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Archive for August 2008

Conspiracy classics Part I: William Rees Mogg, Queen Elizabeth, and the Oklahoma bombings

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The key to enjoying conspiracy theories is to treat them for what they are – glorious works of surrealist fiction. As an example of the genre, this has to be one of my all-time favourites, from the undisputed conspiracy king Lyndon Larouche, following the Oklahoma bombings in 1995.

My wife once had a careers advice session with William Rees Mogg – little did she know at the time about his shadowy underworld activities… Poe’s law strikes again!

Well, the ground was prepared, first of all, by the British, specifically by Lord William Rees-Mogg and his accomplice, Davidson, through their little Taxpayers’ Union, which is a Mont Pelerin Society outfit. The political profile of the forces in the United States which are working closely with Rees-Mogg’s neo-conservatives, are the same people who, like Rush Limbaugh, have been targetting President Clinton, and, in a sense, setting him up to be a target by all kinds of kooks in this country.

The people who led the misdirection after the explosion, in trying to get forces to chase somebody else other than the actual perpetrator, that is, the actual, real perpetrators, not the patsies, was the same Rees-Mogg and his friends, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the same people who are after the President…

 So, here we are, a case of this faction of the British Empire, the British monarchy, prepared and exploited a terrorist act against the United States, a terrorist act of military intelligence sophistication, way above the Special Forces level; and they’re the ones who benefitted. And that’s the kind of problem to which the President was referring in his address at the university in Moscow. This is the enemy. The President was diplomatic and did not mention {London}; but I’m certain that the President knows the British monarchy is the party that is responsible for this and other present, recent past, and possibly future
events of a similar gory quality.

Poe’s law revisited…

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“Poe’s law”, according to Rationalwiki, “relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies of it. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they both sound equally ridiculous. The law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism”

I had that Poe’s law feeling just now, when I stumbled across “Scienceguardian.com” (incorporating “New AIDS Review“, “Global Health Review“, and the Judo-tastically-named “Paradigm Overthrow.”).

Science Guardian, we are told, is dedicated to “defending the values of science and good scientists who dissent in the paradigm wars of HIV/AIDS, cancer, evolution, global warming, nutrition, religious belief and other disputes over new and different ideas.”

The website aims to “expose truths buried in the literature and commonly overlooked by the media, and review novel claims without the group prejudice against modern Galileos, whistleblowers, distinguished mavericks, past or future Nobelists, or any other original and independent good minds (such as the noted scientists Peter Duesberg and Kary Mullis) who may question scripture.”

Fake or folly? Click here to decide…

“In my line of work you’ve gotta keep repeating things over and over…”

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My all-time favourite quote from GWB…

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August 28, 2008 at 7:43 am

Attack of the ‘rogue state’ libel laws…

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Last week I wrote about the defensive measures being taken in the US to prevent Britain’s rapacious libel laws being used to undermine freedom of speech internationally. Now, via Craig Murray’s blog, I’ve learned that our rogue state laws may have claimed another victim. The longstanding politics discussion site “Harry’s Place” has reportedly been temporarily closed down simply by the threat of libel being made against the site’s internet service provider, following a dispute with a Sheffield academic, Jenna Delich.

Contributors to “Harry’s Place” have accused Delich of linking, via her own website, to the site of the far-right anti-semite KKK all-round bad egg extremist David Duke. Delich says that these claims are libellous, hence the reported take-down demand.

As is traditional in such cases (see here for a previous fiasco in which, bizarrely, Boris Johnson got caught in the crossfire), the full saga is now being recounted on a site hurriedly put together on blogspot, which is a) very easy to use and b) hosted several thousand miles outside of UK jurisdiction.

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August 27, 2008 at 11:00 pm

Shiny new books!

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While I was at work this morning I had a call from Heleen, who was at home because of a doctor’s appointment (our baby’s due date is more or less a month after the new book comes out!).

Ten shiny new copies of Don’t Get Fooled Again had just landed on the mat – (OK – it was actually the obligatory man turning up with a box and asking you to scribble incoherently on his Ipod, but symbolically it was mats all the way).

It’s the first time I’ve seen a finished copy – they look brilliant – I’m in awe of the graphic designer. After all the late nights, early mornings, emails, phone calls and footnotes, it finally feels as if the job’s done…

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August 27, 2008 at 9:36 pm

Contacted by the dark side…

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A lot things seem to be happening at once right now: The Guardian has kindly featured an article I’ve written about the latest shenanigans with the Foreign Office, my big sister Charlotte, and the extremist group who killed her in December 2000, Palipehutu-FNL. Burundi’s bad boys recently made contact with me via a supposedly neutral intermediary called Dieudonné Haburagira.

Less than 24 hours after that article was published, the Foreign Office gave their response to the Freedom of Information Act request I made several weeks ago, asking for details of their secret (not any more) meeting with the Palipehutu-FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa.  It makes for an amusing read – the letter listing their reasons for withholding most of what I’ve requested is significantly longer than the document containing the meagre information that they are prepared to give… 

More background on this here – and there’s a burgeoning Facebook campaign on the issue here.

PS – and here’s what my Mum thinks.

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August 27, 2008 at 7:48 pm

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

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It’s difficult not to wonder at times about the provenance of some anonymous comments left on internet discussion sites such as the BBC’s “Have Your Say” and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”. ‘Astro-turfing’ seems almost impossible to prevent in such circumstances, and for anyone with a vested interest in promoting a particular point of view, the temptation must be difficult to resist.

Now the Guardian reports that a UK government counter-terrorism unit is targeting media organisations “as part of a new global propaganda push designed to ‘taint the al-Qaida brand'”. A strategy document recommends that the authorities “channel messages through volunteers in internet forums”.

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters”, says the leaked document. “And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

While it isn’t hard to understand the rationale for tackling Al Qaeda in this way (and it’s surely preferable to torturing people), the most obvious fear is that those who begin disseminating misinformation for the ‘greater good’ may soon find themselves on a slippery slope. If ‘astroturfing’ to discredit a hostile terror group is acceptable, why not a hostile foreign government? And if spreading misinformation in defence of UK security interests is acceptable, why not our economic interests, which are, arguably, ultimately tied up with our security? Or in defence of an unpopular government policy which ministers feel is essential for the good of the country?

Confirmation bias

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One of the most intriguing sources of human delusion is what is sometimes called ‘confirmation bias’. We humans have a strong tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our existing beliefs – or decisions, and ignore evidence that calls those beliefs into question.

This phenomenon has been studied in some depth by behavioural psychologists. Changingminds.org gives one example:

Snyder and Cantor (1979) gave participants a description of a person called Jane that included mixed items such as sometimes showing her as introverted and sometimes as extraverted. A couple of days later, half were asked to assess her for an extraverted job (real estate agent) and the rest asked to assess her for a librarian’s job. Each group were better at remembering the attributes that supported the job for which they were assessing. This implied they were using a positive-test strategy when trying to remember things about Jane.  

Skepdic.org and About.com have more background on this fascinating phenomenon.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 25, 2008 at 5:50 pm

More compelling public service information on the cruelly misunderstood health effects of smoking

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August 25, 2008 at 8:47 am

Sceptic of the week – Charles Philipon

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For a period of time during the mid-nineteenth century, openly carrying a pear around the streets of Paris could get you arrested. It all began in 1830, soon after the accession of King Louis-Philippe, when Charles Philipon, a little-known artist, launched a satirical magazine, in which he likened the head of the monarch to a pear. Outraged, the King tried to suppress Philipon’s efforts by ordering his courtiers to buy up every copy of the magazine (possibly not the most effective method of discouraging a fledgling publisher).

When this didn’t work, Philipon was put on trial for having ’caused offence to the person of the King’. Philipon openly mocked the proceedings, urging his prosecutors to go further, and arrest every pear tree in France for disrespecting the corrupt and authoritarian monarch. A six-month prison sentence seems to have done little to deter him – between 1831 and 1832 he was reportedly prosecuted 16 times for his reckless and seditious pear-likening activities – but this only seems to have brought more publicity to his campaign.

As time went on, writes historian David Hopkin:

Other newspapers, even government ones, found it impossible not to mention pears. Puns proliferated, as did pear-shaped graffiti. Fanny Trollope, visiting the Latin Quarter in 1835, found ‘Pears of every size and form… were to be seen in all directions.’ They were also all over the walls of prisons. In 1834 there was even a shop specialising in wax pears. Through the press the language of pears reached the provinces, Philipon claimed they were springing up all over the country.     

Louis Philippe was finally overthrown in the revolution of 1848 – but the mockery didn’t stop there. More than 150 years on, says Hopkin, Philipon’s taunts continue to echo. “Even among historians Louis-Philippe cannot rid himself of this tiresome fruit; it is simply impossible to write about him without the image of the pear floating into one’s mind, the very symbol of an unloved and unlovable monarch”.

Thanks to Philipon, France’s tyrannical monarch will forever be known as “Louis-Philippe, the pear-shaped king”.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2008 at 5:15 pm

“More doctors smoke camels”!

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Sunlight is the best disinfectant…

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Jon Rappaport talks a good talk – he’s clear, coherent, charismatic, reasonable-sounding. He’s also catastrophically wrong, according to the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence around HIV and AIDS – and the ideology he disseminates has had deadly consequences worldwide.

In this talk, we see all the key elements of AIDS denialist ideology – the claim that the various symptoms associated with the disease couldn’t possibly all be caused by one virus; the claim that AIDS-related deaths are actually the result of the anti-retroviral drugs given to HIV patients to treat their condition; the claim that this is all a big conspiracy perpetrated against vulnerable groups within society, the claim that ‘alternative medicine’ offers a better way, and the flattering claim that those who don’t believe in the existence of AIDS are part of a courageous, besieged independently-minded group of sceptics who have managed to ‘unbrainwash’ themselves.

The Cigarette Century

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cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette – from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and – crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s – Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

UN calls UK government over attacks on freedom of expression

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Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary

If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.

Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.

The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.

It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.

But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.

The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.

According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):

“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

“I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values” – Thatcher PR guru signs for Belarus dictator Lukashenka

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The moustache will have to go – and
let’s not even talk about the combover

The FT reports that “Lord” Tim Bell’s PR company, Bell-Pottinger, has been taken on by the government of Belarus, described by the US as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe”.

In Belarus, according to Amnesty International’s report for the past year:

“Any form of public activity not sanctioned by the state, including religious worship, was liable to prosecution and rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly were disregarded. Opposition activists were given long prison sentences for the peaceful expression of their views, or activists were harassed and prosecuted under the administrative code for lesser offences and fined or detained for short periods.”

It may seem ironic that a dictator who routinely denies freedom of expression to his own people should now be given a helping hand buffing his image in the international media, but Lord Bell is untroubled. “Everybody is entitled to an advocate,” Bell is reported to have said – citing the PR industry’s classic piece of self-justifying spin, which seeks to equate the ‘right’ to expert help in manipulating the media with the right to adequate legal representation. Then, with surprising candidness: “I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values about what it should or shouldn’t do.”

If the industry’s past form is anything to go by, we should now be on the look-out for navel-gazing op-ed pieces denouncing the ‘demonisation’ of the Belarus government, intimate magazine features showing the ‘softer side’ of Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarus ‘strongman’ (that most exquisite of Orwellian euphemisms), news reports quoting un-named ‘sources’ bigging up the Belarus regime (and smearing critics), and perhaps even a Channel 4 appearance from rent-a-pundit Shirin Akiner.

Alongside Margaret Thatcher (whose advice from Bell reputedly even covered details about hairstyle and clothing) and her son Mark, Bell-Pottinger is said to have worked with British Nuclear Fuels, Imperial Tobacco, BAE Systems, the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ah­madinejad and, interestingly, the ubiquitous Thaksin Shinawatra.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I look at the arguments and methods used by the PR industry to rebrand and sanitise even the most insidious of governments and policies.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 14, 2008 at 9:48 pm

“They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process”

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The BBC reports that Thailand’s former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra (and now the proud owner of Manchester City Football Club) has fled to the UK after going on trial for fraud in Thailand. “They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process”, Thaksin reportedly complained of his prosecutors. “If I am fortunate enough, I will return and die on Thai soil, just like other Thais”.

Having lived in Thailand for a year under Thaksin’s rule, this struck me as particularly ironic. While I was there, Thaksin’s government embarked on a novel approach to dealing with the country’s drug problem. Rather than putting suspected drug dealers on trial for their alleged crimes, police were given the green light to go out and shoot anyone whose name appeared on a government ‘blacklist’. In just a few months, more than 2,000 of Thaksin’s fellow Thais were killed “on Thai soil”. Predictably, perhaps, many of the names that made their way onto the government’s list of ‘suspects’ to be eliminated turned out to be people against whom corrupt local officials held some personal grudge. A disproportionate number of those killed were from ethnic minorities. When human rights groups raised concerns that what was going on violated the rule of law, and the internationally recognised right to a fair trial and due process, Thaksin brushed these concerns aside as ‘foreign’ interference.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the circumstances surrounding the 2003 “War on Drugs”, and at the very human tendency to think that social and political problems can be solved effectively by taking shortcuts with basic checks and balances.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 12, 2008 at 10:16 am

Latest blurb for DGFA

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All being well, this is the text that will actually appear on the cover!

Why is it that, time and again, intelligent, educated people end up
falling for ideas that turn out on closer examination to be nonsense?

We live in a supposedly rational age, yet crazy notions seem increasingly mainstream. New Age peddlers claim to cure Aids with vitamin tablets. Media gatekeepers stoke panic and regurgitate corporate press releases in the name of ‘balance’. Wild-eyed men in sandwich boards blame it all on CIA… Even the word ‘sceptic’ has been appropriated by cranks and conspiracy theorists bent on rewriting history and debunking sound science.

But while it may be easier than ever for nonsense to spread, it’s never been simpler to fight back….

Don’t Get Fooled Again offers practical tools for cutting through the claptrap and unravelling the spin – tackling propaganda, the psychology of deception, pseudo-news, bogus science, the weird cult of “Aids reappraisal”, numerous conspiracy theories (including the one about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), and much more.

Richard Wilson’s book is user-friendly, enjoyable, shot through with polemic – and argues forcibly for a positive solution. Don’t be a cynic – be a sceptic!

Written by Richard Wilson

August 10, 2008 at 5:23 pm

What’s the harm in HIV/AIDS denial?

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www.whatstheharm.net is a website devoted to highlighting the damage that can be done by bogus ideas.

“Not all information is created equal”, say the site’s creators. “Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy. It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest.”

The website focuses on cases where a lack of critical thinking has had deadly results. One of the key case studies is a grim roll-call of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who have died after deciding to stop taking the anti-retroviral drugs that could have saved their lives.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look in detail at the roots of AIDS denialism, and the impact that it has had – not only on its adherents, but on the thousands who have been affected by the stranglehold that this bogus theory gained over AIDS policy in South Africa.

Power House PR

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One of the great things about the net is being able to track down classic books that have long gone out of print – if they ever were available in the UK in the first place. I came across Susan B Trenton’s “The Power House” whilst following the trail of the infamous “Nurse Nayirah” – whose (now) widely-discredited testimony before the US Congress played a crucial role in swinging world opinion in favour of military action in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Published the following year, in 1992, Trenton’s book follows the intriguing career of Robert Keith Gray, who headed up the global PR phenomenon Hill and Knowlton during the 1980s.

“The Power House” is these days quite hard to track down, but a flavour of it can be found in this article, which originally appeared in Washington Monthly. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the PR firm’s Hill and Knowlton’s extraordinary track record, both before and after Gray, from the manufactured ‘controversy’ over scientific evidence linking smoking and cancer to its more recent activities representing a dizzying range of dictatorial governments from around the world.

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August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am

“Repent, dummies!”

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It’s not often that you hear a Fox News anchor shouting “You are the devil!” at an interviewee. Is Shirley Phelps Roper really the devil? Click here to decide for yourself:

It’s perhaps appropriate that I’m writing this as a thunderstorm of biblical proportions rages on the horizon a few miles down from here. Yesterday, via a capricious trail from this rather amusing wiki, I learned for the first time about the Kansas-based ‘Westboro Baptist Church’.

The WBC, in brief, believe that “God hates America” for, among other things, its tolerance of homosexuality. They claim that 911, Hurricane Katrina, the 2003 Space Shuttle disaster, and, especially, the deaths of US servicemen in Iraq constitute deserved punishment from the hand of God. The WBC’s favoured method of getting this message across is to turn up at the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, wave placards, and shout slogans which include “God Hates Fags”, “God Hates You”, “Thank God for 911″, “Pray For More Dead Soldiers”, and perhaps most sensitively of all, “Your Sons are In Hell”.

This hobby has, unsurprisingly, won them very few friends – or converts (almost all the members of the WBC appear to be close relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps). But they did get to appear on Fox News, in one of the most surreal – and painful – pieces of television I’ve ever seen.

The Westboro Baptist Church appears to be going for full spectrum media dominance. The campaign is backed up with a series of technically slick websites, listing all the people and places that God hates. Alongside www.godhatesfags.com (“welcome, depraved sons and daughters of adam”) we have www.godhatesamerica.com, www.godhatessweden.com, www.godhatesireland.com – with www.godhatesaustralia.com reportedly in the offing. www.godhatestheworld.com gives a handy interactive map identifying which countries God hates, and why he hates them. Disappointingly, information has so far been posted for only a few of the countries on the map (mostly this seems to relate to homosexuality and Islam), but we are assured that the explanation of God’s hating Nepal, Turkmenistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be ‘coming soon’.

The more I read about the WBC, the more they start to sound like characters from South Park. I’m particularly fond of the phrase “Repent, dummies! The wrath of God is upon you!”.

There has been some speculation that the entire WBC operation could be the work of “deep cover liberals” seeking to give homophobia a bad name. While that’s an interesting idea, it seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to…