Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair

Grave matters at Reading University. Grave and worrying similar matters in London too.

Yesterday at the London School of Economics’ freshers’ fair, the atheist society manned their table wearing t-shirts which bore images from Jesus and Mo, a popular atheist web strip satirising religion, principally Christianity and Islam.

It’s justified to grimace in anticipation when cartoons of Mohammad come up. Fear not: Jesus and Mo is nothing like the Jyllands-Posten cartoons from 2005 – funnier, cleverer, lacking the xenophobic undertones and simply better. I don’t know which images were used on the group’s t-shirts, but here are a selection of past favourites.

That last one, I regret to say, refers to what the t-shirts prompted. They were worn, other than for purposes of humour, in response to LSE student union’s actions last year. To quote the NSS’s summary:

In 2012 the LSE Students’ Union effectively made blasphemy an offence following protests from Muslim students about a Jesus and Mo cartoon posted on the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist student group’s Facebook page.

The LSESU passed a motion proposing that ‘Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism’. The Union resolved “To define Islamophobia as “a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred”.

It said it would take a firm stance against all Islamophobic incidents at LSE and conduct internal investigations if and when they occur.

Ostracisation and demonisation of British Muslims is, to be absolutely sure, a serious problem. It is not solved by overly broad proscriptions which silence critique of beliefs and empower the Islamist far right. LSE’s atheists no doubt think similarly, which is why they donned the t-shirts. Here, according to their official statement, is what happened next:

At around noon, we were approached by LSESU Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood, Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, and Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara and several others who identified as LSESU staff.

Without explanation, Anneessa Mahmood started removing material from the stall. When challenged, she claimed that it was “offensive”. In addition, the LSESU staff members demanded that we remove our t-shirts. We were told that should we not comply we would be physically removed from the premises. When we asked for the reason for this request, the LSESU officers stated that several students had complained about our t-shirts. When we asked what rules or regulations we were in breach of, they told us that they did not need to give reasons for removing students, and we would be informed at a later point in time. As we refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building. We came to the Freshers’ Fair to promote our society to new students. Our ability to do that was heavily curtailed by the actions of the LSESU staff. We especially felt that the abrasive behaviour of the LSESU staff was not aimed at protecting other students from harm, but rather an attempt humiliate us in front of dozens of students.

When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students. Paul Thornbury told us that it was “clearly deceitful” of us to say that we had not intended to cause offence and that we did not feel that we had behaved inappropriately or harassed other students. This unreasonable behaviour of the LSE and LSESU staff caused us serious distress, particularly the allegations that our motives were to “offend” others.

At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts. When we covered our t-shirts with jackets, the head of LSE security told us that “this was not enough”, and that we had to zip up the jackets. When we zipped up the jackets, we were told that this was still not enough, as the word “prophet” was still visible at the top. After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room. We felt that this highly unnecessary and geared at intimidating and humiliating us in front of others.

It’s less than encouraging to see this so soon after Reading University’s atheist group was banned, for highly similar (if even less inflammatory) behaviour. Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.



Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad

Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from Liverpool who worked in Khartoum, was arrested in 2007 for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad. Authorities detained her in a police cell, and a court sentenced her to fifteen days in prison and deportation. This was a comparatively lenient decree: Gibbons, charged triply with insulting religion, incitement of hatred and public contempt for religious beliefs, might have faced forty lashes for these under Sudanese law.

A year ago as freshers’ fair took place at Reading University, its atheist society sought to raise awareness of blasphemy laws’ global effects, citing the Gibbons case specifically. To pique passing first years’ interest as a conversation-prompter, they wrote the name Muhammad on a post-it note and stuck it to a pineapple, assuming no doubt that this exhibit’s surreal whimsy couldn’t possibly be viewed as aggressive, prejudicial or intolerant. They erred in thinking so: after the best part of a day passed without signs of trouble, a representative of Reading’s student union (who ran the fair) informed them a number of complaints had been received, adding the earnest but Pythonesque instruction, ‘Either the pineapple goes, or you do.’

According to a statement the group made which hit the press:

They seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.

Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered [us] to leave the Freshers’ Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.

As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the [society] president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.

‘Our Freshers’ Fayre’, the student union commented, ‘is an inclusive event for all students. As the societies [sic] actions were causing upset and distress to a number of individual students and other societies attending we took the decision to ask them to leave.’

Defending the society’s expulsion on grounds of inclusivity seems Orwellian in the extreme. It’s true events can’t and shouldn’t be equally inclusive of women and misogynists, homophobes and queer people, Muslims and the far right’s anti-migrant racism – but this wasn’t an anti-Muslim display. It wasn’t a depiction of Mohammad as a suicide bomber, for example; it wasn’t a placard blaming Sweden’s Muslim populace for its rape statistics; it was a tropical fruit emblazoned with a so called prophet’s name, so as to start discussions about blasphemy and free expression. (The atheist society, when the English Defence League planned a demonstration on their campus earlier this year, soon organised a counter-protest. The EDL themselves were acting in response to the Muslim Society at reading hosting a talk by Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, a supporter of queer and LGBT people’s violent murder. The event was proscribed, but only due to fears of violence; while the Muslim Society’s views on tropical fruit remain unknown, no action against them seems to have been taken.)

Reading’s student union, after this, took disciplinary action against the atheist society, issuing it in spring term this year with an official warning. According to Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (who really, seriously need to fix their name), ‘the union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban.’

In order to continue operating under the union’s auspices, the society was asked to sign an agreement to avoid causing offence in future. They declined to do this, quite understandably for a body whose central premise is that other people’s most cherished views are wrong, and have now been disaffiliated. The atheist society, officially speaking, no longer exists – while it still meets and recruits, union officials have now informed committee members they consider it dissolved, removing financial support for the group’s activities, room-booking privileges for events and rights to a table at freshers’ fair. (A few days ago, as autumn term began, members stood outside the premises to advertise.)

The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.

This is cause for extreme concern.

What’s more concerning is that judging by events this week in London, it isn’t alone.



Now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older: celebrating National Poetry Day

The most unusual thing I ever stole, as far as I can think, was a book of poems. There was no previous owner as such – at the age of fourteen, I’d received a copy like every student in my year, and while officialdom demanded these books’ return after two years, I resolved early on never to give mine back.

The book was our course anthology, containing over fifty texts to study for exams. No one was expected or supposed to read or write about that many – the book, a mass-produced A4 affair, contained sections of poetry from pre-1914, from ‘other cultures’ and by then-current national writers, from which teachers made selections – and my class must only have read and discussed umpteen. I read each last one though, slipping the slim volume into my bag instead of handing it in at lesson’s end, sneaking home with it to pore over its contents at my leisure. I remember distinctly that when I turned sixteen the month exams were held, each page was thick with spidery teenage script, annotations laced like latticework between text and images, covering it to the last square inch.

How I loved that book. The two years during which it was a course text for me were perhaps the hardest of my life, and certainly those most filled with fear: fear of going outside, fear of harassment, of physical assault, fear of being outed; fear of homeless, fear of self-harm, fear of attempting suicide; fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. The fear I most lucidly remember though, perhaps oddly given its competitors, was of my voice. Public speaking is a widespread fear especially in teenagers, and I still recall my fourteen-year-old self’s efforts not to shake during a speechmaking assignment, but more than that, I loathed my voice. Nasal, stuttering, equipped with vowels to match neither my region nor my social class, it brought me no end of embarrassment and angst. (When a line in Othello called for ‘bastard’ to be read out, my long, southern ‘a’ drenched in self-aware discomfort, I squirmed inwardly.) Somehow, the anthology I half-inched home was an antidote to this.

Humanist platitudes on literature and why to study it are ten-a-penny, mostly involving tawdry clichés: friends found between book covers, world travel from inside one’s bedroom, hot tears shed theatrically reciting A.E. Housman. Like much of humanism, seemingly in all its forms, these are unsalvageably middle class apologies, speaking to those who love English, who rejoice in it, but not who need it; whose education is for leisure not survival. My feeling (and for this I won’t apologise) is that that book of poems saved my life, or at least helped to. When I scoured its innards reading Walcott, Blake, Imtiaz Dharker, I sensed for the first time that my voice could mean something – that it might, one day at any rate, make people stop and listen if I learned to do with it a fraction of what they had; that instead of hampering me, it might grow strong like Sujata Bhatt’s titular tongue. It’s the greatest privilege there is really to have a voice, a powerful engine of hope to think yours might be heard. That shaped as well as saved me: it’s what first impressed on me that I should be a writer, a great part of what made me want to study literature. I know I’m not alone in this.

The anthology remains on my shelf, its contents having stayed with me since first reading them. This being Britain’s National Poetry Day, I’ve wondered which poem from it to share here, but only one was ever a serious contender. Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, the title entry from his third collection in 1992, resonates more strongly with me now than ever.

A rare trochaic pentameter, turning traditionally heroic iambs back to front, the poem’s metre suits its subject matter. Years after having flown the Batcave, a jaded adult Robin vilifies his former mentor:

I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.

The caped crusader has been found out, myths of familial warmth with Robin scotched, affairs with married women blown open, ditching his ward only to wind up destitute and alone. It’s a bleak, pained monologue, but triumphalist as Robin taunts him finally:

Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

It’s a poem for anyone who’s outgrown a hero, let alone a swathe of them – for all who’ve learnt to mistrust those they were told cared about them, as certainly my teenage self did, beaten, kicked and spat on while teachers stood by. (My former headmaster, whose insistently gendered title is revealing, is one Batman I can’t fail to envision reading Armitage’s lines. Neither of us ever deserved to know the other.) There’s a silver lining in there too, though: a suggestion we emerge taller, harder, stronger, older on anguish and betrayal’s other side. I feel sure personally that I’ve Armitage, his fellow writers and poetry at large to thank for that.

There are other texts from that anthology which merit reading (I wish I had the space to name each one), whole other volumes I could mention just as lovingly. But that stolen book of poems gave me a sense of hope and strength I desperately needed. I’ll never give it back.

Ed Miliband deserves forthright appraisal. The Daily Mail offers none

Ed Miliband is a John Doe-cialist: he doesn’t know who he is, but he’s sure he’s a left winger.

Naïvely Labourite in my more youthful youth, I confess I voted for him. I stand by that decision now, if I stand in support of any candidate who ran. Certainly I’m glad his older, Blairite brother didn’t snatch the title, who’d no doubt have spent the last three years defending New Labour to the death while politics moved on ahead of him. Nor do I rate the popular refrain his leadership’s been a humiliation – as Ian Dunt set out a year ago at, he’s managed and positioned his party more skilfully than is acknowledged – but if and when he enters office, which seems to me likelier than not in eighteen months, my expectations are not high.

Colleagues on the left have been estranged by his complicity in ConDem Britain’s austerity scheme, refusing to fight cuts to services or welfare, to oppose the forced unpaid labour of the unemployed, to support direct action or keep his party bonded to trade unions. When Labourites aren’t standing up for labour rights, what are they for?

But these are only symptoms of his real weakness: being too timidly spineless to assert a clear political identity. Within ten minutes of his election, Miliband was thrashing panic-stricken around, attempting to throw off the Red Ed nickname newspapers had given him – a name which should have been a badge of pride, expressing as it did the social democratic platform on which he’d run and won, gaining the votes of union members, Blairism’s critics and disillusioned Liberal Democrats. He’s turned his back on this constituency since out of submission to the rightist media, pandering desperately for approval, and the irony is colossal. His leadership to date embodies politics-as-commerce, where marketable stances are assumed which research suggests will sell – forget about all quaint ideas of having principles, committing to them and making a case.

The result is that ideologically, Miliband is a non-entity, the same kind David Cameron was before making a market crisis one of public spending gave his real politics a chance to shine. Beyond media-friendly, lowest-common-denominator vaguenesses such as ‘One Nation’, the Labour leader offers voters no solid sense of who or what he is, afraid to advance a clear agenda – let alone one with a hue of straight-up, old fashioned socialism – and fight for it against his critics.

The reason Miliband speaks at any given opportunity about his father, and why opponents in the press and House of Commons have rehearsed ad nauseam the fiction he betrayed his brother David by not granting him the leadership by natural right, is that his family lends him elusive context. Ed Miliband means something as the prodigal son of Marxist academic Ralph or underdog to rival brother David – more than he means in terms of his own politics in practice. This is what makes the Daily Mail‘s recent shot at him via his father an own goal on two fronts.

If nothing else and for the avoidance of doubt, it wasn’t a good article, arguing first that Miliband senior’s ‘Marxist dream’ was spoonfed to his son, whose leadership intends to carry on his ‘evil legacy’ through capped energy prices, council powers to seize long-term unused land and independent regulation of press standards (Stalinism, no less), then that Ed is a tax-dodging millionaire in a North London townhouse whose ‘socialism’ is mere showboating. Both cannot be true. Either the Labour leader is a Soviet in sheep’s clothing, out to destroy the British way of life, or he’s a bourgeois hypocrite, the lesser son of greater sires. The latter line of critique needless to say is the more fertile, but seems to be peripheral here. The Mail must surely see the contradiction, but shows more interest, exactly like the man it hopes to vilify, in the marketably specious than the politically authentic.

Despite Winston Churchill’s fondly telling his wife in 1944, ‘I have had very nice talks with the old Bear. I like him the more I see him’, the comparison of Miliband with Stalin bears a strong ring of the former’s infamous Gestapo speech, which alleged Labour’s post-war welfare programme – National Health Service, social security etc. – would require a nazistic police state for its inception. Then Labour leader Clement Attlee had, like Ed, the least demagogic personality conceivable, making the accusation faintly funny. Tarring his father however, as his right-of-reply piece nicely demonstrated, only serves to lend him ammunition.

It’s childish, oversimplistic and dishonest, of course, to grant Stalin’s Russia a monopoly on Marx or communism. Ralph Miliband, despite the intimations of the Mail, launched a lifetime’s worth of salvos at the USSR; it conveniently neglects to mention the Hungarian forradalom‘s forces, who overthrew Soviet control for a short time and prefigured later uprisings, were themselves communists, demanding democratised elections and free media alongside fair pay for workers and academics and a living wage; in protest at its leadership’s support for Moscow, it was in support of them that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s biggest exodus of members took place.

In any case though, it should be clear from the title of Miliband the Younger’s rebuttal – ‘Why my father loved Britain‘ – that the hit piece only feeds his tendency to posture, hiding once more behind the family narrative, declining still to build a real platform. We’ve heard a hundred times how the Milibands’ parents fled the Nazis, availing themselves of Britain’s mythical hope and decency. It’s a lazy tactic, nothing but compelling anecdote (and less compelling the hundredth time round) in place of ideological substance. If the Mail cared about politics beyond partisanship, it could have laid this bareness bare. Instead, it offered him another thousand words to waste.

British communism was the real Blitz spirit

In the wake of Thursday’s update, I’m reliably informed by one of Twitter’s trigger-happier inhabitants (rather literally in this case, it appears) that I’m a ‘twentysomething whackjob with a garbage degree who never saw real communism‘, unqualified therefore to praise anyone even the slightest shade of red, as the post noted European freethought’s standard-bearers often were. Would he prefer, I wonder, Christopher Hitchens’ dictum several months before his death, ‘From the many Marxists who took issue with Lenin, there proceeded a number of works of a high order of seriousness, and failing to scrutinise them would severely limit one’s knowledge of modern history‘?

The anti-Muslim right and pro-Islamist left show equal keenness to claim ‘true Islam’ for their side’s case, jihadists, Wahabis and Salafis on the one hand, liberals, sufis and Ahmadis on the other. None of these schools is more or less ‘real’ than any other: hijackings, Dervishes and calligraphy are all real expressions of Islam. ‘Real communism’ then seems equally elusive. Were the communists in Oswald Mosley’s way at Cable Street, obstructing the procession of his Union of Fascists, somehow unreal? Were the communists of the Gay Liberation Front, and those present at the Stonewall Inn’s eponymous riots, not real ones either? Was Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to Britain during the Blitz, more of a real communist inside his £1600 personal shelter than Communist Party members agitating as bombs fell for the poor to be let underground?

Tube tunnels lined with Londoners in photographs have mythologised the war. They tell, we like to think, of a universal struggle, prince and pauper driven alike beneath the surface, fires levelling not just buildings but society itself. The story is told over and over, in disaster films where heiresses bond with barmaids, by all-in-this-together politicians bidding us summon our ‘Blitz spirit’, a phrase that’s come to mean togetherness, communion in a crisis, solidarity. Like all great myths, the story is a lie.

In the thirties, slum housing spread through industrialised areas – Lambeth, Stepney, Deptford, Bermondsey – often at the behest of Herbert Morrison, then chair of London County Council, more interested by reputation in gerrymandering than provision. (George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, chronicles time spent in spikes around such boroughs.) When the lack of medicine or sanitation there affected only the inhabitants, authorities seemed quite indifferent, but once preparations were underway for German air raids, government – including Morrison, now tasked with overseeing the process – ruled against widespread communal shelters, preferring individualised domestic ones in hopes infection and disease would be contained among the poor. Inner city evacuees were treated, on occasion, accordingly: Campbell Stephen, Independent Labour MP for Glasgow Camlachie, is cited in Travis Crosby’s history of evacuation bemoaning the case of 150 mothers and children sent to the Highlands, housed bedless in an empty village hall so as not to spread germs. Coupled with the slow return of Londoners who found bombings implausible in the Twilight War of 1939-40, this may be why evacuation efforts were half-hearted: in spring 1941, writes Richard Overy in The Bombing War, there were fewer evacuees than when conflict began.

Victims of the attacks which followed were overwhelmingly blue-collar. Luftwaffe strikes, aiming to knock out factories and construction, targeted industrial boroughs like those named above, terraced streets packed with overpopulated housing. Such houses by and large had no gardens to accommodate Anderson shelters, and vast numbers were obliterated. People made homeless in the Blitz, over a million in all, came mainly from these areas – where only eight percent of middle class Barnes was destroyed, writes Overy, one building in five was flattened in industrial West Ham. While civilian deaths in air raids have been used to reify the Nazis’ evil, the truth is government policy and pre-war urban conditions make it hard to see how any aerial bombardment could have ended differently.

Ministers’ opposition to shared refuge meant in effect the privatisation of provision. While the city’s poor filled ramshackle and scarce communal shelters, built frequently on open ground according to Andrew Sinclair’s War Like a Wasp with only modest reinforcement, reliant otherwise on cellars if fortunate enough to have them, its upper classes survived in luxury – history might have looked quite different, in fact, had they not done. In his book 1940: Myth and Reality, former civil servant Clive Ponting names the heirs of the Rothschild banking clan alongside future Liberal leaders Jeremy Thorpe and Shirley Williams among an estimated 17,000 children sent abroad by wealthy parents during the war, and the diary of journalist Charles Patrick Graves echoes the grotesque scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang where Eva Braun parties through Russian bombings, revealing the Savoy Hotel to have been home during attacks to Cabinet members, celebrities and servants of the press. (The Savoy boasted its own opulent bunker, replete with beds, food service and nurses on hand; the hospitality industry was made exempt from wartime rationing.) Far from the universalising retreats of shared cultural memory, tube stations lay under lock and key at the beginning of the Blitz, festooned in at least one case with barbed wire and guarded by police.

At Bethnal Green underground station, a wall-mounted plaque commemorates ‘the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War’, in which 173 people ‘lost their lives on the evening of Wednesday 3rd March 1943 descending these steps to Bethnal Green underground air raid shelter’. The final words of the inscription are a lie: no air raid shelter existed on the site, only a set of platforms used to that end against their state administrators’ will. Authorities declined for fifty years to add the plaque, as well they might: a report issued clandestinely in the aftermath of the catastrophe, whose victims (over a third of them children) were more than twice as many as those of the Blitz’s most destructive bomb, stated defence officials – unhappy from the start for stations to be occupied during attacks – opted against installing barriers to prevent stampedes, ignoring residents’ complaints the entrance to the tunnels was too narrow, meaning that when a mother and child tripped on the stairs, a macabre snowball of 300 people formed, just less than two thirds asphyxiating.

‘I am devoutly thankful’, Home Secretary John Anderson had told the House of Commons in June 1940, ‘that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters.’ It was Anderson, working with Herbert Morrison, who arranged provisions for air raid defence, and after whom familiar curved bomb shelters were named. The two had long agreed tube stations were best left off-limits, civilians being unable in Anderson’s words ‘to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground’ – his implication being, as Andrew Martin states in his Passenger’s History of the Tube, that a subterranean working class ‘might never come out again’, occupying London’s tunnels in revolt, refusing to resume vital war duties on the surface while held under Luftwaffe assault. If this fear seems paranoid, evoking as it does the cannibal Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it was clearly a concern earnest enough that ministers preferred the loss of tens of thousands in the labour force, incinerated with their homes and factories, to the thought of an inhabitable underground.

The catacomb scenario never took shape of course, but it was only in November 1940, two months after the first bombs had hit home, that Morrison u-turned, allowing Londoners inside. The Communist Party of Great Britain (supporters often meeting at Conway Hall, home to Europe’s oldest freethought organisation and headquarters today to the National Secular Society) had pressured for inclusive sheltering before the war, some of its members having seen blitzkrieg‘s effect on industry first hand during the Spanish Civil War, in several ways a dress rehearsal for hostilities to come. What changed Morrison’s mind, or rather, forced his hand, was a mixture of public outcry and disorder, spearheaded in either case by the CPGB and far left at large. From mid-September, riots took place at Liverpool Street Station, Warren Street, Goodge Street, Highgate, tube entrances forced upon by crowds overflowing from packed public shelters. Estimates of numbers inside stations by October vary, but are higher consistently than 100,000; these at the time were criminal occupations, not the state-sponsored all-in-it-together sleepovers posterity suggests.

Leftist dissent did germinate to some degree below the ground, if nothing like as much as government had feared. The month use of the tube tunnels was first permitted, Londoners from dozens of them – mainly communists and CPGB members – formed an Underground Station and Shelterers’ Committee. In his war diary Living Through the Blitz, journalist and naturalist Tom Harrisson describes the committee’s struggling against police incursions, removing occupants on the pretext of health and safety inspection; if indeed they really were performing these, the Bethnal Green disaster makes the need for them admittedly quite clear in hindsight, but improvements to the underground stations’ conditions seem far more often to have been negotiated by inhabitants. Even the Times, in December 1940, expressed support for shelterers’ complaints.

Nor was the CPGB dormant elsewhere. Around the time of the tube station riots on September 15, the party’s MP for Stepney Phil Piratin (elected having rallied the counter-fascist force at Cable Street) led a 70-strong party from his area to the Savoy during an air raid, offering those in charge the choice to let them in or shut the doors with aircraft fast approaching: staging, in effect, an especially polite occupation. Similar tactics had been tried days earlier, 200 CPGB members occupying the Mayfair (the Dorchester soon followed suit), and the next day a picket took place in St. Pancras, demanding a local factory open its hangar-sized bomb shelter for public use. What followed was the closest to an all-out red scare Britain seems to have seen: the CPGB’s journals, the Daily Worker among them, were banned from publication, its meetings and premises investigated, but while momentum wasn’t sustained beyond the Blitz on the scale it had formed, the party’s membership sharply increased over that period – reaching, according to A.J. Davies To Build a New Jerusalem, 60,000 in 1943.

have seen real communism. So have we all, whenever we set eyes on photographs of shelterers in tunnels, basking in their established, patriotic glow. The communism which occasioned those tunnels’ use, the real Blitz spirit, has been forgotten – it merits recollection. Certainly it had its limitations, and was far from communism’s only real form, but nor is it less real than any of the others. While our frequent impulse is to ask first why British communism never took hold, we might do better to ask after those marginal-yet-central ways in which it did take hold, shaping 1940s public life in ways popular reminiscence sometimes masks. ‘We must give them reforms’, Tory Quentin Hogg is known to have said in 1943, prefiguring the postwar creation of the welfare state, ‘or they will give us revolution.’

‘Freethought’ has always been a left tradition

The atheist far right’s beloved sweetheart Pat Condell, chief vilifier at large of Muslims, migrants, and ‘carpet-chewing PC fanatics’, knows no appeasement, quiescence or apparent joy – nor knows he, as his recent swipe at this network showed us, much at all.

Honoured to be slandered as racist‘, Condell tweeted this week, by ‘the ludicrously named Freethought Blogs’, in his words ‘the North Korea of free thought‘. ‘Being hated by people like this makes it all worthwhile.’

You’re welcome, Pat. And it isn’t slander, is it, if you think your image benefits? (It isn’t anyway, of course. Slander, to offer one of Spider-Man‘s underused lines, is spoken. In print, it’s libel – and how he thinks a court could rule on whether or not his views are racist, I don’t know. Like the English Defence League mind you, on whom he bundles fulsome praise, people with dark skin sometimes like him, which settles it of course.)

Objections to Freethought‘s place in our masthead are among the laziest, glibbest soundbites our critics have, but more than that display a failure to grasp even the term’s most basic history. Freethought is not ‘free thought’ or uninhibited inquiry – to think so boasts the same green literalism as thinking a Friends’ Meeting House is a shared beach hut or that Scotch pancakes contain Scotch  – though even if it were, it’s silly and inane to assume one’s critics are automatons or say loose collective viewpoints mean dictatorship. Freethought is a specified tradition, European in the main, whose constituents have by and large been countercultural, radical and leftist, everything Condell and cohorts viscerally despise.

The Deutscher Freidenker-Verband, probably Europe’s major freethought organisation, claimed a membership of hundreds of thousands by the time of its proscription at the Nazis’ hands. A bulk of its support came from the Communist and Social Democratic parties, the former producing its final chair (prior to post-war revival) Max Sievers, the latter cofounded by the Marxist Wilhelm Liebknecht as was the DFV. The Kommunistische Partei was itself founded by Liebknecht’s middle son Karl and Rosa Luxemburg, together Weimar Germany’s most posthumously celebrated dissidents. Christopher Hitchens appraised Luxemburg as the ‘most brilliant’ of Marxist anti-Leninists, crediting the Social Democrats with prompting Bertrand Russell’s writing career beyond building an alternative and markedly more feminist society for its supporters, the historian Isaac Deutscher (another Jewish atheist, his politics very much like hers) as closer to Marx than anyone who followed, perhaps excepting Leon Trotsky.

Marx himself remains a sharper critic of religion than Condell could ever hope to be, as were a noted swathe of (free)thinkers informed by him before and beyond Sovietism. Millions of working Germans mobilised against 1920s church politics, leaving religious organisations after campaigns by left freethinker groups, including beside the DFV the Bund Sozialistischer Freidenker with its 20,000 members, the national Zentral-Verband der Proletarischen Freidenker and the International of Proletarian Freethinkers formed with siblings around the continent. (Such working class atheist constituencies have yet to form in the present movement. I eagerly await them.) In Italy, Antonio Gramsci – recognised now among the major atheist philosophers of interest – continued the socialist-atheist tradition there of Carlo Cafiero, the minutiae of whose anarcho-communism differed from Gramsci’s politics but who associated with Britain’s National Secular Society in its founding years.

Cafiero and Errico Malatesta, Italian anarchism’s prime progenitors, both had freethinking backgrounds and were devotees of Mikhail Bakunin, likewise an ardent atheist and anarchocollectivist whose theory treated faith much as Marx did (it was, no doubt, one of the few discursive areas where they’d have jovially agreed). His views reverberated similarly in the U.S. as praised by Emma Goldman, viewed now as a founder of American anarchism, communism, feminism and atheism. On the latter subject, as in my view on all others, she is infinitely quotable.

Freethought in Britain began even before all this, and there too it was led by anarchists – among them William Godwin, philosopher and radical. His daughter Mary, also an atheist, wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and married Percy Shelley, sent down from Oxford on publishing an atheist pamphlet, himself the author of Prometheus Unbound and a political dissident. Godwin’s own wife, philosopher Mary Wollstonecroft is remembered as founding modern feminism, translated according to Azar Nafisi (quoted at Pharyngula) by modern day Iranian women opposing Sharia – Iran, whose Worker-Communists are its major secularist faction, few more prominent among them than Mansoor Hekmat, influential among other spheres on Freethought Blogs writer Maryam Namazie. Wollstonecroft’s religious views’ details are disputed, but she was by no means a fervent believer, and her politics remain distinctly anticlerical.

Here endeth the lesson, Condell and friends. Bakunin, Cafiero, Deutscher, Godwin, Goldman, Gramsci, Hekmat, Liebknecht, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Malatesta, Marx, Namazie, Shelley, Shelley, Sievers, Wollstonecroft: these names and others like them trace the freethought name’s historic lineage, always intersectional. We, not you, are its inheritors; you, cursing atheism’s so called loony left, need surrender it to us and not vice versa.

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism

‘So,’ asks antagonistic teacher Irwin in The History Boys, ‘our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First?’ Yes say his students, hearts set on a place at Oxbridge. ‘First class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms. Manchester longs to have you. You can walk into Leeds. But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I’ve just read seventy papers all saying the same thing – and I’m asleep.’

‘But it’s all true’, Anglican, piano-playing Scripps insists.

‘What’s truth got to do with it? What’s truth got to do with anything?’

Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in the 2006 film) has been hired by the school’s headmaster to teach strategy and flair. Where Richard Griffiths’ Hector teaches literature and general studies, cultivating cultural know-how, Irwin’s field is scholastic élan – the gameplaying cunning, style and nerve for academic triumph. To this end he prizes the unorthodox, slating the boys’ first essays as competent-but-dull, lauding originality above all else, less fond of lofty truism than contentious pith.

‘Happy to opine the esoteric point of view’, as an English teacher wrote when I was twelve, my natural inclination is to break consensus, dogged sometimes among peers with the repute of always having to be different – I confess I carry something of a torch, then, for Irwin’s style.

For fellow teacher Hector, though – older, tweedier, more humane, for whom the Holocaust can never be discussed in theory, only condemned ‘as an unprecedented horror’ – this is anathema. That Irwin has no forename where Hector has two (his real first name Douglas, his surname never uttered) is not coincidental: Irwin is the coolly rational querdenker, his teaching style distanced and sanuine, Hector the amicable schoolmaster of old, vocationally invested in his students’ lives and passions, as personal as his colleague isn’t. While Irwin’s pedagogy is strategic and goal-oriented, Hector is through and through a humanist, beloved of the Renaissance, deeming knowledge for its own sake precious, aiming for ’rounded individuals’ regardless of Oxbridge success.

Hector’s feelings toward his students are unsurprisingly just as romantic as his view of teaching. ‘The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act’, he pleads to the headmaster when it comes to light he touches the boys (18 or 19) sexually while giving motorcycle lifts, and isn’t without a point, at least in Bennett’s universe. Inasmuch as Hector receives no outright consent, his actions are unethical, but nor would it quite be true to call them one-sided, predatory acts of abuse. Earlier scenes show the boys collectively recognise the bike rides’ erotic function, taking turns quite voluntarily on Hector’s saddle in this knowledge, subtly negotiating the touching’s extent, viewing it almost at times as a rite of passage: Posner, 17, is refused a ride because underage, classmates explain to him, and Hector’s offering rides home seems to work less deceptively than as a coded invitation, understood by all involved.

The homoerotic is the default sexual mode in Bennett’s classroom, where Posner wants rakish, charismatic Dakin (communicating this in song form at one point), Dakin wants Irwin, Irwin wants Dakin and Scripps expresses mild enthusiasm for this pair. Beyond Dakin’s rather perfunctory pursuit of secretary Fiona, the only heterosexual moments in the play are simulated, as Posner, Scripps and others roleplay as Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now Voyager, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter and the occupants of an imaginary French-speaking brothel. Straightness here if nowhere else is enacted, artificial, false; gay attractions, an unvarnished truth the boys discuss matter-of-factly. Perhaps for this reason, Irwin finds himself ‘scared shitless’ at the play’s end when offered sex explicitly by Dakin – by far more closeted than Hector, by far more diffident in sex and life than in his teaching, Irwin has no aptitude for plain or non-strategic truths.

The two’s mutual attraction on the other hand, formed largely around classroom brinkmanship and Dakin’s urge to please his tutor, reveals Irwin shares privately some of Hector’s romanticism – that cynicism notwithstanding, the scholastic passing on of truth is erotic for him too. His teaching, though savvy, sanguine and unsentimental, does turn out to be about the truth: moments after admonishing Scripps on the First World War’s significance, he gives the following much-quoted speech, which no doubt I’ll reach for again come Remembrance Day:

‘The truth was in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So why does no one admit this? [Pointing to a monument] That’s why. The dead – the body count. We don’t like to admit the war even partly our fault, ’cause so many of our people died, and all the mourning’s veiled the truth: it’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’

Where Hector deals in subjective abstractions about knowledge, love and the best moments in reading, Bennett’s most convincingly incisive lines belong all to Irwin. ‘Our perspective on the past alters’, he says defending dispassionate dissection of the Holocaust, ‘and looking back immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.’ ‘While they had no artistic merit’, he says, the Carry On films deserve attention since ‘they achieve some of the permanence of art simply by persisting, and acquire incremental significance if only as social history’. ‘If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher’, he says, ‘study Henry VIII.’ His contrarianism isn’t empty or inauthentic, it’s a means of happening on astute deductions.

In my second year at university, producing passable but uninspired papers, I had a tutor very much like Irwin – twentysomething, filled with sarcasm and benign derision, tactical to the point of artistry in essay-writing guidance. Despite his megalomanic tendencies, or perhaps because of them, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (like Dakin) mildly besotted, and as it turned out he came very close to being my single most effective tutor. Obeying expectation either in choice of text, citation or argument was emphatically discouraged, his entire discursive praxis one of counter-valence. This became, as it is for Bennett’s character, epistemology more than just strategy: find every theory’s flaws, dissent from it however possible and build a new approach inside the cracks. Cracks in established thinking are where progress forms, and no academy could advance without them being scanned for constantly.

Contrarianism isn’t lazy, it’s instructive: no better way exists of finding out an ivory tower’s weak spots than by banging one’s head incessantly against its walls. We crucify facile reactionaries – Melanie Phillips, Katie Hopkins, Brendan O’Neill – and are right to do so, but the c-word is a title they’ve yet to earn, aspiring to it perhaps as Bennett’s head does to move up the league table. The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.



Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
What is my status? Stray? Or great?
~Vikram Seth

Yesterday, I found out on waking up this morning, was Bisexual Visibility Day. A swathe of other FTBullies, from whose various posts and tweets I discovered this, have this topic covered from a range of angles: Ashley, Jen, Miri, Greta, Kate, Yemisi, Zinnia, perhaps others I’ve missed. The queer Freethought Blogs contingent (whose only male constituent I seem to be – oh, the oppression) tends strongly, it appears, toward bisexuality.

In common with Ashley, I don’t foremost call myself bisexual (adjective), though I might mention bisexuality (noun) being part of me. It’s not my view that sexuality in essential terms is what we are, but moreover I’m suspicious of the unstraight being made a positive value: queer is my term of preference since it names only exception, deviation, departure from a set of norms, and opposing those norms – the only reason I need name my sexuality at all – requires I acknowledge them. A choice between ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’, in any case, is one I’m hesitant to make. Both could conceivably apply, but why the need to quantify my queerness? Would a less predominant interest in men, if ‘bisexual’ denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass?

I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery. My own orientation’s details – I’m blasé in principle vis partners’ gender, but have cause to favour men in practice – provide me more choice here than many have, but we need to note, I think, the distinctness of the two. Sexual orientation is not sexual identity, and the latter often is in some sense chosen.

Picture for instance seven imaginary men, all of whom describe around 90 percent of their sexual attractions being to other men, and have in the past had sexual encounters with women they found to be somewhat satisfying if not to their preference.

  • Adam identifies as gay. Although he’s occasionally attracted to women, he considers these attractions trivial and unimportant. He strongly prefers sex and relationships with men, to the extent that while he might find a woman attractive, he has no real-world desire to act on it in any way.
  • Brendan identifies as bisexual. He feels that although he isn’t interested primarily in women, his attractions to them are still significant, and not to be swept under the rug. He’s found sex with women somewhat less enjoyable than sex with men to date, but doesn’t consider this a dealbreaker or see sex as central to his relationships, remaining open to seeing women.
  • Connor identities as straight. Strongly religious, he views same gender attractions and encounters as immoral, wishing to ‘maximise his heterosexual potential‘. Although he found his previous experiences with men significantly more enjoyable than those with women, he wishes only to pursue the latter currently and in the future.
  • Daniel identifies as pansexual. Like Brendan, he’s open to sex or relationships with both men and women, and feels past experience needn’t inform his current attitude or sexual and romantic decision-making. Daniel, however, has also been with partners neither male nor female, and while in practice most often interested in men, feels on the whole indifferent gender.
  • Ewan identifies as asexual. He experiences sexual attraction in an abstract way, principally toward men, and has participated previously in sex and relationships due to expectation and social convention, but (while not adversely affected by the experience) didn’t gain enjoyment or fulfilment from this, and feels no desire for sex or romance in future.
  • Fraser identifies as queer. He feels similarly to Daniel, and has some things in common with most members of the group, having had partners with a range of identities. At the same time, he feels suspicious of any perceived need to identify himself positively. He tends to view all sexual and gender identities as somewhat artificial, and views himself simply as non-straight.
  • Graham spurns identifiers altogether, going one step further: he feels a strong sense of what he wants both sexually and romantically, but considers all labels outmoded and irrelevant, pursuing whichever partners he finds attractive without regard to identifying himself in any pre-existing terms.

One basic orientation here, shared by all those listed, finds expression in various distinct sexual identities: there is no categorical sexual ‘difference’ between Adam, Brendan and Chris, except that their attitude to their own desire, how they conceptualise it and how it’s made explicit.

The opposite happens just as much, of course, as single identifiers mean a multitude of things. Adam no doubt knows gay men with somewhat different orientations from his – Adrian, for example, might have more than trivial interest in women but identify as gay rather than bi; Andrew might find seeing a woman inconceivable. Likewise, straight people in Connor’s life might be a mixture of those with zero interest in their own gender and heteroflexible ‘mostly straights’ with a certain, small amount.. Ewan’s asexual best friend Eric, moreover, might not experience sexual attraction, while mutual friend Elliott might be ‘grey A‘, desiring sex only in particular, exceptional circumstances, perhaps primarily with women and not men.

As taxonomising, empirical classifications these identities work far less well, then, than they do as social signifiers. Terms like MSM have been devised to circumvent sexual labels’ ambiguity, but that ambiguity only gets more severe in light of wider factors. How does the relative historic broadness of the term ‘lesbian’ affect identities’ unclearness in female contexts, corresponding to the ones above? How might more complex genders, under the trans* umbrella specifically, muddy the waters? How do historical terms in general play into this scheme – what equivalencies do we draw (if any), for example, between identifiers like those above and now-defunct ones like Uranian or Sodomite? Between them, alternately, and ones outside white-Western conceptions of gender or desire – hijra, Two-spirit, bissu? How do we negotiate identifiers’ different valences today, as they alter across lines of politics, location, age? There comes a point when not much stock can be put in what people call themselves.

This isn’t to say, as the case for universal bisexuality has at times, that what labels people choose to use don’t matter, or aren’t to be acknowledged and respected. (We in polysexual circles ought to know better, identities we don being routinely delegitimised. Sexual identifiers need, I think, the deference we give chosen pronouns.) It is to say, however, that they don’t tell us as much as we might think. Numbers of self-identified bisexuals now are limited in the same way numbers of self-described trans men were limited in 1430 – identities which have no social currency aren’t commonly assumed – but that someone might denote themselves gay, straight or variations thereupon is no assurance, certainly no guarantee, they lack broader potential of any kind. Bisexuals’ visibility matters a lot; bisexuality’s as such matters still more, and this is one way to unearth it.

Extendable tethers: skeptidrama and a lesson from Project Runway

If you haven’t read Greta Christina’s thoughtful, extrapolative recaps of Project Runway, the U.S. fashion-based reality series, you should – whether or not you’re a follower of fashion, talent shows or trash culture at large. Rifling through someone’s rubbish bins, as the tabloid press’s urban foxes will confirm, can be the fastest means of learning sordid truths about them; likewise, our culture’s attitudes to sex work, womanhood and cutthroatism show up most clearly crawling through its trash, and Greta’s posts dissect them. At present she’s in ‘writer hibernation’ working on her upcoming book, but since this week’s Runway offered a powerful lesson in conflict-response – one which brought various Deep Rifts and in-fights to mind – I thought I’d salute an absent friend.

Sitting comfortably? Let’s recite the parable of Ken Laurence, Runway‘s latest eliminee.

Placing last in a task where outfits had to be made for series fans rather than models, Ken went home in the tenth and last episode of the current series. The dress he gave the woman paired with him, an olive green above-the-knee affair, might feasibly have worked but was crammed with problems: its neckline was neither here nor there, caught as judges noted between plunging and scooping, its shoulders either side discordantly broad, faced with gunge-green leather; this same leather formed branching accent lines of inconsistent length on the dress’s front, which cut awkwardly across the wearer’s chest without continuing onto the back half; the garment’s length seemed slightly off, hem hovering in an odd place, its colour a touch-and-go choice. (Ken claimed his client insisted on the olive while he hated it, something both footage and her recap of the episode dispute; he now claims to have thrown the challenge so as to go home. Nor do I buy this: his dress seemed less than good, but not bad by design.)

By the time he left, Ken had placed quite consistently at the competition’s lower end. Barring a sudden, great leap forward, he probably couldn’t have won – but it wasn’t just due to his work that I’d spent weeks awaiting his departure. Throughout the series, Ken showed a disturbing, threatening attitude to those around him.

When another designer early on was angry, aggressive and abusive toward a colleague, Ken responded in kind; irrespective of how justified this was, and I wasn’t at the time unsympathetic, this inflamed an already heated, potentially dangerous situation. Teamed with two fellow contestants, one of whose technical skills seemed limited, Ken spent the challenge broadcasting his views of her uselessness – including to the series’ host and at length to its judges, covering his back when the group’s designs were slated – instead of working to keep the team afloat. When his individual work was criticised, he was often silent and contemptuous; when judge Heidi Klum disliked a dress of his, in particular, he fixed an intense, menacing stare on her which made her ask uncomfortably if he was ‘giving [her] a look’. (He didn’t respond.) When he made unpleasant comments to Helen, another designer, and she told him he was crazy, he replied she’d be crazy ‘if I come the fuck over there’ – a statement she very reasonably took as a threat, telling production staff she felt unsafe and prompting them to say they’d keep an eye on him. (Soon after he apologised to Helen. While she stated she felt it was genuine, his tone struck me as insincere, unremorseful and rehearsed.)

Finally, during the episode of his eventual elimination when fellow designer Alexander was moved into his room, attempting abrasively, presumptuously and insensitively to enter, Ken stood ironing in the doorway, intentionally obstructing him; once allowed in, Alexander shoved his ironing board aside and threw the iron across the room, at which Ken launched an extended, intense, threatening tirade against him and all nearby. Told by a production assistant to sit down, ‘take a breath’ and stay calm, he refused, continuing to swear aggressively at her, causing Alexander and another person to ‘run to [another] room, shut the door and lock it’. All other designers were shown next morning in the set’s green room, variously wearing sunglasses and under blankets, suggesting they hadn’t slept, where Ken flatly replied ‘I guess so’ when asked to discuss the night’s events with them. People moved previously into his room, Alexander among them, were separately accommodated, giving Ken his own multi-bed room, their placement together being deemed ‘too incendiary'; told he had ‘some anger management issues’, Ken seemed silent and contemptuous again, saying only that he ‘woke up fine’. Another contestant replied he didn’t, and that the group was ‘very shaken’, looking it himself. Helen worried about ‘another eruption’ and further ‘chaos’ when work resumed, but it nonetheless did, no further action being taken.

Ken’s elimination, so far as was shown, was due entirely to his lacklustre design. Despite his making others fear for their physical safety more than once, despite his apparently costing them sleep (and sleeplessness around sharp, hot, generally dangerous equipment is to be avoided) beside leaving them stressed and clearly nervous, despite his frequently lighting a match under heated situations in a stressful, strenuous environment, despite his absolute refusal to be calmed or learn from prior conflicts, no measures were taken against Ken, or for anyone else’s protection – had he managed a better outfit on the catwalk, he would still be in the competition. The biggest scandal here isn’t his conduct, it’s the failure of Project Runway‘s producers to address it.

Why did this happen? What made them fail to deal, in any clear way, with someone who was obviously, inarguably a danger to himself and others, as well as the competition’s smooth procedure? I’m fairly sure desire to manufacture drama played some part – less talented but provocative contestants being saved over proficient-but-demure competitors is a recognised phenomenon on series like this – but I can’t believe, even in mercenary U.S. TV producers, this would overpower all duties of care. Ken’s outburst this week should have been the final straw, but clearly wasn’t. However much he acted up, whatever the results, another chance was always given. People in charge, instinct tells me, never asked themselves what they’d penalise if not the actions at hand: they never counted their straws, not reaching the end of their tether, to switch metaphors, because they didn’t know where it was – or worse, because their tether had no end.

I’ve seen my past self doing much the same, and here skeptidrama becomes relevant. In recent bouts of antipathy toward him, those of us who criticised Richard Dawkins were described at times as nobodies seeking attention, trying to manufacture drama or rebuking him obsessively, finding any excuse to do so. In many cases, mine among them, this couldn’t be more distant from the truth: while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I ever heroised or idolised him, Dawkins was for a long time someone I admired strongly. His writing, however I might now appraise it, played a clear part in my leaving religion, lending me confidence I needed about living godlessly; my breath still catches when I read the extract on mortality from Unweaving the Rainbow, arguably his best book. My experience of work with his foundation was, though brief, broadly extremely positive, and its funds have gone to causes like QEDcon, Camp Quest UK and British Council of Ex-Muslims. I never wanted to knock Richard Dawkins’ views or conduct. Only in recent months have I become prepared to do so publicly, something which when I first did it spurred earnest fears of legal action in two colleagues. (Not, I should clarify, at Freethought Blogs.) As a consequence, like Project Runway’s makers and Ken Laurence, I gave him far too many breaks.

I let ‘Dear Muslima‘ go, when Dawkins trivialised and dismissed a woman’s discomfort at an unwelcome proposition. I let his statement ‘I’m not saying anything about her‘ go when asked this June if, two years later, he stood by his comments – refusing even to acknowledge or condemn the violent threats directed at her after her complaint, many of them from fans of his. Before that, I let his part in setting up a private, £18,000-a-year university with A.C. Grayling go. (This came a time of higher education’s stepped-up privatisation and marketisation. New College of the Humanities, the resultant university, belongs to only a handful of private ones in the UK.) I let his stated contempt for sociology go, despite the college’s name, along with his epistemological dismissal of philosophy and animus, based seemingly on very little knowledge, for anything he deemed ‘postmodernist’ – the latter especially ironic in the face of meme theory. (What is the notion social topoi self-perpetuate with no prior logic, if not fundamentally postmodern? Certainly not groundbreaking or new when Dawkins stated it.) I let his blind spot for the Church of England’s failings go, in particular its and Rowan Williams’ collusion with reprehensible Anglicans outside of Britain, and his strange affection for its schools; I let it go when I heard him say in 2011 that, should numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in that year’s census drop, the country’s Muslims might outnumber them, a fear as racist as it was ludicrously paranoid. I let his well-meant but unhelpful comments on non-monogamy go; I let his mocking anti-harassment policies go; I let his minimising sex abuse, years prior to this month’s controversy, go – in fact, I let his habitual use of child abuse, homophobia and violence against women as sticks with which to bash religion go, caring seemingly all too little for feminism, sexual politics or child protection on their own terms. I let his description of Atheism Plus (and certainly there are fair criticisms of it) as non-believers’ clearest mistake go, while saying nothing of the problems in our circles it aims to solve.

All this I tolerated. Each single grimace I saw as trivial, a minor misstep from a figure I admired, a caveat to my high regard for Dawkins which still didn’t outweigh it. In hindsight, that high regard blinkered me. How, I ask myself, did reaching the end of my tether take quite so long? That tether was, I answer, extendable: the admiration tying me to him stretched endlessly, mark of a Dickhead, whatever Dawkins did. However flawed, unwieldy or appalling his behaviour, however far he strayed from my core standards, tension never tugged at me. The tether of limitless patience, by which I clung to a figure I respected however far he went, whatever territory he entered, gave and gave.

This surfeit of tolerance wasn’t skeptical. It certainly wasn’t rational. In the cold light of day, I’m embarrassed to have erred so colossally. I’m not convinced, though, that it stemmed solely from hero-worship – I never thought of Dawkins as a hero to begin with, and I’ve seen the phenomenon elsewhere (not just Project Runway, either). On one basis or another, several friends this summer considered leaving secular bodies they had links to; some did, others didn’t, but in each case the deciding question was whether the end of their tether had been reached. Some had stayed put up to that point, and felt unsure, since they hadn’t asked themselves that question; not having had cause to ask themselves before what would be too much, they lacked a clear sense of whether the issues to hand were.

We don’t, in general, like asking this of ourselves – burning bridges of important personal or social value is a form of conflict to which most of us feel reasonably averse, so contemplating it is less than comfortable. Defining boundaries of foundational relationships, asking what would end ones we rely on for stable environs or identities, means thinking of them ending, and that thought means psychic dissonance – craving by instinct their preservation while rehearsing their demise. We need to do so, though: need to ask, when those we admire disappoint us, what would bring our admiration to an end; need to ask, dissatisfied by organisations, when we’d leave them, just as Runway‘s producers should have asked when they’d axe Ken. The option, otherwise, may never be available.

If you won’t consider when to sever ties, there’s a strong chance you never will. When we value an association, but the associates at hand don’t meet our standards, cognitive instinct can at times prefer the former: we opt not to dwell emotionally on their transgressions, tolerating them in practice if condemning them in theory, as was true both of me and Dawkins and of Ken on Runway – making our standards, almost axiomatically, stretchier, more flexible, less taut or rigid. There has to be a limit here of which we’re conscious: our tether must have an end and we must know where it is, because if not, we’ll never reach it. Our tethers of tolerant, patient approval will become extendable and limitless, our standards so flexible they hold no shape or form. If Project Runway‘s taught us anything, it’s that shapelessness seldom looks good.