14 September 2011

Even if Johann Hari said he knew where the bodies were buried...

Would anyone believe him?

I'm afraid I've had no sympathy for Johann Hari over the last few months; indeed, uncharitable though I've surely been to think such a way, I've found it hard to look on his predicament with anything other than a cynical sense of schadenfreude. Yes, I know he's not well now, but that aside, the last few months have simply struck me as a shoddy journalist getting something that's been coming to him for a long time.

We all know the story, of course, of how a couple of bloggers noticed how Hari's interviews, as published, seemed to have been a hybrid of original and previously published material -- the latter being books and interviews conducted by other people, in the main. Then we had Tim Worstall reeling off a litany of Hari's fallacious claims, and the Spectator's Nick Cohen describing some very peculiar experiences on Wikipedia in connection with a ridiculous review by Hari of a book Cohen had written.  David Allen Green, then, began digging further into Wikipedia, exploring the deeds of the peculiarly obscure 'David Rose', who was so keen to promote the brilliance of Hari, and who appeared to have a sideline in underage incest pornography.

Why does one chubby journalist matter?
The dominoes began to fall, as the extent of Hari's behaviour became clear. Smart people pointed out that given Hari's influence as a journalist, real answers and serious action were called for:
'I said before about Hari that I didn’t think he was a cynical liar out for the main chance, but a well-intentioned bullshitter. That’s why I quoted Peter Oborne, whose book is excellent on the subject of Good Cause Corruption, with particular reference to the career of Mr Tony Blair. If you have moral right and a good cause on your side, then surely inconvenient facts are just a distraction. Accuracy is pedantry. This is positively dangerous from politicians, with dodgy dossiers and the like potentially leading to lots of people getting killed. Which is why you need a press that’s honest, accurate, even pedantic. When journalism falls prey to Good Cause Corruption, it just becomes propaganda. Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in, which might indicate some of the issues behind his journalism.'
Hari is a classic example of somebody who thinks facts and accuracy don't matter as long as you believe your cause is just.* He wrote a particularly offensive and inaccurate piece around the time of last year's Papal visit to England and Scotland, a piece which was carried far and wide, going no small way towards creating the poisonous atmosphere that surrounded that trip. As Caroline Farrow put it:
'This article was syndicated everywhere, even the Daily Mail published it, and it was responsible for a surge of criticism. Catholics everywhere were dismayed by Hari’s distortions, his hysteria and his patronising language. Hari’s implications were clear. Catholics were obviously very stupid if kindly and generally benign individuals who didn’t understand their own religion. Hari would condescendingly deign to explain to them what the Gospels really meant, what Jesus would really think and he would have absolutely no problem with them being Catholics, so long as they didn’t agree with a large portion of their Church’s teaching and they attempted to get their leader arrested on his say-so. “Catholics, I implore you” he bleated. If Catholics didn’t agree with him, they were either ignorant, bigots or defenders of child abuse, probably a mixture of all three, but to be despised at any rate.'
Others dismantled the article directly, whereas I used a day sick in bed to write an insanely long Facebook post so any friends of mine who were being fed lies by the likes of Hari, Richard Dawkins, Terry Sanderson, or Peter Tatchell could actually start to look at the facts for themselves.

I wrote a piece about him last February, but never posted it, mainly because I'd wanted to accompany it with an illustration I couldn't find. It strikes me that tonight, in the aftermath of Hari's mealy-mouthed and weasel-worded 'apology', might be a timely opportunity to post it, tweaked ever so slightly...

* * * * * * * * *
Unearthed from the Unused Pile...
I have a friend who once described his politics views as being left-wing, but not to the extent that he's able to read the Independent without occasionally wincing. Granted, the Independent is a mixed bag, and its columnists can be far from progressive in their opinions, and I'm not sure there's a better foreign correspondent out there than Robert Fisk, but I think my friend may have had the likes of Johann Hari in mind.

I'm no fan of Hari. I think he's a bore, and a sloppy one to boot, a journalist with no respect for factual accuracy. I don't think I've ever read a column by him that hasn't had me gritting my teeth in frustration at his claims. A few weeks ago, for instance, in an article which posed a decent question in response to one of Melanie Phillips' screeds, he claimed that:
'In every human society that has ever existed, and ever will, some 3 to 10 percent of the population has wanted to have sex with their own gender.' 
The thing is, of course, that this statement is completely speculative. It's impossible to make such a claim with any degree of historical certainty. We have no statistical evidence for the prevalence of homosexuality in any societies other than, well, our own one for just the last half century or so. Hari's claim might well be right, but it's utterly unprovable.

The same article claims that Christian religious texts mandate bigotry against gay people -- even though there was no concept of 'gay people' or indeed of homosexuality as a distinct phenomenon in Biblical times, and then, in a rhetorical flourish claims those same religious texts that allegedly mandate bigotry against gay people, also laud a god who feeds small children to bears.

Elisha and the Bears
Now,  I'm not for a moment saying that 2 Kings 2:23-24 isn't what a friend of mine has called 'a challenging passage', but it simply doesn't describe God feeding small children to bears.

It describes an episode in which the prophet Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, is accosted by a large gang of youths. The words the King James Bible translates as young children are the Hebrew words nah-ar and yeh-led; the former word means 'boys' and could be used to describe children, servants, soldiers, and even a man such as Isaac in his late twenties; the later means 'young men'. Elisha was being harassed by dozens of these young men. He prays for assistance, and two bears appear, attacking and mauling 42 of the youths; the sense of this is that were more than forty-two youths, and there's nothing in the story that says that the forty-two died.

Like I said, it's not an easy story to ponder, but it's certainly not a case of small children being fed to bears.

I think the great Brian Bolland can be forgiven for getting the details wrong...

Because it's not okay to lie about Mormons either...
It goes on to say that until 1975, when the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, Mormons didn't believe black people had souls. This, of course, is nonsense too: Mormons certainly held that black people couldn't be priests in their church, but they never said they didn't have souls; furthermore, while they did change this policy in the 1970s, but this was in connection with them expanding into other countries and having to face the reality of largely black congregations. I'm not saying they weren't racist, just that they weren't racist in the way Hari claims. How on earth does he believe the American Supreme Court could ever be empowered to rule on the doctrines and beliefs of any religious group anyway? Does he do any research?

Or about Muslims...
Anyway, today he's off on one about the Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, as though this matters, putting the boot into Nick Clegg who he regards as a hypocrite for not getting rid of them, and indeed for considering expanding the numbers of Lords Spiritual by adding rabbis and imams etc.

Or about Anglicans.
I hold no candle for the Anglican Church, but I happen to think removing its bishops from Parliament would be a bad idea. Well, I think it'd be a bad idea for the United Kingdom; I think it might well be the making of the Church of England.

He opens with:
'Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.'
He means the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of course, but even so, this is a bit on the disingenuous side, isn't it? Presumably it's meant to make us think that the Iranian parliament is stuffed full of unelected Mullahs, whereas the reality is that there are five seats in the parliament reserved for unelected clerics from the 2% of Iranians who adhere to a religion other than Islam! The Mullahs hold the reins in other respects, of course, but not in Parliament.

As for the UK, sure, 26 out of 786 members of the House of Lords, which at this stage has power only to delay for a year the implementation of laws passed by the Commons, are indeed bishops of the Church of England, but I think a 3% presence in an essentially advisory chamber isn't something to worry about.

Onward he goes, claiming that the 26 Anglican bishops vote on the laws that bind us, whereas they usually just vote on a small number of them, and  proclaiming that they 'use their power to relentlessly fight against equality for women and gay people'. There are many of things of which people can accuse the hierarchy of the Church of England, but putting all their efforts into misogyny and homophobia really isn't one of them.

Onward he burbles:
'But let's step back a moment and look at how all this came to pass. The bishops owe their places in parliament to a serial killer. Henry VIII filled parliament with bishops because they were willing to give a religious seal of approval to him divorcing and murdering his wives – and they have lingered on through the centuries since, bragging about their own moral superiority at every turn.'
Now, I'm no fan of Henry VIII, but to call him a serial killer for having had two people executed seems a bit -- well -- extravagant. But think about the general thesis here: we shouldn't have bishops in Parliament because Henry VIII, who was a nasty man, put them there. Well, look at the events that gave rise to the key features of the British Constitution: the Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution. Should you throw them out because Cromwell was a genocidal nut and because James II was driven from his throne because he wanted to introduce freedom of religion?

And do the bishops really proclaim their moral superiority? Really? I'd like to see some quotes in support of this. Real ones, not ones Johann's just plucked out of his backside.

Speaking of which, he's shameless with his next claim:
'According to Christopher Hitchens, though I haven’t been able to source this quote elsewhere, in 1965, the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey) scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that "a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway". A previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, is reported to have said something similar a few years earlier and it may be that these sentiments should be attributed to him instead. In 2008 the incumbent Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.'
Look at that. He doesn't even bother to source his quotes. He just throws them out, like a loud teenager in a student bar, confident that if he shouts loud enough nobody will challenge him. And did Rowan Williams really say that it would be helpful if shariah law -- 'with all its vicious misogny' -- were integrated into British family courts? Or did he say that he thought the adoption of certain aspects of it might be helpful and was, in any case, inevitable? In fact, didn't he -- in making those comments -- explicitly speak out against the misogyny of some aspects of Shariah law?

I know, I know, you can prove anything with facts.

I could go on, but it's hard to struggle through the gibberish of a bigot who claims that the Anglican bishops' prime motivation is to deny equality to women and gays, and that their 'second greatest passion is to prevent you from being able to choose to end your suffering if you are dying.'

I'm pretty sure it's not. I'm pretty sure that if you asked them what they care most about they'd talk about Jesus, saving souls, evangelisation, and helping people here on earth. The phrase 'social justice' might come up. It's entirely popular that tea, cake, wine, gin, or football would appear too. 'Opposing euthanasia' probably wouldn't make their top ten, though they might well mention having a belief in the sanctity of human life, such that they believe it's wrong for anybody to end any human life unless it's absolutely unavoidable.

They might say that. I wouldn't put money on it.

* * * * * * * * *

And with that, I left the post to gather dust. I didn't get into how the bishops are chosen, or the fact that they can't vote in parliamentary elections, or what obligations are imposed on local Anglican churches by virtue of being established state churches. As far as I can see, the British State gains far more from having a tame established church than the Church of England gets out of being so established. Of course, I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that even were I drunk as a lord spiritual, I'd not be as wrong as Johann Hari.

*You know, like the Enda Kenny and the rest of the Irish Government, seemingly.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Hari is an irremediably unctuous pipsqueak. From the slithering tone of his mea culpa it seems obvious that not only has he not learned anything, but that he is well on the way to recasting his misdemeanours as the foundation of a future, still more virtuous self; one that will be able to lecture us all the more effectively on truth and morality because, don't you know, unlike the pope say, he's learnt what he knows the hard way. Ass

And what a Hitchen’s toady he is! It brought to mind a great article by David Bentley Hart about just this type of vacuous smarmer. If you haven’t already, and you find the time, be my guest… http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/believe-it-or-not

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Oh yes, that's a superb piece. I'd forgotten how good it was.

It's since been pointed out to me, and I must have been dozing when I first drafted that piece in February, that it wasn't Henry VIII who'd introduced bishops to the Lords. They'd been in the Lords since Edward III made parliament bicameral, and had been part of the older version of parliament too.

If anything, Henry had reduced the power of the clergy by getting rid of the abbots. Perhaps Hari would favour the restoration of their presence in parliament, as having been gotten rid of by somebody he disliked.

It's really hard to retain any respect for the Independent over this whole affair. If nothing else, though, it's always good to be reminded so forcefully of how paper doesn't refuse ink.