Because I'm so busy, I find very little time to read. It means I look for alternative ways to keep my brain fed with material and ideas. I've recently been scouring the web for material by the late Christopher Hitchens, which I've discovered is usually satisfyingly long and pretty deep. It's how I've come to find myself thinking more about my own atheism, which has always been present in my life in a strong and conscious way but never to the extent that I actually gave the broader subject of atheism much notice. To me, atheism is just the most natural way to be. I never understood religion as a child and I believe I've been a firm atheist from the cradle. Nothing in my life has ever challenged that view. I've never seen a ghost or a UFO or had anything that strikes me as a moment of otherworldly magic. I would love there to be Gods and an afterlife and heaven and the ability to shoot firebolts from the ends of my fingertips or levitate through the power of my mind. I find religion interesting, have studied and enjoyed religious poetry, and I'd probably class 'The Last Temptation of Christ' as one of my favourite books. Yet my experience of the world has led me to believe that we're chemical organisms in a world dominated by unyielding and generally inert physics. If our dreams and myths were reality, then the world would be so inherently unstable that it would have collapsed millennia ago. The fact that we have something that (just about) resembles a civilisation means that the world is probably without magic.
One of the cornerstones of atheism, for me at least, is the belief in tolerance in most things. I have a fairly rational view of the world and believe that people should be allowed to get on with their lives, making the kinds of mistakes that all people make. Rather than having a misguided faith in religious dogma, I believe in free speech to the extent that I'd rather hear things that offend people than live in a society where bad thoughts remain hidden until they fester into bad actions. People have the right to offend as much as they have the right to be offended but, until bad words promote bad actions, I'm very hesitant about doing much about them.
This, of course, has limits but my limits are probably more about my 'gut' instincts and the general practicalities of life, instead of any well reasoned argument. It's more of a practical point that the hate sermons of radical religions deserve to be silenced. If we were to be entirely rational about them, we'd let them spew their bile. However, it seems sensible to cut off the generators of hate before they become something more serious.
Discounting the extreme cases, bad words should be allowed to exist and challenged with argument. People who incur our displeasure should be treated with sympathy, a degree of understanding, and then with a calm challenge by which we should hope to change their point of view. We are children of the enlightenment and, as such, we should be loyal to our rationalist ancestry. Of course, this rarely happens. A person says something which deviates by the smallest quantity from the views of the hegemony and they are immediately treated as a pariah, usually by the salivating prigs on social media. When Judy Finnigan made an intelligent point about rape a few months ago, she was widely attacked because she dared to think differently about an issue. We might say that Twitter has democratised speech but I prefer to think of it as democratising stupidly. Never have we lived in a society so dominated by the dumbest among us.
All of which leads me to the problems now faced by Dave Whelan.
Racism is one of those topics which seems to demand well rehearsed words. Newspapers such as The Guardian almost have a rulebook by which we're all meant to abide. The thought police are particularly strong around the subject of race and very few of us do very well if we avoid running afoul of their ever changing guidelines. We live in an age when the good guys have to wear black and white is the new colour of evil.
It is naive, of course, to think that we can change centuries of thinking in a generation. Even more naive to think that it actually makes a difference and that our attitudes to night time and dark places might alter if we try to disassociate the colour black from negative connotations. However worthy their reasons, you cannot simply change the neural connections in our minds that easily and this especially true when those minds are older than others,
I live close enough to Wigan to know a little about Dave Whelan's reputation. My parents knew him during the time of his life when he ran a market stall. He's apparently one of life's good guys and, as far as you can tell without knowing a person's soul, without a hurtful bone in his body. No businessman in the local area has a better reputation, not only for the way he does business but for what he's done for everybody in the local community. Dave Whelan is of that generation of northerners who are old fashioned and open to the point of being naively blunt. He's honest, sometimes speaks too quickly and at too great a length, and clearly lacks the sophistication of Guardianistas in that he doesn't keep up to date with the current politically correct vocabulary.
When I created the now-defunct 'Whelan Speaks' website which produced endless meaningless quotes, it was done in the spirit of fun. And there is an element of the comic about Dave Whelan. He talks too much and talks too readily to be taken seriously. He enjoys talking and clearly enjoys the attention of the press who indulge him because he's always good for a quote.
Unfortunately, the following were some of his recent quotes:
If any Englishman said he has never called a Chinaman a chink he is lying. There is nothing bad about doing that. It is like calling the British Brits, or the Irish paddies.
The Jews don’t like losing money. Nobody likes losing money.
Do you think Jewish people chase money a little bit more than we do? I think they are very shrewd people.
I think Jewish people do chase money more than everybody else. I don’t think that’s offensive at all.
It’s telling the truth. Jewish people love money, English people love money; we all love money.
The first thing to say about the quotes is that it's pretty obvious why Dave Whelan is now in trouble with the FA. The second thing to say is: is anybody genuinely surprised to hear these words from a man of Dave Whelan's generation? I submit that the sensible way of looking at these quotes is to say that they're very much those of an older generation and just perhaps you have to have an ear for these things to recognise a very common trope you often hear in these parts among that older generation.
This sound like an appeal to something that cannot be explained rationally but it is really more than that. Despite the older generation's reputation for overt racism, I believe they were a far more tolerant generation. They were the 'take people as I find them' generation, quite different to today's youth who make cheap value judgements based on anything from model of a person's phone to the brand of shoe. Less materialistic than people of today, their generation had experienced the hardships of post-War England. They can often be blunt to the point of hurting a person but, at the same time, there is a genuine kindness behind the hard words. They don't that the glib sentimentality of today, nor the equally glib expressions of outrage. My own mother can still make me wince with the things she says but in no way would I ever call her a cruel or callous, and certainly not a racist. She simply struggles to be modern. She doesn't understand that the things she said in her youth are less acceptable these days, even when they're said in a way that's meant to be kind.
Perhaps it's knowing Wigan people that makes me want to give Dave Whelan the benefit of the doubt. There is no place in the north west of England where you can find kinder people than Wigan. It's a peculiar kindness, which you might attribute to being slow witted but is really a open approach to life.
It's why I look at Whelan's words and feel a stab of sympathy. He has fallen foul of his open character and his poor vocabulary but he is also trying to say, in the first case, that language changes, which is true. Northern men of Dave Whelan's generation would have certainly said those words. The fact that he actually uses the offending words makes the point sound controversial but, bless the poor old bugger, he's trying to sound non-discriminatory. His heart is in the right place, even if his mouth leads him astray.
It is more difficult to be sympathetic to his second point but only because he uses the offensive term 'Jews' and expresses his belief in a stereotype in 'I think Jewish people do chase money more than everybody else'. However, to be more generous, I think the words around that show that he's attempting to offer a slightly more elevated argument in favour of money.
Whelan's greater crime, in my eyes, is offering a job to Malky Mackay, about whom you could not offer any form of defence. Why did Whelan make the appointment? Maybe it takes a truly kind person to make truly dumb mistakes. As far as his words are to be judged, they might be a little too outdated for our modern ears but we should be mature enough as a society to allow them to pass with only a mild tut of disapproval. To do otherwise is to show ourselves up as immature, hysterical, and without heart. If Dave Whelan really is one of the bad guys, then the world is in a very sorry state indeed.