her last January, but only because BA’s dress code was judged too restrictive.)

Lesley Pilkington, a registered psychotherapist operating highly unethical ‘gay cure’ treatment programmes was struck off the membership roll of Britain’s governing body for counsellors after journalist Patrick Strudwick wrote an exposé on her and others.

Lilian Ladele, the civil registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies, was disciplined because her job required she do this.

VI.

I’m a secularist because I want a mature democracy, not one based on a lie. Whoever pretends Britain is still a Christian nation knows deep down they’re being silly, and that doesn’t just demean non-Christians: it demeans our democracy by telling us to lie to one another.

I’m a secularist because I believe in sectarian disarmament. I think carving up public life into religious territories, each with its own schools, courts, bank holidays and seats in parliament, creates an arms race of religiosity and social tension, and sharing a secular country is a kind of truce.

I’m a secularist because I believe social support – welfare, education, housing, care – should be unconditional, tax-funded and available to all, not handed to religious groups where not everyone can access them.

Secularism is kind. Secularism is responsible. If you think it’s aggressive, you should hear my other opinions.

VII.

The Islamic State is driving Christian populations from their homes in Iraq; some are being forcibly converted, others killed. Dominic Grieve and the Daily Telegraph see this as a handy rhetorical jab against secular council meetings in north Devon.

VIII.

But really: who looks at the middle east today and thinks bloody hell, that’s what too much secularism does?

Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq; Muslims are killing Christians in Iraq, atheists in Iran, Jews in Israel. Jews are killing Muslims in Palestine. Religious nationalism is at the core of all these atrocities. Secularism is the opposite: it is nonaggression as a political and national identity.

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I will not hold my tongue about religion

Sometimes while writing I use Facebook updates to organise my thoughts, and the result is a rough form of what becomes an article. When I did so with the last post on this blog, one commenter asked me to publish the rough version, which is shorter and more shareable. (I’ve edited it lightly for republication here.)

Three years ago Greta Christina wrote a post asking what the goals of the atheist ‘movement’ were. It identifies two competing groups of atheists: one whose goals – combating anti-atheist bigotry, promoting secular governance, helping everyone to ‘get along’ – often entail alliance work with believers, and another who think religion is inherently a flawed, harmful phenomenon… and that we’d be better off without it, and that this is a goal worth pursuing.

The idea of noting these competing goals was, I think, to measure the usefulness of diplomatic versus firebrand-like approaches while talking about religion. (If the first group’s goals were her main or only ones, Greta writes, ‘I might well be advocating that we prioritise diplomacy more than we do, and dial back on the confrontationalism a bit.’) Chris Stedman cited her post to this effect at the Huffington Post, in a piece called ‘The Problem with “Atheist Activism”‘ which argued for the merits of the first group’s goals over the second’s.

Broadly speaking I’ve always shared Greta’s take, and have linked to it when frustrated by atheist civility politics, attacks on writers who aren’t ‘nice’ enough or the charge of being inflammatory, counterproductive and unconstructive. But there’s something I’d like to say in addition.

Some people’s main goal is combating bigotry and ‘building bridges’. Some people’s main goal is eroding the very grip religious faith has on the world in the first place. Especially as someone who unlike either Greta or Chris Stedman had a religious upbringing, I have a third aim to submit. As far as I’m concerned, it overrides both the others.

I hate the insistence I should self-censor to make what say about religion ‘constructive’, ‘productive’ or goal-serving – because whenever I’m speaking my mind about it I’m serving my primary goal. Speaking my mind about religion, including but not limited to my own experience – simply being able to speak freely about it without holding my tongue - is a constructive goal for me.

When other atheists tell me to shut up or be more polite because I’m hindering their cause, I want to tell them: saying what I want how I want is my cause. It matters more to me than any other, theirs included. You could convince me the way I write about religion makes more people convert to it. You could convince me that, as I’ve been told, it entrenches negative views of atheists or makes bridge-building impossible. I still wouldn’t stop.

What’s struck me repeatedly about the calm down brigade is that so often, they have no experience of having to hold their tongues – including about horrible things that happened to them – so religious feelings don’t get hurt. Tongue-holding no longer is the most important thing to me; it’s probably a large part of why I write a blog. And the fact is that if other people’s require me to give it up because to them it doesn’t seem constructive, I don’t care.

From my point of view, mouthing off and being an angry atheist stereotype seems hugely constructive.

Read the full version.

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Robin Williams’ reported suicide is not an “allegation”

Talented people keep dying.

Heath Ledger. Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson. Patrick Swayze. Amy Winehouse. Alexander McQueen. Pete Postlethwaite. Christopher Hitchens. Steve Jobs. Whitney Houston. Donna Summer. Michael Clarke Duncan. Cory Monteith. Paul Walker. Philip Seymour Hoffman. HR Giger. Rik Mayall.

I was sixteen when Ledger overdosed. Since then it’s seemed as if an endless stream of celebrated people have been dying far too young. I can’t tell if it’s really so, the past few years being a statistical atrocity, or if I only noticed as a teenager how often a bright light goes out. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Robin Williams was an extraordinary talent. I was never a particular fan of his family films, despite being a child when most of them came out, but watching him in Good Will Hunting is the first time I remember recognising some films stood out above the rest. I laughed so hard at Good Morning, Vietnam that my face hurt; I was mesmerised by him in Dead Poets Society; I recoiled watching One Hour Photo. I’ve seen very few comics with his mix of depth and speed, few actors more quotable.

People around the net are saying all of this. For most of today, as one tends to when someone so valued dies, I felt like I ought to say something – a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet or retweet. But what do you add? I’d nothing more to say, I thought, than the obvious truth as banal as he was extraordinary: the man’s dead, and it sucks.

Then I saw a link on social media.

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‘Fox News host labels Robin Williams “such a coward”‘, a headline at The Raw Story announces,  ‘over alleged suicide’.

‘Alleged’.

Although representatives of Williams have described him ‘battling severe depression’, his suicide specifically is unconfirmed. (Presumably it’ll come down to a coroner’s report.) But it isn’t an ‘allegation’.

When the press refers to something as ‘alleged’, it’s usually because its confirmation will do major PR damage. Sexual assaults by public figures are ‘alleged’; police brutality is ‘alleged’; political corruption is ‘alleged’. People said to have troubling attitudes often complain, for instance, about ‘allegations of racism’, since ‘alleged’ now suggests something shameful or criminal in a way ‘possible’ or ‘reported’ doesn’t.

Having depression isn’t shameful. Having depression is not a crime.

Self-harm may be a crime; it it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

To refer to Robin Williams’ apparent suicide as having been ‘alleged’ frames it as an accusation. It suggests that if and when the actor is confirmed to have ended his own life, he ought to be thought less of – ironically, exactly what Raw Story‘s article slams Fox News for saying.

I googled the words ‘Robin Williams alleged suicide’. I saw Guardian Liberty Voice announce ‘Williams allegedly commits suicide’. I saw Perez Hilton describe attacks on him for ‘allegedly committing suicide’. I saw phrases like ‘actor’s alleged suicide’ and ‘the allegedly story’.

On social media, I’m also seeing discussions of mental health – hopes that in the wake of losing Williams, much-needed conversations might be had; anger over incredulity that a rich celebrity might be depressed; openings-up from those who went, like me, through periods of self-harm and depression. The emergent theme is often shame of one kind or another directed at those who turn to suicide, whether religious guilt, the stigma of being ‘crazy’ or regret about the misery of loved.

If we’re going to talk about this, let’s do it without encouraging the shame we’re trying to dismantle.

If you think people who kill themselves deserve not to be looked down on, stop using language that suggests they should be.

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported; it is unconfirmed; it is apparent. It is not an allegation.

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The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic

There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm.

It starts when he says something crass about a sensitive topic. (Child molestation/rape/‘all the world’s Muslims’.)

People whose ally he’s supposed to be get annoyed. Often they blog about it; often he trends. (‘Your a dick’ tends to get tweeted a lot, too.)

Dawkins becomes tetchy and berates them for being PC/absolutist/illogical/unable to think.

International media takes notice and reports the argument.

Dawkins publishes a response at RD.net, often referring to ‘a storm in a teacup’ or insisting – despite being a professional communicator – that the rest of the world was at fault for not grasping his true meaning.

People at wit’s end tend to give up at this point, but eventually he mouths off on something else and the cycle repeats.

I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.

DawkinsCycle

(On the other hand, there’s this.)

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What I hear when you ask “Can’t I say anything without offending you?”

Alright - another thing.

There’s a moment in Jaclyn Glenn’s video where, frustrated, she asks the caricatured social justice warrior: ‘Can’t I say anything without offending you?’ I’m giving this its own short post partly because as a loose end, it wouldn’t have fit anywhere in the previous one, and partly because it’s not really to do with her. I’ve heard this line and variations of it everywhere. It’s the same idea that lurks behind the statement folk like me are ‘desperate to be offended’; that I’m a ‘rage blogger’; that I’m thin-skinned or hypersensitive, ‘looking for something to be angry about’.

Sometimes the answer to the question really is ‘no’. There are people who piss me off whenever they open their mouths, and there are rent-a-gobs - Jeremy Clarkson, Frankie Boyle, Katie Hopkins – who’ve forged thriving careers in gratuitous offensiveness. There’s a certain symbiosis there, because I’d have much less material if not for them: objecting to the objectionable is, I admit, part of my livelihood, but that doesn’t make it an affection. Surely someone has to?

Religious conservatives frequently paint themselves as reasonable voices of the people cowed by PC hysteria, as if the fault is with those telling them they’re off-base. This seems to me just as true of atheist feminists’ opponents, who tend to pride themselves on being unoffended, getting blocked or prompting outrage: these things are, for them, signs of superior cool logic and maturity. The problem is never with them. What’s the litmus test, anyway, for being a lone voice of reason versus somebody people don’t like?

Sometimes other people are right. There’s a possibility that when most things you say are called odious – I’m speaking here to no one in particular – they are. If folk stop listening to you, it may not be that they can’t stand your superior thoughts; it may be that they can’t stand you. If you can’t say anything without offending them, it may not be you’re a mouthpiece for hard-to-swallow home truths; it may be you’re an arsehole.

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25 comments from this blogger’s school reports

I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.

1. ‘He is friendly towards everyone but does not have a specific “soul-mate”.’

2. ‘His hypotheses are so sound that he does not see the need to investigate.’

3. ‘Likes to express his opinions.’

4. ‘Has a basic knowledge of musical elements. He has not however been able to master the recorder.’

5. ‘Enjoys working with the computer.’

6. ‘He is beginning to improve his co-operation skills within a group.’

7. ‘His ball skills are developing, although more throwing and catching practice would help.’

8. ‘Does not mix particularly well with the other children.’

9. ‘Needs to try to complete all work within the lesson.’

10. ‘Has an impressive knowledge of a range of biblical stories.’

11. ‘Does not appear to be very enthusiastic in PE lessons.’

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12. ‘Has begun to show signs of relating more easily in class to his peers.’

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13. ‘Needs to be encouraged to join team games.’

14. ‘Has an excellent command of spoken English and argues convincingly, although he does needs to watch a tendency towards pedantry.’

15. ‘Try to think why someone may disagree with your answer.’

16. ‘Shows tremendous interest in, and enthusiasm for, the French language. I have to restrain some of his attempts.’

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17. ‘He does a lot of calculating in his head and it is an ongoing struggle to convince him of the need to write things down.’

18. ‘Has strong opinions about several issues.’

19. ‘It is a shame that he doesn’t participate in the rewards system.’

20. ‘He has a good understanding of the content, though his homework is in need of a little attention.’

21. ‘I would recommend him to try and develop a greater sense of urgency.’

22. ‘Has his own priorities and often sets his own agenda.’

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23. ‘Does not suffer fools gladly and as a result doesn’t always get on with his peers.’

24. ‘Be aware and sensitive of other people’s opinions.’

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25. ‘Needs to make sure that he does not rely just on natural intelligence.’

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups - Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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I’m proud to be “ideological”

I.

I’m tired of ‘ideological’ being a dirty word – tired of Westminster suits weaponising it, having it thrown at me when I say Isla Vista had a context and skeptics who rail against feminists ‘importing an “ideology” into the crystalline purity of their movement’.

A coherent, connected set of principles that inform how you think is not a bad thing. Having concepts, words and ways of understanding based on them that frame your politics at large is a good thing.

This blog’s name reacts partly to the limp, illiterate brand of skepticism New Atheist ‘thought leaders’ have at times traded on, which prides itself on being ‘rational’, issue-by-issue and ‘evidenced-based’ at the loss of any context anywhere.

When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.

That you don’t understand these things isn’t a sign you’re being a Tru Skeptic and resisting Orwellian brainwashing. It’s a sign you’re failing to think in enough depth.

II.

I’m tired of gay men who pride themselves on being apolitical; the soothing ‘but I’m not political about it’ whenever anyone marginalised says what they are, especially here.

It’s a glib, self-righteous reassurance to the powerful that you won’t rock the boat. ‘I’m gay, but not political about it – so as you were. Don’t let me talk too much about it or too forcefully for comfort.’

If you’re happy not to be politically queer, announcing your ‘thick skin and sense of humour’, the difference between us is probably that gay jokes do bother me; that I’m not alright with being assumed straight; that I won’t accept family members’ uninformed bullshit.

That wasn’t always me. I grew into it in adulthood, allowing anger to take hold; stopped acting over several years as if keeping my head down, being in on the joke and not posing a threat was what I had to do to get respect.

Not settling for the lowest possible standards takes grit. Summoning any when you’re queer in a straight world can be a trial - but when you say you’re not political about it, what I hear is that you haven’t yet learned how to say no.

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