Monday, September 26, 2005

Whatever happened to: The Brights?

In the summer of 2003 two philosophers, both atheists, garnered a lot of coverage in the MSM and the blogosphere for their attempt to start a new meme. The word "atheist," they argued, had too many negatives, to borrow the focus group term. They must henceforth and forevermore call themselves, and make others call them, not atheists, but "brights."

The "specialty bulbs" of this meme scheme were Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins (not to be confused with the similarly named British atheist philosopher Richard Dawson). Dawkins, as Wikipedia notes, is also more or less responsible for the term and concept of the "meme."

So it was the better-known Dawkins who first yanked the basket from over the brights' little domed skulls, in an article for the Grauniad with the strikingly Orwellian lead-in, "Language can help to shape the way we think about the world. Richard Dawkins welcomes an attempt to raise consciousness about atheism by co-opting a word with cheerful associations."

The basic tenets of the brights:

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview.
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.
  • And one they forgot:

  • A bright is smug well past the point of idiocy. Madeline Murray O'Hare, for example, was an early bright. The brights' website urges us to:

  • Think about your own worldview to decide if it is indeed free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities.

    Okay! (Hours pass.) Uh, I'm having a little trouble with the entities, Mr. Bright!

    But if none of my barrow-wights bothers you and

    If you decide that you fit the definition, then you can simply say so and join with us in this extraordinary effort to change the thinking of society—the Brights Movement.

    Oh, goody, you want me to get in people's faces too. Hey, I carpool to Mensa meetings, so I'm used to boasting of how smart I am to perfect strangers! This "brights" meme really will self-propagate!

    You stupid . . .

    Apparently not. Reaction to the meme was, to say the least, unenthusiastic, even among natural allies of the "brights" like the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and
    Skeptical Inquirer, which in an unintentionally hilarious article said that "what atheists really need is for people to believe that they're likeable, and not so different from everybody else."

    Oh, buck up, chappy! As you say, you certainly don't disagree with Dawkins that arguments for atheism are, besides being undeniably correct, inherently rational. It's just that Dawkins' "framing" is wrong. SI continues, "So perhaps future atheist message crusaders should describe themselves and their brethren as humble, rather than angry or sneering or super-smart."

    No more acting super-smart? What if it's just what we are? And humble? Dawkins, in particular, doesn't know the meaning of the word. Remember the Guardian's ludicrous campaign to get its readers to write "personally" to Americans and persuade them not to vote for Bush in the last election? The paper got some British celebrities to kick it off in truly "bright" style, with the last letter, you can see, from Dawkins. (But don't deprive yourself of John Le Carre and Antonia Fraser's little love notes. You'll feel like leaving the left all over again.) Here's Dawkins' assay in full:

    Dear Americans,

    Don't be so ashamed of your president: the majority of you didn't vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent. Please don't let it come to that. Vote against Bin Laden's dream candidate. Vote to send Bush packing.

    Before 9/11 gave him his big break - the neo-cons' Pearl Harbor - Bush was written off as an amiable idiot, certain to serve only one term. An idiot he may be, but he is also sly, mendacious and vindictive; and the thuggish ideologues who surround him are dangerous. 9/11 gave America a free gift of goodwill, and it poured in from all around the world. Bush took it as a free gift to the warmongers of his party, a licence to attack an irrelevant country which, however nasty its dictator, had no connection with 9/11. The consequence is that all the worldwide goodwill has vanished. Bush's America is on the way to becoming a pariah state. And Bush's Iraq has become a beacon for terrorists.

    In the service of his long-planned war (with its catastrophically unplanned aftermath), Bush not only lied about Iraq being the "enemy" who had attacked the twin towers. With the connivance of the toadying Tony Blair and the spineless Colin Powell, he lied to Congress and the world about weapons of mass destruction. He is now brazenly lying to the American electorate about how "well" things are going under the puppet government. By comparison with this cynical mendacity, the worst that can be said about John Kerry is that he sometimes changes his mind. Well, wouldn't you change your mind if you discovered that the major premise on which you had been persuaded to vote for war was a big fat lie?

    Now that all other justifications for the war are known to be lies, the warmongers are thrown back on one, endlessly repeated: the world is a better place without Saddam. No doubt it is. But that's the Tony Martin school of foreign policy [Martin was a householder who shot dead a burglar who had broken into his house in 1999]. It's not how civilised countries, who follow the rule of law, behave. The world would be a better place without George Bush, but that doesn't justify an assassination attempt. The proper way to get rid of that smirking gunslinger is to vote him out.

    As the bumper stickers put it, "Re-defeat Bush". But, this time, do it so overwhelmingly that neither his brother's friends in Florida nor his father's friends on the Supreme Court will be able to rig the count. Decent Americans - there are absolutely more intelligent, educated, civilised, cultivated, compassionate people in America than in any other country in the western world - please show your electoral muscle this time around. We in the rest of the world, who sadly cannot vote in the one election that really affects our future, are depending on you. Please don't let us down.

    Richard Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. More letters to Clark County will be appearing in G2 over the next fortnight.

    Professor of the public understanding of science. This little screed raises the suspicion that a guy so willing to throttle the truth is probably untrustworthy in an all 'round sort of way, his take on science included.

    Oh, so what happened to the "brights?" Well, nothing. The meme failed utterly, except among the kind of people you try to avoid being cornered by at parties.

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