Analysis 2: Blair Vs Hitch & this earnest yet futile debate

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    2nd December 2010

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    THE MEN & ARGUMENTS AT THE CENTRE…

    … OF THIS SKEWED & FUTILE DEBATE

    I titled my previous post –“Blair/Hitchens debate (Ailing Atheist Vs Crucified Christian)” for a reason. The reason for that headline was to highlight the imbalance of the starting point for these two proponents of their corners of the religion good/bad debate. Tony Blair was not “crucified” even figuratively speaking on the night. Of course not. That job was done politically, years ago and is still, painfully, ongoing.

    But the effect of the groupthink which still pertains on politicians and perhaps particularly on Blair and his political decision on Iraq (even if semi-empathetic groupthink as in Toronto) was apparent to me when Blair said at around 4:20 into Video 3 –

    “So I know very well that you can point and quite rightly Christopher does to examples of where people have used religion to do things that are terrible. And that have made the world a worse place. But I ask you not to judge all people of religious faith by those people, any more than we would judge politics [pauses – audience laughter] by bad politicians. Or indeed journalists by bad journalists.”

    The audience guffaws seemed to imply – “bad politicians – like you, Tony?” (Of course the Canadians could have been thinking of their own politicians.) Their laughter was silenced with the next sentence when it was clear Blair was not referring to anyone there present. It goes without saying that he didn’t mean that Christopher Hitchens was a ‘bad journalist’, though perhaps his brother Peter, one arrogant and rotten journalist, imho.

    Let’s be blunt about this – Tony Blair has political baggage. The ‘evil’ baggage is mainly press-inspired. The good, like that of Caesar, has largely been interred – somewhere in the back of many minds.

    ASIDE: That, despite this new poll on the most successful government policy since 1980 (Source BBC):

    MOST SUCCESSFUL POLICIES SINCE 1980

    • 1. Minimum wage
    • 2. Devolution
    • 3. NI Peace process
    • 4. Privatisation
    • 5. Sure Start

    Did you notice that all but number 4 were Labour policies under Blair? And note too that Blair continued Thatcher’s privatisation policy. Numbers one and two were noisily not supported by the Conservative party. And the highly successful Sure Start project is under threat under the present Con/Dem government. Devolution is a done deal, and the Tories are fully onboard now. Now that they know it gives them a chance to re-establish themselves in certain parts of the country. The Northern Ireland peace process was completed by Tony Blair personally. Don’t let them tell you it was John Major or the late Mo Mowlam. They played their part. But like winning the 2010 Olympics in 2005, Blair’s leadership was essential. Perhaps Cameron should have asked the Winner/Master to help in the World Cup bid today in Zurich.

    My two/three observations on the debate:

    Why do I describe this debate as “skewed and futile”? And, would I have described it so if Tony Blair had won?

    To the level-headed, including Hitch, on the controversial issue of Iraq Tony Blair was largely right and even more right on other international issues. There is no doubt that many wanted to see Blair slammed into the ground in this debate, no matter their own religious interests or disinterests. They were fighting yesterday’s (lost) battles.

    My answer to my own thoughts on the ‘skewed’ question:  although necessary and a good exercise I conclude the Munk Debate on religion was skewed for these reasons:

    • Hitchens has spent his life damning religion. He started as a schoolboy and has become more convinced of his position ever since. He won’t stop criticising the concept of religion till the day he dies, which hopefully will be some years off. I am a great admirer of Hitch.
    • Blair found religion as a student at Oxford. He has spent most of his life in politics, not religion. He is not a scholar, yet, of religion.
    • Religion has not had a good press recently, viz abusive Catholic priests, Islamist fundamentalism.
    • It is grown-up these days, it seems, to be sceptical, especially of politics and religion. Blair falls into both categories. Two reasons, at least to be treated sceptically. A double whammy.

    And the debate was futile for this reason:

    It matters not one jot what the Toronto audience thought in the Munk Debate. The world is full to bursting with people who to some extent or other do believe in religion. It is estimated that 80% of the world’s population are ‘believers’. No two-handed debate between liberal-minded westerners in a western city will change that. Not in the short term, anyway.

    And if Blair had come out on top?

    I would still have felt it futile with regard to most of the world. If Blair had won despite the “skewed” effect of elements raged against him it would have been just as likely as that Russia [WikiLeaks – ‘mafia’] and Qatar [no history of football] could have won the 2018/2022 World Cups!

    So, strange things happen in sport, religion and politics. (Not necessarily in that order.) Just as comparatively few outside Britain are all that bothered that England lost the 2018 World Cup today, few in the world have really noticed the Big Religion Debate.

    Perhaps because it fundamentally missed the point.

    To be continued …

    Also see Analysis 1 – Results of the Debate

    __________

    RELATED – REPORTS AND OPINIONS

    1. The Munk Debates site has sent round this report to those subscribed on the night.
    2. There is some audience reaction at Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation website
    3. BBC report & Video from Paul Adams
    4. The Canadian Globe & Mail reports
    5. Telegraph: “Tony Blair Defends Religious Faith”

    5. CHICKEN OR EGG?

    Which came first – the Huff or The San Francisco Chronicle ? It hardly matters. They are both singing from the same hymn sheet, as it were –

    ‘Former British prime minister Tony Blair said Friday his religious beliefs did not play a role in his decision to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq during a debate about the merits of religion in Toronto.’

    Again, it hardly matters, but it was The SF Chronicle.

    6. Paul Harris at The Guardian headlines with “Christopher Hitchens 1-0 Tony Blair”.

    While we cannot reasonably expect a return bout, at least Mr Harris does point this out:

    “Throughout the 90-minute debate Hitchens seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy. That might have been to do with his ill appearance due to cancer, but was far more likely to be down to the sharpness of his verbal barbs and the fact that 57% of the audience already agreed with his sceptical position according to a pre-debate poll, while just 22% agreed with Blair’s side. The rest were undecided.”

    He balances that by being the only British write-up on the debate pointing up this:

    “It even attracted a small but vocal knot of anti-Iraq war protestors accusing Blair of war crimes. Demonstrators unveiled placards that read “Arrest Blair” and “War criminals not welcome here”, proving that, as with the merits of religion, some arguments are unlikely to ever be settled with a single night’s debate.”

    Well, it IS the Guardian, after all. Don’t expect lack of agenda.

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    3 Responses to “Analysis 2: Blair Vs Hitch & this earnest yet futile debate”

    1. wien1938 Says:

      There are some deeper and interesting questions to draw from this debate. I think the first is that if we agree (broadly) that religion is not a force for good, this does not presuppose that there is no good in religion.
      A second might be to ask what are the deeper underlying philosophical questions, values and ideas which we can gain from religion. We should also acknowledge that which we derive from religion are human and that religion is a part of the human nature. This however, does not require a divine being but self-knowledge.
      A third would be to acknowledge that religion is not tied solely to the Judaic forms but takes more than Jewish, Christian or Islamic forms. Again, we should recognise in our societies the very traits that we find in religion because religion is (correctly, as the Hitch points out in GiNG) a human creation.
      The danger in the heart of religion remains the injunctions towards harm, which exist alongside the injunctions towards good. Where Hitch is right is that we need to understand that the injunctions towards kindness are reminders of our better natures but that those towards harm encourage the worst in ourselves.
      Religions which discourage the individual will, which command obedience are manifestly harmful where this demand is extended to all. Emphasis upon bodily sin, upon morbid guilt and human innate wickedness without “redemption” harms people, especially children.
      As Hitch has put it before: “God loves you, but only if you obey. If you do not obey, then he will punish you.” He’s not entirely right as it seems to me that religion is a strange mixture of the commanding, the beneficial, the myth-origin narrative and moral/social philosophy.

      The danger in attempting to banish religion is that the religious, dogmatic instinct is deeply present in our psyches. We have in the West constructed and are constructing dogmatic faiths, whether redemptionist in outlook (socialism) or nihilistic (Nazism, AGW dogmatics).
      If we can and must develop from this, as Hitch points out, is self-discipline and self-knowledge resulting an open and secular moral education.

      • keeptonyblairforpm Says:

        @ wein1938,

        Agreed, largely. Your sentence here sums it up:

        I think the first is that if we agree (broadly) that religion is not a force for good, this does not presuppose that there is no good in religion.

        This is where Hitch’s use of witty but extreme language against religion falls down. And, to be blunt, where Blair didn’t make his case adequately.

        Btw, even as an unbeliever I don’t agree that religion is not a force for good.

        It’s clear to me that Blair does not accept all the ancient accepted doctrinal commands of Catholicism. His, and the west’s problem, is that we transfer the same hopes and expectations of selectivism to ALL religious people, but all religious people don’t behave or believe as do liberal secularists, religious or not.

        I’m not sure if Hitch is the right one to press the religious to “develop from this”. If one rejects religion no-one listens to you in any such debate. In the REAL world, the outside world, I mean. That’s what Blair understands.

        His call appeals to the 80% who are religious. Hitch’s to the rest.

    2. wien1938 Says:

      Agreed.

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