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Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Time Event
10:31a
A few things
Anne Atkins ( the vile ) did Thought for the Day this morning and managed to tell some serious untruths in the middle of excoriating the way people endlessly repeat lies. She mocked an acquaintance who maintained that Christians maintained slavery by pointing out that Christians were largely responsible for destroying it. Here's the thing, she is right, only not. The anti-slavery movement was kick-started by a group of rich Unitarians and taken up by a variety of Evangelicals. On the other hand, most slave owners in the West were practising Christians and believed themselves to be entirely justified in keeping slaves. Of course, on the one hand, Jefferson and his chums were deists and went on keeping slaves, and of course there was much slavery elsewhere in the world, the Islamic world not least. If Anne Atkins is going to demand, as she should, that we tell the truth all the time, she needs to acknowledge that her friend is right up to a point. Moreover, since she is very fond of citing the Epistles to justify her more idiotic opinions, she needs to acknowledge that slaveowners were also very fond of quoting St. Paul.

Whenever I feel like slagging off the Enlightenment, I remember that people who do so usually end up defending the indefensible in the process. A couple of days ago, in the Guardian, while making some quite sensible points about the need for Islamic protest to focus on real grievance, Tariq Ali delivered side swipes at the Enlightenment by pointing out that both Voltaire and Hume said deeply racist things in their time. ( As, though Tariq did not mention this, did Karl Marx.) The point is, though, that anti-racism had its origins in the Enlightenment - the struggle against slavery was started by classic Enlightenment figures like the Lunaticks - and it is Enlightenment values that made it possible to demolish unthinking racism, and ultimately the more intelligent racism that is also - it is true - a bastard heir of Enlightenment. Voltaire did and said some very stupid things, but also did what he could to overthrow the bloodlust of the Church and the French state; Doctor Johnson was a far nicer man, and as it happens was quite passionately anti-racist for his time, but he was a reactionary, who opposed American Independence.
Sometimes, however reluctantly, you have to make choices about whose side you are on.

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