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Today I begin packing for another few months of work in America – Los Angeles in October, the east coast in November. Normally I do so with excitement, but now I have regrets.

England is hard to leave at this time of year. An Indian summer is descending into autumn, a moment of change that flatters our uneventful landscape. The trees are turning brown and the flowers are starting their long droop to the bed beneath them: soon their petals will fall, covering the floor in speckled marvels of pick and white. The season ends tragically for the bees. They swim around drunkenly in early September, sipping at the roses in the garden. But by the end of the month, they are fat and confused by the colder weather. A few venture inside and expire on the carpet. By October, they are all gone. As the birds fly off, the landscape falls silent. The trees are barren and cruel, the waters are stagnant. It is not the scene that bring comfort, but the knowledge that this happens every year. The old dies off and the new hibernates in nests, awaiting the fresh spring of tomorrow.

I returned home this afternoon to an extraordinary sight. My father had driven his car into the next door neighbor’s garden, tearing down the fence and crushing the flowers in-between. He was sitting at the bottom of the stairs in silence. The old man is dying and this is the latest manifestation of it. Nerve damage has left him unable to use his hands and he finds walking difficult. He has also developed a heart condition and cancer of the thyroid. None of these are connected and they all appeared suddenly and instantaneously four weeks ago. I have watched my father age twenty years in a month. I helped him indoors and fixed him some honeyed tea.

What is terrifying about death isn’t the thought of annihilation: it’s the threat of a long period of vulnerability. If only we could all, at a moment of our choosing, walk out into No Man’s Land and fall at the first volley. Instead we decline slowly and are forced to rely on the patience of others. My grandmother went this way. After a lifetime spent travelling the world as a mystic (she claimed to have read Nureyev’s palm) she ended as a tiny, broken lady locked up in a hospice. The hospice had a certain je ne sais quoi: it was converted from a World War I sanatorium and overlooked a wind-swept moor. But rather than reading tarot cards and painting terrible landscapes – as I imagined she would do – my grandmother watched TV and waited for dinner. I felt contempt for her willingness to die like this. “If it was me,” I told myself, “I would spend my last weeks on safari, drinking myself stupid with champagne.” But her will seemed to have gone. How extraordinary this was from a woman who was previously so independent that when my mother and I once called on her house, she pretended not to know who we were to avoid having to let us in.

But now, I can see from my father that this condition is universal. He has no defiance left, only an all-encompassing dread of the moment when he won’t wake up. I cannot understand or describe it until I too face the Grim Reaper. But, for now, I will label it the Last Shout of Atheism. My father believes in nothing and he knows that once he is dead, that will be it. He doesn’t care how he is remembered, because he won’t be around to hear the loving eulogy. He doesn’t believe Heaven exists, so he has no hope. He doesn’t acknowledge Hell, so there’s no galvanizer to action. He is waiting for oblivion.

When I have children – and so help me God, I will have a million – I will indoctrinate them all in The Faith. I’ll bludgeon them into it with Sunday school and prayers at nighttime. I’ll have them memorizing Psalms and spitting at the Heathen that live across the street. Some, perhaps all, will lose the faith in their adulthood. But on the deathbed, it’ll come back – the certainty that there is something beyond all the blood and tears of mortal life. Maybe they’ll only fool themselves that they believe it, but who cares? The important thing is that they will die in peace.

Combining love of God and love of nature, one of the great joys of having faith is the knowledge that the seasons will continue after I am gone. Every generation of plant or animal that evaporates in winter, will be replenished in the spring – perhaps with a thousand mutations that provide a constant, churning evolution of life. It will not stop unless He commands it. Who is He – Jehovah, Christ, Dharma, or Allah? I’ve still not figured that out, but after I am gone I will know. And that prospect gives death an added thrill: “I’m coming, sir. And I have a lot of questions to ask.”

So I regret leaving England for the fact that I shall miss that which gives me the greatest comfort: the cycle of death and birth that plays out in her fields and streams. Los Angeles is beautiful, but dry and white all year round. There life never stops and never starts. Like the plants and grass, it is artificial and thus immortal.

 
 
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The best deaths have poetry and logic. By those standards, the executed cop killer Troy Davis was a very lucky man. Most of us will die addled with drugs, alone, and tied to an electronic heart pump. Troy got a crowd of spectators. His army of fans stood outside his prison walls wearing “I AM TROY DAVIS” t-shirts. His farewell was read out to millions of people across the world. The Pope and an ex-President prayed for him. In a few years time, a bridge will be named after our hero – maybe even a regional beauty contest, or a push up bra. When I die, the only witnesses will be the lawyers sent by my ex-wives to make sure that the sonofabitch is really dead and isn’t just faking it … again.

There was logic to the way Troy Davis died. Perhaps he didn’t do it, the critics say. The evidence is actually overwhelming that he did. But even if he didn’t, something about the pattern of his life led him inexorably to this moment. He was a drug dealer who terrorized his home town. The day he shot policeman Mark MacPhail, he had earlier discharged his gun in someone’s face. MacPhail interrupted Davis in the middle of pistol whipping a homeless man. When you know these facts – and they are rarely reported – he sounds a little less like the Good Samaritan that his defense team painted him as.

Imagining for a moment that Troy Davis didn’t do it (and he definitely did), his arrest and sentencing for the death of MacPhail would be an act of irony worthy of a Russian novel. The fact that he then turned his seedy life around into a campaign for human rights would make a wonderful third act. His execution in the finale would redeem him. Troy Davis’s death thus had purpose. If he had not been arrested and had gone on wrecking young people’s lives with narcotics, he would have just died another bum. If Troy was innocent, then he owed the great state of Georgia a vote of thanks. It turned a lowlife crook into an international celebrity.

What is wrong with the American justice system isn’t that it hands out death sentences willynilly, it’s that they take so long to pass. It doesn’t help that rich people who have a fetish for criminals finance appeal after appeal. And it’s where American law starts to get obsessed with due process, and starts to lose sight of the essential romance of justice, that it becomes cruel and inhuman. Justice is something that is meant to be seen to be done: it should be public, brutal, emotional. It must be cathartic enough to leave the community satisfied that it is adequately compensated and safe. The acme of true justice is the vigilance committee, which charges straight to the scene of the crime and sentences the guilty party in a passionate display of blood and flame. In the late 19th century, the vigilance committee was the only law in many parts of the American West. It was an expression of popular sovereignty and conservative skepticism towards the established legal system. Its acts were monstrous, but it was a monstrous time. The spirit of the age still haunts the American imagination. Only occasionally is the US public allowed to tap it. The death of Osama bin Laden was one such moment – and my, how wonderful it felt to know that the beast was finally slaughtered!

No, what is cruel about the Western legal system isn’t that it kills: what is cruel is that it guarantees the lives of guilty men for as long as they live them. Prisons are the greatest horror civilization has produced. Men and women are left to fester and rot, trapped between further schooling in crime or the monotonous boredom of institutional living. What a terrible two decades Troy Davis must have had, shunted from court to court, his appeal denied repeatedly, his execution deferred at the last minute, his hopes raised and dashed. The prison system has become an extension of the suffocating bureaucracy of the modern welfare state – a kind of cradle to grave nightmare for the poor and mental ill. It is surely “life without parole” that is the ultimate cruelty – not the swift blade of the guillotine or the gentle “thwack” of the plummeting noose.

I’m sure that Troy Davis’s death was horrible, but it was appropriate and even heroic. He was fortunate to be denied the banality of slipping away in a prison hospital ward – a forgotten man, handcuffed to his bed. In an age when criminals are victims and victims are angels, the silent majority gave him something he can be enormously proud of – a martyr’s death. Those are few and far between and, as we well know, a fast track to sainthood.

 
 
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At the sidelines of British life, everything is okay. Ann Widdecombe is starring in panto and 80’s comic due Cannon and Ball have published a book called Christianity for Beginners. In other news, Neil Hamilton has joined UKIP. I found out by mistake when I saw a link for an online video labeled “Neil Hamilton – I’m coming out”. It turned out to be a speech to this year’s UKIP conference (presumably in a lockup in Cornwall?). Neil was wearing a union jack bowtie he’d had made for himself during the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. It’s incredible to think that thirty six years later … Neil Hamilton’s still wearing bowties.

For American readers, who are these people and why do they matter? Neil Hamilton was a former Conservative MP who was accused of taking bribes. Evidence now suggests that he was innocent, but that didn’t stop his career spectacularly crashing. Bankrupted by legal fees, he and his fantastic wife, Christine, were reduced to appearing on game shows and painful self-parodies. One of the strongest memories of my adolescence was watching Neil host a show about political scandal. The producers had him whip the camera with a cat-o-nine-tails and whisper, “s-s-s-sex!” I swear it left me impotent for life.

UKIP is the United Kingdom Independence Party, and it’s a perfect fit for Mr. Hamilton. It was founded by Right-wingers who quit the Conservative Party in the 1990s in protest at its post-Thatcher drift to the center. In particular, they felt it was too accommodating to the European leviathan. What the contemporary UKIP does precisely stand for is up for debate, but it can no longer be dismissed. Having come second in the last European elections and attracted one million votes in the 2010 general election, it is now officially Britain’s fourth party. If the UK practiced proportional representation, there would probably be about thirty UKIP MPs. The House of Commons bar would never be empty again.

UKIP is home to hundreds of thousands of disenchanted voters. People who are disenchanted with the process of UK politics tend to join the Liberal Democrats. People who are disenchanted with its lack of humor or ideology swing to dear old UKIP. Voting UKIP is white people’s way of telling the Prime Minister to “kiss my black ass”. Polls suggest that it pulls in surprisingly even amounts of support from Labour and Conservative voters. Despite its populist appeal, UKIP is blighted by an image problem. It has come to be seen as the party of the golfer – the Right-wing, retired stock broker with diabetes and a wife who is fanatically devoted to Bridge. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is the epitome of the classless Tory. He talks openly about going to lap dancing clubs and there’s something about his cheerful patter that is more redolent of the race track than the polo circuit. Farage is the best weapon UKIP has at the polls. The previous leader, the perpetually bored Lord Pearson, would admit to only a passing knowledge of his party’s manifesto and exhuded a kind of resigned good humor. Farage, in contrast, crashed onto the British political scene like a populist tornado.

If I write jokingly of UKIP then it’s not for the usual, disingenuous reasons (most British commentary on the party is filled with snobbery and spite). It is innately funny because it wallows in its own outrageousness. Its central proposition – that the UK should leave the European Union “NOW!” (regardless of the cost) – is a powerful magnet for a perverse mix of bloody-mindedness and commonsense. The European Union is a disaster that has ruined several member states. There is no good sense in trying to harmonize the economies or governments of Germany (a strong economy based on export) and Greece (a weak economy based on selling dirty rags to tourists). And yet the Union has tried to do just this – for reasons of political ideology. The fundamentalists driving forward European integration care nothing for its economic cost. Still less do they care about concepts like national self-determination or self-governance. They see the desire to rule oneself as an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity. Incredibly, some British people see it that way, too. There are Brits who fly the European flag on their front lawns. To what do they feel they are committing their allegiance? The metric system?

UKIP has become a lightning rod for people angry with European integration, whatever their reason. Old socialists reject the single market’s anti-regulatory impulse (it is essentially illegal under EU law to nationalize an industry, and the EU has forced terrible spending cuts on member states). Tories and nationalists abhor its collectivism and assault on sovereignty. A fair few Britons will admit that they just don’t like the French. The feeling is mutual.

What makes Europhobia so potent is the fact that the British political class has ignored it. Despite strong public support for withdrawal, no party with run on that platform. Countless politicians have promised a renegotiation of the terms of our membership and failed to deliver. Anger at Europe has been internalized into anger at Britain’s gutless politicians. This is something UKIP’s establishment critics don’t understand about the party: it has as much to say about Britain as it does Europe.

If UKIP’s real issue is political corruption, the problem is that it isn’t united on the solution. Certainly, every single member wants some degree of withdrawal from the EU. But one of the reasons why it has failed to set a domestic agenda might be a lack of unity beyond that point. Farage and Hamilton represent the dominant wing of the party, which is shamelessly libertarian. They basically want UKIP to pick up where Mrs Thatcher left off: free trade with the developing world, social liberalism (read: lap dancing), the deconstruction of the welfare state, and taxes lower than a dachshund's belly. But there is another side to the party, one which approximates more to the populist conservatism of Gianfranco Fini or Jorg Haider. Their presence is obvious in UKIP’s opposition to the wearing of the Muslim veil, its anti-immigration rhetoric, and its demand that church and businesses be free to discriminate against gays. There is absolutely no evidence to support this assertion, but I’d bet good money that the libertarians tend to be middle class golfers and the populists are more working class.

Ironically, UKIP’s coalition is rather more European in flavor than it is British. It is common in Europe – particularly the Latin countries – for a coalition of wildly different activists to form around a single idea or person. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (defunct since 2009) was an example. It combined liberals, Christian Democrats, and former communists - all united by the need to modernize the country’s political and economic structures. Each faction enjoyed control over an aspect of policy, satisfying everyone by giving in to their most passionate demand. UKIP has achieved a similar degree of harmony by allowing the populists to govern immigration, the libertarians to decide tax policy, and everyone to unite around withdrawal from Europe. This is only new in the British context, where parties are traditionally motivated by ideology or class. Having attended a UKIP Christmas party, I can attest that it attracts an extraordinary mix of people. The only things they had in common were a hatred of foreign governance and a tendency to drink and drive.

If I had one wish it would be this: that UKIP becomes the British Tea Party. We have no independent conservative movement in Britain because the Conservative Party saps its energy and money. Without a real primary system, there is no effective way to protest Conservative policy or hold the party to account. By threatening to take away votes at a general election, however, UKIP could force the Conservatives back to the Right. If they finally won seats in Parliament, a coalition could ensure some meaningful renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. The use of external pressure is what forced the Republican Party to the Right in the 1970s: the independent candidacies of George C Wallace encouraged it to think again about states’ rights and taxes. Likewise, the Tea Party’s domination of the current GOP primaries demonstrates how an independent movement that teases candidates with seductive offers of support in return for hardcore policy commitments can change the national political discourse. That is what UKIP must try to become: an American style independent conservative movement that blends anti-government and Moral Majority fervor.

The question is, does UKIP have the degree of seriousness and depth necessary to do this? The arrival on the scene of Neil Hamilton suggests not. Pleasant and witty though the man is, for millions of Brits he is associated with exactly the kind of corruption UKIP exists to wipe out. God bless him for re-entering our lives, though. There’s something so wonderfully English about a career that begins in Parliament and ends on television. In America, it’s so often done the other way around.

 
 
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I’ve always been fascinated by the British serial killer Fred West. I remember when the bodies were first found beneath his patio at number 25, Cromwell Street in 1994. I recall the constant rain, the body bags, and the soft Gloucester accents of the policemen – “We ‘ave reason to bulieve thaat there are moore budies buried in the baasement.” Most of all, I remember the photographs of Fred and his wife Rose celebrating Christmas. They were scenes of normality from lives lived by millions of working-class folk back then: brown wall paper, kipper ties, bad teeth, huge glasses, mauve carpet, sideburns. After cutting the turkey and enjoying a glass of wine, Fred and Rose would get into their van, find a lost girl, rape and kill her. They even tortured and molested their own children. We’ll never know how many people died in the charnel house on Cromwell Street. Fred hanged himself before he could incriminate his wife.

The British TV station ITV is running a two part drama about Fred West’s arrest and eventual suicide. It’s a smashing bit of TV, well acted and thoughtful. Fred is played by Dominic West as a witty, charming individual who toys happily with the police (at one point he claims to speak with the spirits of his victims). He is undone only by his narcissistic wife, Rose – portrayed as a foul mouthed demon by Monica Dolan. Rose is his Lady Macbeth, and the serial implies that she was far crueler than he. Fred disgusts us, but he is bizarre and cheeky enough to make us want to find out who he killed next.

But this was not the Fred West I knew, writes Neil Derbyshire in the Daily Mail. “Most of West’s workmates found him creepy and crass, and his ‘friends’ were mainly men he invited to his home to have sex with his wife for money. Dominic West has genuine charm, Fred West did not.” After spending two months reporting on West in court, Derbyshire concluded that he was a “nobody,… twisted in a dopey, almost childlike way, but just nobody. Not particularly cunning, or clever, and definitely not charismatic. Just a sick individual who teamed up with a slightly brighter, sexually deranged woman and thought he could get away with murder.” Why didn’t the real Fred West make it onto our screens? Perhaps because he was boring and bad TV. But, in a way, the more “dopey” he might have seemed, the more terrifying the drama would have been.

What is particularly disturbing about the Wests is how long they got away with their shenanigans. At school, their kids talked about their siblings being “buried under the patio” and the teachers just ignored it. Countless social workers visited the house and came away satisfied. Fred was in court a number of times accused of rape; the charges were often dismissed. A judge once apologized for wasting his time. Fred even offered to sell homemade porn to his local public library. The librarians politely declined, but didn’t think to call the police. Society didn’t ignore Fred West: he was in the dock practically every other weekend. Rather, it normalized his behavior and categorized his family as a “nuisance” but not a “threat”. The bureaucracy tagged and labeled him and passed his kids from agency to agency, until their cuts and bruises had become a footnote in a mountain of paperwork. One of the reasons why this happened is that Fred was so uncharismatic. Like most serial killers, he maintained a home and a family and always said “please” and “thank you”; and he never, ever cut in line. He was ordinary. Rose was ordinary too, and is now leading a prosaic life in jail. Apparently she uses her £16 a month allowance to buy frilly dresses from online catalogues. She’s lost the Deidre Rashid glasses too.

Society needs to believe that only extraordinary people do terrible things. And so Fred West has been transformed into the smiling monster. The reality is that he was just like you or I, except a little inbred, misled, and probably suffering from a blocked synapse. One of the great lies of the modern age is that man is innately good. Actually, he’s innately bad and requires laws and parenting to keep him in order. Under certain conditions, his evil comes to the fore. The British are the worst people in the world for believing their own press, but last month they got a horrible reminder of the nature of Original Sin when thousands took the opportunity of a race riot in Tottenham to torch cars and break into shops. When the dust settled, we discovered that among their number were an Olympic ambassador and a teaching assistant. What motivated them to riot wasn’t poverty or race, it was opportunity. They are the offspring of a generation that hasn’t had cultural indoctrination in being good. The evil in them has been excused and even tolerated. They are, in the parlance of liberalism, “victims”. And victims – of poverty, racism, injustice, or the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal – can do no wrong. Until, that is, they really do wrong – and then society enacts its cumbersome and cruel punishment of life without parole.

With the right dose of bad chemicals or mental stress, anyone can do terrible things. War is a good stimulus. During the Soviet occupation of Berlin in 1945, an estimated 2 million women were raped by Red Army soldiers; some as many as 60-70 times. Roughly 240,000 women died as a consequence, some due to violence inflicted, others in backstreet abortions. Similar atrocities occurred during the Japanese occupation of Nanking in the 1930s. Japanese officers would walk into schools, remove female teachers in front of their pupils, and rape them in the playground. Often the women were then murdered with swords or bamboo sticks. They were now “unclean”. What made Fred West a real freak of history was that he did what he did outside of wartime. As an SS officer or the commissar of a Gulag, he might have won promotion.

Of course, only a tiny percentage of us would ever contemplate doing what Fred did – because nature and nurture have clipped the wings of the beast within us. But it is important to recognize the broad potential for human beings to do wrong. Part of where the West went awry in the last fifty years was in the slow divestment of moral consensus. We convinced ourselves not just that people walking angels, but that it is discipline and harsh judgment that corrupts them. We liberated ourselves with an orgy of sexual and intellectual freedom. That orgy didn’t create Fred West, but it made it harder to identify his perversity.

We have just passed the anniversary of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. The philosopher Hannah Arendt described the behavior and crimes of this Nazi bureaucrat as representative of the “banality of evil”. Reflecting on her analysis, the eminent psychotherapist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl writes, “True villains and true psychopaths are, fortunately, rather rare; but, in the right circumstances, becoming unfeelingly obedient and inhuman in this way can become a common condition. When political life atrophies and debate and questioning cease, while thoughtful moral experience is blocked internally, the resulting capacity for evil can spread like an epidemic.” Sadly, our culture has learned nothing from Eichmann or Arendt. West’s revolting career is a damning indictment of the “thoughtlessness” that continues to pervade it.

 

My war on science

09/04/2011

 
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I recently wrote a piece for the Guardian in which I argued that science couldn’t be sold to the 21st century schoolboy because it lacks mystery. Trawling through the comments, most critics seemed to be angry that I had confused science and engineering. Is there a difference? They seem equally dull.

When I was at school I was forced at gun-point to learn physics. I was once tasked with doing an experiment in which I ran a toy car down a ramp with some ticker-tape attached. The tape was fed through a machine that tapped out black dots on it. The principle was that the distance between dots would lengthen or shorten according to the angle of the ramp. The faster it ran down a steep slope, the fewer the dots because there was less time between each tap.

Inevitably, I fell asleep and didn’t complete the experiment in class. For homework we had to stick the tape into our exercise books and construct a graph to show the effect of different angles of ramp. As I hadn’t done anything all period, I just drew my own dots on the tape and constructed the graphs as I imagined they should look. I handed the my exercise book in and forgot all about it.

A week later, the physics master called me in to shout at me (he was an unpleasant man and that’s all he ever did). He pointed out that the steeper the slope of the ramp, the fewer dots there ought to be. But on my graphs, the steeper the slope the more dots there were. That meant that the toy car had sped down the ramp when it was lying on the floor and ground to a halt when it stood at a 90 degree angle. “Stanley,” he said, “Either you made up your results or you’ve broken the laws of physics. How do you explain yourself?”
“Could it have been a miracle?” I suggested.
“Not in my class, boy, no.”
Obviously, I was just being a bored brat. But, ten years later, I stand by my plea that my homework was immaculately conceived. Why shouldn’t it have been a miracle? And that’s where me and science depart. I want to believe.

Of course, I like science really. I love medicine and deep sea exploration. I would give anything to walk on the red sands of Mars, or journey to the center of the Earth. And I’m the biggest, geekiest fan of science fiction. To me, Robert Heinlein wasn’t just a Nazi pervert; he was a visionary. And there were times when Philip K Dick’s drug-induced world seemed more real than this one. Then there are the scientific mysteries of sex, which were every boy’s first introduction to the pleasure glands. Drawing pictures of the reproductive systems was the best bit of biology.

But, as I argued in The Guardian, I dislike what science has become since its amateurish glory days of the 1800s. I wrote, “[The old Romantic] passion play is missing in contemporary society, and the scientific establishment of Britain would probably resent it should it return. It existed partly because the Victorian world had so much more mystery in it than ours. The oceans, the colonies and space had yet to be explored. Once they were, a little of the wonder of science died. Now that God is gone and science has been separated from art, technology is functional and dull. Whereas the Victorians strove outwards into the realms of nature and the supernatural, modern research has turned inwards to the atom and the molecule. [Others] not believe it, but computer programming is not nearly as interesting as fairy hunting.”

I didn’t have the space to say it, but science’s biggest problem is that it has evolved into an ideology. Like any ideology, it needs enemies to define itself by – hence religion and the humanities are treated like its nemeses. It also tends to behave as though its belief structure is fact rather than theory constructed from observed regular occurence (i.e., "gravity" is only the word used to describe the fact that the apple always falls downwards. All that stuff about attracting forces and atomic sizes is pure speculation). Recall that the Marxists insisted society was defined by the class struggle long after the Soviet Union had begun to crumble under the pressures of nationalism, religious awakening, and The Who (if Tom Stoppard is correct). The scientific establishment has all the hallmarks of fundamentalist Sovietism. Ironically, that means that the futurists feel increasingly anachronistic.

Empiricism is an approach to using facts; it is not a fact in and of itself. When it was first conceived it was controversial and it remains so in the various schools of philosophy (among theists, existentialists, post-modernists etc). That was partly because it opened up superstitious belief to a critique based on physical evidence. But the concept that faith should be tested by reason was not original, nor was one initially intended to subvert the other. Galileo spent many months agonizing over whether or not to withdraw his findings about the movement of the stars partly because he didn’t want to undermine the centuries old faith of Europe. In Brecht’s Life of Galileo, a priest explains to our hero why it would be better to ignore empirical evidence, even if it might add up to a convincing theory about the Earth's location in the universe: “[My family has] been assured that the eye of God is upon them, searching and almost anxious, that the whole world-wide stage is built around them in order that they, the players, may prove themselves in their great or small roles. What would my people say if I were to tell them they were living on a small chunk of stone that moves around another star, turning incessantly in empty space, one among many and more or less significant? What would be the good or necessity of their patience, of their acquiescence in their misery? What would be the good of the Holy Scripture which explains everything and demonstrates the necessity of all their sweat, patience, hunger and submission, if it turns out to be full of errors? … In that case, they will say, no one is watching over us. Must we, untaught, old and exhausted as we are, look out for ourselves? No one has given us a part to play, only this wretched role on a tiny star which is wholly dependent, around which nothing turns? There is no sense in our misery, hunger means no more than going without food, it is no longer a test of strength; effort means no more than bending and carrying, there is no virtue in it."

An empirical study of the natural environment has obvious, functional uses. But it is not only useless but damaging if it subtracts from the beauty of life, or rather the order that is the origin beauty. The Victorians, and most of their antecedents, saw science as a branch of philosophical inquiry – a way of using the physical to build a bridge to the metaphysical. That’s why so many of them attended séances, believing table-wrapping to be as much an empirical study of the natural world as the dissection of a body. Frustratingly, modern science not only rejects the aspirations of ghost-hunters and psychics, but it also rewrites the rules of empiricism according to the need to safeguard its ideological purity. Hence, the lack of evidence in the fossil record for the process of one species becoming another is ignored by Richard Dawkins. You can watch him being asked to provide it. Bless him, he just changes the conversation.

Science stripped of artistic fancy is dull. Science stripped of ethics is a threat, especially when it becomes a part of state or corporate bureaucracy. The view that the goal of the scientist is purely to research and to push knowledge to its furthest limits is amoral. Motored by profits or ideology, it has become more than just boring or ugly. In the age of the atom and the germ, it is a threat to our very existence. Even as it prolongs our lives, it has defiled our ethics and reduced us to barbarians.

The acme of scientific fundamentalism is vivisection. Perhaps it is necessary, but that’s not the point. Science – especially when funded by the tax payer – exists to serve mankind. When man decides that it has crossed an ethical line (no matter how arbitrary), then it should stand down. I close with this unpleasant thought. Next week the US army will begin testing nerve agents on vervet monkeys. Quite why they need to do this is unclear because an idiot can tell you that toxic poison does horrible things to soldiers. But just to be sure, they’re going to give overdoses of the stuff to 20 monkeys. What worlds there are to conquer!

As history shows, vivisection always descends into sadism. Give a man power over a beast and he will abuse it. The Scientific establishment refuses to accept that, much as Marxists insisted no one exploited anyone in the USSR even as they opened fire on striking dockworkers. Already, disturbing reports have emerged that one of the lab technicians ‘humorously’ compared the effect of the agent on the monkeys to “a chiwawa [sic] shitting razor blades.” If we are, as science suggests, merely talking apes then doesn’t it seem strange to torture a member of our own species in their manner? Of course, scientists would rather leave that question to the philosophers.