Recommended reading: Dawkins, Harris, Shermer, homeless queer youth and invisible disabilities

Things happened recently. Other things happen frequently and were recently discussed.

  • ‘The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out By Religious Families’, by Alex Morris (Rolling Stone)
    Since 2002, when President George W. Bush issued an executive order that permitted faith-based organisations to receive federal support for social services, an increased amount of federal funding has gone to churches and religion­affiliated organizations where LGBT youth may not feel welcome.
  • ‘Too many LGBT kids are still homeless. And we still throw money at marriage?’, by Zach Stafford (Comment is free)
    Young LGBT people who experience homelessness commit suicide at a higher rate (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%), and are 7.4 times more likely to experience sexual violence than their heterosexual counterparts. They have higher risk of mental health problems and unsafe sex practices leading to the acquisition of HIV. Young people between 13-24 are the only age group to experience an increase rate of infection from 2007-2010, with much of this incident linked to young gay and bisexual men.
  • ‘4 Ways to Be an Ally to People with Invisible Disabilities’, by Sara Whitestone (Everyday Feminism)
    It’s a constant juggle between wanting to do as much as I can without hurting myself while dealing with the social repercussions of my fluctuating abilities. The most common thing I hear from strangers is, ‘But you don’t look disabled’ or ‘You don’t look sick.’ In my experience, strangers confront me every time I go out in public to validate my disability to them in some way – and this is a common experience.
  • ‘Sam Harris Is Just Factually Wrong – Globally, Atheism Has No Gender Split’ (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Harris recently gave an interview to the Washington Post. When asked why the vast majority of atheists . . . are male, he said this this: ‘I think it may have to do with my personal slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas . . . There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys’. There are a lot of possible responses to this. The first one that springs to my mind, and to many people’s minds, is, ‘Fuck you, you sexist, patronising asshole.’
  • ‘Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?’, by Mark Oppenheimer (Buzzfeed)
    Movements cannot, if they are to continue growing, be led by men who talk like Penn Jillette or act like Michael Shermer. Their language and behaviour would be a huge problem if they sought a political career, a Supreme Court nomination or a college presidency, yet they are exalted as leaders of an ethical and philosophical movement.
  • ‘Dawkins Tries Again (or, 16 pieces of evidence against Michael Shermer)’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    As I pointed out to Dawkins on Twitter this morning, we have significantly more evidence against Shermer than [he suggests].

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About that “green eyed monster” article Dawkins wrote

Every so often I see a 2007 article called ‘Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster‘ reposted from Dawkins.net. (It seems originally to have been a column in the Washington Post‘s ‘on faith’ segment.) Most of the friends who share it say positive things about it, including that challenging compulsory monogamy shows Dawkins still has chops as a social critic.

Certainly there are a couple of good bits.

I want to raise [a] question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?

I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two — or their wives — begrudge her this?

I’m not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I’m just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it.

I’m afraid, however, that much of the rest fills me and numerous nonmonogamous skeptics I know with extreme discomfort. While the topic’s on the table, I thought I’d lay the problems with the article out.

Here’s how it starts:

Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?

No, of course sex outside marriage is not a public matter, and yes, of course it is forgivable. Only a person infected by the sort of sanctimonious self-righteousness that religion uniquely inspires would apply the meaningless word ‘sin’ to private sexual behaviour.

It is the mark of the religious mind that it cares more about private than public morality.

I wouldn’t apply the word ‘sin’ to cheating, which appears throughout the piece to be how Dawkins interprets ‘sex outside of marriage’, but I would call a breaking a promise of monogamy unethical where one’s been made; I think most poly people would. That’s what distinguishes polyamory from cheating: there’s no promise of monogamy in the first place. Deceiving your partner into a relationship they haven’t agreed to, often with added risk of venereal infection, humiliation or just unhappiness, is a matter of consequence, harm and consent, not an arbitrary religious taboo.

Continuing the ‘private behaviour’ theme in reference to the Lewinsky scandal:

Lying to Congress by saying, ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ should not be an impeachable offence, because where a man puts his penis is none of Congress’s damn business.

In point of substance, no complaint. But ‘where a man puts his penis’? Really? As if rather than an active partner, Lewinsky were just some high-heeled cock holster.

Generally speaking, references to penis-in-vagina sex as someone sticking it somewhere sound pretty rapey to me. If the sex you have is consensual, both people are doing something.

The revolting hue and cry that our religiously inspired society habitually raises over private sexual ‘morality’ serves as a dangerous distraction away from important matters of public morality such as the Blair/Bush lies about Iraq’s weapons.

Back to the public/private distinction we had earlier. The suggestion is that since sex isn’t world politics, it isn’t up for ethical debate. It can be: rape is usually, for instance, a private act. The requirement for sex to be ethical (or at least ethically immaterial) isn’t privacy, it’s that everyone involved agrees to what goes on. That’s not the case when one partner cheats on another.

Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected – or fear – that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is ‘cheating on them’. ‘Cheating’ really is the word that occurs most readily to these people.

Indeed – because it means to participate while breaking the rules, and relationships can have rules.

Here’s one key point. Nonmonogamous people also cheat – it’s just that breaking the rules means something other than seeing an extra partner. (It might mean, for example, having a type of sex off-limits outside the primary partnership.)

The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious.

That’s not why we shame people who cheat in monogamous relationships. We do it because their partners are entitled to say on what terms they form a relationship with someone else, and to expect that mutually agreed rules be upheld. (Lots of people require monogamy emotionally or aren’t comfortable without it. Asking prospective partners for that – who are free to say no and move on – is their right.)

In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant’s wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style.

Here Dawkins’ attitude to women reveals itself again. How dare the former Mrs Tarrant end a relationship she hadn’t agreed to? How dare she divorce a man – angrily, no less! – who deceived her?

What shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant’s horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition[.]

‘Bitch.’

The explanation of all these anomalous behaviour patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy.

Or the fact Tarrant’s wife didn’t want to remain married to a man seeing other woman without seeking her consent. One of the two, I’m sure.

Polyamorous people often still feel jealousy. Partners angry they’ve been cheated on often don’t. The point is the betrayal of trust.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favoured males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant.

Evo-psych. Manbrains and ladybrains. Need I say more?

The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks.

Women. Feminists. Whiny voices. Grr.

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Richard Dawkins: abort Down’s Syndrome foetuses because “it would be immoral to bring it into the world”

In the recent past while he was telling people who were raped how they should think about their rape, I tweeted a guide to Richard Dawkins’ PR habits.

It was retweeted quite a lot at the time, and in the last few hours it’s started getting shared again. Seemingly, I have invented for myself a Richard-Dawkins-saying-something-awful detector. He’s at it again:

Where abortion is judged the moral option for the would-be child, a kind of euthanasia in advance, it’s because birth will result in something worse: incurable, unbearable pain, say. That’s the easiest example ethically, and we can argue about what else might qualify, but the point is that whatever life the child stands to have must be worse than not being born.

Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born? Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born. My guess is that Dawkins, who never seems to grasp the idea of subjectivity, is presuming again to speak for other people – in this case those with DS. Perhaps he sees it as a ‘birth defect’, as many of his generation seem to see a wide variety of conditions – but most of the time, as a friend pointed out, people with disabilities tend to think their lives are worth living. You run into eugenics pretty quickly when you decide who’s ‘defective’ and who isn’t without consulting them.

To the original context of his tweet, I do think termination due to foetal disability should be legally available – partly since there are prospective parents without the proper means to raise a disabled child, but mostly since I think abortion should always be available. I support the legality of sex-selective abortion, even as I think it’s horrifying; I support the legality of Down’s Syndrome abortions even as I think they’re often horrible, and certainly if framed as morally obligatory. I support the right of anyone to end their pregnancy who doesn’t want to give birth, even if the rationale is horrific, because I don’t believe in forcing people to against their will. (Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies. It’s what Dawkins is doing and what doctors did to my mother, who at 42 was urged throughout her pregnancy to abort in case I had DS.)

All this is quite different from saying the existence of people with Down’s Syndrome – for which they are presumably quite grateful – is a terrible moral crime, or that living with it is worse than never being born.

I have, for the record, neither a disability nor a uterus, so am happier than usual to be contradicted anywhere by people who know things I don’t.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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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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Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful

Richard Dawkins trended today on Twitter, which is never a good sign. ‘Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse’, he’d tweeted, an idea I blogged about last year. ‘Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse’, he added, which Ashley Miller has unravelled along with Amanda Marcotte. Dawkins, it turns out, was only making a simple point about syllogisms using the two most inflammatory examples imaginable – how anyone could be upset about is a mystery. (It always is.)

I’ve just criticised Richard Dawkins, and some will say – indeed they have – this makes the last thing I posted meaningless.

We have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults,’ he said in a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, ‘as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap.’ The statement has been called a ‘peace accord’ and was read by many, it appears, as the ‘ceasefire’ in atheist infighting some had demanded. Now that so soon after cosigning it, Dawkins has put foot in mouth again and been lampooned, it’s a sure bet hands are rubbing gleefully.

That was hesitance about this statement from the off. Some said it didn’t go far enough, and that Dawkins had yet to ‘walk the walk’ in pursuing activism ethically; others found it too nonspecific. Some declared he hadn’t meant a word, either to undermine him or it; others suggested Benson ‘bullied’ him somehow into signing it. But sign it he did, and my view is that even assuming a cynical reading, the Dawkins-Benson pact – shut up, that’s what I’m calling it – matters.

Because it wasn’t a ceasefire at all – the authors’ wording makes the point extremely clear that ‘disagreement is inevitable’, which must include on things like Dawkins’ tweets yesterday. The point is what it adds: ‘bullying and harassment are not.

It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.

For the past three years, the above behaviour has been endemic in online atheism, targeting secular ‘social justice warriors’ and feminists in particular. There’s more: to quote a recent list,

There’s no serious doubt this began when Richard Dawkins mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort at being hit on in a lift and roused entitled male atheists the net over against her. Implicitly or explicitly, these harassment campaigns have often been carried out in his name.

We have to conclude that if a blog comment from Dawkins could unleash such violent torrents of misogyny, the man has influence, and any statement from him will have impact; more specifically, we also have to conclude that the hordes of angry antifeminists who till then hadn’t advanced on Watson felt empowered by his example.

So it’s not meaningless that in his statement with Benson, he says: ‘Some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

If Dawkins’ current tweets on rape and molestation tell us anything, it’s that he’s going to keep arguing with feminists in our community – there’s no peace in our time to be seen here, and nor should there be if it meant letting statements like these go. But his statement alongside Benson makes clear too that the bullies, harassers and abusive trolls in atheism aren’t part of that argument any more.

There is no single atheist as influential as Dawkins; there may never be again, and likely this is a good thing. There’s certainly no feminist atheist as influential as he is, but his feminist critics are many and hold great collective influence. In the atheist sex wars, these are the sides – and the Dawkins-Benson pact means both sides will shun atheism’s worst elements.

That means the Slymepit, who exist entirely to harass and bully feminists among us.

That means the ‘Amazing’ Atheist, who has repeatedly threatened them with rape and violence.

That means Justin Vacula, who published the home address of Amy Davis Roth.

It means everyone who mounts cyberattacks against websites like this, including DDOS attacks and leaking private emails.

It means everyone who hounded Melody Hensley till she had PTSD, and everyone whose whole online existence is about harassing feminists in atheism.

When Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson – people almost never on the same side of the fence – agreed that this was unacceptable, they defined a new community standard. If any of the above is you, you don’t meet it, and however loudly or venomously you respond, this the start of your being squeezed out of our movement.

Have fun, to quote Jen McCreight, as you circle jerk into oblivion.

Going, going. Soon enough you’ll be gone.

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Dawkins: any atheist who uses “threats or harassment is in no way my ally”

Last night a joint statement went up at Dawkins.net and Butterflies and Wheels. If you still hadn’t seen it, here it is in its entirety.

It’s not news that allies can’t always agree on everything. People who rely on reason rather than dogma to think about the world are bound to disagree about some things.

Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

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Recommended reading: Lena Dunham, (black) atheists, transphobia and Scotland

Time for some recent favourites from around the web.

  • ‘Why Lena Dunham’s Curves Make Me Feel Like Shit About My Own’, by Chelsea Leibow (Feminspire)
    The extremism against her form, the repulsion I’ve witnessed from not just random commenters hiding behind a handle, but real friends willing to screech about their need for a sick bag when they see her on screen, break my goddamn heart. Because god forbid I be so lucky as to have a career like this woman’s.
  • ‘Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise’, by Chris Hall (AlterNet)
    When old-school atheists attempt to dismiss social justice issues as ‘mission drift,’ it seems like a betrayal of the very principle that was most attractive about standing up and identifying as an atheist in the first place.
  • ‘It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny’, by Mey (Autostraddle)
    Those who claim that sex is determined by chromosomes must not realize that sex is assigned at birth not by chromosomes, not even by gonads, but by genitals. In fact, the vast majority of us never learn what our sex chromosomes are. Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth.
  • ‘Scotland should go it alone’, by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach (The Oxford Student)
    Voting yes to independence is not anglophobic – it is a statement that the people who happen to live in Scotland deserve better than Westminster. Voting yes means voting no to nuclear weapons, no to the bedroom tax, no to the all-out assault on the welfare state which has become almost axiomatic within the London parties.
  • ‘Atheism has a big race problem that no one’s talking about’, by Sikivu Hutchinson (The Washington Post)
    When [black nonbelievers] look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. And though some mainstream atheist organizations have jumped on the ‘diversity’ bandwagon, they haven’t seriously grappled with the issue. Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about ‘diversity’ at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it.

Dawkins, Grayling and the New College of the Humanities: secularists should know the dangers of private education

‘It’s high time that the atheist left asserted itself against the atheist right
– an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.’ (Jeff Sparrow)

Three years ago, A.C. Grayling – till shortly thereafter, the British Humanist Association’s president elect – announced plans for a private university. New College of the Humanities, whose doors have opened since, was thought up in 2010 when David Cameron’s government cut eight tenths of higher education funding, including all state support for arts degrees, raising tuition fees from £3465 a year to £9000. These had only existed, at the time, for a few years, and fiery arguments broke out over free market education policies. Grayling founded NCH in their backwash, annual fees set at £18,000.

Results weren’t pretty. Only one or two private campuses existed at the time – to open one where degrees would cost the same as a small house was viewed with justified anger. Grayling’s public talks were picketed, a condemnatory public letter signed by dozens of his previous colleagues, and angry letters forced him to give up his BHA role before even assuming it. His presence in the secular scene dried up, societies no longer willing to promote him, and is only just recovering.

I raise this now because I never managed to weigh in on it back then, and more importantly because it illustrates the tensions of class politics in secular circles. NCH’s makeup was and remains distinctly humanist, its staff including Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s partner Niall Ferguson, but its most indignant critics (if not the loudest) were from the same scene – BHA members, New Humanist writers, left wing atheists like me online and committee members who refused to book the New College’s founder.

In a 2012 interview with Caspar Melville, Grayling tried to portray the project as benign, a last-ditch effort to save humanities teaching from ministers desperate to kill it off. In reality, his actions validated the Cameroons’ education cuts: the way to fight the privatisation of campuses in line with a U.S. style system is not to set up a private, U.S. style campus. ‘A mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax,’ he told Melville. ‘Students should go to university for nothing.’ If this principle mattered so much to him, why let it go at the first sign of trouble? Why not champion the students who then turned on him, and the cause of existing universities?

It’s tempting to think Grayling, Dawkins and the project’s other faces saw accessibility as optional, keen to preserve humanities teaching at any cost, no matter how exclusive it had to be. The former acknowledged NCH would cater to the privileged, drawing in students mainly from private schools. ‘That’s bad news,’ he commented, ‘but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should already have been done’ – as if the academy’s survival for its own sake was the goal, its reduction in the process to a bastion of privilege a mere unfortunate side effect.

‘I would be delighted to support free education’, Dawkins said when challenged at a BHA event with PZ Myers, detailing his desire to protect Oxbridge-style teaching. ‘however, we live in a world where that isn’t happening.’ Keeping the ivory towers standing was the main thing, and if it meant raising the drawbridge, tough. ‘Like it or not,’ he added, ‘some people are richer than others . . . if you want to picket Anthony Grayling’s new university, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that’s above average price.

The BHA has chosen to edit this moment out of its official event footage. Such squirming is understandable: the comparison is risible. Education isn’t simply a product, as a shiny sports car is. It helps determine the whole course of one’s life. That not many people can buy Jaguars is ultimately trivial – cheap cars get drivers just as easily from A to B – but access to education affects who can become an employee, public thinker, politician, judge. The shape of our society rests on who goes to college and who can’t. Only old boys like Grayling and Dawkins could equate Oxbridge so readily with something as shallow as a luxury car.

But Ant and Dick aren’t just old boys. They’re secularists. And secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.

NCH coheres to the Cameron-Gove philosophy of schools and campuses – decentralised, deregulated and detached in general terms from government. The same philosophy led their administration to introduce ‘free schools’, tax-funded but with no duty to hire qualified teachers or stick to the national curriculum, which almost anyone can start. In practice, this means religious groups, who’ve filed almost all applications since 2010. Several have been discovered carrying out extreme proselytism or abuse.

The problem is multifaceted and longstanding. In his deconversion memoir, blogger Hassan Radwan recalls years spent teaching at Islamia School, a private religious school in London which relied on Saudi donors and was subsequently subject to prolonged ‘Islamicisation’ – including the banning of pictures and music and use of school property for Mujahideen fundraisers. As comparatively recently as 2010, Dawkins himself has visited somewhat similar Islamic schools where scriptural creation myths are taught as science. Some of these are state schools, others not, but Radwan describes Islamia’s extremism as being tamed when it gained public sector funding. (This is, I think, the one thought-provoking argument for state-maintained religious schools, though I’d rather no private sector existed at all.)

Jonny Scaramanga, author of Leaving Fundamentalism, was sent to one of England’s forty-or-so ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ schools, where parents pay for children to be kept in walled-off cubicles, forbidden from interacting and taught outright racism, misogyny and creationism via biblical syllabus. Many, many more schools like this exist in the U.S., where the programme originates. Katie Halper details at AlterNet the broader effects of right wing education cuts and ‘school choice’ policy in the U.S., including boys and girls at private Christian schools (where government vouchers allow children from poor families to be sent) being forbidden to make eye contact.

America’s university culture, which both Britain’s current policies and NCH’s opening evoke, is dominated by the private sphere, with state universities a small side dish. Founding one there is, for fundamentalists, at least as easy as it was for Grayling, hence the U.S. is home to Liberty and Brigham Young Universities, founded respectively by Jerry Falwell and the Mormon church. Only two private campuses in Britain predate NCH, and one of them is the Oxford campus of the Islamic Azad University of Iran.

Is this the higher education system Dawkins and Grayling want? Their project opens the door to it. When the free market of ideas operates as a real free market, abuse ensues. Teaching is one sphere where ideas should be regulated, because not all are fit for the classroom. The solution, and secularists must recognise it as the left already does, is free and secular public education, both at school at campus level. If they were as high-minded as they claimed to be, they should have fought for that.

* * *

If you liked this post, consider joining the Occupy Skepticism Facebook group, a forum founded recently by David Hoelscher to unite atheists on the left, concerned with fostering a class-conscious secularism. Here is a selection of posts, some by members, representing our areas of interest:

The right propelled last year’s ‘segregated seats’ debate – and yes, it matters

‘I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

So writes Shaheen Hashmat (alias @TartanTantrum), one of my favourite bloggers, in a post a few days ago. Shaheen is an apostate of Islam, survivor of ‘honour’ violence and a writer on mental health, sex, Scotland and more; she speaks here of difficulty voicing rage at her family’s religion knowing anti-Muslim axe-grinders will hijack it.

I have Shaheen to thank for prompting this post. You have her to blame for it. I’d planned to write it and wavered, resolved then deliberated, recommitted and then shelved it. It won’t be fun writing or defending it – I don’t enjoy being dogpiled by those I respect, as I’ve been the last few days and am sure I will be now. But I’m also sure it’s worth it. This matters. Thanks for the push, Shaheen.

Saturday’s post was a timeline of efforts made last year against gender-segregated seats at universities – mainly at Islamic Society talks, often for guest speakers like Hamza Tzortzis. (See the timeline for exemplary events.) It was written largely to clarify the roles of distinct political camps in opposing it, and especially to illustrate the right’s involvement.

Yes, the right propelled the segregation debate

Priyamvada Gopal was accused of inventing ‘conservative newspapers and politicians’ at the Rationalist Association, criticising how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices’. Laurie Penny was accused (by Nick Cohen specifically) of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’ in a similar piece at the Guardian.

It’s true both articles gave short shrift to the anti-segregation work of Muslim and ex-Muslim women – Shaheen, Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan, Lejla Kurić, Ahlam Akram, Mari Nazmar – as well as that of women and the left at large. (Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel and Southall Black Sisters, Polly Toynbee, Ophelia Benson, Kate Smurthwaite; any number more.) This work needs visibility: it’s often underfunded, unrecognised and, as Khan writes at the Independent, unaccommodated by existing politics.

It’s also true, however, that Gopal and Penny didn’t invent the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Week, the Sun, the Standard, the Spectator – papers which dominate 2013’s press coverage of segregated seating. Nor did they invent, as Cohen says, ‘bogeymen’ like Toby Young, Charles Crawford, Graeme Archer, Matthew d’Ancona, Martin Samuel, Brendan O’Neill, Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, David Cameron – nor Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, who since the timeline’s end have jumped aboard – to name only white and male and right wing ghouls. It’s not just about mentions per side: the latter voices speak overwhelmingly from bigger platforms too.

It’s a long post – eleven thousand words – that documents this. I thought I’d leave interpreting it, that in mind, to readers. After the response, it seems important to draw out some key points.

First, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss put this issue on the map. That segregation happens at ISocs’ and other groups’ events came as no surprise last year to Maryam Namazie, prominent campaigners Student Rights (more on them shortly), me or many who’ve followed campus Islamism. Ask about and you’ll hear of it. What made the ‘debate’ at UCL on March 9 the case that caused a national stir, not one of the many prior cases? ‘Had it not been for the furious tweeting of Richard Dawkins’, David Aaronovitch wrote five days later in a column for the Times, ‘I doubt whether I would have heard of this event.’ Dawkins himself (873,067 followers today) tweeted it only because Krauss (63,369) did first.

This matters since their commentary set the tone. Dawkins, in the tweets Aaronovitch describes, accused UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, exclaiming ‘Who do these Muslims think they are?’ ‘I don’t think think Muslims should segregate sexes’, he added, ‘Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me’, and closed a post on it at RDFRS later cited in the Daily Mail by asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’ Speaking to the Telegraph in an article headlined ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam’ (largely regurgitated by The Week as ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims’), Krauss said segregationists ‘feel their cultural norms are not being met’, attacked the notion ‘these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open’ and called it their obligation ‘to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’

This is the ‘clash of civilisations’ standpoint’s racist rhetoric. I’ve chastised Dawkins since for using it. It describes Islam with the language of invasion (compare Dawkins’ ‘cowardly capitulation’ with the EDL’s ‘never surrender’), homogenises Muslims and chides Islamists not with puritanism, polluting a secular public sphere or violating essential rights but with failing to cohere with ill-defined standards of Britishness or ‘Western values’. We see it again as time goes on in the anti-segregation commentary of Anne Marie Waters, Toby Young, Louisa Peacock, James Bloodworth, Chuka Umunna, Richard Littlejohn, Jennifer Selway, Graeme Archer and the Daily Telegraph‘s December 4 editorial, as well as to various implicit extents elsewhere. I don’t think it’s by chance it’s used most by commentators who were never Muslims. The myth of two dichotomised ‘cultures’ at loggerheads, Islam versus the West (or Britain specifically) is the engine of Islamism; it’s what gets ex-Muslims shunned at times as race traitors, pariahs, ‘coconuts’.

Second: Student Rights, as vigorously denied by Nick Cohen and others following Gopal’s post, was instrumental to the anti-segregation push. Between publications, news stories and citations in the press, they’re the ones most often mentioned on the timeline by a comfortably wide berth, twice as much or so as the nearest runners up. ‘Unequal Opportunity’, their May 13 report on segregated events at universities, made headlines across the British press within days of its release and was cited frequently thereafter, particularly following Universities UK’s release of guidance on November 22 condoning side-to-side segregation of men and women. Student Rights (specifically, researcher Rupert Sutton) provided breaking coverage of various segregated events, as it regularly does, including at Queen Mary’s and Northampton Universities, were initial signatories of Maryam Namazie’s petition for UUK to withdraw its guidance, covered the organisation’s response to opposition and covered the December 10 rally outside its headquarters supportively.

Unlike Priyamvada Gopal, I don’t in practice consider Student Rights a right wing group; certainly, I don’t think their work for the most part (the odd Islamist lambasted as ‘anti-British’ notwithstanding) is innately rightist. It is, however, funded and supervised by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, whose Associate Director Douglas Murray calls the EDL – whose ex-leader greatly admires him – an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islam’ (see the Youtube comments), having infamously said in 2006 that ‘Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition’. Like Shaheen’s righteous rage or the anti-segregation cause in general, Student Rights’ work and Sutton’s personally isn’t discredited by the forces seeking to exploit it, but the latter are concerning. As Chris Moos of LSE’s atheist society, who oddly denied the prominence of Student Rights’ campaign work, wrote at the Huffington Post in May, ‘It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

Third: the loose, broadly left group behind the December 10 anti-segregation rally, many of whose members took credit for UUK’s eventual withdrawal of its advice, were amplified largely by right-leaning media. Their rally in particular gained noticeably greater coverage than similar ones held previously by One Law for All and its associates – I’m doubtful this would have been the case, or that UUK would even have weighed in on segregation, had reports of the UCL event with Krauss and subsequently Student Rights’ report not raised awareness earlier. Apart from the Independent, publications covering UUK’s release tended initially strongly toward the right – objections on the left from people like Namazie, John Sargeant and Rosie Bell were confined to smaller blogs, if very worthy ones. The exception is Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, seemingly the paper’s only coverage till December 12, by which time the Telegraph alone had published eight separate pieces on the issue. Once the dispute had been put on the radar, a number of ‘progressive’ or more neutral outlets followed suit, reporting on the December 10 demonstration – Channel 4, the BBC, politics.co.uk, Huffpost – but it remains true that beyond the blogosphere, the right set the agenda.

Fourth, last and doubtless most incendiary: I am not wholly convinced December 10’s protest made the difference it’s been thought to have.

Ophelia Benson said that for once ‘making a stink worked’. Maryam Namazie said the rally ‘received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation’. Yasmin Alibhai Brown said ‘Result! In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines’. Student Rights called UUK’s retraction ‘a great success for those who have been campaigning on this issue’.

Jim Denham said ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs . . . drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with [it]. Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation’.

Rosie Bell said ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect [Benson, Namazie, Bloodworth] produced angry posts’, ‘mainstream media [Cohen, Alibhai Brown] moved in’, ‘there was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ in discussions on Radio 4 Today and ‘politicians – Chuka Umunna, Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron – spoke out’, ‘So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segregation from its guidance’.

Denham’s and Bell’s accounts seem in some ways tenuous to me. The TimesTimes Higher Education, the Independent and the Telegraph (twice) picked up UUK’s guidance before any of the bloggers mentioned covered it, and there was a great deal of noise in (again, mainly right-leaning) papers long before the demonstration or Umunna’s comments. There’s also cause, I think, to question the notion in Namazie’s post and various reports that Cameron’s intervention via a spokesperson was what prompted the guidance’s withdrawal. On December 12, before Cameron’s comments hit the press, the Equality and Human Rights Commission had announced via the Telegraph it would ‘help re-write’ UUK’s advice, the story there noting ‘A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment’: Huffpost‘s report the next day, where both Cameron’s statements and UUK’s retreat appear first to have surfaced, mentions only in passing its Chief Executive’s comment, ‘We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which trigged this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.’ It seems highly plausible to me then, contrary to what headlines intimated, that Cameron stepped in after UUK retracted its advice and not before.

This blows something of a hole, moreover, in the idea the demonstrators prompted it. Whatever led UUK to seek the EHRC’s involvement, Cameron was still unwilling to comment on December 12, two days after their rally. It’s certainly true it added urgency to the climate of debate, increasing pressure on authorities to act – many media sources used photos of demonstrators or made passing mention of the row having ‘sparked protests’, politics.co.uk referring rather generously to ‘a week of protests’ – but that’s a vexed thing to quantify. We know the Telegraph put pressure on Theresa May for comment on December 4, and that the following day she obliged. We know statements followed from Jack Straw, Chuka Umunna and Michael Gove, and that at some point in this time Vince Cable wrote to Universities UK. This seems more like the kind of thing to me that would put Cameron under gradual pressure than a protest by 100 people.

This isn’t to say it and associated actions weren’t worthwhile. They’ve galvanised crucial alliances, developed awareness of the issue on the left and led to plans for future projects. Nor do I think their organisers wrong to celebrate UUK’s u-turn, whatever the cause. I share their relief, and don’t care to rain on their parade – but I do care about this.

Yes, this bloody well matters

You’re not a good journalist if you don’t know who has the most clout in the room. You shouldn’t be a journalist if you don’t care. Likewise it matters in politics, at least as much as who’s in government, which voices hold most sway.

I’ve been told at every turn that who made the difference here is academic, that it matters only that the argument is won and not who wins it. Would we speak that way of an election outcome – of what put and kept Blair’s governments in power, say? James Bloodworth might. But I see the papers cluttering my timeline and recall headlines like these.

DailyExpress

Telegraph

DailyMail

Times

EveningStandard

Sun

Spectator

If these kinds of press outlets, indeed, these outlets specifically, were instrumental to the anti-segregation pushback – if they were the ones with influence enough to make the difference, for which I find the evidence compelling – do you see why I and others are concerned? It’s all very well not caring who fights the good fight, so long as it gets won, but what happens when the biggest guns turn out to have a fight all of their own, and it isn’t good at all? We cede the debate to kulturkämpfer at our peril.

I am told, additionally, that since I didn’t campaign myself – in other words, blog on the subject – I’m not entitled to complain. I’m flattered on the one hand by the thought my profile’s anything like high enough to’ve made a difference (Penny’s, perhaps), but frankly resent the claim I forfeited my right to comment by not being on the picket line. I’ve taken on any number of ‘Islamism on campus’ fights: Mohammad cartoons at UCL two years ago; at LSE; ‘Islamophobia’ bans there that prohibit criticism; threats of violence at Queen Mary; threats previously at Leeds and other universities; threats I and friends got for writing about those threats;, LSE’s secular group not being allowed ‘ex-Muslim’ in their name; the same group being harassed and threatened at freshers’ fair last year; the measures taken against another group at Reading for calling a pineapple Muhammad; their being banned for it last year. I’m working at present, among other things, on a long, detailed post about segregated seating’s prevalence in British ISocs. But there’s only so much work one feels able to do, and fights are hard. Hang me if I don’t turn up to every last one, every time. Sitting one out now and again doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but even if it did, I’m still not wrong.

Why do we pine perennially at the British left’s reluctance to contend with Islamism, then clutch our pearls tight at the corollary: that the anti-Muslim right, in its absence, holds the floor? Those prepared to make alliances with it, thinking perhaps to take advantage of its firepower, may find their shots at segregation ricochet. You underestimate my boredom if you doubt I can duel both at once till then.