The Guardian chose sixty people, mostly prominent British thinkers, to give President Bush the benefit of their advice on the occasion of his State Visit. There are some letters of welcome among their contributions, but their predominant tone is just as sneering, angry and empty as you might expect, given the venue. One of the most extreme is, predictably, from Harold Pinter (scroll down), who offers the “war criminal” President a glass of blood to wash down his cucumber sandwiches. But perhaps the most shocking was from the great evolution theorist Richard Dawkins. Readers of his books will be aware of his attention to detail and his nuanced arguments – in his own field. They will not find any of that in his letter to “Mr Bush”:
Dear Mr Bush (I'd say President Bush if you had actually been elected),
Such things are often said in jest. But the rest of the letter makes it clear that Dawkins is serious. He really does believe that George W. Bush “stole” the Presidency – though he never states specifically which alleged actions by Bush constitute that theft. And that is our first clue that what we are seeing here is a conspiracy theory.
I've been asked to give advice to you on touching down in Britain. It is this. Go home. You aren't wanted here.
That is false. The Guardian's own opinion poll on that issue reported that in the real Britain, only 36% would have preferred President Bush not to visit, while 43% welcomed his visit.
You aren't wanted anywhere else either,
One pertinent counter-example to this is Iraq, where a majority are in favour of the Americans staying to finish the job. We suspect that Dawkins knows perfectly well that Britain is not the only country in which Bush would be welcome: there are many, but somehow he discounts them all. None of them count as ‘anywhere’, and people who respect President Bush don't count as ‘anyone’. And that holds especially for the people of the United States, as we'll see in a moment.
but you may have been misunderinformed that Britain was the one place where you would be welcomified.
Once again, a mocking tone is used for what Dawkins intends as a serious factual allegation – that President Bush is a stupid, inarticulate country bumpkin. That this claim is false is clear from overwhelming evidence, most recently the testimony of Dawkins’ fellow campaigner against the liberation of Iraq, Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman.
Wrong. Well, presumably your best pal Tony welcomes you.
It's not that they are “best pals”. It's that they have shared values.
But that's about it. Your motorcades, your helicopters, your triggerhappy guards
There is no denying that the President uses motorcades and helicopters (though it is unusual for this to be levelled as a criticism: what is he supposed to use, camels?). But “triggerhappy guards”? What shred of factual substance is there in that allegation? Are US Presidential bodyguards known for opening fire on innocent people? Indeed, have they ever been known to fall short of the highest standards of professionalism? Calling them “triggerhappy” is a fantasy and a libel against honourable and highly competent people.
will try to protect you from the people of Britain, who would otherwise spoil the photo-ops for the folks back home.
Superficially, this is another joke: Dawkins is jocularly pretending that the Americans’ concern for the President's safety is feigned, and that its real purpose is to suppress evidence that he is not welcome in Britain. But like all the jokes in this letter, it would not be relevant, and he would not have included it, if the underlying allegation were not intended seriously. And that allegation is, yet again, false. First of all, the President was, in fact, welcome. Second, the degree of totalitarian control that would be necessary to substitute a message different from what the media themselves think is true, is far beyond the real powers of the US Government (though not, of course, beyond the imaginary powers of imaginary conspirators engaging in unspecified skulduggery). Third, the precise location of the demonstrations (which was, of course, all that was at issue) is completely irrelevant to what “photo-ops” there will be for the “folks back home” to see – unless the protestors were allowed close enough to tear the President limb from limb.
But be in no doubt. We despise you here too.
Indeed there can be no doubt that Dawkins despises President Bush, and that he is not the only one. Yet his picture of a Bush-despising nation is yet another fantasy. If there is a grain of truth in it, it is that many in Britain take a rather condescending view of the President. As Andrew Sullivan put it recently: “I don't believe that the Brits are, as a whole, that hostile either to the war or to Bush. The minority who hates him appeals to the ignorance of those who condescend to him.”
After you and Jeb stole the election (by a margin smaller than the number of folks you executed in Texas)
Now, what is the relevance of that comparison? Perhaps it is a matter of symbolism: Bush won by a margin smaller than the number of people whom he ‘killed’ (by refusing to commute their sentences); and let us suppose that all those murderers would have voted for Gore, had they lived (and been released, and registered to vote in Florida). If, in addition, we forget that the people in question were executed for murder and not for their political opinions, then we discover a pleasant symmetry between Bush and the likes of Saddam Hussein, who also retained power by killing those who would otherwise vote against him.
However, if that is the intention, Dawkins himself spoils the symmetry by recognising the legitimacy of Saddam's rule while denying Bush's.
you were rightly written off as a one-term president: a fair advertisement for Drunks For Jesus but otherwise an idle nonentity; inarticulate, unintelligent, an ignorant hick. September 11 changed all that.
Dawkins doesn't intend this to mean that Bush is no longer an ignorant hick. But the accidental meaning is interesting. Many people do seem to have become wiser on that day. In others, it seems to have brought out the worst.
Not that you covered yourself with glory that day. You are said to admire Churchill. Can you imagine Churchill, at such a moment, panicking all around the country from airbase to airbase? Even nasty old Rummy bunkered down where he belonged.
Churchill was known for his physical courage which sometimes crossed the line into recklessness. But he was also known for his grasp of the big picture and for his sense of personal responsibility. So the idea that, as Prime Minister, he would have pointlessly risked his life – and risked conceding a major victory to the enemy – by staying at a location that might be under enemy fire is ludicrous and insulting. The parallel insult to Bush is meaningless and petty.
Now, finally, after many hints, we reach the mother lode of conspiracy theory:
Never mind, your puppeteers from the Project for the New American Century recognised the opportunity they had been waiting for.
September 11 was your golden Pearl Harbor.
Yes, Conspirators traditionally rejoice in the shedding of innocent blood, when it promotes their Sinister Agenda.
This was how you'd get elected in 2004 (not re-elected, elected).
Sigh. Yes, we got the joke the first two times. Except that it wasn't just a joke.
The secret means by which these terrifying Puppeteers rig elections, control the media, pull President Bush's strings and reap their ill-gotten rewards afterwards are not specified, but the overt means by which they get their Agenda implemented are:
You would announce a War on Terror. American troops would win. And you would be the victorious warlord, swaggering in a flight suit before a Mission Accomplished banner.
It worked in Afghanistan. But then those puppeteers moved on to their long-term project: Iraq. Never mind that you had to lie about weapons of mass destruction.
There is no evidence of any such lie.
Never mind that Iraq had not the smallest connection with 9/11.
What? Not even the smallest connection? What about this? Or this? Moreover, might not a regime that rejoiced at the destruction of 9/11, and had already murdered hundreds of thousands, be legitimately considered a threat to the well-being of [its] people, the peace of [the] region, the security of the world?
The good folks back home would never know the difference between Saddam and Osama.
Note the sweeping contempt for the American people that is inherent in this theory.
You would ride the paranoid patriotism aroused by 9/11 all the way into Iraq, and hand out oil and reconstruction contracts to Dick Cheney's boys.
This further conspiracy theory (‘it's all about oil’) is, as we have noted before, an unusually illogical one (see also this link). “Dick Cheney's boys”? What is the allegation here? That a company that Vice President Cheney once worked for will inflate the invoices for their reconstruction contracts and give a share of the markup to Cheney, who will then pass on a kickback to President Bush? But if they were that open to bribery, what difference would it make that Cheney once worked for the company in question?
Or is the idea that Cheney caused the puppet Bush to start a war as an act of pure friendship for his former colleagues, because they needed the work?
That escapade is now backfiring horribly, as many of us said it would.
No wonder young American travellers are sewing Canadian flags to their rucksacks. What we in Britain won't forgive is that you have dragged us down too.
The means by which Bush “dragged” Mr Blair into liberating Iraq is, again, unspecified, the evidence that any such dragging occurred, again, absent.
He has gone home, with the praise of many Britons ringing in his ears.
And the letter is signed:
Scientists care about facts. In our comments above, we have addressed mainly the errors of fact throughout Dawkins’ letter, even though the real issue is a moral one. We have chosen to do that because the two are connected. Dawkins was one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. When someone of that calibre goes out of his way to publish a stream of factual falsehoods and muddled arguments – and with such passion too – it is not because he is stupid, and it is unlikely to be because he hasn't thought about the issue. It is probably because he is in the wrong about something.
Yet paradoxically, we believe, this wrongness is intimately bound up with an issue on which Dawkins is fundamentally in the right: his objection to religion, and in particular, to the religious conception of morality. Any attempt to base morality on God's alleged words or wishes is indeed invalid. For even if God exists, given human fallibility, we can only ever conclude that an idea is God's through a prior rational argument that it is good, never vice versa.
However, it does not follow from the fact that religious justifications for morality are fallacious, or from atheism itself, that there are no objective moral values, or that all values espoused by religious believers are wrong.
Indeed, the belief that all purportedly objective moral values are necessarily rooted in the supernatural is one which, ironically, Dawkins shares with President Bush and nearly all religious people. And many religious people, especially religious fanatics, share with Dawkins the view that the purportedly objective moral values of other religions are no more than myths and verbal tricks to frighten believers into submission to the priests of false gods.
An atheist who makes that mistake is therefore likely to be especially alienated from morality. Such a person must construct, and distort, their moral view around the non-objectivity of all moral views, and their passion comes from the conviction that people who deem moral questions to be susceptible of true answers are the epitome of evil – indeed, the only evil. That fact that this stance is self-contradictory only serves to increase that passion.
And thence to the dark logic of moral relativism which is that a refusal to take sides between right and wrong always entails siding with wrong against right. And so, those who are committed to the proposition that Bush's morality is no better than that of Saddam or Bin Laden inevitably find their real passion directed against Bush.
Yet the truth is that despite what Bush and Dawkins both think, the morality behind US foreign policy is not actually derived from supposedly revealed knowledge. It comes from the mainstream of our centuries-old secular tradition, as represented, for instance, in the US Declaration of Independence, and in the Common-Law legal systems, of applying reason and criticism to the question “how ought we to live?”, and judging practical issues of right and wrong against our evolving understanding of the objectively true answer to that question.