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Archive for January 2011

Human, all too human…

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My latest in the New Humanist

If there’s someone on your radio right now telling you there are no big ideas in politics any more, or that our risk-averse society is lowering ambition and infantilising adults, or that the outpouring of anguish over Darfur says-more-about-the-anxieties-of-the-western-liberal-elite-than-the-realities-on the-ground, there’s a good chance they’ve got something to do with an organisation called the Institute of Ideas.

The Institute’s purpose, according to its founder, Claire Fox, is to “interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities”. It does this in the face of “politically correct etiquette” and an “illiberal liberalism” which “silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom”. The IoI’s annual debating festival, the Battle of Ideas (sponsored by Shell, The Times, Price Waterhouse Coopers and brewing giant SAB Miller), is a “public square within which we can explore the crisis of values”. The Festival “is very much a PUBLIC conversation”. Its motto is “FREE SPEECH ALLOWED”.

When a coalition of humanist, secular and equality groups rallied against the Pope’s state visit to Britain earlier this year, the IoI issued a press release (PDF) describing itself as a “leading British humanist thinktank”, denouncing the “hysterical” arguments of the Vatican’s critics and accusing “fellow-secularists” of conducting a “New Atheist witch-hunt”.

The Institute of Ideas has a close, if ambiguous, relationship with the online magazine Spiked, an outspoken scourge of environmentalism whose memorable slogans include “Bomb the Bans” and “Humanity is under-rated”. Both are orphan children of the magazine formerly known as Living Marxism (subsequently LM), which went bankrupt at the turn of the decade, following a disastrous libel defeat. Both are dominated by ex-members of the UK’s long-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party. Spiked contributors regularly feature in the Institute’s debates, and the magazine often echoes IoI concerns. Ahead of the Papal visit, Spiked ran articles attacking the reaction from secularists, including New Humanist, as a “fear-driven campaign of demonisation”.

Critics have accused the Institute of Ideas and Spiked of knee-jerk contrarianism, of empty sloganeering, of trading the garb of the far-left for that of hard-right libertarians, of being guided more by the interests of their corporate sponsors than by any coherent underlying philosophy.

But whatever else one thinks, Spiked and the IoI have a talent for getting noticed. Claire Fox gets a weekly slot on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussion programme. Spiked’s “editor at large”, Mick Hume, has a regular column in The Times. The Institute of Ideas is active in UK schools, as is a related organisation, Worldwrite. Whole websites have been devoted to tracking the influence of ex-RCP figures in the UK media.

So what kind of humanists are they? Do they have a genuine commitment to open debate or is this just a rhetorical conceit? And who’s really defending the legacy of the Enlightenment? I went along to this year’s Battle of Ideas festival to try to find out.

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Written by Richard Wilson

January 11, 2011 at 10:01 am

A bad week for quality control at the Guardian…

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From The Propagandist

This past week, the Guardian published two articles in support of two of the more notorious tyrants in Africa. On December 27, Simon Tisdall argued that human rights groups were unfairly demonizing Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir during the run-up to the South’s January 9th independence referendum, with little consideration of the effect this could have on the new country’s already-tenuous future.Tisdall’s partly right: a country with minimal infrastructure, low literacy, few urban centers, an oil-based economy and a government comprised of former warlords could be a source of instability if major regional actors aren’t on the same page. That includes Bashir, who is currently under an International Criminal Court indictment for genocide, but has accepted a compromise over the oil-rich border region of Abyei and even laid out his vision of a smaller, more centralized North. For Sudan watchers, the fact that Bashir hasn’t taken things nuclear yet is encouraging, but it doesn’t erase a 20-year history of erratic and even genocidal behavior. For Tisdall it does…

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Written by Richard Wilson

January 8, 2011 at 12:27 am