Yesterday I reported about Richard Dawkins’s interview with Adam Lusher, a reporter for the Telegraph, and how it looked like Lusher was set to smear him in today’s issue. The expected has transpired. If your blood pressure is sufficiently low, read “Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins’s family estate.“ At least Lusher didn’t report that Dawkins had “slaveholding genes” (Dawkins does mention the issue), but he makes a huge deal about the source of the Dawkins family “estate”:
He has railed against the evils of religion, and lectured the world on the virtues of atheism.
Now Richard Dawkins, the secularist campaigner against “intolerance and suffering”, must face an awkward revelation: he is descended from slave owners and his family estate was bought with a fortune partly created by forced labour.
One of his direct ancestors, Henry Dawkins, amassed such wealth that his family owned 1,013 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744.
The Dawkins family estate, consisting of 400 acres near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, was bought at least in part with wealth amassed through sugar plantation and slave ownership.
Lusher then goes into great and tedious detail about the history of the Dawkins family in Jamaica, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. Oh, and one of Richard’s ancestors also voted against Wilberforce’s parliamentary motion to abolish the slave trade. The piece is tedious, tendentious, and unspeakably stupid. For in the end, this is what Richard is guilty of:
Richard Dawkins’ sister Sarah Kettlewell, 67, is thought still to live on the estate, which has a farm shop and pedigree cattle. According to Companies House records which list Professor Dawkins as a director, Over Norton Park Limited made a £12,000 profit last year.
[Dawkins] insisted: “The estate is now a very small farm, struggling to make its way, and worth peanuts. The family fortune was frittered away in the 19th Century. Such money as I have is scarcely inherited at all.”
But Lusher still manages to write as if Richard is defensive about it all, including a mention of his “disparaging” the Bible:
In 2010 Richard Dawkins wrote an obituary for his father, describing how John Dawkins had inherited Over Norton Park from a distant cousin and how the estate, in the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, had been in the family since the 1720s. He omitted, however, to mention how previous generations made their money.
He quoted Scripture – disparagingly – to insist: “I condemn slavery with the utmost vehemence, but the fact that my remote ancestors may have been involved in it is nothing to do with me.
“One of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible – amid strong competition – says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children until the third or fourth generation.”
Audibly irritated, he added: “You need a genetics lecture. Do you realise that probably only about 1 in 512 of my genes come from Henry Dawkins?
“For goodness sake, William Wilberforce may have been a devout Christian, but slavery is sanctioned throughout the Bible.”
Disparagingly, indeed! Does Lusher approve of the Bible’s views on slavery and view of inherited guilt. (The offending phrase isn’t a direct quote from the Bible, but probably a paraphrase of Exodus 20:5, where the sin of idolatry is laid on descendants for three to four generations. Similar words can be found in Euripedes, Horace’s “Odes” and Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”)
Lusher managed to dig up one person who thinks Dawkins should make reparations:
He is now facing calls to apologise and make reparations for his family’s past.
Esther Stanford-Xosei, of Lewisham, south London, the co-vice chairman of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe, said: “There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.
“The words of the apology need to be backed by action. The most appropriate course would be for the family to fund an educational initiative telling the history of slavery and how it impacts on communities today, in terms of racism and fractured relationships.”
This is, of course, absurd. All of us, if you dig back far enough, would have ancestors who held ideas considered immoral or oppressive today, for a few hundred years ago nearly everyone believed in God—many in the torture of those who didn’t share their views—the innate inferiority of women and blacks, and so on. If that’s the worst that Dawkins can be accused of, let Lusher mention that the ancestors of many Germans were Nazis, that the current Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth, and that every Catholic bears the guilt of the Inquisition. And let Lusher not forget the most egregious example of inherited guilt: for millennia the Catholic church held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus.
Lusher can’t resist, in his last paragraph, bringing up Dawkins’s inability to instantly produce the full title of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in a radio debate last week. This so angered my colleague Matthew Cobb that he inserted his own editorial comments in his email to me (reproduced in bold below):
The revelations come after a difficult few days for the campaigner.
On Tuesday 14 February, some critics [name them!] branded him “an embarrassment to atheism” [where?] after what many listeners [how do you know?] considered a humiliation [the interviewer didn't think that Dawkins was humiliated!] in a Radio 4 debate with Giles Fraser, formerly Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which the professor boasted [No he didn't: he just answered 'yes' to a question] he could recite the full title of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, then when challenged, dithered and said: “Oh God.” [Jesus H. Christ! He also gave what the interviewer said was 'a pretty good answer'! Did Adam Lusher listen to the programme?]
Matthew’s editorializing is not only on the mark, but shows what a horrible job of journalism Lusher did—and that’s on top of having written a scurrilous, almost libelous piece. Mr. Lusher, have you no decency at long last? Must you contribute to turning The Telegraph into The Sun?
I won’t bash Lusher too hard because he’s had a rough time himself: a battle with multiple myeloma and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which he wrote about movingly, but his journalism is execrable. What is accomplished by taking one person and showing that his ancestors had views that we’d consider immoral today? Every one of us is guilty of the same thing. But then we’re not the world’s most vocal atheist.