Out There

The night sky is more provocative when viewed from the countryside. In the city we barely notice it, but not only because there are more delightful things to distract us from looking – the night sky is obscured by the sodium yellow of streetlights and the glare of the high street. In the Dordogne, in the south west of France, the cosmos is harder to ignore, and  when I looked at it the other day it occurred to me that my feelings and thoughts probably didn’t differ markedly from the feelings and thoughts of prehistoric man as he gazed at the Milky Way 25,000 years ago from the mouth of his cave.


He knew less about the world, about himself and about the universe, I suppose, though I’m sure he knew his constellations rather better than I know them (I only know the Plough). He had no other visual entertainment, at night, other than the embers of his fire. But he didn’t know anything about what he was looking at, about planets, galaxies, dark matter or the dark energy that is tearing the universe apart at every greater velocity, though, to be frank, we too know almost nothing about dark energy.

Perhaps he imagined that the stars spoke to him somehow, and augured good or ill for the weather or the availability of mammoth meat. Sadly, we know now that they didn’t and don’t. Millions of hours of signals analysis by SETI programs running whilst our PCs are at rest have as yet failed to find evidence of a signal in the noise.

But if there is one thing  I wish for in my lifetime (apart from world peace, the end of fundamentalist religions, universal democracy, a cure for cancer, the abolition of the unaccompanied madrigal and the Peruvian flute band) it is the discovery of extra terrestrial intelligence. Not just life, which would be interesting but neither amazing nor surprising, but intelligent life.

It will happen one day, though perhaps not soon. It won’t be communication, and it won’t be conversation unless we discover something even more remarkable, such as a Star Trek style warp drive that could take us or our signals faster than the speed of light. But simply to receive a ‘signal’ would be the most remarkable thing, to know that there are others out there, like us. And I believe they would be like us. Not to look at, of course, though I suspect they would have at least two eyes and at least two hands, but in terms of the cluster of things that go with intelligence.

Intelligence, the purposeful pursuit of knowledge, control and cooperation, is unimaginable without language, self-consciousness and thought, and the recognition by every intelligent creature that there are other intelligent creatures like them. Indeed language could only develop in a community of conscious creatures. And I believe that ethical systems inevitably follow, because one creature must, in virtue of language, be able to imagine itself as another. Perhaps even religion follows, at least for a while, until intelligence prevailed, though, to my mind, religion is false as science and a misleading foundation for value.

There must be intelligent life out there somewhere. We can’t be alone when there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Even if intelligent life arrives late in the evolution of living things and doesn’t last long it would surely last long enough for there to be some ‘chatter’ radiating outwards (episodes of the alien version of The Archers, the Eurovision Song Contest, the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other entertainments) even if there were no formal signal replete with indicators of intelligence such as the atomic weights of the elements.

But if they set about sending a signal, what would they want to tell us? How to make fusion work? How to avoid annihilation? And what would we send them?

If I were the editor of transmissions into the unknown I would want to convey both knowledge and the idea of value. I doubt that intelligent life could evolve without both. So I would transmit the energy levels of fundamental particles, such as we currently understand them to be (or some such quantity if what I’ve suggested doesn’t make sense). These would indicate how far we’ve progressed in understanding the framework of the universe, and I presume they would be immediately recognisable in virtue of their ratios to each other. And I would send the whole of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What else would be worth saying?


Race, Culture, Nationality, Religion and Citizenship – Tiptoeing Across a Minefield

I’ve decided to tiptoe as tactfully and thoughtfully as I can across a very dangerous minefield, the minefield of racism and other forms of discrimination, and, in particular, the minefield of anti-Semitism and attitudes to Israel. But in doing so, I’m also seeking your advice. Sometimes I really don’t know what to think.


Over the last ten days anti-Semitism has become a hot topic in the United Kingdom, following the suspension from the UK’s Labour Party of two of its members on the grounds that they have expressed anti-Semitic views: Naz Shah was suspended for her, now disowned, view that Israel should be ‘relocated to the United States’, and Ken Livingstone for suggesting that Hitler once supported Zionism ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.’

In the panoply of appalling opinions, anti-Semitism has a special place, because its terrible consequences occurred in our lifetimes and our parents’, and were witnessed first-hand, and even experienced, by many who are still alive. As far as we know, the industrial scale and cold dispassionate inhumanity of these atrocities are unmatched in the whole of human history. It grew in our midst and it’s an ever present occurrence and danger that we must guard against continuously. But we must also do so fairly and intelligently.

I am not, here, concerned with the question of whether the views expressed by Naz Shah and by Ken Livingstone are objectionable, or whether they contain false factual claims. The question is, are they anti-Semitic in nature? If they are anti-Semitic then there’s no question that suspension is deserved, and, whether they’re anti-Semitic or not, they may yet be good cause for suspension on other grounds. But these are issues for the Labour Party and whether such views are consistent with their overall policy objectives. Here. in this post, I am simply concerned with how these remarks might be described.

On matters of fact, you can either be wrong in good faith, or you can be wilfully wrong, prejudicially wrong. The first position I’ll describe as at least a ‘respectable’ position, even if, in some cases, it may be hard to excuse ignorance of the facts. ‘Respectable’ means that a position is worthy of argument, amenable to argument, indeed, one where there are facts that might determine the case and persuade an opponent to change his mind. The second position is a ‘prejudiced’ position, and when there is prejudice there is little scope for constructive, ‘respectful’ argument or persuasion.

To take an example, David Irving, once a ‘distinguished’ amateur historian was shown, in a legal judgement that went against him in 2000, to be wilfully selective in his treatment of historical evidence. He lost a libel case against Penguin Books, and Deborah Lipstadt, an author who accused him of being a Holocaust Denier, a term applied to a man who adopts a wilful evidence-denying, ‘prejudiced’ position on the question of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. His view was shown to be a view that I call ‘unrespectable’, a view that cannot be defended by a man of good faith. (In my opinion most conspiracy theories also fail the test of ‘respectability’, though not so much because they don’t fit the facts, as because their accounting for the facts is unreasonable, improbable and implausible. But that is another issue.)

So, what is it to be anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism is usually understood to be a negative example of racism, though whether being Jewish is a matter of race may itself be a subject of dispute. Judaism may be culturally defined, or defined in terms of religion, or genetics. I doubt that everyone, including those who call themselves Jews, could agree on a single definition. Would the Nazis have murdered a blue-eyed Aryan German who had converted to Judaism? I simply don’t know.

There is also pro-Semitism, which is also a form of racism. Pro-Semitism (a term that might (controversially or not, correctly or incorrectly)) be applied to the policies of the State of Israel) is another, indisputably better, side of a similar coin. In general, racism can be described as ‘positive’ as well as ‘negative’, as for example, ‘positive racial discrimination’ is discrimination in favour of a disadvantaged group defined in racial terms (the Malaysian State’s discrimination in favour of the bumiputera (people of the soil) favours Malays at the expense of the Chinese and Indian minorities and might be so described).

And, of course, ‘positive’ racial discrimination can be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. It is sometimes necessary as a temporary measure to right historical wrongs. I have met many white South Africans who understand and even approve of the South African Government’s policy of enforcing quotas for black South Africans when it comes to employment. In all cases racism is an action or belief undertaken or held in virtue of, a person’s perceived racial identity. Anti-Semitism (conventionally applied only to one group of Semitic people) is an action or opinion formed ‘in virtue of’ a person’s perceived Jewish ‘identity.’

This definition doesn’t go far enough, though. Racism is a pejorative term, in that, when we say someone or an attitude is ‘racist’, we’re saying two more things. Racist remarks are, by implication, remarks we disapprove of, and they are remarks, I think, that we regard as unsupported, perhaps even unsupportable in principle. Perhaps there are people who are ‘out and proud’ racists but let’s leave that ‘unrespectable’ position aside for the moment. When we apply the term ‘racist’ we’re generally being critical and disapproving.

It’s not always easy to ascribe specifically anti-Semitism or racism to an individual. Was the composer Richard Wagner anti-Semitic? He believed that great art is founded on national identity, and that national identity is founded on race. Jewish composers, he believed, with no homeland (then), and therefore no sense of national identity, were incapable of writing profound music, even if they possessed a strong sense of cultural or religious identity. Did he believe that an ‘assimilated’ German Christian ‘Jew’ could be a good composer? I think not.

Wagner’s prejudice was founded on racial belonging and the absence of a Jewish ‘nation’ – a homeland. He would probably have believed that a post-1948 Israeli Jew with a strong sense of national identity and destiny could write great music, but that is a fanciful supposition. I think he was wrong about great art and nationhood, and I would regard his views on this issue as unsupported, insupportable and therefore ‘unrespectable’. Was he an anti-Semite or a Nationalist? I’m not sure. Did he believe that Jews couldn’t be great composers in virtue of their race or in virtue of their situation? Would he have approved of the expulsion or annihilation of the Jews? No, certainly not. Did he subscribe to and exploit ‘mocking’ racial stereotypes (Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, for example)? Probably. Yes, on balance, he was probably anti-Semitic as well as a Nationalist. And then there is the question of whether his music should be played in the State of Israel. But let’s leave that alone!

But what is race? We describe ourselves in many different ways. I am a culturally Christian atheist of the Protestant strain. I am white, male, gay, politically liberal, English, British, European, a resident of the Czech Republic, of remote French Huguenot descent, able-bodied, middle class, middle-aged, and so on. None of these can be exact descriptions. In respect of an infinite number of characteristics that human beings might possess, we exist somewhere on a continuum established by our shared use of linguistic terms and our purposes in making distinctions. Even so, one man or woman’s application of a term may differ subtly from another. Even gender isn’t black and white. So we describe ourselves, for different purposes, in a wide variety of ways that include, at least these:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Colour
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Political affiliation
  • Sexual orientation
  • Residency
  • Ancestry
  • Prosperity
  • Beliefs
  • Physical capability or incapacity
  • Mental capability or dysfunction
  • Etc.

Most of these terms aren’t susceptible of exact definition, by which I mean that it isn’t always possible to define a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their application. The whole issue has become even more complicated by the idea of ‘self-identification’. Rachel Dolezal ‘identified as black’ without being black by descent and found herself in very hot water as a consequence. But let’s not go down that path either.

To be ‘ageist’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘homophobic’, etc., is in general to adopt a ‘prejudiced’ view, to take action or to advance a negative and unsupportable view about an individual or group of individuals identified in respect of one or more characteristics or by membership of a group so identified, in virtue of that characteristic or that membership of a group.

But context is also important. When someone makes a statement or expresses a view it mustn’t be seen in isolation. We should put a statement or view into the context of what the speaker has said or how she or he has acted, on numerous occasions to build a complete picture, if we can. Words taken in isolation are slippery. What does he or she mean by ‘English’, or ‘British’, or ‘Israel’, or ‘Israeli’, or ‘supports’, or ‘mad’?

There’s also the issue of how much prejudice matters, of how pernicious it might be. An ‘unrespectable’ view about stamp-collectors is less likely to do harm than an ‘unrespectable’ view about race. Government policy is unaffected by issues of philately. What worries us most is prejudice expressed for the purposes of negative discrimination – the denial of equal rights to education, health care, justice, residency, freedom of action, and so on.

Let’s consider a few examples of typical generalisations that may or may not be ‘respectable’:

‘The Dutch are a tall nation.’

We know, more or less, whom we mean by ‘the Dutch’ (though we might perhaps include the Flemish population of Belgium under that description). We know what it means to be tall – we probably mean ‘taller than the average’. I’m not entirely sure what we mean by ‘nation’, and we might, reasonably ask for clarification, but once we’ve got that sorted out, It is a supportable view, and it may be right or wrong, supported by the evidence or not. This, to my mind, is not a statement of prejudice, in itself. But if you go on to express an unrespectable view of tall people (that, for example, they should all have their heads cut off) that would be a different matter.

‘Tall people are stupid and should have their heads cut off.’

This is a clear statement of prejudice. Though ‘stupid’ is subject to multiple definitions, I think it highly unlikely that there is research, or indeed, could be research, to support either the factual claim or the remedy.

‘The English are a cold people.’

‘English’, here, is probably being used, loosely, as a cultural definition. I’m inclined to think this isn’t necessarily a prejudiced statement. Of course, we would want anyone who makes such a claim to go on to adduce examples in its defence, to accept that there must be exceptions, and to clarify its scope, but we’re all inclined to make bold and sweeping generalisations about cultures that are based on our experiences, on what we’ve read or seen, or what others have said. And in most cases we plan no denial of rights in consequence of our views. There are, I am happy to say, differences between cultures. We’re also ready to revise such views if evidence accumulates to contradict them. It is an important characteristic of the kind of prejudice we’re considering here, that it is not susceptible to revision in the light of what is generally held to be evidence.

So, which of the following statements are ‘ageist’, or ‘racist’, or ‘sexist’, or ‘homophobic’. Which are ‘prejudiced’ in general, and therefore can’t be regarded as ‘respectable’ views that could, whether right or wrong, be held in good faith? And, in respect of what dimension of human description (nation, race, culture, religion, gender, political affiliation, etc.) is the claim being made?

Feel free to express your views and please forgive me if I use some ugly statements as examples. They do not reflect my views, but I’ve heard or seen many of these views expressed either first hand or in the media, and often all too recently.

  1. Asians take education more seriously than Europeans
  2. Christians are guiltily obsessed with sex
  3. Muslims should be treated with suspicion
  4. Arabs are lazy
  5. Germans have no sense of humour
  6. Americans are stupid, blinkered imperialists
  7. The French don’t wash
  8. Americans are arrogant
  9. Gays shouldn’t be allowed near children
  10. Women drive cars less well than men
  11. Italians make the best lovers
  12. The Kurds should not be given their own homeland
  13. Israel should never have been created where it is located today
  14. Gays should be flung to their deaths from tall buildings
  15. The Jews take education very seriously
  16. There’s a gay mafia in the film industry
  17. Gypsies (the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe, for example) should never be trusted
  18. Hitler for a time supported Zionism. It was an aspect of his anti-Semitism.
  19. Gays have no place in the military
  20. Asians are less inventive than Europeans and Americans
  21. Zionism is racist to the extent that it favours Jewish immigration to Israel.
  22. Women shouldn’t drive cars
  23. There is only one true faith and it is Roman Catholicism
  24. Israel’s policy of settlement in the West Bank is wrong and in breach of international law
  25. There aren’t enough actors and actresses of colour nominated for the Oscars
  26. Black people are less intelligent than white people
  27. Gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt
  28. Mexicans are rapists
  29. African Americans commit more crime than white Americans in proportion to their population
  30. African Americans are more criminally inclined than white Americans
  31. Immigrants are spongers
  32. European civilisation is in decline
  33. The Swiss have never invented anything more interesting than the cuckoo clock

I’m not interested in whether you agree or disagree with any of these views. The question is whether any of these could be a ‘respectable’ view, one that we might argue reasonably about, even if we believe it wrong, or whether, on the other hand, it is a statement of unsupported and insupportable prejudice, and, further, if it is, against what is it prejudice (gender, race, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.)?

It’s difficult, isn’t it? First it’s hard, when a single statement is ripped from its context or from the whole history of the person who might have said it or written it, to know what’s meant. What does ‘support’ mean? What does ‘intelligence’ mean? What does ‘Chinese’ mean? What groups are being singled out and what prejudices asserted?

I won’t, for now, give my own views on each of these examples, but I will say what I think about the statements made by Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone. I know little about Naz Shah’s wider views, and I cannot say if I like her or not. As for Ken Livingstone, I don’t like him (he is a ranting bully too often for my taste) but I have admired some of his positions and achievements.

Naz Shah

My own views are these: I disagree with the view that Israel should be ‘relocated’ to the USA. I disagree with the view that Israel should cease to exist. But I do hope that one day Israel might be a state that doesn’t need to be defined in terms of culture or religion or race.

As for Naz, I believe that when she expressed the view on relocation she knew very well that she was adopting an utterly impractical position. But I think it is far from certain that her views were anti-Semitic. You can oppose the policies of the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic. You can make a ‘respectable’ argument as to whether the state of Israel should even have been created by the UN in 1948 (many at the time thought it should not and voted against the resolution, without being anti-Semitic), just as you can make a ‘respectable’ argument for the creation of a Kurdish state, or a Roma state come to that. You may win or lose each argument, and you may make your case passionately or quietly, and find yourself in a tiny minority or a large majority. As for ‘relocation’, everyone knows that’s impossible, and she knew it too when she expressed the view. It was, I suppose, a kind of rhetorical flourish, akin to saying ‘I wish the Middle East had never existed!’ But, in my view, it’s a view about Israel, a geographical political entity, and its policies, rather than a view about race, or culture, or religion. But of course I would have to look at everything she’s written to come to a definitive conclusion.

Ken Livingstone

Neither do I believe that Ken Livingstone’s remarks were anti-Semitic. I don’t know whether he’s anti-Semitic in general, but I doubt it. Taking the view for the moment that to be Zionist is to believe that there should be a homeland for the Jews, I can believe that, in spite of, perhaps entirely because of his virulent anti-Semitism, Hitler might have supported the view that the Jewish community should be encouraged to emigrate, perhaps even be forcibly evicted, to a Jewish homeland far from Germany. Whilst he might have ‘supported’ Zionism, in this sense, it is still entirely possible that Hitler’s preference, at one and the same time, was for the complete annihilation of the Jews but that he was prevented, at that stage of the development of the totalitarian Nazi state, from getting started on it. It is a matter of historical debate as to whether Hitler had one view or another, and I understand that Ken Livingstone adduces the views of historians in his support. So, Ken may be right or wrong on the issue, and I don’t think it’s necessarily an anti-Semitic view. Far more damaging, I believe, and wrong, though, again, not anti-Semitic, is the view that ‘Hitler went mad’. To call someone ‘mad’ is, to some extent, to claim that they are not responsible for what they do. I don’t think Hitler was mad. He was bad.


I hope my position is also a ‘respectable’ one and that I don’t offend  anyone, least of all my Jewish friends. Disagreements are welcome, especially if they are put reasonably. I am willing to be corrected, of course, if my logic is faulty, my history inaccurate or if my moral principles are themselves at fault. And I am aware that I have placed myself bang in the middle of a minefield, but the entire issue has been much on my mind and I wanted to put my thoughts into words.

Hocus Pocus – Religion and Nonsense

I usually start the day in the laziest imaginable way, first, by not getting out of bed for at least half an hour after my alarm has sounded, and then by watching BBC Breakfast. I’ve recently acquired something called IPTV and so the BBC’s UK-only channels can be piped directly to the TV in my sitting-room.


Breakfast television is pap, a cocktail of undemanding topics and mild jocularity. It goes well with a hot shower, a cup of tea and a biscuit called a Morning Tea Finger (see above). But my ears pricked up the other day when the subject of religion came up (you’d think that would be no-go before about lunchtime). It was prompted by a report that had just been published by some august institution, though I can’t remember which (you see, I don’t really pay attention). Apparently, more than half of the UK’s population now describe themselves as non-religious.

‘Worse than that,’ one of the invited commentators said, ‘Fewer and fewer are going to church, temple, mosque or synagogue.’



I would think it’s cause for celebration, myself. At least for those of us, like me, who can’t bear the posturing and utterances of most religious figures (consider the sanctimonious antics and unctuous, oleaginous tones of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury). It’s all hocus-pocus to me, nonsense, superstition, and it’s socially retrogressive too. I can’t understand how anyone can be taken in by it.

I describe myself as ‘culturally Christian’. That’s not something I can undo since it’s the context I was born into, but I’d as happily be ‘culturally Buddhist’, or ‘culturally Moslem’, ‘culturally Hindu’ or ‘culturally Jewish.’ I don’t know that these ways of being would actually be very different from one another. Most religions recommend compassion as a good way of getting started. But I’m not sure about ‘culturally Jehovah’s Witness’ since it’s not so clear to me what that would mean (I certainly wouldn’t reject blood transfusion or refuse the companionship of non-Witness folks). If religions were biscuits, the Church of England would certainly be the Morning Tea Finger. It’s a relatively tolerant and innocuous biscuit.

I am all for atheism. I enjoy ‘religious’ moments at the top of mountains, in the naves of great Gothic cathedrals and in the middle of great symphonies, just as anyone does, but let’s not let moments of contemplation and awe get churned into dogma. Frankly, I can’t understand how you can ever get from what one might loosely describe as the ‘spiritual’ (without any other-worldly implications) to a fat book of rules such as the Catechism.

But religion doesn’t necessarily place my friends and family quite beyond the pale, though I find it a challenge, the more so when it affects their opinions and actions. For example, there’s a branch of my family that’s staunchly Jehovah’s Witness and they are the kindest of all. I have a niece who is fanatically Roman Catholic and a nephew who is falling prey to Russian Orthodoxy but I won’t entirely reject them. Frankly, though, it’s hard to know what to do or say. There’s a part of me that insists they must be stupid to believe the nonsense that they do, and yet they’re not stupid. And some of my best friends are religious too (well, a small few of my friends).

It wouldn’t trouble me at all if I didn’t also believe that nonsense, in the long run, does harm.