Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Towards a New Humanism

Diesel Balaam

This article was published in the Autumn 2005 issue of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist magazine. We reproduce it here because, although it has been the subject of considerable controversy, the article has been unavailable to those outside the rather narow circle of the magazine’s subscribers. It goes without saying that we do not endorse the views expressed in the article, many of which bear an unpleasant resemblance to the sort of racist filth you might find on the BNP website.

FROM TIME to time we must, by the very fact that we are freethinkers, question our Humanism. Is secular Humanism truly relevant to our society and the world today? And, if Humanism must evolve, what underpins it? These are very big questions and I will leave the big answers to philosophers and others more learned than I.

Like many readers of this magazine, who came to Humanism in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve always been in awe of the previous generation of Humanists. Their Humanism was, and still is, passionate, and uncompromising. Fired up by rationalist campaigns defending and extending freethought, free speech and freedom of expression, as well as promoting scientific enquiry, the relaxation of censorship in the arts, a woman’s right to control her fertility, the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalisation of homosexuality, their mid-twentieth-century Humanism was confident, unapologetic and hugely influential. Of course, others also campaigned for greater freedom and openness, including some Christian reformers, but it was a mark of Humanism’s power and social reach that these people were also effectively advancing the Humanist ethos, even if they didn’t acknowledge it as such.

Humanism was on the march, confident that it would ultimately banish inequalities, man’s inhumanity to man and the odious superstitions and ideologies that underpinned them (we sometimes forget Humanism’s antagonism towards communism). Freedom of enquiry, science and education were the tools that would achieve the future’s enlightened state. Unfettered human beings were, ultimately, rational and humanitarian. Like Marxists, some Humanists appeared to think the triumph of their world view was ‘inevitable’.

Humanist ethics
On the face of it, Humanism, in Britain at least, appears to have enjoyed many a quiet victory. Churchgoing is in terminal decline, and we have had, at last, a solid Labour government that has delivered gay rights and other long-overdue reforms, however slowly and imperfectly. Social attitudes are generally liberal, with most people publicly tolerant and secular, even if they are privately prejudiced and religious.

Christian notions of ‘sin’ have largely given way to Humanist ethics, which determine that only those actions that don’t actively harm and exploit people are wrong. Old-style morality campaigners – typified by those shrewish post-menopausal Catholic women you see on religious talk shows – are little more than a laughing stock in most quarters. The new pope is almost universally viewed with suspicion and contempt outside of so-called ‘faith communities’. The Church of England is an irrelevance in day-to-day life.

With all this, you’d think British Humanists would be cock-a-hoop. But, arguably, most of these positive changes have occurred in spite of Humanism rather than because of it. If society is indeed more open, it may just be down to the disintegration of the social fabric that once held us all together, securely, if unequally. After all, while most people don’t particularly care if you’re gay, they don’t particularly care if you’re homophobic either – Elton and Eminem are both considered cool. What we have now is a widespread passive secularism and an empty, unanchored tolerance. And, if the churches really are emptying at a rate of knots, isn’t it something of a Pyrrhic victory, if all we have done is replace socially concerned Christians with consumer zombies queuing outside IKEA on a Sunday morning?

Peter Tatchell has previously reflected in G&LH on the heady days of radical politics in the 1980s and 1970s, recalling ruefully the big ambitions he and others of his generation had for the end of the family, church, patriarchy and class system. The removal of all four was part of a Utopian project that presupposed that, without these structuring institutions and the hegemony of the ideologies underpinning them, everybody would be free and fulfilled. Of course, no such Utopia was delivered, but all of those institutions have either withered or changed beyond all recognition. On the level that everyday life is lived, they are weakened or nonexistent.

Unfortunately, what Tatchell, and even Margaret Thatcher, didn’t allow for was the fact that not everyone is capable of managing their individual freedoms wisely and responsibly, So, while middle-class people (well resourced, either financially or culturally, or both) generally thrive in a time of easier divorce, easy credit, permissiveness and the deregulated workplace, lower-middle- and working-class people (poorly resourced, either financially or culturally, or both) are more prone to familial chaos, uncontrollable debt, binge drinking, antisocial behaviour and debauched holidays in the sun.

Respect for others
This doesn’t mean that the middle classes are intrinsically better people, just that their situation is better – they have the means to cope with greater freedom by independently establishing their own boundaries, boundaries that were formerly imposed on everyone via closer family and community ties, stricter schooling, bank managers, church leaders and trade unions. Since the 1960s, the prevailing currents of social and economic change have conspired to erode the supervised and sometimes onerous values that make society tolerable – respect for others, common courtesy, aspirations to self-improvement (intellectually as well as materially), thrift, sobriety, a sense of duty and obligation, civic pride and benign patriotism.

These things are sneered at today, while, culturally, our aspirations have nose-dived. Vapid celebrity culture makes millionaires out of undeserving dullards (Jade Goody, anyone?), while National Lottery winnings randomly reward participants regardless of merit, sending out an insidious message that status and reward have no connection with effort, conduct or contribution. We are all encouraged to ‘dumb down’ – epitomised by privileged men like Guy Ritchie and Jamie Oliver, who feel obliged to effect hideous ‘mockney’ accents and pretend to like football. Anything remotely risky and therefore character-building is quashed by an overzealous Health and Safety Executive running scared of the compensation culture, while, most distressingly, young women have coarsened themselves with ‘ladette’ behaviour, with dire consequences for their health, their appearance and their decorum.

Basic life skills, such as managing a household budget, enjoying a healthy balanced diet and elementary hygiene, are now mysteries to vast swathes of the population, which is presumably why we have endless TV programmes telling us how to clean our homes, lose weight, dress ourselves or even boil an egg. The TV programme that shows viewers how to wipe their own bottoms cannot be too far away.

As if this weren’t a depressing enough scenario, the reckless and mismanaged immigration policies of successive governments have led to the demographics of our major towns and cities being for ever changed by huge numbers of foreign settlers. For years, the liberal elite dismissed fears about immigration, because more people quit the UK than moved in – the pretence being that all the doctors, engineers and inventors we lost were somehow equivalent to the often poor, ill-educated and culturally estranged Third Worlders who largely replaced them. Even now, they close down any real debate about immigration, branding those who want one as ‘xenophobic’ – but so fundamentally changing the character of our society, without consulting the general populace, has been hugely detrimental to the Humanist Project.

Controlled immigration is sometimes economically necessary and can be socially beneficial, but, since the 1990s, the effective loss of control over our borders (officially, 1 per cent of the population are now illegal settlers) has led some commentators to claim – quite convincingly – that our population is growing by the equivalent of a city the size of Cambridge every six months.

Legal or illegal, many of these Third World and Eastern European newcomers are criminals of the worst kind, and many more are hopelessly ill equipped to live in a complex Western democracy, unable even to speak English in some cases. A parasitic few are bent on the destruction of Western civilisation.

Our history, traditions and our evolved democratic values mean little or nothing to them. The official line has always been that immigrant newcomers would assimilate themselves and, of course, many have done. By and large, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus have integrated rather well, maintaining a strong cultural identity while somehow managing to meet the host community halfway and contributing a great deal to our society (more, in many respects, than some of the dissolute members of our tragically disinherited working class).

Other groups have fared less well, overall, evinced by their hopeless insularity, and overrepresentation in our mental hospitals and prisons. But the policy of assimilation was a cynical and ethnocentric assumption in the first place, made by politicians who knew that their own neighbourhoods, like leafy Hampstead, would remain beyond the reach of ‘coloureds’ on account of the inbuilt apartheid of the housing market. The politicians also failed to anticipate the alarming Balkanisation of Britain, whereby places like Bradford and Leicester are gradually becoming de-Anglicised to the point where Englishmen will be in the minority within ten years, as they will be in Birmingham soon afterwards. Even now, walking down the street in some parts of London – not just the obvious areas, but places like Queensway, Willesden and the Edgware Road – you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Kandahar. Redundant churches are sprouting onion domes and minarets. We are becoming strangers in our own land.

Let us be quite clear that race is not the issue here, as racism is the antithesis of Humanism. We are not concerned where people come from, genetically or geographically, but we ought to care very much about where they are going ideologically. Racial discrimination is abhorrent, but the meaning of racism, for Humanists, has to remain very narrowly defined. It is not racist to be anti-immigration or anti-Islam, or believe in strictly selective immigration like Canada and Australia.

Nor is it racist to believe in the removal of citizenship and the repatriation of undesirables – including perhaps second- or third-generation immigrants – who criminally abuse and damage the host community. The obvious candidates for repatriation would be drug traffickers, people smugglers, gun criminals and the allies of terrorism, but they should also include those who incite others to commit violent hate crimes (including white supremacist troublemakers).

To his credit, the former home secretary David Blunkett did try to remove Sheikh Abu Hamza from these shores, but was hampered by human rights lawyers for whom an individual’s rights always seem to coincide with the availability of generous Legal Aid handouts. So, while Humanists must continue to counter racial discrimination, it is important, nonetheless, for them to be culturally discriminating – to hold people to account for their beliefs and the actions that arise from them. For ‘culture’, you can usually read ‘religion’.

Maybe it’s a fear of being labelled ‘racist’, or just politically correct inertia that leads Humanists to bang on endlessly about the Church of England (which seems to me rather like kicking a blind dog with three legs), when its patently obvious that the wolf at the door is militant Islam. For homosexuals, it is doubtful that there is any such thing as a ‘moderate’ practising Muslim, or that the Koran can be regarded as anything more than just a squalid murder manual. So, while we must be tolerant towards Muslims who quietly and privately profess their faith, we must be ever vigilant.

If we truly believe that Humanism is more than just one of many competing and equivalent belief systems in a ‘pluralist’ society, then we need to reorder our priorities and adopt a more robust approach. Western Europe is the very crucible of freethinking and the rationalist tradition, so it should be vigorously defended against those who abuse the freedom our civilisation bestows upon them. This is especially true in Britain, because, while there are other countries more disposed to secular social policy, Britain has always, on account of its colonial past, provided the big template for democratic freedoms and the rule of law. Unfortunately, the fashion over the last thirty years has been to denigrate Britain’s colonial achievements. Notwithstanding certain brutal and shameful episodes, we should take pride in the good our forefathers have done in the world. With apologies to Monty Python, what have the British ever done for us? (Apart from the provision of secure borders, the rule of law, railways, schools, dams, hospitals, etc. etc.)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the rage for satire, rock and role and the optimistic libertarianism of the Tatchell generation all combined to create a climate in which anything detrimental to the British Establishment was applauded, in the expectation that, as the Establishment was rolled back, a free zone of enlightenment would be created. The Establishment certainly has retreated and lost credibility, but the resulting vacuum has hardly been occupied by an engaged and active citizenry.

Rather, it has been a gift to small groups of Islamic fanatics, generously funded by our benefits system, waiting for the moment in history when they can exploit a weakness or crisis for their own murderous and power-hungry ends. Like the Nazis in Germany and the Bolsheviks before them, these groups are highly organised and determined. The lesson needs to be learned.

Children bayoneted
By some horrible coincidence, on the same September day that we gay Humanists gathered in sunny Hove for our 2004 conference, children were being bayoneted by their Muslim captors in a Beslan school for daring to ask for a drink of water. So what did we do? Like a Guardian readers’ knitting circle, we sat around lamenting the supposed wickedness of the Americans, the Israelis and the Church of England! Truthfully, there was also some criticism of Islam, but this was secondary and muted.

We have yet to develop a clear and unapologetic discourse that allows us to condemn Muslim fanatics and their multiculturalist stooges like Ken Livingstone, without looking over our shoulders. Our efforts also need to be pan-European – in France, almost one-third of babies are born to Muslim parents, and Frenchmen will soon be in the minority in Marseille. In the Netherlands, the warnings of popular gay politician Pim Fortuyn were tragically snuffed out by a left-wing assassin before he could sufficiently alert people to the damage the influx of Muslims is doing to his own native land (proved by the Islamic assassin who subsequently murdered Theo Van Gogh for making a film and the marked decline in tolerance towards homosexuals there). We need a pan-European response to militant Islam, not least because, as things stand, our hands are tied by European laws that effectively protect its foot soldiers.

A good starting point would be for Humanists to lobby Parliament demanding that the 2011 census become a National Audit of Population, carried out in conjunction with the issuing of identity cards, This would weed out illegal immigrants, many of them problematic and undesirable, who could then be deported – though, in line with our traditions of tolerance and fair play, noncriminals could be granted leave to remain here if genuinely compassionate grounds are proven.

A sensible debate about the extent, character and policing of future immigration is urgently needed. Perhaps the most immediately important campaign is to prevent the liberal elite – who have long presided over the reverse-colonisation of so many of our towns and cities – from extending legal protection to religious expression, which may well compromise efforts to prosecute or even counter hate speech from Islamics and other fundamentalists.

For us Humanists, our objective should remain to achieve a proactively secular public sphere that tolerates and protects private religious freedoms, but one that does not allow any religious faith to dictate social policy, or otherwise contaminate that secular public sphere. However, we do need to shift our approach from one of indulgent libertarianism to an enlightened authoritarianism – to put ourselves on a war footing, if you will. After half a century of helping to remove the old structures, it is time to erect new structures that will protect our hard-won freedoms and reinforce the social obligations we have to one another. This includes removing all forms of racial discrimination for the law-abiding, while at the same time making it clear to foreign settlers that, if they seriously abuse and damage our society, their criminal convictions will carry the ultimate forfeit of fast-track deportation. This, I believe, is the challenge we must face now as we move towards a New Humanism for the twenty-first century.