Correspondence

Correspondence

From the May 2009 issue

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Having a Lousy Day

Your February issue discussed a book about American life by Justin Webb, a British journalist who actually lives here ("Finally, A Brit Who Gets It," by Joseph A. Harriss," TAS, February 2009).

The title of the book is Have a Nice Day, and your columnist asserted that the author "gets it," and not only gets it, is actually willing to admit, even to other Europeans, that under certain circumstances, Americans might not be absolutely awful. I've spent years in Europe, on the economy, and I especially know my Brits, and I had to physically thrust down my incredulity. I simply couldn't wait for the book to come out in the States, but scrambled to order it from my favorite London bookseller.

I might have known: disappointment! And it didn't help that I could predict Webb's politics within the first couple of pages. His take on the war in Iraq: a "catastrophe," of course, for the Americans and the Iraqis; on President Bush: he is variously called a toxic Texan and, slightly obscenely, a pillock; on Vice President Cheney: we'll pass over him in pained silence; on the "Religious Right" (whoever that may be): the embodiment of all that's dreadful; on something called Intelligent Design: "disguised" creationism and unspeakably stupid; on Barack Obama: a marvel, a miraculous chance for the Americans to redeem themselves; and on and on—standard leftist tripe, delivered with European superiority.

But! Where another might snarl about American coarseness and stupidity and simply radiate loathing, Webb grants that yes, they are coarse and certainly stupid; however (one can imagine his embarrassed smile), they can't help it! With his broader, yet indulgent, European outlook, he takes the role of a good father toward someone else's unruly children. Is there a criminal in Arkansas who, grasping the import of Christianity, has taken steps to change his life? Why, how nice. Naturally, the great Richard Dawkins could instantly annihilate his position in an Oxford Union debate, but still, how nice. One could point out that the great Richard Dawkins, under questioning by our own Ben Stein, was forced to grant that, okay, living systems might have been designed by an intelligent agent—just not by God, that's all!—but Webb would not believe it. With his own eardrums he could hear Dawkins saying it on Ben Stein's DVD; he still wouldn't believe it.

The notion that a doltish lout like, say, an Iowa wheat farmer might actually have been to, say, Paris, more than once, understood what he saw perfectly well, and been ironically amused and saddened by it would not enter his darkest dream. No one, certainly not the Americans, and a thousand times not the Texans, understands how the Texas primary system works. If it is practical, and even ingenious, we are left to conclude it must be by accident. His description of the people of Minneapolis (of all places!) makes you almost hope for a nuclear mishap there to remove a world plague spot.

The American version is apparently set to come out in April. You can check it out of the library (for Heaven's sake, don't buy the thing) to see if it's been toned down a bit. Just don't be fooled.
-- Mark T. Skarstedt, Ph.D.
Newfield, New Jersey

The new Is Old Again

Flattered as I am that Roger Scruton mentioned New Humanist, the magazine I edit, in his piece on the New Humanism (TAS, March 2009)—any publicity—I feel I should correct his misapprehension regarding the new humanist movement he claims to describe. He describes New Humanist as being part of a novel, self-conscious movement—analogous to Blair's New Labour—with our own "sages" and campaigns and a perspective on humanism that diverges from the worthy "old" humanism of his own parents. Perhaps it would be good if this were the case, if we were a movement as new, unified, and well- organized as Scruton implies, but it is not. The fact is New Humanist is a journal that has been published continually, in one form or another, for 120 years. It started life as Watt's Literary Guide—a catalogue of the secular books published by one freethinking Fleet Street publisher, then morphed into Watt's Literary Guide and Rational Review, then in mid-20th century was renamed The Humanist, and in the sixties the "new" was added.

Though I might flatter myself that in recent years we have achieved a degree of prominence which might lead some to think that we really are new on the scene, we were actually around before Roger's folks discovered their humanism. What is new is the reemergence of particularly virulent forms of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in recent years—from creationism retooled as Intelligent Design, to Jihadi violence, to state-enforced religious intolerance from Iran to Nigeria and Russia—which has convinced secularists that we need to have a stronger voice in the public sphere, and diversify our tactics somewhat so as to meet the challenge laid down by so many shrill dogmatists. That Scruton has mistaken this vigorous response for a new movement is, I suppose, a measure of our success. But lumping together the various organizations and many different people speaking up for secularism and the humanist world view has some clear disadvantages too.

Scruton uses the example of one particular ad campaign on a bus to paint us all as trivial hedonists who are uninterested in "man as an ideal," faith, hope, charity, belief, or how to improve the world. He is absolutely right that we can be light-hearted (the bus campaign was successful precisely because the message was so simple and uplifting) and scathing— our God Trumps parody card game mines religious beliefs for laughs—but we also devote a lot of space in New Humanist to serious critical analysis of ideas (those of our "sages" like Richard Dawkins as well as of believers), exploration of scientific and artistic endeavor, and discussions of what makes a sound secular basis for moral judgments and the good life. (Our wide range of contributors includes many of the world's leading thinkers on these subjects like Stephen Lukes, Amartya Sen, Paul Heelas, A.C. Grayling, and Conor Gearty.) During my tenure as editor I have published articles on all these issues as well as appreciations of, for example, Goethe, Mozart, and Francis Bacon as well as photographers, film makers, and musicians who cast light on the human condition and provide stirring examples of human achievement. In addition to supporting this wideranging human-centered content, readers of New Humanist have recently raised over £25,000 to support a secular school in rural Uganda—proving, I would argue, that we are not the hedonist nihilists Scruton paints us.

It is true that we are all wary of dogma, that it is harder for us to articulate what we collectively believe in than what we are not prepared to believe (we are after all advocates of free thinking), but trying to define that difficult bit—the shared values that underpin our common inheritance and destiny—is part of the fun, and what New Humanist seeks in its small way to do.
-- Caspar Melville
Editor,
New Humanist
London
, UK

Mr. Scruton's indictment of the New Humanism is spot on, but he'll find no correction in the old humanism—merely the first crucial steps toward the New Humanism. Mr. Scruton strikes the right note when he calls the old humanism of his parents "a rearguard action on behalf of religious values." Indeed, at least his parents' generation of humanists knew what they had put at stake.

The struggle that remains with the Christian faithful today, however, is not just against the hedonism of the New Humanism but also against the moralism of the old humanism. This struggle is central to Christ's parable of the prodigal son. The hedonist prodigal seeks a life on his own terms without the father, but eventually moves toward an understanding of ultimate happiness in the father's (God's) kiss. But the one who is most at risk in this story is the elder brother, who lives as an old humanist in complete obedience to the father, unaware that what motivates his commitment to proper living are the same rewards and drive for independence from the father that nearly destroyed the younger brother. No doubt England would enjoy better living if everyone could maintain an elder brother's commitment to decorum, but the old humanism and the New Humanism are little more than way stations along the same road of where England is today.
-- J. Douglas Johnson
Chicago, Illinois

Roger Scruton is of course right about the humanism he knew from his parents, which sought to raise man rather than denigrate God, but that was in a different England. Now it faces the leveling of socialist education, the stridency of Islamists and Christian evangelists and the ghetto-making dogma of multiculturalism, all directly attacking Englishness: if it remained quiet and decent, humanism might simply evaporate (like queuing and politeness have). Its fight might be badly phrased at times, like the bus slogan about enjoying life (instead of perhaps "be good for the sake of goodness"), but the fight was brought to us.
-- Mark Baillie
London
, UK

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