A lie goes round the world before the truth has put his boots on

(A Terry Pratchett quote, from the Truth, possibly an old saying, possibly invented on the spot.)

A BBC article said that Birmingham City Council has banned atheist websites.

I read this news in my workplace (which seems to randomly ban or allow even this site. There is absolutely no discernable difference in cussword quotient or possible offensiveness between this site on the days when it throws up threatening warning messages that I’ve tried to access a forbidden site and should instantly alert my line manager from the days when it works normally.)

I was shocked. Bloggably shocked, even.

I didn’t – for more than a minute or so – think that Birmingham Council actually wanted to ban atheist sites. The BBC article made it pretty clear it’s some useless off-the-shelf netnanny software that they are using. (In comments on Pharyngula, Cronan, Quidam and Armchair Dissident made excellent points, about the software and way it is set up and used, suggesting that this isn’t a deliberate city council policy, so much as the unthinking use of disturbingly set-up software.)

Well, duh. It’s a local government office. Almost by definition, its software buying decisions are made by people who can’t even use a spreadsheet package. Who are suckers for any sweet-talking sales people on their Preferred Suppliers lists. Who would think it was wildly outside their purchasing remit to pay attention to the details of what the software actually does. And who would rather insert a parking permit into their own left nostril than consult the people who might actually use a program.

But, still, it’s outrageous and the National Secular Society is absolutely right to object to this.

However, tracing the evolution of the reporting of this story in the atheosphere made me aware how easily a news item becomes a myth.

Pharyngula – blogged the story. He had a link to the BBC story but there was no evidence in his text that indicated that this was Birmingham, England.

Some of the 80-odd commenters who responded to this brief reference to a BBC article clearly took it that Pharyngula was talking about Birmingham, Alabama. An easy mistake to make. (I make it in reverse whenever the BBC refers to Birmingham, Alabama.) If I had read the Pharyngula piece without reading the BBC source, I would have automatically assumed this took place in Alabama.

Quintessential Rambling obviously assumed it was Birmingham Alabama and delivered a classic rant then showed an amazingly good grace and regard for the truth by admitting his error. That is my kind of human being.

A fair number of people will now believe that Birmingham, Alabama, has banned atheist websites. That’s fair enough. It’s a mistake based on an error of fact. No blame.

It’s the way that the facts of this incident contribute to a general level of atheist myth-making that disturbs me more. Wouldn’t you expect atheists to be a bit better at processing information than the average moron? Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Well, OK, it is definitely wishful thinking, but I am going to persist with it, in the face of the evidence.

A Richard Harris comment on Pharyngula says:

I bet the feckin’ Submissionists (followers of the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him) are behind this.

Well, no. That seems like yet another attempt to demonise muslims to me. Is there some knee-jerk hate response that is stirred up every time the word islam is mentioned in any context? Oh, yes, silly me, Of course there is.

Leki is more rational but still manages to throw in a social disorder theme, expressed in terms of religion. S/he strings together a lot of completely disparate incidents to support a characterisation of Birmingham people as almost engaged in some sort of inter-ethnic, inter-religious war.

Birmingham is always in the news for something or another. A few years ago there were riots at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre over a play that depicted a rape in a sikh temple; there have been issues with honour killings; gun crimes have doubled (highest concentration of guns in the UK is Birmingham).
Remember the raid of January 2007? Birmingham police rounded-up a bunch of folks who were planning to kidnap a British soldier (muslim group, muslim soldier). That was big, big news.
I’ve visited Birmingham several times and there is this huge chasm between ethnicities. People are screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, how many mosques are allowed per block, whether or not the ‘english’ way of life is disappearing.

Well, yes, Birmingham IS always in the news for something or other. It’s England’s second city. Even the London-centric British media must mention what happens to a few million people every now and again.

Huge chasm between ethnicities? I assume you have never visited a US city? People screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, etc? Admit it, this is just made up.

OK, there’s nothing wrong with hyperbole in a blog comment. My point is that a casual reader of Pharyngula – who’s read the comments far enough to realise that a US city hasn’t banned atheist blogs – will be left with a vague, but probably lasting, impression that Birmingham, England, is under siege by extremist mullahs who have banned atheism.

Now, I expect the gutter press to leave this subliminal hate-residue in the back of the minds of its readers. That seems to be what it’s for. Keeping the population in a generalised low-level state of xenophobia, to make it easy to manipulate. It’s hard to understand the rabble-rousing tricks when they crop up in the atheist blogosphere.

There are some real concerns in this Birmingham situation. For instance, it’s disturbing that the effects of decisions made by blocking-software providers – with their own illiberal agendas – can be unthinkingly transmitted to become public policy. These issues are a bit boring. They don’t produce the visceral kick that seems to come with identifying an alien scapegoat. But trying to find out the truth must be the truly “rational” response.

3 thoughts on “A lie goes round the world before the truth has put his boots on

  1. Nicely summarised. I think you are a touch charitable towards the council, but that is my own bias 🙂

    It is more than a little concerning however, that the IT managers are so inept they couldn’t see this coming – and that the blocking software is even set up in this way.

    The use of such software by the council on work computers is (in my mind) a non-story, however this must be commercially available software; the general public must be willingly purchasing a net-nanny that prevents access to secularist websites…

  2. Nice post.


    It’s the way that the facts of this incident contribute to a general level of atheist myth-making that disturbs me more. Wouldn’t you expect atheists to be a bit better at processing information than the average moron?

    Well, not really. That’s why we keep telling people the only thing atheists share in common is disbelief in deities.

    What disturbs me is this mythmaking that atheist = skeptical rationalist.

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