Why KPFA Radio should reconsider breaking its agreement with Richard Dawkins

by Michael Nugent on July 26, 2017

RD Dublin 2I have today sent this letter to Quincy McCoy, General Manager of KPFA Radio in California.

Dear Quincy, I am writing to ask you to reconsider your approach to the problem that you have created by unilaterally breaking your agreement to host Richard Dawkins speaking about his new book Science in the Soul.

This includes the impact of your behaviour on your station’s editorial and commercial integrity, on the public discussion of harmful ideas and ideologies, and on the campaign against human rights abuses caused by Islamism, most of the victims of which are Muslims.

I campaign for secularism and human rights in Ireland and internationally, including at the United Nations. I campaign both with Richard Dawkins and also in a unique alliance for secularism between Irish atheists, Evangelical Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims.

Like Richard, I have had a speaking event unilaterally cancelled. Mine was speaking about atheism to final year students in a Roman Catholic school. Thankfully, the school board reconsidered, and honoured their original agreement. I hope you are open to doing the same.

Richard also faced a similar situation last year with the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism, as did Maryam Namazie of the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain with Warwick University Students Union.

After being asked to reconsider, each of these institutions reinstated the invitations, and apologised to Richard and Maryam respectively. I hope this letter will help to persuade KPFA to follow the example of these other bodies, and to revisit your decision.

I am asking you to rearrange the original event, to apologise to Richard and to those who had bought tickets, and to generally reconsider your approach to opinions that are critical of the human rights abuses caused by Islamism, most of the victims of which are Muslims.

In this letter I will address:

  1. The problem with your current approach
  2. Why your original decision was unjustified
  3. Your profiting from Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens
  4. The word Islamophobia and the demonising of Richard Dawkins
  5. Summary of what I am requesting

1. The problem with your current approach

At the moment, your approach to your problem seems to be ad-hoc and contradictory. You are thus increasing the damage to your editorial and commercial integrity, and also to your reputation as an institution that can be trusted to keep its word to those who engage with you.

There is a major distinction between a decision to not invite someone, and a decision to publicly ‘uninvite’ someone after publicly inviting them. In this case, Richard has done nothing so unpredictably outrageous to justify unilaterally breaking an existing agreement.

You first unilaterally cancelled the event, because you mistakenly concluded that Richard’s opinions about Islam were not only harmful, but were so harmful that that you could not even sponsor an event where he was talking not about Islam but about science.

Now you are inviting Richard to discuss your controversy on the airwaves. This suggests that your concern has now shifted. Originally you were unwilling to host Richard because of his views. Now your concern is merely about the venue at which you want to host him.

But if you are prepared to host Richard talking about Islam on your station, why can you not honour your agreement to host him talking about science at the originally planned event?

You seem to have expressed two answers to this dilemma.

  • Your first reason is that you could engage and challenge Richard’s views on air. But you could also do that at the book event. I attended a similar event in Dublin last month, which took the form of a conversation between Richard and an interviewer.
  • Your second reason is that you have a right not to sponsor and profit from an event where Richard is speaking. But you already profit from other controversial writers whose opinions hurt people. That said, you could always host the original event, and donate your share of the profits to a charity of the audience’s choosing.

So neither of your implied reasons seem to stand up to scrutiny. Also, your current emphasis on wanting to be able to challenge Richard’s assertions creates the impression that it is Richard, and not you, who has acted improperly. I disagree with this. Let me explain why.

2. Why your original decision was unjustified

Your original announcement of your decision to break your agreement with Richard and your ticket buyers said it was because ‘he had offended and hurt, in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people. KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech.’

You later added that ‘We serve a broad and diverse community, including many Muslims living under threat of persecution and violence in the current political context. Islamophobic rhetoric stokes that threat.’ I’ll address later why I disagree with your implied analysis of the word ‘Islamophobia’, but for now let’s take your reason at face value.

In a news item justifying your behaviour, you interviewed Lara Kiswani, Executive director of the Bay Area based Arab Resource and Organizing Center. She said that she had contacted ‘her partners in the station’ when she heard of the event. You also allowed her to make unchallenged defamatory allegations on air, including that Richard is ‘a well-known Islamophobe’.

But Lara herself, at an event in UC Berkely, is reported here as saying that ‘bringing down Israel will really benefit everyone in the world and everyone in society,’ and she told a student who questioned her that ‘as long as you choose to be on that side, I’m going to continue to hate you.’ She has also expressed other controversial views.

How could you consider whatever Richard has said about Islam to be so hurtful that you could not even sponsor him talking about science, while justifying that decision by interviewing somebody who has explicitly said that she hates people because of their beliefs?

To be clear, I fully support your right to interview Lara Kiswani about her views, within the limits of defamation law. However, based on the criteria that you used to break your agreement to host Richard, and assuming that you have the same concern for Jews as you do for Muslims, you should not agree with your station hosting Lara.

Philip Maldari then gave further reasons on his Sunday Show. He said that he had pulled out as host of the original event, because he had heard about things that Richard had said or written. But the descriptions that he gave on the Sunday Show were misleading and incomplete.

I completely understand how this happened, as there is a global cottage industry of misrepresenting and demonising Richard. I give links to some examples of this later in this letter.

Nevertheless, Philip could have clarified the accuracy of these concerns, by seeking further information from Richard before pulling out as host. Instead, he just unilaterally pulled out based on that incomplete information. I believe that decision was unethical and unprofessional.

3. Your profiting from Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens

Can I ask you to compare and contrast your approach to this problem with your approach last October to the launch of Chris Hedges’ book Unspeakable, and to your profiting from $300 pledges for a media archive that includes a debate with Christopher Hitchens?

Chris Hedges is also a controversial author whose writing can hurt people. Indeed, he was disinvited from a peace conference in the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, because he published a column comparing ISIS to Israel.

Despite this, you (rightly) hosted a similar book talk last October for him. Ironically, you hosted it in conjunction with Project Censored, and the full book title was ‘Unspeakable: on the most forbidden topics in America.’

You also currently advertise an offer on your station whereby, for a pledge of $300, listeners can get a Chris Hedges media archive collection, which includes a debate between Chris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Here is a link to an article by Christopher Hitchens titled ‘God fearing people: why are we so scared of offending Muslims?’

Here is a link to an article in which he said ‘But at the moment, it’s very clear to me the most toxic form that religion takes is the Islamic form… The whole idea of wanting to end up with Sharia with a religion-governed state — a state of religious law — and the best means of getting there is Jihad, Holy War, that Muslims have a special right to feel aggrieved enough to demand this is absolute obscene wickedness and I think their religion is nonsense, in its entirety.’

Why are you happy to host and profit from a book event for Chris Hedges, and to profit to the extent of $300 a pledge for a media archive that includes a debate between Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens, but not happy to host and profit from a book event about science by Richard Dawkins?

By your own criteria for breaking your agreement on this event, it just doesn’t make sense. You should either reconsider your decision regarding Richard, or else remove this pledge offer from your website.

4. The word Islamophobia and the demonising of Richard Dawkins

More fundamentally, as well as all of the above, I disagree with your assessment of Richard’s views generally. You are coming to false conclusions based on incomplete information. I attach links to several articles that I have written about the global cottage industry of misrepresenting his views.

I also disagree with the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ to silence legitimate criticism of human rights abuses by Islamist regimes, most of the victims of which are Muslims.

It is important that we challenge anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry, while also continuing to challenge harmful ideologies. I attach links to several articles that I have written about the problems with legitimising the word ‘Islamophobia’.

5. Summary

To conclude, I am asking you to rearrange the original event, to apologise to Richard and to those who had bought tickets, and to generally reconsider your approach to opinions that are critical of the human rights abuses caused by Islamism, most of the victims of which are Muslims.

On the weekend that you announced your decision, Richard and I were at an international conference in London on freedom of conscience and expression, at which seventy speakers from thirty countries worked together to promote secularism and human rights for everybody.

That conference passed a declaration, which I assume you have read, asking you to reconsider your decision on this. But even if you disagree with us about this, your approach to your current problem has been ad-hoc and contradictory.

Even by your own criteria, you should either decide to honour your original agreement, or else radically revise your editorial and commercial decisions about other guests who discuss controversial or contested topics.

I look forward to hearing that you have reconsidered this.

POSTSCRIPT

Jerry Coyne on Why Evolution is True has a series of posts that cover the timeline of this incident.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adrian Hunter July 26, 2017 at 11:48 am

Christopher Hitchens supported the mass murder of 1 million people in the Iraq war and aftermath. That makes Islamists look like boy scouts in comparison. He, and others, turned from left wing, liberal politics to supporting the most right wing President there had ever been (till this one), neo con warmongering and much else besides. Why he is championed as a man of principle is totally beyond me.

2 Ben S Copson July 26, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Hitches didn’t support the mass murder of anybody, he supported the war in as far as toppling Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator, who use sarin on his own people.
Hitchens was extremely well versed in the middle east having travelled it more than most and his opinion wasn’t unjustified nor unfounded, unlike the claims you are making about him.
‘ISIS look like boy scouts in comparison’, yeah because Hitchens’ ideology was to kill everybody who didn’t agree with him, enslave woman for sex, throw homosexuals from rooftops, kill apostates, atheists, polytheists, Jews etc etc. And set up a global theology. ISIS and Hitchens are diametrically opposed!
Your diatribe is far from accurate and shows a lack of knowledge, rationality and honesty. It is especially repugnant and unethical as he isn’t here to defend himself .

3 Paul Chandler July 26, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Adrian,

I never agreed with Hitchens on the Iraq War but I listened to his arguments and they were principled arguments. To compare the actions of CH with Islamists throwing homosexuals off the roof is stretching a point. As far as I know Hitchens never committed a violent deed in his life.

As this article makes clear the victims of Islamism are muslims in the main and those who argue that religion must be called out for the irrational barbarities that they sanction, should be praised and not deplatformed!

4 Dale July 26, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Dear Adrian Hunter

I am guessing the reason Christopher Hitchens’ being championed is beyond you is that you likely find a desperate need to put him in either a “neo con right” or a “liberal left” box.

Christopher Hitchens spoke intelligently on many issues over his life and most of the time he added an insight that attempted to stop hysterical overreaction or just comment truthfully for the sake of reason in the face of ignorance.

He only backed the decision of the US to invade Iraq as he believed it may help to slow down the spread of an ideology that continues to wreak havoc in that region and others around the world and one which seeks to slaughter billions of people (all non Muslims). As Hitchens and Dawkins believe/d, there is no reason to dislike, disrespect or hate Muslims or any other group but an ideology that promotes many forms of oppression of all women and others as well as calling for the “any means slaughter” of non believers or apostates of that ideology really, really has no place in a world that needs increasing cooperation between different peoples and nation states.

Cooperatively yours

Dale

5 Jim Vaughan July 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm

Excellent letter! I think the issue is whether RD supports the kind of anti-Muslim discrimination we are seeing advocated by the current Trump administration. My guess is he would condemn all forms of discrimination, including against Muslims, but it would help if he would state that clearly and distance himself from bigots like Trump, who want to single out Muslims for restrictions like travel bans etc.

I admire KPFAs stand in siding with Muslims, and all other threatened minorities, against hate speech. However, in this case, I believe there has been a misunderstanding, I hope they reconsider, and reinvite RD to speak. Ultimately, I believe RD and KPFA share a loathing of discrimination. Let’s unite around that!

6 mikeyc July 26, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Jim Vaughan; you wonder if Dr Dawkins “…supports the kind of anti-Muslim discrimination we are seeing advocated by the current Trump administration” and whether he would state it clearly and distance himself from it.

Here is what Dr Dawkins had to say about Trump’s plans. This is also the source of one of the quote mines KPFA relied on to make their rather stupid decision;

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”

7 Jonathan Dore July 26, 2017 at 6:07 pm

“My guess is he would condemn all forms of discrimination, including against Muslims, but it would help if he would state that clearly and distance himself from bigots like Trump”

No need to guess Jim — he has repeatedly done all of those things, loudly and publicly, on Twitter, in broadcast media, on his foundation’s website, in interviews, everywhere really. This kind of thing is really quite easy to find out you know …

8 Rowena L Kitchen July 26, 2017 at 6:47 pm

I agree that Michael Nugent’s letter is wonderfully clear and well presented. I also agree with what he has to say. KPFA stepped in it very badly from start to finish and they owe Professor Dawkins an apology.

If those accusing Professor Dawkins had read his books or tweets, listened to him on radio or podcasts, watched him on television or gone
to one of his lectures, it is highly unlikely that they would make the accusations they have.

9 Matt Cavanaugh July 26, 2017 at 8:08 pm

KPFA is in dire financial straits, yet has been forced to underwrite & prop up its sister stations of the moribund Pacifica Radio network. The station’s ever-dwindling listener base is comprised exclusively of radicals and regressive leftists.

Although reinstating Dawkins’ invitation would be the right and ethical thing to do, it is inconceivable that KPFA would risk offending its donors with such a gesture.

10 peter July 26, 2017 at 10:32 pm

He only backed the decision of the US to invade Iraq as he believed it may help to slow down the spread of an ideology that continues to wreak havoc in that region and others around the world and one which seeks to slaughter billions of people (all non Muslims).
A claim that is complete and utter nonsense, as under Hussein Iraq was a secular state, whatever else you might say about him. The same BTW goes for Assad.
There are many reasons why the US invaded Iraq – illegally of course as an act of unfettered and unwarranted aggression – https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/the-right-and-wrong-questions-about-the-iraq-war/393497/ The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that.

That Hitchens fell for the nonsense of believing in the necessity of deposing a dictator, a form of Government that unfortunately and for historical reasons was necessary to stabilize Nations that were created post colonialism but with the aim to guarantee zones of influence and interests by the ex colonial masters does not demonstrate great insight, but more so shows a view that was likely still based on his ex Trotskyite internationalist views that tries to impose a one cooking cutter democracy for all even when this process of democratization is not applicable. Those artificial creations brought into close contact tribes and religious sects harboring enmities against each other, and would have broken apart much earlier had it not been for those dictators – as the examples Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc, show with great clarity. The tribes in their own interest agreed with the dictatorship, as long as they felt their interests were somewhat protected. The case of post invasion Iraq again showed clearly what happens when this strong hand is missing and the tribal warfare gains the upper hand.

11 Michael Nugent July 27, 2017 at 12:40 am

Jim and Rowena,

While it may have been a misunderstanding on behalf of the ultimate decision maker in KPFA, it was prompted by complaints from people who are active political campaigners.

There has been a concerted attempt in recent years, as illustrated in some of the links in section 4 of my letter, to portray Richard in as malevolent a manner as possible.

While it can be possible to let people know that they have fallen for this misrepresentation, we often only get a chance to do that after they have acted on the misinformation.

12 Jim Vaughan July 27, 2017 at 12:30 pm

Michael, I do appreciate that RD is something of a marmite personality, and there may indeed be some who wish to unfairly malign him, as you cite in the links in section 4 of your letter.

However, it is easy to get into a Carpman Triangle in this dispute, with everyone feeling attacked. A better strategy, and a way to resolve this, is instead to start from common ground – shared opposition to all forms of discrimination.

I follow RD on social media, avidly read his books, previously joined RDFRS and consider myself a fan. However, I cannot recall him ever stating his opposition to ALL discrimination, without liberally salting it with his opposition to religion in some form. I think he conflates the two.

With the background of much anti-Muslim feeling with the “War on Terror”, and attempts to discriminate against Muslims in the US, I believe his stance against Islam as an “evil religion” is easy to misunderstand as supporting the “Muslims are dangerous” attitude of the current US administration. This is what I believe KPFA are fighting.

I therefore despair that in such circumstances, the liberal left fragments. We should be fighting together against prejudice! Hence I would urge you as “Dawkins Bulkdog” (I think Jerry Coyne also holds that position) to put on hold further accusations, and seek common ground with KPFA to patch up this misunderstanding and jointly oppose ALL forms of discrimination. We should be on the same side!

The “peace dividend” of such cooperation would benefit both KPFA (who would have many tuning in to hear Richard), and RD (who would get to promote his book). Further squabbling on the other hand can only provide more ammunition to those who would malign him. It makes neither look good! Maybe peace is not possible, but surely it is worth a try.

13 Lancelot Gobbo July 27, 2017 at 12:34 pm

A principled and reasonable letter, Mick. I suppose KPFA are afraid their (well-insured) windows will be smashed by the Black Block if they are seen to promote wrongthink. We need the media to be able to air all views, even if they don’t agree with them, otherwise they lose the only function and tradition of which they can be proud.
As for Adrian Hunter, who wrote of Christoper Hitchens:
“Why he is championed as a man of principle is totally beyond me.”
I am sorry to hear you find yourself so limited in understanding. Remedial action in the form of reading John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ will help. It is freely available from Project Gutenberg, and is a quick and easy read, and I would suggest that anyone unfamiliar with it is handicapped in understanding these matters. Now I shan’t defend Hitchens’ views on the Iraq War, which was started for all the wrong reasons, and in terms of realpolitik it would have been better for the West if we had let Saddam continue to slaughter his people, and presumably you feel that at least their blood would not be on our hands. I shall defend his lifetime’s work as a whole as he had a consistent track record of saying truthful if unpopular things. He thought, spoke and wrote with clarity and intelligence. I did not expect him to be perfect and correct on all matters as none of us are. Just because I disagree with a person on one matter does not mean I shall dismiss the rest of his life, as doing that will eventually leave one with no one to talk to and no one to learn from.

14 Richard Sanderson (@RichSandersen) August 1, 2017 at 8:46 pm

Adrian Hunter must have crawled out of the recesses of CJ Werleman’s basement. Or worse – Pharyngula.

Also, the likes of Dan Arel and PZ Myers have said must worse about Islam than Dawkins ever did.

15 Seriously August 10, 2017 at 3:21 am

Basic rule here:

Lefties lie.

Once you understand that, you’ll understand the rest.

16 Michael Nugent August 14, 2017 at 12:18 am

I’ve deleted a comment that consisted of a stream of abuse about Christopher Hitchens, which was supported by a link to a satirical article about Hitchens as if it was a serious article.

17 Shatterface August 15, 2017 at 8:11 pm

A claim that is complete and utter nonsense, as under Hussein Iraq was a secular state, whatever else you might say about him. The same BTW goes for Assad.

And Stalin. And Mao.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: