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.