I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins, but the only people who think his role in the atheist movement is a messianic one are those who don’t pay any attention to the atheist movement. I’m not always on his side, and I feel no obligation to be.
But some of his critics are scraping the bottom of the barrel for reasons to bash him, until they run out of barrel. Then they find another barrel underneath, full of the dregs and mud that have sloughed off the first barrel, and are busily scraping down to the bottom of that as well.
Yesterday, Richard Dawkins described a phone call he’d had from a journalist for The Telegraph. This journalist had some frankly bizarre things to say, beginning with:
We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?
From there, Dawkins was asked about the guilt he felt for his ancestors’ actions, the origins of the “estate” partly owned by his family, and whether or not he might have “inherited a gene for supporting slavery” from his several-greats grandfather.
And sure enough, the next day the Telegraph runs an article about how Dawkins’s family “built their fortune using slaves”, using what seems like exactly the same thread of arguments as had been decided upon before Adam Lusher even contacted Dawkins, but with a few quotes from their conversation thrown in there to give the impression of balance and well rounded reporting.
The “estate” that remains of this “fortune,” as Dawkins describes it, is a small working farm, which has nothing to do with the personal wealth he’s amassed through substantial book sales, among other things. And quite why the horrifying truth that people centuries ago made a living through practices we now find abhorrent is supposed to surprise us, or reflect badly on Richard Dawkins in particular, is unexplained.
Nothing Dawkins has ever said or done has suggested that he has any sympathies toward the concept of slave-ownership. It seems odd to even ask him to clarify his position on the matter. Is this a line of questioning that Thomas Jefferson’s descendants still have to face? He owned slaves more recently than Henry Dawkins. How do we know what his great-great-great-great-grandchildren are up to?
But, even if Dawkins isn’t a special case and doesn’t deserve to be picked on specifically, maybe there’s something to the reparations argument anyway. Perhaps he and others like him, whose families are known to have profited from slavery in the past, do owe some sort of apology or remuneration to those whose families have suffered from this barbarism.
Of course, you don’t need to look any further than The Telegraph to find a rebuttal to this “intolerant side of the anti-racism movement”, and an explanation of why there is no reason for people today to feel personally responsible for the injustices of the past.
Anyway, there’s someone else I can think of whose ancestor was responsible for even more atrocities than Henry Dawkins. Murder, destruction of property, germ warfare, famine, and yes, slavery, were among his legacy. He was responsible for the deaths of millions as his bloodthirsty regime sought endless conquest.
And by “someone else”, I mean 0.5% of the population of the planet.
Hop to it, Mr Lusher. You’ve got a lot more historical injustice to right.