Friday, 30 August 2013

The Cowardice of the British People and its Parliament

Last night the British Parliament, speaking in the name of the British people, sent out a clear message to the world. This message, however, is not what the provincialist Little Englander conservatives or the posturing faux-leftists say it is. The message was not that Parliament, on behalf of the people, had stood up to the executive branch and forced it to bow to the wish of the electorate; neither was the message that Britain had finally learnt the lessons of its imperial and post-imperial past and was not going to turn Syria into another Iraq. The message was this: if you're foreign and far away, we don't care about you. It doesn't matter what happens to you, the British people don't give a shit. We'd far rather concentrate on important things like Gareth Bale and Kate Middleton than be forced to take a stand against a brutal dictator slaughtering a captured population. We are a small-minded, uncaring, inward looking nation that is happy to allow people to die in their tens of thousands as long as they do it far enough away that it won't make us feel bad.

It also sends out a clear message to the dictators and tyrants of the world: Britain will do nothing to stop you from slaughtering civilians, even with WMD, there will be no consequences at all. Tolerance of the use of illegal WMD is now the UK's official position.

It has always been difficult to get people in general to take a stand on human rights, especially the human rights of people who are not their own and especially during times of economic difficulty. A large section of the British right will always put what they claim to be the national interest (as if the use of chemical weapons was not against Britain's national interest) over the defence of human rights. They will say that we should look after our own and only our own, people in other countries are not our responsibility. This sentiment has grown alarmingly over the last few years since the start of the Great Recession. Historically conservatives have only supported military involvement in other countries when it consisted in invading them, occupying them and stealing their natural resources. That's what happened in colonial times and it's what happened in Iraq. But when it's something boring like human rights violations and no occupation or plundering is proposed, well that isn't any fucking fun, is it?

It's far more painful to denounce the failings of the British left, as they are my family and I don't like having to criticise my family. But I cannot and will not allow simple partisanship to stop me from calling out some catastrophic mistakes made by the left.

The British left and the Western left in general is usually very good at pointing out and denouncing injustices perpetrated by European and North American governments and their allies. Atrocities, murder and injustices committed by regimes that are anti-Western, however, are often given pass by the Western leftists. The explanation is simple: the moral compass of the European and North American left is set by the policies of the United States and her allies. What the United States does is by definition bad and so anything that is against the American position is automatically good. The left has become so inundated by this moral relativism that we are chronically unable and unwilling to oppose a regime like that of Bashar al-Assad, whose ideology can be accurately described as fascist. The Assad regime is one of the vilest there is, however because it is anti-Western many leftists find it difficult to condemn it in the clearest possible terms. They show no solidarity, that greatest of left-wing virtues, with the people of Syria. Instead they start to talk in Kissinger-esque realpolitik speak, saying that Assad may be bad but the alternatives could be worse and that this conflict is not our business. These are both very cynical, isolationist perspectives that reflect a more conservative view of the world and do not reflect the vibrant optimism and internationalism that is supposed to be the benchmark of being left-wing.


A combination of an economic downturn at home, bad memories of the Iraq war and a natural vein of cynical, uncaring conservatism has led the British people to ignore the plight of the brave people of Syria in their struggle against a brutal dictator. And it is not “neo-cons” or “warmongers” in Washington and Whitehall who will ultimately suffer from this. No, it is the Syrian people and the eternal struggle for democracy, freedom, equality and fraternity that will suffer.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

An atheist ceasefire

Less than a fortnight after Barack Obama's 2008 election victory, the Chief of Staff for the President-elect Rahm Emanuel announced that the new administration would not let “a serious crisis to go to waste”, elaborating that a crisis “provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” I would hardly say that the controversy of Richard Dawkins' comments on Twitter about Islam constitutes a crisis, but nevertheless it does provide an opportunity that I genuinely believe needs to be exploited to the maximum.

For those who are unfamiliar with what happened, Richard Dawkins sent this tweet about how there are only 10 Muslim Nobel laureates compared to 32 from Trinity College, Cambridge. This single tweet provoked a furious backlash among many, both religious and non-religious, and several enraged articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Independent among others.

Initially I dismissed the furore as an artificial controversy created by journalists bored with the fact that this summer up until that point had been relatively free of major news (although, curiously, Owen Jones is still writing about it now. Has he missed the news about David Miranda's detention at Heathrow or Bradley/Chelsea Manning's sentencing?). For that reason I haven't wrote about it until now. But then it hit me: this “controversy” actually provided all us New Atheists (as they still insist on calling us) with a great opportunity, one which does not deserve to be wasted.

One of the most common criticisms levelled at prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that what they say and write promotes bigotry. This, they claim, damages the atheist/secularist/humanist cause and alienates moderates on both sides. The implication is that if the New Atheists would only tone it down a bit progress might be made. I personally disagree with this analysis, but for the sake of argument let's say this is true. What if they really did stop? Would that really help? Ok, let's stop then.

On behalf of the New Atheists, I hereby declare a ceasefire from our end. From now on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and all the other prominent critics of religion will stop writing about religion.

Now of course it's ridiculous that that I could claim the authority to declare a ceasefire on behalf of all atheists, not even Richard Dawkins has that power. Atheists by definition do not have a leader. But if enough atheists agree to my proposal, I believe it could genuinely gain some support.

Here's the caveat, however. This is not an unconditional surrender but an armistice. We are not surrendering and keeping the ceasefire permanent requires some some concessions from the other side. I do not believe they are unreasonable and unfair and I believe that any religious person who does not consider themselves to be an extremist should be able to accept these conditions with enthusiasm. They are the following:

  1. Stop sexually abusing young children. Whether this is in the context of a forced marriage of a child to an old pervert, the rape of children in religious schools or the genital mutilation of young boys and girls (which all occur in many faiths), this is a hideous and inexcusable crime which cannot in any circumstances continue.
  2. Women are equal to men and are entitled to the same human rights as men to speak freely, work and pursue their dreams. They are not private property to be bought, sold or abused in any way in which their male owner, whether he be her father, brother, uncle, cousin or husband, sees fit.
  3. People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transexual must be allowed to live their lives freely. They must not be denied their civil rights, bullied, criminalised or murdered for their sexual choices.
  4. Religious people have no right to harass, ostracise, bully or, in some cases, murder a former adherent of their faith who has chosen to convert to another faith or to stop believing completely.
  5. The religious have no right to impose their religion or their interpretation of their religion on those who do not wish to follow it and to discriminate against those who choose to follow another belief system. This is especially important in societies in which a majority of the population adheres to one specific faith and therefore wield the most political power.
  6. Violence or the threat of violence can never be used to silence writers, artists, musicians and critics of religion.
  7. There must be a clear and legally enforced separation between church and state. Theocracy is an unacceptable form of government.
  8. Scientific research and progress must not be impeded because it offends religious sensibilities.
  9. Children have the right to a secular education. Religious studies may be included in a child's education but only on the condition it does not take precedence over other subjects. Children most certainly must not be segregated by sex or by their parents' religious beliefs.
  10. Terrorism which deliberately target unarmed civilians is under no circumstances a legitimate form of protest against any government. All such acts must be condemned unconditionally and unequivocally by everyone, however noble or justified their cause may seem to be.

I should make it clear that none of these these conditions is negotiable and anyone who commits one of these acts or who tries to justify the continued practice of one of these acts is guilty of violating the terms of the ceasefire.

There are those who may say that these conditions only apply to a handful of extremists. My response is that if that is the case, the moderate majority have nothing to worry about and can carry on living their lives as usual. There are also those who may say that, while they don't support the aspects of their religion mentioned above, they feel that this is an attack on their religion in general and on all those who adhere to their faith and for that reason feel they cannot support the terms of the ceasefire. My reply to that is instead of debating and defending the religion as a whole they should debate and defend specific aspects of their faith that they like and condemn the parts they don't like. Speaking from experience, I spent six years of my life living in Italy, a very Catholic country. Most of my friends were Catholic, some of them quite devout. But most of them didn't agree with the Church's teachings on contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. When I discussed religion with my friends, they felt no need to challenge me when I brought up those issues or when I brought up paedophile priests. They didn't challenge me because they agreed with me on those specific issues and felt no need to brand me as an anti-Catholic bigot. Instead we were able to agree that those things were inexcusable. They would only challenge me when we talked about an aspect of Catholicism that we had a genuine disagreement about, such as the morality of the ten commandments or the sanctity of life. If both an atheist and religious person agree on a certain religious issue, the religious person should not feel that agreeing with the atheist on that issue is a betrayal of their faith.


To conclude, this is not an attack any particular religion or even on religious people in general, it is an attack on the practices mentioned above. These are the conditions for the ceasefire. If the religious are able to adhere to these conditions, then atheists will stop attacking religion. We will never say another word about religion if these very reasonable conditions are respected. I suggest a trial period: from now to the end of 2013. That's four months. If by the end of this period these conditions have not been broken then the ceasefire becomes permanent. However, if any one of these conditions is broken, then the armistice is null and void and the attacks will continue. Will this be successful? I genuinely hope so.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Art and the moral obligations of being human

Even in 2013, the horror of war still remains with us. For people living Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Mexico, among others, war is still a reality of life. It is inescapable. Tens of thousands of people die in these conflicts every year.

Of course, for those of us living in the West, it is becoming increasingly easy to ignore wars happening in other continents. It's not our business, you'll hear it said. We should let them sort it out by themselves.

In times like this, one needs to go back and examine the great masterpieces to get an idea of the real horror of war. You may say, what can art do in the face of a horrific war crime like, say, the bombing of Guernica by the Germans in 1937? Maybe art should just stick to showing us what haystacks look like in a certain light. Or maybe, just maybe, while the bombs are falling and killing thousands of people, it turns out that art is the only way of properly explaining such atrocities...

Art and war often have gone hand in hand. In fact, when you think back to when the central purpose of art was to be at the service of power, all you can think of are scenes of triumph, the glory of the winners and processions of victorious soldiers. From the scenes depicted on Roman triumphal arches to the Bayeux Tapestry, from The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez to Bonaparte crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, war has always been represented in the most positive way possible and always from the point of view winners.

This all began to change in the nineteenth century, as art started to replace the role that previously belonged to religion, philosophy and politics: to give a consolation against the evils of life. Art for art's sake.

Alongside this change in the role of art, the depiction of the war in art also started to evolve. Gone were the scenes of triumph and glory, instead we started to see the other side of war: death, suffering, pain, destruction, cruelty, hatred, and the absolute uselessness of violence.

The first painter to show the horrors of war in this way was the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The dark genius of Spanish painting was the first to see the true brutality of war. In his series of etchings, The Disasters of War, Goya vividly recreates scenes of atrocities committed during the Dos de Mayo Uprising, with particularly graphic scenes of death and destruction.






Goya painted then El dos de mayo, 1808, again showing a scene of that same revolt, only this time in a particularly chaotic moment of battle.



However, his masterpiece is The Third of May 1808. In this painting, Napoleon's troops are executing a group of Spanish rebels. It is a tragic scene, with soldiers in the dark and sinister act of murdering the terrified rebels, who stand amidst a pile of corpses, while another group to their left waits its turn. Despite the gesture of defiance against his executioners of the man in the white shirt, his arms flung wide like Christ on the cross, Goya makes no effort to hide the horror of the story.



The first time it was shown to the public, the piece didn't cause a stir and was only really appreciated after the Goya's death.

With the end of the First World War the representation of war as a glorious thing finally ended. Although there were still official war artists, with the role of spreading government propaganda, the most striking art was that which emphasized the horror of war. In fact, many artists fought in the Great War and retold their experiences in painting. Two artists of this kind were the Germans George Grosz and Otto Dix, members of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. However, while Grosz liked to portray the consequences of the war and other negative aspects of society (burly businessmen, corrupt politicians, wounded soldiers, prostitutes, sex crimes, orgies, etc.)., Dix wanted to show the war itself, in its full brutality.

In a series of etchings produced in 1916 during the war, Dix graphically depicts scenes of war, based on events he observed firsthand. The three works are part of the collection The War, inspired by Dix's experiences in the trenches during the First World War.

This is Wounded Man, the first of the series. It's likely that this is based on something that actually happened to Dix: perhaps the man was a friend of his. Here Dix shows all the brutality of the war in the face of this soldier. There is suffering in the face, but there is something else: he is shocked, heartbroken, petrified. It is the face of a man who is about to die and he is understandably terrified. This is the effect of war on those who experience it.


Shock Troops Advance under Gas, the second image in the series, is a work far more threatening piece. There is a strong sense of dread. This also probably happened to Dix and, if indeed this is the case, you will immediately feel the fear that struck the artist at that time.

Skull, the third incision, is a symbol of the cruel reality of war. The worms coming out of the mouth symbolize everything that's horrible of war: death, destruction, degradation, ugliness.



But the Dix's real masterpiece, in this field, was War Triptych, painted in 1934.



In this piece we see the three stages in the day of a soldier: starting off at dawn, the bloody and devastating battle and the return of the survivors in the evening, who go to sleep knowing they will be repeating the whole thing the next day and every day until they are killed. It shows the reality of war: long periods of boredom and routine, interrupted by periods of utmost fear and terrible destruction. It's a window into the nightmares of Dix, who was never able to lose the memory of what had happened to him.

Anti-war art, however, only reached its pinnacle in 1937, from the most unlikely of sources: the apolitical Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

As fascism was spreading throughout Europe and artists such as Grosz and Dix were trying to satirise it, Picasso was trying to break the barriers of classical art, transforming the beautiful in the grotesque and the serious into the ridiculous. He was not interested in politics, because he found it boring: he liked destroying idols and insulting art critics, all possible thanks to the revolutionary new artistic movement he had helped create, Cubism.

When the Spanish Civil War began, Picasso sided with the Republicans, though not with great dedication. His only initial contribution was a series of cartoons, The Dream and Lie of Franco.



His apathy did not last long, however.

On the afternoon of April 26, 1937, in the small but strongly Republican Basque town of Guernica, a small black dot appears in the sky: it is a fighter aircraft of the German Luftwaffe. It turns over the town and then, almost casually, drops six bombs.

Waves of German and Italian aircraft unloaded bombs, creating an unstoppable storm of chaos. More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on the defenseless town. About 4,000 people died that day.
There was nothing special in Guernica. The goal was simply to terrorize and execute countless innocents and to show the world their awesome strength. Their message was simple: this is what we can, and will, do.



George Steer, who chronicled the war for the London Times, went immediately to Guernica. Here is an excerpt of his report:

“When I entered Guernica after midnight houses were crashing on either side, and it was utterly impossible even for firemen to enter the centre of the town. The hospitals of Josefinas and Convento de Santa Clara were glowing heaps of embers, all the churches except that of Santa Maria were destroyed, and the few houses which still stood were doomed. When I revisited Guernica this afternoon most of the town was still burning and new fires had broken out About 30 dead were laid out in a ruined hospital.”

Steer's testimony stuck in Picasso's mind, who then decided to do the impossible: to tell the truth about what happened. What Picasso tried to do was almost completely foreign to modern art, an art that he helped create: create a work of modern art that retold a historical event. It was the hardest work of his life, to go from icon destroyer to icon manufacturer. It almost seems that his whole life had been leading to this moment. This painting contains who Picasso was, what he had been and what he would become.



In the original sketches were many symbols of hope: for example, a closed socialist fist and a small horse emerging from the large hole in the side of the horse, symbolising rebirth. The soldier was originally a much more noble figure with a classic greek helmet. All these elements were removed. The few remaining are small, but important: the flower in his right hand of the soldier and, more surprisingly, in his left hand, a small hole to represent the stigmata of Christ's martyrdom.

It's an allusion that every Spaniard would have recognized, as it also appears in The Third of May 1808: Goya was also furious about a massacre committed against innocent civilians by foreign invaders. Both contain a Christian message of hope that was deeply rooted in Spanish culture: the hope of salvation in the face of death.

Another similarity with Goya is the use of light. Traditionally in art, light has represented all that is good and decent. Goya, however, changed the role of light from good to bad. It became an instrument of carnage, the glow that allows murderers to carry out their atrocities.

Now, look at Guernica. All the characters are centered around a light source coming from the top of the image: an evil eye, with an electric bulb in the center, the search light of the ruthless death squad and of enemy bombers, the bare bulb the torturer's cell.



Against it stands a candle, held out by an outstretched arm. This contrast symbolizes an epic battle between good light and bad light, art against evil.

Guernica is undoubtedly a work of modern art, but it also forces us to face one of the tragedies of that era. It's a piece of cubist confusion, but also a classical monument, with weeping women flanking a pyramid of death. It never leaves our heads. It's only paint on a canvas, but it has the authority of the stone. It's indestructible.

Guernica does exactly what modern art should do: it challenges our habits, our way of life. With Guernica, Picasso tells us not to let evil go unpunished, it must not be ignored because it would interrupt our lives. Guernica is there to wake us up from our slumber, to prepare us to confront evil.

I asked earlier, "But really what art can do when faced with a war crime, such as the bombing of Guernica?" Well, this is the answer: it teaches us the moral obligations of being human.



Sunday, 7 July 2013

The far left is irrelevant and the internet means they don't even realise it.

 In his novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh describes a scene in which the Catholic priest Father Phipps, upon learning that the two protagonists Charles and Sebastian have no interest in cricket, looks at them “with the expression I have seen in the religious, of innocent wonder that those who expose themselves to the dangers of the world should avail themselves so little of its varied solace”. It's an expression I imagine Owen Jones has every time he sees a poll indicating that most Brtions favour a reduction in welfare spending, do not view the welfare state as the greatest invention in the history of mankind and don't want trade unions holding the economy to ransom (not that they do anymore).

 It is not particularly original to observe and comment on the fact that the British left has always been fractured and has historically preferred infighting rather than doing something practical like, say, trying to govern the country. The difference is that today the far left, with its strange fetish for self-destruction and electoral suicide, is more irrelevant than it ever has been and, because the internet allows knee-jerk leftists to never interact with the outside world, they don't even realise that the world has moved on.

 The recent exchange between Owen Jones and the Labour MP Simon Danczuk about welfare benefits on the BBC show Daily Politics. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, Danczuk was actually defending the government's welfare policy (though not without qualification). He and Owen had a bit of a row about it, with Owen pulling out his trump card by saying Danczuk sounded like a Tory MP. Wow, what an insult, you nailed him Owen.

 Asides from childish insults, there were two other problems with this incident. One is that polling consistently shows that the majority of people, especially the young, are on Simon Danczuk and the Conservatives' side when it comes to welfare. The latest polling from Ipsos MORI confirms this. Which brings me to the other issue. In the aftermath of the Daily Politics incident, Owen Jones' Twitter page was crammed with messages from his fans, most of whom were Labour members, congratulating him and telling him how wonderful he was. I have met people like Owen Jones: they rarely talk politics with people who don't disagree with them and have jobs where they are surrounded by people who agree with them. They have allowed themselves to be sealed inside an echo chamber, where they just sit and agree with each other all day (sounds ghastly, doesn't it?). And if you only ever talk to people who agree with you, eventually you'll start to assume that must be what everyone thinks, so when you meet someone who doesn't conform to this view, you turn into Father Phipps and give them that look of innocent wonder.

 This was exemplified by the reaction of hard leftists like Owen Jones and Laurie Penny to the news that young people had a more negative view of the welfare state than their parents and grandparents. Instead of addressing the issue of problems in the welfare state that may cause people to not to see it as the greatest invention since the wheel, they simply declared that a “campaign of disinformation” by the right-wing media (vast right-wing conspiracy, anyone?) had brainwashed the poor, ignorant proles. Oh, if only they listened to us, they sopped, don't they realise they would be some much HAPPIER living on benefits and blaming the Tories for everything wrong in the world?

 This is what happens when you don't allow heresy to penetrate the echo chamber, you turn into another Father Phipps. The cold truth for Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and the remaining Leninists is that people are increasingly turning against the welfare state. And you know what? This isn't the greatest tragedy to befall mankind. There are perfectly good reasons to oppose the welfare state. John Maynard Keynes opposed the welfare state. Heck, even Karl Marx opposed the welfare state. If the welfare state shrinks to a fraction of the size it was in the 1940s, it's not the end of the world.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

 It can be surprisingly difficult to find good defences of free expression in literature, especially in modern literature. Possibly because free speech is taken for granted and is not considered to be under threat. This is of course a false belief. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of history will know that liberty is always under threat. And, with the growth of the European and American ultranationalist far right and of militant Islam in the past two decades, we may come to a point when freedom needs to be defended as it did in the 1930s. For those who feel like joining the struggle, I would recommend reading Antonio Tabucchi's masterpiece Pereira Maintains, the story of a journalist struggling against fascist oppression.

 Pereira Maintains is set in Lisbon in 1938. This was the period of Antonio Salazar's fascist Estado Novo. The story is also set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, in which Portugal was involved on General Franco's side. It tells the story of the widower Pereira, the editor of the culture page of a Catholic evening paper, the Lisboa. Pereira's life, which is spent mostly worrying about death, is changed when he hires a young philosophy graduate called Monteiro Rossi as his assistant, with the responsibility of writing obituaries for famous writers in advance. Instead of writing bland obituaries for approved writers, however, he writes passionate denunciations of controversial fascist writers. Articles of this type are unpublishable in Salazar's Portugal but, instead of firing him, Pereira continues to pay Monteiro Rossi and keeps his articles. The father-son relationship between the childless Pereira and the orphan Monteiro Rossi takes both of them on an interesting philosophical and political journey, ending in Pereira, who previously had quietly tolerated Salazar, realising that there is something wrong in Portugal and that he must do something about it.

 One of the most notable aspects of the book is the quick alternation in narrative between a third-person view and a stream of consciousness, which takes the form of Pereira's thoughts. These more often than not contrast with what Pereira is actually saying. The words “Pereira maintains” appear frequently throughout the book, often as a kind of qualification of what the author has just written, giving the impression as if the book were a journalists account of an interview with Pereira.

 The lack of any kinds of quotation marks to distinguish dialogue from the rest of the writing allows the story to flow without interruptions, as well as giving emphasis to the one time it is used near the end of the book.

 As well as giving a pretty good account of what life must have been like in fascist Portugal, Pereira Maintains shows us some of the tell-tale signs that the government is becoming too oppressive, such as the mistreatment of minorities (in this case Jews), intellectuals and writers fleeing due to a stifling political climate that discourages them from expressing themselves and a press that is unable to report crimes committed by the government (such as the killing of a socialist carter at the start of the book, which none of the Portuguese press reports). In light of the revelations about the extent of the NSA's spying on private individuals, as well the introduction of regulation of the press in the UK, a book like Pereira Maintains shows us just how important not just freedom of speech but freedom of the press is to be able to hold the government accountable and what a country a censored and toothless press, as well as an out of control government, actually looks like.

A brief defence of Christopher Hitchens


Martin Luther King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, often overlooked in favour of the “I have a dream” speech, was a response to an open letter, entitled “A Call for Unity”, written by eight “moderate” white clergymen, urging Civil Rights demonstrators to be less confrontational in their actions. The clerics say that the demonstrators' actions may “incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be”. They instead encourage the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”

 The subtext to such a letter is clear: protesting against racism and the second-class citizen status of African-Americans was making white Americans uncomfortable and they did not like being made to feel uncomfortable. There are vague promises about maybe possibly at some point doing something to improve the conditions of African-Americans, but the really pressing issue was for the demonstrations against the racist Jim Crow laws to stop and that African-Americans should stop upsetting white people.

 In his icily polite reply, Doctor King refuses to stop and instead describes his plan and his methods of civil disobedience. He also lays out his reasons for travelling to Birmingham, Alabama all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. He states simply “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. He also says “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. That last part particularly sticks with me, as it challenges the provincialist notion that one should only concern oneself with injustices close to home and let others sought out their own mess.

 The attitude of many people in regards to the late Christopher Hitchens, very often seems disturbingly similar to that of the eight white clergymen. He was and still regularly criticised for his often bombastic and unashamed denunciations of injustices perpetrated in the name of religion. His critics say that, while there may possibly be a tiny problem of religious extremism, absolutely nothing can and should be done about that until naughty old Christopher Hitchens stops being so mean to religious people. Emphasis will be placed on “dialogue” with the extremists and that by highlighting trivial things like bombing of girls' schools, honour killings and murdering homosexuals they are “inciting hatred”. If you cannot see the parallels then I suggest you reread what I wrote at the start.

 In order to avoid accusations of generalising, I am only going to focus on a few individuals and publications. I want to start with the website Salon.com, who on Sunday published a particularly spiteful and untruthful article about Christopher Hitchens. In this article, among other things, the author Curtis White claims that in his book “god is not Great”, Hitchens “reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes”. Anyone who has read the book will know that, while recounts of crimes caused by religion are present, there is far more to the book. The first half is a thorough scientific and philosophical debunking of religious myths and claims. Then again, research does not seem to be Curtis White's forte, as he goes on to accuse of being ignorant of the book “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor, whereas Hitchens had read it and in fact gave it a very good review.

 You could say that's only one article. Except it isn't. Since his death, Salon.com has written FIFTEEN articles about Christopher Hitchens, of which only three could really be described as praising him in any way. You could also say that Hitchens himself never had any qualms about speaking ill of the dead, in fact he relished it. Ask admirers of Jerry Falwell, Mother Theresa or Jesse Helms. But here's the key difference: Hitchens' rule was that, “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” In the eighteen months since his death, Salon has published more articles about Hitchens than they had in the five years leading up to his death, including going an entire year – gasp – without a single article about him (November 2010 to December 2011). And none of the articles before his death were nearly as nasty as the ones they have published since his death. Maybe they were afraid of him? He did have a talent for humiliating his critics. They must have decided it would be much safer to drag his name through the mud once he was dead, an opinion Salon shares with his former publisher Verso, who recently published a venomous book by Hamas and Hezbollah lover Richard Seymour called “Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens” (a trial in which the defendant's case is never heard, just the ramblings of the prosecutor, who also happens to be judge, jury and executioner). It's interesting to note that Hitchens' critics never challenge him on substance, resorting instead to ad hominem personal attacks and presumptions based on what they think were his motivations. Never is the notion ever entertained, for example, that Hitchens' support for the Iraq war may have been based on honourable intentions, such as his long-standing support for Iraqi Kurds or his hatred of Saddam Hussein. No, it must have been because he was an imperialist warmonger.

 Similar treatment is regularly dished out to to Hitchens' fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Whether it is Glenn Greenwald, Owen Jones, Tom Watson or Andrew Brown (who seems to have appointed himself as the Guardian's official Richard Dawkins correspondent), there is nothing prominent figures both on the left and the right prefer doing than accusing Harris and Dawkins of being bigots. More specifically, they are accused of being Islamophobic, a rather nasty way of equating criticism of religion with racial hatred. This charge was also often levelled against Hitchens. None of these clueless critics can seem to escape from the rather colonial mentality that a criticism of a religion is a slander against all it's adherents, as if people were homogenous blocs with absolutely no individuality or personality. I thought we had moved on from that way of thinking? Evidently not.

To criticise someone for their beliefs is not, nor should it be, wrong. In fact it should be encouraged. Even if they are dead. Political correctness has meant that we are often afraid to criticise others, especially the dead. I have no problem with people criticising Christopher Hitchens. Or Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for that matter. But it is simply cowardice to keep quiet about someone for most of their life, then lay into them once they are dead. It is equally cowardly to, instead of debating intelligently the pros and cons of faith, simply label critics of religion as racists. Especially when it comes from people who are actually intelligent people. I used to have a lot of respect for Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones. Not anymore.