Go on, boycott America

. . . on Lockerbie, knighthoods and the futility of Richard Dawkins

As it happens, I think Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was innocent of the Lockerbie bombing. But that is beside the point. The Scottish justice system thinks he is guilty. Unless you want to avoid the truth coming out during an appeal or to ingratiate yourself with Colonel Gaddafi, therefore, the arguments for the Libyan's release are weak.

You show compassion to mass murderers by treating them humanely in prison and offering them medical treatment. Allowing them a "good death", surrounded by their nearest and dearest, naturally hurts the victims' relatives, who never had a chance to say a formal farewell.

But what seems most astonishing is that British politicians failed to anticipate al-Megrahi's welcome in Tripoli. To most Libyans, he is the victim of an enormous miscarriage of justice. Compare his reception to the welcome we give hostages released from the Middle East. Or compare it to the parades for soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, taking part in wars and occupations that have killed far more civilians than died in the Lockerbie bombing. Whether Libyans think al-Megrahi is innocent or guilty, they are bound to regard him as a hero. Our politicians seem to lack any understanding of how Arabs and Muslims view the world in general and us in particular.

One can think of many reasons to boycott American goods: for example, the country's record of bombing and invading other countries; its support for violent attempts to overthrow left-wing governments; its use of torture and illegal detention; the support (among a large section of its population, including some leading politicians) for the IRA during its bombing campaign. But anyone who proposed such a boycott would be accused of diehard, irrational, unforgivable anti-Americanism. Now, after the release of al-Megrahi, some Americans want to boycott Scottish goods. The French received similar threats when they declined to support the Iraq invasion. President Obama has only partially lifted the embargo on Cuba: yet the cold war ended 20 years ago and the regime, while tyrannical, is hardly the worst on the planet.

Americans can be extraordinarily vengeful when crossed. They expect the deference that imperial powers usually receive from their subjects. I see no reason to revise my advice to readers in a leader for this magazine in 2003: "Nobody should apologise for being anti-American . . . wear the badge with pride."

I see Richard Dawkins has written yet another book, this time defending evolution and comparing creationists to Holocaust-deniers. I shall not be reading it. I do not see the point of Dawkins. Has anybody ever been persuaded to renounce God or dismiss Genesis as a pack of lies by reading Dawkins? I suspect his books are bought almost exclusively by those who already agree with him.

In the mid-1990s, when I was editor of the Independent on Sunday, Dawkins offered to write a demolition of astrology and horoscopes. Since the pending issue was on New Year's Eve and Dawkins is always a sellable name, I commissioned and published it. Never had I seen such esoteric knowledge, scientific rigour, polemical power and fine writing wasted on such flimsy targets. No doubt IoS readers enjoyed the piece, but I'd be surprised if a single one thought anything like "Well, knock me down with a feather duster! I always thought horoscopes were absolutely reliable. Now, thanks to Dawkins, I know better."

Dawkins does not understand that, at least in Europe and America, people read horoscopes because they are fun. Similarly, they cling to God and the creation myth because they are comforting, and provide a simpler, less counter-intuitive explanation for the world than evolution. Dawkins's mastery of rational argument did not put astrologers out of business and will not shut the churches either.

I know lots of people who read horoscopes, but none who act as though they believe them. Nor do I know any churchgoers who act as though they believe in the Bible. That point was brought home to me by a statistic that emerged from the heated debate over Obama's health service reforms: almost half of all American health-care spending occurs in the last year of the patient's life. I would guess that the figure for spending in the NHS is similar. Yet most Americans still claim faith in God and go to church regularly. If they take Christianity literally, this earthly existence should surely be unimportant to them. My grasp of theology is imperfect but I would have thought that, instead of struggling to hold on to this mortal coil,
they should be preparing themselves for divine judgement or looking forward to paradise.


Will Andrew Flintoff get a knighthood, as Ian Botham did? I hope not. Flintoff has turned in some fine performances for England, particularly in 2005, but his overall record is mediocre, largely because he took so long to recognise that sporting achievement requires discipline and dedication. Botham was one of the great all-rounders in cricket history who, in the Ashes series of 1981, three times conjured victory from a seemingly hopeless situation.

Botham never received the adulation from England fans that Flintoff enjoys. This was probably because he lacked Flintoff's winning smile and his cuddly, giant teddy-bear qualities. Moreover, he was associated with cannabis in Lincolnshire, adultery and punch-ups in Australia and insults in Pakistan, which he described as a place where mothers-in-law should be sent. But we should not forget the hundreds of miles Botham walked to raise funds for charity, nor the solidarity with his Somerset teammate Viv Richards which persuaded him to spurn lucrative offers to play in apartheid South Africa.

Flintoff has cultivated a laddish image that allows him to pose as the people's hero. I suspect the big difference is that the PR advice to cricketers is now more sophisticated than it was in Botham's time.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years