Monday, November 14, 2016

On Dawkins' "New Athens" Proposal - Unclean, Algal-Green, And Anti-Intellectualism

On Friday, word reached us that the world's foremost obstreperous atheist, Richard Dawkins, appears to be advocating we open our borders to the world's "creative intellectuals" in a bid to make New Zealand a 'new Athens' for the 'Trump era'.

This seemed to be a singularly curious proposition to come from Dawkins, for any number of reasons.

Leaving aside the fact that a man who works himself into a fit of apoplexy when asked to surrender his jar of honey at airport security is presumably going to have some degree of difficulty adapting to our rather strict biosecurity regimen ... it also occurs that the rather famed 'anti-intellectual' default tenor of our national character (which acts entwined with 'tall poppy syndrome') may not render us the most welcoming of harbours for a future large-scale influxion of literati immigration.

Further, when it comes to the passion for ecological preservation which Dawkins has apparently identified in our people and our polis from afar as a core reason for suggesting his intellectual fellows move here ... I can only suggest that they'll probably be rather dismally disappointed when they eventually arrive upon our allegedly verdant shores (the shorelines of many of our inland lakes and waterways are, indeed, green - but that's mostly due to the build-up of toxic algae as the result of farm-runoff).

Probably the best example of this antipathy of our political class towards the serious environmental challenges facing our nation remains the conduct of our Prime Minister on BBC's HardTalk five years ago. The contents of this interview have now entered into the realms of local political legend - but in summary, Key was faced with expert evidence which proved how bad the state of our local waterways were under his government (in reaction to the "100% Pure" slogan we were then pushing for tourism branding) and responded by stating that the evidence of scientists was much like the advice of lawyers (or, presumably, atheistic quasi-philosophers): in specia, that if you didn't like what one said, then it was perfectly acceptable to pass the proverbial brown paper envelope of cash at another one and request a different report more to your liking.

Now, I cite this incident not merely because it handly counters the unabashed (albeit favourable) propaganda contained in Dawkins' open letter to the scientific/"creative intellectual" community.

Instead, it's worth bringing up in this context, because it's a fairly DIRECT demonstration that the sort of "post-Truth politics" which Dawkins is railing against and so concerned about in both post-Brexit Britain and Trump-Era America as to be advocating en-masse emigration for the above from theres to here.

Congratulations, New Zealand! We were once more a world pioneer!

So I think we've fairly conclusively established that Dawkins is perhaps being fairly over-optimistic if he thinks that Auckland (or anywhere else in the country, for that matter) will provide especially fertile grounding as his Athens.

And this is presumably BEFORE he finds out how important and integrated various elements of Maori metaphysics which he'd probably dismiss as 'baseless superstition' are in our ways of doing things.

But these were not the first things which sprang to my mind when I initially became aware of his somewhat breathless proposal.

Instead, it was the perhaps rather amusing dissonance between Dawkins' own vituperatively advocated views on religion (particularly in public life), as compared to the role and importance which public religion actually played in historical Athens - to the point, in fact, that they executed a number of prominent intellectuals (including a rather famous chap you may have heard of known as Socrates) for the crime of asebeia - impiety.

And, following on from that (albeit further back in time by a few years), the way in which in the final years of the 5th century BC, Athens found itself bedevilled by a remarkable problem of intellectual types arguably attempting to subvert its democracy, traditions and governance-structures in favour of dictatorship and deplorable suzerainty.
Now, this might not sound immediately familiar. But consider this - here in New Zealand ... we've been down that road before. From the early years of the 1970s through apparently to the present day, economists - trenchant, neoliberal economists - operating in Treasury and elsewhere further afield have attempted to do pretty much exactly what I've outlined above to our once prosperous and positive society.

They wrought a damage to our economy which University of Auckland economist Tim Hazledine asserted could only be accurately measured in terms of the agglomerated effects of a number of Canterbury Earthquakes. And we still haven't recovered from them yet.

This might seem something of a tangent - but it's probably worth noting that there's a fairly direct tie back to "Athens" in what I'm speaking about. It is, after all, much the state of economic ruination which the present, modern city of Athens has languished in for almost a decade now as the directly attributable result of flawed, failing, flailing arch-neoliberal economic policies of austerity imposed by the European iterations of our own dear economists right here in Treasury; and those who've previously staffed the ranks of the ACT, National and Labour Parties.

In other words, while we are yet to produce something as bloody and tumultuous as the Reign of the Thirty Tyrants (you may remember Critias - one of their number - as the interlocutor in several of Plato's dialogues, including one in which he is eponymous) ... the fact remains that we have much reason to be skeptical of folk of the brain who believe they 'know best' and who may wish to undermine or cast out our egalitarian traditions and fetter our democracy - you know, more than they've already attempted to do for much of the previous forty years.

It's probably important to note at this juncture that I'm not inimically or even incidentally opposed to attempting to increase our nation's intellectual capital 'the quick way' via allowing in folk of demonstrable intelligence and critical capacity. All in all, it would be pretty hard to disagree that this seems, on the face of it at least, to be a pretty decent idea.

But Dawkins' slightly wide-eyed plan betrays a number of key (and untenable) assumptions about who and what we are, here in New Zealand.

In much of the coverage I've seen of what he's advocating here, these don't appear to have been brought to the fore.

There are, of course, also intellectual contrafibularities with his decidedly mixed metaphor about "Athens" in light of his own, vocally expressed beliefs; but, as ever, concerns about where we're going as a nation (and, for that matter, as an ecology - whether verdant- or knowledge-) must come first.

Still, it would be rather grand if we could actually live up to some of the plaudits which Dawkins has put forward in our name.

Best get thinking about how to do that, then.

Maybe some of those "creative intellectual" types might be able to help...

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