Monday, March 07, 2016

Rambling Think-Piece in Precisely Sixteen Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Six Characters

It depicts a lightsaber and the slogan “Kylo stabbed first”.

Although it contains only three words, someone unfamiliar with the past 40 years of Star Wars culture — let’s call her “Mum” — would not have the faintest idea why the slogan is funny.

To get the joke, you have to know:

1: The original 1977 movie “Star Wars” featured an amoral gunfighter who shot an enemy’s henchmen in cold blood.

2: In 1997, the scene was re-edited so that the gunfighter shot the henchmen in self-defense

3: Fans, who on the whole preferred the original version, expressed their displeasure by making badges and t-shirts with the slogan “Han shot first.”

4: In the new movie, a Very Bad Thing happens to the same character, at the hands of the villain Kylo Ren.

I find this kind of thing funny; but I must admit that I overuse it, to the extent that some people find my writing impenetrable.

I blame the post-modern condition. In the Olden Days everybody shared more or less the same cultural reference points: I could allude to Baby Roo, Moses, James T Kirk, Iago, John Nokes, Fagin, and Tommy Cooper and everyone would know exactly who I was talking about. What with public schools having turned everyone into zombies and everyone having decided that two TV channels just weren't enough, we all have less stuff in common. Oblique signifiers are a nice way of establishing community but they can also be a nasty of excluding people.

Suppose I describe Prof Richard Dawkins as a “whey-faced coxcomb”. Everyone gets that I mean “fool”; nearly everyone gets that I’m using an old-fashioned term for “fool”; and quite a lot of people spot that it’s a quasi-Shakespearian reference. (The bard was good at insults: “Thou base player of football!”) But only a minority — only one of our particular in-group — would spot that I am quoting five times Hugo award loser J.C Wright quoting Shakespeare.

Richard Dawkins is a whey faced coxcomb translates as “Richard Dawkins is a fool, and by the way J.C Wright is a pompous, in the British sense, ass.”

I sometimes wear a “WWTDD” badge because I want people who don’t get it to feel rotten and inferior.


Earlier this year I posted the follow squib/aphorism in response to something I had read on the popular social networking site known as Twitter:

Is there some particular reason why believing in Adam and Eve is incompatible with hosting a TV breakfast show which I may be missing?

This has (to slightly misquote Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide) “made a lot of people very angry, and been widely regarded as a bad move”.

The problem with Twitter is that each tweet is necessarily short. You have to sacrifice all nuances in the name of brevity and condensation.

This is also what makes it fun. There is a haiku-like joy in telling a joke or expressing a political viewpoint in precisely 140 characters

One often finds oneself sacrificing grammar, punctuation and elegance to make what you wanted to say fit exactly into the character limit…

OTOH, the very brevity sometimes creates a kind of poetry of its own, and some people actually think and speak in twitter ideolect hashtag gimmick

I feel sometimes I’m in a double-bind. People treat silly little twitter squibs as if they were my final word on great matters of state… (1)

…But when I direct them to my more substantive essays they throw up their hands and say “Oh I couldn’t possibly read anything that long” (2)

To be fair, the same thing is probably true of the twitter output of Prof Richard Dawkins though probably not the Rev’d Giles Fraser LOL (3)


The very select group of human beings who have traveled in space all tell us how awesome it is to look down on the Earth. I don’t suppose I shall ever travel in space — I am scared of heights — but am happy to take their word for it. I imagine that looking at the earth from space must be very awesome indeed. (We probably take this too much for granted. Before 1959, every illustration of The World or The Planet Earth was an artist’s impression of what it would look like. In retrospect they usually looked too much like geography teachers’ globes.) Indeed, when English astronaut Helen Sharman appeared on The Museum of Curiosity — a rather odd Radio 4 talk show in which people with nothing in common are invited to talk about whatever they feel like — “seeing the world from space” seemed to be one of the main reasons why Space Travel was a good thing.

Once you’ve seen the Earth from orbit, you realize how insignificant you are, and in particular that the borders and differences between countries and nations that we make so much of aren’t really real.

Woo-oh-oh-oh-oh, you may say I’m a dreamer.

Travel broadens the mind. Traveling into space presumably broadens the mind exponentially. Seeing the earth from space changes your outlook. But then, being wrongly accused of a serious crime probably changes your outlook, as does having heart bypass surgery and taking too much Lysergic acid. The question is whether the new outlook is better or worse than the old one. How could we tell? Yes, I fully accept that you “spoke in tongues” at a revival meeting. So what? Did the experience make you a more pious Christian or a nicer human being, or did you just feel excited during some gospel music? Not that there is anything wrong with feeling excited during some gospel music. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking out of porthole and saying “Wow!” either. I am just not quite sure what it proves.

Bristol is very big. The world is even bigger. I am very small relative to Bristol. I am very small indeed relative to the world. I am very big relative to my friend Richard. But the idea that I am insignificant compared with the world only works if you think that big things are in general more significant than small things. In which case I am presumably twelve inches more significant than my friend Richard.

I am currently cutting out snacks and taking more exercise in the hope that it will make me less significant.

Up in space, you can’t see any borders or any countries. Well, no, of course you can’t. No-one ever supposed you could. People used to say that you could see the Great Wall of China from space, but apparently you can’t. I don’t think I ever believed that there was a cosmological distinction between England and Scotland that was obvious from the Moon and would have been even if no-one had invented highland clearances, whisky or irn-bru. I always understood that the difference was mostly cultural — language and history and politics. And climate. You can’t see climate from space; not very easily, but I am still taking a coat if I ever go back to Dundee.

We are only entitled to say “in space, you can see that countries aren’t really real” if we have first agreed that “real things are thing you can see from a long way away”. According to which criteria, history and language and politics, and whether the shops open on a Sunday and what time the pubs close are not real. But they make a real difference to the real lives or real people most of whom have no real chance of really going up in a space rocket, whatever Richard Branson says.

A grown up may say to a child “Stop quarrelling about that toy. It only cost sixpence and a few years from now you won’t even remember it, and a century from now you will both be dead” Yes. But to that child at that moment, the teddy bear or the ball or the small ray-gun that came with the second Cyborg and Muton accessory pack is simply the most important thing in the world. The people of Palestine don’t want to hear that from a sufficiently elevated perspective their struggle isn’t very important and from space you can’t even see the wall. What they want is justice. Which is another of the things you can’t see from space.


It transpires that there is a journalist named Dan Walker. He used to talk about football for the BBC, and now he is going to appear on a breakfast time talk show. (One of the things I find it hardest to get my head around, from a terrestrial or extraterrestrial perspective is that a man may make a living talking about football.) It transpires that Mr Walker is a Christian; and it further transpires that he is a Christian of a fairly conservative flavour. For example, he believes that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were really really real.

This is pretty much all I know about him. Whether he believes that the Red Sea was actually the Sea of Reeds; whether he thinks that John Mark is the same Mark who wrote the Gospel and how he deals with the prophecy of Daniel being written in Aramaic I couldn’t say. The first I heard of him was a post on the aforementioned Twitter by the aforementioned Prof Richard Dawkins.

Why in the world is BBC hiring a young earth creationist to host BBC Breakfast? Why not someone who accepts reality.” said the very great man.

Is there some particular reason why believing in Adam and Eve is incompatible with hosting a TV show which I’m missing?” said I.

Or does the New Atheist movement think that only people who believe like they do should have jobs and everyone else should be blacklisted?” continued I.

It’s not like they’d be the first” I concluded.

I don’t think my first bit contained any hidden meanings or obscure cultural references. By “believing in Adam and Eve” I meant “believing that Adam and Eve were historical individuals in the same way that George Washington arguably was”. By “incompatible with hosting a TV show” I meant “incompatible with hosting a TV show.” My question was “Why does believing that Adam and Eve were real people — even granted that you and me and Richard Dawkins agrees that they were not — prevent you from asking Brie Larson penetrating questions about her dress or asking Jeremy Corbyn equally penetrating questions about his tie?

I admit that the question was rhetorical and I already knew the answer


"But” asked my Aunt Sally “You would surely agree that at the very least a journalist who believed in Adam and Eve should not be allowed to work on a science programme?”

“You’ve asked me a question” I replied “So let me ask you a question. Would a journalist who didn’t believe in the Christian God be allowed to work on Songs of Praise”

Songs of Praise is a long running British soft-religious TV show. In the olden days they simply put a camera in a church and recorded half an hour of community hymn singing — Anglican, Wesleyan or Salvation Army as the mood took them. They now go to town and chat to local people and ask them to pick hymns that they like.

“I suppose” said Sally “It would depend on what kind of atheist. If he was the kind who shouted ‘oh no there isn’t’ every time the choir started to sing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away…’ then probably not. If he was the kind who thought that even though he didn’t go in for all this God stuff himself, it was his job to line up a shot of the stained glass window and the vicar so it looked as pretty as possible, then of course he could.”

“Well, quite” I retorted. “And you couldn’t have someone who was supposed to be interviewing the local Catholic clergymen and was somehow under the impression that he was Free Presbyterian. Particularly not if he thought it didn’t make any difference because it was all equally a pile of rubbish.”

“The question” said Sally, "Wouldn't be 'Is the journalist an atheist.' It’s much more ‘Is the journalist a dick?’”

“But that” said I “Is, in a very real sense, always the question.”


I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who literally believes in Adam and Eve. It's a fringe belief, in this country at least. Is the literal belief in Adam and Eve, alone among the vast range of spiritual and fringe beliefs in the world — meditation and speaking in tongues and yogic flying and tea leaf reading and Gaia and the journey of the hero and homeopathy — the one which rules you out of presenting TV breakfast shows? And if so, why?  I can see that if the BBC are going to make a prestige 26 part series on dinosaurs and I want to be chief researcher and it turns out that not only do I not believe that any such creatures as dinosaurs ever existed, I actually think that the whole idea of dinosaurs is a myth put about by the Frankfurt Group to make it easier for the communists to take over… Well I probably wouldn’t get the job. I have, how would you say, preconceptions which would make it impossible for me to do it properly. But what's the connection between Breakfast TV and creationism? 

I try to imagine how my interview for the Breakfast time job would pan out in Richard Dawkins' universe: 

“Well: you are obviously a very good TV presenter with lots of excellent contacts. You would fit onto this show very well indeed. But as a matter of pure formality, I have to ask you some questions about your personal beliefs. Do you believe in Adam and Eve?”

“Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘believe’. If you mean ‘were they historical people’ then no, I most certainly don’t believe that they were. But if you mean ‘do they represent important religious truths’ then yes I suppose I do. I think that the story is presented as something which happened a long time ago, but it is really a picture of what’s happening now, inside every human being, all the time. I think that each of us exiles ourself…”

What happens then? Does my interviewer say “Oh, your personal spiritual beliefs are none of my business or anybody else’s. I myself believe in the I-Ching, but naturally I wouldn’t tell you that. I just have to check that you don’t believe that the Garden of Eden was a real place or that God made the world in six days. Anything else is your own problem.”

Or does he say “Oh. So you DO believe in Adam and Eve, or else in something almost as stupid, or else you are using theology to pull the wool over our eyes. We obviously can’t have you, or anyone who believes in anything with the slightest hint of the supernatural working for us. Goodbye.”

Richard Dawkins has form in this area. Back in 2013 he was insinuating that Muslims couldn’t work on financial papers “because they believed in flying horses”. Earlier this year, he was rattling off little squibs asking how it was that people who believed that Jesus turned water into wine could possibly hold down jobs in the modern world. This makes me at least suspect that behind the proposition “Young earth creationists shouldn’t present breakfast TV shows” lurks the parenthesis “…and neither should anyone else who believes in miracles, angels prophecies or any other supernatural aspect of religion” which is only a hop, skip and jump from “you shouldn’t employ Christians or Muslims: you should only employ atheists, like me.”

It would have been better if I hadn’t used the politically loaded term “blacklist”.


I don’t think that you can deduce things about Scottish independence, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or the Brexit referendum by looking at the Earth from space. I don’t think that the book of Genesis is very helpful as an explanation of why the male Kakapo parrot has a mating cry which positively repels the female. I don’t think Darwinism is much use as a religious myth. A friend of mind wrote on Facebook that the black-holes and gravity waves thing meant “Science has proved that God doesn’t exist.” I think he probably said it mainly to annoy me, but I still think it’s nonsense. I don’t think you can draw spiritual and ethical conclusions from material and scientific observations.

If people continue to say “I have seen the earth from space; and this proves borders and nations don’t exist and Tibet should damn well shut up about it” then a certain number of people are going to be very tempted to say “Well, if that’s what it proves, then I don’t believe you saw it. Probably your trip into space was another trick, like that time O.J went to Mars.” If people continue to say “all living things shared a common ancestor, and therefore culture and morality are not really real” then some people will continue to say “well, if that’s what it proves, then I don’t believe all living things shared a common ancestor.” If people try to bring science round to reductive, misanthropic conclusions, some people are bound to reject science. It’s the only rational thing to do.


So anyway: all those thoughts were kind of bound up in the little tweet I posted from the coffee shop; just like the whole history of Star Wars is bound up in Mike’s little t-shirt. Kylo Slashed First. Is it just believing in Adam and Eve that disqualifies you from breakfast TV, or religious faith in general. That’s the joy of Twitter, although, of course, that’s the trouble with it too.

And the punch line is this: the people who were annoyed by the 140 character tweet will probably never know, because they will probably find a 3,000 word article much too long and dull to bother with. 

On no possible view is it literally true that a kangeroo is my cousin.


Mike Taylor said...

I'm gratified that my T-shirt should prove the jumping-off point for this discussion, and unreasonably pleased to imagine you sitting in a café in Bristol wearing it as you write such essays.

But what happened to the footnotes?

BTW, "WWTDJ" -- Timothy Dalton?

I loved Cyborg and Muton (not forgetting Android, the chaotic-neutral third party.) Even now, images of them set my pulse racing.

“The question” said Sally, "Would be “Is the journalist an atheist. It’s much more ‘Is the journalist a dick?’” -- I suspect that "would" here is a rather important typo for "wouldn't".

Andrew Rilstone said...

Worlds crumble before the might of Muton, alien Master Being from outer space. Will earth be his final conquest?

No. For in their last most desperate hour, men built....Cyborg.

Voices, off: I think this is all getting needlessly messianic.

Andrew Rilstone said...

TD. As opposed to DW.

A. L. Brackett said...

I quite appreciate the sentiment of Mr. Taylor’s shirt design. It highlights the absurdity of the whole "Han shot first" meme. Of course Han did not shoot first. Han shot, Greedo did not. There is no first.
I have to object, though, to this idea of "cold blood". If someone is holding a gun on you at point blank range and has just indicated an intent to use it, shooting them before they can pull the trigger is not cold blood, its self defense. You do not have to wait for them to fire a round, because in real life you would be real dead.
And why did Luckasfilm not have a problem with Indy shooting first? I mean come on, the guy was at least fifteen feet away and had a weapon with a five foot range at best...that was a lot closer to cold blood than Han ever got.