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Frank Furedi and the Battle of Ideas July 8, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Revolutionary Communist Party.

Long article by Jenny Turner in the LRB analysing the Institute of Ideas. I don’t have anything to say about it, but it might be of interest to people.

Animal Crackers March 18, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Environmentalism, Libertarianism, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Revolutionary Communist Party.

(This began as a comment in response to Worldbystorm’s musing about the attitude of the Spiked crowd to animals, but became a little unwieldy, so it gets its own post).

Animals – their welfare and their rights – is one of the key issues that recurs again and again with the Revolutionary Communist Party group, but doesn’t seem to generate the same debate as their more high-profile, or controversial, preoccupations.  An article by Brendan O’Neill on the old favourites – the environment, child protection or liberal elitism – may generate hundreds of responses on Comment is Free, but discussions around animals don’t tend to receive the same kind of intense level of interest.  However, as Worldbystorm rightly points out, it’s something that they are fascinated with, and keep coming back to.  For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to take a sample of the articles on Spiked about animals, and see how they reflect many of the tropes of a typical RCP article.

For clarification, I’m using the term Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) to refer to the entire range of writers and personalities associated with what might mostly broadly be called Furedi and chums.  This includes Living Marxism/LM, Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, Sense about Science and all the rest.  I’m assuming that readers will already be aware of the background of the network and of the links between the different groups (both the overtly Furedian ones and the front organisations).  Those interested in finding out more might usefully start with the Sourcewatch article on the LM group and following the links – in particular the piece entitled “Strange Bedfellows” from The Ecologist.

I admit, of course, that treating all of these individuals as a single collective is something of a blunt instrument.  Different writers will adopt different styles and different approaches, depending on their audience, the medium they’re using and their particular interests.  However, on many issues – in particular in relation to animals – there does appear to be a single, unwavering line common to all.

With those disclaimers in hand, let’s look at some of the rhetorical tactics of the RCP’ers.

1: “The real reason they oppose it …”.

Take, for example, the 2006 Spiked article “Stop weeping over whaling“, by Helene Guldberg.  In it, the author tries to demonstrate that anti-whaling sentiment is actually motivated by cultural imperialism and anti-Japanese bigotry.  Or, to be specific, the author asserts that as the case and doesn’t provide any evidence in support of the claim.  The entire article is a mismash of various logical fallacies and indicates a deliberate unwillingness to even to begin to engage with the substantial anti-whaling arguments.

We see this again and again with the RCP’ers.  Rather than address the actual arguments of those they oppose, they prefer to speculate wildly about the motivations of others.  We see it over and over with the debate on climate change.  Those who highlight, for example, the impact of increased air travel, fuelled by low-cost carriers, on the environment are doing so not from any concern about global warming, but because they are liberal elite killjoys who want to prevent ‘ordinary people’ (always a loaded phrase) from enjoying themselves.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the large red banner currently across the front page of Spiked linked to their ongoing campaign: Beijing 2008 – Challenging China-bashing.  To believe the RCP’ers, there is a huge upsurge of racist, anti-China feeling sweeping the land: a latter-day version of the ‘Yellow Peril’.  Concerned about the consequences of continued Chinese economic growth reliant to the burning of fossil fuels?  Racist anti-China bashing!  Alarmed at what you saw about infant abduction stemming from the one-child policy on the recent Channel 4 documentary China’s Stolen Children? Patronising anti-China bashing!  Don’t like what you’re seeing on the news about the occupation of Tibet and the violent crackdown on protestors?  You’re both self-loathing and imperialist (a rather contradictory combination, some might think.  Don’t worry, though.  Brendan O’Neill is large; he contains multitudes).  Of course, one might question why a group supposedly so concerned with individual freedom would consistently ignore China’s appalling human rights record, but that would no doubt make one an anti-China basher, a liberal elitist and a scaremonger about the Yellow Peril.

In all cases the motivations of those opposed to the RCP worldview is called into question; the actual arguments they make seldom are.  One wonders why.

2: That’s how it is!

In this particular manoeuvre, the RCP’er will make a particular assertion in order to refute a position he or she disagrees with, but will proceed as if their assertion is already universally accepted, when it’s actually the very point at issue.  “Begging the question”, to put it another way.

Take the 2006 article ‘A Great Aping of Human Rights’.  In it, Josie Appleton writes about a proposed Spanish parliamentary resolution in support of the objectives of the Great Ape Project, that is to extend the protection of certain fundamental rightsto the Great Apes.  Josie Appleton, unsurprisingly, is against this.  She argues that:

The Great Ape Project emerged out of disillusionment with human beings and human values, and effectively looks to apes to provide a new moral compass. Great apes are cast as wise and knowing figures that can help to renew a corrupted human civilisation.

Unfortunately, however, this isn’t true as anyone who had read collection of essays in The Great Ape Project (which Appleton cites in her footnotes) would know.  The argument is, essentially, that there is no moral justification for limiting basic rights to humans and preventing their extension to non-human animals which share certain intellectual attributes with humans.  This, of course, isn’t a particularly mainstream opinion and is far from non-contentious.  However,  Appleton argues as if this point, central to the argument, has already been refuted without bothering to do so.  It’s the long-winded equivalent of Mick Hume’s ‘Animals Count? No they don’t‘ piece (thesis: Animals Matter; antithesis: No they don’t; synthesis: They just don’t! Shut up!).

To see the same approach in a non-animal context, look at Jennie Bristow’s 2007 article ‘Abortion: stop hiding behind the science‘.  In it, Bristow argues that, contrary to the argument of anti-abortionists, greater scientific understanding of foetal development doesn’t impact of the moral case in favour of access to abortion and that this case should be restated.  She writes:

But when it comes to the principle of abortion, science can tell us no more than it ever has. Women who need abortions should be able to have them: some people agree with this, and others do not. Scientific evidence, however sound it may be, will never tell us what society should do about abortion.

This happens to be a position I’d agree with myself, and I believe that the moral case for the right to choose should be restated.  However, nowhere in Bristow’s piece does she do that.  She simply asserts that women should be able to access abortion services, without ever explaining why this should be the case.

3: Infantile Contrarianism

Occasionally, one finds oneself agreeing with an RCP’er (don’t worry – remember the old saying about the stopped clock).  Other times, one disagrees but accepts the sincerity of their arguments.  All too often though, pieces like ‘In defence of fur‘ are published, which can’t possibly be genuine.

No doubt Josie Appleton either likes the feel and look of fur, or doesn’t really care about it one way or the other, but the article itself reads like a heavy-handed and obvious attempt to appear controversial.  Take that, conventional wisdom!  Have at you, bien-pensants!  The RCP is on the job, demolishing the ivory towers of the elite, undermining what you think you know and totally blowing your mind!

Except, they’re not, of course.  There’s little more tiring than a self-conscious controversialist.  These pieces are, invariably, attempts to appear radical by mindlessly opposing what’s seen as the consensus view on some issue or other without really thinking through the basis for the position.  Kneejerk first, argument later.  Which often leaves the writer clutching desperately for something – anything – to support the view they’ve adopted.  Who could read Josie Appleton’s defence of the use of fur

Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

without feeling at least a little embarrassed for her?

For more of this ‘I hate you Daddy’ defiance of mainstream thinking, see all of Brendan O’Neill’s output.

4: If it’s global warming, how come it’s cold today?

Climate change isn’t a tactic of the RCP per se.  The various articles the Furedists produce on the subject employ the full range of rhetorical tropes, including those highlighted above.  However, given that it’s such a key issue for them, as well as such an important issue more generally, it merits specific consideration on its own.

It’s rare to see an RCP’er deny the reality of man-made climate change outright; rather, as we see in the Polar Bear article that WbS highlighted early, they prefer to muddy the waters, to cast doubt on the accuracy of the available evidence and malign the motivations of those trying to tackle the problem.  In this case, the attempt is made to highlight a report pointing to possible flaws in forecasting methodology used in predicting the impact of climate change on the bears, with the underlying implication that all evidence for climate change is similarly flawed.  The authors of the article – Armstrong, Green and Soon (a professor of marketing, a research fellow in business and finance and an astrophysicist respectively) – are favourites of the RCP, two of them having previously made similar points about forecasting in the IPCC report, covered by Brendan O’Neill here.

To be fair, it’s possible that there may be some truth in the suggestion that the forecasting methology employed in various climate studies is flawed.  And it’s difficult for the lay-reader to determine the plausibility of this.  However, when viewed in the context of a wider and consistent campaign by the RCP against those who argue that climate change is occuring, and needs to be tackled, it’s reasonable that one should caution against taking anything published on the site on the subject with a pinch of salt.

What makes the RCP’s attitude towards the climate change question so fascinating, as well as confusing, is the fact that in some ways it runs completely contrary to their stated philosophy on some many other issues.  Look at the review of Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge to see this tension at its most pronounced.  While it attempts to support the primacy of rational enquiry over superstition and pseudo-science, it has to pull back at the end and, essentially, say ‘except for environmentalism’.

Also interesting is the RCP group Sense about Science, which describes itself in the following terms:

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

We work with scientists to

  • respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology
  • promote the benefits of scientific research to the public
  • help those who need expert help contact scientists about issues of importance
  • brief non-specialists on scientific developments and practices

One might imagine that a group of this kind might have something to say on the issue of climate change, possibly the most important ‘scientific’ issue facing the global community, and one on which a certain amount of scientific knowledge on the part of the public would be, at the very least, desirable.  Unfortunately, while the group is ready to launch  any number of press releases denouncing homeopathy, anti-GM protests or the collected works of Gillian McKeith, all they have produced on the question of climate change is a short document on the complexity of forecasting.

On this, as on so many other issues, it’s difficult to know what their motivation is.  It’s tempting to simply suggest that they’re insincere, and that they have a vested financial interest in pushing the positions they’re taking.  Certainly, the links between the RCP (et al) and various large corporations has previously been highlighted.  Perhaps even odder is the suggestion that they actually do believe all this, with what can only be described as a quasi-religious fervour.  There’s a blind faith at play in the perfectability of humanity and of scientific progress that borders on the fanatical.  One can see this in the Little Atoms interview with Brendan O’Neill of last November.  After a long diatribe treading very familiar ground on the perfidy of environmentalism, the presenters finally ask Brendan what, precisely, he would do to combat Climate Change.  His response – he didn’t care; science would look after it (indeed, to suggest that this might be a little naive displays nothing but the questioner’s contempt for mankind’s potential). 

Perhaps it would be a little cruel to view the RCP as the post-Marxist equivalent of the Heaven’s Gate cult, waiting for Frank Furedi’s instruction to cut off their sex organs and meet him behind the comet.  Certainly, at their most extreme they recall some of the more extreme groups in Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution novels.

Who knows, though: they might be right.  And come the Singularity who’ll be first against the wall?

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