Archive for October, 2008

Encounter on Trinity Way

October 30, 2008

Trinity Way is the unmarked border between Manchester and Salford. I used to walk through it on the way to my office job in central Manchester. You come off the Crescent and through a great brick aqueduct onto a three-lane road.

There’s often a few crazies hanging around the traffic islands, even at quarter to nine on a weekday morning. I regularly saw homeless guys staggering around with half-empty bottles of White Ace. One day, just as I’d crossed the border, I was approached by a young man with a shaved head and an anorak.

This guy came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got a blob of gel in your hair.’ I touched my hair and sure enough, my fingers came away sticky – I’m no good in the mornings. I said thanks, and the guy just stood there grinning, happy to have been able to point out a flaw in someone else’s appearance under a benevolent guise: a lot of people do this – have you noticed?

He made some disparaging comment about the hair gel and I considered saying something back, something like ‘Well, at least I’ve got all my own teeth’ – but I didn’t say anything because it would feel like mocking the afflicted. This guy was my age but his clothes looked dirty and used, his skin was pallid, his teeth really were falling out of his head. What I remember, though, were the eyes.

They were the eyes of someone who’d had the bottom of their life whipped out from under them. This guy had been through the mill – drugs, prison, homelessness, fuck knows what – and whatever had happened, it had taken his self, or his sense of it. There was nothing behind his eyes.

He asked me where I worked. I told him. He said that he worked for Jesus – he spoke with coherence and lucidity. I didn’t argue. I asked: what’s it like? Did the Son of God offer paid holidays? Flexitime? He laughed and said it was a twenty-four hour job. I didn’t know whether he was homeless, or living out of a hostel or what. He didn’t ask for money. We parted on friendly terms.

This happened a year ago. I’ve never known what to make of that conversation, and I set it down here for that reason. You could call the guy a fundamentalist – like I said, he had that look in his eyes. I got the impression that everything had been taken away and the first idea that came along had filled the gap – because ideology abhors a vaccuum.

I’m sure that after everything he’d been through, this man’s Christianity gave him a reason to get up in the morning. Marx acknowledged that religion brings people comfort. Until the twenty-first century, though, Marxists weren’t prepared to just leave it at that.

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Pro-faith left blog meltdown

October 29, 2008

An email from a reader, headed ‘Richard Seymour’s absurd commentary on the atheist bus campaign’ advises that ‘Dear Mr. Dunbar – If you can stomach it, you might want to check out Richard Seymour’s latest post on his blog, he claims that he finds the campaign ‘offensive”.

Reading the post, I’m sure Seymour was being ironic when he wrote, ‘Frankly, I find it offensive’ – although possibly he doesn’t know himself. For I can’t see how anyone but the most raving fundamentalist could take offence at the eleven words of the bus campaign – although the general reaction suggests that people are rattled.

Other than that, it’s difficult to make sense of this chunk of text – it’s like trying to read white noise, or words in the fog. You will find the words ‘smug,’ ‘self-congratulation,’ ‘conceited,’ ‘supercilious,’ ‘laughable,’ ‘ersatz sense of intellectual superiority,’ ‘self-aggrandising, pompous arseholes,’ hard to take, spilling from the keyboard of Richard Seymour. Just add ‘verbosity’ to that mix, and the Hypocrisy-O-Meter would explode.

There’s a couple of dissenting voices in Lenin’s comments:

I’ve been reading this blog for years, but I have to admit that I find your new-found obsession with hating on atheists, just because of a few of them say mean things about Muslims, is pretty absurd, as well as pretty bone-headed. Are you really advocating that people shouldn’t say things because others find them offensive? I bet most normal people would find your defense of the Iraqi resistance offensive, considering by your own statistics they are responsible for the majority of the violent deaths in Iraq, so should we ban your website because it’s offensive to the families of the dead, just like cartoons are offensive to some Muslims?

And this from Red Deathy:

Is this post taken from the new course book ‘How to sound po faced and ridiculous in three easy lessons’?

Seymour says that nothing is ‘less enlightening, or interesting, than middle-aged English liberals working themselves into a spuming frenzy over the religious.’ Thing is, if the middle-aged liberals (liberalism is worse than fascism in Seymour’s lexicon; the word ‘liberal’ is used in the Fox News sense) are so boring and irrelevant, then why waste valuable time attacking them?

Perhaps because Seymour sees religion as ‘an enabling narrative for liberation struggles.’

Lenny links to an amusing blog called ‘Institute for Conjectural Research’. Its critique comes from the same angle but is more entertaining and makes slightly more sense.

In the midst of economic crisis, imperialist wars, catastrophic inequality, et caetera, the ‘brights’ and ‘secularists’ now see it fit to besmirch the fine tradition of godlessness by pimping for conformity, low-intensity hedonism and a truly unbearable lightness of being.

Like Lenin, this guy’s hit on the secret of quotation marks as a substitute for argument.

Faced with this capitulation to a smug petty-bourgeois ethos, any self-respecting atheist would rather keep company with the ravers, enthusiasts and fanatics.

…as many of them have. But is that really Richard Dawkins’s fault?

Lenin quotes Stephen Fry in his piece. Here’s a Fry quote for him: ‘You’re offended. So fucking what?’

‘Brand of the bland’

October 29, 2008

I’ve been tickled by Alan McGee’s demolition of the Q Awards: a great insight into the complacency and smugness of contemporary music journalism. Coldplay are apparently ‘The Best Act in the ENTIRE WHOLE WIDE WORLD’ and Best Track award went to Keane – McGee theorises that Keane’s lead singer, who’s been in rehab for port addiction, is the Q equivalent of Pete Doherty.

Every line of McGee’s attack is laugh-out-loud funny but I’ll just quote the final paragraph:

If depression, blandness, and boredom would ever manifest itself in physical form, it would be the Q Awards. Someone actually said ‘there are no losers tonight, only people full of win!’. No, there is one big loser: music. The Q Awards are the meaningless musical equivalent of Homer Simpson ‘winning’ the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.

Icons events in London and Manchester

October 28, 2008

The new Succour issue is out in November and there will be launch events in two cities. On November 26 there will be a launch at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell; and in Manchester there will be a launch on November 28 at the Briton’s Protection. There’ll be readings, drinking and general conviviality: all welcome to attend or read. Email me on max.dunbar@gmail.com if you have any questions.

Max Dunbar is one!

October 27, 2008

I have just realised that this blog is over one year old.

This is my first post.

What can I say? I still don’t take blogging seriously, and I still enjoy it immensely. This was really just a place for me to scribble down my thoughts. I love to rant, and I love to argue. I didn’t expect anyone to actually read the blog, considering the number of web journals out there, and I am still astonished that people do. But apparently there is a market for my brand of aggressive secularism, semi-coherent ranting and relentless plugging of my magazine and fiction.

The greatest surprise and delight for me has been positive feedback from journalists, bloggers and authors I admire. I also enjoy it when I attack someone in a post – and then that very same person leaps into the comments box for an argument.

It’s been a good year in many ways – I was nominated for a blog award, Succour was nominated for an award, the magazine continues to do well (and is apparently self financing) I have had a lot of short fiction and criticism published, and I’m having a great time writing my novel. I still don’t have an agent or a book deal but I think this is a realistic aspiration – and what the hell: as Stephen King says, you do it for the buzz.

On the debit side of the ledger (and this is starting to sound like one of Simon Hoggart’s round robins) my personal life is worse than it’s ever been. I came down with agoraphobia in April and since then the Condition has not improved. It’s like being in the centre of a tornado – for six months. I have some behavioural therapy happening in the next few weeks so hopefully things will improve. I am determined to beat the Condition. In my dreams, I’ve been going out in Manchester, London and America – hopefully that’s a good omen.

Anyway, to anyone who’s read or commented here, friend or foe: thank you.

Nesrine Malik’s cavalcade of stupidity

October 26, 2008

Ophelia Benson has already dealt with this in fine style, but the article she criticises is so relentless in its stupidity that I just cannot help from joining in.

It’s by Nesrine Malik – who we met back in May. This week she’s letting us know that being murdered for apostasy is really no big deal:

Reading AC Grayling’s latest article and listening to the protestations of the Council of Ex-Muslims, you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.

It takes a second for the full force of Malik’s idiocy to sink in here. Most people on the Guardian are against the death penalty even for crimes such as murder or child abuse. But Malik appears to believe in an acceptable level of incidences where the death penalty can be used; not for committing violent crimes, but for leaving your religion. 

So… if you listen to the militant atheists, you’d think that people were being killed for apostasy all over the place, right? Whereas, in reality, people are being killed, but not ‘gratituously or frequently’. So that’s all right then.

I have several friends and family members who are non-believers and apart from some efforts to return them to the straight and narrow or at least go through the motions of religious observance, they have not come into any physical danger.

As Ophelia says, this is nice but tells us jack shit. Richard Littlejohn could make the following argument: ‘I do know anyone who has been a victim of racism – therefore racism does not exist.’ It’s never worked for him and it doesn’t work for Malik now.

And what does ‘efforts to return them to the straight and narrow’ entail, exactly?

Oh but hang on – Muslim scholars have ‘differences of opinion’ regarding the death penalty:

Although the Council of Ex-Muslims and AC Grayling depict the threat to life and limb as an indisputable fact, in reality there are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars (ostensibly the hard core of the religion) regarding the death penalty for apostates.

Well this, too, is nice, and I’m sure is a great comfort to those people threatened with death for what amounts to a change of heart.

And anyway, even if people are killed for leaving their religion, this is not for religious reasons:

This is not to say that Muslim governments – and Arab ones in particular – have a tolerant view of apostasy but the death threat is invoked only rarely and more for political reasons rather than religion ones: to set an example or to save face as a proxy punishment for challenging the social or political status quo.

Nothing to do with us, mate: the killers have ‘misinterpreted’ or ‘perverted’ the peaceful holy scripture.

Then Malik’s silliness causes her to shoot herself in the foot:

Nawal el Sadaawi, a prominent Egyptian writer and social activist, has clashed several times with religious authorities and has even dismissed some of the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) as pagan, but I do not believe she lives in any fear for her life.

Now, Dr Nawal el Sadaawi is an Egyptian feminist and campaigner against genital mutiliation. She’s been dismissed from jobs, received death threats and even been imprisoned for her writings. From an interview with el Sadaawi in 1999:

Interviewer

After you taught at Duke University you went back to Egypt. Are you again in exile now?

el Sadaawi

No, I am in Egypt now. I live in Egypt. Even when I was at Duke I did not consider myself in exile. I hated the word. The media said that. I said, well, I am in danger for my life in Egypt, and I have to leave, because I have to protect my life. And Duke offered me a post, so I came, you know.

She goes on to say this:

In my country if a girl loses her virginity, it’s a scandal. If she’s pregnant outside marriage, outside wedlock, it’s a scandal. Her name may be put on the death list, as happened with me, if she attacks, or is critical of religion or mainstream beliefs.

Emphasis is, naturally, mine.

The charitable interpretation is that Malik simply isn’t familiar with el Sadaawi and doesn’t realise that she does, contrary to Malik, have reason to fear for her life. And Malik does say that ‘It is easy to appear churlish or insensitive when disputing the assertions of people who claim their lives are in danger’. But – and there is always a but:

[W]e must also consider the possibility that some will annex the emotive power of ‘death for apostasy’ to serve their own ends, be they personal or political. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born ex-Muslim who has lived in the US for almost 20 years, became a hero of the neocons after claiming that some casually dismissive words from a cleric in a TV debate amounted to ‘a fatwa’. In due course, Time Magazine listed her as one of 100 influential people ‘whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world’.

Note the Uncle Tom subtext here: ‘a hero of the neocons… ex-Muslim who has lived in the US for twenty years.’

Like el-Sadaawi, Wafa Sultan is an ex-Muslim and critic of religion who received death threats after her appearance on a televised debate with a conservative cleric:

One message said: ‘Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see.’ She received an e-mail message the other day, in Arabic, that said, ‘If someone were to kill you, it would be me.’

Presumably – though she doesn’t have the guts to say so – Malik thinks that either Sultan is lying about the death threats, or deliberately provoked them just so that she could be on the cover of Time.

Sultan’s words prompted this satirical post from the blogger ‘Eerie’ on ‘How to be a Muslim reformer,’ a sardonic step-by-step guide with headings like ‘Become a Western media darling’ and ‘Remind people that you are constantly under siege’. Here’s Step 6 (emphasis mine):

6. Rake in the cash
Watch as speaking invitations roll in from hardline right-wing Israeli and US organizations. No, it’s not a Jewish conspiracy, but for some odd reason they are in full agreement with your views on Islamic reform. You’re definitely on the way to winning Muslim hearts and minds if they’re supporting you!

I’ve always said that bad satire says more about its originator than its target, and the above tells us all we need to know about this blogger’s worldview. Still, Malik liked the blog enough to link to it in her article.

I used to get outraged about people like Nesrine Malik. Here we have an independent woman working in finance in secular London, telling women in the developing world that theocracy really isn’t so bad as they make out. Isn’t this an imperialist attitude?

But in the end, the appropriate response isn’t outrage: it’s a dark and riotous laughter at the arrant stupidity of it all.

‘I am not my mobile phone’

October 26, 2008

Manchester poet Jackie Hagan has done a poetic response to that Orange ad – you know: ‘I am all the girls I’ve ever kissed…’

It’s always vaguely offended me that such a beautiful concept has been used to sell phones.

Anyway:

I am every one of my brothers star wars figures and the dances i choreogrpahed for them

I am every corner house staff I’ve fancied and the lives I’ve imagined with them

I am everything I’ve ever glued to my face

And everything I’ve got my fingers stuck in

I am every book I’ve not understood

And every diary I’ve wanted to look in

I am every toilet I’ve ever been sick, had sex or cried in

I am not really my mobile phone

‘Hey, do you wanna live forever?’

October 25, 2008

A question posed by Norm.

I started thinking about death when I was around nineteen. Perhaps I’m unusually morbid – but then I come from a morbid generation. A friend of mine complained, on turning twenty, that he was now halfway to forty. Everyone is terrified of dying and getting old.

However, although I don’t want to die and I find it hard to accept that I will die – surely, an exception will be made in my case? –  I don’t know that I fear death. No one really understands what death is. After all, we were all dead before we were born. The common sense rationale, that it’s just an endless, painless sleep, doesn’t seem so bad. And perhaps there are dreams.

Michel Houellebecq, in Atomised, said that the ’68 generation had ‘replaced the tragedy of death with the more general humiliation of old age.’ He then posits a future scenario in which humanity has become physically immortal. Now I don’t want to sound like a raving Scientologist but is that really beyond the bounds of possibility? After all, science does seem to be postponing death further and further.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that in a few hundred years or centuries we may have come up with a way for people to not actually die – providing that our love for nuclear weaponry hasn’t reduced the planet to a giant, smouldering cinder by then.

Of course even if people were technically immortal it still wouldn’t be forever – the sun would eventually burn out and then we’d be fucked. But let’s keep this hypothetical: if you had the opportunity to live forever, would you take it?

I’d say yeah. In almost all cases, being alive is better than being dead. Especially if I’m wrong about religion: then I’ll be getting spitroasted in hell’s kitchen with Richard Dawkins and the rest of the unbelievers.

But this desire for immortality, for me, is more a desire to have lived. When I read history I regret that I wasn’t born in a time or place where I could enjoy the Jazz Age or the summer of love. It would be good to live through the centuries, experiencing the Enlightenment and the Renaissance in a never-changing body, like the Comte de Saint- Germain.

But remember – when you ask for eternal life, don’t forget to ask for eternal youth.

Finally, this quote from Sam Harris sums up the present situation for me.

Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?

An objection anticipated

October 25, 2008

When I wrote about the atheist bus campaign a few days back, I said that:

I fully expect some religious apologist to say something like ‘Look – the atheist fundamentalists demand propaganda on buses now.’

Lo and behold:

To those without a huge vested interest in promoting or dissing religion, this probably looks a slightly odd initiative. Frankly, the slogan is a bit anodyne. It’s the non-believing equivalent of ‘God may very well exist. Now have a nice day’. But it will probably still be enough to upset counter-evangelists of the kind who like to tell everybody they are going to hell for not subscribing to their particular doctrine, and who think atheism is very, very naughty.

I wonder what impact this kind of campaign has, though? It will appeal to those who like that kind of thing, no doubt. And in part it seems to have been born out of resentment towards comparatively prodigious (and extremely well-funded) religious advertising. But apart from raising brand awareness, I suspect that the vast majority of people will be as sceptical about being sold unbelief as they are about being sold belief.

That’s Simon Barrow of Christian policy unit Ekklesia, who the NSS describes as ‘insufferably smug’. Well, he’s certainly predictable.

Update: Also in the Guardian you can read devastating critiques by Mary Kenny ‘(‘Atheism is BOR-RING!’) and Andrew Brown (‘Nothing to see here, move along please’.)

Further update: Also, via Hak Mao, there’s this in the Torygraph:

At a time when the fundamentalist few, both atheist and religious, are jostling to tell us what to believe, being in a muddle is an act of resistance.

As Harry Hatchet used to say: they really don’t like it up them, do they?

Graceful losing speech

October 23, 2008

The winners of the Manchester Blog Awards have been announced – the winner in my category was a blog called Northern Nights. I have checked it out and it looks excellent: congratulations to the team, and to the Manchester Lit Fest for its work in promoting great Manchester writing.