Arise, geeks

In the darkest hour of the night, around 4am when Evan Harris lost his seat, someone reminded me of this Woody Allen quote:

People get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, I get the government they deserve too.

Oxford West and Abingdon was the only moment last night that I was actually scared. Not just grumblingly disappointed with the whole thing on a partisan Lib Dem level (I’m on record as saying I’d have been happy with 25% and that remains my position – I would have been). Really scared. What sort of world is it where Evan Harris can lose his seat to a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship? I stress I know nothing about the woman herself, but the background to his defenestration – hate mail from pro-life and animal cruelty groups, frenzied character assassinations from the ghastly Cristina Odone, and an unspeakably unpleasant piece of twit-gloating from the even ghastlier Nadine Dorries soon afterwards – is inescapable.

Evan lost his seat because an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob went after him with pitchforks and burning torches. It worked. They’re probably dancing round a flaming pyre somewhere right now, celebrating, before they sober up with a spot of demon exorcism.

It scares me, the thought of these people imposing their morality on others. That’s why I’m a liberal. I don’t want these puritans trying to influence my life and my rights, reducing the abortion limit on moral grounds, building their narrow beliefs about familial organisation into my tax system and turning out baseless judgemental guff under the banner of “social research”.

Why, then, am I getting them? Partly, lets face it, because Christian Conservatives tend to be good at attracting money, and money wins  political campaigns as we saw in Richmond. But also partly because their mindset lends itself to collective activity in a way that mine, frankly, doesn’t. It took me twenty-eight years to stop seeing politics as some dirty little squabble far beneath my lofty uber-rational notice. What, you mean I might have to commit to things I might not 100% agree with? Do things I couldn’t see the point of? I might have to – gulp – surrender some of my autonomy to a group identity?

Look again at that moment, 4am this morning, right there. Yes, I do have to. If I want people  like Evan to stop being beaten and people like Nadine to start being beaten, I’ve got to be prepared to give a little autonomy, do all the usual grunt work, put in what I can,  be prepared to be (in some sense) part of an organisation. Do things, say things and support things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to if it were entirely up to me.

And so do you. If I’ve specifically asked you to read this post (and you are, for which, thank you) it’s because I think you’re, in some sense, a great and mighty nerd, and I think it’s time we started to put things on a more formal footing if we want to (a) get Evan back into parliament and (b) stop the same battles being lost elsewhere. I don’t suggest for one moment that joining the Liberal Democrats is necessarily the thing you need to do. There are more specific ways you can help Evan regain the seat, and in any case staying out of membership means you could also help, say, a independent candidate in the same way. But sooner or later, this endarkenment thing is really going to start to close in upon us, and we are each going to have to be prepared to be a cog in the engine of reason that resists. And that might mean you – you precious little rational autonomous snowflake, you – doing things that are a bit poe-litical.

Because make no mistake – our opponents, the purveyors of unreason, the doctors of woo and the anti-secularist Christians, have no compunction whatsoever about conforming and stifling independent impulses to achieve their goals. They revel in it. It’s the sort of people they are. If you’ve not read this account of the Christianisation of Tory party policy by the excellent Chris Cook at the FT, you should do so. We don’t have to turn into those sorts of people. But we do have to be able to challenge them effectively, and that means organising, mobilising and all those others words that individualistic skeptics instinctively flinch at. It means getting off the internet too.

I do not yet have a clear idea in my mind of what such organisation would look like. I can imagine it might be based on such existing social structures as the skeptics meet-ups, with a fair bit of overlaps with various campaigns such as Sense about Science, PEN, No2ID, Unlock Democracy and so on. But it would be distinct from all these – a sceptics movement which sought a public voice, and leant its numbers to particular political causes. All this is  the roughest of rough outlines my addled brain can produce right now. I’ll return to the thought, and I dearly hope others will too (Christ, I’ve never actually caught myself longing for people to read my blog before.)

We got a horrible, horrible warning last night. If we don’t heed it, we’ve let the slide towards the triumph of unreason begin. I need to leave you with this excessively long  quote from the stupendous Less Wrong blog (and the post is honestly worth reading in full):

I’ll write more later (tomorrow?) on how I think rationalists might be able to coordinate better.  But today I want to focus on what you might call the culture of disagreement, or even, the culture of objections, which is one of the two major forces preventing the atheist/libertarian/technophile crowd from coordinating.

Imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  Afterward, people line up at the microphones for questions.  The first questioner objects to the graph used in slide 14 using a logarithmic scale; he quotes Tufte on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The second questioner disputes a claim made in slide 3.  The third questioner suggests an alternative hypothesis that seems to explain the same data…

Perfectly normal, right?  Now imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  People line up at the microphone.

The first person says, “I agree with everything you said in your talk, and I think you’re brilliant.”  Then steps aside.

The second person says, “Slide 14 was beautiful, I learned a lot from it.  You’re awesome.”  Steps aside.

The third person –

Well, you’ll never know what the third person at the microphone had to say, because by this time, you’ve fled screaming out of the room, propelled by a bone-deep terror as if Cthulhu had erupted from the podium, the fear of the impossibly unnatural phenomenon that has invaded your conference.

Yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement is not rational.  But if you tolerate only disagreement – if you tolerate disagreement but not agreement – then you also are not rational.  You’re only willing to hear some honest thoughts, but not others.  You are a dangerous half-a-rationalist.

We are as uncomfortable together as flying-saucer cult members are uncomfortable apart.  That can’t be right either.  Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.


  1. Nice to know that in your opinion anyone who voted against Dr Harris was part of ‘an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob’.

    What a truly wonderful piece of deduction.

    You have, of course, missed out those who think the Christian Lobby are loons, the Animal Rights mob equally so, don’t read the Mail and have absolutely no idea what ‘the woo mob’ is.

    You know – the ones who looked at the Liberal Democrat’s policies, felt that they were not something they could support and voted, in accordance with their reasoning, based on national issues.

    And I’m a geek too.

    I appreciate your anger, but please try and avoid unpleasant and insulting generalisations?


    1. If I didn’t understand that people could vote against the Lib Dems for perfectly rational reasons, I’d be astonished every time other parties got a single vote, wouldn’t I?

      Look again at what I said in para 2. I very specifically *avoided* saying that “anyone who voted against Dr Harris” was a member of one of those groups. I am suggesting that he *lost the seat* because a specific range of the forces I named made a determined effort to line up against him. It tipped the balance (to the tune of two recounts, I believe). Your decision to vote against Harris, and for that matter everyone who voted for Labour, or the Greens, or whoever, is kind of irrelevant to the point I am making. I’ve singled out a particular segment of the Tory support and said I believe it needs to be opposed, and given my reasons why. (In tandem with that, I am also suggesting that certain tactics were at work among that segment which I do not consider desirable.)

    2. FAOD I should add that I consider a certain amount of tug-of-war between those groups and the geek/libertarian/atheist axis as perfectly natural and healthy. But I’m aware we are somewhat on the backfoot right now.

      1. Thanks for responding, Alix.

        I reacted to the generalisation ‘Evan lost his seat because…’. It seemed too broad a generalisation for me.

        Misinterpretation on my part, my apologies.


        1. No worries. It would be fair to say I’m a little bit, erm, intense about this at the moment. I’m sorry I came across in that way.

  2. Oh fuck. There you go getting me almost on your side again.

    Almost. It’s no secret that I’m diametrically opposed to “the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob”, don’t alway feel entirely comfortable supporting a party that contains Nadine Dorries, Andrew Rosindell and David Amess, amongst others, and would have had probably have voted for Evan H if I still lived in Cranham St. But I still don’t feel there’s room for economic libertarians in the LDs, for all that the social libertarians have a home there.

    It’s a bugger, ain’t it?

  3. @D – While I imagine they did try to fight the seat most Student Conservative parties are completely useless in election campaigns; it’s simply not what they’re geared up to do.

    Alix; some consolation to me that you remain right about everything. Still I’m not sure what I’m going to do now Evan and David Howarth are both missing form Westminster; I need someone to use as a guideline for how decent people would vote on the various amendments which are proposed.

    On the bright side, if another election gets called I have some friends in Oxford whose floor I could stay on for a few weeks.

    1. “On the bright side, if another election gets called I have some friends in Oxford whose floor I could stay on for a few weeks.”

      Hmm, what a good idea!

      In the meantime, I have to join the ranks of those who are very upset at Evan’s departure. Of all the losses of great MPs last night, his will be the most keenly felt by the party, to my mind. I hope we make good use of him somehow while he’s waiting for the opportunity to win the seat back.

  4. I like you, Alix.

    Since 2005 I think it was, i’ve been a pretty silent Lib Dem member. Last night I was angered. Evan Harris was the focal point for me as well. The electorate are idiots – and in some cases they do indeed get the representation they deserve.

    I really should start going to Lib Dem party conferences and getting more involved.

    Any tips, you now have my e-mail address (hopefully it doesn’t get posted publicly though!)

  5. Blame culture!!!

    Stop right there – and start taking responsibility.

    Having been in Oxford this week (though not on polling day) there were a few comments made to me which made me question whether or not a crucial error of judgement had been made somewhere in the local or regional team regarding the targetting strategy.

    And in that line of thinking it was an obvious, if subtle political error on behalf of Evan Harris to make himself such a clear target to a particular and strong local demographic which could so easly coalesce and align behind a contending opponent.

    He simply failed to read the rulebook closely enough: in being encouraged to become a liberal clarion he stopped representing enough of his public.

    Perhaps Even’s personal development had taken his vocational role away from being an MP.

    Politics is the most ruthless game and I have no sympathy for such errors, despite any position I hold on the issues.

    Anyway, I think I’d rather have him as a vocal moral campaigner in the Lords, so if there is a reelect Evan bandwagon, let’s put it behind reform of our election system and get an elected House of Lords.


    1. You think his mistake was being too liberal. I rather think that’s why most of us are so devastated by his loss.

      1. No, that’s not what I wrote.

        I wrote that it was a miscalculation on his part to be so hard-edged and determinedly forthright under the conditions where he was electorally vulnerable.

        That’s just bad politics, whichever colour it is painted.

        And if you read my next comment you’d see I think the result highlights the disconnect between the claims for his reputation and the reality – your devastation is just irrational!

  6. On second thoughts I’ll also put the argument that Evan’s claim to be an advocate for reason is fatally undermined by his inability to get reelected.

    The result shows he was obviously missing something and cannot therefore be as rational as his personal supporters think (or, possibly more accurately, had hoped)- and this is is only amplified by your emotional reaction to his loss as a perverse demonstration of the anti-rationalism at odds with the very thing claimed to be advocated!

    Ooo, now that’s a cold and calculating analysis. I hope you approve!

    “Gradually, the scales fall from their eyes and the people will see more clearly.”

    I know that’s almost biblical language, but there’s still definitely some truths hidden in it.

    There’s also something aposite about worshipping false idols, here, too.

    1. “Evan’s claim to be an advocate for reason is fatally undermined by his inability to get reelected.”

      The practical upshot of what you’re saying, as you must realise, is that I should not support Evan as an advocate of reason because the opinion of some other people suggests that he is not one. That’s mad. Every time an election occurs, an awful lot of people get told they are “wrong”, including anti-secularist Christians, but this rightly does not stop them campaigning for what they believe in.

      Likewise on your opinion that “perhaps Even’s personal development had taken his vocational role away from being an MP”. Why should I not advocate persuading the electorate that they are wrong to think this (if that is indeed how their vote can be read)?

      1. Not quite.

        Rhetoric has nothing on fact, and the votes are one fact you cannot escape.

        I dispute your charge that it is only the opinion of some people that Evan is not as reasoned as you or he may claim. The evidence is in that fact that he stood for reelection and failed.

        And if you support our democracy then this is what counts (I’ll point you in the direction of your previous defences of the LibDem democratic structure if you want to square them with your new position).

        I like Evan and I think we need him to take a prominent role, but I also think his strong position on science takes away from his ability to be a dispassionate representative of a geographical constituency – which is in the final analysis the principle job of any LibDem MP.

        In a way his geeky awkwardness which makes him such a resolute voice is what also makes him less able to satisfactorily fulfil the public function required of an MP.

        So it’s not a matter of being right or wrong, but of whether his characteristics are the best fit for the job. It’s certainly not a matter of either he’s in or either he’s out.

        It is my view that he would make for a better peer than an MP (he would considerably reduce their average age for starters).

        I’ve also got to point out the ironic contradiction in being a passionate advocate of reason whilst also arguing they are natural oppositions.

        What’s mad is to leave unacknowledged the fact that emotion and reason do actually play equal parts in the public debate.

        The political challenge is to align them both behind the same conclusion, not to polarise one side against the other. So to disregard one at the expense of the other is to create an inbalance which automatically leads to conflict between the two sides and will alienate half of your potential voters.

        Even the ancients recognised emotion was a greater spur to action in the short term, so if you want to make the decisive impact you can’t cede the initiative just because you don’t want to get your hands dirty and exist exclusively among the Gods on Olympus as one more archetype of perfection: it’s not enough to ride your moral high horse.

        I’m actually quite confused and shocked that you take such a position since axiomatic choices such as between reasoned or emotive arguments are quite simply false choices: if a conclusion is sound it is and must logically be because all sides agree.

        Surely that’s the correct position. It’s certainly the more liberal position.

        1. “I dispute your charge that it is only the opinion of some people that Evan is not as reasoned as you or he may claim. The evidence is in that fact that he stood for reelection and failed.”

          Well, I’m not the one who’s suggesting reading into the decision of the electorate an explicit demonstration of Harris’ lack of perfect reason, you are. Your premise, that rational people must always get re-elected through sheer power of knowing how to do it, is false – I can only see how that would apply to omniscient people. But, even if we do accept that reading, I think it’s perfectly obviously true that it is “only the opinion of some people” that count against his being a paragon of perfect reason, because some people voted for him.

          “I’m actually quite confused and shocked that you take such a position since axiomatic choices such as between reasoned or emotive arguments are quite simply false choices: if a conclusion is sound it is and must logically be because all sides agree.”

          What does this sentence actually mean, as applied to what I’ve said?

          My point is simply that this…

          “In a way his geeky awkwardness which makes him such a resolute voice is what also makes him less able to satisfactorily fulfil the public function required of an MP.”

          …is your own opinion. What you *seem* to be suggesting is that his electoral defeat is evidence that you are right, and that therefore I should not advocate trying to persuade his electorate otherwise next time. Which seems a very odd response to me. To accept that the other side has spoken and that therefore my opinion must be incorrect is not how democracy works. Of course, if you want to go and lobby for him to be made a lord instead, you must do so.

          “so if you want to make the decisive impact you can’t cede the initiative just because you don’t want to get your hands dirty and exist exclusively among the Gods on Olympus as one more archetype of perfection: it’s not enough to ride your moral high horse.”

          I think this is rather what I’m saying in the post, isn’t it? Of course, if you’ve got precise observations as to what tactically went wrong in this campaign (not enough leaflets or whatever), then you should put them to whatever team exists at the next election. But so far as I can see you’re making a more general point, that you don’t think he’s suitable to be an MP, and that we should accept the electorate’s word on that as final. Which, as I say, seems very odd, as we plainly live in a world where people stand for re-election.

          To try to ground this in some form of reality again, what you are really saying is that Harris shouldn’t be so forthright in his views if he wants to get re-elected, right? Because his views alienate powerful lobbying groups. What *I* am saying is that, rather than accepting that these lobbying groups will always succeed in persuading the electorate to vote with them, we should make a better job of campaigning for his views next time. Which surely is just the stuff of politics.

  7. I’m not getting into the debate about the pros and cons of Dr Harris (this time), and he has both in my view, except to say that I don’t think any human can bear the weight of expectation he seems to expected to carry, but it was a tiny margin and politically I’d be focussing on the next election which is likely in 6->24 months regardless of what happens in the on-off tango between Mr Data and the Man in the White Suit.

    1. Quite. And just as there was a powerful interest group which led to his defeat, there are equally powerful groups which will support an attempt to get him re-elected. Any fresh set election can expect a large number of activists from LD seats across the country to come to Oxford to help Evan out (I’m one) and this time resources will not be, as they were, focused mainly on Oxford East. If Ben Goldacre could be convinced to engage in actual fundraising rather than just tweeting you can expect a new set of elections to yield a slightly different result.

  8. Hi Alex – a cogent and reasoned post (as always). I too was upset at Evan’s loss – not because I always agree with him – in fact as one of those you might list as a ‘fundie Christian’ I disagreed with him on a large number of things – but because I think we are best when we allow reasoned debate, even when it doesn’t lead to agreement.

    As for your main point – is there (apologies for not even knowing this), or could there be, a Lib Dem secularists group or similar in the same way as the LD Christian group?

    1. Aside from the slightly bizarre ‘Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey’? There is:

      But it isn’t quite the same. After all, Tim Farron engages in cross-party discussions about christianity in politics and the like. There’s no similar humanist organisation. Nor, I think, should there be. While I suppose I might be ‘biased’ in so far as I’m a humanist and an atheist, the liberal view would seem to be the one that while religion could inform someone’s political motivations it ought not to directly influence their legislation as doing so effectively tyrannizes those of a different or, indeed, no faith.

      There are different views of course, but I find it hard to countenance that non-secular /liberal/ views are properly legitimate. Evan received a lot of hostility for his support for legalizing euthanasia; but surely the key point here is that it should be up to the individuals. If you believe in a ‘culture of life’ and that life must be protected at all costs then that’s fine as far as influencing your own behaviour goes (no one is forcing you to euthanize yourself nor should they) but to impose

      I can accept with the abortion case the problem has been trickier. The traditional solution has been to square the circle by pointing to an external, empirically measurable property which everyone can agree on as being ‘reasonable enough’; in this case viability of the foetus outside of the other. However improvements in incubator technology has moved this earlier in the term than current legislation covers. There is a case for ‘coherence’ on the grounds that the circumstances have changed. Those motivated to push such an argument are, of course, the same parties as would prefer a total ban on abortion (one of them is now the MP for Oxford West and Abbingdon, another just lost his seat in Glasgow East). Evan was always firm in refusing to allow a woman’s right to choose to be rolled back from its current position and for that reason became a target.

      Liberals who actually care about liberalism should be mourning his loss in the house and galvanized to seize any opportunity which may arise to put him back there.

      To return to the original point, Liberals should reject the idea that religion can be a legitimately divisive area when it comes to policy (if it is so, then someone’s doing liberalism wrong) and so while I sort of regret the LD Christian group (though Tim is a nice guy) I don’t think there should be a more substantial secularist equivalent. I think it’s fair to say most LD MPs that aren’t members of the Christian group are secularists, if not quite atheist/agnostic/humanists.

  9. On reading this, I thought I’d pick up on a few points raised.

    Oranjepan, you seem to be saying that Evan Harris should have supressed his own views and stated the views of his electorate. But if he did that, he could (rightly) be accused of saying things he didn’t believe in so that he got elected – which I think everyone would agree is unacceptable, although we know it happens. Better, in my view, to say what you think and face the consequences at the ballot box – at least then voters are making a decision based on what you’ve said.

    I was surprised at this result, but I wouldn’t take it as dishearteningly as Alix has done. Alix, I’d point you to Sutton & Cheam, where the Tory candidate who believed homosexuals could be “cured” was roundly defeated by Paul Burstow.

    1. Well, that’s one way of describing it, although it’s not the way I would.

      The skill of a politician is in finding the right turn of phrase at the right moment which creates a unified sense of opinion, which Evan was either unable or unwilling to do.

      So here I’d split a hair between being forthright and being frank as the distinguishing factor.

  10. Alix,
    I think it’s helpful to get away from arguing who is right and who is wrong.

    While I’m splitting hairs I have to reject any dissemination on the point between reason and omniscience: perfect reasoning is pretty damn close to omniscience if it’s anywhere.

    And there’s the rub, by his own standards Evan was not not rational, just not rational enough. He knew his task was to get reelected and all other things being equal there was no reason which would have necessarily prevented him.

    He had the capacity, ability and experience, but he chose to tip the balance and it swung against him.

    Either he miscalculated, which demonstrates an error in his reasoning, or he let his natural preponderances take over to allow his emotional attachment to the idea of reason lead him by the nose.

    Either way it shows up an inherent incoherence.

    Of course many candidates stand for reelection, but you know as well as I do that losing a seat is a completely different matter to being a perpetual second-place and it is only the very rare exception who can withstand rejection from incumbency to make a comeback in the same area (as a prime example I’ll point to another local who must surely now pass the torch, David Rendel – the Newbury by-election was 17 years ago now!).

    On the general point you’re right I was trying to say we agree, but I was also trying to augment this by adding that we cannot get overly attached to our feelings (such as regarding individual MPs).

    It’s the same as how Lembit was getting increasingly drawn away from his political duties and towards the celebrity culture he obviously enjoys. Top guy, but his quirks were obviously detracting from his work.

    Evan and Lembit were (and still are) highly valuable to us, but we should never say anyone is invaluable.

    We need politicians with personality who have the strength of character to disagree resolutely, but it is simply bad tactics to get backed so far into a corner that you can never come out.

    As far as Evan was concerned, he didn’t just disagree stongly, he went so far that he lost his audience by becoming characterised. Many people just stopped listening.

    And unless he was prepared to go above his local electorate by making a broader appeal and indicate an ambition to be an actual leader rather than just a leading voice (in the way Ed Balls has done) he was never likely to be able to rally enough support to insulate himself having become that prime hate figure among the right.

    To be honest with you I get highly sceptical of anyone who is so arch that they are nothing else, and that is particularly relevant to the arch-sceptics (many of whom seem to abound in these here parts).

    So I’m personally relieved for him that Evan’s fall has proven his fallibility and he has now been freed to show his more human side once again.

    It would be a backward step for him to try to regain the Oxford West seat now, and a second loss would do more damage than he anything to be gained by standing in the same place.

    While a peerage may be my first reaction I might also be intrigued by the possibility Evan would stand in the centre of London (London & Westminster maybe).

    Or do you think the *safe* option is the better option?

  11. As an overweight boomer I was incredibly pleased that Dr Death lost in Oxford. I’m trying to think about the future :

    a) the population is ageing, because the baby-boom generation now moving into retirement didn’t have enough children, preferring to outsource the production of the next generation to immigrants

    b) older people need more medical care to keep them upright

    c) medical care is very expensive

    d) our Government has run out of money

    e) taxes will have to rise, both because of Government incompetence and because the base of net tax payers will have more elderly people (net tax recipients) to support

    f) if history is a guide, these tax increases are likely to be resented

    g) because of mass immigration, the resentful taxpayers will be all colours and cultures. The elderly recipients of the tax-funded medical care will be predominantly hideously white native Brits.

    h) and the Guardian, BBC and the rest of our liberal masters have decided that now seems like a good time to add euthanasia to the available NHS options.

    i) Naturally euthanasia will only be used on demand in ultra-special cases – just like abortions were going to be really, really unusual and rare when the law was changed back in 1967. There will be strong financial pressures to euthanase with or without consent.

    j) Hmm. This is one of those rare occasions when conspiracy theory and Occam’s Razor both point in the same direction. Follow the money. Motive – saving all that cash. Opportunity – via new legislation.

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